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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: December 3, 2022 5:45 pm PDT
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Jerry Garvin was informed of the new disengagement rules to which pitchers will be forced to adhere next season and, after a thoughtful pause, explained that he didn’t think it would impact lefties, such as himself, as much as it would righties, if it really has any impact at all.

Garvin, 66, knows a thing or two about great pickoff moves – and what it takes to catch a runner napping – so his opinion carries some weight. The former first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins broke into the Major Leagues in 1977 with the expansion Toronto Blue Jays and quickly made a name for himself amongst would-be base stealers.

The California native set what appears to be a quartet of Major League records that season, including most pickoffs in a season [23]. He is also credited with most pickoffs in a game [four], most games with a pickoff [15] and most multiple-pickoff games in a season [five] though the latter two of those records are a bit sketchy and could not be verified by The Elias Sports Bureau. Steve Carlton is credited with 19 pickoffs in 1977 and 16 in 1978. The pickoff didn’t become an official statistic until 1974 but records, official and unofficial, have Carlton with the most career pickoffs [145] over the last 80 seasons.

So, when Garvin discussed the new rule that would limit a pitcher to two disengagements per plate appearance – for a pickoff or to simply step off the rubber – he wasn’t as exasperated as some people, particularly active pitchers, have been. While the limitations on engagements are, in part, designed to promote more base stealing, Garvin sees the shift in philosophy towards home runs as a bigger issue.

“I would also step off the rubber and throw over quickly without just going through the motions. That kept [the runners] more honest and they weren’t able to take such a big lead.”

“The ones that have the right-handed quick moves, they are the ones that will throw over three or four times when a guy is a threat to steal,” Garvin said. “I hardly ever threw over more than once or twice a hitter. I earned a reputation early on that I had a pretty good pickoff move so people stopped stealing on me. And I only got called for a balk once in my Major League career.

“There is so much less base stealing anyway, in my opinion. You just don’t have it like you used to. The bunting game is gone, the hit and run is not as prevalent. The mentality of baseball has changed; and the offense is to hit home runs while strikeouts have become okay. When I played it was more if you could steal bases and steal a run here or there. The emphasis was not on home runs so I guess people don’t focus on picking off guys as much.”

Garvin’s ability to thwart would-be base stealers was certainly on display in 1977. Injuries and overuse, however, limited his career in Toronto to six seasons while creating a great many questions about what could have been. He was 5-0 with a 3.19 ERA and three complete games through his first seven Major League starts but the success wouldn’t last.

Still, Garvin carved a place for himself in the baseball record book while forever cementing his status as one of Toronto’s most interesting players in the franchise’s early years.

(Photo by Dick Darrell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

LIFE IN NOTHERN CALIFORNIA AND TURNING PRO

Garvin grew up in Merced, Calif., and had the benefit of being close enough to both the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants. There was plenty of baseball from which to choose – the A’s were about to embark on their amazing post-season run while the Giants were a playoff contender nearly every season – and Garvin and his brother got to know the players well.

“My brother and I would go out into the front yard and play pitcher and catcher and use the lineups from the A’s and Giants and pretend we were facing the hitters,” Garvin said. “We really knew the lineups and it was kind of fun. But I never was a baseball fan’s fan. Even after I got out of baseball, I followed Toronto a bit but after a few years I didn’t follow anything.”

Garvin may not have been rabid about baseball in terms of fandom, but he didn’t have to be. He was starring on the mound for Merced High School, finishing his senior season at 7-1 after leading his team to consecutive Central California Conference titles. Garvin was named as CCC Player of the Year and had gained plenty of attention from scouts. So much so that the Orioles made him a 17th-round pick in 1973’s First-Year Player Draft. However, he had different plans.

“Merced Pitcher Jerry Garvin had the pro scouts drooling this season as he led the Bears to their second straight CCC crown,” the Modesto Bee reported in its May 24, 1973, edition. “The Merced strikeout ace has apparently decided to attend Merced College, though, and postpone his entry into the pro leagues. Garvin, a high-kicking left-hander, did it all for Merced during the prep season. He compiled a strikeout total that was more than twice his innings pitched and showed he could hit some big blows with the bat.”

