After 35 years, the San Diego Padres have a home of their own. Today, the local nine will jog onto the field and play their first regular-season game in Petco Park.
It’s a mighty step from junior tenant in somebody else’s football stadium to overlord of one’s own custom-built ballpark, located smack downtown in California’s second-largest city, the nation’s sixth, on some of the most expensive property in the world. Indeed, the Pods have arrived. Whether their arrival will change a decades-long record of disappointment remains to be seen, but for today, Opening Day 2004, we’ll leave that question at the gate.
What follows are the words of Padres who came before, beginning with players who were on that first team, who played in that first game, April 8, 1969, recorded as a 2–1 win over the visiting Houston Astros. Of note, San Diegans were not starstruck by the arrival of Major League Baseball: only 23,370 customers paid their way into San Diego/Jack Murphy/Qualcomm Stadium to witness First Opening Day.
Looking back, you could mark October 14, 1968, as the beginning of big-league baseball in San Diego. General William D. Eckert was commissioner of baseball. The 1968 World Series wrapped up four days earlier, with Detroit edging St. Louis in seven games. Major League Baseball closed out its 1968 season with 20 teams, 16 of them located east of the Continental Divide. On that 14th day of October 1968, baseball held an expansion draft for four new teams: San Diego Padres, Montreal Expos, Seattle Pilots, and Kansas City Royals. The first player chosen by San Diego was Ollie Brown.
“What do you remember from the 1969 Padres?”
Ollie Brown says, “It was the first year of a major league team being in San Diego. For me, it was important because I was getting the opportunity to play on a regular basis. Most of the players who were on the team that year were excited about that.”
Ollie Lee “Downtown” Brown was born February 11, 1944, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He played 13 years of major league ball on six different teams, beginning with the San Francisco Giants in 1965 and ending with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1977. Brown spent 1969, ’70, ’71, and part of the 1972 season with the Padres. Currently lives in Buena Park, California.
On Opening Day 1969, Mr. Brown went to bat four times, got one hit, a double, which scored the second of San Diego’s two runs. We talked by telephone on a chilly autumn Sunday afternoon a few days before the World Series got under way. I wanted to know what he thought about leaving San Francisco for a first-year expansion club that had no chance of winning.
“It was good for me,” Brown says. “At the time, the Giants were pretty deep in the outfield, which is my position. The handwriting was on the wall. The question was, ‘Do you want to sit on the bench or do you want to get the opportunity to play every day?’ Everybody was excited in San Diego. I know the players were excited. I know the owner was excited. You couldn’t beat the weather.”
I ask about his hitting statistics. “In 1975, near the end of your career, you were playing for Philadelphia and hit .303, the best year you had. Unusual to peak near the end.”
“Well, towards the end,” Brown says, “I was playing on a part-time basis. I was platooning with this other guy who put up pretty good numbers, and I was able to put up decent numbers. So the manager [Danny Ozark] didn’t want to break up that combination.”
Danny Ozark managed the Phillies for most of seven seasons. One of his better instructional quotes is, “Half of this game is 90 percent mental.” I ask Brown, “How old were you when you first realized you were playing baseball better than anyone you knew?”
“I played baseball and I played other sports,” Brown says. “Whichever the season, that’s the sport I played. But once you get to high school, you have to decide which sport you want to go for. It just happened to be baseball. You go out and play hard, play the game the way you know how to, and if scouts are in the stands and you do something they like, maybe it’s good enough to get you to the big leagues.” Brown laughs. “It’s easy to get to the big leagues. It’s harder to stay.”
“Your first team?”
“I signed with San Francisco in 1962. My first pro game was in Rookie League in Salem, Virginia. At the time, baseball players were just numbers. Most organizations had three Class D teams, three Class B teams, A ball, double-A ball, and triple-A ball. So it was a numbers game. I made a lot of friends, and a lot of my friends were not able to advance. Once you get to a certain age, you gotta keep progressing or else you go.”
“Do you recall what you were paid?”
“Oh, man. I think, in 1964, playing Class D ball, I made $500 a month.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median wage and salary income for males living in the United States in 1964 was $5015, which breaks down to $418 a month.
I say, “Not bad for ’64.”
“No, it wasn’t that bad. My first year in the big leagues was 1966. At that time the minimum salary was $7500, and that’s what I made.”
“That’s bad.” In fact, that’s heartbreaking. The players’ union says the average major league salary for 2004 is $2,372,189. The minimum salary is $300,000. “It’s gotta hurt to see the money raining down on players today.”
“Yeah, but you know,” Brown says, “it was a different era. I can’t blame the players for getting all that money now, because only so many people are able to play in the major leagues.”
About 1200, according to the players’ union. “Aside from money, how has baseball changed since you played?”
Brown says, “It’s like a business now. Ballplayers, back when I played, seemed like we were together. We went out and ate dinner together and stuff. Seems like now you can’t get to a ballplayer unless you go through his agent.” Brown laughs, sort of.
“Did you negotiate your own contract?”
“Everybody did. Toward the end of my career, players started getting agents, but before then everybody negotiated their own contracts. At the time, it didn’t matter; if you had a decent year you got a raise, if you had a so-so year you hoped they didn’t cut you. Contracts were a one-year deal.”
A one-year deal at $625 a month. “When I look at the hitting records of some of the big stars in baseball today, I see a guy who hit 23 home runs, 28 home runs, 26 home runs, right in there, for 15 years, and then, suddenly, out of nowhere, he hits 63 home runs, and the guy is 36, 37, 38 years old.”
“It makes me think that steroids have become part of the game. Was it that obvious when you were playing?”
Brown says, “You tried to stay in halfway decent shape during the off-season, and once spring training started we’d work extra to get in shape. But no, we weren’t into that kind of bodybuilding or whatever these guys do nowadays.”
“Do baseball records seem less than honest now?”
