Their dynasty had already crumbled by the time the Yankees drafted today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant in the 54th round of the 1966 amateur draft. Rusty Torres was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in Queens, where he starred in baseball as a high school and sandlot player. It took him five plus seasons to work his way up the Yankee ladder of farm teams, but when he hit 19 home runs and averaged .290 for the Triple A Syracuse Chiefs in 1971, Ralph Houk decided to give the switch-hitting youngster an opportunity to become New York’s starting right-fielder, alongside Bobby Murcer and Roy White.
Torres proved not up to the task. He got into 80 games during the 1972 season but hit a putrid .211 with just 3 home runs and 13 RBIs in 199 at bats. That November, the Yankees sent Torres, Charley Spikes, Johnny Ellis and Jerry Kenney to Cleveland to obtain third baseman, Graig Nettles.
Even though his lifetime average was just .212, Torres defensive skills as an outfielder helped him last nine seasons in the Majors. His only year as a starter was 1976, when he was the Angels’ everyday center fielder.
Torres shares his September 30th birthday with this long-ago Yankee starting pitcher.
|CAL (2 yrs)||178||399||341||46||66||17||4||9||37||4||46||57||.194||.288||.346||.634|
|CLE (2 yrs)||230||545||462||50||92||10||1||10||40||8||63||86||.199||.296||.290||.586|
|NYY (2 yrs)||89||245||225||20||52||10||0||5||16||0||18||52||.231||.291||.342||.633|
|CHW (2 yrs)||106||254||214||33||57||8||0||11||30||0||29||44||.266||.359||.458||.817|
|KCR (1 yr)||51||80||72||10||12||0||0||0||3||1||8||7||.167||.250||.167||.417|
Once again, researching for this blog has taught me something I did not know (or had at least forgotten) about my favorite baseball team. Every Yankee fan over the age of 20 remembers Hideki Irabu. He was the Japanese pitcher the Yankees signed with great fanfare back in 1997, who went a disappointing 29-20 during his two-plus seasons in Pinstripes and who was infamously labeled a “fat toad” by impatient Yankee owner, George Steinbrenner. “The Boss” ordered Irabu traded after the 1999 season and Brian Cashman obliged by sending him to the Montreal Expos that December for three young pitching prospects. All three of those prospects were assigned to Yankee minor league teams in 2000 and two of them, a right-hander and a southpaw are still pitching in the big leagues today and have compiled over 220 career victories thus far between themselves. Only ten of those victories, however, belong to the Yankees.
The southpaw New York got in that Irabu deal was Ted Lilly and the right-hander is today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant. Originally assigned to the Yank’s triple A team, then located in Columbus, Westbrook was called up to the parent club in June of 2000 and lost his only two career starts in pinstripes. Later that same month, the Yankees sent Westbrook, outfielder Ricky Ledee and a pitching prospect named Zach Day to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for slugger, David Justice. Westbrook spent most of the next decade starting for the Indians and then signed a free agent contract with the St Louis Cardinals in November of 2010. In 2011, his 12-9 regular season record helped St. Louis make the postseason and he ended up getting and his first World Series victory (against Texas in Game 6) and his first championship ring that year. He’s currently 13-11 for this year’s Cardinals who are in the thick of the 2012 NL Wild Card chase.
As of today, Westbrook’s 35th birthday, he has 98 victories. Lilly, currently a Dodger and on the DL, has won 130 big league games. Both are doing much much better than poor Irabu, who hung himself in Los Angeles in July of 2011.
|CLE (9 yrs)||69||69||.500||4.29||218||179||10||13||3||0||1191.1||1269||624||568||107||368||655||1.374|
|STL (4 yrs)||36||32||.529||4.28||93||91||0||2||1||0||548.2||600||288||261||40||199||309||1.456|
|NYY (1 yr)||0||2||.000||13.50||3||2||1||0||0||0||6.2||15||10||10||1||4||1||2.850|
I remember very well the first time I realized the purpose and power of a good first baseman’s mitt. I was 11 years old and playing for St. Agnello Club, a team in my hometown’s youth baseball league. During our first practice before the season began, the coach of my team had asked me what position I played. Although Mickey Mantle was my favorite player back then I knew center fielders had to do a lot of running and the only running I did at that time was to get to the dinner table before my two older brothers ate all the good stuff. So I told my coach I played first base.
He looked at the “Rocky Colavito” model Rawlings’ outfielders’ glove I was wearing on my left hand and said, “You can’t play first base with that tiny thing, you need the Trapper.” He then picked up and reached into the large burlap equipment bag that was lying alongside the batting cage and pulled out the biggest wad of rawhide leather I’d ever seen in my young life. It was a genuine first baseman’s mitt.
