"I didn’t know any better back then that drinking could kill me.”
For the three years Spitballin’ has been running at BallNine, our mission has been to bring to fans stories right from ballplayers themselves. We like to offer fans a glimpse into the clubhouse, take them onto the field, and recount a player’s place in baseball history—because they all have one.
What we’ve learned is that all players also have a personal side, too, and we fans don’t get to see that too often. We like to get into their childhood and what the world was like for them as a major leaguer, and offer reflections on life and baseball.
Randy Lerch checks all of those boxes in this week’s Spitballin’.
Lerch played eleven seasons in the majors, pitching in 253 games. He holds some interesting distinctions, like starting the first playoff win in Brewers franchise history and starting for the Phillies in their famous 23-22 win over the Cubs in 1979.
But where you’ll really find your lessons is in the struggles Lerch overcame both on the field and in life through his belief in God. His excellent book God in the Bullpen is strikingly honest and entertaining. If you want to read about Tug McGraw, fishnet underwear, and a case of Montezuma’s Revenge, it’s in there. If you want to read about Lerch’s fight against cirrhosis of the liver due to drug and alcohol abuse, that’s in there too.
As Lerch put it in his author bio, “With His help, I am battling this, but only God can know how much time I have left. I want to tell my story to help others avoid the pitfalls that brought me to a time of despair.”
If ever a player’s story was in the spirit of what BallNine is all about, this is it. So join us as we go Spitballin’ with the man known as “Blade,” Randy Lerch.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Lerch! We have a lot to cover, so let’s jump right in and go back to your youth. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up?
I grew up in the Sacramento area and my dad loved baseball. The A’s were winning World Series back then, but we were National League people and liked the Giants. We used to watch the Game of the Week on Saturdays. I was probably seven years old and I asked my dad if those guys were any good. My dad smiled and said, “All of those guys are good. All of them are major leaguers.” It gave me that burning desire to play in the big leagues one day. My grandpa Gordon used to take me to Candlestick Park in the days of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, and the Alou brothers. I loved Willie Mays and grew up emulating his basket catch. My dad taught me the fundamentals, and managed my Little League teams too.
Did you ever end up facing any of the guys you looked up to?
Yes, I got up to the big leagues when I was 20 and they were at the ends of their careers. I got to face Stretch McCovey. The first time I faced him was at Candlestick Park and my family was there. I struck him out three times. Then he got me back in Philadelphia. He hit a long home run into the second deck off me.
You were a 20-year-old kid when you were called up the majors from AA in 1975. Looking at that roster, I see Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Dick Allen, and so many great players. What was it like coming up to that team?
I was 16-6 in AA in Reading in 1975, which was a hop, skip, and a jump from Veterans Stadium. I would come home from my games in AA and if the Phillies were on, I would watch them because they were local. I thought making that team was just a dream, but I had that dream. We went to the playoffs in Reading that year and they sent Dallas Green to watch us. I pitched against the Red Sox farm team and I remember that because Butch Hobson was on the team and I couldn’t get him out. I went into the 14th inning with a game tied 1-1. Dallas Green came up to me and said, “Nice pitching kid. The rosters are expanding and we’re going to try to bring you up to the big leagues.” I couldn’t believe it. The next day I was a big leaguer. It happened so fast, I was terrified.
You were coming up onto a team where Steve Carlton was in his prime and one of the aces of the sport. What was your relationship like with him?
Being a left-hander coming up in the Phillies’ system, I always used to hear that I could be the next Steve Carlton. I looked up to him and wanted to emulate him. My first game seeing him was the first game I ever pitched in the majors. It was against the Cubs and while Carlton killed everybody, he especially killed the Cubs. Going into the last inning, we were up 13-2. Danny Ozark felt it was safe to bring me into the game. I was so nervous, I gave up a walk and some bloop hits and then I gave up a grand slam. Back then, they figured on days that Carlton pitched, they could give the bullpen a rest. Gene Garber was our closer. They were really ticked off at me because I didn’t go out there and slam the door and poor Gene had to get up.
Steve Carlton was just larger than life. When it was his day to pitch, we’d say, “What day is it, lefty?” And he’d say, “It’s win-day.” We knew that more than three-quarters of the time, when Carlton pitched, we were gonna win and the other pitchers were gonna have the day off. My locker was right next to him. It was a great experience. I idolized him.
I have interviewed a lot of his teammates and never heard a bad word about him even though the media gave him a bad reputation. Did you see that with him and the media?
