Yankees Magazine: 1977 Revisited

Mike Torrez pitched 18 seasons in the bigs -- none more memorable than the one he spent in New York

August 14th, 2017
Mike Torrez felt that previous teams gave up on him too quickly, which was why 1977 brought him to his fifth team at just 30 years old. But he believed in himself, and he showed what he could do in that postseason. (New York Yankees)

Mike Torrez spent less than one full season in pinstripes, but without his workhorse-like pitching performance in 1977, it would have been much more difficult for the Yankees to have won it all.
Following a late-April trade that sent Torrez from Oakland to the Bronx, the right-handed starter won 14 regular-season games for the Yankees. On July 28, the 30-year-old began a string of seven consecutive complete games; he won all seven.
During the 1977 postseason, Torrez came up big again, earning wins in his final two decisions. In the winner-take-all Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, Torrez relieved Ron Guidry in the third inning with the Yankees trailing, 3-1, at Kansas City's Royals Stadium. Torrez held the Royals scoreless over 5 1⁄3 innings in the rare relief appearance, allowing the Yankees to stage a ninth- inning comeback. Later that October, Torrez earned two complete-game wins in the World Series, defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 and again in the deciding Game 6.

Less than two months after the '77 World Series, Torrez signed with the Boston Red Sox and unwittingly etched his name even deeper into Yankees history when he gave up the pivotal seventh-inning home run to Bucky Dent in the 1978 one-game playoff. Earlier this summer, Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III spoke with Torrez.
To what do you attribute the way things came together for you on the mound as you got deeper into your career?
I had a great fastball, and Cal McLish helped me a lot in Montreal. But I didn't really learn how to pitch until I got with George Bamberger, who was the pitching coach for the Baltimore Orioles. I won 20 games in 1975, and George worked with me on a curveball that season. He taught me the fundamentals of how to pitch, and specifically how to set up hitters with the pitches I had. I didn't have a curveball to speak of before that. I had a fastball, a sinker, a slider and a change-up. Learning to throw the curveball helped me establish myself from the time I left Baltimore.
How did you feel about being traded four times in the prime of your career?
I don't think the teams I was with believed that I would win games every year. They felt that I wasn't going to be successful again the next year and that I was just lucky. But I knew I could pitch and get guys out. I was never scared to face anybody. When Ken Singleton and I got traded from Montreal to Baltimore, the Expos fans were really upset. And then Kenny batted .300, and I won 20 games with the Orioles. After I won 20 games in Baltimore, they felt that they needed to improve their offense, and I was included in a trade for Reggie Jackson.
Who taught you to pitch inside so effectively?
When I first broke into the big leagues, I met [Hall of Famer] Don Drysdale at a little bar in West St. Louis. I was a rookie with the Cardinals, and the Dodgers were in town to play us. Don was my idol, and Curt Flood introduced me to him that night. I just asked Don what he thought I needed to do to be successful in the big leagues. He said, "Mike, I saw you pitch in spring training. You've got some really good stuff. My suggestion to you is that you learn to pitch inside. Pitch everyone inside. Learn to establish that inside corner, and if you can do that, you'll be successful." I took that to heart.
How did you feel when you were traded to the Yankees in April 1977?
I was happy to get out of Oakland, and I knew that the Yankees had a championship-caliber ballclub. I loved George Steinbrenner because he only wanted to win. The reason I got traded is because I wouldn't accept a three-year contract from A's Owner Charlie Finley, because what they were offering me was a lot less than what other players were getting. When I found out that I had been traded to the Yankees, I asked [General Manager] Gabe Paul for a three-year deal. He wanted to wait until the end of season, when I was going to be a free agent. If he had given me a fair deal when they traded for me, I never would have left the Yankees after 1977.
What was the chemistry of the team like when you joined the Yankees?
Things were not running very smooth, but one thing I give the club credit for is that once we crossed the white lines, everyone played together and fought together.
Did things start to improve as the team began winning that season?
Yes. Guys started hanging out more in small groups. After games, we all sang "Margaritaville" on the bus and on the plane, and that became our theme song. Catfish Hunter liked the song. It would lighten the mood after a game and before we would go out to the bars.
What do you remember about your first conversation with Thurman Munson when you joined the Yankees?
When I was with Baltimore, Thurman was wearing us out. It seemed like he was hitting .700 off us. Finally, I told my catcher, Elrod Hendricks, that when Thurman comes up, I'm going to throw inside and stay there all day. He told Elrod that if I came inside again, he was going to come out to the mound. I threw one under his chin, and Elrod said, "Go out there. He loves to fight." But Thurman hesitated and never came out.
Then, after I joined the Yankees, I was in the sauna, and Thurman walked in with a beer in his hand. He said, "Welcome to the team." We relived that little incident, and he said, "I didn't know what to do, but I loved the way you stood your ground." He then said, "If you do that here with us, we'll win a lot of games together." At the end of the conversation, he asked me what would have happened if he would have come out to the mound. I said, "You would have had a handful of some nasty [stuff] coming your way." We both started laughing, and we respected each other from that point on.
How much pride do you take in the seven consecutive complete games you threw during the regular season?