I put that monster on my hand and went over to first base for my first-ever official infielder’s practice. Coach hit the first ground ball to our third baseman, who happened to also be one of the two sons he had playing on that year’s team. He bobbled the grounder a couple of times before finally getting the ball into his throwing hand and making a pretty hard throw toward my direction. I could tell the ball was not going to reach me and it was going to be wide of first toward right field, so I did my best Joe Pepitone impersonation and put my right toe on the side of the first base bag while reaching across my body to attempt a sweeping backhand scoop catch of the misdirected thrown ball. I may have also closed my eyes. Somehow, the ball ended up in the huge webbing of the “Trapper” and a couple of the parents who were watching the practice started clapping. I heard my coach yell “Looks like we found our new first baseman.”
For the rest of that practice and the first six or seven games of that first season, me and the Trapper caught every ball hit or thrown within four feet of first base. That glove was magical. If a baseball touched it anywhere on its palm side surface it seemed to stick to it like an EZ Pass sticks to the inside of a car’s windshield.
Then before one game, I went to the burlap bag to grab the Trapper for infield practice and it wasn’t there. One of my coach’s sons had taken it out of the bag to play with it that week and left it in their garage. I was forced to play first with my tiny Colavito glove. Sure enough, the first ball in play that game was a grounder to our second baseman. His throw to me was hard but true and I still remember the horror of watching that ball bounce off the pocket of my glove and onto the ground in front of me. After picking up the dropped ball and throwing it back to our pitcher, I remember turning toward our bench to see what the coach’s reaction was to my first-ever miscue and seeing him get into his pick-up truck and drive away. He was on his way home to get the Trapper. From that moment on, the glove never left my side. I remember almost crying when I finally was forced to return it to coach when the baseball season ended.
So why am I telling you all this? Because today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant would probably be in Cooperstown today if he had the chance to play first base with the Trapper. In fact, if Jack Fournier had a modern day first baseman’s mitt, Lou Gehrig might have never been signed by New York or might have instead been traded by the Yankees before Wally Pipp got that famous headache. Why?
In 1918, Pipp left the Yankees for WWI military service. New York signed Fournier to take his place. The French-American native from Au Sable, Michigan got into 27 games for Manager Miller Huggins ball club and instantly became one of the best hitters on that team, scorching the ball at a .350 clip during his 27 games of action. After such an impressive offensive performance, you’d figure the Yankees would quickly offer the guy a contract for the following season or at the very least invite him to next year’s spring training. Instead, the Yankees dropped him like a hot potato. How come?
Jack Fournier might just have been the worst-fielding first baseman in baseball history. During just those 27 games he played as a Yankee, the guy made 7 errors. During his 14 seasons in the big leagues, he made over 200. In Nelson Chip Green’s excellent SABR Baseball Biography profile of Fournier’s career, he quotes from a 1916 LA Times article describing the Chicago White Sox chances for success in the upcoming baseball season. Fournier played his first six big league seasons for the Pale Hose. Here’s that quote: “[t]he only weak defensive point in the infield is at first base,” where “Fournier will again try his hand at playing that position. For every run that he lets in,” suggested Williams, “he will drive in another, making it a so-so proposition.”
It seems that Fournier had hands of stone and played first base like his feet were stuck in cement. Balls thrown or hit directly at him were frequently dropped. Those that passed just a foot to either side of him were considered automatic base runners. Managers tried to hide him in the outfield but he was even worse defensively out there.
The one thing Fournier could do on a baseball field was hit. His lifetime average was .313 and once a livelier baseball was introduced to the game in 1920, Fournier became a power hitter, who was often referred to as the National Leagues “Babe Ruth.” He led the NL with 27 home runs while playing for Brooklyn in 1924. Truth was that Fournier was a great DH before there was a DH in Major League Baseball.
|CHW (6 yrs)||444||1582||1360||192||383||60||43||15||190||61||156||161||.282||.367||.422||.789|
|BRO (4 yrs)||519||2176||1866||322||629||85||35||82||396||22||242||129||.337||.421||.552||.973|
|STL (3 yrs)||418||1731||1508||244||478||83||32||29||208||52||138||111||.317||.384||.472||.856|
|BSN (1 yr)||122||433||374||55||106||18||2||10||53||4||44||16||.283||.368||.422||.790|
|NYY (1 yr)||27||110||100||9||35||6||1||0||12||7||7||7||.350||.393||.430||.823|