I Was A September Call Up
This article was written by Bob Hurte
The right-hander stood on the pitcher's mound in Tucson, Arizona, watching his manager Rocky Bridges walk out for a visit. It was the eighth inning; the bases were loaded with his team in the lead. Bridges grabbed the ball and gave it a good rub. After placing it back in his pitcher's glove he offered the following advice, "Kid, will you stop messing around. The Giants just called, you are going to big leagues. So stop worrying."
On September 3, 1974, John Montefusco from Long Branch, New Jersey, arrived at Dodger Stadium, one hour before that night's game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants. His new manager, Wes Westrum, quickly went over the signs while informing him that he would be the first pitcher out of the bullpen that evening. John did not get much of chance to familiarize himself with the visitor's bullpen. The Dodgers jumped out to a quick 4-2 lead, sending veteran Ron Bryant to an early shower before he had retired a batter. Westrum motioned to the bullpen for a relief pitcher. The newest member of the Giants strolled across the right field grass on his the way to be baptized by fire.
Years later, John admitted to having butterflies that evening. "But when I got to the skin part of the infield and Tito Fuentes was there and greeted me on my way in. And he said, 'Come on kid, I know you can do this.' So I gathered myself up to the mound, took the ball from Wes Westrum and I said, 'I guess you need three strikes,' because the bases were loaded and he said, 'Kid, just don't walk anybody.' But I ended up getting a force out and I struck two guys out to end the inning. After that, it was easy."
John finished the day by allowing one run on six hits in a nine-inning relief stint. Not only was he the winning pitcher, he also smashed a two-run homer in his first official at-bat in the third inning. He had walked the previous inning, scoring on a grand slam by Gary Matthews. His home run was unexpected. John admitted to asking Davey Lopes, the Dodger second baseman if the ball had left the park. After the game, Montefusco rekindled some of the sparks of the two team's classic feud with his postgame remarks. "I wanted to beat the Dodgers--I hate the Dodgers, I'm from New Jersey, and I've always been a Yankee fan."
John Joseph Montefusco Jr. was born on May 25, 1950, in Long Branch, New Jersey, a shore community only a stone's throw from the Atlantic Ocean. He grew to love the National Pastime. While in high school, he played shortstop. John was tall and lean, distributing all of his one hundred and fifty pounds upon a six-foot frame. His physique and the fact he did not begin pitching until his senior year in high school did not make him attractive to most major league scouts. Still, Montefusco accumulated a 6-0 record that included a no-hitter. While others his age were being scouted by major league teams or offered athletic scholarships, John was completely overlooked.
John landed on the campus of Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey. He pitched for the Jersey Blues in 1971 and 1972, setting several school pitching records. He held the record for the lowest ERA for a single season at 0.65, most consecutive victories with 16, career strikeouts with 202 and 19 Ks in a single game. Even his 18-2 record for his two seasons was not enough to attract the attention of big league scouts. John ended up taking a job as a clerk with a large telecommunications company and spent his summers playing semi-pro ball at the New Jersey shore.
In an interview with Bill Ballew for his book The Pastime in the Seventies: Oral Histories of 16 Major Leaguers, Montefusco reflected upon his fate. It seems that the only team that showed an interest was the San Francisco Giants. "I think the Giants did somebody a favor by signing me." The favored somebody was probably Frank Porter, the owner of the semi-pro team that Montefusco played for. Apparently Frank had been bugging John Kerr, a local scout and former American League infielder, until he finally agreed to sign John. Porter was aware of the right-hander's talent and had almost as much confidence as the young pitcher did.
It did not take long for the brash pitcher to make his first bold prediction. John professed that he would be pitching in San Francisco within two years. He beat his prediction with a month to spare. "You don't get much help in the minor leagues, you either make it on your own or you don't make it." The rookie pitcher also felt that one major advantage of pitching in the minors was the ample opportunities to pitch. "We were on a four man rotation back then. It wasn't like it is today, where organizations are trying to save everybody and use starters every fifth day and only let them throw one hundred pitches. Back in the early seventies, you went out every fourth day and they didn't care if you threw one hundred and sixty pitches." He praised Gordy Malzberger, who helped him during his first spring training. Maltzberger felt that Montefusco had a good enough curveball for the big leagues. Ironically, John admitted that he never threw it during a game. Instead, he relied upon a slider or a slurve to accompany his fastball. His spring training audition placed him as the thirteenth pitcher on the 1973 Decatur team. Decatur was the Giants' Class AA entry in the Midwest League. Montefusco posted a 9-2 record with a 2.18 earned run average. He spent the following season with Amarillo of the Texas League before moving up to Phoenix. The young right-hander accumulated an 8-9 record at Amarillo and a 7-3 mark with Phoenix before his call up to the parent club.
Montefusco was very impressive in his debut 1974 season. He began turning many pages in his biography. One was the creation of a nickname that would be his identity for his entire career. The nickname "The Count" originated during a game he pitched in El Paso. He won, 9-1, and the next morning's headlines declared him the "Count of Monty Amarillo." Then after his debut with the Giants, Al Michaels, the San Francisco announcer, bestowed the title of "The Count of Montefusco," and it followed him for the duration of his major league career.
