(Additional editing by Donnell Alexander)
It’s June 1970. Just one month earlier, a Hall of Fame player representing my dream ball club indicated that his team would select me with their first pick. Now I am riding on a bus with a collection of fresh-faced young men just like myself. We park on a street corner in Los Angeles. Some women in mini-skirts, fashionable headbands and others in long, paisley dresses walk by, their heads eagerly cocked with sympathy, checking in through our windows to see our expressions, possibly one final time.
After years of looking over my shoulder at what seemed like an inevitability, I was finally here. I had been assured by the wisest people I knew that I would be in major leagues by the next presidential election.
Fresh from high school -- St. Augustine -- I had just experienced the greatest 30 days of my life up to this point. Yet, on this day, the most successful GM in history, Uncle Sam, had at last gotten his man.
* * * * * * * * *
My ride toward the majors started a half-dozen years earlier. The memories of these days are rich with color, strikeouts in saturated hues. The home runs I hit lay stashed in the sharp, Kodachrome photo albums of my mind. All the sixth grade kids surrounding me on this San Diego diamond wore buzzed flat-tops. Maybe two or three were the first I saw to sport the emerging surfer kid hairstyle.
It’s the sixth inning. The game started late, so we needed to wrap this up before sundown. I had already struck out 13. Last batter steps to the plate. I go into my windup; the batter I’m facing knows he hasn’t a chance against me.
I strike him out. Three pitches. No-hitter.
After being surrounded in celebration by my teammates and shaking hands with the opposition, I ran off the field to Mom and Dad. I was 5-8 by sixth grade, so jumping right into their arms was no small act. In 1964, Mom worked the Mike Morrow Field concession stand. She was the team parent and Dad manicured the baseball fields at the complex. Bazooka gum wrappers and the occasional baseball card slightly littered the dugouts. Then as now, not too many scents beat the smell of fresh-cut outfield grass or the smoke and grease of a Little League snack bar hamburger.
“Mom, I threw a no-hitter!" were the first words out of my mouth.
I was so happy to share this with them. My dad, a man of few words, greeted me with the smile of a father who was proud but used to games like this -- it was my sixth no-hitter that year. As we celebrated the win, a strange gentleman in a beige jacket and khaki pants approached us. He seemed serious, yet carried a polite demeanor.
“Mr. D’Acquisto,” he said to my father, “My name is Bob O’Regan. Can I talk to you for a moment?”
My dad nodded and walked over to O'Regan. Mom brought me to the concession stand to give them some privacy, then went back to helping the other mothers behind the grill. As I stood against the wooden walk-up of the canteen, enjoying a cherry snow-cone, I watched Dad chat with Mr. O’Regan. I blocked out all the ambient sounds of sizzling fries, kids begging moms for Italian ices, and a couple of other games in various states of play.
The conversation seemed kind of serious. Mr. O’Reagan handed Dad a business card, as well as a small sheet to fill out. They shook hands and Dad came back over to us.
“Who was that, Pop?” I asked, my mouth full of snow cone. Dad mussed my hair and grinned.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Dad said. He watched O’Regan walk away, not certain what to make of him. “Let’s go home.”
Dad hadn't answered the question as we reached our car in the pebbled parking lot. Turning on the radio, every station across the dial played The Beach Boys. There was like a “Truman Show” element to the scene, as if this overlord producer made sure we heard “Surfin’ USA” eight times a day. This was before “The Graduate,” before “Easy Rider”; we didn’t envision our lives to a soundtrack, but if we had, the Wilson Brothers and Mike Love would have been providing the music of our times. After turning off the freeway, we passed the Naval shipyards. Sailors in white t-shirts and crewcuts were taking a break from training. They laughed while tossing a Frisbee around.
This imagery would not be far away from me for the rest of the decade.
* * * * * * * *
We lived in North Park, a small, secluded suburb of San Diego. There wasn't a lot of traffic in our one-way-in, one-way-out type of neighborhood. All the parents knew each other and looked out for the children as if they were their own. Suburban San Diego was a special place. Being around baseball, we all worshipped our hometown hero, Ted Williams. But by 1964 he was long gone, retired to Florida and the East Coast banquet circuit. We had new heroes – the Nettles boys, Graig and Jim. They were the local celebrities of San Diego youth baseball. Jim played for Crawford High School and Graig was few years older by now at college. Stories about the brothers’ success permeated the Little League fields. Graig stayed local, attending San Diego State and eventually getting picked by the Twins in the 1965 amateur draft. Jim would follow suit and also be selected by Minnesota, three years later.
