"Oh shit, Johnny, there's a T in the road,” Randy Moffitt yells, beside me in the shotgun seat, l
"Oh shit, Johnny, there's a T in the road,” Randy Moffitt yells, beside me in the shotgun seat, less than 100 yards from the barbed-wire fence, easily going 130 on a tree-lined, desolate, two-lane Arizona street at 6 in the morning, February 14th, 1976.
“STOP!!!!!” The foot brakes aren’t helping, the Porsche spins without my permission, the barbed-wire jumps in our faces like a tragic 3-D movie…….
* * * * * * * *
That’s it. That’s what gets a talented, major-league pitcher through nine innings. It’s the fuel for the engine and the fuel for your mind to pitch successfully in the bigs. When you hit 100 on the gun, there’s no time for doubts. I loved that feeling of airing it out, blowing it by Mike Schmidt or Jimmy Wynn, especially those players who possessed a keen eye to lay off the junk and work the count if they couldn’t capitalize on a mistake. Feel the same way about driving. Nothing like goin’ fast. Open-road, blazing past the other cars and trucks on the highway. No room for questioning anything or hearing the doubts of others.
The last thing I needed coming into the 1976 season was a lack of confidence. I had undergone Ulnar Reset surgery the previous May, sort of quasi-Tommy John, and remember this was the same season TJ was rehabbing his arm, the procedure had yet to be perfected. I lost five degrees range of motion in my elbow, couldn't straighten my arm out all the way, which hindered my control. Had to learn a few adjustments. Having a crooked arm to throw 96 MPH. I'd start my release at the edge of the corner of the plate and the pitch would be six inches off the strike zone - BALL! I had to learn how to start the release at the middle of the plate or the right to throw a strike - I could still bring some gas, but it was going all over the place. Part of the healing process includes the mindset that you still are the player you once were. Confidence.
We were directed to report to Casa Grande, Arizona for Spring Training. We could’ve easily flown from San Fran to Phoenix, but my teammate John Montefusco and me felt something bold was in order.
Usually that’s how the players and coaches arrived for pitchers and catchers – there’s a van that picks you up at the airport and onto the training facility. We weren’t just taking our cars. We decided to engage in a pitcher’s duel – with our Porsches.
This is the story of pitchers and pitchers and our overnight race to beat the reporting deadline.
* * * * * * * *
Count Montefusco had a 1975 Targa. Sleek, gold coupe, two-seater, half-convertible, 164 cubic rear engine, 2.7 liter, rear-wheel steering, Pirelli tires, 143 horsepower, could go from zero to sixty inside of five seconds. Kind of car you would expect the most recent MLB Rookie of the Year to own. Especially one with as much confidence as John. Count loved a challenge. He was the guy who would tell the hitter what he was gonna throw before his windup, then blow it right by him. John made his presence felt in his debut at Dodger Stadium late in ’74. Ronny Bryant had a rough first inning, three walks, an error, a passed ball, we were down 3-zip before we knew anything. Wes Westrum went to go get Bryant, who was having an arm issue and brought in The Count. After getting Tom Paciorek to ground out, scoring another run, he struck out the next two batters – then proceeded to finish the game. We rallied back – Count even smacked a homer in his second plate appearance – onto a 9-5 Giants victory. From that point, the Giants knew Montefusco would be at the front end of the rotation.
I picked up my Porsche 911 Carrera after the 1973 season. An amazing machine, stick-shift, six-cylinder, twin-valve induction engine. No radiator. Didn’t need one. Porsche has a protective reservoir, shielding the engine from frying, so when you burn oil it starts injecting new fluid, because they are air-cooled – not refrigerated by anti-freeze or water. My confidence car of choice.
Word had circulated out over the winter that Bill Rigney was going to be our manager. National League President Chub Feeney was very close to Rigney, and with the Giants going through serious financial issues at the time, strongly suggested Bill to take over for the dismissed Wes Westrum. Wes had to be one of the nicest men in the league, but we were a pretty young ballclub and he was the ultimate old-school guy. He couldn’t control us. Had run-ins with most of the staff, especially Jim Barr. JB, a really talented and smart pitcher, liked to call his own game. Westrum, a former catcher, insisted that everything came from the dugout. The two of them blew up at each other a number of times, and Barr wasn’t the only player, either. Baseball wasn’t quite at the point where young managers like Joe Torre or Tony LaRussa had innovative thoughts about managing a roster. A move needed to be made.
