I pitched three years in the minor leagues for the Milwaukee Braves and I never pitched a “Big Game,” like the deciding game of a league championship, my 20th victory on the last day of the season or a no-hitter in the final game of my minor league career before being called up to the Braves, where I thought I would pitch for the next twenty years. All my minor league games were “little games” in nowhere towns like Palatka, Florida, before a handful of fans. Most booed me, screaming at my manager to take me out if we were at home, or leave me in - “He ain’t done yet,” - if we were on the road. They were meaningless games in which I was holding onto my fast fading career with my fingertips before I plummeted off that precipice, three years of diminishing success leading to outright failure.
But I guess a case could be made that every game I pitched in the minors was a "Big Game." Each was meaningful to me because every game I did pitch meant one more day I wasn’t banished to the "lunch bucket brigade" that awaited my failure back in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where my pitching career began.
At 12 I was a star of such magnitude that grown-ups would drive for hours from all over New England just to see me pitch.
I was 8 years old when I became the first boy my age in New England to make the Little League Major Division, playing on a team of 11 and 12 year olds. I didn’t pitch that first year, but when I was 9 I became my team’s starting pitcher, and when I was 10 and 11 I was the best pitcher in the league, undefeated for those two seasons. At 12 I was a star of such magnitude that grown-ups would drive for hours from all over New England just to see me pitch. Dick Young of the New York Daily News wrote a column about me. The Yankees invited me to appear on Mel Allen’s pre-game TV show.
I was introduced to Yankee manager Casey Stengel. He had already heard of me because in my last year of Little League I struck out all 18 batters I faced in four games, and 17 of 18 batters in three games. "You’re the little fella don’t need no fielders when he pitches, eh?" he said. The other three outs recorded in those games were two bunt attempts and a dribbling groundball to our shortstop. The fans used to give batters who hit a foul ball off me a standing ovation. Why not? I pitched four no-hitters and three one-hitters that season.
"You’re the little fella don’t need no fielders when he pitches, eh?"
The biggest game I pitched that year, the one that taught me a profound lesson in life and in baseball, was my last game in Little League. It was against nearby Milford, Connecticut for the Regional Championship. The winner would go to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. My team was undefeated and such a powerhouse it was assumed we’d roll over Milford and any other team at Williamsport and become Little League World Series Champions.
I started the game with nine straight strikes, and three straight strike-outs and in the second inning I struck out the first two batters on six pitches. It was the kind of perfection I took for granted; effortless, limitless and eternal.
Then the third batter bunted my first pitch down the first base line. I pounced on the ball and fired it to first base. But my first basemen had charged in to field the bunt, and my second baseman hadn’t covered first. My throw sailed into the right field corner. By the time my right fielder scooped up the ball the runner was heading towards second base. He fired the ball over the head of the second baseman and into the left field corner. The runner headed toward third. By the time my left fielder scooped up the ball the runner was streaking towards home. My left fielder fired the ball to the plate, but he, too, flung it high, over the head of my catcher, and the run scored. 1-0, Milford. That’s how the game ended. The fans gave me a standing ovation when I went to home plate to receive my team’s consolation trophy. I was crying over the loss of that game, and possibly, too, over the subliminal realization that I had just learned my first adult lesson in life, that my efforts and talent alone would no longer be enough to guarantee unlimited success. Fate had a hand in my life, too. I couldn’t control everything.
Fate had a hand in my life, too. I couldn’t control everything.
In my sophomore year of high school I pitched five games and won them all. In my second game I struck out 19 of 21 batters to set a state high school record for strikeouts in a seven-inning game that wasn’t broken for years. After that game a major league scout called my house and offered me a $20,000 bonus. I told him I was only 15 and a high school sophomore. He was shocked. Then he said, "By the time you graduate you’ll be way out of my league, bonus-wise, but at least remember I was the first scout to acknowledge your talent."