The young Giant pitcher did not waste any time tossing his first shutout. Before the game, Wes Westrum advised him not to finesse the Reds but challenge them. John went on to allow seven hits and issue two walks while striking out seven. This was accomplished after only nineteen days after his debut. He also hit his second home run, which was especially impressive since he played with the Designated Hitter rule while in the minors. Don McMahon, the Giants pitching coach described Montefusco, "Electricity just seems to purr from him. It's in his smile, his refreshing honesty and his arm." John completed his first major league campaign with a 3-2 record, 4.81 ERA, and 34 strikeouts in 39.1 innings.
While 1974 was a fairly impressive season for the young right-hander, it also represented the lowest point of the team's existence in California. The Giants finished in fifth place, eighteen games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers. The team's disappointing season was also reflected by its attendance; only 519,991 fans went through the Candlestick turnstiles. Even with the obvious ineptitude, there was hope for the upcoming season. For instance, the team did not have a player over the age of thirty. Their one veteran, Bobby Murcer, did not turn twenty-nine until May. Manager Westrum was convinced that pitching would become the team's strong suit. the club began the season with a staff that included John D'Aquisto, John Montefusco, Mike Caldwell and Jim Barr. The rotation was complemented by a bullpen comprised of Randy Moffitt, Charlie Williams and Dave Hearverio.
The Count got out of the gate fast in 1975. He started with a 5-0, four-hitter over the Atlanta Braves. Then on April 18, the Giants travelled to Los Angeles to play the reigning National League Champions. All he did was fashion a 3-1 complete game. "I really get psyched up for the Dodgers and Reds. I think that Dodgers are the best team. I don't think the A's are." While complimenting his bitter rivals, he loudly predicted that the Giants, not the Dodgers would win the Western Division. After beating the Dodgers in April, he defeated them two more times, including a 1-0 shutout against Andy Messersmith, giving up 8 hits and striking out 10. In his postgame comments, he dedicated the game to one of the Dodger players: "This one was for Ron Cey. He said in the papers that I wasn't a good pitcher and that I wouldn't win ten games." Leaning back with a beer in hand, he continued, "This is the greatest game of my life, I'll tell you better than the first time. This time, I shut out the Dodgers--I was really psyched."
Thus the brazen pitcher penned a new chapter in one of the longest rivalries in the history of the sport. The Dodgers and Giants had been hated enemies ever since the early years of the National League. The conflict could be traced back to a rift between former Baltimore Orioles teammates, John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson. It intensified in 1951 with Bobby Thomson's "Shot heard around the world." It picked up after the teams moved to the West Coast, when the Dodgers and Giants squared off for a playoff series in 1962 that the Giants won. It tok an ugly turn on August 22, 1965, when Juan Marichal hit Johnny Roseboro over the head with a baseball bat. Now, the Count rekindled the mutual dislike.
After the Dodger shutout, the right-hander lost to the Cubs, and then reeled off three consecutive victories. The winning streak stopped with the help of the Cincinnati Reds when John got pounded, 11-6. A 500-plus-foot blast off the bat of Johnny Bench punctuated the loss. The homer's distance might have been influenced by the Count's bold prediction before the game. He claimed that he would strike out the slugger four times. John recalled the homer in an interview with Bill Ballew, one that was sprinkled with some humor. "...Johnny Bench hit the longest home run ever hit off of me. As a matter of fact, he hit the cement façade on the third deck of Riverfront Stadium. When we got back to Candlestick, my mail was stacked up in front of my locker. As I was going through my mail, I noticed an envelope with Cincinnati Red's letterhead. I wondered what the heck it was, so opened it up and it was a bill for $957. It read, 'For damage done to the cement façade at Riverfront Stadium from Johnny Bench's home run.' Chris Speier had filled it out and sent it. That was funny."
John finished the 1975 season by winning five out of seven games, ending up with a record of 15-9, 2.88 and 215 strikeouts. John's strikeout record was the most by a Giant rookie since Christy Matthewson, who had 221 in 1901. It was also the most for a National League rookie since Grover Cleveland Alexander's 227 in 1911. On October 30, 1975, the Count was named the National League's Rookie of the Year, receiving 12 of the 24 first place votes; Gary Carter garnered 9 while Larry Parrish, Manny Trillo and Rawly Eastwick received single votes. Modesty was never one of Montefusco's strongest virtues, and his braggadocio endeared him to the San Francisco faithful as much as his talent on the mound. After receiving the award, he responded not with thanks but a promise. "Next year, the Cy Young Award. Why should I stop right here? I want to be the best pitcher in baseball. I said that I could win 15, but that was a minimum--I had my sights on 20. I was kind of disappointed. I thought that I could have done better." The rookie's style was reminiscent of Dizzy Dean of the thirties, "It ain't bragging if you can do it." Even with Montefusco's fine season, the Giants finished in third with an 80-81 tally.