“Well, I know ballplayers are getting bigger and stronger and ballparks are getting smaller. When I played in San Diego, I hit 23 home runs one year . We had to hit the ball all the way up into the stands. Later, they moved the fences inside of that. So I figure I might have lost 15 home runs a year.”
In 1982, the outfield at Jack Murphy Stadium was modified. Center field was brought in 15 feet, and the outfield wall was reduced from its 17-foot height to approximately 9.
Brown continues, “Today, in a lot of ballparks, you hit a pop-up behind home plate or down first-base or third-base lines, because the stands are so close to the field, the ball is unplayable, so you get another shot at bat. If Willie Mays or Henry Aaron were playing now…Henry Aaron might have hit 800 home runs.”
I laugh. “How about Babe Ruth?”
“He might have hit 1000.” Brown laughs.
“Let’s say it’s 1973. You were playing with the Milwaukee Brewers. And let’s say you’re playing an away game in St. Louis. What do ballplayers do when they’re not at the park? Do you read, walk around town, go to the movies, watch TV?”
“Most of the games were played at night,” Brown says. “Once the game is over, you get back to the hotel, and you’re looking at midnight. If you want to get a bite to eat, you go do that, and you’re looking at two o’clock in the morning. Most ballplayers get to bed late, so they sleep all day. You wake up at one or two o’clock in the afternoon, get a meal, and you’re back at the ballpark.”
“When you were playing, did you realize that it could end in the next heartbeat?”
“Most of the guys who get to the major leagues get there at a relatively young age. You hope you’re going to be there for a few years. But as time goes by you’re going to become that 37-year-old, and there will be a 20-year-old standing there, waiting on his turn. You have to prepare yourself for that day.”
“Were you prepared?”
“I could see it, but like a lot of ballplayers, I thought I could play another two or three years.”
Nobody leaves on his own. “What happened after baseball?”
“When I first got out I did a little scouting for a few teams. Then my wife and I got into promotional products, and that’s what we’ve been doing up until today.”
“Do people still remember you?”
Brown laughs again. “Yeah, to this day I get fan mail from people who want me to sign baseball cards. It’s amazing. I never give out my address, but somehow, baseball fans can find your address.”
On Opening Day 1969, Edward Wayne Spiezio, playing third base, went to bat three times, hit a solo home run in the fifth inning, which scored the first of San Diego’s two runs. He was born October 31, 1941, in Joliet, Illinois. Spiezio played nine years of major league ball on three different teams. He spent 1969, ’70, ’71, and part of the 1972 season with the Padres. Currently lives in Joliet, Illinois.
A woman’s voice hollers, “Pick up line ONE!”
Now comes the soft, relaxed voice of Ed Spiezio. “Hello.”
I introduce myself and after a pleasant exchange, ask, “When did you know that you were going to be great at baseball?”
“You have a good idea when you’re in Little League and you make all the All-Star teams. We won the Pony League World Series. I was the most valuable player, even though they didn’t have an official category for that at that time. I set a lot of records. You pretty well know when you’re young because of the way other people treat you and when you get into national tournaments. If you do well so many different times, you have a pretty good idea that you can play the game.”
“You expected to play pro ball?”
“Yeah, I did.” Quiet. “But a lot of guys are that way. You’re naive. You don’t know how difficult it is. If you ever looked at the numbers, you’d get discouraged.” Quiet. “But when you’re young, you don’t have any idea. All you know is you’ve got this goal, you’re going to do it, and nothing is going to stop you. It’s simple to you, but if you ever thought about it,” Spiezio laughs, “it’s very difficult.”
“You went to Lewis University [located in Romeoville, Illinois, 30 miles southwest of Chicago]. Were you drafted into baseball from there?”
“There wasn’t a draft at that time. Back in the ’60s, you could talk to every team. I had 20 teams following me, had cards from all 20 teams. I was pretty much of a star. I had a chance to go to the Pan American Games, but I was in college, so I didn’t accept, even though they were going to play in São Paulo, Brazil. I’d been in a lot of state tournaments, national tournaments, and set all kinds of records.
“I went to the Basin League.” The league was formed in 1953, with teams representing the South Dakota towns of Mitchell, Watertown, Winner, Chamberlain, Yankton, Huron, and Pierre, as well as Valentine, Nebraska. “At that time it was the only college amateur league in the country. All the best players in the country went there. Now, it’s Cape Cod, several other places, Alaska is one. I led the league in home runs, RBIs, hitting, all kinds of stuff.”
“What year was that?”
“Boy, you’re really stretching me now. I’m thinking ’62, ’63, in that area. During my third year of college, I signed with the St. Louis Cardinals and went into pro ball, down to Class D, where everybody went. In two weeks I was in double A, which is a huge…”
“I jumped really quick. I was hitting very, very well. I hit four home runs in ten days. George Kissell was coaching down there.” George Kissell is the template of a baseball lifer. He was invited to St. Louis Cardinals training camp in 1940 and is still with the organization 64 years later. He played, briefly, shortstop for Cardinals minor league teams, worked as a minor league coach, manager, third-base coach on the big team, but mostly — and this was his fame — he was a traveling minor league instructor for the franchise, traveling the country with his wife in a Ford Taurus, teaching rookies how to play the game. Decades. Considered the best by Branch Rickey to Joe Torre. Kissell has received many awards, but perhaps this one will explain him best. Five years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals installed a plaque in his honor at Busch Stadium. There was a ceremony. The team lined up along the first- and third-base lines. Then every minor league player in the St. Louis farm system walked onto the field. To show respect. Kissell’s still on the Cardinals roster, Number 3, as a matter of fact. He worked the 2004 spring training camp in Jupiter, Florida, as senior field coordinator.
