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Mudville: June 22, 2024 6:46 am PDT

Renko Rakes

BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI

Steve Renko never got a World Series ring from the Mets for his contribution to their miraculous 1969 run to a championship. Without Renko’s involvement, though, New York might have written just another feelgood story about a team that almost made it.

Renko, 79, who was pitching for the Mets Tidewater affiliate in the Triple-A International League in the summer of ’69, was the key component of a deal that saw Donn Clendenon go from Montreal to New York at the trading deadline. Clendenon’s presence in the lineup over the final two and a half months of the season, along with the post-season [he was the World Series MVP] helped propel the once hapless Mets to mythical heights.

While Renko missed out on being part of a celebrated pitching staff that included future Hall-of-Famers Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, not to mention Jerry Koosman, the deal gave him what he wanted – a place on a Major League roster. Renko slotted into the Expos rotation almost immediately after then deal and would go on to pick up 68 of his 134 career victories over eight seasons in Montreal.

He twice won 15 games for the expansion Expos, establishing himself as one of the franchise’s early stars. Renko pitched for seven teams over a 15-year career and later served as a successful minor league pitching coach for 11 years before finally retiring following the 2006 season.

“It was good to be traded,” Renko said. “It didn’t bother me as long as I went to the big leagues. I never felt like I missed out on something because I was making my own opportunities in the big leagues and I was able to go from there. I can only control what happens to me.”

Controlling his situation helped Renko, who was a three-sport star at The University of Kansas before the Mets drafted him, to become one of the most dependable pitchers in the 1970s, leaving some to wonder that had he been with a better team, he might have been a multiple 20-game winner.

“Part of its luck and part of it is skill,” Renko said. “I couldn’t tell one way or another because I pitched some good games and got beat and pitched some bad ones and won. I definitely had better years when I was on better teams. It was fun to play on good teams.”

“I was a better baseball player than anything else, though. I threw hard. I didn’t have command but I threw hard and I could hit a little bit.”

THE THREE-SPORT STAR

Renko grew up in Kansas, earning All-State honors in football, basketball and track at Wyandotte High School before choosing to attend The University of Kansas. That he ended up a Jayhawk was a surprise to no one. His father, Steve Renko, Sr., played football for Kansas and was a tackle on the 1947 squad that went to the Orange Bowl.

The younger Renko was also an exceptional baseball player in high school – he helped lead his team to the Class AA State title as a senior – and decided to continue playing in college. Renko also played basketball and football at Kansas and is the school’s last three-sport letter winner.

“When I was young, I liked the White Sox and Luis Aparicio for some reason,” Renko said. “I thought he was a good player. I didn’t attach myself to any other players, it was just kind of a thing. Mostly, I enjoyed playing. I grew up playing football when it was time to play football, basketball when it was time to play basketball and baseball when it was time to play baseball. It didn’t matter what time of year it was.

“I was a better baseball player than anything else, though. I threw hard. I didn’t have command but I threw hard and I could hit a little bit.”

Renko’s collegiate experience certainly proved interesting. He hit .244 with three homers and 32 RBIs in 1964-65 and he also went 8-3 with a 2.60 ERA. He struck out 112 in 82 innings over that stretch, leading the team in ERA [0.99] in 1964. That prompted the Mets to select him in the 24th round of the first-ever Major League Baseball Draft in 1965.

He was also one of the quarterbacks on the football team as a sophomore in 1963, leading the team in passing with 505 yards while sharing a backfield with future NFL Hall-of-Famer Gale Sayers. Renko was taken by Oakland Raiders in the 15th round of the 1966 American Football League draft.

Montreal Expos' Steve Renko pitching against Chicago Cubs.(Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Renko played a season for KU’s basketball team but baseball was always going to be his path. He went to play for Rapid City of the Basin League after his senior season at Kansas. The circuit was comprised of college players and assorted minor leaguers who were looking to showcase their talents for Major League scouts. The league produced such stars as Hall-of-Famers Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer and Don Sutton and it was during his time in Rapid City that Renko learned he had been selected by the Mets.

“I don’t remember thinking too much about the draft,” said Renko, who pitched a no-hitter for Rapid City shortly after being selected by the Mets. “My college coach [Floyd Temple] was the coach at Rapid City and I found out I was drafted by reading it in the newspaper. Then, one of the scouts called and told me he was coming in in a day or two and that he wanted to talk to me. I just went about my business and we he got there, we talked.”

