Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Closer Look: Dick Radatz

NOTE: The following article was written shortly before Dick Radatz's death in 2005.

DICK RADATZ: BASEBALL’S SUPERNOVA

Imagine a 6’6” tall wide-body throwing a 95mph fastball at you from a low-sidearm delivery, and you have an idea of why Dick Radatz terrorized American League batters for several years in the 1960s. Dubbed “The Monster” by Mickey Mantle, Radatz burst upon the scene at a time when the average pitcher was several inches shorter than today’s hurlers. Of the handful of major league pitchers in 1963 who were taller than Radatz, three (Dave DeBusschere, Steve Hamilton, and Gene Conley) were also professional basketball players. His playing weight fluctuated between 235-260 pounds, and with his long stride and bulk dwarfing a release point that sent his fastball and slider homeward at unfamiliar angles, it’s no wonder that he was totally untouchable for large stretches of the four seasons he logged before control woes curtailed his brilliance.

Radatz, a Detroit native, graduated from Michigan State University in 1959, and was a teammate there of another great reliever, Ron Perranoski. Radatz was a starting pitcher in college (with a 1.12 ERA in 1959 and an overall record of 17-4) and remained so for his first two years in the minors. In 1961, at Seattle in the Pacific Coast League, he was shifted to the bullpen by manager Johnny Pesky, who said he’d teach Radatz to pitch every day. At that time, such a move was considered a demotion, and Radatz told writer Bob Cairns (in an excellent oral history of relievers titled PEN MEN), “that year and even the following year when I went to Boston and was Relief Pitcher of the Year, I still didn’t feel like I was a part of the ball club. I felt like an add-on.” He took his frustration out on PCL hitters, striking out more than one batter per inning and posting a 2.28 ERA in 54 games.

That performance earned Radatz a promotion to the Red Sox, where he instantly took the American League by storm. He allowed only one run in his first 16 innings, and later credited his quick success to a tip from Red Sox pitching coach Sal Maglie. Though Radatz had always possessed a good fastball, he didn’t know how to get the maximum velocity until Maglie showed him how to bend his back leg and harness the full power of his weight when pushing off toward the plate. “With just a few words,” Radatz said of Maglie, “he made a great difference in my life.”

From July 3 through August 17, 1962, Radatz put together the first of several extended stretches of ridiculously dominant pitching. In 20 appearances, he logged 42 1/3 innings, surrendered only two runs, and struck out 50 batters. One of those runs came on July 12 at Kansas City, when he pitched five innings to pick up an extra-inning win in the second game of a twi-night doubleheader that ended close to midnight. The next night, the Red Sox tied the Athletics in the top of the 9th, and in came Radatz despite his yeoman work of the night before. No problem. The game lasted 15 innings before the Red Sox won, and Radatz went the distance, seven innings of shutout ball, making a dozen innings of relief work and two wins in less than 24 hours. Let’s see any pitcher, not just a reliever, shoulder a load like that today. “Coming on top of the five innings the night before,” Radatz told “The Sporting News,” “that game gave me the confidence I may not have had before about being able to put two relief jobs together. Those were big games for me. Also when I went nine innings in relief to beat the Yankees.” That was on September 9 at Yankee Stadium, when Radatz allowed the tying run in the 7th but followed with eight shutout innings, striking out nine, before the Red Sox won the game for him in the 16th inning. Radatz pitched 20 innings against the champion Yankees in 1962, giving them only three runs, a stinginess he continue over the next three years.

Radatz carried a 1.96 ERA into his final outing of the season, a four-run disaster which raised his ERA to 2.23. His 9-6 record and 144 strikeouts in 124 2/3 innings pitched earned him recognition as the league’s top reliever. Saves were not an official stat during Radatz’s prime years, but under modern rules he would have had 24 saves in 1962, more than any American League reliever. At age 25, he had arrived on the major league scene in a big way.