There was also the issue about where The Giants would be calling home for the '76 season. Our owner Horace Stoneham was very close to selling the club to an investment group led by Labatt, the largest brewer in Canada, and moving the ballclub to Toronto. The money was in the bank – they verified funds and everything. There was talk that another Major League franchise would be in Toronto for 1977 regardless of how this played out. With all the chatter about moving the Giants to another city, the organization had sparsely prepared anything in terms of promotion. The media books were barely thrown together. There were also whispers about well-heeled investors in Florida. Where were we going?
Count Montefusco and I lived near each other in Foster City, about 22 miles outside of San Francisco. John had just gotten married, as had Ed Halicki, another starting pitcher on the club who hung out with us. When a few of the guys on the team heard we were driving to spring training, they asked to join. Randy Moffitt wanted to come – so did Halicki, who we called HoHo. Just by checking out Ed’s baseball cards, with his tall frame and long, blond hair, you would think he was one of the Southern California boys. Halicki was from Kearny, NJ. With Count born and raised on the Jersey shore, they became fast friends. Being something of a newlywed, the road trip would give Hoho a chance to spend some guy time with Count.
I was very close to Randy. We also lived near one another, we knew each other’s families – went to many barbecues at the Moffitt house. His sister is Billy Jean King – when she wasn’t traveling the world as the ambassador to professional tennis, we’d see her sometimes at family gatherings. Our parents would sit together when we played at Dodgers Stadium. Our Dads were close.
I picked up Moffitt at his place. Randy’s wife came out to see us off. I threw his bag in the trunk and handed him the keys for the long journey. With our history of aggressive driving, the willingness to air out these badass sports cars, and hell, just the general testosterone of dudes under 25, all the wives thought we were out of our minds to drive to Arizona. Count and Ed had followed us to Moff’s house as we mapped out the race. Moff and I shared a quick laugh watching the six-foot-seven Halicki trying to pack himself into Count’s Porsche.
“How’s that big son of a bitch gonna get himself in,” Moff laughed, scratching his head as he opened the driver’s side door to my car. We had to report by 7 AM in Casa Grande or else we would be officially late. There was a sense of urgency, but also pushing the limits, the adrenaline rush of crossing the finish line our way. Only bragging rights were at stake, but when you’re in your mid-twenties, sometimes that’s all the currency in the world. We started our engines with 12 hours to get to Arizona and sakes alive, we had ourselves a convoy.
Our course took us from Foster City onto Interstate 101 to what we on the West Coast call THE 5. Figured going late we'd see less traffic and of course, less CHIPS. Most likely not running into Ponch and Jon at this hour. The idea was for Moff and me to split the driving so we could each catch some shut-eye, but we were both too pumped to sleep much. Moff was trying to recapture the glory of 1973, where he pitched to a 2.42 ERA. You rarely see more than a handful of 3 WAR relievers every year, it was a good season for him. He had two relatively mediocre seasons since then and with the depth of our pen as well as our minor-league system, you were always looking over your shoulder. Lavelle gave us a nice rookie season, ERA under 3, but was great in the 9th inning and especially against left-handed hitters. Dave Heaverlo was another rookie with amazing stuff who showed he could be a tremendous 8th inning guy, with a 0.50 ERA in 19 games right before the 9th. You also couldn’t count out Charlie Williams, who threw a nice fastball with some movement. None of this includes rookie Greg Minton breathing down everyone’s neck, who had a solid season at AAA Phoenix as a swingman, or Bob Knepper, who was just about ready to take a spot in the starting rotation.
