By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
When someone mentions Dave Righetti, you’re more likely to remember him as a young left-hander with the New York Yankees who on July 4, 1983 became the first Bronx Bombers pitcher to throw a no-hitter since Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series.
You’re less likely to recall his 13 appearances as a 35-year-old mop-up reliever for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1994. Yes, Righetti did, in fact, make a short stop north of the border in the twilight of his pitching career.
Born in San Jose, Calif., in 1958, Righetti and his older brother, Steven, were tutored on the finer points of baseball by their father Leo, a former infielder, who played parts of 12 seasons in the minor league ranks between 1944 and 1957.
Righetti was an outfielder in high school until he was spotted by former University of Santa Clara head coach and Texas Rangers scout Paddy Cottrell who was impressed by his arm and encouraged him to become a pitcher.
In his senior high school season, Righetti made the transition to the mound and won all seven of his starts. His performance, combined with Cottrell’s recommendation, convinced the Rangers to select Righetti in the first round (10th overall) of the January 1977 MLB draft.
The young southpaw had two strong seasons as a starter in the Rangers’ organization before he was dealt to the Yankees as part of a 10-player trade for Sparky Lyle on November 10, 1978. Righetti continued to impress in the Yankees’ organization and was called up to make his major league debut on September 16, 1979.
He would post a 3.63 ERA in three starts with the Yankees that September, but he was back in triple-A in 1980. He started the 1981 season in triple-A again, but his 5-0 record and 1.00 ERA in his first seven starts earned him a promotion to the big leagues.
In that strike-shortened campaign, Righetti would finish with a 8-4 record and a 2.05 ERA in 15 starts for the Yankees and was named the American League Rookie of Year. The 22-year-old lefty was also outstanding for the Yankees in the post-season, registering a combined 3-0 record and allowing just one earned run in three appearances – including two starts – in the American League Division Series and American League Championship Series before the Bombers lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.
Over the next two years, Righetti continued to be a key starter for the Yankees. His most memorable start, of course, was the aforementioned no-hitter he tossed against the Boston Red Sox on July 4, 1983.
But after Goose Gossage signed with the San Diego Padres as a free agent following the 1983 season, Righetti was converted into a closer and evolved into one of the best in the game. An all-star in 1985 and 1986, Righetti set a then-major league record with 46 saves in the latter campaign.
Righetti continued to be a reliable closer for the Yankees through the 1990 season. Following that campaign, he signed a four-year, $10-million contract with his hometown San Francisco Giants.
After collecting 24 saves in his first season with the Giants, he saw his velocity drop by almost 10 mph and he struggled. The Giants even tried making him a starter again in 1992 – an experiment that lasted just four starts. Following another disappointing year in 1993, the Giants released him and he was signed by the Oakland A’s.
Unfortunately, there would be no career resurgence for Righetti in his return to the American League. The then 35-year-old lefty was hit hard and after his ERA ballooned to 16.71 in seven appearances, the A’s released him on April 27.
Meanwhile, the reigning World Series champion Blue Jays were desperate for bullpen help. With closer Duane Ward on the disabled list with bicep tendinitis and set-up man Danny Cox sidelined with a shoulder injury, the club was floundering around the .500 mark. So on May 13, the Blue Jays signed Righetti to a minor league deal and sent him to double-A Knoxville to work with his former Yankees pitching coach Mark Connor.
“A lot of teams were afraid to ask if I’d go to the minors, I think,” Righetti told the San Francisco Chronicle after signing with the Blue Jays. “It helped that I told Toronto, ‘Hell, yes. I’d go to the minors if that’s what it takes to get my arm in shape. Toronto was delighted with that. If I can help the team, they’ll call me up in a couple of weeks, if not I’ll be home.”
Righetti knew that this could be his last chance to prolong his big league career.
“The Blue Jays obviously need help,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “They’re trying to get some bodies, and they’re taking a chance on me. Not much of one. Most likely this is my last chance. I don’t need to turn my life upside down. I have things I’m looking to fall back on. Maybe I’ll start doing that.”
So while the Blue Jays’ big league bullpen continued to blow leads, Righetti posted a 2.21 ERA in seven appearances – including four starts – for the double-A Knoxville Smokies. And after the Blue Jays lost 4-3 in 13 innings to Cleveland on June 15, they called Righetti up.
But the aging Righetti wouldn’t be the answer to the club’s bullpen woes. In his Blue Jays debut on June 18, he was brought in in the eighth inning to preserve a 5-4 lead over the Detroit Tigers at Tiger Stadium and proceeded to walk three batters and allow the Tigers to tie the game. The Blue Jays eventually lost 6-5 in 11 innings.
Then, after two scoreless outings, Righetti was summoned for the ninth inning in a 1-1 tie with the Baltimore Orioles at SkyDome on June 24 and promptly gave up four runs on three hits and two walks, while recording just one out. The O’s won 5-1.
“You’ve been on the mound for 700-some games, you should throw strikes,” a disgusted Righetti told reporters about his performance after the game. “You can throw the ball down the middle of the plate, but I’m not the kind pitcher who can do that.”
From that point on Righetti was used infrequently by manager Cito Gaston and when he did get into games, it was usually in a mop-up role.
“He just doesn’t throw the way he used to,” Gaston told the National Post about Righetti in late July 1994. “I’ll try to get him in there when I can . . . It’s too bad because he’s a great guy and he’s a good influence to have in the bullpen.”
At one point, Righetti only pitched once in a three-week stretch, but instead of mope, he decided to help young Blue Jays relievers like Darren Hall and Brad Cornett.
“Having Danny Cox back is important. A guy like Rags [Righetti’s nickame] is great to have around because he has been through all of this,” said Hall. “Just sitting in the pen with those guys, you can learn a lot.”
For his part, Righetti was disappointed he wasn’t pitching more but he refused to be a negative presence.
“It’s detrimental to a team when you see older guys who are bitter or negative,” he told the National Post. “There are certain things you can show emotionally. I don’t tell guys how to pitch, but you can lead by example.”
And to Righetti’s credit, he did pitch better near the end of his tenure with the Blue Jays. He didn’t allow a run in final four appearances. And when the players’ strike ended the season on August 12, he had a 6.75 ERA in 13 1/3 innings in 13 games for the Blue Jays, who after winning back-to-back championships finished with a 55-60 record.
The Blue Jays released Righetti that October, but it wasn’t the end for the veteran lefty. He signed with the Chicago White Sox and made nine starts for the club in 1995, finishing with a 3-2 record and a 4.20 ERA.
That would prove to be his final season as a player. In 1999, he became a roving minor league pitching instructor with the Giants and he took over as the club’s big league pitching coach in 2000. He would hold that post for 18 seasons and earn three World Series rings.
He now serves as a special assistant to the Giants’ general manager.
Righetti’s long toss at Exhibition Stadium
Longtime Blue Jays fans may also remember when Righetti, then the closer of the Yankees, surrendered a grand slam to slugger George Bell with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning at Exhibition Stadium on June 20, 1986. Bell’s home run tied the game 8-8. After the home run and with his manager Lou Piniella about to give him the hook, Righetti turned and hurled a ball all the way from the pitcher’s mound over the right field fence. You can watch it in the video below. The Yankees eventually won 10-8 in 10 innings.