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Mudville: February 28, 2021 2:10 am PDT
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Such’s Life

Dick Such fulfilled his lifelong dream in so many ways that it is easy to forget the nightmarish season that helped him achieve that goal.

While Such, 76, is best remembered as the pitching coach for the Minnesota Twins [1986-2001], shepherding that staff to a pair of World Series titles, it was the stunning fashion in which he began his career that put him on the path not only to the Major Leagues but helped cement his place as one of the most revered pitching gurus in the game over the last half century.

Such went 0-16 for the York White Roses of the Eastern League in 1967. It was a season that would have crushed the spirit of many a young pitcher, driving them from the mound and from the game permanently. If you look down the stat line next to Such’s name, though, past the goose egg under the win column, you’ll notice that his season on the Double-A circuit was actually not all that bad and served to further his resolve about reaching the Major Leagues.

Consider that Such posted a 2.81 ERA in 128 innings over his 20 starts. He also had eight complete games and a 0.4 HR/9 ratio, all strong numbers despite pitching for a team [43-95] that finished 30.5 games out of first, had the fewest wins of any full-season team in the minors and had the worst attendance [27,826] of any franchise in the Eastern League. Only the Jersey City Indians [40 wins in 1977] have had fewer victories in an Eastern League season since.

“What’s really interesting is that every time I talk to about someone about it [1967] I just turn it around a little and say the number is a misprint in my record,” Such said. “If you turn it around [to 16-0] the numbers work out. At the time it didn’t work out, though. But my numbers weren’t all that bad. York was a pitcher’s park and the fences were so far away; hitters had a hard time hitting home runs.

“We really struggled and we lost a lot of 1-0 games. We were also no-hit several times. I was just right in the middle of it. I just seemed to give up a run when it caused me to lose.”

If you throw in the two games Such lost later that year in the Florida Instructional League, he finished 1967 with an 0-18 record and tied for the most losses in the minor leagues with Dick LeMay, who went 13-18 for Tulsa of the Pacific Coast League.

Such’s situation would improve slightly in 1968 but it wasn’t until 1970 that he achieved his goal of reaching the Major Leagues.

“All that stuff, all those negative thoughts that go through your mind. I kept convincing myself that I was a good athlete. I felt like I was a winner and if I gave it my best every time out, eventually good things would happen.  My record wasn’t good but my numbers were okay so you just find all the positives you can and move on. I had to learn that.”

TWICE DRAFTED, ONCE SIGNED

Such played collegiately at Elon University [North Carolina] in 1964 and 65, making an impact immediately as a freshman. The right-hander pitched the first perfect game in school history in his first collegiate start, topping Atlantic Christian. He led the team in strikeouts as a freshman [73] and again as a sophomore [86], prompting the Yankees to take him in the 40th round of the first-ever amateur draft in 1965.

However, Such chose not to sign with New York and was set to pitch in his junior year at Elon when the Washington Senators selected him in the eighth round of the January-Draft/Secondary Phase in 1966. He signed with the Sens and was off to Burlington of the Class-A Carolina League to begin a pro career.

“There were no agents or anything like that back then so I chose not to sign [with New York],” Such said. “They drafted me as an outfielder. I was a pretty good hitter but I turned that down and I went back to college. I was also playing basketball at Elon [1964-66] and I worked out a deal with the coach where I could play baseball. Then in my junior year I signed with the Senators.”

Such made 14 appearances [13 starts] for Burlington going 6-8 with a 3.13 ERA in 92 innings. While they were solid numbers for a first-year pro, the best thing that happened to him that season was playing for Wayne Terwilliger, the baseball lifer who spent nine seasons in the Major Leagues as a player and countless more as a coach/instructor/ambassador.

Terwilliger, who died on Feb. 3 of this year at the age of 95, immediately made a huge impression on Such.

“He was such a baseball man,” Such said. “He was always out there early, always active, playing pepper, which is not played much anymore. He was always busy doing something and taught me a lot along the way. He was also the third base coach when I was in Washington.

“He was always patient with the game and I was just following his lead. It was tremendous because he was so knowledgeable. Baseball lost a beautiful man and a great baseball man. He was a really good human, none better.”

