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The Alternate

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The Alternate

John D’Acquisto's picture
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Former National League Rookie Pitcher of the Year, John D'Acquisto pitched for the Giants, Cardinals, Padres, Expos, Angels and Athletics from 1973-1982.

The Alternate

Imagine you’re behind the wheel of a 1977 desert beige Porsche Turbo Carrera, ignoring the speed limit with extreme prejudice down Interstate 805, open sunroof, fiddling with the radio, searching for some Led Zepplin as you approach the glistening sightline of the stadium. But dammit, all you’re finding across the dial is Disco. You shrug, sigh and settle on Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” which oddly starts to rev you up. The riveting, pulsating bass line behind the pop superstar’s voice settles in your mind for awhile. It’s now your personal soundtrack, as the most exhilarating night of your life is about to begin.

Here we go.

Imagine it’s about five hours and seven local media interviews later. You’re chilling in the National League dugout beside the legends of the game. Seaver. Morgan. Stargell. Niekro. You’re sitting on the bench next to Pete Rose bullshitting about last night’s gala thrown by Major League Baseball for the dignitaries of the host city.

Now imagine the public address announcer calling out your teammates’ names, who trot onto the field in uniform to the enthusiastic applause of the crowd. Rollie Fingers. Dave Winfield. You imagine your name will be called at any moment. Obviously, you’re one of the hottest relievers in both leagues right now. Your ERA is 1.94 in 45+ innings.
You’ve given up one home run all season. Mike Schmidt, “The Cobra,” Dave Parker, up and coming Keith Hernandez are all counted among your many strikeouts. You’re with esteemed colleagues on this day and you know what, you have their complete respect.

Now imagine this happening in your teams’ home ballpark, in front of fans that absolutely adore you, who can’t wait to see their guy standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest ballplayers on the planet.

Now imagine this happening in your hometown, the town where you were born, where you were raised, in the same stadium where you tried out for the majors eight years earlier. Your Mom, your Dad, brother and sister sit right behind home plate alongside the league VIPs, beaming with pride, leaning over to catch a glimpse of your face in a dugout surrounded by future Hall of Famers. You receive a nod from your hometown buddy Graig Nettles across the field, with whom you also downed a few beers at one of the three functions you attended last night.

Yeah, you feel love all right. You feel recognition, you feel affection, you feel things in this game you’ve never felt before, like you’re in the right place at the right time and your badass, 100 MPH-throwing right arm brought you here.

Imagine it’s July 11th, 1978 and you’re at the Major League All Star Game in San Diego, California.

Imagine 51,549 fans, mostly locals, a time when a family of four from La Mesa could afford and access All-Star tickets, fans that know your name, that want to see you on the field in the worst way, in front of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and former President Gerald Ford, who’s about to toss out the first ball.

Now imagine if you could change just one critical element to this picture…….

* * * * * * * * * * *

1977 ended with some pretty rough performances on my part. George Foster and Johnny Bench teed off on me in my final start, with Foster wielding that famous black bat of his and connecting on a perfect dinger to straight away center for his 52nd Home Run of the year. As for Bench, well, he jacked a moon shot grand slam into the left field seats, on the way to a brutal 8-0 loss at Riverfront Stadium. My stuff was simply flat, a lackluster curveball to go along with lifeless heat that everyone knew was coming. I was also messing around with a slurve that Steve Carlton had taught me in Spring Training when the Cardinals faced the Phillies in Clearwater, but I hadn’t quite mastered it. The day after the season ended, I had a beer with Roger Craig, the pitching coach, who was very friendly to me. We had just gotten out of a meeting with Bob Fontaine, the Padres’ General Manager, a really great guy who did his very best to look out for me.

“You gotta do something about this, Johnny,” Roger said, in a fatherly manner, “You can be better than this. You have to be, unless you wanna end up back in Hawaii next season. Or worse.” I didn’t want to consider “or worse,” but there was nothing to say. He was right. I suffered an oblique tear, pulled hamstring, I was traded, whatever, I had a very bad year. I spent two months at AAA and as comfortable as it was playing for the Hawaii Islanders, there was an awful lot of distractions down there. Everything and everyone was available to you as a ballplayer, only you’re too far away from friends and family to keep you on the right side of the street. A pitcher on rehab or trying to work his way back into the majors could very easily get lost in the late nights, the drinking binges at the beach bars, the drugs disguised as pain medicine and I knew more than a few veterans who went down to Baseball paradise and never returned to the bigs. I pitched fairly well down there, but made sure to get back to San Diego in September and finish out the season.