In 1976, John picked up were he left off the previous year, both with his loquaciousness and performance. He made his first start against the Dodgers, the team that he loved to hate. To noone's surprise, the Count predicted a shutout. His prophecy was shattered in the first inning. The newly acquired Dusty Baker greeted him with a home run. As Baker returned to the dugout, Bill Russell jumped out and waved a towel towards the pitcher. Although Montefusco did not get the shutout, he hurled a strong 7 1/3 innings for a 4-2 victory. "The Dodgers should stop worrying about waving a towel and think about throwing in the towel. We're thinking about the Reds." It was obvious that the Dodger-Giants rivalry was intact. After the game, John fielded questions concerning the sophomore jinx. Once again, he admitted his intentions of winning the Cy Young award. "I have to win 20 games to win it and now I need 19 more and I'm going to get 19. I'm going to do it. Everyone played a hell of a game behind me today and I love to beat the Dodgers because I hate them so. Now I hear that they're making predictions against me like I do against everyone else. They say that I'll beat them only 1-0." The Count faced them again on June 2. He entered the contest with a 6-3 record and was coming off of two consecutive three-hit shutouts and a string of 21 scoreless innings. John was anxious to extend this streak against his nemesis. Unfortunately, the streak came to an end in the third inning when Los Angeles sent ten batters to the plate to score five times. As he departed, the Count, in typical fashion, waved his cap to the jeering crowd. Montefusco and his favorite opponent met again on June 26th, with John scattering six hits before leaving with a blister in the eighth inning. The Giants went on to a 4-2 win that included homers by Matthews and Murcer.
Although he sported a 7-8 record, Sparky Anderson, the manager of the National League All-Star team, selected Montefusco for the team's pitching staff. The Count did not let Anderson down. In the two innings that he pitched, he faced four future Hall of Famers: Carl Yastremski, Rod Carew, George Brett and Carlton Fisk. He completed his work allowing just two walks while striking out two.
Montefusco squared off with the Dodgers on July 31st. It was not his best effort; he won 6-3, giving up eleven hits to raise his personal record against the Dodgers to 6-3. "I'm glad to win but I'm not overwhelmed. I wanted to shut 'em out so I could shut up Lasorda. He's been all over my case. He's been saying I'll never beat 'em again, it's good to beat 'em by any score." That day, another page was turned in the Count's personal rivalry with the Dodgers. The new participant came in the form of the 6-foot, 180-pound Reggie Smith. Years after his career was over, Montefusco admitted that Smith was the toughest batter that he faced. That day, Smith took John deep and went 3-for-4.
While the Count completed another season to be proud of, it was on September 29th that he had what he later referred to as "...the greatest day of my life. I just can't believe it." John pitched a 9-0 no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves on the last game of the 1976 season. "It's the perfect ending to a perfect day." Years later, he shared his emotions from that day with author Bill Ballew. "At the end of that game, it was the greatest feeling in the world. It is the greatest high that I have ever experienced in my life. The adrenaline that I felt in the ninth inning was incredible, because adrenaline that was rushing through my body would have allowed me to get Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and anybody else in the ninth. I felt no pain and felt like I was ten feet off the ground in the ninth inning." While John considered this game his greatest moment, it was not absent of disappointment. In the fourth inning, he walked Jerry Royster; otherwise it would have been a perfect game. The post game interview was shown on NBC's Today show the next morning. The cameras showed him craddling a bottle of champagne that he received from Ted Turner. It had been the Braves' fan appreciation night. Only 1,300 fans attended the game and for some reason the game was not televised on Turner's station. In fact, the public relations department actually needed to call the news networks to inform them that a no-hitter was being pitched. John finished the 1976 with a 16-14 record, 2.84 ERA, and 172 strikeouts while pitching six shutouts.
While John had enjoyed much success during his brief professional career, 1977 marked his first of several physical setbacks. The injury occurred on May 26th during a contest with the Cincinnati Reds. The Count suffered a severely sprained ankle during the second inning as he ran to first base. It occurred after laying down a bunt that he had a chance to beat out. Joe Morgan was covering first base, and the throw came in high and to the outside of the base. Morgan ended up standing on the middle of the bag. Instead of plowing into him, John decided to go toward the corner of the base. That is how he turned his ankle, causing him to go down and head for the disabled list. He was not activated until July 7th, and Montefusco started three days later. John allowed four runs in the fourth against the Braves. Dave Heaverio came in holding the Braves to one more run and the Giants won 12-5, enabling San Francisco to sweep the doubleheader. The Giants' right-hander finished with a less than stellar season at 7-12, 3.49 ERA and 110 strikeouts. It marked the fourth consecutive sub-.500 season for San Francisco.
The following season was a different story. The Giants snapped out of their losing ways in 1978 and finish in third place with a final tally of 89-73. In their second year under manager Joe Altobelli, San Francisco featured a young Jack Clark, who hit .305, with 25 homers and 98 runs batted in, and Bill Madlock who chipped in with a .309 average along with 15 homers. The team's two lefty starters, Bob Knepper (17-6, 2.63) and Vida Blue (18-10, 2.75), led the way. While the Giants played well together, they did not necessarily get along. The first signs of dissension could be traced to March 8th at the Casa Grande spring training facility. On that day, the Count and teammate Bill Madlock had a publicized altercation. It seemed that Madlock took exception to Montefusco's public criticism of the ability of certain teammates, especially the fielding of a certain Giant second baseman. Then there was disappearance of the newly acquired Vida Blue, who was not enamored with moving across the bay from Oakland. On a lighter note, John asked Giants and was given permission to leave spring training to marry his girlfriend, Dory Samples.
Montefusco's season started off with another injury. On April 7th with a 2-0 lead in the sixth inning, he again sprained his ankle while stepping off the mound. The two Giant relief aces, Randy Moffitt and Gary Lavelle, let the game get away, and San Diego went on to win 3-2. Nineteen seventy-eight also saw the Dodgers-Giants rivalry refueled. It was ignited via a mutual dislike between the Count, Reggie Smith and manager Tommy Lasorda.
