Thursday, January 14, 2016

Luis Arroyo, 1927-2016

The list of great Yankee relief pitchers did not start with Mariano Rivera. Before him, there was John Wetteland, and Dave Righetti, and Rich "Goose" Gossage, and Albert "Sparky" Lyle.

In the old days, there was Wilcy Moore, and Johnny Murphy, and Joe Page.

In between -- although I suppose we now have to include this occasionally-remembered-in-color period with "the old days" -- there was Luis Arroyo.

Luis Enrique Arroyo was born on February 18, 1927 in Peñuelas, Puerto Rico. Just 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds when he reached the major leagues, the man known as "Tite" while growing up was a "little lefty" even by the standards of that time.

He pitched in Caribbean leagues until he was 21, then was signed by U.S. minor league teams. After winning 21 games for Greensboro in the Carolina League in 1949, he was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1948. But due to his not having been discovered until then, and missing the entire 1952 and '53 seasons serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he didn't make his major league debut until April 20, 1955, at the age of 28.

In that debut, he started for the Cardinals against the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field. The 1st batter he faced was Johnny Temple, and he got him to fly out to center field. He pitched 7 2/3rds innings, and combine with Herb Monford on a 5-hit shutout, as the Cards beat the Reds 4-0. Interestingly enough, the losing pitcher would also be a factor in a later Yankee World Championship: 1977 pitching coach Art Fowler.

He was named to the All-Star team that year, but early the next season he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. He struggled, they turned him into a reliever, and he spent the entire 1958 season in the minor leagues. Had they handled him better, he could have pitched for the Pirates against the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. Instead, it was the other way around.

After the 1958 season, the Bucs traded him to the Cincinnati Reds. They didn't seem to know what to do with him, either. If they had, he could have pitched for the Reds against the Yankees in the 1961 World Series. Instead, it was the other way around.

On July 20, 1960, he was 33 years old, a lefthanded relief pitcher, with a career record of 18-22, 2 career saves (not that anybody knew what a "save" was at that point), and hadn't started a game in 3 years. He seemed to be washed up. The Yankees made the Reds an offer, and the Reds took the money.

This made Luis Arroyo the 1st Puerto Rican to play for the Yankees. In what may have been Casey Stengel's last masterstroke, he turned Arroyo into a great reliever. Using a screwball, a devastating pitch when thrown by a lefty (as proved previously by Carl Hubbell and later by Fernando Valenzuela), he went 5-1 with a 2.88 ERA and 7 saves down the stretch, and the Yankees won the Pennant. He only pitched briefly in the World Series, unsuccessfully bailing out Art Ditmar in the 2nd inning of Game 5.

But he was just getting warmed up. So much is made of 1961 being a magical year for Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, "The M&M Boys," and for Whitey Ford, and for new manager Ralph Houk, hired after the poorly-handled, ungracious but timely firing of Stengel, that people tend to forget what a great closer the Yankees had in the man called "Señor Smoke." (He did have a good fastball, in addition to the screwball.)

He went 15-5, had a 2.19 ERA, a 1.109 WHIP, pitched in a major league-leading 65 games, finished a MLB-leading 54, and set a new MLB record (again, not that anyone cared at the time) with 29 saves. He did this in 119 innings, or, as Joe Girardi would call it, "Two and a half years' worth of relief pitching." He made the All-Star Game, having now done so in both Leagues.

The Yankees won 109 games, the most of any New York-based baseball team between 1927 and 1998 -- the most of any major league team in any city between 1954 and 1969. What used to be known as "Five O'Clock Lightning," late Yankee homers (though games no longer started at 3:00), benefited the team, and Arroyo in particular, on many occasions. "There were times," he said in an interview for the 1987 videotape New York Yankees: The Movie, "when I would come in with the game tied, or we were losing, and somebody would hit one out, and I become the winning pitcher."

He mopped up in Game 2 of the World Series, the only game the Reds won. But in Game 3, back at Crosley Field where he made his MLB debut, Houk brought him in after the Reds had tied the game in the 8th inning. He held the tie, and in the 9th, Maris hit a home run (unofficially, his 62nd of the season), and Arroyo was the winning pitcher in a 3-2 Yankee win. He did not pitch again in the Series, because Ford and Jim Coates (Whitey had to leave due to an injury) combined for a shutout in Game 4 (as Whitey had pitched one in Game 1), and the Yanks won Game 5 in a blowout. Arroyo had his World Series ring.

But early in the 1962 season, he injured his arm, and at 35, he was through as a quality pitcher. He went 1-3 and saved 7 games, but Marshall Bridges became the new Yankee closer. The Yankees won the Series again, and he got another ring, but he did not appear in the Series. After an ineffective and painful 1963 season, resulting in another Pennant but one with which he had little to do, he was released, and at 36 he never threw another professional pitch.

He finished his career with a record of 40-32, 22-10 as a Yankee. His 45 career saves, 43 as a Yankee, now look like a single season's worth. But, for a brief time, he was the best relief pitcher in baseball.

He became a scout for the Yankees, and a regular Old-Timers' Day visitor. He did not attend the closing ceremony at the old Yankee Stadium in 2008, but was introduced before the 1st game at the new Stadium the next spring.
He was diagnosed with cancer last month, and died yesterday, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, at the age of 88.

For the moment, I don't have information about his survivors, except that his death was announced by his daughter, named Milagros (Spanish for "miracles").

There was no intimidating music when Luis Arroyo came in to close out games for the 1961 New York Yankees, who are still on the short list for the title of "the greatest team in baseball history."

He didn't need "Enter Sandman" or any other entry song. He had Mantle, Maris, Yogi Berra, Moose Skowron, Elston Howard, whoever was the starting pitcher that day, and his own fastball and screwball.

I'm not saying Luis Arroyo was better than Mariano Rivera. But for one brief shining moment, he was the best there was and what he and Mo did.

With Arroyo's death, there are now 9 living members of the 1961 World Champion New York Yankees: Whitey Ford, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Hector Lopez, Ralph Terry, Bud Daley, Jim Coates, Billy Gardner and Jack Reed.

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