Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Day Rocky Colavito Pitched For the Yankees

Groping around on the Web for any nugget of MLB news on the day before Thanksgiving is like searching for water in the Mojave Desert. In other words, it's not exactly a big day for breaking news. Even agents celebrate Thanksgiving. Since baseball is a sport that (more than any other) lends itself to nostalgia as baseball has bridged generations, this writer has taken a step back from the non-news, rumor-hungry world of the off season to share a memory.

The memory is of a twelve year old boy who was spending a summer Sunday at a man-made lake in Montvale, New Jersey. This twelve year old never went anywhere without a transistor radio, especially during baseball season. This particular Sunday was absolutely perfect because not only was his family at this gigantic concrete lake (later to become the site of condos) on a beautiful summer's day, but the Yankees were playing a double header. The day would consist of swimming, sun bathing, barbecued hamburgers and Phil Ruzzuto. Perfection!

Well, except the Yankees stunk that year. 1968 was the year of the pitcher. The Yankees had a few of those. But they never had a worse year at the plate. Guys like Horace Clarke, Bobby Cox (yeah, that was him), Andy Kosco and Jake Gibbs couldn't hit their way out of the infield. A beat up, broken Mickey Mantle was in his last year and despite his lowest batting average of his career, he still was productive. But that was it. The Yankees needed help so they obtained Rocky Colavito from the Dodgers. Without the information we have at our fingertips today, they might not have known that Colavito was just about finished as a player. 1968 would be his last year too.

The twelve year old boy was excited about Colavito because he was somewhat of a legend AND he was Italian. Bonus! Colavito had some superb years with the Indians and Tigers and finished his career with 374 homers and a 132 career OPS+. He is one of the few players that ever hit four homers in one game. That made him a perfect candidate for the Hall of Very Good, but he didn't get enough counting stats for the Hall of Fame. But it wasn't just the homers that made him a legend. It was also his throwing arm from right field. In fourteen seasons, he threw out 123 base runners. Colavito hit five homers for the Yankees in 1968 but he only batted .220, which wasn't much different than anyone else on the team.

But the twelve year old didn't care. He was Italian, he was a Yankee, thus he was gold. So the first game of the double header started right after 1:00 P.M. on August 25, 1968 against the Detroit Tigers, one of Colavito's former teams. The boy was disappointed because Colavito wasn't in the starting line up. Steve Barber was the starting pitcher for the Yankees against Pat Dobson of the Tigers. Barber was a gangly left-hander who had some good seasons for the Orioles in the 60s including a 20-win season in 1963. But by the time the Orioles sent him to the Yankees, he was finished as an effective pitcher. He did hang around for another half a decade and was a part of the Seattle Pilots inaugural season.

Barber had nothing that day and the Tigers jumped on him for two runs in the first, two runs in the third and a run in the top of the fourth. He gave up ten base runners in three and a third innings while only striking out one batter. The Yankees had seen enough and Barber was taken out of the game. Back in those days, the Yankees had a little cart that would bring relief pitchers from the bullpen to the dugout. Who would step out of the cart to be the next Yankee pitcher? Rocky Colavito!

Phil Rizzuto went wild. The twelve year old went wild and called his little brother over. Rizzuto was calling Colavito a huckleberry and saying, "Holy Cow" (Bronx, got that right this time) a few dozen times because he couldn't believe that Colavito was actually going to pitch. Neither could we.

But there he was. The Yankees were down 5-0 without a team that could hit their way back into a game. They had another game to play after that one and they must have figured, what the heck. But Colavito succeeded. He held the Tigers in check for two and two thirds innings. He gave up a hit and walked two against one strikeout and he did not give up a run.

Meanwhile, the Yankees, the team that couldn't hit, actually climbed back into the game. They scored a run in the bottom of the fourth to make it 5-1 and then erupted for five runs in the sixth to knock Dobson out. Bobby Cox (hitting .226) hit a homer and Bill Robinson (batting .223) hit a three-run job. Rocky Colavito contributed a walk and a run scored. Since Colavito completed the top of the sixth, he became the pitcher of record. Could he actually get the win!?

The one, the only, the legend...Dooley Womack pitched a scoreless seventh (though he made  it interesting with two base runners) and Lindy McDaniel pitched the eighth and ninth without giving up a run and Colavito did get the win. All this Fan can remember about that day is laughing and smiling that something so unique was happening and so unexpected. Those barbecued hamburgers never tasted so good.

One other note: The only hit the Tigers got off of Colavito was a double by Al Kaline, Colavito's old teammate who was a very similar player to Rocky except that he hung around longer and got the numbers needed for the Hall of Fame.

As for Colavito, it wasn't his first pitching assignment. He had pitched in a game in 1958 (August 13), ten years before the game we are talking about. In that game, he pitched three scoreless innings and again, it was against the Tigers. Al Kaline didn't get a hit off of Rocky that day. Nobody did. And so this Hall of Very Good outfielder pitched twice in his career, then years apart, finished with a perfect 0.00 ERA in five and two thirds inning with a perfect 1-0 record. Holy Cow indeed.


Anonymous said...

Does anyone know if Rocky Colavito pitched at the Yankee old timers day, July 20, 1969? That was the day that Apollo 12 landed on the moon.

Anonymous said...

I was a bit older and I remember that Rizzuto call quite differently. Phil was quite aware of the lack of Yankee pitchers due to a string of games with little time off. He knew Colivito had been in the bull pen previously. He knew Rocky had a good arm and was more excited than surprised when Rocky came in and shut down the side.
Phil has been criticized for not paying attention to the game mostly, in my humble opinion, by people who don't know what they are talking about. He was always up on the game. He came in late to the booth once because Pepitone said he wouldn't play without hair spray. Phil told the story and said Joe would hit a homer for him. Yep, Pepitone homered that day. Holy cow!
Rizzuto was my favorite sports broadcaster for years. I guess he's now tied with McCarver and Madden but for quite different reasons. Rizzuto made the dullest game fun, and always seemed to have as much fun as we did, and he certainly did on the day Rocky Colivito won a game for the Yankees.