That summer, after my high school season was over, I didn’t pitch in the local Babe Ruth or American Legion league. I pitched in our semi-pro Senior City League against men in their late 20s and 30s. I was the youngest player ever in a league of ex-college and ex-minor league stars who were now working as carpenters, masons, and machinists, most trying to support a wife and kids. But they still kept their hand in the game they loved on weeknights and Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
I more than held my own against those men, regularly striking out 10 to 14 batters a game. They didn’t like it much. They flung their bats, glared out at me, a kid, and growled, "I’ll get you next time." But they didn’t.
The biggest game I pitched that year wasn’t really a "Big Game," a league championship, or a no-hitter, nothing like that. I won 3-2, gave up five hits, and fanned 12 in seven innings, a nice game for me. What made it a "Big Game" was the fact that my pitching opponent was Tommy Casagrande, who everyone called "Tommy Big House." He was six-four, 250 pounds, with reddish-blonde hair and freckled arms like hams, almost 30 years old, a lefty like my idol, Whitey Ford. Tommy had gotten a $40,000 bonus to sign with the Phillies and despite getting his own baseball card, never played in the majors. After seven years in the minors he quit baseball and returned to Connecticut where he became a train conductor, and, on Sunday afternoons, a local legend, the best pitcher in the Senior City League until I outpitched him that Sunday when I was just 15.
After the game, both teams went to the White Eagle Polish Social Club for beer and sandwiches. I didn’t drink beer, and I was too nervous even to eat around all those older, unshaven men. They ignored me pretty much, this pink-faced hot-shot who’d get his one of these days … except for Tommy Big House. He came over to me, smiling, and handed me a beer. I took a sip. He put his big meaty hand on my shoulder - I can still feel the weight of it - and said, "Kid, someday you’re gonna be a Big League star."
He put his big meaty hand on my shoulder — I can still feel the weight of it — and said, "Kid, someday you’re gonna be a Big League star."
The following spring, as a junior in high school, I fashioned a 7-0 record, and would have been considered the best high school pitcher in New England if not for my nemesis, Johnny Papa. Johnny was a senior at Stratford High School, a burly right-hander with a great overhand fastball and sharp, down-breaking curveball, almost a slider. But he was unrefined, a diamond in the rough compared to me. Even though I was a year younger I had a smooth delivery, a moving fastball (Johnny’s was straight as a string) and a bigger curveball, more of a Nolan Ryan curve. I looked like a seasoned big leaguer with all the mannerisms; the way I hitched up my pants after a strikeout, the way I toed the rubber and tugged on my cap. Johnny fidgeted on the mound and looked nervous, almost scared, although he had no reason to be. The batters were scared of Johnny, who was just wild enough to fire an occasional fastball under their chin and remind them of God.
When Johnny and I finally faced each other in the District Championship game, there were over 4,000 people in the stands and standing along the baselines and outfield foul lines. It was the biggest crowd to ever attend a high school game in Connecticut.
Sixteen of those fans were major league scouts.
Sixteen of those fans were major league scouts. They’d come to see Johnny in one of his last high school games before he’d be eligible to sign for a big bonus. They were aware of me, too, but I had another year of eligibility left. The game was a classic pitcher’s duel, 0-0, after seven innings. Then in the eighth, after a walk and a stolen base, one of our hitters blooped a single over first base that scored the winning run. By the end I’d given up four hits and fanned 10; Johnny had given up two hits and fanned 12. After the game, a local sportswriter interviewed Whitey Piurek, an old time Dodgers’ scout. He asked him how much of a bonus did Whitey think Papa would be offered. Whitey said he didn't know, but that whatever Papa was offered, next year that kid Jordan would get twice as much.
That was the day that baseball ceased being just a game for me, and became, instead, a business.
That was the day that baseball ceased being just a game for me, and became, instead, a business. It was also the beginning of the end of my career. In my senior year, I pitched under the unbearable pressure of knowing that every strikeout was a dollar sign, every hit subtracted from those dollars, and every loss cost me thousands. I finished that year with only a 5-4 record. Instead of getting that big $100,000 bonus, which would have been twice as much as Papa’s, I got only $50,000 before beginning my minor league career in the summer of 1959.
