Thursday, September 17, 2015

Joaquín Andújar, 1952-2015


"You can sum up the game of baseball in one word: Youneverknow."

Those were the grammatically-incorrect, but very wise, words of former major league pitcher Joaquín Andújar -- who, it's worth pointing out, did not grow up speaking English, but found the pitcher's mound to be a good place to express himself. Sometimes, in good ways; at other times, no.

He was born on September 21, 1952, in San Pedro de Macoris, the Dominican Republic town known for producing shortstops. Unusual among Spanish-speaking people, his parents gave him no middle name: He went through life as simply "Joaquín Andújar."

Shortly before he turned 17, he signed with the Cincinnati Reds, but he could never crack the Big Red Machine's pitching staff. After the 1975 season, they traded him to the Houston Astros, and at age 23, he was deemed ready for his major league debut -- as it turned out, against the Reds. In July 1976, he pitched back-to-back shutouts against the Montreal Expos, one at the Astrodome, one at Jarry Park.

In 1977, he was the only Astro player selected for the All-Star Game, but got hurt in his last start before it, and couldn't play in it. He was put in the bullpen for the 1978 and '79 season, but it didn't work, and in mid-1979 he was moved back into the starting rotation.

It worked: He became an All-Star again, and in 1980 he helped the Astros reach the postseason for the 1st time in their 19-season history. They needed to win just 1 game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium to clinch the National League Western Division title, but the Dodgers won all 3 to force a Playoff, also at Dodger Stadium. But the Astros won it, and were in the Playoffs. Despite Andújar's save in Game 2 of the NL Championship Series, the Astros lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in 5 games.

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In 1981, the Astros traded Andújar to the St. Louis Cardinals for Tony Scott. This was a great trade for the Cards: They already had Tommy Herr to play 2nd base, while Scott did nothing for the Astros.

When baseball resumed after the Strike of '81, Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog put Andújar into the starting rotation, and it was the final proof that he always should have been a starter. His weird pitching delivery, with a windup that reared very far back and a little kick of his left leg out of Elaine Benes' dance repertoire on Seinfeld, reminded some people of Cuban pitching legend Luis Tiant. Andújar looked a lot more like an athlete, though, and never made people guess about his age. And, at age 29, he was entering his prime.

He went 6-1 down the stretch in 1981, as the Cardinals finished with the best overall record in the NL East. But, because of the unique (at least in the modern era) split-season format, the Cards didn't finish 1st in either half of the season, and so they missed the Playoffs, as the Phillies and Expos advanced. (It was worse for the Reds: They finished with the best record in all of baseball, but finished behind the Astros and the Dodgers, and missed the Playoffs completely, marking the end of the Big Red Machine era.)

Andújar went 15-10 in 1982, winning his last 7 decisions with a 1.64 ERA. On September 15, he shut the Phillies out at Veterans Stadium, moving the Cards a game and a half in front of them -- and, as it turned out, burying them for that season. He started and won Game 3 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves, completing a sweep for the Pennant.

The Cardinals were in the World Series for the 1st time in 14 years, a long time by their standards. They played the Milwaukee Brewers -- the team owned by Anheuser-Busch playing the team from the town that made American beer famous.

Andújar started Game 3 at Milwaukee County Stadium, against the Brewers' ace, American League Cy Young Award winner Pete Vuckovich. Andújar took a line drive off his kneecap from former Cardinal star Ted Simmons, and had to leave the game in the 7th inning. But he ended up as the winning pitcher, as a pair of home runs and a pair of great catches from rookie sensation Willie McGee (whom the Yankees had foolishly traded for the washed-up pitcher Bob Sykes) led the Cards to a 6-2 win.