“I need you to pitch in Tijuana over the winter,” Roger said as we finished up. “You can work on a few things, you can still live at home in San Diego and drive over the border and sleep in your own bed after home games. This ain’t about off-years anymore, Johnny. We're talking about saving your career before you get lost in the mix of young prospects.” It bothered me that the conversation sounded more like a friendly reminder about last chances.

“We want you to make the team next season,” Roger continued, walking me to my car outside the restaurant. “The only way you’re going to do that is if you get out of the gate quickly in Spring Training. The way for you to get out of the gate quickly is to go to Winter Ball. We think it’s a good idea that you play for them and it’s good relations between the Padres organization and the Tijuana Potros (Ponies).” So I did it. The fact wasn’t so much that Bob liked me or Roger liked me, but that I still had a lively arm and I was a local San Diego kid. If I could somehow get it together, I could become one of the team’s top ambassadors to the city.

* * * * * * * * * * *

There are worse things in life than Winter Ball in Mexico. They paid me extremely well, like $10,000 a month – not bad bread in 1977 dollars. I went 9-0 for Tijuana, spoke enough Spanish to conduct interviews with the local press and I was called “El Gigante” (“The Giant”). I got along very well with the owner of the Tijuana club – get this, he paid me a bonus of $1000 for every strikeout over 10 in a single game. Talk about motivation – I was averaging 16 punchouts a start. It was nuts. I made a boatload of money down there. I felt healthy, I felt strong, most important, I felt ready for 1978.

Arriving at Spring Training in Yuma one month later, there was a stockpile of former Number One draft picks in camp. Me, Mike Ivie, Billy Almon, Dave Roberts, Dave Winfield, of course. While all the other pitchers I’m competing against were just beginning to get into shape, I’m in mid-season form. I already threw about 110 innings or so down in Mexico.

There wasn’t too much room left on the staff. Randy Jones, Bob Shirley and of course Rollie Fingers were set. Holdovers from the Johnny McNamara years Dan Spillner & Dave Freisleben were making the team. The ballclub brought Gaylord Perry into town a couple months earlier, so you knew he had a spot. Mickey Lolich was invited to camp to see if he had something left and would most likely make the club. The front office really wanted Brent Strom to make it through his injuries. Bobby Owchinko, Dave Wehrmeister, Mark Lee – tons of rookies vying for the last three spots. This wasn’t an open and shut case for me at all. Especially with Alvin Dark in the managers’ seat. He didn’t like me one bit. Dark was a strong, straight-laced Christian man from Oklahoma. Had no time for flakes, free-spirits or fun-loving bachelors. Give you an example. Dark replaced Johnnie Mac as Padres’ skipper on May 28th, 1977 when the ballclub was 20-28. Doug Rader was the funniest guy in the clubhouse, wonderful teammate, a true life-of-the-party type, the one you always wanted hanging out with you on the road. Ten days later, Rader was sold and shipped to the Toronto Blue Jays. Not traded. Sold. He was batting .271 with a .392 OBP. ‘Nuff said.

I knew the deck was really stacked against me. Two months earlier, my brother Fred, who was working for Pacific Southwest Airlines at the San Diego airport during this time, recognized Dark’s name on a charter flight list and introduced himself. Remarkably, after some polite chit chat, Dark admitted to my brother that he’s gonna send me down to AA. Not AAA, not Hawaii. Alexandria, Virginia. Could Dark have been sending me a message to get my ass in gear? I suppose, but I was lights-out in Winter Ball and I’m sure Dark was receiving the reports. There was no reason to motivate me. I had been told Dark was not happy with my living arrangements at the time.

I had three female roommates at a condo in Tierrasanta, right outside San Diego. The TV show “Three’s Company” was closer to the truth of the times than you could ever imagine. My brother called me immediately to warn of the situation. I was extremely aware I had to prove myself, but now I knew there was a chance it wouldn't matter. I couldn't let that affect me. My career was at stake.

