Joey's high school coach, Harry Settino, recalls the 1969 season. "That was the year of the Miracle Mets. We had a righthanded pitcher named Bob Mailer. He was Tom Seaver and Joey was Jerry Koosman. People would go around school asking if Seaver or Koosman were pitching today. We even got a write-up in Newsday about that."
Settino took Joey to Shea Stadium for a tryout during the 1970 season, but the Mets were unimpressed, so Joey enrolled at Adelphi and studied physical therapy. In his junior year he was 7-1 with an ERA of 1.27 and struck out 65 batters in 64 innings. "The scouts were coming around, so I figured I'd go in the first four rounds," Sambito says. "On draft day I stayed home from the Long Island Lighting Company, where I was working, waiting for the phone call. It didn't come until 5:30, and it was Earl Rapp, then an Astro scout. I said, 'When did you ever see me?' He said, 'Once.' Guys who had been watching me for six years didn't call. Later I found out they all thought I had a sore arm. The funny thing was they were right."
Rapp wanted to see Sambito throw before he signed him, but Sambito tried to put him off. "My arm was killing me," he says, "but there was no way around it. I must have impressed him some, though, because he offered me a contract." Sambito and his father agreed the opportunity shouldn't be passed up. Sambito signed for all of $2,500 with bonuses for staying 90 days in Double A, Triple A and the majors.
There was a shortage of arms on the Astros' Double A farm team in Columbus, Ga., and Sambito was flown to Knoxville to join the Columbus club. In his first start, he gave up four runs in two innings and left the game with what, he says, felt like a knife in his arm. "It came around within a week. Turns out I was throwing the slider all wrong."
Shortly thereafter Sambito was sent to Covington, Va. in the rookie league, and in his first start he threw a one hitter. "I cleared $192 every two weeks and couldn't believe anybody was actually paying me to play baseball," he says.
Sambito had a moderately successful year at Class A Cedar Rapids in 1974 thanks to Player-Coach Bob Cluck. "He really helped me," says Sambito. "To say he was dedicated is an understatement. He had his own video camera so we could see ourselves pitching, and he was always trying to improve us. We were more than a number to him."
In 1975 Sambito was invited to spring training as a non-roster player. His father was at home, dying of cancer, and Joe remembers walking into the bedroom and whispering in his father's ear, "Dad, I'm leaving now. I'm on my way to the big leagues." After driving for two days, he arrived at the Astros' camp in Cocoa Beach, Fla., and that night his father died. That may sound too Hollywood to be true, but there's a lot about Sambito that's too good to be true.
Sambito was sent to Columbus and finished 12-9, leading the league in innings pitched and strikeouts.
In 1976 he was called up to the Astros in midseason. "To this day, one of my biggest thrills was dressing in the same locker room with Ken Boswell," he says. " Ken Boswell. Anybody who played on the '69 Mets was like a god to me, and here he was, a teammate."
This was the era of the Astros' so-called Arm Farm: Dan Larson, Bo McLaughlin, Mark Lemongello, Floyd Bannister and Sambito. Sambito was the least ballyhooed of the group. Houston Chronicle columnist George White recalls that Catcher Skip Jutze came up to him after Sambito had been shelled in his major league debut. Says White, "Jutze pointed out Sambito in the corner and asked me to go over and talk to him just to make him feel wanted. He said he didn't think the kid would be around very long." Sambito did pitch a four-hit shutout against the Cardinals that season, and he says, "As long as I have that, I don't care if I never start again."