Garvin is one of 12 Merced players to have been drafted and one of only two to reach the Majors Leagues [Curtis Partch, 21st round in 2005 was the other]. While he headed to Merced College, he didn’t stay there long. The Twins selected him in the first round [11th overall] in the January Phase of the 1974 Draft.

The Twins sent him to Wisconsin Rapids of the Class-A Midwest League, where Garvin excelled. He went 14-7 with a 3.75 ERA while striking out 138 in 163 innings. The highlight of his season came on Aug. 22 when he tossed a seven-inning no-hitter against Waterloo [Iowa] in the second game of a doubleheader. Only a seventh inning walk stood between him and perfection.

Garvin went 17-5 with a 2.55 ERA for Reno of the Class-A California League in 1975, throwing 201 innings. He followed that up by going 15-12 with a 3.55 ERA over 233 innings in 1976 while splitting time between the Double-A Southern League and the Triple-A Pacific Coast League before the Blue Jays grabbed him with the fourth pick in the November 5 expansion draft.

Minnesota’s then owner Calvin Griffith said told The Sporting News that the team was dumbfounded when Toronto selected Garvin.

“What really surprised us was that the two expansion teams didn’t go for Major League players early,” Griffith told the publication. “Garvin is a good prospect, the best left-handed pitching prospect in our farm system, but he hasn’t proven himself in the majors. Garvin was going to be our first recall [of the draft]. We figured to do that right after the first round … but it didn’t work out that way for a number of reasons.”

It worked out for Garvin, though.

Jerry Garvin of the Toronto Blue Jays poses for a portrait in March, 1982 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)

WELCOME TO THE BIGS

The pickoff move that would become Garvin’s trademark wasn’t yet his trademark when turned pro. He said that runners were “stealing off him left and right” when he arrived in Wisconsin, but credits long-time legendary pitching coach Ray Berres for cleaning up his move and his delivery while he was in Minnesota’s system.

“I had to learn how to do better,” Garvin said. “My leg kick was too high. Not too many pitchers had that high of a leg kick. I was in the minors with the Twins and there was a roving pitching coach Ray Berres. He was an old-timer who basically just saw me early one season in the Midwest League. He saw me pitch and he said, ‘Man you got to do something different because they are going to steal you blind’.

“He told me you can’t let the leg cross the plane of the foot you’re pushing off on. If you do that, you have to go home. I needed to find a way to change that. The first base ump would look at my right leg and if I crossed that plane I had to go home so I didn’t balk.  So, I had to work on practicing keeping my front leg even with my back leg.”

Garvin said it was a matter of making balance a habit. He worked on it constantly, whether he was shagging flies during batting practice or while standing in front of a mirror in his hotel room. Slowly, his move improved and he began to pick off a few batters in the Midwest League.

“I got a little better and by the time I got to the big leagues, I was an unknown,” he said. “I was with the Blue Jays after spending just one month at Triple-A. Then I was in big leagues with Toronto.”

The league may not have known about Garvin but they would learn quickly. He made his Major League debut on April 10 at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, scattering five hits and four walks over eight innings in a 3-1 victory over Chicago. He followed that up with back-to-back complete game victories against Detroit [he struck out 10] and at New York.

Garvin also recorded his first pickoff of the season against the Tigers, catching Aurelio Rodriguez, who had led off the third inning with a single.

(Photo by Frank Lennon/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

A no-decision against Boston in the first game of a doubleheader on April 25 followed but Garvin showed that he was more than equal to the task of holding runners in check. He picked off three Red Sox runners – Steve Dillard at second base in the first inning, Dillard at first base in the third inning and George Scott at second base in the fourth inning. His reputation also seemed to be growing. Following the game against Boston, Garvin allowed only five stolen bases the rest of the season with 16 getting thrown out. Overall, 30 runners attempted to steal and 10 were successful.

