Bottom of the fifth, nobody out. From the corner of my eye, I checked the runner on third, Steve Garvey, then stared in to get the catcher's sign. Fastball.
I took a deep breath, and slowly started my windup. I knew right then, before I even let go of the ball, that if I could make the pitch I wanted, it would be my last one as a pro ballplayer.
It was September 1970. Nixon was sending B-52s into Cambodia, the Yankees were just a twinkle in George Steinbrenner's eye, and I was pitching for the Tacoma Cubs, the Chicago Cubs' farm team in the Pacific Coast League. We were playing the Spokane Indians, the Dodgers' talented farm club. They were 46� games ahead of us, and this was the last game of the season—not exactly high drama.
I had been traded to the Cubs' organization from the Phillies during the off-season. It was my impression that I was the player-to-be-named-later in the Johnny Callison for Dick Selma and Oscar Gamble deal, because I learned of the trade when I called the Phillie office in January to inquire about my contract. Dallas Green, who was a second lieutenant on phone duty at the time, matter-of-factly informed me that I had been traded a month earlier. I was the player-to-be-told-later, too.
I reported to camp in Scottsdale, Ariz. with Chicago that spring, determined to pitch my way back to the big leagues (if you can call two innings of pitching for the '68 Phillies, in which I allowed one run and three hits to nine batters, giving me a 4.50 ERA, working in the bigs), but Cub Manager Leo Durocher never did learn my name, and I was given a ticket to Tacoma.
Undaunted, I resolved to get off to a flying start and make the Cubs take notice. And that's exactly what I did. By early June I was 6 and 1 and near the league lead in ERA and strikeouts. It hadn't even been that difficult, and my breakthrough looked inevitable. According to the clubhouse grapevine and a story in The Sporting News, I was going to be called up on June 15.
But on June 14 I pitched an unfortunate game against veteran lefthander Juan Pizarro of the Hawaii Islanders. In that game he hit two towering home runs, got four RBIs and beat me 6-4. Three weeks later the Cubs bought his contract, and I began to wave goodby to my big dream.
By the last week of the season my record had slipped to 12 and 14—not too bad for a team that won only 45 games out of 143—but my enthusiasm and my competitive spirit were gone. I was still throwing hard, but not hard enough to knock the handwriting off the wall. I knew it was time to quit playing baseball and find a real job; there was more to life than sliders on the corner and minor league groupies waiting outside the clubhouse. Besides, another year in the Coast League would just be prolonging the inevitable.
But now I had one last game to pitch, against division-leading Spokane. The game meant nothing in the standings; we'd been eliminated in early July. We were probably one of the worst teams in recent Coast League history, although Salt Lake City in the Southern Division finished with only 44 wins that same season. Our best hitter was Roger Metzger, who was batting .270.
On the other hand, Spokane had a powerhouse. With a lineup of Garvey, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes, Bill Buckner, Bobby Valentine, Tom Hutton and Tom Paciorek, the Indians outclassed the league. Their pitching staff included Geoff Zahn, Doyle Alexander and Charlie Hough. An old Dodger blue blood, Tom Lasorda, was the manager. I didn't think we had a chance to win.