Roger Erickson II
"I wish you could stay with us because we need you, but Steinbrenner doesn’t like you. By the way, this is Mickey Mantle.”
When we last left Roger Erickson, he had just defied Gene Mauch’s steel will in his first big league Spring Training to break camp with the Twins for the 1978 season. In last week’s episode of Spitballin’, we discussed Erickson’s path to the Majors from tiny Springfield College to the University of New Orleans – and ultimately to Minneapolis. Erickson won 14 games with 14 complete games as a rookie and in 1980 finished 8th in the American League in ERA, just .02 points behind Cy Young Winner Steve Stone.
Erickson pitched six Major League seasons and when he’s telling his big league stories, he has the same approach as he did when he was on the mound. He doesn’t hold back and comes right at you, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Roger Erickson.
Thanks for joining us again Mr. Erickson. Last week we left off just as you were about to get to the big leagues. The stories leading up to this last week were great. Let’s continue that momentum and get right into the Bobby Grich fight. Could you take us through that experience?
That was my fourth career start. I had already beat them once in California and this time we were back home. My dad and brother were at the game. I think it was a tie score and out of the blue, Frank Tanana drilled Bombo Rivera right in the back. That didn’t hurt him because Bombo was like a miniature Hulk.
Gene Mauch came to me and said, “Next inning, get the first two guys out and hit the next guy on the knee.” The catcher was Glenn Borgmann and he said, “You got a problem with that rook?” I said, “No, but what if I don’t get the first two out?” He said, “Just get them out.” I was like, “Oh, it’s that easy, huh? OK, whatever.”
I got the first two guys out and up came Bobby Grich. Now I wasn’t going to throw at a guy’s knee, so I threw at his thigh. He did some juking and I missed him. I tried again and he was like Gumby up there and I missed him again. I heard people screaming from our bench, “Get him! Get that sonofabitch!” I was thinking, “This is pretty obvious and the screaming doesn’t help.” I dropped down a little and threw one sidearm right at him. He arched his back and it went to the backstop. I walked down a few steps down the slope of the mound and I was cussing to myself with my head down that I can’t hit him. I looked up and Bobby was right there.
That brawl got out of hand pretty quick. Not your typical baseball fight with guys just standing around. What happened to you in there?
Grich was trying to knee me and kick me. He swung at me and I blocked it with my glove hand. I threw a punch and hit him in the helmet. Rich Chiles came barreling through from our dugout and just flattened Grich. Then people started beating on him. I was on the pile somewhere and Craig Kusic, our backup first baseman, grabbed someone and threw them off me. Then he grabbed me by the collar, stood me up and said, “If you wanna get back in there, you gotta go through me.” Craig was about 6’5” and was drafted in the NFL. There was a picture in the paper of me with a bloody nose and Gene Mauch, Roy Smalley, and Kusick standing in front of me. They threw Grich out, but they didn’t throw me out. The Angels put in a pinch hitter. The count was 3-0 and I came back and struck him out to end the inning. After the inning, Gene said he was taking me out. I told him I was fine and he said, “I know you are, but I’m saving your life. They’re gonna go after you if you’re out there. They want to beat you to death. Just tell the media it was a wild pitch.”
Were there any repercussions when you played them later in the year?
In that game, Ron Jackson broke a bone in his wrist punching someone and was in a cast until August. When the Angels came back to Minnesota in September, I pitched against Nolan Ryan. We were going into the eighth inning and I hung a slider to Joe Rudi. He took me deep to tie the game and I was very ticked off. Butch Wynegar was trying to get me to go low and outside. I just threw one as hard as I could and it happened to tail high and inside and drilled the batter in the wrist. The batter turned out to be Ronnie Jackson, who had just got his cast off. He charged the mound and dove before he got to the mound and tackled me. He had my feet and said, “I’m gonna get you! You can’t just come into this league and hit whoever you want. I’m gonna find you, you punk! I’ll find out where you live, come to your house, and beat some sense into you!”
What happens next? The Twins trade for him!
When I got there in Spring Training the guys saw me and were laughing. They said, “Ronnie Jackson is looking for you. Guy’s got some big arms!” I went to the training room, but when I walked around the corner, he was right there. He looked at me and said, “Roger.” I said, “Ronnie.” And that was it. During the season we’d be out and he’d always ask me, “You hit me, right?” I said, “Well I hit you, but it wasn’t on purpose. That was my fault – I gave up a home run to Joe Rudi because I threw a bad pitch. There was no reason to hit you. I was just mad and hurried my pitch.”