THEN CAME YORK

The White Roses weren’t the worst team in the history of the Eastern League, especially when considering that Elmira went 30-91 in 1923, the first year of the circuit’s existence. Ernest Walters led the way on that squad, losing 24 games, which remains an Eastern League record. So when viewed through that prism, Such’s 1967 campaign wasn’t so bad.

However, for a young pitcher, the turmoil of the season – the Senators replaced manager Billy Klaus with George Case midway through the year – did not provide an ideal environment for any pitcher’s development.

“In the minor leagues managers don’t usually get let go, but things got to a point where our record was so bad that the manager had to be let go,” Such said. “George Case came in and settled things down but this was my second year in baseball and I was just trying to pitch and trying to get myself out of there. You didn’t know if we had good players or bad players or what. We just played the games and as it turned out, we came out on the opposite end an awful lot.”

The White Roses were of no help to Such or any of the other pitchers while at the plate. They finished last in the league in hitting [.217] and were no-hit four times. Such gave up two runs or less in 11 of the losses, a strong indication of how well he actually pitched but it mattered little because York was shut out 29 times.

It proved to be weird and wacky with wins coming off the board in every way imaginable.

“There was one game we were leading 2-1 or 3-1 in the eighth or ninth inning against Waterbury and I think I have an out when I get a grounder to second,” Such said. “But the second baseman comes in to field the ball and steps on his shoestrings and trips and falls. Del Unser was our centerfielder and he comes in and grabs it. Bobby Bonds was on first and he was running all the way and scored.

“Del Unser charges the ball and sees Bonds running and it was uncanny, he was going to throw him out. It was right there. But he threw the ball over the catcher. Weird things like that. It was just something you had to fight through.”

Or, there was the time York was at Pawtucket and had gotten off to an early lead with Such on the mound and pitching well. He said they were ‘just trying to get to the fifth inning” but then a heavy fog rolled in and the game was canceled.

“You couldn’t make these stories up,” said Such, whose record dropped to 0-16 Aug. 28. “All that stuff, all those negative thoughts that go through your mind. I kept convincing myself that I was a good athlete. I felt like I was a winner and if I gave it my best every time out, eventually good things would happen.  My record wasn’t good but my numbers were okay so you just find all the positives you can and move on. I had to learn that.”

Such found himself back in Burlington in 1968 and while he did win 10 games and post a 3.47 ERA, his 17 losses once again led the minor leagues. He had pitched well enough for the second consecutive season and was expecting to get moved back to Double-A but when that call never came, Such said he “went flat” in the second half of 1968.

He had a 16-43 career mark heading into 1969, a season that would see him finally post a winning record. Such went 7-5 with a 3.48 ERA in 20 games [12 starts] while splitting time between the Double-A Southern League and Triple-A International League. As was the case for much of his career, however, Such would spent several weeks on active duty with the National Guard during the season. While serving in the guard didn’t do too much to impact his performance that year, it would prove to be a bit of a game-changer in 1970.

THE SENATORS AND THE SPLENDID SPLINTER

Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams took over as Washington manager in 1969, leading the Senators to an 86-76 mark in the American League East. Optimism was high heading into spring training in 1970, not only for Such but for the entire franchise. Such also impressed Williams enough in spring training that when the club headed north for the new season, Such went with it, fulfilling his dream of reaching the Major Leagues.

“I had a great spring training, so Ted took me to Washington with him,” Such said. “Ted saw that I could hit, too, and he liked the way I swung the bat. Absolutely I was in awe [of him]. When you get invited to big league camp you’re always around someone of high stature and there was no one higher than he was. He was a giant figure.

“He was so smart. And when he was talking to us, you could be talking to him for an hour. He was so knowledgeable with his theories and his thoughts. He was interesting to listen to and smart on a lot of different subjects.”

Such rewarded Williams’ faith in him quickly. He made his big league debut against Detroit on April 6, striking out three and walking three over two scoreless innings. He tossed another 1 2/3 innings of scoreless ball two days later and looked to on track for a solid season. He finished April going 1-1 with a 4.61 ERA in 13 2/3, picking up what would be his only career victory on April 28 against Milwaukee.

Williams also respected Such’s ability at the plate. Such hit .231 [3-for-13] with an RBI but it was an April 20th game at RFK Stadium against the Yankees that remains an entertaining memory after Williams sent Such up to pinch-hit for Unser to lead off the bottom of the seventh.

