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Mudville: July 23, 2024 5:29 am PDT

Steve Dillon

"If you need someone to throw, I’m volunteering.”

Steve Cohen has been the driving force behind an obvious forging of a better connection between Mets fans and the team’s history.

From the Tom Seaver statue unveiling to the number retirements of Keith Hernandez, Jerry Koosman and Mike Piazza, Mets fans have been enjoying meaningful celebrations of their past to go along with their on-field success.

The return of Old Timer’s Day was something Mets fans have been pining for and when they finally held the event on August 27, it surpassed all expectations.

The highlight of the ceremony was a surprise retirement of Willie Mays’ number 24 and the game itself had an unlikely hero.

Steve Dillon, a 79-year-old lefty, took the mound to face Mookie Wilson and Daniel Murphy and thrilled fans across baseball with his work.

Dillon joins us for this week’s installment of Spitballin’.

Dillon pitched in just three games for the Mets in 1963 and ’64, but he made a lasting impression on the franchise. He was one of five pitchers who took the mound at Shea Stadium on May 6, 1964, the first night game played at the old ballpark. Dillon returned to throw out the first pitch in 2009 and the Daily News called it “one last moment in the sun” for him.

Little did they know that 13 years later, Dillon would return to thrill not only Mets fans, but baseball fans across the country by taking the mound and firing strikes like a fearless hurler in his prime.

Dillion was the only participant in the Old Timer’s Day game who was active in the 1960s, representing the entire first decade of Mets baseball. It was also the first time his children and grandchildren saw him pitch.

In a season of highlights for the Mets, his Old Timer’s Day performance was one of the most memorable, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Steve Dillon.

Thank you so much for spending some time with us, Mr. Dillon. We have a lot to talk about before we get into your Old Timers Day experience, so let’s jump right in. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up in the Bronx?

I was always a Yankees fan growing up. My two older brothers were Yankees fans too. I went to school at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx. Yankee Stadium was walking distance from the school, so I would pass it every day. I always had aspirations of playing professional baseball growing up.

My junior year we had to do a report on what we wanted to do in life. I went to the library and wrote a complete story on how much I loved baseball and that’s what I wanted to do with myself in life. I had Brothers and priests as teachers at Cardinal Hayes and the Brother gave me a B minus. I was taken aback by that. I approached him and asked if I left anything out or did anything wrong. He said, “No. Being a baseball player just wasn’t realistic.” From that point on, I was so dedicated to playing ball. My weekends and summers were spent playing baseball.

I talked to my grandchildren after the game and they said, “Grandpa! Grandpa! You’re blowing up Twitter!” I said, “I don’t know what you mean!”

You’re famous for being a Met, but the Yankees were the first to sign you. How did the Yankees find you?

My junior year at Cardinal Hayes, I pitched a one hitter and we won 1-0. After the game, my coach told me that there were scouts in attendance. I didn’t know that until he told me. That made me dig deeper to get more experience playing; knowing that the scouts were watching me. I had a pretty good senior year. We played 16 or 17 games and I won nine or ten of them. After I graduated, I tried out for what was called the Yankee Rookies, an amateur team that had tryouts at Yankee Stadium. There were over 300 players from the Metropolitan area trying out and I got picked. I had a good season for them and even earned a Game MVP plaque. After the season was over, I went up to the man running the team, Art Dede, who was a Yankee scout. I told him other teams were interested in signing me. He told me not to sign anything. He came up to me that night and I signed with the New York Yankees.

You had a great season in 1962 in the Yankees minor league system, but then you were with the Mets the next year. How did that happen?

I went to Ft. Lauderdale and it was my first season in professional baseball. We won the Florida State League Championship. Roy White was on that team. Mike Hegan, whose father Jim played in the Majors, was on the team too. Mike Ferraro, who played for the Yankees and later was a coach for them, was on the team. I won 14 games and when the season was over, I went home to relax. The next thing I knew, I was drafted by the New York Mets. The Mets offered me a spot on the Major League roster. The Yankees were trying to protect me, but they gave me a AAA contract. Because the Mets wanted to draft me, they had to give me a contract for a level higher, which was a Major League contract. That’s how I ended up a Met.

Dillon (far left) played for the Mets from 1963 to 1965 and got to pitch in the first night game at Shea Stadium.

What was it like playing with the Mets in those early days?

I went to Spring Training in 1963 and was playing with fellas like Gil Hodges and Duke Snider. The Mets were trying to stock the roster with older stars to put fans in the stands. That first year was a little hard to maneuver because I was playing with guys of that caliber. The next year, Casey Stengel kept me on the roster and I actually pitched in the first night game at Shea Stadium. I pitched a little, but I spent the rest of the time in the minor leagues. After my fourth year, it was hard to advance my career because the Mets were now looking for young superstars. They were picking up guys like Jerry Koosman and Tom Seaver, so I went by the wayside. But it didn’t bother me because I fulfilled my dream of getting on a Major League field.