During the 1982 season you were traded to the Yankees. That was a wild time with that franchise. What was your experience like there?
It’s great place to play and I loved the guys on the team, but the front office was just a bunch of idiots when I was there. The first year I was traded, we went through three managers and five pitching coaches. Butch Wynegar and I were traded there together. We showed up in Oakland and Ron Guidry was pitching and he got in a jam. They had me in the bullpen and got me up. I was pumped up, threw about six pitches and was ready. Dom Scala was the coach down there and he waved down to Jeff Torborg that I was ready. Jeff came down and said, “He just got up, how is he ready?” Scala said, “He said he’s ready” and had me throw a couple to show him I was ready. They brought me in immediately and I got out of the jam. All of a sudden, the wheels were turning and Torborg said, “Why don’t we make him a reliever?” I said, “OK.” Then I had a start coming up against Milwaukee and they beat me 3-2. They came to me and said, “We’re not sure what to do with you. We may want to work with you on going to the bullpen.” I said, “I don’t need work, if you’re gonna put me there, just put me there. What is there to work on?”
I said, “Yogi, I’ve been a starter in the big leagues for five years and now they want me to sit here and twiddle my thumbs. Let’s get something going!” He said, “OK, I’ll tell them you’re stupid enough to say yes.”
What work did they have you doing to prepare for that?
They put me in the bullpen and had me work with Stan Williams. Stan liked the drop and drive. I said, “I can’t do the drop and drive!” He had me doing some stupid drill and it was buckling my knee. I said I could adjust my windup, but I couldn’t do what they wanted. Clyde King was down there too. He was a front office guy but was a former pitcher. He said, “All I know, is we need to see a change in your delivery if you want to keep pitching.” I said, “If you didn’t like my windup, then why’d you trade for me?” He said, “We’re beyond that now.” I told him I couldn’t do what Stan Williams wanted me to do. He told me that I threw all arm and if I used my legs I’d be throwing harder than Goose Gossage. I said, “Well, if that’s the case, what’s Goose gonna do? I like Goose. If I’m throwing harder than Goose, then I’d be better than him because I got better control. He don’t know where it’s going.”
I told Clyde King that I’d just do the basic delivery and come to the plate. He said, “That’s all we want!” I had been doing that but adjusted to what I liked better when I got to New York. Clyde told me not to wear my spikes that day and not to worry about that day’s game. Yogi Berra had timed me running the steps in Yankee Stadium before the game and I ran for an hour, plus I threw in the bullpen for an hour. He was like, “You almost ran over Joe DiMaggio in the upper deck!” He was up there looking out over everything and I startled him.
Yea, you don’t want to knock Joe DiMaggio out of the upper deck! How did the game go that day?
The game went to extra innings and Yogi came down to me. He said, “Those stupid sonofabitches want me to ask you if you would go down to the bullpen in case we need you.” I said that I would. Yogi said, “Tell them no! You ran for an hour and pitched for an hour already today!” I said, “Yogi, I’ve been a starter in the big leagues for five years and now they want me to sit here and twiddle my thumbs. Let’s get something going!” He said, “OK, I’ll tell them you’re stupid enough to say yes.” They brought me in for the 11th and I got them out 1-2-3. They brought Goose in and he went 1-2-3. We got a run and a win and everyone was happy. They came to me and told me they were still trying to figure out what to do with me.
Did you ever get a chance to close with the Yankees?
One time Goose pitched three days in a row and wasn’t gonna be available the next game. We were winning 1-0 and they called down to the bullpen and told me to get up. I came in and threw maybe six pitches, jammed all three guys and no balls got out of the infield. First guy out was Gossage. He came sprinting to me, grabbed me by the collar and said, “It’s not that fucking easy!” I figured that maybe I’d be the setup man for Goose after that, but they came to me and said I had a start that Tuesday. I was like, “Are you kidding me? You guys are nuts.” I ended up starting and won that game and three more in a row. During all that, I heard Tommy John calling me from the dugout one game. I look over and it was Tommy, Guidry, Dave Righetti, and Shane Rawley. They were all sitting there with their left leg crossed over their right and they were all waving at me with their left arm. They were telling me they were all lefties and I was the only righty in the rotation.