The Series went down to a Game 7 at Busch Memorial Stadium. Again, it was Andújar against Vuckovich. But neither man would end up being best known for this game. Vuckovich is best known not for this game, nor for his Cy Young Award, but for playing nasty Yankee slugger Clu Haywood in the film Major LeagueAndújar is best known for... well, I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Brewers led 3-1 in the bottom of the 6th, but the Cardinals rallied. Ozzie Smith singled, and Lonnie Smith (no relation) doubled him over to 3rd. Brewers manager Harvey Kuenn panicked, and replaced Vuckovich with Bob McClure, and ordered him to intentionally walk former Oakland Athletics World Series hero Gene Tenace to load the bases. He loaded the bases with one out to pitch to Keith Hernandez. (Who did this guy Kuenn think he was? He was a great hitter once, but not a great manager.)

Hernandez singled to bring home the Smiths, and George Hendrick (also a member of the Oakland title-winners of the 1970s) singled home Tenace to give the Cards the lead. Bruce Sutter came on to close it out, and the Cards would win, 6-3, giving Andújar a 2-0 record in World Series play -- and, more importantly, a World Series ring.

In 1984, Andújar went 20-14, making his 3rd All-Star Game (but, for the 2nd time, unable to attend), pitching 4 shutouts, and winning a Gold Glove. he was 12-1 at the All-Star Break in 1985, and made his 4th All-Star Team. The Cards beat the Mets out for the NL East title in a furious race, despite Andújar losing to Dwight Gooden on October 2. He finished the season 21-12. He lost Game 2 of the NLCS to the Dodgers, and started Game 6, but did not feature in the decision. Jack Clark's 9th inning home run gave the Cards the Pennant, their 2nd in 5 years.

The 1985 World Series, between the 2 Missouri teams, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals, should have been the, ahem, crowning achievement for the Cardinals, and especially for their manager, Dorrel Norman Elvert Herzog. Whitey had managed the Royals to AL West titles in 1976, '77 and '78, but was fired because he couldn't beat the Yankees to win the Pennant, which the Royals finally did under Jim Frey in 1980. But the White Rat was not only the field manager, but also the general manager, of a World Championship team in 1982 -- a double act that no one in Major League Baseball has done since, because it's become too much work for any one man. If he could beat the Royals, now managed by former Yankee shortstop, coach, and 1980 manager Dick Howser, it would cement his place in the Hall of Fame, and the 1980s' Cardinals' place in history.

And Joaquín Andújar would have to be a big part of it. Between 1982 and 1985, he had averaged 36 starts per season. To put that into perspective, not since Greg Maddux started 37 games in 1991 has any pitcher started more than 36 games in any season. And Andújar averaged 36 starts while he was the Cardinal ace.

But he didn't pitch well in Game 3 of the World Series in St. Louis, getting outpitched by Bret Saberhagen. Then came Game 6 at Royals Stadium (now Kauffman Stadium) in Kansas City. The Cards were 3 outs away from the title, but umpire Don Dekninger's call that Jorge Orta was safe, when the replay showed he was clearly out, led to the Royals coming from behind to win, 2-1.

Herzog started John Tudor in Game 7, even though Andújar had had a full 5 days' rest. The Cardinals, already not right in the head following the Game 6 fiasco and an entire Series where they just didn't hit (an injury to rookie speedster Vince Coleman didn't help), had heard Herzog's tirade to the media about the Denkinger call, and they lost their cool.

Herzog yanked Tudor in he 3rd inning, already down 3-0. In the 5th, the Royals made it 8-0. All the while, Denkinger was the home plate umpire, and Herzog thought he was squeezing the Cardinal pitchers with his strike zone. Herzog decided that the answer was to put in Andújar, who he knew had a temper. If Denkinger was gonna show up his pitchers, he was going to have his ace pitcher show up Denkinger.

Andújar allowed a single to Frank White to make it 9-0. The next batter was Jim Sundberg, a veteran catcher who'd won Gold Gloves with the Texas Rangers, but wasn't known as a great hitter. Denkinger called a ball 3, and Andújar freaked out, waving his arms and yelling. That was bad enough, because umpires don't like to be shown up, and this was the biggest stage of all: Game 7 of the World Series.