One of those young pitchers was a roommate of yours in the minors, Tug McGraw. Can you talk about your relationship with Tug?

Tug came up in midseason in 1965. I had a couple seasons playing in the minors with him. He was a lefty and I was a lefty, so we hit it off. We spent a lot of time in the bullpen together trying to learn pitches. We both were working on a screwball, which he was able to master. Watching him as he grew was a treat for me. He wrote a book called Screwball and he gave me a nice highlight in the book which I never forgot.

What do you remember about pitching in the first night game at Shea Stadium?

It was against the Cincinnati Reds. I pitched against Frank Robinson, Pete Rose and Tommy Harper. The second inning, I didn’t do so well, but that’s baseball. Vada Pinson hit a home run off me that hit the scoreboard. After I got the last out, I went to the opposite end of the dugout to try to get away from Casey Stengel because I knew he’d have something to say. I heard him say, “Dillon, get down here!” I went over to him, he looked me in the eye and said, “If you give up another ball that hits off that scoreboard and breaks a light bulb, you’re paying for it!” That was Casey’s way of saying, “Hey, that’s baseball. Things like that are gonna happen and you have to move on.” I tell that story a lot because it’s so embedded in my memory. That night, I went to the local pub with my buddies and they were all razzing me. It was a wonderful night.

Former NY Met pitcher Steve Dillon pitching during the Old Timers Day gall game at Citi Field in Flushing Saturday Aug. 27, 2022. (Photo by John Conrad Williams, Jr. /Newsday RM via Getty Images)

What was it like playing for Casey Stengel?

It was a great learning experience. He had so much knowledge about the game. He knew how to position guys and was a great teacher of the game. In the offseason, I was asked to represent the Mets at speaking engagements. I went to one and I was sitting with Duke Carmel and Eddie Kranepool and we were having a good time. All of a sudden, someone at our table was badmouthing Casey over and over. I finally said, “How many years have you played baseball?” The guy said, “None.” I then asked, “How many years have you managed?” Again, he said, “None.” So, I said, “Where do you come off talking about Casey Stengel like that?” I found out the next day that guy was Howard Cosell! Bigmouth! I told Howard Cosell off about leaving Casey alone.

Wow good for you! That’s a great story. In 1964 you faced Roberto Clemente. What was that like?

He was already a legend by then. I pitched to him, Don Clendenon and Bob Bailey in Forbes Field. Center field was like 475 feet away. The three batters I faced all hit fly balls; pretty deep ones too. My brother was watching the game and he called me up after and told me that Ralph Kiner, one of the Mets announcers, said they were the three longest outs in the history of Forbes Field. I got those guys out, but they hit the ball a long way!

Baldwin, N.Y.: Baldwin resident Steve Dillon at his home on Aug.17, 2022. Steve Dillon is a former Met who will be at Old Timers' Day on Aug. 27, 2022. (Photo by J. Conrad Williams Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images)

Let’s get into some of the Old Timer’s Day stuff. First, how did you end up getting invited to attend?

I got the call from Jay Horwitz in March. I had met him in 2008 when they opened Citi Field. My son had met a reporter and mentioned that I had played with the Mets a long time ago and the reporter wrote this story. The story circulated around pretty good and Jay called me to see if I wanted to throw out a first pitch. Jay put me in the Mets alumni group. Fast forward to this year, Jay called me in March and asked if I wanted to play in an Old Timers Game. I said, “Absolutely, count me in!” Then he called me in April or May to ask my hat size, my pants size, my shirt size. So, now I knew I was getting a full uniform. Jay told me I would be in the dugout watching the game. I said, “Well, not to be pushy, but I am in good shape and I’ve been throwing. If you need someone to throw, I’m volunteering.” He said they would try, but there was no guarantee.

Even though there was no guarantee you’d play, I read that you worked out just in case.

Yes, in early August I started throwing two or three days a week with a couple buddies who were college players. I got prepared to be there and wanted to throw from the mound. It was driving me to do it. I have five children and they’re all super Mets fans. I was an old Yankee fan, but I became a Mets fan because that was all they talked about!

So, how did you end up getting in the game?

Willie Randolph approached me and asked if I was ok. I said, “Yeah, I’m good. I’ve been training!” He said, “Ok, we’ll see what we can do.” The beginning of the second inning, Willie came to me and asked if I was ready. I said I was and he told me to get my glove. Twenty seconds later, he said, “You’re on!” Putting the uniform on and walking out onto the field was like having a flashback. I went back 60 years just like that remembering how it was to step out onto the field at Shea Stadium for the first time.