After the Nettles boys made the big time, it wasn’t unusual to see scouts around North Park's Little League fields. The latest star of the area was this kid named Steve Dunning. Dunning was worshipped around the ball fields – literally the All-American boy, looked like the kind of kid that would grow up to be an astronaut. Dunning had a golden right arm. Stanford University scooped him up as soon as it could.
My dad's meeting with Mr. O’Reagan had bugged me all weekend long. The following night, Dad’s on the couch reading the newspaper and I’m laying on the floor watching Walt Disney on our black-and-white television, still wondering who that man was.
“Pop,” I finally asked, Disney credits rolling behind me, “Who was--"
“It’s 8:30, Johnny.” Dad cut me off softly, folding his newspaper. “Time for bed.” I sighed, dropped my head, walked over and gave him a kiss goodnight. For some reason, Dad wasn’t telling me. After a while, I stopped asking.
By the time I reached 13, I could stand up on the surfboard. My brother Fred used to drive me in his ’64, fastback GTO, white interior with a white top, searching the coolest waves up and down the coast. We listened to the Beach Boys, same as everyone. “I Get Around” would blast from Fred’s fastback, playing that song just a touch louder than the others, our boards across the back of the car. It was all suntan oil and ocean mist.
All day long we would talk about the games, hang out with the other kids, and ride waves. Skip Frey, the legendary surfer, was around every now and then handing out surfing pointers. The music in our transistor radio fizzled as our batteries wore down. Surfing with Fred every day that summer was magical.
Coming home though, we would drive by and buses filled with young men not much older than Fred driving toward the Naval Shipyards, ready to go off to Vietnam. The Naval shipyards, the government’s portal to combat for these boys, was my backyard. This was the point of departure where young men would literally ship out to Asia. The war was never too far away from me, and as every day passed I knew I would have to face the issue of serving. Fred, who was nearing graduation, would sigh whenever the mailman arrived. He was afraid that there was an induction letter waiting for him among the bills and S & H Green Stamps. Uncle Sam was recruiting heavily and didn’t take no for an answer. Dad kept me and Fred under his watchful eye, but I felt that one day I would be on one of those boats going to Vietnam and there would be nothing he could do about it.
A few weeks later, I was lying on my bed, tossing a ball in the air and pretending to do my homework when Fred walked into my room.
“I joined the Air Force,” Fred said, catching the ball and sitting down.
“Why would you do that,” I said in response. “Aren’t you gonna work with Dad?”
“I wanna be a pilot.”
I laughed a laugh that wasn’t funny.
“Freddie, you’re goin’ to Vietnam.”
“I wanna be a pilot,” Fred repeated. “I wanna fly.”
My brother laughed and pushed me over on my side. “I’ll be ok. Better I join up before they draft me, right?”
A few days later, we all said goodbye and watched Fred go off to the Air Force. It was 1965. I was 13, and in my mind I had five years to go. In the eyes of Uncle Sam, I was on the clock.
* * * * * * * * *
I ended up attending St. Augustine’s High School the following year. Bill Whitaker, the baseball coach, insisted I go there. Dad worked at the school to help with tuition costs. Coach Whitaker had some connections to the major leagues and ended up as a scout for the Seattle Pilots. I pitched well as a freshman, so well I started against Claremont High School in an important summer league game. About six or seven big league scouts were in attendance. They weren’t there to see me – they came because of our star player, a kid named John Wathan. He had an excellent game, smart base running, excellent at-bats, plus power. Wathan was everything the scouts wanted in a ballplayer.
They got a bonus. I struck out 14 that game, against mostly older kids. From that day forward, the scouts came to see me as well. There weren't radar guns back then, but they knew what they were watching.
“The scouts were at the game, Pop,” I said, as we waited for a pizza to bring home. Dad just smiled. “I never had scouts watching me before.”
Dad laughed, paying for our take-out and thanking the cashier. We drove home that evening, through the sunset afterglow of Southern California. As we passed the shipyards, my new favorite song, “Eight Miles High,” by The Byrds, came on the radio. Our music of choice evolved from the innocence of the Beach Boys to more worldly sounds. "Eight Miles High" always reminded me of my brother and his dreams of flying jets. It also reminded me that my eighteenth birthday was less than four years away. The song reminded me of everything that came with that.
We had begun to hear stories around town of some of Fred’s friends and classmates that were missing or killed in action. Every random phone call, every unusual letter was handled with quiet fear for Fred.
Then one night at home, sitting in the front of the TV watching My Three Sons, the doorbell rang. We all swallowed deeply before getting up and answering. This was a terrible moment for any family during this time in America.
“Why’s the door locked?” Fred asked. His arms were full of gear.
I can’t tell you how relieved we all were. Mom hugged and held Fred so close.
