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The Relief Is Not So Sweet
Jill Lieber
April 16, 1990
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April 16, 1990

The Relief Is Not So Sweet


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As a youngster, David Righetti spent many an evening at the kitchen table at home in San Jose, listening to his father, Leo, tell stories about the glorious days of the New York Yankees. Rare was the night when the boy would be the only member of the audience. "It was like our house had a revolving door," he says. "Lots of times my friends were there. Or Dad's softball buddies stopped in. When Dad would start talking about the old-timers, my mother and I would just roll our eyes: Here we go again."

In truth, young David could never get enough of the Yankees. Hungry for more, he would dig through the closet for his father's scrapbooks and pore over the tattered, yellowed newspaper clippings. There was much to be found in these archives: Yankee tradition runs deep in the Righetti family. David's paternal grandmother, Stella, now 92, grew up in San Francisco as a schoolmate and next-door neighbor of Tony Lazzeri, the great Yankee second baseman of the late 1920s and '30s. Leo, now 63, was one of the first of the Yankees' bonus babies. A righthanded pitcher and shortstop, he signed a $10,000 contract in 1944 at the age of 17. and dreamed of becoming the next Bay Area Italian to play in Yankee Stadium.

"Crosetti, DiMaggio and Silvera were my heroes," says Leo. "They were all from the Bay Area. Because my mother's friend Lazzeri played for the Yankees, I was going to, too. The Yankees were everything."

The dream was inherited by his son, and it has been fulfilled. Now 31, and entering his 10th season with the Yankees, Dave Righetti ranks among the most productive relief pitchers in the game. Since 1984, he has had six consecutive seasons with 25 or more saves. Over that time span only Jeff Reardon, now with Boston, has recorded more saves (203 to Righetti's 187), and only Craig Lefferts, now with San Diego, has pitched more innings in relief (594.2 to Righetti's 561).

In his first full season with the Yankees, 1981, the 22-year-old Righetti was a starter, hailed as a hard-throwing phenom with a rising fastball. He backed up the billing and was named the American League Rookie of the Year. Two summers later, in 1983, on a humid, 95° Fourth of July afternoon, Righetti threw the first no-hitter in Yankee Stadium since Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series and thereby endeared himself to owner George Steinbrenner,who was celebrating his 53rd birthday that day.

Before the next season the Yankees lost ace reliever Rich (Goose) Gossage to free agency, and Righetti was assigned to fill the void in the bullpen. For Righetti, the switch was a troubling prospect. Says his attorney and confidant Bill Goodstein, "David didn't want to become a reliever. He was worried he would fail and be out of baseball. He could probably have been a 20-game winner for five or six years and made twice as much money."

Instead, Righetti took the new job without complaint, and in 1986 he recorded 46 saves—still the major league record. But since he moved to the bullpen, and despite his success, not a season has passed without rampant speculation over Righetti's proper role—i.e., whether he should go back to being a starter. The Righetti dilemma, though, was only one element of the larger chaos in the Yankee clubhouse during the '80s. Through it, Righetti has endured like some pinstriped Rock of Gibraltar. He has quietly witnessed a parade of nine general managers, eight managers, nine pitching coaches, 83 pitchers and 17 catchers. In all, he has seen more than 210 different teammates, more turnover than any team in baseball over the past decade.

"People always ask me how I can keep so quiet," Righetti says. "Well, sooner or later, you cause yourself more problems by talking." On a team noted for boorish behavior, Righetti is the polite Yankee. He personally answers each and every piece of fan mail he gets, refuses to be paid for signing autographs at memorabilia shows and has rejected national endorsements for fear of appearing money-hungry to fans. Says Goodstein, "We've been offered everything from soft drinks to electronics. He won't do it." Whenever Steinbrenner has rewarded him with gifts to commemorate milestone seasons, Righetti has responded with thank-you notes (undoubtedly a rare item in the Boss's mailbox). Righetti was one of the few Yankees, past or present, who sent flowers to Billy Martin's funeral last December. The card read WE WILL MISS YOU.

"Righetti is an alltime, alltime Yankee great," says an appreciative Steinbrenner. "Not too many carry that tag. Few players have ever been more loyal to the Yankees. Give me a man with a great sense of loyalty, because he'll do anything to win."

It is probably true that Righetti's unyielding will to win has as much to do with his success as a reliever as does his rising fastball. Unfortunately, Righetti truly feels that the Yankees' fate rides on his success or failure; it's a weighty burden that has sent him into tantrums behind clubhouse doors, belying his stoic image. After tough losses, he has been known to flush his cleats down the toilet or destroy plastic garbage cans. After giving up a game-tying grand slam to Toronto's George Bell in 1986, a frustrated Righetti took a new ball from the umpire and hurled it more than 300 feet over the rightfield fence at Exhibition Stadium.

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