Were you nervous at all or did it all just come back to you?

When Willie asked if I was ready, I got a little excited. But I was ready for it. I had prepared. I had done it before and I wasn’t nervous 60 years earlier when I pitched in the first night game. I was happy to be out there. I couldn’t be nervous because that’s where I wanted to be! Once I started to warmup, after the first two or three pitches everything just popped back in my head. Mookie Wilson hit a double off me and there were guys on base. It looked like they were going to score. Instinctively, I went and backed up home plate. That’s what I was trained to do. Todd Zeile was the catcher and there’s a picture of that play where I was walking past him and he was smiling. What I had said to him was, “If I had some outfielders, they would have caught that ball!”

What did you think when you came out of the game and the fans were giving you such a great ovation?

I loved it. It was such a magical, great day. When I was gonna come out of the game I looked up and there was a Hall of Famer coming to take my place. Pedro Martinez came in to pitch after me! Could you believe that? I had a great time, there was no nervousness. I was real proud of the fact I was the only one from the 1960s who played in the game.  Ron Swoboda’s knees were shot, Eddie Kranepool was coming off a terrible experience, Craig Anderson and Jay Hook were there but couldn’t play. Jay Hook threw out the first pitch. I was very proud and happy I was able to get on the field.

Did you get to meet and interact with any of the current Mets or guys that came after you that you never met before?

Prior to the game I was out in centerfield and Todd Zeile asked if I wanted to throw a little, so I was throwing with him. After about 15 minutes, I looked around and saw Jacob DeGrom walking out of the bullpen. I waited my turn and then went up to him and introduced myself. Every player that I introduced myself to, from Mike Piazza to Jacob DeGrom to Francisco Lindor, all said it was great that I came and they were happy I was here. They all said they were happy guys like me from the 1960s were here because we started this thing. It made me feel really good.

Dillon joined the NYPD in 1969 after his baseball career finished.

What was your conversation with the current Mets like?

I talked to Jacob for a little and told him I hoped he stayed healthy the rest of the year. I told him when he’s healthy, he’s such an amazing pitcher. When I was done pitching, I went back in the dugout and Francisco Lindor was there. He was more than happy to talk to me and wish me luck. He was really happy we all came back.

You mentioned your family being there and enjoying the game. What did they think about being able to watch you pitch?

That was something I had on my mind about wanting to do this. My children and grandchildren never saw me pitch in a Major League stadium. My oldest daughter and son were born in 1965 and 1967, and I was done by then. They had heard a lot and maybe they read some old articles, but they never actually saw me throw a ball on a Major League mound. That was very important to me. I had about 60 family members at the game. It was kept a surprise to me as to who was coming, but I saw them prior to the game on the third base side of the field. They all had blue and orange Mets t-shirts with my name and number on the back. It was amazing to see a sea of orange and blue jumping up and down and hollering. It was wonderful.

That has to be the best part about it. I always say baseball is the best family sport. What do you think of all the attention you’ve been getting from the media?

It’s an honor. It was an honor to play the game and it’s been an honor to do these interviews. I have gotten some calls from the local high school who wants me to speak to the students. Whatever comes out of it, I am all for it. I am enjoying telling my story. I have had interviews and cameras come to my house. I have another one coming today to take one of my and my older son Steven. All comers are welcome!

This has been truly incredible. I watched you pitch in that Old Timers Game and thought it was the greatest thing and now it’s an honor to talk with you just a week later. Last question for you. What are your final reflections on what you have accomplished in baseball in your life?

It’s been 60 years since I started and I may not have had a long career, but I had a career. I made it to my dream. I knew what I accomplished 60 years ago, but I wasn’t gonna go out on the street corner and tell everyone about it. After I retired, I became a New York City Police Officer and they knew my background. They asked me to play with the PBA baseball team, so I played a little. When this happened at Old Timers Day, everything about my story started to come out. It has gone crazy. I talked to my grandchildren after the game and they said, “Grandpa! Grandpa! You’re blowing up Twitter!” I said, “I don’t know what you mean!” I had people sending me things saying I was the number one trend on Twitter. It was just crazy. It’s magical. I would never think this would happen. I know it’s not going to last, but while it’s happening, I am going to enjoy it.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

  • Stephen Berger

    Loved the story about Steve Dillon. A thought: do you know if the game he appeared in in 1963 was at the Polo Grounds. If so, wouldn’t that make him the only man to pitch as the Polo Grounds, Shea Stadium and Citifield? And if not, he’d still be the only one to play for the Mets when they played at those 3 parks.

    August 20, 2023
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