It turned out Fred had a cracked hip, an old football injury. He flunked his physical for flight school and was given an honorable discharge. I was never happier to see my brother. Not every soldier story ended like this. We hung out and talked all night. More stories came out of Fred after Mom and Dad went to bed. From that point on, the last place I ever wanted to check was my home mailbox. I knew a letter with my name on it was out there somewhere, awaiting delivery.
* * * * * * * * *
I played football as well as baseball for St. Augustine. Offensive Guard and Defensive End in a 4-3 set. Roving linebacker, too. The coaches said I had a knack for smelling a play and filling a hole. I weighed 225 lbs by 1967. Bench-pressing 470. Dad loved football and loved watching me play.
I was working out at Leo Stern’s Gym in North Park. They brought in a new trainer, Gene Fisher, a Green Beret. Gene had just gotten home from Vietnam with an honorable discharge. He went the extra mile for me, checking my nutritional intake in addition to the pure weight training. Sometimes, after we were finished working out, I would ask Gene about the war.
“I was shot in the lung,” Gene said reluctantly. “Do you really want to hear about what I’ve seen, because it’s some of the most horrible things you could ever imagine?”
After a few of those sessions, Gene opened up about his time in Vietnam, the images that kept him up at night, the sights his mind would never allow him to erase.
* * * * * * * *
“The Mail” started coming in September 1968, the beginning of junior year. Not that letter, but queries from schools around the country -- three a week for about a year. They didn’t come to my house right away. Initially, the mail went to my football coach, Joe DiTomaso, or Coach Whitaker. I’d walk into the athletic office and it was, “Johnny, we got five more letters today. If you and your folks need help with anything, I’m here.” I ended up collecting 144 letters just for football alone. 100 for baseball. UC-Berkeley, Stanford, Notre Dame, Wyoming, Texas/Austin, University of Arizona, Arizona State.
It wasn’t like today, when talented, savvy teens understand their worth in the marketplace at a young age. I never really considered how “valuable” my abilities were. But I was a good kid, brought up by kind, loving parents. That fact was, my folks wouldn’t have tolerated any outlandish attitude, especially my mother. My father wouldn’t allow me to get too headstrong from the accolades. I was taught to respect the elders in my life -- my mother, my father, my coach -- and I lived by that code. The other side of this, to be fair, was that my parents never looked at me like a meal ticket. Same with my coach. I recognize that not every young talented athlete had that experience. I was very lucky.
Our rival in baseball was Santana High School. In the following spring of 1969, I started a game against Santana. The Sultans' hotshot lefty, a big, blond kid named Terry Forster, was on the mound. Forster had Major League mechanics at the age of 16. Simply watching him taught me a thing or two. I really wanted to beat Forster, not for any malicious reasons, but because he was so damn good. Everyone knew Terry was going to the majors. Heck, the whole team was stocked. Another tough lefty on their squad was Kyle Hypes. Hypes wasn’t a power pitcher like Forster or myself, but boy could he deal.
Terry and I dueled for seven innings, tossing bean after bean. I ended up on the winning end of a 2-1 joust, but everyone there knew Terry would be wearing a big league uniform sooner rather than later. The ride home with my Dad was like a World Series celebration, in my mind. I beat Terry Forster!
We entered the house ready to share the good news with Mom. I walked in to see Walter Cronkite reporting the escalating fatalities in Vietnam. My time was now only a year away.
Senior Year, 1969. In football, I'd been named an All-American. With Dad at Anthony’s Fish Grotto restaurant in town, we ran into Sid Gilman, head coach of the Chargers. Gilman congratulated me and told Dad he wanted the Chargers to draft me when I came out of school. Dad beamed with pride. That was the implication – I was going to college.
My brother’s old English teacher was John Bowman, who was also friendly with my father. Dad wanted me to talk to Mr. Bowman, who bird-dogged for USC. Mr. Bowman really wanted me to go to school there, as did just about everyone else. A few other colleges made a push for me. Notre Dame recruited me heavily, not even mentioning baseball. I dreamed for a night about wearing the legendary gold and blue. I loved football; really, really loved it. Baseball, though? Baseball was my dream. But at this point, every night, the conversation was about college football.
I asked my Dad, “What should I do?” He immediately shook his head.
“Johnny, this is your decision. I can’t help you with this.”
“Dad, I need some advice.”
“Ask the coach. These are life-changing decisions. I’m not gonna be the one to lead you down the wrong road. Go talk to Mr. Bowman, he’s your counselor.”
Mr. Bowman explained USC’s pitch to me.
“The school doesn’t offer four-year scholarships, but they do offer two years for each sport. You’ll be getting a two-year for Football & a two-year for baseball, because they want you for both sports. You need to sign that, because that’s worth $120,000 to you, son.”
