Bill Gullickson admits that as a senior at Joliet Catholic Academy in Illinois that he didn’t even know where Montreal was before the Expos made him the second overall pick in the 1977 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
He got a quick geography lesson, though, and after a relatively brief stint in the minor leagues, Gullickson became a staple in a Montreal rotation that helped make the Expos one of the more feared teams in the National League in the early part of the 1980s. Gullickson spent seven years [six full seasons] north of the border, winning 72 games as an Expo, which included five seasons of double-digit victories.
Gullickson, 62, finished his career as the fourth-winningest pitcher in Montreal history [this does not include Washington], trailing only Steve Rogers [158 wins], Dennis “El Presidente” Martinez  and Bryn Smith . He had 162 wins during his 14-year career, which included spending several years in Japan.
It is his time in Montreal, though, for which Gullickson is best remembered. He pitched for the Expos during their early 80s heyday when they had one of the most-feared lineups in the game. He formed a terrific one-two-three punch atop the rotation with Steve Rogers and Charlie Lea, helping lead Montreal to the playoffs in the strike-impacted 1981 season.
“That was my beginning,” Gullickson said. “I came up with them, had all the coaches in the minors and then they coached me in the big leagues. I consider myself an Expo. I didn’t even know where Montreal was, I had to look on the map. I went through the minor leagues with them, though, and it was the greatest part of my career, I loved it.
“I made a lot of good friends trying to get to the big leagues that I still talk to. Guys like Scott Sanderson, Bob James, David Palmer and Charlie Lea. All these guys played in the big leagues with me. I only played two-and-a-half years in the minors but that’s where I earned my stripes and learned how to pitch and to adjust. I had coaches that taught me right and wrong and kept my head on level.”
“I threw six no-hitters in high school but to go through the minors and then get to the big leagues and strikeout 18 guys, you got to be kidding me. I was just a normal kid trying to make the team.”
FINDING HIS WAY
Gullickson certainly had the credentials to be as drafted as high as he was after going 30-4 with six no-hitters in three varsity seasons at Joliet Catholic Academy in Illinois. He was 12-0 with a 0.47 ERA as a senior. And, a pitcher who collected 162 wins in the Major Leagues can hardly be viewed as anything but having a successful career. Gullickson, however, also had the misfortune of being sandwiched between Hall-of-Famer Harold Baines, who was the top pick in the 1977 Draft, and fellow Hall-of-Famer Paul Molitor, who was chosen third.
Still, draft history made Gullickson a bit of a unique pick. He is one of just 12 high school pitchers ever taken with the first or second pick, eight of whom were right-handers. Les Rohr was the first, going to the Mets with the second pick in 1965 while Tyler Kolek was the most recent, going to the Marlins with the second pick in 2014.
Gullickson had the most personal success in terms of victories among those dozen pitchers though Josh Beckett [2nd, 1999 Marlins] won 138 career games, has two World Series rings and was the MVP in one of those Fall Classics. JR Richard was the second pick in 1969 by the Astros and was one of the most feared pitchers in baseball in the late 70s before illness and injuries cut his career short at 107 wins.
“A guy that is the number two draft pick in 1977 had high expectations but I never thought of it that way,” Gullickson said. “I never thought about what people thought. I went out and did my thing and moved up the ladder. I went to Montreal and had good coaches and kept my head on straight. I also had my family behind me.
“It’s a very simple process if you cut out the BS [today] like Twitter, Facebook and all that. When I played there was none of that. You just have to go out and do your best. When I played, you had to go to the minors and prove yourself. Now, a guy comes up and wins five in a row, you’re a superstar.”
FLUSHING, NY - APRIL 19: Pitcher Bill Gullickson #34 of the Montreal Expos throws the pitch during an MLB game against the New York Mets on April 19, 1984 at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)
Gullickson wasn’t a superstar that first summer, but he did hold his own at West Palm Beach of the Class-A Florida State League after signing. He went 3-3 with a 4.02 ERA in 10 starts. He split 1978 between the Florida State and Double-A Southern Leagues as a 19-year-old, going 10-13 with a 2.14 ERA in 28 games [27 starts].