I was very proud of that because we needed to win those games. I loved going nine innings. When I broke into the majors, if you couldn't go nine innings, you were not going to be a starting pitcher. I really took pride in finishing games. God gave me a good arm and a good motion, and my arm never got sore.
Also, Sparky Lyle thanked me following that season. He said, "I was pitching a lot, and when you got in that groove, it saved my arm. If it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't have won that Cy Young."
How dominant was Sparky that whole season?
He was great. Hitters couldn't follow that slider of his. I've never seen as many right-handed hitters swing and miss at sliders before or since. [Hall of Famer] Steve Carlton had that same kind of a pitch to right-handed hitters.
How did you feel about your team's chances against the Royals in the ALCS?
We knew they had a good team with a lot of speed. They also had the home-field advantage, so we knew we had our work cut out for us.
Were you excited about facing your hometown team in that series?
Well, it was nice for me because my hometown of Topeka was only about an hour from Kansas City. I left tickets for close to 100 people for Game 5, without even knowing if I was going to get into the game.
What was going through your mind when you got did get called into Game 5 of the ALCS with your team trailing, 3-1, in the third inning?
Things happened so quickly that I didn't have any time to think it out. I was out there in the bullpen, just watching the fans and not paying attention to each hitter. I knew Ron Guidry was struggling but I hadn't pitched in relief in years, so I didn't think Billy was ever going to put me in the game. All at once, the phone rang, and I heard, "Get Torrez up."
Billy ran out to the mound and ran back to the dugout. Then, he ran right back out there, and I had only thrown about six pitches. I guess he forgot that when the manager makes that second trip to the mound, he has to take the pitcher out. When it was time to go into the game, I ran to the mound as fast as I could, just to get the blood circulating.
Where does that shutout performance over 5 1⁄3 innings in relief rank among the games you're most proud of?
It was the best accomplishment I had with the Yankees and maybe in baseball. I hadn't relieved in years, and we were losing by two runs. I felt like if I allowed any runs, we wouldn't advance to the World Series. I can remember sitting on the bus as we were leaving the Royals' stadium, thinking about how crazy that whole situation was. To only have a chance to throw a few warm-up pitches and then shut those guys down, who could have ever imagined that?
What were the emotions you felt prior to taking the mound for Game 3 of the World Series at Dodger Stadium?
I had butterflies. The thought of what was at stake, and the hostile atmosphere there, made me nervous. I wasn't scared, just nervous and anxious. I had a lot of adrenaline, but I didn't want to be too high because I had to think things out and not overthrow. When you overthrow, the ball straightens out and you have no movement. I needed my sinker to sink, my slider to slide, and my curveball to work, and I needed to throw the change-up every once in a while to keep the hitters off balance. None of that would have happened if I was too excited out there.
When did you find out that you were going to pitch Game 6?
I got called into Billy's office after Game 5 in L.A. I thought he found out that I was out after our curfew. Instead, he asked how I felt and then told me that Ed Figueroa was supposed to start the sixth game, but he went into the training room and was complaining that his finger had some tenderness. Even though I was supposed to pitch the seventh game, Billy wanted to finish them out in six. He said, "If you're ready to go, you're pitching the sixth game, but don't say anything to Eddie."
Of course, Eddie came up to me on the plane and asked if I was going to pitch Game 6 because those kind of things always get out. I told him that I knew nothing about that. I didn't want to snitch on the skipper.
How confident were you going into Game 6?
After the success I had in Game 3, I felt good about facing them again. I was anxious to get the game started and just get going, but mentally, I was prepared for that game. I felt confident that I could get them out, and I did.
As the game went along, did you think you could go the entire way?
Yeah. They were hitting the ball, but they were hitting it to our guys. You have to be lucky a little bit, but that's just part of the game. Billy asked me how I felt before the ninth, and I told him I was okay. He said, "Let's finish this game, big guy. Go get 'em."
Do you think we'll ever see a pitcher toss two complete games in a World Series again?
It's hard to imagine because of the way baseball has changed. It looks like teams are scared to let their starting pitchers go more than six innings in big games, and they're looking to pull them out in the seventh or eighth inning regardless of how well they are doing.
How would you describe the atmosphere on the field after you won the deciding game at Yankee Stadium?
It was craziness, joyfulness and happiness. Everyone was so happy because the Yankees hadn't won in so many years prior to that. It was just a beautiful feeling when you realize that you are world champions. As players, it's what we all strive for when we start playing the game. For me, the fact that two of the best games I ever pitched were in the World Series made it even better. Even though my stay in New York was brief, I knew that I played a big part in that team getting to the World Series and winning it, and that can never be taken away.
What transpired that offseason that compelled you to sign a free-agent contract with Boston?
The Red Sox offered me a seven-year guaranteed contract. The Yankees offered me five years and less money. At that time, I wanted to go somewhere where I knew I could settle in and buy a house. I wish I would have stayed with the Yankees, but that's not how things worked out.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.