It was a fun ride. Lots of laughs, great tunes. We wore out my Bachman-Turner Overdrive & Doobie Brothers 8-tracks – this was well before Michael McDonald became an ironic punchline and snide remarks about Bachman-Turner-Overplayed. We would flick on the radio for a break and through the sounds of religious programming and random Top 40 hits, we’d come across a particular song I just didn’t like. Not that is wasn’t a beautiful melody, it’s a classic, just that if you ever wanted a number to ruin a good time vibe it was this one. Sweet, gentle tempo, light piano. Last thing I’d wanna hear. I shut it off immediately.
As we made cruised down The Five, we’d eventually had to stop and grab a bite. Of course, 1976 wasn’t the consumer smorgasbord that you find on roadtrips almost anywhere in America today. Obviously you had McDonalds & Burger King, Carl Jr’s, Hardees, Bob’s Big Boy in Southern California, but for me none of them compared to the best burger on the West Coast: The Jumbo Jack. Sure it was Jack in the Box’s answer to the Big Mac, but ohhh, that mayo-onion sauce was so much sweeter than the “Special Sauce” found on the McDonald’s premiere sandwich.
We hit the Jack in the Box, grabbed a few burgers, then stopped at a Union Oil 76. As I gassed up, I stared at the logo. I knew that 1976 would be a pivotal year in my life. Staring at the gas station sign was almost as bad as hearing that song on the radio. Didn’t need any more reminders that the season may not work out. That’s the thing with standing still in time; when you’re not in motion, you start thinking. Just like pitching. Don’t think. You’ve gotten to this level as much for your ability as for your instincts. Your ability gets you here. Your instincts keep you in the game. I filled the tank, quickly replacing the gas cap and jumped in the driver’s seat. I threw on an eight-track of BTO and we were back to the race.
* * * * * * * *
We would gun it to well over 90 MPH for extended periods as we made our way down The Five. I was behind the wheel now making sure no one caught us, not Count, certainly not the highway cops, as well as insuring we didn’t smack into the 18-wheelers we would occasionally come across. As Randy slept in the shotgun seat, I switched to the radio. The standards of the day came on – Sister Golden Hair a couple times, some Stevie Wonder, Kung Fu Fighting. Of course, that song I didn't want to hear chased me across the dial over the next two hours. I couldn’t escape it. I switched the station every time. It had to be the most overplayed tune that month, as if some cosmic force insisted I listen to the lyrics. I wasn’t in the mood for that message. Had so many things on my mind. The new manager – new pitching coach, Buck Rodgers. Another song that haunted the ride was the latest Paul Simon hit.
Made me count in my head 50 ways I could leave the Giants. Trade? Waivers? Outright release? Purchase? I changed the station before I get to 10. I felt there were some in the organization who didn’t want me there in 1976 and as any observer of corporate psychology could tell you, new management loves cleaning house. I felt I had a great rapport with the fans there, the media, too. I always believed my popularity (as well as my relationship with Mayor Alioto, a distant relative) is what kept me in San Fran for one more season. Granted, with my arm injury, I think management wanted to give it one more year and see how things played out. Not even mentioning the divorce I had just gone through. I really needed these 12 hours to clear my head properly before suiting up in Casa Grande.
As I fought off the urge to really ponder my issues, Count and Ho-Ho beeped the horn beside me as we merged onto I-10 near San Bernardino, gave me the one-finger salute and flew right past us.
The four of us played cat and mouse for the next few hours, swapped driving, another Jack in the Box stop, jumping lanes, gunning it up off-ramps trying to out-duel one another. It was reckless and exhilarating as we crossed into Arizona, neither of us letting up.
Still had a few hours to go. Moff woke up and we started talking about the team, what we would experience when we got to Casa Grande. We talked about how much we would miss Petey Falcone. If management hadn’t traded him to St. Louis over the winter, he would’ve been on this trip with us somehow. Another outstanding homegrown pitching prospect, Petey was from Brooklyn; there was all that Pisan stuff between us – actually, skips my mind now but one of the sports mags, probably either The Sporting News or Baseball Digest had me, Count & Petey on the cover during the ’75 season: “[Pitching Coach Don] McMahon’s Mafia,” it was titled, a very cool and sort of politically incorrect profile on the Giants’ Italian fireballers. Besides all the joking, all the good-natured East Coast-West Coast Italian food rivalries, Petey and I became very, very good friends, always there to talk, hang out, a great guy to have a beer with. We got Kenny Reitz back in the trade, a player who’s been sort of lost to Baseball History, but, man could he glove. They called him the human vacuum cleaner. His greatness on the field doesn’t really show up in modern statistical analysis, but in the ‘70’s he was known as one of the best third basemen in the game. As a team, you loved having him behind you; another fun dude to hang out with, but I missed my buddy Petey terribly.