Besides Rod Dedeaux, the legendary baseball coach, besides the Hall-of Fame caliber football stars that played in the L.A. Coliseum, there was the Rose Bowl only three hours away from home. Close enough but far enough. Baseball may have had more longevity against the NFL, but man, USC. Even in 1969, it was U-S-C!
“You have two options,” Mr. Bowman added. "USC, is a great option. It's an excellent institution; you will do great up there and make friends that will last a lifetime. Then there’s professional baseball. They like you. You’re a good kid and you throw 100 MPH. You’ll be in the big leagues in three years or so. Whichever road you wanna take, you’re gonna be successful.”
I didn’t think twice. I signed the letter of intent.
The school brought me up to campus for a weekend visit. I was sponsored by Frank Alfono, a kid from my town who was attending the school at the time. As I reached the rest of the group in the gymnasium, who do I see on the tour as well? Terry Forster! I slapped him five and chatted for a bit as we walked around the campus.
“So what are you gonna do?" I asked him. Terry looked around at the buildings and grounds with great appreciation.
“This is all pretty neat,” Terry nodded, “But I always wanted to be a bonus baby.” That was the terminology of the time. When a big league team would draft you in the first or second round, you would be paid a large bonus, at least $10,000. We reasoned that you could always go to college. But being a bonus baby…that was something special.
It turned out to be a great weekend. Walking onto the grass of the L.A. Coliseum was a moment I always cherished. What Terry said stuck with me, though.
Sure would be nice to be a bonus baby.
When I got home, I had a long talk with Dad in front of the TV. Dad turned to tell me one last thing when he got up from the couch to go to bed.
“Don’t forget, if you end up going to school in Los Angeles, you will be spending more time with the football program than you will baseball. That’s what John McKay told me.”
Dad had a chat with the Trojans' coach, the future head coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That also stuck with me as my final year at St. Augustine came around.
I made it clear to Coach Whitaker and everyone in the athletic office that I was a baseball player first. This got back to all the scouting groups. It was around February 1970 when a lot of people started knocking on the front door; all fully aware I wanted to aim for the majors.
Back then, it was hard to track a prospect, especially me. We weren’t listed in the phone book. They found us anyway. My coach was telling them where we lived. The doorbell rang frequently.
“Is John home?" they would ask Mom and Dad. "May we talk to him?”
Big league teams would interview you, just as scouts would interview you about college admission.
“How do you feel about playing professional baseball?" "How do you feel about coming to Atlanta, Georgia?" Questions like that.
The Braves were really coming on hard and so were the Detroit Tigers. Atlanta had just won the new National League Western Division the previous season and the Tigers, well, they were the World Champion Detroit Tigers from 1968, the Tigers of Denny McClain and World Series hero Mickey Lolich. My draft stock continued to rise. In the end, the Braves and Tigers were among clubs like the Dodgers, Yankees, Seattle Pilots, and a host of others.
Two teams really stood apart from the pack.
Eddie Leishman was General Manager of the hometown Padres. Buzzie Bavasi was president and C. Arnolt Smith owned the club. The Pods were an expansion franchise; 1969 was their maiden season. Eddie Leishman was acquainted with Dad and well aware of all my success on the high school mound. I truly thought I would be a Padre.
There was a lot to choose from in terms of local talent: Me, Terry, Kyle Hypes and, of course, Steve Dunning was finishing his final year at Stanford. EVERYBODY wanted Steve. The Padres organization also adored this kid named Mike Ivie. They really wanted Mike Ivie. Big strong, catcher from Decatur, Ga. Based on what I heard, Padres management wanted to grab one of us with the first pick in the draft and then hope the other would fall.
I was having a great year on the mound for St. Augustine. Scouts were at every game. Two in particular stick out in my mind.
In one, we were battling with our arch rivals Santana again. I toed the mound against Terry Forster. This game had real-life implications outside of the victory – the two of us brought about 10 scouts between us. As I was tossing warm-up throws, I looked over at Terry with a Can-you- believe-this! grin on my face. Terry smiled and nodded back. He was the worthy opponent and boy did we battle. Same as the first match-up – chucking heat, frame after frame. Three up three down, three up three down. In the end, I may have come out with the 'W,' but it didn’t matter. Neither of us made a mistake and we both knew it. As the teams shook hands, I reached out to Terry and our smiles told each other this game would get us drafted.
Two weeks later, we went up against Patrick Henry High School. I felt pretty strong going in and my instincts weren’t wrong. The backstop at their school was smallish, nice but sort of like a softball field cage. Mound was well-groomed. My parents were there. A few other scouts showed up. None of them could match the aura of one person in particular.
