Dick Drago: on pitching, Ted Williams & the 1975 Red Sox
Posted by athomeatfenway on January 3, 2010
I had the pleasure of a Q & A with Dick Drago, a control pitcher who won 117 games mostly for the Royals and the Red Sox.
Dick Drago looks good these days, with salt and pepper hair and short, neatly cropped mustache like the one he wore in 1975, with accents of white. His voice is deep & low, appropriate for someone who intimidated batters by living in the space between the batter and the plate.
Drago went 17 – 11 w a 2.98 ERA for K.C. in 1971, and earned a share of Cy Young votes. He was the closer on the 1975 Red Sox and saved two critical games against Oakland without allowing a run to clinch the 1975 pennant.
He played for Joe Gordon, Charlie Metro, Bob Lemon, Jack McKeon in K.C., for Darrell Johnson, Don Zimmer and Johnny Pesky in Boston, for Dick Williams, Dave Garcia and Norm Sherry in Anaheim, for Maury Wills and Rene Lacheman in Seattle, and for Earl Weaver in Baltimore.
Since Dick worked for 13 managers over 13 seasons, I started out asking him about some of those skippers.
Your thoughts on Darrell Johnson ?
When things got a little tougher he seemed to tense up and he seemed to be intimidated by certain players, like when taking a pitcher out. I would say that with Tiant and Bill Lee there were times when he would let them go a little further sometimes when maybe they should have come out of the game… all in all he did a decent job…
What he did in ’74 kind of cost us the pennant. In the opposite way of today, he played guys a lot when we were leading by a lot of games and he needed to get some of the guys on the bench in the game…but he did not. Later in the season when a couple of guys got hurt none of these (bench) guys had played at all, and it really cost us. You have to play them, you can’t let them rust, you got to play 162 games. Somebody is going to get hurt. That’s what happened. Rick Burleson got hurt and we had to play Frank Duffy, who hadn’t played in 60 games.
Don Zimmer as a manager ?
I liked him. He was a hard nosed guy, he played the game, he knew what was going on, I respect people who play the game. He knows how we all felt. He was one of the better managers I played for. Boston was a tough place to manage. They (the press) didn’t think he was sophisticated enough, but he was just a hard nosed guy.
Earl Weaver ?
I spent a half a season with Earl in 1977. Playing against him (earlier), I always thought he was a positive guy who got the best out of every player…and when I went over there to play he seemed to be the complete opposite, sitting on the bench and listening to him make negative comments, it may have just been his way to get things done. I remember watching him on the bench and when he’d get in a tight situation, you’d see him get down in the corner of that dugout with a cigarette, always smoking cigarettes, and he’d have Bamberger, the pitching coach, watching the game, telling him what happened. He was afraid to watch in tight situations. He was a lot different from what I thought he’d be like.
Does Weaver deserve the credit for making Palmer into an HOF’er ?
He may have pushed him a little bit further. Jim had a lot of little aches and pains for whatever reasons. He was a great pitcher, one of the best ones I have ever seen. I faced him before there was a DH. His fastball movement made him hard to hit. He had a high fastball that had a little rise on it, and he had a straight overhand curveball and good control.
He had a great defense behind him. Think about the team that he played for. He was a great pitcher, but, there were a lot of great pitchers that played with bad teams. He had Blair, Belanger, Powell, he had Brooks Robinson, Davey Johnson, he had a great defensive ballclub, and they knew how to play the game. Defensively, Belanger was one of the very best.
You were with Kansas City in 1969 when the MLB came back to that town. Thoughts on that ?
We had a lot of young kids. It isn’t like it is now where you can stack an expansion team up with experienced guys. Back then, most of the guys who were not protected for the expansion draft were from AA and AAA. They were prospects who hadn’t played in the Big Leagues at all. We had to jell as a team. It was fun because we weren’t expected to do very much and we kind of all came together. It was tough as a pitcher because we didn’t have the best defensive team and we didn’t have a lot of offense. I was a starter there for 5 years and that effects your career numbers. If I had started for the Red Sox those 5 years, with the offense that they had – and no pitching (it would have been a good fit.). Don’t forget, Boston had very few good pitchers, like Lonborg.
In 1971 you were the 5th highest Cy Young vote getter.
Yeah, I’m proud of that, ya know, third year in the big leagues and I won 17 games. You know I probably could have won 22 or 23 games with a better team, we still didn’t have a lot of offense by ‘71. I guess it did make me a better pitcher because there were a lot of 4-3 and 3-2 games. Every night, when we went out there you knew we weren’t going to get a lot of runs. We had just finally gotten Amos Otis to come over, Freddie Patek, Cookie Rojas, so we solidified our team defensively up the middle, which is good, but we didn’t have a lot of power until we got John Mayberry.
How would you start a guy off like Frank Robinson ?