The closest I ever came to pitching a "Big Game" in the minors was in my last minor league season, and it was a "Big Game" only because it was my last game. The year was 1961, and I was pitching for the Palatka in the Class D Florida State League, against the Tampa Tarpons, a farm club for the Cincinnati Reds. I was wild as usual, walking batter after batter, sweating in the merciless August heat, kicking the dirt, cursing myself, my teammates, the umpires, the fans, the opposing batters just standing at the plate, relaxed, grinning even, their bat resting on their shoulder, not even expecting to swing, just waiting out their four balls before they trotted to first base. Their fans cheered my ineptitude at first, but even they got bored with so many walks and runs for their team, the game, for all intents and purposes, already over in the first inning. They began moaning and jeering, pleading with my manager to free everyone from this painful public disgrace, "Take him out, he’s done on both sides."
I already knew he would be the last batter I would ever face in my aborted career.
The next batter stepped into the batter’s box. I already knew he would be the last batter I would ever face in my aborted career. I glared at him, my final chance to salvage some pride, to go out on my shield on a boat filled with burning straw into that vast sea of an ordinary life that awaited me in Bridgeport, where I expected to work one shit job after another to support my wife and squalling kids; Mason laborer. Soda jerk at a drugstore. Ditch digger on a construction crew. And then, after work, dirty, depressed, and disgusted, I would drink too many beers before I went home to my poor beleaguered wife.
So I decided to plant my fastball in this final batter’s ear; Pete Rose.
Rose was one of the leading hitters in the league and had already earned that nickname that would stick with him forever, "Charlie Hustle," a player who ran out walks to first base and went full speed everywhere. The fans loved it. Fathers pointed Rose out to their little boys and said, "Now that’s the way the game should be played."
Ironically, it was Rose’s teammates who gave him that name, and they didn’t mean it as a compliment. Actually, the full name they gave him was "Charlie Fucking Hustle." They hated his hot-dogging as much as the opposing players and even the umpires did, the way he was always wiggling his bat, jabbering and running everywhere. What the fans saw as old fashioned hustle the rest of us saw as an attempt to show us up if we didn’t run to first base on a walk, a meaningless expenditure of energy in the Florida sun. It called attention to Rose but it implied that the rest of us lacked Rose’s enthusiasm. That’s why, in one game when Rose ran to first on a walk, one of his teammates called out from the dugout, "Walk, you sunuvabitch; that’s why they call it a ‘walk.’ They don’t call it a fuckin’ run.’"
I glared at Rose, wiggling his bat, and fired my first fastball. It sailed a foot over his head, rattling the screen. He didn’t even bother to duck.
At that moment I think Pete Rose was the first person in this world I truly hated. I fired the next fastball so far behind him it scattered all his teammates in their dugout. They began to laugh and hoot at me. One player yelled, "If you’re gonna hit the sunuvabitch, hit him."
It dawned on me what was happening, that this abject futility was the nadir of my career.
It dawned on me what was happening, that this abject futility was the nadir of my career. I couldn’t even hit a goddamned batter, much less actually get him out.
I revised my strategy. I decided to hit him in the ankles, a low fastball that could crack a bone and teach that sunuvabitch, Charlie Fucking Hustle, a lesson. Let’s see him run to first base after that.
I wound up and fired my best fastball. It was a beautiful pitch, ankle high, then it floated over the heart of the plate, a perfect low strike if only Rose’s bat hadn’t already begun to swing in a long arc, the barrel of that bat catching that fastball on the sweet spot, driving it over my center fielder’s head until it hit the wall 400 feet away and bounced back into his glove.
He whirled and threw the ball to second. Rose was already standing there, jabbering with the shortstop, without a clue as to what had just happened to me, my career, or my life. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my manager walking toward the mound to take me out of this, the last game of my career, the Biggest Game I ever pitched.