Spiezio continues, “It probably hurt me not to stay, because this man was an incredible teacher. I remember him saying to me, ‘Son, you don’t belong here. I’m sending you to double A.’ I was very happy that it happened. But looking back, knowing what he knew, knowing what he could have taught me, it was the worst thing that could have happened. I went to double A [Tulsa Oilers] and batted third for the team. That shows you we had a really good team.”
“Do you remember what you were making?”
“Yeah. About $500 a month. It was pretty good. I moved up the next year — they offered me a whopping raise of $100, to $600 a month.” Spiezio laughs. “I’d gone back to school that winter, completed my degree in accounting and math. I’m sitting there,” pause, “wondering, ‘What am I doing playing this stupid game for $600 a month?’ I wrote a real nice nasty letter to Branch Rickey and told him what I thought about it.”
Branch “The Mahatma” Rickey, 1967 Hall of Fame inductee, was a mediocre athlete, played 1905, ’06, and ’14 for the St. Louis Browns, 1907 for the New York Highlanders. He recorded a big-league career total of 120 games as outfielder, first baseman, and catcher. Rickey made his reputation as a general manager, held the job for 42 consecutive years with the St. Louis Cardinals, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Pittsburgh Pirates. He is credited with inventing the modern farm system and for integrating baseball by signing Jackie Robinson in 1947 while Rickey was in charge of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey moved over to the Pittsburgh Pirates as general manager in 1950, left nine years later, and returned to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1962 as “consultant on player development.” He was fired after two years and died in 1965, a few days short of his 84th birthday. He was Mr. Baseball and a notorious, merciless, lifelong cheapskate.
I ask, “Did Rickey write back?”
“I heard about his response to that letter for the next three years from all my coaches.”
I laugh, hard. Rickey would never forget.
Spiezio says, “He never got a letter like that in his life. But I’m sitting there with a college degree and all my buddies are making way more money, and they’re looking at me like I’m a millionaire.”
“Your friends are thinking, ‘Spiezio’s incredibly lucky to be there. What’s his problem?’ ”
“Oh, yeah, the glory of it was fine, but there was no money. I remember playing in St. Louis. Roger Maris joined us in 1967. I had been in the World Series against the Yankees in ’64 and we beat ’em, and now, all of a sudden, Roger Maris is on my team. After seeing his two-week paycheck, it was like, ‘He’s making $5200 every two weeks, $75,000 a year. He’s better than God.’ ” Spiezio laughs.
“Where did you play your first pro game?”
“I signed in June 1963, didn’t start playing until July, so there was only two months left in the baseball season. I spent two weeks in Brunswick, Georgia, most of it in rain. Then I went to double A and finished out my last month and a half of my first year there. The next year I started with the triple-A club [Jacksonville Suns], batting cleanup for Harry ‘The Hat’ Walker.”
Harry “The Hat” Walker, another baseball lifer, broke in with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1940, played 11 seasons in the Bigs with stops at St. Louis, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and the Chicago Cubs. He won the National League batting title in 1947. Walker managed for all or parts of nine seasons between 1955 and 1972, captained St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Houston. He returned to St. Louis in 1972 and held, at one time or another, the position of scout, hitting coach, and director of minor league operations. Left St. Louis in 1978 and became the first head coach of the University of Alabama–Birmingham baseball program, coached there for eight years. Walker died in 1999 at the age of 82. Harry’s nickname, “The Hat,” came from his habit of constantly adjusting his baseball cap between pitches.
I shake my head. This guy took one year to go from civilian to Major League Baseball. “Hell of a ride. Most guys who make it to the major leagues don’t make it that quickly.”
“No, very, very few position players get up that quick. I got up really, really quick. As a matter of fact, in ’64, in the second half, I was brought up to the major leagues and played in my first World Series.”
Make that one year from civilian to the World Series. “You must have thought, ‘Oh, this is what it’s like to be in the major leagues.’ You make it to the major leagues in a blink, you’re there two months, then your team goes to the World Series and wins.”
“When you’re young, you don’t realize what it takes to get there. When things happen, you feel, ‘Oh, yeah, they should have happened.’ When you look back at it,” Spiezio chuckles, “you don’t realize how many players, superstars, and Hall of Famers who have never been in a World Series.”
“Did they give you a ring?”
“Yes. I’m wearing it right now.” Quiet. “I had it compared to my son’s last night. He’s got one too, but his is two and one half times bigger than mine.” Another laugh.
Of course, his son had to be in the World Series and had to be on the winning team. “Which team was your son on?”
“With the Angels in 2002. He hit the biggest home run in Angels history.”
“You must have been proud.”
“Yeah, that was one of the best moments in sports for me. Absolutely. No question.”
Third baseman Scott Edward Spiezio, 31, is beginning his ninth major league season with his third team, the Seattle Mariners, after signing a three-year, $9 million contract during the off-season.
I glance down at a page crowded with stats, say, “Let’s go back to the start of the 1965 season. You’re in St. Louis, you’ve got your World Series ring. You must have felt, ‘This is the way things are going to be.’ ”
“Right. You thought that. Then I got hurt in ’65, sent back to triple A. The next year I was hitting .300, .301, something like that, had 18 home runs, 79 RBIs by July, and St. Louis brought me back to the big leagues. We had a dynasty in St. Louis. There was no way I was going to oust Ken Boyer [six-time Gold Glove winner, seven All-Star games, 1964 National League Most Valuable Player]. We had the All-Star infield. It was incredible.”
“What did you play?”
“Third base, mostly. Rarely played when I was with St. Louis. We had one of the best teams in baseball, period.”
“Were you happy to be on the team?”
“Yeah, at the time. We were winning. I’m surrounded by Ken Boyer, later Bill White at first base, also Cepeda, Javier, Dick Groat, Brock, Gibson, Flood, names like that. You’re talking about superstars. Five of them in that five years went to the Hall of Fame.”
“You mentioned earlier that you played with Roger Maris. What was he like?”