“That night I’m in the bullpen and I get the call saying Ted wants me to come to the dugout,” Such said. “I go in and I start getting loose because I thought they were going to send me out to pitch but Ted wants me to pinch hit.

“Stan Bahnsen was pitching and he goes fastball, curveball, fastball and I turnaround and walk back to the dugout. Ted says to me, ‘I don’t think I ever did that’. I was so dumbfounded. I wasn’t ready or prepared to do something like that.”

Such had several scoreless stints through the end of May but perhaps his finest outing came on May 21 at Yankee Stadium. He made his first career start and allowed two runs on two hits over six innings. Though he took the loss, it was a promising outing, one on which he had hoped to build.

It would be his last game until June 12, though. Following that game in the Bronx, he spent two weeks with the National Guard in what was his annual affair away from baseball.

“I’m not making any excuses but at the time the Vietnam War was going on and a lot of us had to join the military,” Such said. “I was in the Guard and I had to take off at times for meetings and for two weeks for summer camps. One of those times was the night in Yankee Stadium. I pitched my best game, we lost 2-1 and I got in the taxi and left for North Carolina for two weeks of military training.

“I had breaks in the action. The 0-16 year it was the same thing. I was playing and I was going to meetings at the same time.”

Such returned to the Senators in mid-June but had lost whatever mojo he had that night at Yankee Stadium. He pitched 20 2/3 innings over nine outings after his return and was touched up in every one, posting a 10.89 ERA over that stretch. He allowed four runs in two innings on July 17 against the Angels and that was the end of his Major League career.

He spent the rest of the season and all of 1971 at Denver of the triple-A American Association, going 7-7 with a 5.78 ERA in 36 appearances [20 starts].

“After I got back to Denver I hurt my elbow and everything started to go down from there,” Such said. “Then after my second year in Denver my Triple-A manager suggested I go back to Burlington and become a player coach. And the rest of it is, I was a coach.

“I had fulfilled my dream. It wasn’t as long as I would have liked. But I don’t reflect back on my career thinking if I had done this or done that. At the time, you make a decision and move on. I think I could have been there longer if I had not gotten hurt, whether that’s wishful thinking or not. I’m proud of myself and what I accomplished. I felt I competed at every level.”

COACH SUCH AND THE TWINS

Such took to coaching, using his experience as a player to relate to his newfound charges. He coached in the Rangers’ system [the Senators had since moved to Texas] for nearly eight years before assuming the role of pitching coach for the parent club from 1983-85.

Then, Such went home. Well, sort of. He would spend the next 17 seasons with Minnesota, helping guide the pitching staff to World Series victories in 1987 and 1991. The Twins were originally the Washington Senators, before moving to Minnesota prior to the 1961 season. He had come full circle in a way and when he finally left the Twins, he departed as one of the game’s best. Bleacher Report named him the 16th best pitching coach of all-time in 2012.

“[Twins manager] Tom [Kelly] let me do the pitching end,” Such said. “We communicated well, he took my advice and combined it with his. He had final say during the course of the game but I appreciated the fact that he relied on me to give him my opinion and run the game off that.  It worked out for us; we were a team. I was very appreciative of the fact that he made me a better pitching coach.”

Such said he never put himself on a pedestal when was a pitching coach. He said he would “put it out there” about what he had learned during his playing days.

“In retrospect it [his struggles as a player] it helped me as far as becoming a coach and figuring out that everyone has to deal with failure in the game of baseball,” Such said. “I certainly did that and got through it somehow or another.”

Such had the good fortune of coaching and helping develop the likes of Frank Viola, Kevin Tapani, Rick Aguilera and Jeff Reardon to name a few. He also had a front row seat for the Jack Morris show in the 1991 World Series in which the then 36-year-old threw 10 shutout innings in Game 7 as Minnesota edged Atlanta for its first World Series crown.

“I was with him for one year and he was outstanding,” Such said.

When Such left the Twins he spent a few summers in the independent Atlantic League, even returning to York as a visiting coach. He returned to affiliated ball as a minor league coach in 2009 for the Red Sox and has been working with them for the better part of a dozen years, the last few of which have been in more of a consulting role.

Such has had a fascinating baseball life. While it began with a bit of a nightmare, it ultimately proved to be a dream come true.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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