I saw this older gentleman standing behind the backstop. Tall like a ballplayer, dark glasses and a sport jacket. This was the last man in America who wore a fedora. Something told me I REALLY wanted to impress this guy. I motioned to my catcher that serious heat was coming. I threw the warm-up as fast as anything I ever tossed before. That ball went past my catcher, over the umpire’s shoulder and was stopped cold by the chain-linked fence. The umpire removed his mask.
“That ball had to be over 100 mph,” he gasped.
The man in the fedora stared me down, removed his glasses and approached the umpire from behind the cage. As the umpire tried to remove the ball from the chain-link fence, the man in the fedora offered help. He couldn’t do it, either, first using his fingers, then his pipe. Nothing worked. Finally, Coach Whitaker dislodged the ball with a fungo bat.
“May I have that ball,” the man in the fedora asked.
“Pardon me,” the umpire replied. He didn’t know who the man was, but assumed he was important and tossed it over to him.
“I need something to show them back in San Francisco,” the man in the fedora said. “My name is Carl Hubbell.”
“Carl Hubbell,” Coach Whitaker said with wonder in his voice. “The Carl Hubbell?”
“That’s right,” Hubbell said. “I’m the head of player development for the Giants.”
“It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Hubbell. This is the boy’s dad.” Coach Whitaker waved Dad and me over to join them.
“We’re very honored to have you here,” Coach Whitaker said.
Hubbell turned to my dad.
“I’m here to see your son," he said. "We’re thinking about drafting him. That boy can throw. But for now, I need you to sign this ball, so I can bring home some proof of what I saw.”
Carl Hubbell stayed to watch the rest of the game. I had never in my career thrown with such adrenaline going through my body. Patrick Henry High School never saw anything to hit. If the chain-link grease mark on the ball wasn’t proof enough, I ended the game with my second no-hitter of the season. These were the only moments during the spring of 1970 when my mind wasn’t thinking about The Draft. It was baseball that served as my true distraction.
* * * * * * * *
Off the field, my attention turned to the calendar, my birthday, and the home mailbox. Just waiting for that letter from the military. My social life was pretty much school and sports, but I still found a little time for girls. I drove my prom date and some friends in my Dad’s car on the traditional big night. Stopping at a light, we passed yet another bus full of young men preparing to enter the Naval shipyards. I couldn’t get away from the almost- constant reminder of getting my number picked.
We entered the community center with a gloom hovering over our prom. No band, just a couple of kids spinning records. Store-bought, papier-mâché decorations hung from the walls across the room. Balloons everywhere. We sipped punch, had a laugh or two, but we couldn’t get past what awaited us right after graduation. I danced with my beautiful date, held her close as the young DJs played “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”
Where the hell was I going? USC? San Francisco? Saigon? Where would I be in six months?
We swayed to the music. She gazed at me, with affection, and here I was three hours away at the Rose Bowl, 600 miles north at Candlestick Park with Mays, McCovey and Marichal. Then I was 7,500 miles away in the jungles of Vietnam. My mind was everywhere except in that community center with the prettiest girl in the class of 1970. I’d see other buddies dancing with their best girl or best option for a prom date, and our concerned eyes would meet. Some would shrug. Some would turn away as if to say, "Not now," that we would have time soon enough to figure this all out.
* * * * * * * *
Graduation came and with it arrived the dread of waking up and finding a letter from the draft board sitting on the kitchen counter. I sweated out every single day. A week later at breakfast, the phone rings in my kitchen. Dad answered. There was a lot of nodding and a few “uh-huhs,” but no words that explain who’s on the other end of the receiver. The only indication it’s about me was the smile in Dad's eyes as he nods.
“Tomorrow? Ok, we’ll be there. ‘Bye now.”
Dad hung up the phone.
I was eating corn flakes.
“What was that all about?”
“That was Eddie Leishman from the Padres. He wants you to come down and throw for them. He says they’re looking at you and that Mike Ivie kid.
"Johnny, this is getting serious.”
I looked out the window and the mailman drove by. Nothing was as serious as what could have been in his pouch.
* * * * * * * * * *
Tomorrow came. Not one word was said in the car. I tried turning on the radio to hear some Jimi Hendrix or Crosby Stills & Nash, to calm me down. Dad turned the dial to this easy listening station that played Henry Mancini all the time. He was just as nervous as I was.
We drove through a San Diego that was exiting the '60s. Ours was a sheltered, quiet, fishing town. Now there were new buildings and new highways and new shopping centers and a new baseball franchise. My whole world was evolving that spring.
We made our way down Friars Road. The Padres gate attendant sent us to players parking. He told Dad that the team was expecting us. No fancy cars in the players’ parking lot. By looking at their choice of automobiles, it seemed they were just regular guys.