“Everybody says he was a great family man, and he was. He was very quiet, spent most of the time by himself. I think the only reason why he played in St. Louis for two years was Gussie Busch. In order to get him back, Busch gave him the best contract ever, the Budweiser distributorship in Orlando, Florida. At the time, nobody thought that much of it. We knew it was kind of a big deal, but when you look back on it, you realize how big a deal it was.” Spiezio laughs. “It’s worth millions of dollars now.”
Gussie Busch gave the Gainesville, Florida, distributorship to Roger Maris as part of Maris’s 1968 contract, thus giving the lad a cut on every Anheuser-Busch beer, read Budweiser, sold in said distributorship’s geographic area. Maris died in 1985. Anheuser-Busch reclaimed the distributorship from the Maris family in 1997. The family sued, claiming that the company conspired and eventually stole the distributorship from them. The family lost in federal court, but won in state court. A Florida jury awarded them $139 million, reduced by the trial judge to $50 million.
I ask, “Did the players bitch about their salaries?”
“I’m sure that everybody thought they should be making more, because when you looked around, it was ridiculous. You’re one of the best players in the world, and you were kept down because of what was happening in baseball at the time. Curt Flood tried to correct all that. He went to court and got defeated, and then, I think, Messersmith actually won. From that point on things started to turn around gradually.”
Until the mid-’70s, Major League Baseball operated under the reserve system, that is, a player was the property of the team that first signed him until he was traded or released. Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith and Montreal pitcher Dave McNally refused to sign their 1975 contracts. So Los Angeles and Montreal unilaterally renewed their contracts for the same salary the pair received in 1974. The players filed a grievance, and December 23, 1975, Peter Seitz, an independent arbitrator, ruled in favor of the ballplayers. Baseball executives appealed and lost. In 1975, the last season before free agency took effect, the average player’s salary was $44,676. Four years later that figure had nearly tripled to $113,558.
“What do you think about salaries now?”
“They’ve probably gotten a little bit out of hand. But there’s so much more money in the game, with TV, parking, accessories, you name it. There are so many more ways money is being made today. The players deserve a big portion of that. There was always a thing where players were supposed to get 60 percent and the owners 40. But the pendulum always swings. The players were kept down for over 100 years. Finally, when it did turn, it turned and it kind of ran on until finally the owners started to do something about it. You can see, over the last two years, that owners are starting to control what’s happening to the average player. That could have happened all along, it’s just that the owners never really did anything about it, because some of them want the best racehorse, the best baseball player, the best boat, and when you have that type of climate, they’re going to bid players up. Then you’ve got the free agency and arbitration, hey, that’s when salaries started to get a little bit out of whack.” Quiet. “Players are not holding a gun to anybody’s head saying, ‘You must pay me.’ What if an owner came to you right now and said, ‘Hey, would you accept this $250 million contract?’ ”
“I always knew I was on the wrong side of everything. I remember sitting in the Beverly Hills Hotel. Jack Buck was there, in the swimming pool. He came out of the pool and sat down. Buck was the St. Louis baseball announcer. You gotta realize, I’m making six grand at the time, and I’m a major league baseball player. He flipped this envelope over and showed me his contract. It was a very simple contract, like two pages long. He said, ‘Before you start reading, I want to know, when you get done, if you’d sign it.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ I read it, and my jaw dropped. I looked up at him and said, ‘Is this for you?’ He says, ‘Yeah. Would you sign it?’ I said, ‘You want me to sign my name on it? I’ll sign it as long as I get the money.’ He was given a million-dollar contract, ten years. Hundred grand a year for ten years. I’ll never forget it.”
“What a burn.”
“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’m the major league player. I’m making six grand. All he’s got to do is talk about what went on on the field, and he’s going to make 20 times more than what I’m getting.”
“What kept you in the game?”
“The love of the game.”
“Just that simple. I remember Ken Boyer. Here’s the guy I got to beat out for a job, and I did everything in spring training to beat him out. I was hitting .515 in spring training. I had Sports Illustrated follow me around for an entire week, taking thousands of pictures of me. And the article came out and said, ‘Ed Spiezio, won’t you please pop up?’ In other words, ‘You’re too young. We want to send you down, want you to start making outs so we can get rid of you.’ ” Spiezio laughs. “I’ve got Ken Boyer sitting in front of me, and he is the most valuable player in the league. He got the MVP award. I remember him saying, ‘They don’t know it, but I’d play this game for nothing.’ ”
“What did you do during the off-season?”
“It’s different now, because the money is so big. Players have the time to work out in the wintertime. We never had that. We had to find a winter job.”
“That’s right.” I hadn’t thought of that.
“Oh, yeah,” Spiezio says, “There’s no way…”
“Of course.” Spiezio played when it was a game. “You had to get a real job in the off-season, one of those ugly ones that make you get up in the morning.”
“Like 7:00 in the morning, get home at 8:00 at night, just like everybody else. We had five months of real-world stuff.”
“Didn’t players go to the Mexican leagues or South American leagues in the winter?”
“Yeah, we had that too,” Spiezio says. “Some guys would go to winter league in Venezuela. I played some ball in Venezuela. I played some in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. But I also sold cars, sold insurance, you name it, I did it. And I had a college education. Jobs were hard to come by. I’d say, ‘I’m here for nine weeks, can I work for you?’ It wasn’t that easy.”
Amazing. “You stayed with the Cardinals five years, which is almost impossible. Nobody stays with a team five years, and they were prime years for the franchise. Then they traded you to the Padres, a team that hadn’t played a single game. What was that like? Banishment or, ‘Glad I’m still around’?”
“I enjoyed the idea of winning with the Cardinals, but I never got the opportunity to play, because our bench was a solid bench. That’s why we won, but they never had to use me. You had a manager like Schoendienst, and then there was Johnny Keane. They sent the same guys out there, the same nine guys, day after day after day after day after day after day. That’s the way it was done then.”