Then came 1979. He split almost all of the season between the Southern League and the Triple-A American Association, going 13-6 with a 4.61 ERA. Gullickson will best remember Sept. 29 of that year when he made his Major League debut at Pittsburgh, throwing a scoreless inning of relief against the eventual World Series champion Pirates. The first batter he faced was future Hall-of-Famer Willie Stargell, whom he retired on a fly ball to center. Bill Robinson and Bill Madlock followed with singles but Gullickson got Ed Ott to hit into a 7-4 double play to end the inning.
Gullickson spent the early part of 1980 in the American Association, going 6-2 with a 1.91 ERA in nine starts for Denver and that’s all the Expos needed to see. He was called up at the end of May and made a pair of relief appearances before moving into the starting rotation. His first Major League start came on June 11 against San Diego and he received a no-decision after going 5 2/3 innings.
He didn’t earn his first big-league victory until July 19 when he pitched a complete-game five-hitter at Houston. It marked a brilliant run on which Gullickson would embark over the last two months of the season. He went 10-3, including that win, through the end of the year, posting a 2.13 ERA. Gullickson tossed five complete games in those 15 games and went at least eight innings in three others.
Gullickson was brilliant during one 11-day stretch in September in which he pitched three consecutive complete games, two of which were shutouts. The one game that wasn’t a shutout, a 4-2 victory over the Cubs in Montreal, was one of the highlights of Gullickson’s career. He fanned a Major League rookie record 18 – Kerry Wood broke the mark 18 years later when he fanned 20 in a game – and remains just one of 20 pitchers to fan that many in one game.
“That strikeout game was nuts,” Gullickson said. “When I warmed up I felt good. I struck out Ivan DeJesus to start the game and it took off from there. I just threw the curve in the dirt and they kept swinging at it. That was a lot of fun. I threw six no-hitters in high school but to go through the minors and then get to the big leagues and strikeout 18 guys, you got to be kidding me. I was just a normal kid trying to make the team.”
The Expos held a half-game lead over the Phillies in the NL East after that win but could not hang on and finished second, a game out of first. Gullickson, however, went 10-5 with a 3.00 ERA and finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting to Dodger lefty Steve Howe.
“My rookie year I had a great year with great coaches who taught me right from wrong,” Gullickson said. “They kept my head on level. I was also raised by good parents so I never got caught in anything. You’re never as good as you think you are and you’re never as bad as you think you are. Sometimes in baseball you can get beat up pretty bad. You’ll go out and pitch six in a row and lose half of them – if not more -and then you adjust and figure out what you’re doing wrong.
“I was fortunate to have a great pitching coach [former Major Leaguer Galen Cisco] and a lot of other great coaches like Larry Bearnarth. I had him at A ball. And Galen Cisco. Those were my two biggest influences. I always had a good relationship with the pitching coach. He taught me about mechanics but he also taught me how to be a mature, big-league pitcher.”
HERE COME THE 80s
The decade unfolded with Gullickson making waves in Montreal. By the time the decade ended, he had made stops in Cincinnati, New York and Japan. That rollercoaster ride that started in 1980 continued with the strike-shortened 1981 season. Gullickson went 7-9 with a 2.80 ERA. He went 1-2 in the playoffs, winning his Divisional-Round start but dropping a pair to the Dodgers in the NLCS. Still, he had a 2.05 ERA in 22 playoff innings, setting the stage for what would be a nice personal run over the next four seasons.
Gullickson reached double digits in victories from 1982-85, including winning what was then a career-high 17 games in 1983. His solid effort, however, wasn’t enough to keep him in Montreal and he was traded to Cincinnati before the 1986 season.
“I got a call from Montreal GM Murray Cook one night,” Gullickson said. “He said we’re not going to trade you. The next morning I got a phone call from the Reds saying welcome to Cincinnati. When you play pro ball for so long you know that [a trade] is going to come. I was sort of glad that I got traded to a place in the States. I had never played in the States before but I always considered myself an Expo. We had some great teams in the early 80s but you have to expect in pro sports that you’re going to get traded sooner or later.