Garvin shut out Kansas City in a complete-game, four-hitter on April 30, registering another pickoff to finish the month at 4-0 with a 2.14 ERA and six pickoffs.

“The first month of the season, I was picking guys off left and right,” Garvin said. “I would also step off the rubber and throw over quickly without just going through the motions. That kept them [the runners] more honest and they weren’t able to take such a big lead. That’s the way I did it and after that I hardly ever got stolen off because of my reputation.”

He started May by going 2-1, running his record to 6-1 with a complete game victory, his fourth of the year, on May 20th at Texas. His next game, however, would be one of the most memorable of his career. The Jays were hosting Oakland on May 25 and though Garvin took the loss – he allowed two unearned runs in the top of the 10th – he picked off four runners to set a Major League record. Dick Allen was the first in the first inning, Earl Williams was second in the second inning and Rich McKinney was nailed in the eighth. He picked off Rodney Scott in the 10th but a throwing error by first baseman Ron Fairly allowed Scott to reach second safely. Scott then came around to score on a Manny Sanguillen double.

“They [the A’s] were aggressive, they tried to steal runs all the time,” Garvin said. “They would do what they could to scrape out runs. That game I lost Manny Sanguillen hit an 0-2 pitch that was way outside. He just threw the bat out there and blooped the ball over the first baseman’s head.

“The A’s always had some fast guys, though. Bill North, Claudell Washington, later Rickey Henderson. My philosophy, though, was just to let them hit and then pick them off first base. When the other team had runners on first and second, I still had a pickoff move to first base and I got three or four that way. It would either be verbal or some other kind of sign with the first baseman because he was playing behind the runner. I would go into my stretch and it would be a timing play where he would dart behind the runner or behind the bag as I threw over and we’d get the guy out.”

(Photo by Dick Darrell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

THIS AIN’T SO EASY

Garvin continued to rack up the pickoffs after the Oakland game but he also started to collect losses. He went 1-11 from May 30th through Aug. 14 while picking off six more runners. While his ERA jumped from 3.42 to 4.07 he didn’t pitch all that poorly. He allowed three earned runs or less in 10 of those starts and pitched into the eighth inning or beyond in eight of them.

He rebounded with back-to-back victories against Kansas City and at California on Aug. 19 and 24th, the latter of which was a complete-game shutout. The workload had taken its toll, though. He finished the season by going 1-6 in his last seven starts, allowing four or more runs in six of those starts. He did pickoff seven more batters over that stretch but finished the year at 10-18 with a 4.19 ERA in 244 2/3 innings.

Garvin also picked off Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson in the fourth inning of a Sept. 9 game at Yankee Stadium.

“Reggie wasn’t even a base-stealing threat,” Garvin said. “He was kind of talking to our first baseman and he wasn’t off the base very far. He was just going through the motions because everyone knew he wasn’t going to steal. After the game we kind of met each other and crossed paths [leaving the stadium]. He said, ‘Who was that kid who picked me off first?’. Then he said, ‘Hey rook, never pick me off first base again, especially in Yankee Stadium’.”

It was one of Garvin’s few late-season bright spots.

“It was kind of cool but we weren’t a very good team,” Garvin said. “We struggled and it was hard. There were games that I pitched great and lost. I had a number of 2-1, 3-1 games. It was an era, though, that pitching complete games was what you were supposed to do. One year in the minors I was 17-5 with 22 complete games.

“I hated having someone up in the pen. If I didn’t pitch a complete game, I didn’t feel like I did my job. Now, there are pitchers who don’t have complete games in their whole career. It changed with the era. The Sparky Andersons and Gene Mauchs started using guys as setup men and specialists.”

The mindset, of both the pitcher and the manager, as well as the workload ultimately doomed Garvin. He made his first start of 1978 at Detroit on April 8 and though he picked up the victory he ultimately lost. He went 8 2/3 innings, scattered 11 hits and, of course, picked off a runner in a 5-2 contest. But the damage had been done.