“When you get right down to it,” Radatz told Bob Cairns, “I loved embarrassing the hitter.” In 1963, his best season, he embarrassed the whole league, leading Yankees manager Ralph Houk to declare that “for two seasons, I’ve never seen a better pitcher.” His first seven appearances in 1963 included a seven-inning victory, a three-inning/6-strikeout game, and a four-inning/7-strikeout effort. Then he got hot, putting together the longest scoreless streak of his career, 33 innings between May 13 and June 14.

These weren’t jam-packed innings either, they were overpowering performances. In those 33 innings, spread out over 14 games, The Monster yielded only 11 hits and seven walks, and he whiffed 43 helpless hitters. The streak was capped by the two most scintillating outings of his career. Entering the June 9 game at Baltimore in the bottom of the 9th of a 2-2 tie, he struck out the side to send the game into extra innings. Nobody scored until the 14th, when the Red Sox eked out the game-winner. Radatz pitched six innings of two-hit ball. The 18 outs he recorded included 10 strikeouts, five foul pop-ups, a sacrifice bunt, and a caught stealing. The only batter he walked was intentional. Of the 20 batters he faced, only four hit the ball into fair territory! How do you top that?

Radatz topped it, just two nights later at Detroit. Manager Pesky brought him in in the 7th inning with a runner on second, and he gave up a game-tying single. After that it was lights out for the Tigers as the game stretched into extra innings. They got only two more hits off him the rest of the way, which amounted to another eight innings before the Red Sox won it in the 15th. He walked one man and fanned 11 in his 8 2/3 innings of work. Remember this was only two nights after going six innings at Baltimore. Didn’t he get tired? If he did, The Monster had a strange way of showing it. He retired the final dozen Tigers he faced, and struck out six of the last eight. In two games over a 50-hour span, he pitched 14 2/3 scoreless innings, allowed only five hits and two walks, and struck out 21. Eric Gagne puts up the same numbers – in a month!

In July, 1963, Radatz put together another three-week scoreless streak, this one covering 19 2/3 innings with 11 hits and 18 strikeouts. He wound up the season with a 15-6 record, 24 saves, a 1.98 ERA, and 161 strikeouts in 132 innings. “Dick Radatz brings one weapon – a fast ball,” wrote columnist Jim Murray. “It’s like saying all a country brings to a war is an atom bomb.” Even though the Red Sox were a seventh-place club, Radatz left devastation in his wake.

In 1964, he started where he had left off, allowing only three earned runs in his first 15 appearances. That spree covered 30 1/3 innings in which he gave up just 19 hits and struck out 39. This ushered in his most prolific season, with 157 innings pitched in 79 games. He led all major league relievers with 29 saves and 16 wins (against 9 losses), and set a relief record with 181 strikeouts, a record that should stand for a long time. “We’d be dead without him,” said Pesky at the time. Of course, they were dead anyway, finishing eighth that year. Radatz led the team in wins, and his 2.29 ERA was less than half of the figure for the rest of the pitching staff. It seemed that nothing could stop him.

However, one great hitter might have done just that. In a story published in the 1979 Red Sox scorebook, Radatz recalled that in spring training in 1965, none other than Ted Williams convinced him that his sidearm motion made him a great candidate to throw a sinker that would befuddle left-handed hitters even more. “I agreed,” said Radatz, “and worked hard to develop a sinker. I came up with a pretty good one and fell in love with it. The only trouble was that in doing so I lost my fastball. I’d developed a different motion for the sinker, and my fastball wasn’t effective out of that motion.”

He got off to a horrible start in 1965, giving up 21 earned runs in his first 26 innings. For the rest of the season his ERA was a decent 3.03, and he did have flashes of his vintage brilliance. He had a trio of six-inning gems: only one hit by the Orioles, no runs and three hits by the Indians, and a run on two hits by the Yankees. In two games against the Athletics (May 28 and June 5), he struck out 15 of the 21 batters he faced in 5 2/3 innings of shutout ball. He finished the season with 22 saves and a 9-11 record on a dismal team that lost 100 games and finished ninth. His ERA, however, jumped from below 2.30 the previous three seasons to a dangerously mortal 3.92.