Dad asked, “Are you ok?”
“No, I’m not. They’re all here, Pop.”
My Dad calmly reached into his wallet, pulled out a business card and handed it to me. “Remember that man from the ball field when you were a kid?”
“Robert O’Regan, New York Mets," the card said.
“They’ve always been here, Johnny. They’ve been watching you since you were 12. They already know what you can do. If this--"
He nodded to my right. I looked over and saw a Major League Baseball stadium.
"If this is what you really wanna do," Dad said, "they're in there waiting for you.”
I smiled at him, nodded, and we got out of the car.
We walked through the entrance into this dungeon of the stadium and met the guard at the restricted area. He led us down this sparse hallway, past the Chargers clubhouse, and toward the Padres’ clubhouse door. As my Dad turned the knob to my future, I inhaled the faint smell of cigarettes. Dad threw me a smile when he opened up the door. It was like I walked into a bar. The thick smoke smacked us right in the face.
They were all there. Cito Gaston. Nate Colbert. Downtown Ollie Brown. Al Ferrera. All cracking jokes, playing cards, listening to music. They were hanging out, getting ready for the day’s game against the Dodgers. I was dumbfounded.
“Far out,” I said under my breath.
Ray Peralta, the Padres clubhouse man, approached us. He was carrying some laundry.
“You must be John and Fred,” Ray said.
Padres manager Preston Gomez walked past us. This was such a trip. All the players I watched on TV were right next to me.
“Here’s your uniform,” Ray said, handing me some clothes. “Try it on.”
I laughed as Ray pointed to an empty locker.
“Go get dressed over there. Here’s your hat, belt, stirrups -- everything you need.”
I buttoned up the 1970 San Diego Padres jersey, then looked over and saw tears streaming down my father’s cheeks. Only, he was laughing.
“If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. My son is going to be a San Diego Padre.”
“It ain’t happenin’ yet, Pop.”
“Well, you’re here right now, so make the best of it.”
At this moment, catcher Chris Cannizzaro came up to us, holding a brand new baseball.
"You and me, kid, we’re gonna go down to the bullpen and you’re gonna throw.”
Cannizzaro was the first all-star of the Padres franchise and a popular player in town. He took me down to the bullpen area, beside the stands. I toed the rubber, wound up, and the first pitch hit Cannizzaro right on the toe. He started playfully cursing me out. From the stands, my Dad started laughing.
“You sure you wanna do this?”
It was a joke, obviously, and once I settled down, the next five pitches were strikes. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Cannizzaro removed the mitt and shook the sting out of his hand.
“Jeez, kid, you’re killing me.”
It may have been the greatest compliment someone outside my family ever paid me. Afterward, Cannizzaro introduced me and my Dad to Preston Gomez. My father spoke fluent Spanish and had a pleasant bilingual conversation with Gomez, who would turn to me throughout and politely smile and nod. Then he'd turn back to Dad.
On the ride home, Dad said, “Mr. Gomez really liked you. He really wants you here.”
“That would be great. I’d love to play for my hometown team, he said. "But Dad, here’s the thing. This team is really bad. I know they’re looking for new talent and all, but they lost 100 games last year. They’re just not very good.”
“Well, you really don’t have a choice, do you,” he said. "If you get drafted by them, you’re gonna have to play here.”
“Yeah, I know that. But maybe I might go to school and get drafted by a better club.”
“Johnny, you know how this works, right?”
“Yeah, I do. I know how it works.”
“Well, it’s your decision.”
I really wanted San Fran. Juan Marichal was my idol. I wore no. 27 in high school specifically because of Marichal. Still, it was the greatest day of my life, a day made even better when the mail showed up with nothing addressed to me.
* * * * * * * * *
Three days later, no one went to work. No one went surfing or goofing around with friends. No one went to the market. I knew where Terry Forster was, where Steve Dunning was. I knew where Kyle Hypes was. The June 1970 Amateur Draft had arrived. There was no sports channel, no Internet, no Keith Law types handicapping the Top 100 prospects in America. Media coverage of the draft was all but non-existent. As for us, we were all just high school and college kids sitting in our living rooms, waiting for the phone to ring.
The San Diego Padres had the first pick. We thought this would either be wrapped up early or that there would be lots of waiting.
We got a call in the early morning. San Diego had just selected Mike Ivie with the first pick in the draft. My parents were sort of sad. I was relieved, actually. The Padres said they were hoping I would fall to the second round. Then they would most definitely select me. At that moment, we all knew I wouldn’t be a Padres player. My mother, especially. She had remained quiet all these years, but now that decisions were to be made, Mom took command of the D’Acquisto draft room.
“It would’ve been nice if you got to play at home,” she said with a sigh. Mom had confidence I wouldn’t be on the board come the second round.
