Day 27 of 2022 baseball books: If you want to make the baseball gods laugh, tell ’em your exit strategy

“Last Time Out: Big League Farewells
of Baseball’s Greats”

The author:
John Nogowski

The publishing info:
Lyons Press
328 pages
Released July 1, 2022

The links:
The publishers website
At TheLastBookStoreLA

The review in 90 feet or less

Mark Lee’s last time out in a Major League Baseball game … Nothing to write home about.

And if he did, home would have been to his family in Hawthorne, California — also my hometown. Lee came through a few years ahead of me in high school during the 1970s. The glasses and Goose Gossage-like glare give the time period away.

October 4, 1981: The 28-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates reliever would make his 118th and final MLB career appearance as the team was wrapping up the strike-interrupted season at Three Rivers Stadium against St. Louis on a Sunday afternoon.

Giving up a run on three hits over the fourth and fifth innings, Lee’s sixth inning was three up and three down — a Dane Iorg fly ball, a Steve Braun ground-out back to him o the mound, and then, coaxing Orlando Sanchez to fly out to right. Lee Lacy pinch hit for Lee in the bottom of the sixth, and manager Chuck Tanner put in Kent Tekulve to go the final three innings of a game the Pirates would drop, 4-0.

Time for Lee and all other 10,022 in the park to go home for the winter.

Coming back to 1982 spring training, Lee was apparently expendable. The Pirates sold him to the Detroit Tigers — video evidence above. They gave him some innings in Florida, then sent him to Triple-A Evansville. After 18 games, a 1-2 mark and 7.25 ERA, Lee was done there by early June.

Released. But not finished.

The Pirates gave him another shot, but back at their Triple A Pacific Coast League’s Portland Beavers. There could be worse places to wallow.

As the season wore down, Lee and his 0-5 record and 4.08 ERA evolved, but it came with a team-best eight saves (he had a PCL-best 20 in ’81). But the franchise didn’t sense he was worth the re-investment.

If this were it was all going to end, Lee decided he’d go down on his terms — in a way the national wire services would find out, the New York Times decided was worth documenting, and could be fleshed out for a chapter all to itself in a collection like these.

So here’s what went down:

August 16, 1982: Lee comes in the top of the ninth inning with his team up, 8-3, at Vancouver. The first out is a pop-up. Lee strikes out Bob Skube for the second out.

Then he calls his manager Tom Trebelhorn, the future MLB skipper, out to the mound.

“Nothing against you, Treb, but I’d rather go out this way,” Lee said he told the manager. Lee then walked off the mound toward the dugout, threw the ball back toward the infield, threw his cap in the air, and then took off his jersey.

This was the opposite of what they might call the Ol’ Irish Goodbye.

Before the game, Lee said he was told by management he was going to be released. Again. Even though the Pirates would soon be expanding their rosters and in ’80 and ’81 they brought him up for mound time. Why wouldn’t they do it again?

“If they say I’m done, I’m gonna pick when I’m gonna leave,” Lee told the Times. “It was my way of saying, ‘You guys can control some of the things, but you can’t control all the things in my life. … I just hope the message was heard in Pittsburgh. I feel they just dumped on me. I can’t stay I’m retired. I don’t feel I’m a minor league player.”

Lee added: “You see a lot of guys go and you wonder when it’s your turn. If it is mine, then that’s the last hitter I ever want to face. … I didn’t want to die in Triple A. If that was my last day, I had a hell of a good time.”

Lee, who got the scouts attention at El Camino College (drafted twice by Baltimore) and then Pepperdine (drafted by San Diego after he was the conference pitcher of the year in ’76) once dated the older sister of my then-girlfriend as a high school senior. We were told the sisters’ dad laughed so hard when Lee once told him he was some day going to be a big-leaguer. Pops said if that happened, he’d eat his contract.

Lee made sure that promise was kept. That was communicated to him well. He got a communications degree from Pepperdine in ’76.

For almost a decade, Lee’s sinkerball kept him in the game. At the end, he saw a sinking ship and instead of simply jumping off, he did a swan dive and strip tease.

And that, friends, is another chapter right out of Beavers’ Believe it Or Not.


Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu: John Updike on Ted Williams: A Library of America Special Publication,” from April, 2010

More believable, because of the lineup of guests, Lee’s story isn’t included in this updated version of Nogowski’s chronicle of the ways some of the game’s biggest names exited.

There are several extremes to this collection of collective exit strategies.