After settling in at camp, I met with Roger Craig and Chuck Estrada, my AAA Pitching Coach in Hawaii. Roger knew what Dark’s plans were and said he would go to bat for me, at the very least, get me in AAA Hawaii rather than on the other side of the country. Estrada walked me out of Craig’s office and toward the ballfields.

“Johnny, you did great in Mexico, but Tijuana’s not the majors,” Chuck said. “Let’s see how you throw here and we’ll figure everything out.”

Over the next two weeks, Chuck and I worked side by side, with Roger checking in on the progress. It was like a sports movie montage.

“No, no, no,” Chuck would wave his hands at me, examining my mechanics on the practice fields, “You’re going too fast. Keep the motion fluid, but slow it down.”

He analyzed the manner my arms would swing. He grasped my shoulders, bringing my palms into my face instead of over my head, the way Roger Clemens and Andy Petitte wind up, how they peek over their glove, their arms don’t go over their head. “You need to simplify your motion. Needs to be more compact.”

Roger tried to teach me the split-fingered fastball, but with all the surgeries I'd been through, the force of the pitch placed too much pressure on my elbow, so that was scrapped. Still trying to master the slurve. I was getting there, but something just wasn't quite right.

Outside of the failed split-finger experiment, I was throwing strikes consistently, with heat, with command, with location. From the backfields, I was soon chucking unhittable gas in spring games. The more I threw strikes, the more confidence I had.

Meanwhile, Dark was having a terrible go of it communicating with the players. Same story as the previous year’s Spring Training with Vern Rapp and the Cardinals. The old generation of manager, the more contentious, lights out at nine, no facial hair-types, were dying out all across the Major League landscape, while younger men with evolved philosophies in handing the clubhouse, guys like Joe Torre with the Mets, were popping up everywhere. Dark had an absolutely awful relationship with the players. He tried to get Mike Ivie back behind the plate, but Ivie still had those issues with tossing the ball to the pitcher. A week later, Bob Fontaine ended up trading Ivie to San Francisco for Derrel Thomas. Players started complaining about Dark to Fontaine, his approach, his Christian preaching in the clubhouse, among a much larger laundry list. Something had to be done.

The other issue was Billy Almon, our starting shortstop. He had a so-so year with the bat in ‘77, but this 4th round draft pick came out of nowhere and covered everything on the field. He pushed Billy off of shortstop, which wasn’t that hard to do because Billy made 41 errors with minimal range the previous season. Gaylord would say to Rollie, “Man, if the kid plays like this in the regular season, I might win 20 games this year.” Young Ozzie Smith was like a Kirby Vacuum Cleaner out there. He covered the 3rd base hole, behind the bag at 2nd and was smooth as silk. He was also one of the sweetest kids you’d ever want to meet. Everyone liked Almon, too. Smart guy, graduated from Brown and never threw it in anyone’s face, but he was no Ozzie. From Day One, we all knew we wanted Ozzie behind us. This was a true shortstop controversy in camp. Keep Billy at short or bring up the kid with one year of minor league experience. I don’t know if Ozzie is aware of this, but Roger had Chuck speak with the veteran pitchers to get their opinions on whether to keep the light-hitting Ozzie on the opening day roster. “You’re crazy if you send that kid down,” I said to him. Now none of us had any idea that he would become a Hall-of-Fame caliber player. We just knew he would save us a whole bunch of runs. Ozzie and I had an excellent rapport, especially in the field, exceptional timing. We picked off maybe three or four guys in spring training from 2nd base. I would be on the mound, look over, Ozzie would wink at me, get behind the runner. I would set, lift my leg, turn and throw. It was like picking cherries from a tree. Problem now became where could we put Billy. Almon ultimately ended up at third, but wasn’t much of an improvement. While he didn’t make 41 errors, he wasn’t a third baseman. Really could’ve used Doug Rader’s glove at the hot corner in ’78.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The team bus is a very status-filled place in Spring Training. The manager sits up front with his coaches either beside him or a couple rows behind. Then rookies and veterans in the back. Late in Spring Training, there was a roster sheet of who was going on the road trips during the end of March, and if you weren’t on that list, you were staying behind and your ticket was most likely headed to minor-league camp. Chuck found me outside the clubhouse before I found the roster sheet.

“I need to tell you something,” Chuck said. “You’re going on the road trip.” I was a veteran by this point and knew not to take anything for granted.