Then we got a new pitching coach, Sammy Ellis. He told me to adjust and use my left arm more. I was stupid enough to try it. My arm ended up feeling a little weird and Clyde King came to me and said I was going on the DL. I said, “Why? I just felt a little twinge and just need an ice pack.” That started the ball rolling where they started to do all kinds of goofy infrared therapy on me. They told me not to throw for three weeks. I said, “What are you crazy? I’ve never not touched a ball for three weeks. That’s nuts.” The therapy never worked. Then they had me play catch little by little like a kid. Then I went in the bullpen and my arm felt great, but my back tightened up because I hadn’t been doing anything. They finally told me that since we were out of it, they were just gonna shut me down for the year.
Was the next year any better? I’m guessing probably not considering who was still around.
The next year they tried to buy me off for $10,000 to go to AAA. They told me I’d be the first guy they called up if I accepted. Billy Martin kept putting me out there though and I kept getting people out. Billy told me that he was trying to get me traded because the front office didn’t like me. Billy liked me, but George Steinbrenner and the front office didn’t. The whole buyout turned out to be a lie anyway. They had told Rick Reuschel and Dave LaRoche the same thing. We all had lockers next to each other and got to talking about it. That’s when we figured out they were telling all three of us we’d be the first ones called up. The threatened me and said I wasn’t gonna pitch and I was like, “Well, Billy Martin’s the manager.” The very first game, Guidry got in trouble and they got me up and I did well. They finally said, “OK, he’s here anyway, so we’re gonna stop bothering him and let him pitch.” A couple weeks later, they needed a spot on the roster and they found out that I was a few weeks short of the five years needed to block being sent down, so they sent me to AAA. I figured, screw them, I’m going home instead.
How did that go over with the front office?
Steinbrenner started threatening me, so I felt obligated to start calling him names in the paper and just sat home for a while. Finally, Clyde King talked me into coming back and going to Columbus. I threw a few good games in a row and called New York and told them I was ready. They told me I had to stay down there and I admit that I had a bad attitude after that. We got down to the end of the season and Steinbrenner got mad because he had called Andre Robertson up and he booted a ball. George said, “Screw this, I’m not calling any of them up anymore!”
Steinbrenner was just brutal in the paper. I was like, “I don’t need this anymore.” Johnny Oates was the manager and we were playing for the championship against the [AAA] Mets. He said he didn’t want to be stuck down there forever either and if I helped him and pitched well, he’d do what he could to help me get out. I shut them out for eight innings and he brought in LaRoche to finish the ninth. The Yankees ended up chartering a plane and brought us up. It was me, Steve Balboni, and Curt Kaufman. That night we went out and someone told me I should go back and get some rest. I said, “This is how it works. If I go back and get a good rest, I won’t end up playing. If I stay out drinking all night, I’ll probably end up pitching.” That was exactly what happened.
How did that game go the next day? I think I can guess!
Dave Righetti got in trouble in the second inning and Billy Martin brought me in with the bases loaded and no outs. Billy said, “You went out and had a few beers, huh?” I struck out Eddie Murray, got out of the inning and pitched the rest of the game. That totally pissed off Steinbrenner because the reporters were bothering him asking why I was in the minors all that time when they needed a right hander all year. Billy came to me and said, “I told those idiots you could pitch, but I can’t always make decisions anymore. I got a phone call from Steinbrenner and was told I’m not to pitch you anymore unless it’s some shithole game.”
This has been awesome hearing your stories and I’m glad you don’t hold back. It sounds like Billy Martin really did like you. How about we end with one last Billy Martin story.
One time through all of this, we were playing in Seattle and I was walking around. I came to some bar and was looking in the window at the menu. I could see that Billy was in there and he waved me in. He told the bartender to get me a beer. I said that I might have to pitch that night and he said, “Well, that’s up to me. A beer ain’t gonna kill ya.” He told me again how he was trying to help me and that he always liked me back from when I pitched for the Twins. He liked how I pitched against his A’s teams. We had a few brawls with them.
There was also that time I came in in relief and finished out the game against the Orioles that we talked about earlier. After that game about half the team is out at the bar – and who walks in but Billy Martin, Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford. They were standing at one end of the bar and Billy waved me over. He said, “I told those idiots that you could pitch! I enjoy watching you pitch and know you could do it. I wish you could stay with us because we need you, but Steinbrenner doesn’t like you. By the way, this is Mickey Mantle.” I knew Whitey already because he helped out in Spring Training. Billy turned to them and said,”This kid here could have pitched with us when we played and he definitely could have had some beers with us.” That just about makes my career right there.