Being close to him, I got to see it all. The reason he stopped talking to them was because they really laid the wood to him. When he was traded from the Cardinals, he won 27 games and the Cy Young in Philadelphia. He would stay until every last question was asked by the writers that year. The next year, he lost 20 games and the media turned on him. The fans in Philadelphia were ruthless and the media turned the fans on him. So he figured if they were going to treat him like that after he gave them so much time the year before, he just wasn’t going to talk to them anymore.
We went out and scored seven runs in the top of the first, including a home run that I hit myself. Walking out to the mound, Bowa ran past me and said, “Is that enough runs for you, you crybaby?!”
That makes sense. In 1978 the Phillies went into the last series of the year up three games on the Pirates. You guys went into Pittsburgh to end the year on a four-game series to decide the NL East. Of course, there was no Wild Card. You were scheduled to pitch Game 3. I’ll let you take it from there to let our readers know what happened.
Pittsburgh was our rival since we were both in Pennsylvania, and they had a great team. We had a makeup doubleheader on Friday and I was scheduled to pitch Saturday. We lost both games of the doubleheader under weird circumstances, so now our lead was down to one, going into my start. The series was hyped up like crazy and there were a lot of people in the stands. Don Robinson was pitching for the Pirates. I ended up with the bases loaded in the first and Willie Stargell hit one over the fence for a grand slam. The pressure was on Philadelphia like you couldn’t believe. I was so mad that I put us in that situation. I said to myself that if I was going down, I better get a piece of somebody. I came up to bat with that in mind. The first pitch that Robinson threw I crushed to centerfield off the backdrop. The next time I was up, I hit a line shot over Dave Parker’s head into the rightfield seats. We went on to win the game 10-8. I got the win and hit two home runs and we clinched the division.
Wow, talk about a great day at the ballpark! Do you consider that your most memorable career game?
I think so, in a positive way anyway. I was also the guy who started that 23-22 game at Wrigley Field and that game is probably more well-known. I had been pitching pretty well, but we hadn’t been scoring any runs. The biggest no-no in the world is to badmouth your team. That’s so unprofessional. There was a game I pitched in New York and we lost 3-2. The writers said something about not scoring runs for me and I was mad. I said something like, “Those blanketey-blank hitters can’t score me any runs and I can’t win a game!” At the time, Greg Luzinski was on the disabled list and he saw the article. He couldn’t wait to get to the stadium to tell the biggest mouth on the team, Larry Bowa, what I said.
The wind was blowing out at Wrigley that day like crazy. We went out and scored seven runs in the top of the first, including a home run that I hit myself. Walking out to the mound, Bowa ran past me and said, “Is that enough runs for you, you crybaby?!” I went out and gave up six runs and never made it out of the first inning.
Such a legendary game. Were you around four hours later when it finally ended?
Well, the game was tied 22-22 after nine. Carlton had pitched the day before and it was getaway day. I was out of the game early and Carlton said, “Blade, let’s beat the traffic and head out to the airport to wait for the team there. We’ll sit there and have some beers and watch the game.” So we’re at O’Hare watching the game in the VIP Lounge. We were actually sitting next to Jimmy Dean, the guy from Jimmy Dean Sausage. Jack Brickhouse was announcing the game and he said, “I can’t believe it, but the only person available on the bench for the Phillies is Carlton. Everybody else has been used.” I remember yelling at the TV, “Nope! He’s sitting right here! He is unavailable!”
Amazing. The Phillies traded you to the Brewers in March of 1981. What was your experience like in Milwaukee?
I was on the 1981 Brewers and that was the first year they ever made the postseason. I was scheduled to pitch Game 3 against the Yankees in New York. Those were the days of Reggie Jackson, Lou Piniella, Dave Winfield, Graig Nettles, and on and on. We lost the first two at home and went into New York. The place was packed and it was on worldwide TV. If we lost, the series was over. I went to warmup and the Yankees had an elevated leftfield bullpen. They had all those busts of the Hall of Fame players. You saw Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, and everyone else. It was almost like they were staring at me warming up. I was so terrified, I couldn’t throw the ball over the plate.
Walking to the mound to face off against Tommy John I thought to myself, “You know, what are you so nervous about? You’re about to fulfill a dream of every kid has who ever wanted to play baseball: pitching on the mound at Yankee Stadium against the New York Yankees.” I figured if I threw just one pitch, I fulfilled that dream. So, I went out and just had fun. Howard Cosell was the announcer and it was a big deal for me. That was the game when the fan came on the field and attacked the umpire.
