Here we go again, dusting off the old octogenarian (that’s REALLY old) brain. The memory man strikes again. This is Volume XXIX: “I’m Still Waiting.”
Just when we thought we could put baseball in the back pocket for a while, the Chicago White Sox hired Tony La Russa — again — and that leads to all sorts of Richmond connections. As well-documented earlier in this memory-man series, he played for the International League Braves in 1972. One of his teammates here was the Houston Astros’ Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker, 71, who was the oldest active manager in the major leagues until Chisox owner Jerry Reinsdorf brought in long-time friend La Russa, 76. But the local connection doesn’t end there.
Jack McKeon, R-Braves skipper in 1976, is the oldest manager to win a World Series. He was 72 in 2003 when the wild-card Florida (now Miami) Marlins went all the way. The White Sox, having made the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, will be among the favorites in 2021, giving La Russa an excellent chance to move ahead of McKeon, “Trader Jack,” who’s living in Elon, N.C., and turns 90 on Nov. 23.
In fact, there is every reason to believe La Russa, who hasn’t been in uniform since 2011, accepted Reinsdorf’s offer because he thought he had an excellent chance to add No. 4 to his collection of World Series managerial rings. Not that the response to La Russa being named over A. J. Hinch, generally considered the front runner, has been 100% positive. “I’d say it was 50-50, for and against,” said Charlie Evranian, long-time baseball man who still has close ties to the White Sox. So, why hire La Russa, when there have been reports GM Rick Hahn — who, in eight years, has rebuilt the team into a contender — didn’t like the choice in the first place? “It was all Jerry.” (A couple of days after La Russa moved to Chicago, Hinch went to Detroit to manage the Tigers.)
Sam Ayoub spent 23 years (1968-91) mending bodies as R-Braves trainer. Of course, he remembers La Russa, a second baseman here. “He had a bad knee. I took care of it,” said Ayoub, 86, and residing in an assisted living facility near Chippenham Hospital. “He told me he’d take me with him [to the big leagues]. I’m still waiting.”
Being multilingual is something else La Russa and Ayoub have in common. The latter spent 10 winters in Venezuela, the first American trainer to be invited there “because I spoke Spanish,” Ayoub said. The fact that La Russa also speaks Spanish “should be very helpful in his new job,” said Evranian, 72, who, as White Sox director of player development and scouting, had an active role in La Russa getting his first managerial job in 1977. The question is: How will he deal with younger players, the millennials who march to their own beat and would rather style and profile than hustle … too often to suit old-timers like La Russa?
Meanwhile, Ayoub sits and wonders what might have been. He was so good at what he did — keeping players on the field — that he probably was taken for granted and didn’t get the recognition he felt he deserved (i.e., a Major League promotion). Is he still bitter about it? “I could have gone to [Atlanta], but there was a reason why I didn’t,” Ayoub said. That was? He’d rather not say, maybe some day.
“Put it this way: I would have had to put up with a lot of bad stuff. [And], I was happy here. Maybe it was a mistake not to go, but at the time, I just didn’t want to,” Ayoub said.
In 1977, the White Sox were looking for a new trainer. Evranian recommended Ayoub, whom he first got to know during his time as Richmond Braves assistant general manager. “I thought Sam was going to get it,” Evranian recalled last week. “Our new manager was Bob Lemon, who also knew — and respected — Sam.” (Lemon came to Richmond to finish the 1975 campaign after Clint Courtney died in Rochester, N.Y., during a road trip.) But, on joining the Chisox, Lemon met with owner Bill Veeck and said he had someone else in mind. Once again it was close but no you-know-what for Ayoub.
Many of the players who owe Ayoub a lot — in some cases, their careers — stay in touch. Like back-to-back (1982-83) National League MVP Dale Murphy, who came to Richmond as a catcher, suddenly/inexplicably couldn’t throw the ball accurately back to the pitcher, and became a standout in the outfield. And Baker, who called and talked to Ayoub after this season’s end.
Then there was Luis Tiant, whose career was about to end in 1971 when he joined the local club as a free agent. After a month working with Ayoub to recondition an ailing right shoulder, Tiant was beginning to look sound enough to warrant a contract with the A-Braves. “I begged them to give me another two weeks, that he would come around … but they couldn’t wait,” Ayoub recalled.
The day Tiant got his release the Louisville Colonels were in town. They were Boston’s AAA farm team then, and the Red Sox reportedly had been alerted by Pedro Ramos, veteran righthander with Major League experience and an R-Braves teammate, that Tiant was getting better — and worth the risk. All Tiant had to do was walk several strides from the home to the visitors’ clubhouses at Parker Field. “I talked to their trainer about him … what I’d been doing to make the shoulder stronger,” Ayoub said.
A year later Tiant, with his signature back-to-the-plate windup, was dazzling the American League again, as he had during his earlier MLB days with the Indians — only better. In 1972, he led the AL in earned run average (1.91), with a 15-6 record, then won 20 games in 1973, 22 in 1974 and 21 in 1976 en route to a 19-season career. Tiant, who turns 80 on Nov. 23, hasn’t forgotten who made it possible. Said Ayoub, “I talked to him maybe six weeks ago.”
