The Count, normally the merriest of men, was in a melancholy humor. He had endeavored to pitch for the Giants against the Cubs a few hours earlier, but he was so enfeebled by an overnight attack of influenza that he was able to survive only five lamentable innings, during which a succession of Chicago line drives sailed to the outfield fences unimpeded by the cyclonic currents of Candlestick Park. With typical bravado, The Count had promised to vanquish the Cubs without a run. At the time of his departure they had scored five.
The Count is not one to brood over defeat, but he was displeased with his recklessness. Why had he not pleaded illness and skipped this unfortunate turn on the mound? Now he sat in the kitchen of his sparsely furnished new house, hard by the Pacific Ocean, reflecting on his folly and fending off recurrent seizures of nausea. Happily, his pal Henry, a large and rumpled quasi-sheepdog, was there to distract him. The Count reached for a baseball on the table and tossed a slider into the living room for Henry to field. The Count could flip a coin and, as they say in baseball, it would "do something." When the dog returned with the ball clamped between his teeth, a visitor observed that it was autographed. Indeed, The Count explained, it was signed by none other than Johnny Bench, the Cincinnati slugger. Bench had been The Count's 200th strikeout victim last season, The Count said, and the famous catcher had obliged by autographing the offending ball. The guest was taken aback. Should such a valuable memento be entrusted to the keeping of a large and playfully destructive dog?
"The way I look at it," The Count replied, "I'll probably strike Bench out a million more times, so I can always get myself another ball." He laughed, his spirits rising, the tumult in his tummy subsiding. The Count had struck again.
John Montefusco, a pleasant, relatively uncomplicated, frizzy-haired, not entirely immodest 26-year-old from the New Jersey coastal hamlet of Keansburg, was playing his role again. The Count is his braggadocio public self, a sort of alter-egomaniac. Remove the title—the Count of Montefusco, as in the Count of Monte Cristo—and what remains is an extravagantly talented right-handed pitcher in only his second full season of major league baseball. But it is as The Count that he is the darling of the Bay Area, a veritable franchise-saver who, in the view of friend and foe alike, is the most refreshing personality to play baseball in a long time.
"He's brought new life to the game," says Charlie Hough, the Dodger pitcher. "The characters in baseball aren't like they used to be."
"I think he's got a good thing going for him with his talk," says Hough's teammate Don Sutton. "I commend him for it. It adds a little excitement to the game, � la Dizzy Dean. He's good for baseball. He's good for that city. San Francisco needed someone like him."
That is a sentiment with which The Count heartily concurs. "This city was made for me," he says. "It's a class place, and I've got class." San Francisco has long enshrined its eccentrics, and The Count is rapidly ascending to the pantheon, joining such sainted characters as Joshua Norton, the self-proclaimed "Emperor of the U.S. and Protector of Mexico," who roamed the city streets from 1860 to 1880 wearing a naval coat complete with epaulets; Mammy Pleasant, the ex-slave boardinghouse proprietor, practitioner of swampland voodoo and all-around mysterious figure from 1850 to 1880; Jimmy Rolph, San Francisco's mayor in the 1920s, who was known as Sunny Jim because of his I-love-everybody disposition; and Lefty O'Doul, the loquacious, natty man-about-town who was Joe DiMaggio's minor league manager on the San Francisco Seals. The Count's drawing power with a recuperating franchise is unquestioned. On the chilly Friday night of April 23, only 3,500 tickets had been sold in advance for a game against the Pirates. Then it was announced that Manager Bill Rigney had altered his pitching rotation so that The Count would start that evening. The game drew 15,621, a laudable turnout in a municipality whose public transportation system had been halted by a strike of city workers.
That The Count is also good for baseball seems equally beyond dispute. "All he has to do is win and he'll create as much excitement as Dizzy Dean did," says Carl Hubbell, the Hall of Famer who is now director of player development for the Giants. "He has the same kind of flair. He makes things happen—like Dean. I never saw Dizzy pitch a dull game. Baseball needs people like that."
To warrant comparison with OP Diz, The Count needs more than mere garrulity. And he has it. He won 15 games last year, struck out 215 in 244 innings and was named the league's Rookie of the Year. After his first 11 starts this season, he had a 6-3 record and a 2.22 ERA—with shutouts in his last two games—on a team 11 games below .500.
The Count won the first major league game he ever pitched, going the distance on Sept. 3, 1974 against the Dodgers after relieving starter Ron Bryant in the first inning with nobody out and the bases loaded. For good measure, he hit a home run in his first official big-league at bat. This noteworthy debut was a proper climax to a rise from the lower minors so swift that it astonished everyone—except The Count himself.