* * * * * * * *
Finally, we got off Interstate 8, close to Casa Grande. Rancher country at this time, cowboy hats, long stretches of nothing but farms and horses. By about 6 AM we turned off at this gravelly, two-lane road. Not the most conducive to driving, but we were in the midst of a race against time, against each other. We weren’t about to get fined and definitely not coming in second.
“Hit it, JD,” Moff commanded.
I didn’t pay attention that Count, who wanted to beat me as much as I wanted to come out on top, abruptly eased off the pedal, Moff and me kept going, until the fence at the end of the road came at us. I got my foot through the floorboard, now we’re bookin’ at 130 MPH plus.
“There’s a T in the road,” Moff yelled. I reacted, slamming the brakes, pulling the emergency. Tires screeching, semi-circle spinout, avoided the barb-wire fence by inches and drove left down the road to the facility. Let out the most relieved sigh of my life.
“Wow,” I turned to Moff, “That was cool.”
“Yeah,” Moff rolled his eyes, “Sure was.” As close a call to a major wreck as I’ve ever gotten. We buzzed down to training camp, a little slower than before, but at least in one piece.
* * * * * * * *
Man, those cars were machines. We could’ve gone 24 hours at that rate and the Porsches would’ve taken it. We waited for Count and Ho-Ho to get there before we all went in together. They arrived about five minutes after us.
“We made it,” I said, half-implying we won. Count took one look at the front of my car and laughed.
“Congratulations,” he replied, nodding at the nicked-up bumper, and that was the best of it.
In the end, they had to replace my windshield as well as additional body work, thanks to all the pebbles and gravel popping onto my hood and side doors. Was it reckless? Maybe that drag race on barely-paved road wasn’t our best idea. Still one of the highlights of my fun times with the guys, though.
We checked in a little before 7 AM, received our room keys to the motel. Giants management and the coaches stayed at the swanky condo building, which was also on the grounds. The players weren’t allowed there, either, nor could they eat at the steakhouse located on the premises. WE were served buffet food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. None of that mattered to me at this point. Just was happy to get to my room and sleep.
I opened the door and found Steve Ontiveros half-awake in the other twin bed. “Roomie,” he said drowsily, “You made it.”
“In one piece,” I replied. “Crazy night.” Onti rolled over and packed it back in.
“Tell me later,” he muffled into his pillow and fell back asleep, “Glad you got in safe.” I unpacked my clock radio, set it for sometime in the afternoon and passed out in my clothes.
* * * * * **
The alarm went off around 3 PM. Onti was long gone. I recalled something about late golf, but all I could do was stare at the ceiling, wince from my aching body and here comes that damn song.
Too exhausted to reach for the snooze, I had to endure her words, her voice, Diana Ross’ lovely, sultry, throaty voice of doubt. I was no longer a rookie phemon with the whole world ahead of him. Starting to let some dreams slip through my hands. So many questions in my head and I wasn’t 100% certain I wanted the answers. Would I get my fastball back? Will I ever throw it in triple digits with command? What’s life gonna be like for a 23-year old, divorced man? Will I get along with Rigney and Buck Rodgers? Now that Labatt is most likely bringing baseball to Toronto, will the Giants end up in St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay, Seattle, or some other God-forsaken town? What if I am not selected for the starting rotation? Can I make it as swingman? There’s absolutely no room in the bullpen for me, right? What if Bob Knepper is dynamite in Spring Training? Will I get traded at the end of March?
Will I get released?
Do I really have my confidence back?
Do you know?
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