“Gotcha," I shrugged

“You know the rule of thumb, Johnny. Just speculation on my part, but I think you might’ve made it.”

“That’s nice to hear,” I said, “But I won’t believe it until I see the final roster in the Sunday paper.”

Chuck taps me on the shoulder to get my attention.

“Hey, just hang tight, don’t get in any trouble, don’t piss off Dark, don’t make any waves. I think something’s going down. Just hang in there. Now c’mon, let’s get on the bus.”

I had no idea what moves could possibly be made. Blockbuster trade? One of the veterans got hurt? I never considered what he could possibly been referring to.

As we stepped onto the bus, I knew exactly what Chuck meant.

Roger CraIg was sitting in Alvin Dark’s seat in the first row.

I was stunned, then amused. Craig greeted me with this sly-dog wink, a cocky nod hello. I laughed and he smiled, then threw me a playful “Get your ass in the back of the bus” beckon.

Alvin Dark was fired. It was only the second time in baseball history that a manager was fired in spring training. (For the record, I should also point out, I saw Al Dark at a Giants’ team function in 2008. Dark approached me with a warm embrace at the party. We mended fences and enjoyed a very touching conversation.)

The headline was that Dark was gone. The story was that I made the team.

* * * * * * * * * * *

I felt great being in San Diego and making the roster. Besides having a spot on the pitching staff, I was amongst very close baseball friends. Randy Jones and I hung out all the time. Everything with him was “Dude this,” or “Dude that,” before Dude became a national phenomenon. He was a true California boy. Rollie, too. The three of us would often eat dinner on the road together. Soon enough, Roger would ask me to add another fellow to our gang.

“You did good this spring,” Roger nodded later as we packed up on the last day of camp, “We’re trying to figure out where your place is on the pitching staff, but we know we need your arm. We’re thinking you could really help us coming out of the bullpen, pitching an inning or two before Rollie gets the ball in the 7th or 8th. Maybe a spot start here or there.”

“Roger, thanks for believing in me,” I replied, “I feel good this year.”

““You look good, Johnny. Keep it up. Let’s go home.” Roger slapped me on the back as I left his office.

“Oh, one more thing,” he said, slowly spinning around, “Looks like Mickey’s coming back with us, too. He’s gonna need a place to stay in San Diego. You have room?”

Mickey Lolich had taken off the 1977 season after being very unhappy with the New York Mets. Bob gave him a shot in camp to see what he had left. Turns out Mickey could still get batters out, though his fastball wasn’t nearly the same. I made some room in my apartment to let Mickey stay with me. One of the best moves I made all year.

Mickey loved motorcycles almost as much as I loved cars. Most mornings when I made breakfast, we’d be talking Porsches, Harleys or pitching. It was the best situation for me. I had Roger Craig, one of the greatest pitching coaches in history as my manager; Chuck Estrada, my friend and new pitching coach and World Series hero Mickey Lolich, my roommate. I always had knowledgeable, friendly people around me to talk through any issues I might have had on the mound. Hell, I even ran across Lefty Carlton during batting practice when the Padres played against the Phillies at Veterans Stadium in late April.

“What am I doing wrong,” I asked Carlton, “The Slurve’s not workin’ for me.”

“Well how ya grippin’ it,” replied Professor Carlton. Lefty examined my hand on the ball.

“I see the problem,” Lefty nodded, “You’re not placing enough pressure on the seams.” I took that knowledge and practiced it later in the bullpen during the game. It was like a whole new pitch and it worked perfectly.

Now you could say I was getting too much advice that could be completely confusing and with some guys, you’d be right. To me, it wasn’t a matter of too many cooks spoiling the broth; it was a group of brilliant celebrity chefs and I was the innovative dish being prepared in the San Diego test kitchen. We would soon find out if the meal was a success.

* * * * * * * * * * *

As April came to a close, it was clear Ozzie Smith was something special. No one could field the position like him. First & third situations with nobody out in 1977 became two gone with none on in ’78. Roger placed Mickey in the bullpen and he was firing on all cylinders. Just one problem. Mickey pitched five times in the first 12 games. Seemed a little much for someone who hadn’t pitched at all the previous year. By the middle of the month, Mickey blew out his knee and was gone for three months. So my workload increased shortly thereafter.