Sept. 28, 1960: Ted Williams launches a home run into in the right-field bullpen at Fenway Park in the bottom of the eighth what is decided will be his final appearance for the Boston Red Sox. Just 10,454 are in the house. He doesn’t come out to play outfield in the ninth. A guy named Carroll Hardy takes his place. Teddy Ballgame is done.

They still write poems about it. Right next to letters to the editor in the Boston Globe.

“Gods,” John Updike would later write a few months later, “don’t answer letters.”

That turns out to be the unicorn in this type of going-away party. As Vin Scully says: If you want to make God smile, tell him your plans.

But then there is Sept. 3, 1975, a muggy Wednesday night in St. Louis. The Cardinals and Cubs are locked in a 6-6 tie game before 14,111 at Busch Stadium. Bob Gibson comes in from the bullpen in the seventh inning. He leave everything a mess.

With the bases loaded, a wild pitch scores one. An intentional walk reloads them, and a 23-year-old rookie pinch-hitter Pete LaCock goes grand yard over the head of Willie Davis in right field. Gibson is furious. He walks off the mound and berates LaCock as he circles the bases. Gibson, who would break into the game as a 23-year-old in 1959, would be just saddled with the loss, dropping him to 3-10 with a 5.04 ERA, but he doesn’t pitch the rest of the month. Season over. Career done.

“A few guys on the bench said he looked like he was just going through the motions,” said the Cubs’ Bill Madlock the next day about Gibson, in his 17th season. “Now, I didn’t say that – that’s just what I heard.”

Every time the baseball gods smile at someone like George Brett – he hits a ground-ball single in the ninth inning of the final game (a Royals win) that allowed him to check out with a career hit total with 3,154 at age 40, they make us cringe watching Tom Seaver, in Toronto sporting a Boston Red Sox jersey, hearing his knee pop in the fourth inning, but gutting it out to get a ground out before leaving for good with torn ligaments. The plan was to have him as the elder statesman helping Roger Clemens and company as they charged toward the 1986 World Series. Seaver, whose record would fall to 7-13, was done at age 41. 

In 2004, Nogowski decided he had a keen idea and came up with 20 career-ending tales for Taylor Trade Publishing, spreading it out over 172 pages. The launch angle was his read on Williams’ poke that inspired famous local author Updike to pound out “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” for The New Yorker.

So, who else you got?

Reviving the project almost 20 years later, Nogowski decided there were 25 more to be told. Like Mark McGwire in the decisive Game 5 of the 2001 NL Division Series. After hitting .187 in the regular season, he struck out three times in a row against Arizona’s Curt Schilling. With the game on the line in the top of the ninth, Cards manager Tony LaRussa calls McGwire back from the on-deck circle and has someone named Kerry Robinson pinch hits for him. They needed, and got, a sacrifice bunt. But nothing came of it, and they lost the game, and the series, a half-inning later. Maybe if McGwire just got three big swings instead.

The list of stories told cover the likes of Pete Rose, Bob Feller, Roberto Clemente (remember getting 3,000 hits in his final regular season game of ’72? He still had the playoffs coming up), Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt, Tony Gwynn and Ken Griffey Jr.

Of all the entries in this collection, the most special might be no one could really see coming. Mostly because Nogowski flipped the script and wrote about a special entrance, at long last, rather than another exit.

John Nogowski Jr. made his big-league debut on Aug. 16, 2020 – his first and only MLB appearance that season, after six years in the minor leagues, two hand surgeries and  winter ball in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, when the St. Louis Cardinals brought him up, giving him No. 34.

But the last entry is a little extra special. It’s about his own son, John Nogowski, Jr. And not about his last game – which could have happened last season in Pittsburgh. But it was about his first game with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Leading off the sixth inning, he singled off the Chicago White Sox’s Dallas Keuchel at Guaranteed Rate Field. The next day, teammate Adam Wainwright gave him the ball, officially authenticated.

In 2021, Nogowski could have experience his final MLB appearance.

Aug. 15, 2021: Now with the Pittsburgh Pirates (someone wake up Mark Lee for this), where fans have already started embracing him with “The Big Nogowski” T-shirts, he’s asked to pinch-hit in the bottom of the fifth for relief pitcher Kyle Keller in the fifth inning. Nogowski strikes out against the Brewers’ Brent Suter.

But maybe that isn’t the end.

The 29-year-old first baseman/pitcher just signed on with the Washington Nationals for a minor-league look-see on June 22. Drafted by Oakland in the 34th round of the ’14 selection out of Tallahassee, Fla., he has logged 53 MLB games — .233 average, one homer, 14 RBIs – with St. Louis (’20 and ’21) and Pittsburgh (’21), as well as dancing through the Giants and Braves organizations.