From Richmond, the parent club sent Ayoub to Florida where he ran the organization’s rehab program — who else? — until retiring in 2000. Now, despite faulty hip replacement surgery, Ayoub sounded strong, upbeat and typically Ayoub-like over the telephone. “I’m doing OK,” he said.
By the way … it’s always worth repeating a great story about Murphy, everybody’s good guy and favorite — except among baseball’s Hall of Fame voters, who ignored him en mass, ostensibly because his stellar 18-year MLB career — 15 in Atlanta — didn’t measure up in the end. In 1983, prior to a Braves home game with the Gaints, Murphy visited a six-year-old girl who had lost both hands and a leg, the result of making contact with a live power wire. Her nurse asked if he could pull a Babe Ruth and hit a home run for the girl. Murphy said he would try — and came through with not one but two. Babe who? Now 64 and one of the all-time clean livers, Murphy lives in Alpine, Utah. He and wife Nancy have eight children, including seven boys.
And … after the 1988 season, McKeon, then San Diego Padres general manager, knew the Braves were talking to the Mets about Murphy. He offered Atlanta a package that included young catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. The Braves said they were committed to veteran ex-Cub Jody Davis behind the plate. Alomar spent 20 years in the big leagues, where he was a six-time all-star. Davis was released after batting .161 in little more than one season.
How hilarious is it, William & Mary talking about upgrading its identity through football? The question begs a question: Doesn’t the college already have a reputation for academic excellence that is — or should be — the envy of most other schools this side of the Ivy League? And that commitment isn’t going to change, regardless of how it does on the playing field.
In truth, even when the Tribe had a stake in college football’s top division, success was measured not in winning seasons but the occasional upset or two. Until W&M shifted from I-A to I-AA in 1982 when Jimmye Laycock was in his third year (of 39 in all), the last coach with more wins than losses overall was Marvin Bass. In 1951, his only season in charge there, he finished 7-3 before joining the Washington Redskins as an assistant. A William & Mary alumnus, who was captain of the 9-1-1 team that closed with a 14-7 victory over Oklahoma, Bass was well-traveled during 37 years in the coaching business, pro and college. Among his stops, the Petersburg native, who died in 2010 at age 91, spent 1973 on the University of Richmond staff.
I know, it’s hard to believe Hall of Famers-to-be Marv Levy and Lou Holtz couldn’t break .500. Levy went 23-25-2 (.480) from 1964 through 1968. Holtz was 13-20-0 (.390, 1969-71) before leaving for North Carolina State. Someone who worked for the W&M athletic department at the time recalled the Atlantic Coast Conference showed some interest in the college, and Holtz tried to convince President Davis Y. Pascall it was a good idea to join a league that was building its reputation as one of the country’s elite. Given no encouragement, Holtz reportedly was contacted by State and accepted before the ‘71 season was over. The Tribe opened 4-0 then dropped six of seven. What kept the Wolfpack on the Holtz bandwagon was a near-miss 36-35 loss at North Carolina, State’s No. 1 rival.
(By The Way II … Levy is 95 and living in Chicago with wife of 36 years Fran. They live in a condominium, and he takes long walks every day. “Marvelous Marv” will be remembered for taking the Buffalo Bills to a record-four-straight Super Bowls (1990-93) — and losing all four. Those who knew him at William & Mary recall he didn’t like to own big-ticket items but rented living quarters and leased cars in Williamsburg. Finally, my favorite Levy quote: “If Michelangelo wanted to play it safe, he would have painted the floor of the Sistine Chapel.”)
Just because something has no major value doesn’t mean it can’t have some meaning. The other day we were researching on the internet and came across a site “Stadium Talk,” which offered a bunch of fun lists. For example, rated 50 to 1 were “The Worst Sports Moment for Every State.” Virginia was No. 37, with UVA becoming the first top seed in the NCAA basketball tournament to lose a first-round game to a No. 16 (UMBC, 2018). The Cavaliers were 20.5-point favorites and lost by 20, snapping a 135-0 streak. Dale Earnhardt’s death, the result of a last-lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500, made Florida No. 1 on the “Worst Sports Moment” rundown.
The list we really liked, that was a real conversation piece, was “Greatest Fictional Coaches.” The author included anyone who helped a team or individual (hint … hint) win against all odds. So, who led the parade? It had to be Norman Dale, right? Gene Hackman’s 1986 portrayal of the basketball coach in “Hoosiers,” easily the best all-time sports movie? Sorry, he finished third. No. 2 — among 30 overall — was Gordon Bombay of “The Mighty Ducks” fame. So, No. 1 had to be Reggie Dunlop? Wrong. The 1977 flick “Slap Shot” coach, played by Paul Newman, was a distant ninth. You’ve got to be kidding! OK, end the suspense, who was it? Would you believe Mr. Miagi (“Wax on … wax off”), the Okinawan karate master who first appeared in 1984’s “The Karate Kid” as well as four incarnations of the same theme? Pat Morita was an Oscar nominee for the original.
Until next time … when we take a look back at arguably the University of Richmond’s worst football game (to be followed next month by UR’s best on its 52nd anniversary.)
Jerry Lindquist can be reached
by email at email@example.com.