An hour or so went by, and the phone rang again. We had no idea who was on the other side of the ring. Remember, this was before cell phones or Caller ID. Turned out to be a buddy who heard that Steve Dunning was selected by the Indians with the second pick in the draft. I was happy for Steve, nervous about not going in the first round.
Mom wasn’t worried.
“We sit and wait,” she said calmly. “Good things will come.”
The calls stopped for a little while. In the meantime, Barry Foote’s household got a call from the Montreal Expos that he had been picked third. The Brewers would call Darrell Porter, telling him he was fourth. Others came off the board. It was the longest day I ever spent in my living room. The Tigers and the Braves were still out there.
Then, about two hours later, the phone finally rang. It might as well have been Scott McKenzie on the other end of the line.
I was going to San Francisco.
I couldn’t have been happier. We had family in the Bay Area, so it was nearly a perfect fit.
Joe Henderson (Kenny Henderson’s Dad), the Giants San Diego area scout, called us with the good news. “We just drafted you number one, seventeenth in the nation.”
“Nation?" I asked, “Not just California?”
“In the nation. And we’ll be seeing you tomorrow, so get some sleep, if ya can.”
Of course, I couldn’t get any sleep. Just stayed up, thinking of visiting Alcatraz and riding trolley cars and pitching against the Dodgers. Later that night, Mom comes into my room, turned out my light and gave a sweet, soft kiss.
“Now let’s see what they offer you,” my agent said coldly. My mother, my consigliere. My Tom Hagen. My Scott Boras.
My mother would be running the negotiation.
* * * * * * * * *
Joe Henderson brought George Genovese, the Giants’ regional head scout, to our house the following morning. Talking contract as soon as they sat down. Polite, but all business.
“We would like to offer you a $20,000 bonus,” Joe said, as if this was the most generous gift in the world. Mom wouldn’t budge.
“He’s worth more than that,” she replied.
Mom and the Giants executives went back and forth for about an hour. Finally, Mom stood up.
“My son has had a very long year. I am sending him on vacation with his cousin to Hawaii. We can continue this when he gets back. That should give you gentleman some time to figure out what he’s really worth.” I went to Hawaii with my cousin for a week.
It was a long year and I loved my week in Hawaii. Scuba diving, and snorkeling and surfing. No baseball, which may have been a problem since I was set to start the North-South High School All-Star game at the Big A in Anaheim. I was not nearly as prepared for this game as I should’ve been, especially since the opposing coach was Rod Dedeaux, USC’s baseball coach. As I reached the hotel where I was staying, I found Joe Henderson and George Genovese waiting for me in the lobby. Now, my parents aren’t around, so they thought they’d have a chance of signing me. Again, polite gentlemen, but driving hard bargains. They offered me $27,000. I nodded my head.
“Here’s what I want. I want to go to college, but I also want to play ball. I want a four-year college education, paid for by the team, whenever I ask for it. No restrictions, no nothing.”
They agreed to that.
“I want $250,000, total, in cash and college tuition. The team paid another bonus baby $360,000. I’m better than he was, and I’m only asking for $250,000.”
Joe and George turned to each other, sighed and nodded, “Okay, we’ll come back to you.”
The next day, I pitched in the game, didn’t expect to do real well and didn’t. Threw the ball hard but walked the yard a bit and got taken out of the game early. After the game, Rod Dedeaux, came up to me.
“You didn’t do real well today, Tiger.”
He was right I didn’t.
“I know Coach McKay wants you to play defense for him. We’re gonna have to wait and see on you pitching for us for now. Of course, you can try out for the team.”
“Try out for the team,” I replied, as he started walking away. “Wait a second coach, I don’t think that’s good enough. I signed a letter of intent. Two years football, two years baseball. That’s what the school said-“
“That’s what the school; that’s not what I said-“
“But I have a letter of intent-"
“Ok, Tiger,” Dedeaux assured me, “let me know what you wanna do. We’ll talk later in the week.”
Maybe Dedeaux spoke too soon or was too honest too soon. I did know that I sure hoped Joe Henderson and George Genovese weren’t at that game. Luckily, they were waiting at the hotel when I returned to pack my things. They had a contract in their hands.
“$250,000,” Henderson smiled, “Cash and college. I got you what you wanted. We got a deal?” I grabbed a pen from the hotel front desk and signed the contract. I was a San Francisco Giant.
Mom and Dad couldn’t have been happier. I met them for a celebratory Italian dinner soon as I got back. It was the greatest day of my life.
And then we came home. The letter was sitting alone on the kitchen table, commanding all of our attention.
It was my Induction notice. My Selective Service Lottery Number was TWO.