The outfield was a whole other story. Dave Winfield continued to blossom, securing right field, not at all intimidated by San Diego Stadium’s cavernous dimensions. Left and center were sort of a revolving door, though. Oscar Gamble was a free agent we brought over from the White Sox after he hit 31 dingers for them.
Comiskey was not San Diego Stadium, though. He didn’t hit one out of the park at home until May 24th. Gene Richards was our leadoff hitter & left fielder, but played more than 50 games in center and first base when Tenace was behind the plate. Then there was George Hendrick, who had been our center fielder in ’77 but got off to a rough start with the bat, only had like two homers in the first month of the season. George was a real quiet guy. Some people labeled him moody, sullen, all those words you would read beside his name in the newspapers. He was a great teammate, he just kept to himself. I will say I didn’t notice him smile much, but we didn’t chat all that much, either. When I would see him in the players’ parking lot, I would catch his eye staring at my Porsche, but he never said a word. I walked by him again a few days later, still staring, said nothing. As I was entered the clubhouse the following day, I walked by George’s locker and heard him softly declare, “I like your car” in a completely monotone voice. I stopped and looked over.

“What’s that,” I asked casually.

“Your car. I like your car. It’s a nice car.”

“Thanks, man.”

“Very cool.” I laughed a little, then reached into my pocket.

“George, would you like to drive the car?” George’s head inched up slowly until his eyes met mine. We stared at one another for what seemed like an hour.

"Yeah," he said. I threw him the keys.

We get out to the car, George steps in, turns the engine over, and we hear the purr of 400 horsepower. It’s one of my favorite sounds in the world. He looks over at me and I see the first George Hendrick smile in my career.

“Shittt,” George laughed and nodded, grooving to the motor's melody as we pealed out of the parking lot.

We fly down Interstate 8, Hendrick is shifting through gears, squeezing the accelerator, the odometer on the verge of 100, “Disco Inferno” screaming through the cutting-edge Quadraphonic Blapunkt stereo, swerving in and out of lanes like an All-Pro running back through holes in the offensive line, commanding everyone’s attention on the road. We’re not talking, but he’s got a grin from ear to ear. It’s moments like this between teammates, where you share a piece of your life away from the game, that really stays with you.

Cruising off the freeway, we stop at a red light. “I want one,” George states, serious as a heart attack. I glance at my watch.

“We still have a couple hours before first pitch-“

“Let’s go now,” George interrupts. The light turns green.

“Hit it,” I nodded, and George just floored that puppy, getting us back on the highway.

As cool a teammate bonding experience as I ever had. We actually ended up going straight back to the stadium, but George bought a Porsche for himself shortly thereafter. The best part of all this was seeing the other guys tell George how cool his car was, Hendrick’s proud papa smile, the joy in his voice as he described his new wheels. Became the conversation piece that broke the ice with the other players.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Although I was pitching very well, the team wasn’t playing that great. By the end of May, we were 13-10 at home, but ran a 9-16 record on the road. I felt great personally, though. I had a 1.12 ERA and hadn’t given up a home run to this point. All the work and advice Roger, Chuck and Mickey offered was paying off beautifully. When The Dodgers came to town around this time, I was chatting with my Dad on the field during batting practice when Tommy Lasorda came walking over. He knew my Pop for a few years and complemented me in front of him.

“You know, Johnny’s doing real well this year,” Tommy said, “If he keeps this up, I might pick him to be on my All-Star staff.”

“Is that so,” Dad replied, turning to me with a proud smile.

“Sure, I’d love a good Italian boy to represent the Padres, why not? He just has to keep this pace.”

“If you do that, I’ll kiss ya. You’ll have free meals at Anthony’s for the rest of your life.”

“Really,” Tommy laughs, “Now that’s something I’d have to think about.” I honestly thought this was a game-changer with Tommy, as the next thing he said was one of the great complements I’ve ever heard in the career.

