In most clubhouses, kangaroo courts are not designed with constitutional guarantees in mind. Thus the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League were not about to let a scofflaw like Rick Reuschel get away scot-free. "It was impossible to nail him during the season," says Islanders pitching coach Chuck Hartenstein. "But he'll be getting a bill for five bucks anytime now. It's a rule that anybody who doesn't stay with our club all season has to pay."
Don't bet that Reuschel, or the Pittsburgh Pirates, will dispute the fine. Three years after rotator-cuff surgery, two years after a stint in Class A and one year after being told he was not wanted by anyone in baseball, the 36-year-old war-horse is 7-2 with a 2.40 ERA in 10 starts and two relief appearances. In a city whose denizens consider it their civic duty to avoid Three Rivers Stadium, the former Cubs and Yankees pitcher has proved a rare—and surprising—source of excitement. When his agent, Jim Bronner of Chicago, called the Pirates last winter on behalf of his free-agent client, their least pressing need was new arms; the team had the best ERA in baseball last season. But Pete Peterson, the club's executive vice-president until he was fired on May 23, thought he would do an honorable veteran a favor.
"He's welcome at our training camp if nobody else wants him," Peterson said.
Nobody did. Aging pitchers who haven't thrown regularly since shoulder surgery in 1982 are not hot commodities.
"I was offering to go to camp for nothing," says Reuschel. "They either said that they were going with younger pitchers, or that they thought I was over the hill."
But age can be beside the point in a sport of Niekros, and Reuschel is emerging again as a king of the hill. "He looks like the same Rick Reuschel I used to face four, five years ago," says the Phillies' Mike Schmidt, who went 1 for 4 with an RBI in Reuschel's first loss, a 3-2 decision on June 16. "I've probably faced him more than any player in baseball, so I can tell. He still keeps the ball down, still throws strikes. He's a gamer. I can't believe so many teams refused to even look at him."
When the Yankees released him on June 9, 1983, Reuschel wasn't ready to give up. He took to the woods, not to engage in transcendental meditation or unscramble Zen paradoxes but to play catch. "My hand was always sore," said Bronner, who split catching chores with his partner, Bob Gilhooley. Whichever agent wasn't catching the client would call around the league, and on June 27 Reuschel signed a contract with Quad Cities of the Class A Midwest League. A winner of 133 major league games, Reuschel was back where he started with pimply-faced kids on crowded buses traveling to towns like Beloit, Wausau and Peoria.
"Degrading?" says Reuschel. "No, not at all. Down there, all they had to do was play baseball. They're not worrying about how much teammates are making or how to keep Uncle Sam from getting his share. It was simple, and very innocent."
"I remember [Cubs president and general manager] Dallas Green coming down to watch him pitch," says Bronner, "and he said to me, 'Rick really isn't throwing all that hard. And he's giving up a hit an inning.' So I said, 'If you look at his best seasons, he's always given up about a hit an inning.' I told Rick what Dallas had said, and he went out and struck out about a dozen guys." The Cubs were convinced. On Sept. 2, 1983, Reuschel was back home in Chicago.
After finishing 1983 with a 1-1 record and a 3.92 ERA, Reuschel began the 1984 season on the disabled list and then went 5-5 with a 5.17 ERA. The Cubs were unconvinced. "In August they gave me the choice of going on the disabled list or being released," says Reuschel. When he came off the DL on Sept. 7, the Cubs didn't put him on their postseason roster. "It hurt," he said.