I study his stats for a moment, say, “You played 121 games for San Diego in 1969. The year before, in St. Louis, you played 29 games. Big jump.”
“It was great in San Diego, because I got to play. I’d been looking forward to that, but it was a little late, it was about five years late. I deserved the right to play when I came up. But when you sit for five years, you get nothing but rusty.”
“You batted .234 in 1969. And then in ’70, you played 110 games and batted .285. Nice bump there.”
“I was hitting .300 most of the year. I sat for a little while and went 0 for 10 and dropped below .300, got down to .285. But it was a pretty good year for me. I had a chance to play and did a pretty good job. Finally, I was able to do what I thought I could have done years before. But the opportunity was never there. You need that opportunity to play so you can learn. It doesn’t happen for everybody. Most players turn out like myself — you get there because you have some talent, but you never get that opportunity to hone that talent.”
“That’s the bottom line, playing every day?”
“Oh, you have to, because your career is so short. You can’t sit and learn, there’s no way. You’ve got to play.”
Time to wrap up. “Five years with St. Louis, three and a half years with the Padres and, lastly, one-half season with the Chicago White Sox. How did you get to Chicago?”
“It was pretty nice for me, because I was coming back home. Don Zimmer was managing San Diego at the time. I hadn’t played in quite a while, so I was a little rusty. I get this call, Zimmer said, ‘You’re going to Chicago,’ and I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is unbelievable,’ because I’m just about to open a furniture store in Morris, Illinois, which is only 60 miles from Chicago.”
Spiezio still runs his furniture store, Spiezio’s Furniture, in Morris, Illinois.
As it turned out, the Padres had the 57th pick on that 14th day in October 1968, the day baseball expanded from 20 to 24 teams. The player San Diego acquired with that pick was Steve Arlin, a right-handed pitcher.
Three years earlier, Arlin, pitching for Ohio State in the College World Series, threw for 15 innings, struck out 20 batters, and beat Washington State, 1–0. His team lost the title game but returned the next year and won the cup. Arlin was named Most Valuable Player.
Arlin has the unfortunate distinction of twice leading the National League in losses (1971 with 19 losses and 1972 with 21 losses). On the other hand, on April 29, 1972, he came within one out of pitching a no-hitter. He was pitching for San Diego, at home, against Philadelphia. Top of the ninth, San Diego is ahead 4–0, two outs, Arlin is working a one-ball, two-strikes count on Denny Doyle. Padres manager Don Zimmer orders, as Arlin says, “our third baseman in about ten feet on the grass. Sure enough, Doyle hits a high chopper over the third baseman’s head. Our shortstop came over and got the ball but had no throw. I just can’t imagine why Zim did that.”
That’s as close as it’s gotten. Ever. No pitcher while in Padres uniform has thrown a no-hitter.
Arlin spent 1969, ’70, ’71, ’72, ’73, and part of the 1974 season with the Padres. Currently lives in San Diego.
“What have you been up to?”
Arlin says, “Not too much. I stopped working a couple months ago, so I’m trying to find something else to do.”
“What was your work?”
“I was a root-canal specialist.”
This is a first. “You practiced dentistry while an active player?”
“How did that go?”
“Not too well. It was tough. I was trying to push the envelope there. It wasn’t a good thing to be doing, so I split it up with the season.”
Ah, yes, back in the days when major league ballplayers needed a job to get by. “You came into professional baseball on a high tide, MVP of the College World Series.”
“Yeah. I got to Bakersfield, which was in the California League, right out of college. That was a great league that year, players like Sal Bando and Rollie Fingers, who became big names later on. A very good hitter’s league. They had a traveling pitching coach, Al Widmar, from the Phillies. He got me to the side, and I thought, ‘Wow, the pitching coach is taking a look at me.’ He said, ‘I want you to throw harder.’ Well, I already threw 90 miles per hour, something like that, and had the great curveball — that’s why I got all the strikeouts in college. But Widmar changed my whole motion around. The entire thing. Turned my back more to the plate, had me finish differently so I fell off the mound at the end of the windup. Consequently, I lost that real good curveball, so I did my whole major league experience without the pitch that got me there.”
Al Widmar pitched from 1947 to 1952 for the Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Browns, and Chicago White Sox. Finished with 13 wins against 30 losses and an earned run average of 5.21. “What else do you remember from Bakersfield days?”
“It was an eye-opener. You had 35-year-old guys on their way out and 17-year-old kids on their way in. Clashes invariably occurred. Thirty-five-year-olds are trying to hold on. Seventeen-year-olds are trying to learn their way in. All of a sudden you’re thrown into a world of chewing tobacco and drinking and going out and having six beers after the game, and you’re not taking care of yourself. The 35-year-old guys don’t carry you. They know they’re not going anywhere. They’re just getting their last paycheck. It was something else.”
“I assume you like San Diego, since you’re still living here. How did you like it when you were a player?”
“It was great.”
“How did you like the team?”
“The team, being an expansion club…there was a lot of tribulations with that. Management didn’t have a lot of money to spend, so not only did the team suffer, but San Diego fans suffered. There wasn’t much of a public relations department.” Quiet. “Here is a story I’ve never forgotten. Clay Kirby, Nate Colbert, and myself went out to a new shopping center. I think it was in the South Bay somewhere. We did autographs for three or four hours. It was customary to give a money gift or some other kind of a gift to any player who did that sort of thing. And the club did that, all right. They gave us wrapped boxes, and when we got home we opened them up. I got a butane lighter. There was a pink poodle with rhinestone eyes on the thing.” Arlin laughs. “I still have that as an icon of the times.