On May 28th the Giants beat the Dodgers in front of 56,103 in San Fransico. Smith took Montefusco deep to tie the game, knocking him out of the box. The Dodger outfielder accented his home run by walking the last fifteen feet of his trot home. Eventually Darrell Evans drove in the winning run in the seventh inning to give the Giants a 6-5 victory.
After the game, Tommy Lasorda launched the first shot of the battle of words. "The Giants' haven't shown me anything. The only thing is that they must have read Wee Willie Keeler's book on how to hit 'em where they are and where they ain't." Lasorda did not miss an opportunity to comment on the pitching performance of Montefusco. John had not distinguished himself with his two starts against the Dodgers--the Giants' right-hander yielded 12 runs on 18 hits, but still the team was able to win both games. "I could make a fortune by buying him for what I think he is worth and selling him for what he thinks he is worth. Twelve runs and eighteen hits, damn."
On August 13th, Montefusco and Smith met again. This time, Reggie clubbed homers off the Count in both the first and fifth innings. John was not around at the conclusion, but the Giants won, 7-6, in the eleventh, and moved into first place. Unfortunately, a little more than a month later on September 17th, they fell down to third place and finished the season there. Montefusco finished with a decent season at 11-9, 3.81 and 177 strikeouts.
Both John and the Giants returned to submediocracy in 1979, the club finishing in fourth, 19 ½ games off the pace, and Montefusco's at 3-8, 3.94 with 76 strikeouts. The clubhouse was a disaster: Vida Blue verbally assaulted the San Francisco's writers on several occasions; pitcher Ed Whitson punched out shortstop Roger Metzger; and Montefusco left Candlestick Park after losing to the Cubs, promising never to come back. Joe Altobelli was fired that September, and his coach Dave Bristol, a disciplinarian, replaced him.
Any doubts concerning the health of the Dodger/Giants rivalry were answered on April 24, 1980. Reggie Smith hit a homer off of the Count early and raised his fist as he approached second base. The Dodgers won in the tenth inning. John departed in the seventh with the score knotted at two. This was also a year that John's name returned to the sport's page headlines. On June 19th, the Giants defeated the Mets, 8-5. Bristol lifted Montefusco, who was angry about being removed in the ninth inning with a 8-2 lead but with two men on and no outs. After the game, Giants players found their pitcher and Bristol grappling on the floor of manager's office. Several years later, John wished the incident did not occur. "I had a habit of not only burning bridges but also blowing them up."
John's relationship with the Giants dissolved in 1981, when he was traded to Atlanta for a disgruntled Doyle Alexander. Montefusco lost and won games against his former team during the first week of the season, which was soon interrupted by a baseball strike. John finished his first and only season in Atlanta with a record of 2-3, 3.49 and 34 strikeouts. He was suspended at the end of the year, learning of it by watching television in an Amarillo, Texas, motel. The reason for the suspension was his failure to make a plane flight for the last series against the Cincinnati Reds. The Count claimed that his manager, Bobby Cox, gave him permission. After the season, he asked to be traded, then insisted instead on being released so he could become a free agent. The Los Angeles Times reported that if Ted Turner had not spent all of a 15 million dollar loan on non-baseball matters, the Count would still be pitching in Atlanta.
Free agent John Montefusco next went to the pitching starved San Diego Padres, who in 1982 were counting on veterans Rick Wise, John Curtis and the Count. With John riddled with numerous injuries over the past seasons, he borrowed a page from the past to carry a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Reds until a single by Dave Conception. John completed seven innings allowing only the lone single and beat the Reds 4-1. That August, he tossed his first complete game since April 1980 by beating the Astros, 5-2. Then on September 22nd, he defeated his the hated Dodgers by a score of 3-0. When asked whether his personal rivalry was still alive, his eyes lit up like a kid at the gates of Disneyland. "Not too many people are very fond of the Dodgers, just because they're World Champions. Everyone wants to beat the World Champs. But I'd want to beat 'em even if they are in last place..."
On October 2, 1982, Montefusco started a game against the Atlanta Braves, a game the Padres eventually lost. The loss prevented the Los Angeles Dodgers from clinching the Western Division Title. In essence, Montefusco beat the Dodgers unintentionally, much to the chagrin of Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. The evening of the game, the Dodger manager and Vin Scully, the team's broadcaster listened to every out on a transistor radio. The loss really irked Lasorda. "He's all mouth, this guy, talking about how badly he wanted to beat the Dodgers. He's paid to beat everybody...Heck; I don't even want to talk about him. I only talk about .500 pitchers." (The Dodgers lost to the Giants the following day anyway and the Braves won the division.) John ended the season by finishing 10-11, 4.00 and 83 strikeouts. It was not a winning record, but an improvement over his last few seasons.
Montefusco returned to San Diego for the 1983 season. He let everyone around know that he intended to work on image. "I can't do all those crazy things I used to and I can't keep on popping off with my opinions. I'm no longer single. I have a family now, so I have to get respect for my children." The one thing that did not change was his confrontational relationships with the manager of the team he was playing for. His manager in San Diego was Dick Williams. After he was taken out of a game against the Cubs, Montefusco stormed off to the clubhouse. Later, he claimed ignorance concerning the rule that players could not leave the bench during a game. Because of his violation, Williams banished him to the bullpen. This did not make the Count happy. His manager considered him the team's stopper. Still, it was not a job that John cared to adapt to. Eventually, his agent, Dick Moss, was given permission to shop for another team. On August 26th, one of Montefusco's dreams became a reality. Not only was he being traded to another team, he was headed to the New York Yankees. San Diego received two outstanding prospects in return. John was elated by the news. "I like it. I'm from New Jersey and the Yankees are the team I have followed my entire life. It's like a boyhood dream for me. Although I guess everyone who has ever played for the Yankees says that."