“I was mature enough to know it was going to happen and I looked forward to the next opportunity. I probably didn’t get a lot of recognition [for what he had done] but I didn’t promote myself, either. I just liked to go out and compete and do the job and whatever happened, happened.”
Gullickson spent nearly two years with the Reds, going 25-23 with a 3.98 in 64 starts before getting traded to the Yankees for Dennis Rasmussen on Aug. 26, 1987. He went 4-2 in eight starts for the Yanks, who finished in fourth place in the AL East while Rasmussen went 4-1 in seven starts for Cincinnati, which finished in second place in the NL West.
“I get there on my first day with the Yankees and I take a cab from LaGuardia Airport [in Queens] to a hotel in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey,” Gullickson said. “Then I took the cab back to the stadium [in the Bronx] and it cost me $150 bucks. New York was a great experience. Everybody can say what they like, but to put on a Yankee uniform, yes, you’re a baseball player but you feel like John Wayne.”
Gullickson spent five weeks with the Yanks and then was out of a job. Collusion was in full swing that winter and he couldn’t get signed in the States so he headed to Japan, where he would play for the next two seasons with the Yomiuri Giants. He went 21-14 over the two seasons and played with former Montreal teammate Warren Cromartie.
The experience proved to be a positive one on many levels. He made some very good friends, learned about a new culture and a new approach to baseball and learned how effective his off-speed stuff could be.
“I would need two hours to tell you about Japan but it was a great experience,” Gullickson said. “You go there and you try to adjust and then you find out that if you just go with their program, it’s going to work out better. In Japan, they can throw breaking balls for strikes in a 3-1 count. I learned that and when I came back to the States it helped me out. It was all about learning and Japan helped me come back.”
Gullickson’s time in Japan proved beneficial in that it helped him return to the Major Leagues. He signed with Houston and went 10-14 with a 3.82 ERA in 1990. He said the team was terrible and he moved on to Detroit, for whom he had a career year in 1991. Gullickson went 20-9 with a 3.90 ERA and finished ninth in the Cy Young voting. He won 31 more games over the next three years in Detroit before retiring.
“I was done,” he said. “I had a family, I had six kids, and I wanted to go home.”
FLUSHING, NY - APRIL 19: Pitcher Bill Gullickson #34 and catcher Gary Carter #8 of the Montreal Expos talk during an MLB game against the New York Mets on April 19, 1984 at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)
While Gullickson will be remembered by many as a fine pitcher who enjoyed a successful career, he will also be remembered as an inspiration. That Gullickson was able to become that successful pitcher and put together a long career after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in the spring of 1980.
“I was 20 years old in spring training and I found out I had diabetes so I adjusted,” Gullickson said. “I was drinking a lot of water, I was thirsty all the time and urinating all the time and I went into a hospital in Daytona Beach for a week. I learned slowly how to deal with it in baseball. I had a pretty regular schedule so that helped.
“I talked to [Hall-of-Famer] Ron Santo [who also had diabetes] about it. I have had it for over 40 years now. I took insulin for years but I got a pump a few years ago. I go to the doctor all the time, I get my eyes tested, my blood tested once a month. I don’t think it ever impeded me, though. I had over 200 innings pitched over the course of many years. I just took it on and did my thing, went out, competed and had fun.”
Gullickson was a spokesperson for the American Diabetes Association for several years and amazed his teammates and fans in Japan because of his ability to continue playing despite being diabetic. The Japanese Diabetes Mellitus Society continues to present The Gullickson Award each year to someone with diabetes who has “a superior influence on society”.
“In all the towns I went to, I got letters from kids,” Gullickson said. “I got a letter from Kristi Naugle, who was 13 years old, diabetic and scared. She met me in St. Louis and has been a friend of mine for life. I went to Boston one time and their pitching coach Rich Gale asked me if I could meet a kid from his hometown. He was 9 years old and 15 years later that kid, Sam Fuld, was an outfielder for the Chicago Cubs and is now the GM with the Phillies. Can you believe it?”