“I was upset staying in San Diego. They weren’t doing anything to improve the team. They would bring a minor league kid up and extol him as the next Maury Wills or the next Johnny Bench. I mean, the kid hit .280 in the minor leagues. And here they bring him up and let him take a number. I remember they let this one kid, Darrel Thomas, take a number right off a guy’s back, a guy who had been a pitcher in the major leagues for two years already. And they let him take his number. The kid had never played a day in the major leagues. I’m thinking, ‘What are these people doing?’ ”
Still struggling with the image of a dentist as a right-handed pitcher. “Were other players jealous of your education?”
“I ran into a bunch of problems with that. I had a catcher come up to me after a game and say, ‘Steve, you know, these guys don’t respect you as a player. They respect your intelligence, but they don’t respect you as a player. You’ve got to go out with them more often.’
“I mean,” Arlin laughs softly, “how do you go out with a 19-year-old kid from Venezuela who hardly speaks English? He didn’t want to go out with me anymore than I wanted to go out with him. And here is this catcher spouting off. Made no sense at all to me.
“Everybody finds their own clique. There weren’t a lot of people with college educations in baseball then. Consequently, I found myself playing down to get into those cliques. There was a certain amount of fun and experience to do that, but at the same time, it took a toll.”
“Did you see the end coming? Say, in ’73 or ’74, did you think…”
“I injured my arm late in ’72. I never, never had an arm injury before, and the Padres handled it wrong. I should have been able to take a month off. My whole rotator cuff was torn. I didn’t know it. I remember warming up to start a game in Candlestick Park and I literally could not get the ball to the plate. Roger Craig was the pitching coach. I stopped him and said, ‘Roger, I can’t get the ball to the plate. My shoulder is killing me.’
“He said, ‘Okay, I’ll talk to the coach.’ After a while Roger came back and said, ‘We’re going to let you skip a start.’ ” Arlin laughs. “They let me skip five days with a torn rotator cuff. That was the kind of stuff we had to cope with.”
Baseball was still an owner’s game in 1972. In fact, there had never been a players’ strike until that year. I clear my throat and say, “I’m looking at your career stats. I see you’ve won 34 games and lost 67, about a two-to-one ratio of losses against wins. Is that how tough it is to pitch?”
“That’s how tough it is when you pitch for the Padres.”
I laugh. “So if you were pitching on a good team, your stats could have gone the other way?”
“Well, let’s look at our pitching staff in ’71 and ’72. We were third in the major leagues in earned run average. My earned run average was 3.48 and 3.60, and I lost 19 and 20 games. I lost 10 games in a row one year. Ten games in a row, and we never got more than three runs in any of those games.”
“Must have… driven…you.…wandering-in-the-middle-of-the-street crazy. Did you feel cursed?”
“No, because I enjoyed being there. It was the major leagues. I’m rubbing elbows with Joe Torre, Henry Aaron, getting Johnny Bench out, watching Pete Rose hit one up the middle, things like that. I mean, that was big stuff. I think I’m still second in the Padres pitchers list in the number of shutouts pitched. And that covers over 30 years. And Randy [Randy Jones, Padres pitcher 1973 through 1980 seasons] pitched three times more innings than I did.”
“Do you ever think about how it might have been?”
“Well, what can you do? I went in to Buzzie Bavasi and demanded a trade.” Emil “Buzzie” Bavasi was general manager for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers from 1951 to 1968, president of the San Diego Padres from 1969 to 1977, and general manager for the California Angels from 1978 to 1984. “I tell you, Bavasi is the biggest fool in the world. He’s a terror for players to try and deal with. Biggest ego trip you’ve ever met in your life. You’d sit and talk to him, and he’d want to talk about me, me, me, me.”
Joe Niekro’s first pitch as a Pod was thrown on April 25, 1969. Pete Rose and the Cincinnati Reds were in town. As was often the case in that 52-win, 110-loss year, San Diego fell behind early and stayed behind. The score was 4–0 in favor of Cincinnati when Padres manager Preston Gomez brought in Niekro to start the top of the eighth inning. It was ground out, pop out, ground out. In the top of the ninth inning, it was ground out, ground out, ground out. Six batters up, six batters out, Padres lose 4 to 1, which is how things went for Niekro that year.
Joseph Franklin Niekro was born November 7, 1944, in Martins Ferry, Ohio. He played for an astounding 22 seasons on seven different teams. He spent the 1969 season, save two and a half weeks, with the Padres. Currently lives in Plant City, Florida.
“How did you like playing for the Padres?”
“Well, it was an expansion team. First-year expansion team. It was a good experience. I love San Diego, I love the city. The biggest thing I remember about that year was the Dodgers series. They were in play-off contention. They played us the last four games of the year, in San Diego. They were talking about how they had the benefit of the schedule because they were playing San Diego the last four games of the year. I think we swept them, knocked them out of the play-offs.”
San Diego played San Francisco at San Francisco for the last three games of 1969 and won two games out of three. A month earlier, the Pods did run the table on the Dodgers, in L.A., winning all four games.
“I see your 1969 ERA was 3.70, but you won 8 games and lost 17. Was that because San Diego was so bad nobody could get a hit?”
“I pitched good that year. When you go to an expansion team, you never know what’s going to happen. I had a good year pitchingwise, but not a good year winwise. I didn’t win a lot of games — we didn’t have a very good ball club — but I pitched very, very well.”
“And everybody in baseball would know that, would take playing for an expansion team into account when they looked at your record?”
“Well, a lot of people look at wins,” Niekro says. “A lot of people look at ERAs. I guess it depends on who you are. If you’re a general manager, and you see a pitcher who’s got 20 wins and a high ERA, you’ll say, ‘He’s high.’ And if the guy has 15 wins with a low ERA, you’ll say, ‘He didn’t win enough games.’ So I don’t know.”
I ask about the Awakening. Or to put it another way, when Niekro knew he would become a major league baseball player.
