From amid the smoldering ashes of the baseball season of '81 emerged a flame thrower named Dave Righetti. In this, his rookie year with the New York Yankees the young left-hander has been quick to take up the legendary torch of triumph from the great Yankee hurlers of the past and present.
After an impressive spring training, the 6 ft. 3 in. blond Californian spent a month with the Yankees' Columbus, Ohio, farm club. At Columbus he won five games without a loss, struck out 50 batters in 45 innings and maintained an impressively slim 1.00 earned run average.
When management saw those statistics Righetti was whisked up to the big city. For a rookie, wearing the pinstripes in "The House That Ruth Built" is a form of double jeopardy because there is both the aura of legends and the opposition to contend with.
But Righetti counters with a subtle weapon of his own: poise. In the words of manager Bob Lemon, a Hall of Fame pitcher himself, "The only guys i could compare him to have been in the league at least five or six years." He also counters with something more tangible in the eyes of batters: a mean fastball.
Tall and formidable looking on the mound, he fits right into the fireballing tradition. He is obviously the king of his mountain, and he leaves no doubt that he is an imperialist who is out to conquer the batter's turf as well.
In a recent game against Boston he hurled a two-hitter and struck out 11, fanning the first three batters with fastballs. Later, he said: "I threw hard and challenged them. They were looking for the fastball the rest of the night after that so I could blend in the other stuff pretty effectively."
The "other stuff" consists of a curve, a change-up and, like teammate Ron Guidry's, a nasty slider.
Righetti has already blended into the standard banter that even the thought of owner George Steinbrenner's perennial purges can't keep away from the Yankee clubhouse.
"This is an experienced team that rises above the tension," he says in explaining the lighthearted atitude. "We all play hard for Bob Lemon, just as we did for Gene Michael, but we also play to have fun."
So far Righetti has usually had more fun than those who have to hit against him. Dave has held the opposition to an embarrassing .196 batting average and has compiled an impressive 2.22 ERA. He also ranks 10th in the American League in strikeouts, having blown the ball by 77 batters in 89 innings.
On the basis of these statistics he has emerged as a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year honors. His one drawback has been his wildness. Yankee radio announcer Frank Messer points out that "wildness is frequently a problem with young left-handers. Sandy Koufax was erratic during his first few years in the majors so his coaches had him throw at targets during practice."
Righetti has been working with his coaches and fellow pitchers in an effort to overcome this problem. He explains that "it has helped to have two other left-handed starters on the team (Guidry and Tommy John). Occasionally they will point out the subtle things that I am doing wrong."
Skeptics say it is easy to be a winner on a team composed of first-magnitude stars, but until a recent surge, the 1981 Yankees have hardly resembled the old Bronx Bombers.
Almost all of the 13 games in which Dave has pitched have been low-scoring contests, suggesting that his 6-4 record could easily be better. In fact, some of his best games, such as 1-0 defeats to Baltimore and Texas, turned out to be losses. And in a game against Minnesota last month he threw a no-hitter through six innings only to end up with no decision.
Righetti hasn't let the "hard luck" bother him, though. With the playoffs just around the corner he knows that "Mr. October" Reggie Jackson & Co. will be going all-out in hopes of adding still another victorious chapter to the rich Yankee tradition.