In his Yankee debut, he beat the Angels by a score of 7-3, but he had to leave the game after six innings with a blister. It marked only the fourth time that a right-handed starter won for the Yankees that season. Both Billy Martin and Rick Cerone were impressed by the Count's performance. On September 3rd, John earned his second victory since joining the Yankees, also winning the admiration of his teammates. Montefusco turned in a 5-0 record that included a 3.32 ERA with 15 strikeouts for the Yankees. Although he professed his love for the Yankees, he stated, "I might test the free-agent market now."
On October 18, 1983, Montefusco decided against becoming a free agent and resigned with the Yankees. The agreement was worth 2.3 million dollars. His combined record with the Padres and Yankees was 14-4. Unfortunately, this proved to be his final productive season. The years that followed saw him marred by several injuries. The 1984 season did not work out the way he hoped. It started with a sore hip, and then on May 4th, he suffered injuries from a car accident. After he retired, he blamed the accident for his developing poor fundamentals. Then when it seemed that he was back on track, he developed and broke a blister on his pitching hand in the eighth inning against the Baltimore Orioles on September 26th. John finished with a 5-3 record, 3.58 ERA and 23 strikeouts.
The nightmare continued for Montefusco in 1985. He tossed only seven innings the entire season. John spent most of the season on the disabled list because of a sciatic nerve condition in his left hip. His disabilities contributed to a disappointing 0-0 slate, 10.29 ERA and only two strikeouts. After the season, he had two holes drilled into his hip, and an electro biology machine became his constant companion. The Yankees decided to release him in November of that year. But because of his competitive demeanor, the Count embarked upon a startling comeback. It was so successful that Sammy Ellis, the Yankees' pitching coach, was convinced to consider him a significant piece to the team's pitching staff. Ellis felt that Montefusco could contribute in the bullpen or as a spot starter. Since the Yankees had released him, John could not re-sign until May 15th. This led the brash right-hander to let it be known that he was not averse to signing with another team. He ended up staying in New York. By May 21st, he had relieved four times, allowing no runs in five and two thirds innings. But the Count soon returned to the disabled list. It soon became apparent that his pitching career was over. The culprit was a degenerative hip condition that made it impossible to pitch without pain. John Montefusco announced his retirement on September 28, 1986. He finished the season at 0-0, 2.19 ERA and three strikeouts. His career totals ended up at 90-83, 3.54 ERA and 1,081 strikeouts.
Montefusco became involved with several interests during his post-baseball career; one was harness racing. He was fond of attending races at Monmouth Park Raceway. In fact, it was at a charity harness racing event that he initiated a relationship with former Yankee pitcher Sparky Lyle. The game of baseball always ran through John's veins and Sparky was the manager of the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League. He become the team's pitching coach in 2000. The team won league championships in 2001 and 2003. Montefusco was given much credit for the team's great pitching staffs.
The Count had better luck between the white lines than with his personal life. Since the late 1990s, he has experienced several domestic problems with his ex-wife Doris, who charged him with rape and domestic violence. John was acquitted in November 1999 of sexual assault charges, but only after spending two years at the Monmouth Correctional Institution. He was also assessed $405 in state mandated fines. Montefusco sued ESPN unsuccessfully on a defamation claim. The telecast had made an analogy to O.J. Simpson, "another ex-athlete accused of domestic violence."
Unceremoniously, on September 22, 2005, he resigned his position a few weeks before the league playoffs. He cited differences with the organization concerning the handling of the pitching staff. Many place the blame on his ejection from a game against the Atlantic City Surf, when he was filling in for Sparky. The Patriots lost that night by a score of 3-1. After being tossed, he proceeded to kick dirt on the first base umpire, a la Billy Martin. The Somerset ball club felt that his resignation was no surprise. Montefusco expressed an interest in managing and did not want to return as the pitching coach for the 2006 season.
It is anyone's guess whether the Count will surface as a manager somewhere. If he does, it may be the first time he could get along with the team's manager.
This article was written by Irv Goldfarb
Mookie Wilson stood at the plate in the bottom of the 10th inning, arcing his bat, focusing intently on Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley. He realized that he represented the potential winning run in the most important game of his life and he was determined not to make the final out. Wilson had come a long way in his relatively short major-league career: toiling for the New York Mets various farm teams; named the starting center fielder for the laughable big-league club; subsequently becoming the consensus face of their organization, all within six rapidly-moving seasons. He was 30 years old and he had already seen a lot…
William Hayward Wilson was born in Bamberg, South Carolina, on February 9, 1956, one of 12 children. Two of his brothers also played pro ball for a short time: John was drafted by the Mets and stole 56 bases for Columbia in the South Atlantic League in 1984; Phil played in the minors for the Minnesota and Montreal organizations, while a third brother, Richard, probably played the biggest role in his family life a number of years later.
