August 8 – Happy Birthday Ray Fontenot
I remember getting pretty excited by Ray Fontenot’s rookie year performance with the Yankees during the second half of the 1983 season. The Yankee rotation he joined that year included 20-game winner Ron Guidry, perfect game thrower Dave Righetti and Shane Rawley. When Fontenot was called up at the end of June and won his first three big league starts, I thought that Yankee rotation was strong enough to make the postseason. As it turned out, not quite. Fontenot continued to pitch well, finishing the year with an 8-2 record and that Yankee team won 91 games, but Baltimore won 98 and took the Division crown.
Still, it seemed as if the southpaw Fontenot had a bright future with New York. He was just 25 years old during his rookie year but he already pitched with a lot of poise on the mound. His ERA that first year was an impressive 3.33. Like Guidry, he was born in Louisiana and the Yankee beat writers would get a kick out of hearing Gator and the rookie converse in Creole French in the Yankee clubhouse. When New York also added John Montefusco to their starting staff in August of ’83 and “The Count” won five straight decisions, Yankee fans were beginning to feel downright giddy about our starters entering the 1984 season. Boy were we wrong!
First of all, the Yankees didn’t re-sign their closer Goose Gossage after the ’83 season. New York’s front office made the decision to switch Righetti to that role. In my research for today’s blog post, I discovered that Billy Martin, who was then serving as a Steinbrenner consultant, was against making Righetti the closer and actually suggested that Fontenot would be the better alternative. Righetti proved a smart choice as he went on to save 31 games during his first season pitching out of the bullpen. The Yankees signed the veteran knuckleballer, Phil Niekro to replace Righetti in the rotation and he did an outstanding job, going 16-8. But Guidry had an off-year in ’84, finishing with a 10-11 record and both Rawley and Montefusco were injured and appeared in just 11 games each. Ray Fontenot won just 8 games during his first full season in the big leagues and lost 9. He did not pitch really badly, compiling a 3.61 ERA in his sophomore year, but when four starting pitchers on the same staff all under-produce in the same season the results are never pretty.
Back then, the Yankees had little patience with young pitchers and Fontenot was traded to the Cubbies in December of ’84 as part of a six-player deal. He went just 6-10 during his first season with Chicago and was just 3-5 the following year when he was traded and then released by the Minnesota Twins. Although he tried to get back to the big leagues after the 1986 season, he never did.