It all depends on the situation. If you face him with 2 outs and nobody on in the first inning, you are going to pitch him a lot differently than if you faced him in the 6th inning with men on first and second. I always tried to challenge and get ahead of the good hitters. There were few that were notoriously first pitch hitters. A lot of your good hitters wanted to take the first pitch to see what you had, and that was your opportunity to get ahead of them in the count. The better the hitter the harder I would try to go after them early. If I am facing somebody with 2 outs and nobody on, I’d give him something (over the plate). If I face him in the 6 or 7th inning with men on base, I am going to try to make a better pitch, and you gotta know where to get the guy out.
More than anything, you needed to know where the batter’s weakness was. If there was one. And you didn’t go there early. If you needed to get a guy out inside, my thinking was, why go there early in the count, if he take the pitches, they are balls. But if you are ahead of him, and you come inside, he may swing at a pitch off the plate inside, you had to have a way to get them out.
You pitched 9 innings back then so you faced a guy 4 times a game. There were fewer teams, so you played each other more often. We faced Minnesota all the time with Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew, we went to Oakland and they had Reggie Jackson and Joe Rudi, Sal Bando. You’re facing them every four starts so you knew them and they knew you. It became a matter of trying to throw them what they were not looking for.
You had 53 complete games. Thoughts on pitch counts ?
I don’t think too highly of them. The game has changed. Money has changed it. We didn’t make a lot of money back then. There wasn’t a whole lot of money invested in us. They didn’t want you to hurt your arm, of course. But today if they overuse a guy and they have given him $5 million, the ball club stands to lose a lot of money, whereas back then they were only paying you $25,000, they can just bring up another guy to replace you.
We learned to pitch and build our arm strength up. I remember early in the season they would let you go a little longer once you got through April, to let you try to get yourself out of jams. They let you pitch through it, which built up your strength and confidence, so that if you got into trouble you would be able to get out of it. Today, when guys get in trouble the first time, they have never been in it before, and they get pulled out of the game. The next time they get in trouble, they are looking for help. It was just a different game. You had to get out of your own messes.
I think they had pitch counts of a sort back then, but it didn’t necessarily get you taken out of the game, and it may have effected whether you made your next start.
Pitch counts effect how your ball moves, too. Sometimes your stuff wouldn’t be as good later in the game but your ball was moving differently. Bob Stanley’s ball, for example, didn’t really move a lot, but when he was tired, his ball moved more, and he was more effective.
You lived in the age of pitching inside.
I made my living going inside. That’s how I got guys out. I had a ball that naturally moved in on right handed batters, so that’s where I was going to try to get a lot of guys out. Unless they were a dead pull hitter, they would just bail.
There were certain guys you go could inside on all day. Paul Blair, for instance, was hit in the head in 1970 (by Ken Tatum), and he bailed after that. Anything inside, and he’s looking to get out.
I think you have to pitch inside to be effective.
Your career followed the arc of increasing salaries ushered in by Marvin Miller; does he belong in the HOF ?
From a player’s perspective I think he should be in. He brought a union together in a way that we stayed together as a group. He warned us in Spring Training when we were talking about lock outs and strikes. He said that if not all of us were prepared to stay together and sit out the strike, than forget it, don’t do it. As opposed to what happened with the NFL where they broke the union because guys started to cross the line. We hung together. It wasn’t all about fighting for salaries, it was fighting to have the right to sell our wares as a free agent, just like any other business.
Can you rate yourself as a hitter ?
(Laughing) I was not a good hitter. I swung. I never got cheated. I was a good hitter until I got to the pro’s, where I only hit once a week…
Your personal highlight of 1975 ?
Saving game 2 and 3 in the playoffs. Down the stretch, there were important games on the way to the pennant, but it would be the two games to get to the World Series. That’s harder than the World Series because at the time the ALCS was a best of 5 series. You have played 162 games, now lose 3 of 5 and you are going home. Very tough.
Tiant really stood out in the 1975 ALCS.
That’s what I was saying about being over used. Tiant should have never gone that long. Giving up 12 or 13 hits and 5 runs, 165 pitches.
In ’74, did you anticipate what ’75 would be ?
1974 was a disaster at the end. We had a big lead and we had guys who just could not play. We were scoring so many runs, we had guys on the bases, so much so that they got tired.
I remember ’74 being a difficult year for me because I was starting and relieving. I would come to the ballpark not knowing I was starting. One day, Juan Marichaul’s arm was hurt so I had to start. Another day, I came to the park and Rick Wise was hurt so the ball was in my locker. I didn’t know I was starting until I came to the park, so I pitched 176 innings that year and it felt like 300. By the end of that year I was as worn out as I had ever been.
When I went to Spring Training in ’75 and they talked to me about being the closer I said that I was either going to relieve or start. They said they thought I could help the team by being the closer, though that’s not what they called it back then. That worked for me.
Did you spend time with Ted Williams in Spring Training ?
Oh yeah, we had fun. We used to sit and talk. He was fun to talk to because he thought pitchers were all stupid. But if you could sit and talk with him about pitching, like I could, it was good. I mean, I threw good, I relied on what’s up here (pointing to head), and good control, and how to pitch, and we could talk about stuff, and Ted would say, “YOU KNOW, DICK, YOU’RE RIGHT ! YOU’RE RIGHT ! DAMN RIGHT, YOU ARE !. You know how he was, he was loud.