Nicknamed Mookie as a child because of the way he asked for milk (or so the legend goes), Wilson pitched for Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School under coach Dave Horton, the local legend who became the first high-school baseball coach inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame. Wilson’s years there included a state championship (one of 14 won by Horton.) After leaving Bamberg-Erhardt, Wilson signed a letter of intent with South Carolina State University, close to his hometown. But SCSU discontinued its baseball program literally days after his signing, spurring Wilson to attend Spartanburg Methodist College instead, playing there in 1974 and ’75. It was while with the Pioneers that Wilson was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the fourth round of the 1976 amateur draft. Surprisingly, he decided not to sign with LA, transferring instead to the University of South Carolina, where he played the outfield and pitched, hoping to showcase his versatility to other major-league teams. His first coach there was former Yankees star Bobby Richardson. In 1977, now under the tutelage of June Raines, who had taken over the program after Richardson resigned at the start of that season, the Gamecocks played in the College World Series. They lost to Arizona State University, 2-1, but Wilson was named to the All-Tournament team outfield.
The success of that South Carolina squad, along with Wilson’s decision to turn down the earlier offer from the Dodgers, resulted in his being chosen again, this time in the second round of the 1977 draft by the New York Mets. He signed a contract and was assigned to Wausau, Wisconsin, a Mets affiliate in the Midwest League. Appearing in 68 games in the outfield for Wausau, Wilson hit .290 in 245 at-bats; his power numbers (6 home runs, 32 RBIs) were not overly impressive, but that is not what had attracted pro scouts to him in the first place. It was his speed and defense that would keep him moving through the Mets’ system and in that first half-season he stole 23 bases in 30 attempts. Promoted to Double-A Jackson, Mississippi, the next year, Wilson had 497 at-bats, hitting .292 with 15 triples and 38 steals.
It was during this season that Wilson’s brother Richard affected his life. Richard had fathered a boy, now 4 years old, whom he would not or could not support, and on the night of June 22, 1978, Wilson married the boy’s mother, Rosa Gilbert, at home plate at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium. The ceremony, held before a crowd of 1,200, included an archway of bats held up by team members. The reception took place on the field after the game, with everyone in attendance invited. Fans and teammates then chipped in for a bridal suite at a local hotel. (The marriage made Wilson, oddly enough, both the uncle and stepfather of Preston Wilson, who went on to have a career in the majors, crowning it with a World Series championship with the Cardinals in 2006.)
Called up to Triple-A Tidewater for 1979 and ’80, the speedy outfielder (he had given up pitching by then) racked up a combined 99 stolen bases in 125 tries and scored 176 runs; along with his .295 average through August of 1980, the Mets had seen enough. It was time to bring Wilson up to the Big Apple. Wilson made his major-league debut on September 2, 1980, in Los Angeles against the Dodgers, the team that had originally drafted him four years earlier.
Batting leadoff, Wilson grounded out to short against Dodgers starter Dave Goltz, then did the same in the top of the third. He ended the game 0-for-4, but the night was not a total loss as he drove in second baseman Wally Backman with another groundball, this time off reliever Bobby Castillo, who had replaced Goltz during a Mets four-run rally in the top of the seventh. The Dodgers won, 7-5, and the Mets lost the next night as well, shut out 2-0 by LA’s Burt Hooton, with Wilson going 0-for-3, with a walk.
It was not until his third game, a daytime contest at San Diego on September 4, that Wilson collected his first hit, a single to left field off Padres starter John Curtis in his second at-bat. The Mets lost that contest too as Curtis threw a complete game in the 3-2 win. In fact, the Mets lost 13 straight games during this stretch, not winning again until they beat the Cubs at home on September 13. The franchise struggled through another poor campaign in 1980, their fourth consecutive losing season, and the team was obviously hoping for a spark from its promising farm system (as a matter of fact, the September 4 loss to the Padres also marked the debut of the Mets’ other projected star, third baseman Hubie Brooks). Wilson’s call-up was not a cause for immediate celebration however: In just over 100 at-bats the rest of the 1980 season, he hit only .248 with eight extra-base hits (none of them homers) and just 12 walks versus 19 strikeouts. He stole seven bases and made only two errors in 229 innings, underscoring what the Mets knew were his greatest talents—above-average fielding and dazzling speed.
The following season showed a slight uptick in Wilson’s offense as he batted .271 during the strike-shortened 1981 campaign. And though he drove in just 14 runs, he stole 24 bases and played all three outfield positions to the tune of a .983 fielding percentage. (Brooks on the other hand hit .307 in ’81 with 38 RBIs; however, he also made 21 errors in 93 games. These early numbers were already foreshadowing the future careers of the two youngsters: one the superior hitter, the other the speedy defensive star.)
Wilson’s next three seasons were eerily consistent as he hit .279 in 1982, then batted .276 in each of the next three years. He drove in between 51 and 55 runs each season and tied the team record with 9 triples in 1982, to go with 58 steals. Though consistent, Wilson’s offensive numbers were still not awe-inspiring. He led the league in at-bats in 1983, but struck out what would remain a career-high 103 times with only 18 unintentional walks. His on-base percentage in the modern SABRmetric world would probably have bought him a ticket back to Tidewater, averaging out to just .307 during this stretch. But his 10 home runs in 1984 would also be his career high, while his 10 triples that year set a new Mets record.