“It was something I always wanted to do. Phil went to the major leagues before me [Joe’s brother, Phil Niekro, was a right-handed pitcher who played on five teams from 1964 to 1987, winning 318 games and losing 274. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997]. Our dad worked with us a lot. It’s something you dream about. You never know if you’re going to be good or not. The thing you want to do is get the chance to play professional baseball. I got that chance. I was very fortunate that I got to play 21 years [and two games into his 22nd year] in the big leagues.”
“That’s inhuman, playing so long, particularly as a pitcher.”
“Yeah. Same with Phil. I think Phil played 24, 25 years. It’s not whether you think you’ll be good or not, but if you get that chance and then take advantage of that chance.”
“How did it end?”
“Well, you never want to finish on their court with the club releasing you. You want to finish, ‘Okay, this is my last year, I want to retire.’ I think, in ’88, when I was with the Twins, I was going to make that my last year. I was 43 or 44. I wanted to finish the year out and finish with me retiring, not getting released. But other people had different ideas. I think I got released at the end of May in ’88. That’s the way it goes. If you play that long in the big leagues, if you’ve had a good career, then it’s not important about getting released when you don’t want to get released.”
Kindly note that Joe and his brother played before the steroid plague hit. I say, “There are so few who play 21-plus years in the majors. It’s an experience only a handful of human beings have. What was it like in your 15th or 16th year? How was that different than, say, your 5th or 6th year?”
“I was a much better pitcher in my 15th and 16th years,” Niekro says. “My first few years in the big leagues were with Chicago and San Diego. When I got traded to Detroit, I was a fifth starter. When I got traded to Houston, that’s where my career really rocketed. I was winning 15, 16, 17 games a year. A couple years I won 20 and 21 games. That’s when you are an established player.”
“Does longevity give you an edge against batters? Do batters tend to think, ‘This guy has been around forever, he must be good’?”
“I don’t know. It also depends on what you throw. I was a knuckleball pitcher. You have guys now in the big leagues who have been around a while. Clemens and Wakefield. I like watching Wakefield pitch because he’s a knuckleball pitcher, and I love to watch knuckleball pitchers. That pitch was an advantage to me when I was 41, 42, 43 years old, because it’s not an overpowering pitch. You don’t have to throw it too hard.
“I didn’t know what the ball was going to do, the hitter didn’t know what it’s going to do, or the umpire, or the catcher. You can pitch into your 40s with a knuckleball. It’s a lot different than pitching the way Clemens, who is 41 or 42 years old, is pitching right now. His fastball is going to come down a little bit, but your knuckleball is going to stay up there. It’s going to do all different kinds of things, and you don’t have to throw it that hard, so there’s not that much wear and tear on your arm.”
“You were playing before steroids became a part of the game.”
Niekro laughs. “Look at the run production of hitters 15 years ago and compare that to now. It’s amazing, I mean it’s totally amazing. And if you look at the bodies of hitters 15 years ago and compare them to hitters now, that’s totally amazing too. I’m not saying anybody is using them, I wouldn’t dare do that. Maybe the guys are bigger and stronger than we were. Or maybe the ball is juiced, maybe the pitching is bad. I don’t know.”
Maybe the earth is flat. “It’s odd.”
“It is odd, you’re right.”
“Has that happened with pitching? The impossible jump in batting statistics is easy to see. If a guy has 16 years of averaging 29 home runs a year and then goes out and hits 73 home runs in one season, a normal fan would become suspicious. But how can you tell if a pitcher is on steroids?”
“To me, pitching is mobility. You have arm strength, a good delivery, good windup, good mechanics. You don’t see many pitchers who are really big, musclewise. A perfect example is Nolan Ryan. Here is a guy who was 6'1", 210, something like that. He has a good physique, but what counted was his God-given ability to throw a ball 97 miles an hour. And he had a great curveball. The same thing with other guys in the big leagues. Look at Kerry Wood and Mark Prior [both with the Chicago Cubs]. They’re not big, strong guys, but they have the God-given ability to throw the ball hard.”
On Opening Day 1969, Don Zimmer was managing the Key West Padres, a San Diego Padres–affiliated Rookie League team playing in the Florida State League. His salary was $7500.
Donald William “Popeye” Zimmer is the quintessential baseball lifer. His first professional baseball game was with the Cambridge (Maryland) Dodgers, an Eastern Shore League Class D team affiliated with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The year was 1949. Zimmer made the major leagues in 1954 and grinded out 12 seasons with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, New York Mets, and Washington Senators.
Following his playing career, Popeye coached and managed minor league teams. He took his first major league manager’s job with the San Diego Padres in 1972. In all, he managed in the big leagues for 13 seasons, finishing with an 885–858 record. He was hired as bench coach for the Yankees in 1996, quit in the fall of 2003, and, in January 2004, became senior baseball adviser for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Currently lives in Treasure Island, Florida.
Zimmer became known to a new generation of baseball fans during Game 3 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez beaned the Yankees outfielder, Karim Garcia, which led to both teams running onto the field. Zimmer charged the mound, lunged forward at Martinez, who moved to one side and pushed him to the ground. Popeye left the game by ambulance and commented later, “I feel good enough for a hot dinner.”
“You managed the Padres for a couple of years, ’72 and ’73. Do you remember much about it?”
“A little less than two years.”
Okay, less than two years it is. “What do you remember?”
“Well, it was an expansion club, and you know, it’s not a lot of fun when you lose 100 games a year. That’s the tough part.”
“Didn’t you know that going in?”
“I wasn’t the manager going in.”
“You managed the last 142 games out of a 162-game season for the 1972 Padres. Didn’t you have a pretty good idea going in how bad it was going to be?”
“I knew it was tough. I managed a San Diego farm team, and that was tough for the two years I managed there. And then I went to San Diego as a coach, before I became the manager, so I knew what a tough job it was. It was my first big-league managing job, and I probably mishandled some situations, because you want to win. And when you’re competitive, you might raise hell with somebody that maybe you shouldn’t have. I did know when I left San Diego, if I ever got another big-league job, I would handle some situations differently.”