That sounds about right for the postseason in New York. Were you on the field for that? What happened?
New York was known to have violent fans. Lou Piniella hit a high chopper off home plate with Dave Winfield on first. It was really high over my head on the mound, but I turned around, grabbed it and fired it to Cecil Cooper at first. Because it was hit so high, Winfield tried to go first to third, but Cooper threw a strike to Sal Bando. It was a bang-bang play, but he was out and the fans went crazy. One of the fans jumped on the field with a Blackjack and started beating on the umpire, Mike Reilly. Ken Kaiser was one of the other umpires and he went down and got a hold of that fan and the police dragged him off.
I was looking at that box score and it looks like you did get to have your fun. Can you talk to our readers about that game?
I pitched into the seventh and came out with us ahead 3-1. Rollie Fingers came on and blew the save, but we won the game, which was most important. That was the first playoff win in Milwaukee Brewers history and I was the starting pitcher for it. That was a big time, lifelong dream for me. The only other playoff game I pitched was in 1978 against the Dodgers in Dodger Stadium, which was my dad’s favorite team. That was another lifelong dream. They had so many great players. Reggie Smith, Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Ron Cey, Dusty Baker, Rick Monday. Such a good team.
An incredible team. Changing gears a little, I saw that you played in the Senior Professional Baseball League. I love asking players what their experience was like in that league. Did you enjoy that?
It was magnificent. I thought it was going to be like an old softball league. I was still in great shape. I was only 39 years old and had just retired. I thought I was gonna go down there, screw around and drink beer. But when we got there, it was serious. I played for the St. Petersburg Pelicans and was the Opening Day pitcher for the Senior League. Bobby Tolan was our manager and he saw it as a place where he could jump to the big leagues from there. Everything was real serious. We had Jon Matlack, Dock Ellis, Ron LeFlore, Kenny Landreaux, and some real good players.
You wrote a book a few years ago called God in the Bullpen. Could you tell our readers a little about your book?
I have a friend who started out being a fan and his last name was Lerch, too, Harold Lerch; no relation. He lived outside of Philadelphia and was a big Phillies fan. After I retired he bugged me a couple times about writing a book, but I said no. He had done some ancestry things to see if we were related. We weren’t, but he sent me all this stuff about my family ancestry. He had been so kind and I have never done this before, but I flew him out from Pennsylvania to stay with my wife and me. They came out and I wasn’t feeling good. They stayed a couple days and I barely made it through.
Two weeks later, my belly was huge and I found out I had liver cirrhosis. The doctor told me I should be on a liver transplant list, but I said I didn’t want that. I had done this to myself through so many years of alcoholism. The doctor told me that I could go into liver failure at any time. By God’s great grace, it looks like I have a chance. Not meaning that I’m not going to die, but my liver is doing well enough to not be day to day. I was so thankful that I wanted to share about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, so I agreed to write the book and tell my story. I was a big, strong athlete. I didn’t know any better back then that drinking could kill me. I didn’t know cirrhosis was a death sentence.
That’s great motivation for writing and informing people. And it includes baseball stories too?
Yes, it has all that stuff. It starts with my childhood and goes into high school. My high school had five guys play in the major leagues. Jerry Manuel was my teammate and we used to walk home from practice together every day. We’re still great friends. Then I thought I had some great stories that people hadn’t heard before. There’s stories about Tug McGraw and even a story about when Steve Carlton and I shot up the locker room with a .22 Magnum. There are so many stories in the book that people will get a kick out of – (and) that had never been told before.
This has been great and we wish you the best of health going forward. One last question for you. When you look back and reflect on your life in baseball, what are your thoughts?
I played 11 years in the major leagues and was blessed because the teams I played on had some of the greatest players in the game’s history. On the Phillies, Dick Allen was on the team and he was so kind. Tony Taylor and Ollie Brown were great. I played with Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Tug McGraw, and Bake McBride. Then I went to Milwaukee and played with Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. Growing up I used to watch the A’s on TV, now I was teammates with Sal Bando and Rollie Fingers. Ted Simmons was my catcher and he’s in the Hall of Fame. I played in Montreal and my gosh, there were some great players on that team. Gary Carter, Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, all Hall of Famers. Steve Rogers was a great pitcher.
I’m from Sacramento and there have been so many great athletes who have come from there. In 2020, I was one of 40 players across all sports who were inducted into the Sacramento Sports Hall of Fame. Dusty Baker had been inducted before me and he was the one who presented me my award.