“That was the beginning of the end, though,” Radatz said in 1979. “I couldn’t regain my good control, and it got to be a mental thing. I went from an excellent control pitcher to no control at all.” As Jim Murray wrote of Radatz in 1964, “Control is the secret of his sunshine. If his fast ball went any old place—like the other fellow’s bridgework or the backstop—he’d just be another mound moose with an arm that could scatter the third-base customers.” That’s about what happened, as Radatz was traded to the Indians after a slow start in 1966 and spent the next three years bouncing around baseball. He had stints with the Cubs, Tigers, and expansion Expos before calling it quits in 1969. For much of that time he had trouble finding the strike zone, including one nightmarish game in which he threw 24 straight balls.

In Unhittable!, my book on great pitching seasons, I have an appendix about the greatest relievers. I summarized Radatz’s career thusly: “The supernova of relievers, he lit up the sky at Fenway Park for three years before flaring out.” During those years when the Red Sox were mediocre, Radatz elicited more excitement and cheers than anybody. When he ended a game, usually with a strikeout, he would raise his arms above his head exultantly, a trademark gesture that was rare in his time but presaged the triumphant gestures that recent relievers so commonly display. Boston fans loved the way he terrorized and demolished opposing lineups.

So did I, growing up ten miles from Yankee Stadium and watching him mow down the Yankees again and again on television. As a kid, I spent an excessive amount of time playing dice baseball games, sometimes with friends but more often (as an only child) by myself. I am here to confess that Dick Radatz was the only player I cheated for in those games; many times, if the dice showed that he had allowed a three-run home run, I would get temporary amnesia, forget that I had just rolled the dice, and fling them again to give him that rally-killing strikeout I had anticipated and seen so many times in reality.

There was one time, however, when I was totally helpless to prevent him from surrendering a three-run home run. That was the 1964 All-Star Game at Shea Stadium, which I attended with my father. Radatz came in to pitch the 7th inning with a 4-3 lead and promptly got two strikeouts and a fly out. In the 8th, he fanned Bill White and Leo Cardenas and got Billy Williams to ground out. It looked like a repeat of his 1963 All-Star Game outing, when he allowed a run in two innings but struck out five, including Willie Mays, Duke Snider, and Willie McCovey.

Then came the bottom of the 9th, which I still remember vividly in every detail. Still ahead 4-3, Radatz walked Willie Mays leading off. Everyone in the park knew that Mays would steal second, and the chant of “Willie! Willie!” filled Shea. Mays stole second and scored the tying run when Orlando Cepeda blooped a single to short right field which was retrieved by first baseman Joe Pepitone, who threw wildly to the plate. Cepeda went to second on the heave, and Radatz walked the next man intentionally to get to Ron Hunt. Hank Aaron batted for Hunt but Radatz whiffed him, which made the next batter, Johnny Callison, seem less dangerous. Wrong. I still don’t know how Callison got around so quickly on a low fastball that seemed to scrape the ground. For a long time I’ve thought he was prescient, that he decided before Radatz threw the ball that “I’m going to swing as hard as I can eight inches off the ground, and I hope that’s where he throws it.” The result was a low, screaming line drive which cleared the fence in the right field corner for the game-winning three-run home run. As a National League fan, I was supposed to be overjoyed. Instead I was sick; I couldn’t believe I had just witnessed the demise of my favorite reliever. I can still see the wicked low trajectory of Callison’s blast and still feel the sudden shock of Radatz’s joyride ending. In the fantasy world of my dice game, Radatz could remain infallible, but in reality he was as mortal as everybody else. Writing about him has made him mighty again in my consciousness. But maybe it’s time to unleash those dice again.

1 comment:

gofuckyourselfandstopwaistingmytime said...

The Monster was lights out in 1962-64 when striking out over a batter an inning was a big deal.Had his 1965 baseball card. I miss being a kid in the 1960s. Where does the time go? :(