He had a pretty good idea. “Any particular incident come to mind?”
“No, no, no, except I had to realize that as long as the guys were playing as hard as they could play, then why worry about something you had no control over? I would have control over something if they weren’t playing as hard as they could play. I don’t care whether they were hitting .220 or .320. The thing that I realized was that those guys were busting their rear ends trying to do the best they could.
“So I backed off. I realized I’m raising hell. You can’t make a guy a better hitter by screaming at him. I mean, there’s .220 hitters, there’s .250 hitters, there’s .300 hitters. I think by the time I left, I knew I’d probably mishandled some situations, and like I said, if I get another chance, I’ll handle them a little differently.”
I wonder how many times he’s said that. “Forgetting your San Diego experience for a moment, generally speaking, do you manage a bad team any differently than a good team?”
“Well, sure, if you have a really bad team, you’re usually getting beat by five or six runs.”
“Yeah, but is there anything that you do…?”
“What do you mean, you don’t do nothing if you get beat by five runs.”
I start to laugh. It’s annoying to interview someone who gives you no information, but giving no information is harder to pull off than it looks, and I do admire excellence, no matter what its form. “Okay, you have your first big-league manager’s job. You’re fired the next year. But having been a major league manager once, odds are you’ll get another baseball job and another one and another one and another one, no matter how many times you get fired. Is the toughest part getting that first job?”
“I would say the first one is getting your first chance.” Zimmer makes a heartless chuckle. “Then from there on, maybe somebody wants you and maybe somebody doesn’t.”
“How is working your way up from minor leagues to the major leagues as a manager different from working your way up from single A to major leagues as a player?”
“Well, when you’re in the minor leagues as a player, they’ll tell you in a hurry if you have a chance to get to the big leagues. It won’t take too long for them to spot it. But nobody’s perfect. You might think a guy who’s played two years in the minor leagues can’t play. Two years later he might be an All-Star in the majors. Nobody’s perfect in this game. You make mistakes. The guys who survive are the guys who make the least mistakes.”
I wonder how many times he’s said that. “At least, as a ballplayer you can say, ‘Well, I hit .280; that’s my stat. I hit 40 home runs; they’re mine.’ But as a manager, how would an outside observer tell if you were any good?”
“Other people decide that.”
“Based on what?”
“Well, the best example I can give you, one of the best managers and baseball people I’ve ever been around was Gene Mauch.” Mauch was born November 18, 1925, played shortstop, second base for nine seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, Boston Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, and Boston Red Sox. Last game was September 28, 1957. Career batting average of .239; never played more than 72 games in one season. Took his first big-league managing job in 1960, managed all or part of 27 seasons for Philadelphia, Montreal, Minnesota, and the California Angels, finishing with a 1902-win, 2037-loss record. Never made it to the World Series.
Zimmer continues, “People say to me, when I make that statement, ‘What the hell has he ever won?’ Well, you don’t manage all those years in the big leagues by being a dummy. He must have been doing something right. Which means you don’t have to win championships to be a good manager. A manager can’t hit and he can’t pitch. You have to have a little baseball sense to be able to say, ‘This guy is a bad manager, a good manager, or a middle-of-the-road guy.’ What that is, is somebody’s opinion.”
Time to wrap it up. “How has baseball changed since you signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949?”
“Guaranteed contracts,” Zimmer says. “A guy gets a three-year guaranteed contract. If you’re the manager and this guy is giving you a hard time, what are you going to do with him? If you don’t trade him, he’s gonna be there three years. He’s got a contract.”
“What do you do with him?”
Zimmer laughs. “There ain’t a lot you can do. You hope you don’t have a problem. Used to be, years ago, you had to bust your rear end and play as hard as you can play throughout the year in order to get a contract for next year. That part of the game has changed. I don’t mean they don’t play hard, but if a guy doesn’t want to play hard, it’s, ‘I’m sitting here with a three-year contract. I don’t have to bust my rear end.’ ”
“I was talking to…”
“By the way, let me ask you a question. How did you get my number?”
“Internet. Four clicks.”
“I got an unlisted number and it means nothing, huh?
“No, no, it doesn’t mean anything.” Silence. I ask, “What were the one or two or three most enjoyable jobs you’ve had in 55 years of professional baseball?”
“Well, managing the Cubs to an Eastern Division Championship was one of the most gratifying jobs I had, because we won. There is nothing like winning. [Zimmer managed the Chicago Cubs in 1988, ’89, ’90, and part of ’91.] I had a good club in Boston [1976, ’77, ’78, ’79, and ’80]. We won a ton of games, but we never won a championship. But in Boston, everybody in the world knew we had a good team and would wind up either first or second. If we won, it wouldn’t be that big a deal, because you’re supposed to win. With the Cubs, in 1989, I was the manager, and every sportswriter, every broadcaster picked the Cubs to finish last. And if I’d been a sportswriter, I’d have picked them last too. I think we won about 7 games and lost 20-some games in spring training, and it wasn’t very pretty coming out of Arizona.
“And all of a sudden, the same guys, after 35 games, were 17 and 18, and I was tickled to death. And before we knew it, it was All-Star break, and we were within three games of first place. To win the Eastern Division Championship in ’89 with that particular team was a tremendous thing for me, the city of Chicago, and the guys who played on that team.”
“A bit of magic?”
“That’s right. You hit it about on the head. A manager can call for a hit and run, he can call for bunts and double steals and this and that, and it’s like anything, you get in good streaks for maybe two weeks and all of a sudden everything goes sour, so you back off. We had a year, everything we called for, the players executed…unbelievable what those guys did on that club.”
Well, what the hell, why not ask a question with a little meat on it. “What about the use of steroids in baseball?”
“I don’t discuss that, pal.”