I was going to Vietnam.
* * * * * * * * *
I was a wreck. The following morning, Mom sent me for a pre-induction physical. The orthopedic surgeon examined me. After a battery of tests and ex-rays, the doctor said I had a degenerative hip condition – very similar to Fred’s situation that kept him out of flight school. Apparently, it was a genetic condition. Sitting in the examination room, the doctor hands me my e-rays. “This is potential disaster, he said, “Bring these with you to the recruiting office.”
“What does this mean,” I asked, petrified of the answer.
“I dunno, Johnny. For one thing, your football career is over. You can probably play baseball. For how long, who knows? These things just don’t go away. As far as combat goes, we’ll see what Uncle Sam says.” No football meant no more USC, especially after Coach Dedeaux wavered on my baseball scholarship. Most likely meant no scholarships anywhere.
* * * * * * * * * *
I was on the bus from San Diego to the induction office in Los Angeles. There were some of the saddest faces I had ever seen riding with me. One stop away from being one of those young kids heading into the naval shipyards preparing for war.
We got off the bus and marched slowly into the recruitment office. Some boys accepted their fate with grace, with honor and did as they were told. Others tried pulling tricks. One guy wanted to get out on a 51-50 and wore girl’s panties when we were instructed to strip down to t-shirts and boxers. Didn’t work. The sergeant on duty instructed us on the physical we were about to undergo. It was almost like a four-inning game that could determine the rest of my life.
First they checked my eyes, examined them closely. “Accepted,” they said. I passed the vision test. Next, the doctor examined my heart and lungs.
“All clear,” he said. They ran blood work on me. This didn’t come back for awhile, but nothing out of the ordinary and I moved on.
Finally, I met with Dr. Robert Kerlan, an orthopedic surgeon who examined the recruits. I handed Dr. Kerlan my x-rays. He studied them carefully, than examined me himself. I said to myself, if this doctor gives me a clean bill of health, I will be the best soldier this army had ever seen and make my parents proud of me. I have been a winner at every level of my life and I wasn’t about to stop here.
“Johnny, it looks like you have you a potential case of sclerosis,” Dr.Kerlan said. “Do you play any sports?”
“I play baseball and football.”
Dr. Kerlan handed me my x-rays back. “You can never play football ever again. One bad hit and your hip is gone. Best case. Come back in six months and we’ll see if your hip improves.” Induction denied. Years later, the doctors would to be right as my hip finally gave out on me. It had to be replaced last year. I walk a little better now, but I still know it's there.
I got home that night, went to bed but couldn’t fall asleep. It was a clear night, and from my bedroom, I could see the Naval Shipyards. It was all so close to me, to my house and my upbringing. All the pain and sorrow of sailors and soldiers potentially losing their lives half a world away. I saw it in the eyes of the boys at the recruitment office and for a few hours on that day, looking in the mirror in the examination room, I saw it in myself.
* * * * * * * * *
After a couple days lying around the house decompressing from the stressful week, I was ready to head to Great Falls, Montana for Giants rookie league. Read in the paper that Steve Dunning went straight to the big leagues, starting a game for the Indians. Found out that Kyle Hypes from Santana High School was also drafted by the Giants and would be joining me on the club in Montana. Terry Forster ended up being drafted in the second round by the Chicago White Sox, and would end up pitching ten-plus years in the big leagues, getting a World Series ring with the Dodgers in 1981.
Great Falls, Montana was a wonderful place to begin my professional career. I lived in an apartment with five other players. Kyle lived with some teammates right next door. I made $500 a month, plus some meal money. Mom took care of my finances, got the bonus money in the right hands. She did an amazing job watching the bank account for me until I got to the big leagues. At first, I was extremely homesick, just a naïve beach kid, but I was glad to look over in the dugout and see Kyle there, a little slice of San Diego came with me to Montana.
Eventually, I made some friends on the team – we were all pretty tight. Guys like Doug Capilla, Butch Metzger were among my teammates on the pitching staff. We would hang out at this place called The Pizza Hut. I got lit up pretty good in those first few months, but I learned a lot, and not just about ball. I remember after a game one scorching July night, me and few of the fellas recapped our performances at The Pizza Hut. "Spill The Wine” played on the jukebox beside the well-worn dart board. A watering hole filled with locals who didn’t have much use for a bunch of ballplayers. All except one. She walked toward me, sporting the suggestive smile of a 10-run first inning. Would be very hard to lose this one.
I grew up in a community whose elders sheltered us by design, from the darkest impulses of humanity’s deepest chasms. But there I was, a good kid eight months behind the culture, as the ‘70’s were about to begin for me. And as she grinned and sipped her frosted Bud long neck, I realized I had some serious catching up to do.
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