To be continued …

How it goes in the scorebook

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu to you and you and you.

But the kid stays in the book. Even if doesn’t quite fit the template.

And you, mister … As much as we appreciate this concept, in the end, the nature of the game is defeat and humility, if you can handle it. There’s not a whole lot to work either building suspense or giving away a sad parting-gifts account of how someone limped off.

As a result, there are too many downers to deal with in one sitting.

Not enough Williams-type or Brett-type events keep things uplifting. Again, it’s control they lack. Failure for those at that level is less than anyone could, should or would want to be remembered for. It’s like visiting your heroes at a run-down super market opening and finding they can’t grip a Sharpie any more to scribble legibly on your baseball. Why inflict this kind of hardball pain upon yourself, even if it’s all what really happened?

A reminder about the game’s inherent ability to disappoint? Where failure seven times out of 10 at bats is OK?

There’s the iconic photo of Willie Mays on bended knee in a New York Mets uniform crying to an umpire about what he felt was a botched call. That was Game 2 of the 1973 World Series — his last at-bat was as a meaningless pinch hitter for Tug McGraw in Game 3 back at Shea Stadium — far less dramatic, grounding out to Bert Campaneris, then watching the series from the bench. (Still, you think one would mention that image many still have of Mays and consider that to be his final hurrah).

What about Babe Ruth wearing a Boston Braves jersey, falling down trying to stop a ball hit in the gap near him in left field by the Phillies’ Lou Chiozza, allowing him to get to third. Ruth limps back to the dugout asking to come out in the second inning of a Memorial Day doubleheader opener in 1935 at the Baker Bowl. This, after he hit a weak grounder to Philadelphia first baseman Dolph Camilli for an unassisted putout in the first inning, failing to score a runner from second.

The other thing problematic we found was wondering how much we could trust the information from Nogowski, who worked in the newspaper biz “from New Hampshire to Florida for 20 years” and was a “three-time national winner in the AP Sports Editor competition with many other state and regional honors,” says one bio. He now teaching journalism at a Florida high school.

The first recap we flipped to was on Sandy Koufax’s one and only appearance for the Dodgers in the second game of the 1966 World Series at Dodger Stadium. That he lasted six innings, and went out with a 4-0 deficit against the Orioles, and called it a career at age 30 is the fact we knew.

Below is how it reads in the game recount.

Nogowski writes that Dodgers manager Walter Alston lifted Koufax for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the sixth. Doesn’t seem so. Looking at the data, Koufax hit for himself and flew out in the fifth inning — moments after Willie Davis made three errors in the top of the fifth and allowed three unearned runs. Koufax gave up another run in the top of the sixth and escaped when he induced Andy Etchebarren into an inning-ending double play grounder. The Dodgers’ bottom of the sixth had Junior Gilliam, Willie Davis and Ron Fairly hit as scheduled. Alston’s decision was to just not send Koufax out to start the top of the seventh, replacing him with Ron Perranowski. The eventual 6-0 loss put the Orioles up, 2-0, in the series and, with a sweep, they avoided Koufax in a Game 5 appearance.

The second chapter we went to was on Gibson.

Nogowski’s version tells of Gibson having his meltdown against LaCock, then going back to the mound to find Cards manager Red Schoendienst there to yank him. See below: Gibson finished the inning and got Don Kessinger to ground out — with Gibson making the putout on an assist from first baseman Reggie Smith.

Nothing like adding insult error to injury.

Do we now go through every one of the other 40-plus to make sure there isn’t any shortcuts taken on completely accuracy — which actually makes the story better?

Maybe that’s our cue to just walk away.

More to ponder

== In 2012, The Bleacher Report’s Randy Robins wrote about the “20 Saddest Retirements in Baseball History,” which has some overlap here. The author, after reading this, might have wanted to get more into the departures of players like Herb Score, Kirby Puckett, Minnie Minoso, Sam Rice, Hack Wilson, Dave Concepcion, Roy Campanella and Moonlight Graham.

Mays and Koufax are included.

== Sometime we get publishers to send us review copies of books. We appreciate it, whether it’s a paperback, hardbound or a PDF. Sometimes, we order the books ourselves — yup, buy ’em. Because they get here faster.

And by doing so we’ve learned a valuable secret: You can save money with pre-orders on Amazon.

Check out what happened to us here, via this email, and don’t get jealous.

You’re welcome.

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