“Oh, by the way, Fred, I’m trying to get your boy on the Dodgers.” Dad was laughing, all, “Why the hell would you do that? Make me drive 90 minutes to see the boy pitch? Leave him here in San Diego.” That’s when I knew things might happen, that I might end up in that All-Star dugout come July.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Besides my personal success, some changes had to be made on the roster. I got into the clubhouse the next day only to be told that we just traded Hendrick to the Cardinals. I was kinda disappointed. I had just gotten to know George a little bit and felt he would eventually get it together. That was the bad news. The good news was that my buddy Eric Rasmussen was coming to town. Rassie had been a much better pitcher for the Cardinals in ’77 than his 11-17 record would indicate – some people thought he pitched better than Bob Forsch who won 20. The club figured in San Diego Stadium, Rassie could perform.

By the end of June, my ERA increased a bit to 1.35, but the front office let me know I was on the short list to be named to the All-Star Team. Bob came by my locker and said, “Don’t make any plans for the break. Even if you don’t make the team, if someone drops off the roster, you’re going to be named. In case someone gets hurt, they want an arm from here to take his place. That’s gonna be you, so be ready.” I’d never been so thrilled in my life. To even be considered an All-Star was something I always dreamed of.

Like the understudy in a Broadway play, I was backstage in the wings, an All-Star in waiting.

Now, if you look closely, you’ll see that Gaylord was 8-3 with a 2.80 ERA at the beginning of July, clearly having his best season in close to four years. All-Star numbers in any league. Thing was, Gaylord wanted no part of the All-Star festivities. As great as he was pitching, he was also 39, living alone in San Diego while his family was back in Texas, he needed the break badly. He made it clear to all parties involved; he was going home for those three days. We also needed Gaylord to be in a healthy frame of mind and body, so he was never considered.

Today, people wonder if an All-Star Game is truly necessary, but I believe that having the Midsummer Classic in San Diego in 1978 gave the franchise the jumpstart it needed with the fan base. Remember, only four years earlier, the team was all set to be sold and moved to Washington, D.C. Now the Padres were becoming a scene, and we were among the best teams in baseball when we played in San Diego Stadium.

About two weeks before the All-Star break, I’m hanging out with Rollie in the clubhouse. Fingers was told he was probably going to represent us at the game, along with Winfield.

“I may sit this one out,” he told me, in reference to the All-Star Game, “My arm hurts.” This put me in sort of a tough spot. Among the players on the Padres, I hung out with Rollie, Randy Jones and Rasmussen. Both of us being in the bullpen though, meant I was probably closest with Fingers. We knew each other from when he played for Oakland and me with San Fran back in the mid- 70’s, but we really became good friends when I got to San Diego. I wanted to go in the worst way, and if Rollie bowed out, I’m an All-Star – that’s something that no one can ever take away from you. Nowadays, cute writers like to take dopey potshots at average players who made one random All-Star Game in an otherwise nondescript career, but when all is said and done, you were still an All-Star, and none of the snark or sarcastic remarks can ever change that. No matter where my career would take me, I would always be “All Star John D’Acquisto.” It’s a tough situation when you want something your friend already has. I felt guilty wanting it so badly.

A few days later, I was driving toward the stadium when I heard on the radio that it was official, Winny and Rollie were named as reserves to the All-Star Squad. I knew this, I didn’t feel snubbed in any way, but yet of course I was disappointed. Really wanted to be out there and receive that validation. As I got out of my car, Randy Jones drove into the players’ lot. He honked his horn to get my attention.

“Hey Dude, look what I just got?” It was a Black Porsche Carrera.

Sad as I was not to be on the official roster, the league took care of me. In exchange for staying ready in case a pitcher went down, they awarded me four tickets behind home plate for my family to come see me in case I made it. Bob reminded me that I was still “on-call,” which meant in addition to possibly playing, I was required to attend every league function surrounding the game, as if I was an actual All-Star.

“Johnny, you need to head to the Marriott,” Bob said the night before the game, “Go to the ballroom for the MLB gala. The league’s having the big party there, all the players will be there, we want you there, too.”

The city was buzzing. Everyone from the league offices was there, retired players flown in as guests of Major League Baseball showed up. You couldn’t get a hotel room in town if you tried. They didn’t have Fanfest or anything back then, but they had parties, media parties. Every cocktail hour, both sit-down dinners over those two nights, I was there. Late-night after-party drinks with major advertisers, getting caught in the corner by a rep from a candy company, nodding my head and listening for 30 minutes. I was all over the place. I’d go out in the hallway, it was words with the San Diego Union Tribune, the big paper in town or the sports reporter for local CBS Channel 8 news. Everywhere I went during those three days, there was someone with a microphone in my face. I did get some face time with my friends Goose Gossage and Nettles. Rollie was there, too. Even Gene Tenace popped his head in at one of the parties. Geno was beloved in San Diego and still very tight with Rollie from their A’s days. I remember that night, Rollie leaning into me, softly saying, “I think I’m gonna play. Should be a lot of fun.”