The Mets wanted Renko to play the field and he saw time as a first baseman and outfielder for several seasons and didn’t actually begin pitching professionally until late in 1966. The Mets sent him to Marion of the Rookie-Level Appalachian League in the summer of 1965 and he hit .290 with seven homers and 32 RBIs in 169 at-bats before the Raiders drafted him that November.

Renko worked out for Oakland but never seriously considered playing professional football.

“I went out to Oakland and threw for [owner and head coach] Al Davis,” Renko said. “I threw to [Hall-of-Famer] Fred Biletnikoff, this was after his first season, and another wide receiver. Ollie Spencer was their line coach at the time and he played at Kansas with my dad so my dad knew him. I went out there and Ollie picked me up. We drove around Oakland and they showed me the new park they were building.

“Then we went over to a high school field and I threw for about a half hour and Al Davis was sitting there. We went back to the Hyatt by the ballpark and discussed terms of what I wanted and he told me what he would give me. I said I would think about it but I had separated and dislocated my shoulder in football at Kansas and I fell on it again when I was shagging balls in the outfield. Davis said he’d give me what I wanted if I made the traveling squad but I knew I could get hurt playing football and I really wanted to play baseball. Plus, I had already played one year.”

BASEBALL IT IS

That one year and all the factors surrounding playing professional football made Renko’s decision easy. He split the 1966 season between Auburn of the Class-A New York-Penn League and the Double-A Eastern League, combining to hit .204 with 17 homers and 60 RBIs in 441 at-bats. It was a late-season decision, though, that would ultimately change Renko’s career trajectory.

Renko hadn’t pitched since his time in the Basin League the prior summer. But on the last day of the season, he spoke up about getting a chance to get back on the mound.

“Bill Virdon was the manager and I didn’t hit that well [in Williamsport],” Renko said. “I wasn’t playing so I said something to the pitching coach and Bill told me to warm up. So, I went down and warmed up and threw [two scoreless, hitless innings, issuing only one walk]. I came back the next year [at Winter Haven of the Florida State League] and was at first base again and nothing was mentioned about pitching.

“We were on the road and our number one signee [1966 second-round pick Byron Van Hoff] was pitching and I wasn’t playing because I was the DH. I was sitting there and he gave up three runs in the first inning and the manager [Pete Pavlick] said Renko go warmup. I pitched five innings and we scored one more run than them and I pitched from then on. I still played 1B, though, when guys went for their military service.”

Renko went 8-1 with a 1.61 ERA [11th in the league] in 11 games [10 starts] through the end of the season, striking out 109 in 84 innings. He suffered a shoulder separation near the end of the regular season but not before he threw three consecutive shutouts that summer. The Sporting News referred to him as brilliant in its Nov. 4 edition as he was pitching to a 4-1 record 2.06 ERA in eight Florida Instructional League games.

Steve Renko #45 of the California Angels pitches against the Baltimore Orioles during a game circa 1982 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. Renko played for the Angels from 1981-82. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

The following season saw Renko’s time in the field greatly diminish. He split the season between Jacksonville of the Triple-A International League and Memphis of the Double-A Texas League but got only 69 at-bats, hitting .174. He did, however, go 11-12 with a 3.21 ERA in 29 combined starts.

Renko shone in the playoffs, tossing a complete-game three hitter in the International League semifinal-clinching game against Toledo. He retired 18 batters in a row at one point and also contributed at the plate, collecting two hits, including a solo homer. He then pitched the Governor’s Cup-clincher against Columbus, allowing one run and scattering six hits in the complete-game victory.

It was during this stretch that Renko got a first-hand glimpse of what the Mets could expect on the mound over the coming seasons. He pitched with future Hall-of-Famers Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan along with New York’s great lefty Jerry Koosman.

“You knew Tom was going to be good,” Renko said. “They had four or five guys on those teams that made it to the big leagues. Nolan was there, too, but he was a 5-foot-11 17-year-old who threw three quarter and it was 89-90 miles an hour. Then he went into the service and the next time I saw him he was 6-2 or 6-3 and was throwing over the top at 100 miles per hour. But he was as wild as a march hare.”

Renko’s post-season heroics notwithstanding, he found himself back in Tidewater as the 1969 season began. He wouldn’t be there long, though. The Mets were headed to glory and he was headed to Montreal.

