January 16 – Happy Birthday Ron Villone
It was just before Christmas in 2007 that former US Senator George Mitchell held a press conference at New York City’s Grand Hyatt Hotel and announced that steroid use was rampant and widespread in Major League Baseball. His report indicated that the Yankees were among the biggest abusers. He listed the names of twenty current and former Yankee players who his investigation had discovered evidence had used the performance enhancing drug. In minutes, that list of Bronx Bombers found its way on to every Web site of every New York City newspaper. Yankee Universe went into collective shock. Yankee stars who had made significant contributions to the four World Series Championships and numerous postseason appearances the team had achieved in the previous decade were on that list. If Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, David Justice, Gary Sheffield and even Chuck Knoblauch and Mike Stanton had used the juice that meant the Yankee teams they played so well for and the wins those teams accumulated were tainted.
As I reviewed the list, it became clear to me that the players who took PEDs did it for different reasons. Superstars like Clemens, who’d already made their millions did it because they loved the ride they had at the top of their profession and didn’t want it to end. Several on the list, including Pettitte claimed they used the drug to help them recover from injuries faster. But than there were players named on that list like today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, Ron Villone. He was an aging journeyman pitcher who had been in the big leagues since 1995. When he put on the Yankee pinstripes for the first time in 2006, two seasons before the Mitchell Report was released, it was the tenth different uniform he had worn in his Major League career. He would get to wear two more different team jerseys after he left the Yankees and before he was released by the Nationals in 2009. Except for three seasons with Cincinnati, he had been a mostly under-the-radar bullpen pitcher with most of those ball clubs.
Villone was not a star or a stopper. He kept working because he threw left handed and every big league team at one time or another is looking for a left handed relief pitcher who can come into a game on short notice and get a left handed hitter in the opposing lineup out. In order to do that, situational southpaws like Villone had to stay ready. That meant frequent warming up in the bullpen during games. When you add up all the pitches situational lefties like Villone threw in the bullpen and during games and you add in the fact that he was 36-years-old when the Yanks signed him, its easier to understand why Villone would take steroids. That first year with the Yanks in 2006, Joe Torre used him in 70 games and probably warmed him up but didn’t use him in four dozen others. That’s what Joe Torre and loads of other big league managers did and do to their situational relievers. In order to survive in that role and earn the one-to-two million dollar salaries good one’s get, you have to be ready not only when needed but also when the skipper even thinks you may be needed. Villone probably used steroids to help his 36-year-old arm get ready fast during just about every game the Yankees played. But unlike Clemens or Pettitte or A-Rod, Villone won’t have to worry that his use of PEDs might keep him out of the Hall of Fame.