Friday, September 30, 2016

Mike Torrez: He Threw Lots of Other Pitches





One lousy pitch.

That's all they'll ever remember.

It's an unfortunate aspect of sport that a man can perform better than average for 10 or 15 years, but one less-than-happy result can sully his reputation for eternity.

This is the cross Mike Torrez must bear. He was a quality starting pitcher during a career that included parts of 18 major league seasons. A workhorse during the 1970s, from 1972-79 he averaged 240 innings pitched and nearly 16 wins a year. In a career that included 458 starts, if we assume around 100 pitches per start, that gives him roughly  45,000 pitches thrown. It is safe to assume that, given his longevity in the league, the vast majority of those 45,000 or so pitches did exactly what he intended for them to do: set up a batter for an out.

One memorable pitch, however, did not. There is absolutely no doubt that when Mike Torrez passes away, the first line of his obituary will include a prominent reference to that one pitch, thrown on an 0-2 count with two outs in the seventh inning to Mr. Bucky F. Dent of the New York Yankees in Fenway Park on October 2, 1978.

Most likely the obituaries won't mention the fact that until that one pitch, Torrez had pitched great in what was the 163rd game of the year; a game to determine the division championship. They also won't mention that in any other major league park the ball would have been a can of corn and not a home run or that the blow did not end the game, that actually a home run by Reggie Jackson off Bob Stanley an inning later provided the ultimate deciding margin. All of that seems to have been lost in the collective fog that is our memory of such events. Torrez was forced to wear the goat horns, made progressively all the more heavy with each passing year that the championship-starved Sox fans endured over the next three decades.

But the Mike Torrez story is about much more than the one fateful pitch. Jorge Iber, a distinguished professor of history at Texas Tech, has released a new book, Mike Torrez: A Baseball Biography, which explains all this.

A prominent undertone throughout the story is the fact that Mike Torrez, the grandson of immigrants who moved to Kansas to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution in 1911, became one of the greatest Mexican-American players in major league baseball history. Torrez has won more major league games than any other Mexican-American pitcher. His career record of 185-160 compares favorably with the more celebrated Fernando Valenzuela (173-153). Iber has published extensively, both in academic and popular venues, on the Mexican-American and Latin American experience, and has a particular interest in baseball. He puts this expertise to good use explaining Torrez' background and upbringing and detailing the hurdles he had to overcome.

Mike Torrez grew up in a hard-working barrio in Topeka, Kansas. His life's course was forever altered when he discovered that he could hurl a baseball with much more velocity than anyone else in the area. As a youngster, he won a pitching contest sponsored by the Class A Topeka Reds and was given tips by the teams' star, Jim Maloney. After starring for American Legion teams in the area, Torrez was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals.

The career of Mike Torrez reads like a mini-review of prominent names and events of the 1960s and 1970s. He came up with the Cardinals for cups of coffee as they charged to pennants in 1967 and 1968. He made the rotation in 1969, going 10-4 as a 22-year-old rookie. Unfortunately for Torrez, he arrived just as the powerful team was being dismantled for financial reasons. While with the Cards, Torrez befriended Curt Flood and would forever appreciate Flood's sacrifice for the benefit of future players.

Torrez blossomed after a trade to Montreal in 1972, becoming one of the most durable starting pitchers of the decade. He had his best season, winning 20 games, with Baltimore in 1975. Traded in 1976 with Don Baylor for Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman, he spent a turbulent year in Oakland as the A's dynasty was winding down due to the threat of increasing salary demands.

Salary struggles and the changing economics of the game played a prominent role in each stop for Mike Torrez and his story is set upon the background of the player union revolution. When Torrez first visited the Cardinals, before signing a contract, he was warned by second baseman Julian Javier in Spanish to be careful, that the Cards would try to take advantage of him with a low-ball offer. Not knowing any better, he went ahead and signed and later learned that Javier was right.

As the pendulum in player-owner relations swung, Torrez became more wary and savvy. In one of the more entertaining parts of the book, Iber explains that after the 1976 season, in which Torrez won 16 games with a 2.50 ERA, he received a contract from Charlie Finley calling for a 20 % raise to $100,000 a year. Surprised at the largess from the notoriously penny-pinching owner, Torrez soon received a call from a contrite Finley who explained that due to cutbacks in the front office he had been forced to do the paperwork himself and had made a mistake--he actually wanted to cut the salary by 20%. "Let's treat this like gentlemen," Finley told him. "Let's tear up the contract." Finley offered as compensation a year's supply of his famous chili (Torrez, not surprisingly, declined the chili and kept the hundred grand).

Shipped to New York in a salary dump, Torrez joined the Billy Martin-Reggie Jackson-Thurman Munson Bronx Zoo and ended up winning two games for the Yankees in the 1977 World Series, including the clincher.

Fresh off the World Series heroics, Torrez became the first person with a Mexican background to be named "Kansan of the Year." He became one of the first big free agent signees, inking a 7-year deal for a cool two-and-a-half million dollars with the Red Sox, unbelievable numbers at the time, especially for a kid from his background. The deal would be a turning point in Torrez' life, and not necessarily for the better. Much was expected of Torrez because of the big salary and he was singled out by disappointed fans when the Sox failed to deliver .

The book details the painful sequelae in Boston for Torrez after the 1978 season--six more years of boos. The infamy persisted, joined by that of Bill Buckner, until the demons were exercised by the championship of 2004. For a long time Torrez bore hard feelings for Boston due to his treatment by fans.

The book was written with extensive participation by Torrez and contains many pictures from his personal collection. Also Iber interviewed teammates such as Dennis Eckersley and Ken Singleton along with Torrez' former wife. Along with his baseball exploits, the book details some of Torrez' off-field fun and trials. Iber describes him in his heyday as a "Knight of the Neon," known for partying seventies style.

Overall, this is a good read for any baseball fan and a nice trip back through the decades of the '60s, '70s and '80s. Iber is a professional historian who knows how to conduct research and it shows.