Despite his semi-anemic offensive numbers, Wilson became entrenched at the top of the Mets lineup as the team strengthened its personnel through the mid-1980s. The development of the franchise’s next burgeoning star, Darryl Strawberry, along with the acquisition of recent MVP Keith Hernandez from the Cardinals, helped swing the team from the embarrassment of 94 losses in 1983 to a second-place, 90-72 finish in ’84. The subsequent trade for All-Star Gary Carter from Montreal (in a deal that sent Hubie Brooks to the Expos) helped the Mets stay in the battle for the NL East crown late into 1985; they finally succumbed to the Cardinals, but enjoyed their best season since the Miracle Mets of 1969, racking up 98 wins and finishing three games behind St. Louis.
Unfortunately for Wilson, he missed much of the excitement. The center fielder had been experiencing discomfort in his right shoulder for more than a year and was finally forced to undergo surgery for torn cartilage on July 3, 1985. Surgeons reported the discovery of “fraying and tears of the labrum,” along with other cartilage damage. Wilson did not return to the Mets until September 1 and did not see regular action until a week later. He ended the season with fewer than 400 plate appearances, once again hitting .276, with 26 RBIs and 24 stolen bases.
The next season, 1986, was the campaign that Met fans had been awaiting for 17 years. Wilson’s year began as badly as the previous one had ended, however, as he was hit in the eye from 40 feet away by a ball thrown by shortstop Rafael Santana during a spring-training base running drill. The blow shattered the eyeglasses that Wilson had begun wearing the year before to cut down on outfield glare. He was carted off the field and took 21 stitches above the eye and four more on the side of his nose. “The glasses … took the full impact of the blow and probably prevented more damage,” remarked the doctor attending the injury. Wilson did not return to the lineup until May 9, but the team suddenly had some depth in the outfield with veterans George Foster and Danny Heep absorbing innings.
When Wilson returned to the field, he found himself sharing center-field duties with young fireball Lenny Dykstra, who was playing his first full season. It was not until Foster was released in early August that Wilson was able to play regularly again, settling into left while Dykstra became the regular center fielder.
But the 1986 Mets could do no wrong: The team led the NL East practically wire-to-wire, winning 108 games. Their 13-3 record in April included a franchise-tying 11-game winning streak; they lost only 18 games between May and June, and by midsummer the division race was pretty much over. The team’s stars and their exploits of that season are remembered not only by Mets fans but by fans of all teams; from Carter’s 105 RBIs to Strawberry’s 27 home runs, to pitching phenom Dwight Gooden’s 17-6, 2.84 season. There was something special happening at Shea Stadium and at the top of the order every day sat the “Mookster.” He was the team’s sparkplug, still one of the most popular Mets among their fans, and his statistics were on the rise. His batting average jumped to .289, his on-base percentage to .345. He scored only 61 runs with just 25 stolen bases, but his 72 strikeouts were a new low for a full season. He also enjoyed his best season in the field, committing only five errors. But for this team the numbers were secondary as the Mets bulldozed their way through the National League, seemingly just waiting for their date with the postseason. It came in the form of the Houston Astros in the NLCS. Led by its ace, Mike Scott, Houston made the series uncomfortable for the Mets, dragging them through a nail biting Game Six before the Mets finally prevailed in the 16th inning. Wilson dragged through the NLCS himself, collecting only three hits in 26 at-bats, striking out seven times and stealing just one base.
The Red Sox followed in the World Series and the two league champions fought through an all-time classic, the Mets battling back from a 2-0 hole to bring the Series back to Shea for Games Six and Seven. It all came to a crescendo on a cold Saturday night in October, with Wilson standing at the plate and 55,000 fans screaming in anticipation. Down 5-3 in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game Six, the first two batters flied out; then the gritty Mets bunched consecutive singles by Carter, rookie Kevin Mitchell, and third baseman Ray Knight to plate a run. Red Sox manager John McNamara called on veteran reliever Bob Stanley to replace Calvin Schiraldi and get the Series-clinching final out. Stanley had faced Wilson three times already in the Series and had retired him twice. After seven pitches, the count was 2-and-2, but on pitch number eight, the ball got away from catcher Rich Gedman, almost hitting Wilson, bouncing away and scoring Mitchell from third base. Two pitches later the most infamous groundball in World Series lore rolled down the first-base line and trickled into history. “I had a pitch I should’ve handled really well, middle in low, but kind of rolled over it,” said Wilson when asked about the fateful pitch. “I knew the ball was hit slowly, so I gotta run, and the pitcher was slow getting there. I didn’t see the ball go through (Bill) Buckner, I just saw it go behind him. …” Wilson maintained that he would have beaten the slow and injured Buckner to first, even had he made the play cleanly. The Mets won Game Seven two nights later to capture the second world championship in their history. Wilson’s numbers for the Series were a tad better than they had been for the NLCS: a .269 average, with a double and three stolen bases. He struck out six times.
As often happens with championship teams, the following year brings roster changes that ultimately affect team chemistry. In this case, the Mets decided they needed Kevin McReynolds, so they traded a package of young players (including one of ’86’s heroes, Kevin Mitchell) to the San Diego Padres. The acquisition did not sit well with Wilson or Dykstra, and Wilson even went so far as to request a trade, which was ignored; he and Dykstra ended up sharing time in center, with McReynolds playing left. It turned out to be one of Wilson’s finest offensive seasons as he hit a career-high .299 in just under 400 at-bats, with 19 doubles, 34 RBIs, and 21 stolen bases. And despite 92 wins, the Mets found themselves looking up at St. Louis again, finishing three games behind the eventual NL champions.
