He has a classic style with a solid set, an economy of motion and a picture-perfect follow-through that ends in a dramatic tuck. Yes, Joe Sambito's hair is something to behold.
As for his pitching delivery, well, it's every bit as smooth as his do. And, according to the envelope opened in the previous pages, it made him the best relief pitcher in the National League last year. Joe Sambito of the Houston Astros would like to thank his mother and father, his coaches and managers, the gang back in Hicksville, N.Y., Bob Cluck, Roger Freed, his wife, Denise, his two children and all the other little people who made it possible.
Sambito was surprised when he was told that, according to SI's rating system, he's the reigning reliever in the league, but then he's surprised he's even in the major leagues. Whereas most big leaguers shed their humility along the way, Sambito is still pinching himself. "I exceeded my expectations long ago," he says. "Who would have thought I'd be starting my seventh year. My gosh, I'm an established veteran."
He was a very good pitcher at Bethpage High School on Long Island, but he was ignored by the New York Mets after a tryout at Shea Stadium in 1970. He was a very good pitcher at that perennial baseball power, Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., but he wasn't drafted until the 17th round in 1973 by the Astros. "There were 19 players drafted by the Astros that year," he points out, "and Nos. 18 and 19 didn't sign." He was a very good pitcher in the minors, but he lacked a major league fastball. He was made a relief pitcher in 1977 simply because the Astros had nobody else from the left side.
Five years later, Sambito is in an exhibit on active players in the Hall of Fame, albeit the Italian-American hall outside of Chicago. This "established veteran" has 68 saves, a lifetime ERA of 2.50 and an average of more than seven strikeouts and fewer than three walks per nine innings. He would have even more saves, but Houston has excellent starters and two other fine relievers, Dave Smith and Frank LaCorte, who finished sixth and 25th, respectively, in the SI rankings. Sambito also has a head of hair that causes him no end of ribbing from his teammates.
His secrets of success include not one, but two major league fastballs, a nasty slider and not one, but "two or three" hair dryers. He holds one fastball so that the ball sails in on righthanded hitters. The other fastball sinks. He employs a conventional grip on both the slider and the hair blower.
Good pitches do not a good pitcher make, however. Houston Coach Mel Wright maintains that what distinguishes Sambito is his conditioning. "I can't ever recall his having a pulled muscle or sore arm," says Wright, rapping a bench with his knuckles. "He's got a loose, athletic body." Smith marvels at Sambito's control. "If he's six inches off, he's wild." Manager Bill Virdon likes Sambito's concentration, and so does Sambito. "They tell me my eyes glaze over," says the normally dewy-eyed reliever.
Twenty years ago, Jennie Sambito always knew where to find Joey. "He'd be throwing a tennis ball against the wall of the elementary school behind our house," she says. "I'd just go out the back door and call him to dinner."
His father, Anthony, who worked in the garment trade, was an overriding influence on Joey. "He never pushed me, only encouraged me," Joey says. His father also used to be a barber in the Navy and kept his children in crew cuts. Sambito's been making up for it ever since.
Pat Calabria, a sportswriter for Newsday, played with Joey on the Bethpage High baseball team. "He was just a kid from the neighborhood," Calabria says. "He was a very good pitcher, but not a real eye-opener. He didn't blow anybody away. His father looked very big and tough, but he was very low-key. He'd sit in the stands and not say a word."