(Origional Caption) Packing up: Blue Jay pitcher Jerry Garvin packs his belongings in preparation for long ball strike. Jays were advised that clubhouse will be open today in case they have more packing or have anything to return to club. Jays will be paid for first 11 days of June. (Photo by Doug Griffin/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

“I was young and bullheaded and I came out of Spring Training and pitched in that first game in Detroit where I threw 155 pitches,” Garvin said. “I had skipped a start in Spring Training because I had a sore elbow and only pitched three innings [that spring]. We ended up winning [against Detroit] and every inning after the fifth inning the pitching coach would ask ‘How are you?’. I said I was fine because I would never say I was done.

“That’s how you were and for my career, it was not a good way to be. I was fatigued and tired and just getting by after that. There was no way I should have thrown 155 pitches in the first game of the season. That hurt my arm that year and I had a dead arm for quite a while. I did what I thought was right and I had a bad season.”

Garvin ended up going 4-12 with a 5.54 ERA in 26 games [22 starts]. He pitched 100 fewer innings, though, and recorded only five pickoffs the entire season. Things only got worse in 1979 as Garvin’s career took a permanent downward turn. He had come out of the pen in his first two outings, allowing one earned run in four innings. His third appearance was a May 29th start against Detroit.

“I threw a pitch to [Detroit’s] Rusty Staub and I felt something pop in my elbow,” Garvin said. “It was just numb. I didn’t feel anything. The next pitch I threw was like 30 feet and I my arm was toast. The next morning, I couldn’t bend my arm. I had the Tommy John injury but I didn’t get the surgery.

“Tommy John was still a new surgery to the doctors. I went to see Drs. [Frank] Jobe and [Robert] Kerlan and they said they didn’t want to operate. I was young enough that there weren’t many successes with the surgery. I was 23 and just too young to have that surgery. I was on the DL for most of the year and came back at the end of August when the rosters expanded. My arm was never the same after that and I started getting shoulder problems.”

Garvin and his wife were also dealing with the devastating loss of a child during those years and it all took its toll. He said that loss “changed him”.

Still, he came back in 1980, pitching to a 2.29 ERA with eight saves over 82 2/3 innings out of the pen. He had a 3.40 ERA in 53 innings the following season but saw the injuries were catching up to him by 1982, when he split the season between Toronto and Triple-A Syracuse. He posted a 7.25 ERA in 58 1/3 innings for the Jays, who sold his contract to St. Louis in January of 1983.

Bobby Cox had also taken over as Toronto manager in 1982 and didn’t seem enamored with Garvin so the signs were there.

“Bobby Cox came along and he didn’t like me I guess,” Garvin said. “We came out of Spring Training that first year Bobby was there and I was the lefty on the staff. For a good part of the season, he was always saving me. He would say we’re saving you for this or and that those times wouldn’t come to pass. It was a weird thing.”

The Cardinals ended up releasing Garvin before the end of Spring Training and that brought his career to a conclusion.

“I was hurting and my shoulder was bad; I was in a lot of pain,” he said. “I needed the right treatment for my shoulder hurt all the time. When they released me I decided that was it. After I retired I had a chance to play Triple-A but my arm was hurting too bad.

“I rested it for a little while, though, and was feeling better but the next year when Spring Training came I was in a dirt bike accident and blew out my left shoulder. I separated my shoulder and broke my clavicle. I thought about coaching but it wasn’t for me. I loved pitching but I didn’t love the game enough to coach it. I loved pitching and being on the mound.”

Garvin ended up going into real estate development with his brother, spending much of his time in northern California, near where he grew up. He ultimately moved to Utah and has spent the last 13 years there. Garvin wasn’t in the Majors Leagues very long but he certainly left his mark.

“I didn’t even think they kept records of pickoffs,” Garvin said. “But as the seasons went on, writers would come up to me and ask about it. It was a source of pride because I used to say I’d rather pick a guy off than strike a guy out because it was unusual.”

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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