Former pitcher Steve Renko of the Montreal Expos salutes the fans ahead of the game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Milwaukee Brewers during MLB spring training at Olympic Stadium on March 26, 2019 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

OH, CANADA

Renko got off to a rather a pedestrian start in ’69, pitching to a 5.45 ERA through 66 innings. When the trade deadline approached the Expos were looking to add pitching in exchange for Clendenon and when the Mets wouldn’t part with Ryan, Gary Gentry, Jim McAndrew or Don Cardwell, Montreal set its sights on Renko.

“When I was traded I was supposed to go from Virginia to Vancouver, which was where the Expos Triple-A team was,” Renko said. “My wife and I had just gotten to Norfolk and rented a house. We had gotten established and then I was traded. So, I told the Expos that if you want me to do that, I’m going to have to go to Vancouver with my wife and help her get set up and that would take at least a week.

“I said why don’t you just let me stay here and pitch. So, I spent another month pitching for the Mets but I belonged to the Expos.”

Renko made his Major League debut on June 27, pitching at home against the Phillies. He gave up five runs in 2 1/3 innings and took the loss but he spent the rest of the season with Montreal and never played in another minor league game. He finished his rookie season at 6-7 in 18 games [15 starts] with a 4.01 ERA.

“Montreal is a beautiful city but the tax situation was not really good and the stadium was not up to par as far as the Major Leagues went. Montreal was a really neat city, though, and I connected pretty well with most of the fans. I appreciated what they did to come out and see the games and I still have friends in Montreal that I met when I was up there.”

He became a big part of Montreal’s rotation the following season, going 13-11 with a 4.32 ERA. Renko followed that up with his first 15-win season, pitching to a 3.75 ERA in 1971. He had his finest season with the Expos in 1973, winning 15 games for the second time while pitching to a career-best 2.81 ERA in 36 games [34 starts].

Renko won 18 games over the next two seasons but manager Gene Mauch was fired following the 1975 manager. Karl Kuehl took over but he and Renko did not see eye-to-eye about the hurler should be used. Kuehl moved him to the bullpen and then moved him out of town, trading him to the Cubs on May 17.

“I was ready to leave Montreal,” Renko said. “I didn’t get along with the manager. I got along well with Gene and they fired him. I knew I wasn’t going to pitch so I was ready to leave. I had no idea what his [Kuehl’s] deal was but I didn’t along with him from the very beginning.”

THE JOURNEYMAN ERA BEGINS AND ENDS

Renko pitched for six teams over eight seasons after leaving Montreal, including the Cubs, White Sox, Red Sox, Angels, A’s and Royals, never spending more than two seasons in any one spot. He picked up 11 victories a few times, with Boston in 1979 and California in 1982.

The Cubs traded him to the White Sox on Aug. 18,1977, ending Renko’s time in the National League and his career at the plate. He was one of the best-hitting pitchers of his era, finishing with a .215 batting average in 531 at-bats. He had six homers and 42 RBIs.

Renko was also the last pitcher to hit seventh or higher in a game on Aug. 26, 1973, until Dontrelle Willis did it for the Marlins in 2005. He also set the Montreal franchise record for at-bats [100] by a pitcher in 1971.

He returned home to pitch for the Royals in his final season [1983], going 6-11 with a 4.30 ERA in 25 games [17 starts]. He earned his last career victory on Aug. 23 against the White Sox and a week later, he pitched in his last game – a five-inning, one-run stint against Texas. He missed the remainder of the season with a leg injury before the Royals released him that fall.

“Towards the end of my career I was getting late in years,” Renko said. “I played 15 years and didn’t think I had too many more years to play. Playing at home for Kansas City was one of the toughest years of my career. Everyone knew I was home and they wanted tickets. I gave out a lot more tickets than any other place I played.”

Renko began his career as a minor league coach later in the decade and spent a dozen years in that position. He enjoyed coaching but said it was an eye-opening experience.

“You realize a lot more as a coach,” he said. “You see a lot of talent with a lot more kids that is overlooked because of numbers. When you draft 50 guys a year that means you’re going to lose 50 guys and some of those kids can play but they wind up going to other teams or they quit.

“I saw it year after year. You draft a kid number two or three but there is a kid who you gave $50 to who out him but you release him. It’s always a money thing. How much money did we give this guy. I always struggled with that.”

There wasn’t a great deal of struggling overall for Renko. He made his own way and never regretted any of the paths on which he was placed during his time in baseball.

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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