Wilson and Dykstra continued their tag-team act in 1988, but Wilson appeared to be on the downturn. Through the first hundred-plus games of the season, he was hitting only .234 with 19 RBIs and 31 runs scored. The team, however, was playing well. Ray Knight and Rafael Santana had been replaced by Howard Johnson and Kevin Elster respectively, but most of the roster from ’86 was still intact and the Mets led the Pirates for most of the year. Beginning with a series in Pittsburgh on August 5, Wilson turned his season around, hitting .386 from that point on, driving in 22 runs and scoring 30 more.
On September 5 against the Pirates, he matched a career high with four RBIs, including a three-run homer in a 7-5 victory. The win gave the Mets a 10-game lead in the division and they cruised to their second postseason in three years. Wilson ended the ’88 campaign at .296 with 41 RBIs. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was a respectable 63-27. But things did not go as well in 1988 as they had two years before and the Mets were upset in the NLCS by the Dodgers, a team they had beaten 10 out of 11 during the regular season. Wilson’s performance did not help as he collected a measly two singles in 13 at-bats with two walks and a stolen base attempt that was unsuccessful.
The Mets showed their faith in Wilson when they picked up his option before the 1989 season. However, on June 18, he was the victim of another outfield glut as, with the Mets only two games behind the Cubs in the NL East, the team traded the popular Dykstra to Philadelphia for up-and-coming center fielder Juan Samuel. Understanding that the younger Samuel would get the bulk of playing time, Wilson once again requested a trade and this time the Mets accommodated him, sending him to the Toronto Blue Jays for reliever Jeff Musselman and minor-league pitcher Mike Brady at the July 31 trading deadline.
Overall or parts of 10 seasons, Wilson ended his Mets career with a batting average of .276. He hit 60 home runs, drove in 342 runs, and scored 592 runs. He stole 281 bases, getting caught less than 100 times. His one outstanding blemish was an on-base percentage of just .318. During that decade, he could also lay claim to being one of the most popular Mets of all time.
But Wilson’s career was not over. After hitting just .205 for New York in 80 appearances over the team’s first 105 games (possibly another reason team management willingly accommodated his trade request), Wilson played in 54 games for Toronto, hitting .298. He also made his return to the postseason; the Blue Jays lost in the ALCS to Oakland.
Obviously, the Toronto organization liked what they saw and signed Wilson to a two-year contract in the offseason. A rejuvenated Wilson enjoyed a successful 1990. In 629 at-bats (the most he had since 1983), Wilson hit only .265 but drove in 51 runs (his most since ’84) and stole 23 bases, scoring 81 times. Playing mostly center field, he made only five errors and posted a.992 fielding percentage, fifth among AL outfielders.
Wilson’s playing time diminished greatly in 1991 when the Blue Jays acquired Devon White from the Angels. Playing in only 86 games, Wilson batted just .241. His OBP dipped below .300 and he scored just 26 runs. But the Jays made the playoffs once again, and Wilson snuck in eight more at-bats, collecting two singles and stealing a base. His last game in the major leagues was on October 13, 1991, when he started Game Five of the ALCS in left field against Minnesota, going 1-for-4 and scoring a run. The Jays lost 8-5, giving the Twins the AL pennant. The Blue Jays decided not to pick up Wilson’s contract for 1992 and after some interest was expressed, ironically enough by the Red Sox, he got no more phone calls. Mookie Wilson’s major-league career was over.
Wilson went to college after he retired, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Mercy College in New York in 1996, and obtained a commercial driver’s license three years later. But his love was always baseball and he stayed involved. He was the Mets first-base coach from 1997 through 2002, managed their rookie-league team in Kingsport, Tennessee, for two seasons, then moved on to skipper the Class-A Brooklyn Cyclones in 2005. He also served as the organization’s baserunning coordinator and returned to the major-league first-base coaching box in 2011. After that season he was moved into a front-office “ambassador” position, and it was here that Wilson had his first whiff of controversy during his 30-plus years in baseball. “It’s sad to say this, but I have basically become a hood ornament for the Mets, “Wilson wrote in his autobiography. “I would have liked an explanation as to why I was moved from first-base coach to the ambassadorship, but none was ever given. … I understand that jobs come and go in the baseball business, but sometimes management loses sight of how these moves play with people’s lives. … They just dictated my career as a player and a coach and it wasn’t right.” Nevertheless, Wilson did rejoin the Mets in 2012 in a job described as roving instructor and club ambassador.
As of 2015 Wilson was still married to Rosa and they have three children. They lived in Lakewood Township, New Jersey, and shortly after the 1986 World Series opened an educational center for girls called Mookie’s Roses near their home. He also appeared at shows and on the field with the player he has become most associated with—Bill Buckner. Wilson said a day did not go by that he wasn’t asked about the play, and that he approached it with mixed emotions. “Initially it did bother me that my career was defined by one play,” he said. “I think I’ve done more for the game than just hit a groundball—not even a hard-hit groundball. But I came to understand … it’s part of baseball history. It’s part of the Mets history, and to deny being a part of it is wrong.”
There was not much wrong in William “Mookie” Wilson’s career, least of all that little roller.