“Your arm, ok,” I replied, sipping a beer. Rollie chuckled, curling his handlebar moustache even further, shaking his head.

“Nope. Still hurts.”

I didn’t blame him, not at all. Seeing how the whole city embraced this event, of course you’d want to be a big part of it, too.

* * * * * * * * * * *

When I arrived to the ballpark on the day of the All-Star Game, I mingled in the press box conducting still more interviews with local media. Bob Fontaine stepped over to me after I was finished.

“I need you to go down on the field,” he said. “Stay in the clubhouse with the players. Tommy told me they still might need you to suit up.” The dream remained alive. I walked quickly through the press area, down the elevator and into the clubhouse, where I found the best of the best. Garvey. Bowa. Foster. Vida Blue stepping through on his way to the pen to warm up. Tommy John. Reggie Smith. The top players in the league getting ready for the game. I looked over and found my uniform hanging in my locker. My teammates' gear was cleared out to make way for the All-Stars. Mine was still in my locker in the event I had to come out in relief and make an appearance. I waited and waited, as Luzinski, Rick Monday, Ted Simmons began stepping through the runway toward the dugout. Tommy saw me and trotted over.

“Hiya, Pal,” Lasorda greeted, slapping me on the back. “Are you ready?”

I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that, but I hoped. Boy, did I hope it meant what I wanted it to mean.

“As soon as you tell me,” I cracked.

“Well, it looks like we’re gonna be okay, but stay put. We still may need ya.”

“Thanks, Skip,” I said, knowing my uniform would remain untouched.

I was the last one to leave the room, walking toward the dugout. I chatted with a few more of the guys on the bench before the lineups were announced. Once I saw the microphone being placed at home plate for the singing of the National Anthem, I knew I would be a fan for the rest of the night.

I stood by the dugout door, and watched the players’ names get called one by one to the delight of the crowd. I knew my family would not get to see me run on that field, have my name announced by the great John DeMott, the Padres' beloved, first public address announcer. Obviously, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. It just would’ve been nice.

As Paul Pryor, the Home Plate umpire for the game cried “Play Ball,” I enthusiastically clapped, nodded, smiled and turned away, disappearing through the dark tunnel and into the clubhouse.

* * * * * * * * * * *

1978 would prove to be The Padres’ finest year in franchise history, as they finished 84-78. Trying to jump over the Dodgers, Reds and even the Giants proved to be too much for us, but there were many, many individual achievements on the roster. Winfield set the tone for his off-the-charts 1979 campaign (he finished third in NL MVP voting) with an outstanding second half. Ozzie finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting behind a straight-to-the-majors talent named Bob Horner. Gaylord's prediction of winning 20 games came to fruition - 22, actually - en route to his second Cy Young Award. Rollie tied the NL record for saves with 37.

I packed and hauled my things out of the clubhouse at the season’s end, throwing them in the back of the Porsche, leaving San Diego Stadium (which would be re-named Jack Murphy Stadium in 1980) with a genuine sense that as long as Roger and Chuck were in my corner, one day I would eventually replace Rollie as the team’s closer.

Driving back home up Interstate 805, still couldn’t find a song I liked on the radio. With the death of Disco less than nine months away, Donna Summer still led the league in appearances over the airwaves. I spent a fair amount of time hanging out with Rasmussen that winter, who actually lived near San Diego’s MacArthur Park. It was an off-season of preparing for the rest of my career in the town that I loved. I finished 1978 among the top 15 relievers in baseball – 2.13 ERA, 104 strikeouts in 93 innings - only J.R. Richard sported a K/9 over 10 like me for hurlers who threw at least 90 innings.

I was ready to become the premier fireballer in the game, that after five seasons in the majors I finally discovered the true formula for big league success, but as the song sadly goes, I would never have that recipe again.

Blog image: 
John D'Acquisto takes you on a ride from Tijuana to San Diego and all the way to the 1978 Midsummer Classic.

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