Herzog came out, and started yelling at Denkinger, and said, "We wouldn't even be here if you hadn't missed the fucking call last night!" Denkinger threw him out of the game right there, and restored order. The next pitch should have been strike 3, but Denkinger called ball 4, walking in a 10th run, and, as they say in English soccer, Andújar lost the plot. He got so angry that his teammates had to hold him back to keep him from getting close to Denkinger, who threw him out of the game.

Bob Forsch was brought in by whoever was managing the Cardinals now, threw a wild pitch, making it 11-0, which turned out to be the final score. The Royals had their 1st World Championship -- they have yet to win a 2nd -- and Howser had his ring, after 2 as a Yankee coach. Herzog would never win another, although he has since been elected to the Hall of Fame.

After being tossed, Andújar went back into the clubhouse, took a bat, and wrecked the toilet bowl inside. For this, more than for his actions on the field, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth heavily fined him, and suspended him for the 1st 10 games of the 1986 season, though he soon reduced it to 5 games.

It has been suggested that Herzog put Andújar in the game, knowing it was already lost, for the sole purpose of sending Denkinger a message. If so, it backfired, as both Herzog and Andújar looked like lunatics, and Denkinger, despite having made the most famous blown call in baseball history just 22 hours before, showed why he was one of the best umpires of his era, by keeping his composure and keping control of the game.

Herzog, who is still alive, says that's not why he put Andújar in the game. He insisted that Andújar was the only pitcher he had left who had any life left in his arm. Of course, that suggests that Whitey had totally mismanaged his staff in that Series, maybe in the entire postseason.

As it happened, Andújar never appeared in another game for the Cardinals. During the off-season, he was traded to Oakland for Mike Heath and Tim Conroy. Heath had saved the Yankees' bacon as a backup catcher when Thurman Munson was injured in 1978, and had shown a little pop in his bat the last couple of years with the A's, but would never really be more than a backup. Conroy's career up to that point wasn't even worth mentioning, nor would it be afterward.

This was a bad trade that Herzog made, but I think he just wanted to get rid of Andújar and what he represented; an "addition by subtraction" trade.

To make matters worse, on February 28, 1986, Ueberroth suspended Andújar and 6 other players who had admitted to cocaine use during the so-called Pittsburgh drug trials. The Commissioner reduced the suspension to anti-drug donations and community service, but the damage was done: In just 4 months, the perception of Andújar had gone from one of being the ace of a team 3 outs away from winning 2 World Series in 4 years to one of being a psychotic cokehead, part of baseball's problem, rather than part of its solution.

In the AL for the 1st time, Andújar's 1st start for the A's came against the California Angels on April 12, 1986. (Remember, he was suspended for 5 games, not 5 starts.) The home-plate umpire was... Don Denkinger. But, while Andújar did not pitch well and was the losing pitcher, there was no incident between them. He went 12-7 that season, but battled injury, including one sustained during batting practice. Someone forgot to tell him that pitchers do not bat in the AL. (No Interleague play back then.)

Injuries continued to plague him, as he made just 13 starts in 1987. In 1988, the Astros brought him back as a free agent, just in time for the A's to get good again and the Astro team that had won the 1986 NL West title to get broken up. Yet again, they didn't know what to do with him, starting him 10 times and bringing him in to relieve 13. He was released after the season, and after a failed comeback with the Expos, he retired at age 37.

He went home to the Dominican Republic, and started a trucking business. He became active in youth baseball programs, and, with his homeland frequently hit by hurricanes, raised money for disaster relief.

But his health became a disaster. With his heart having been weakened by diabetes and his former cocaine use, Joaquín Andújar died on September 8 in San Pedro de Macoris. He was 62 years old.

He should be remembered as one of the best pitchers of the early 1980s. And he should be remembered for pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 of the World Series -- the one where he was the winning pitcher.

But that's not how most fans remember him. As the man himself said, "Youneverknow."

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