Friday, January 29, 2010

19 Days Until Spring Training: Dave Righetti

Dave Righetti was one of the lucky few who grew up rooting for the Yankees and lived out the dream of playing for his favorite team. His paternal grandmother grew up next door to Tony Lazzeri in San Francisco, and although she lived 3,000 miles from the Bronx, became a fan of the Bombers. His dad Leo signed with the Yanks shortstop in 1940 at the age of 17, but never made it to the Big Leagues, his journey derailed by a freak accident that severed the tip of one of his fingers.

However, Dave did achieve that goal and a whole lot more. He was originally drafted by the Rangers but was dealt to the Yankees in November of 1978 as part of a trade that sent Juan Beníquez, Mike Griffin, Greg Jemison, Paul Mirabella and Righetti to New York in exchange for Sparky Lyle, Domingo Ramos, Mike Heath, Larry McCall, and Dave Rajsich.

Just three months later, he was nearly redirected to Minnesota as part of a package for Rod Carew. The Yankees agreed to part with Chris Chambliss, Brian Doyle, Beníquez and up to $400,000 but balked at the inclusion of Mirabella or Righetti. Carew grew frustrated with the talks, saying:
"I don't like the idea of being pushed around, cooling my heels while they [Steinbrenner and Twins owner Calvin Griffith] go fishing and play golf. If they think they can wait until the last minute and then tell me to start packing, they are out of their minds."
Luckily for Rags and his family, Carew was sent to the Angels and he got to stick around with the Yankees. After one season of 2.31 ERA ball split between AA and AAA, Righetti made his Major League debut in September of 1979 wearing number 56 when he was only 20 years old. It was a very short stint and he spent all of 1980 in AAA, struggling to a 4.53 ERA.

After an excellent 5-0 tear to begin his season in Columbus in 1981, he was called up in May. Rags got off to a great start, pitching to a 1.50 ERA in his first six starts and went on to win the American Leauge Rookie of the Year in a landslide.

In his next two seasons as a starting pitcher, Righetti threw exactly 400 innings of 3.60 ERA ball (109 ERA+). He famously tossed a no hitter against the Red Sox on the 4th of July in 1983, which Matt detailed around that time last year. It was the first such event in Yankees history since Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Of course, the 4th is also George Steinbrenner's birthday which greatly endeared him to the Boss.

Paradoxically, being a favorite of the Boss sent his career down a path that never quite suited Righetti. At the behest of Steinbrenner, before the 1984 season began, the Yanks transitioned the Big Ragu into a reliever to replace the departed Goose Gossage. Privately, he didn't agree with the move to the bullpen, aware that he could be more successful and make more money as a starting pitcher over the long run. Outwardly though, he embraced the role and set the Major League Record for saves in 1986 with 46, though that record would be shattered by Bobby Thigpen 4 years later.

Like Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, there was frequent and heated debate in regards to Righetti's proper role. Publicly, he was known as the "polite Yankee", keeping quiet about his amidst the chaos, refusing to charge for autographs and personally answering his fan mail.

But in the privacy of the clubhouse, he was rumored to react to his failures by flushing his cleats down the toilet and destroying locker room garbage cans. Eventually, he explained to Jill Lieber of Sports Illustrated how much the pressure of closing was weighing on him:
I've been booed so bad. I walk from the mound with my head down, then fight to get through the parking lot. I watch the fans cheer guys who don't hustle. They cheer guys who rip the organization. I guess you have to be rotten to have the fans like you. Keith Hernandez is involved in the Pittsburgh drug trial, and he gets a standing ovation at Shea Stadium. I give up a run, and I get booed like crazy. You figure it out.

I wish Yankee fans appreciated me as a reliever. They've never accepted me because the team has never stuck behind me as a reliever. And because I've never complained, they think I don't stand up for myself. They think I'm a patsy.
Although it was clear that Righetti wasn't embracing his role as closer, Steinbrenner remained adamant:
He is going to be the closer. He will be brought in in the ninth inning. Period. I'm the only one who knows how to use him. I've told my manager and coaches, 'If you reach for him too early, you'll be reaching for the next train home.'
Those quotes were recorded in early 1990, in Righetti's last year as a Yankee. He rode out that season with a 3.57 ERA and converted 36 saves. The Yanks allowed his contract to expire and he signed as a free agent with the Giants. While he was fairly effective in 1991, he was released halfway through his second consecutive terrible year in San Francisco in 1993.

Rags bounced around from the A's to the Blue Jays to the White Sox at the end of his career before retiring in 1995. In that final season, the White Sox let Rags start 9 games and he was actually pretty respectable, racking up a 4.20 ERA (107 ERA+).

Today he serves as the pitching coach for the Giants a position he's held since 2000.

Sadly, Righetti's career with the Yankees began with a ton of promise - a fan since childhood, a Rookie of the Year and a consummate nice guy. But like many of the Yankee teams he played on throughout the 1980's, his success was hampered by the tyrannical rule of the Boss.

Still, he left an indelible mark on the franchise. Every 4th of July, Yankees fans fondly remember Righetti for his finest moment in Pinstripes and are left to wonder what might have been had things turned out a different way.

1 comment:

  1. I grew up watching the Yankees of the 80s and always had negative feelings toward Righetti. I remember (although I could have the facts wrong) when he came into Dave Eiland's first game with a 5-1? lead and lost the game. He also had a tendancy to point at the pop up in the air that wound up being a deep home run.

    Even looking at this post the negative memories came back strongly. Reading the post though I think it might be time to cut him a break. He wasn't the cause of the 80s failures. He just was unfortunate to be on the team when the manager and GM roles were filled by the idiot in the owner's box.