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Yankees Mag: A time to every purpose under heaven

Yankees Mag: A time to every purpose under heaven

Righetti’s star turn is a moment locked in time, but he never stopped chasing validation

Righetti’s home in California is filled with memories from a lifetime of baseball achievements, and certainly from one very special day.New York Yankees

What profit has man in all his toil that he toils under the sun?
— Ecclesiastes 1:3

At 4: 46 p.m. on July 4, 1983, Yankees pitcher Dave Righetti got Boston’s Wade Boggs to swing through a breaking ball, the final act in a stunning and historic no-hitter. Delighted, relieved and exhausted beyond measure, the left-hander fell into the arms of his catcher, Butch Wynegar, who remembers Righetti looking like a “limp noodle” after throwing 132 pitches on a 94-degree afternoon.

This story doesn’t begin 2 hours and 33 minutes before Boggs’ swing, and it doesn’t end in the now-ubiquitous image of two batterymates’ elation. It’s a tale with roots 207 years earlier, when the signing of the Declaration of Independence created a holiday perfect for fireworks and baseball, and also on the same date in 1930, when an entirely different General George was born.

Yet perhaps to truly understand the afternoon of July 4, 1983, and how it was both everything and not nearly enough, one must consider a day seven years and two weeks later — July 19, 1990 — when Righetti, who was moved to the bullpen after 1983, became the Yankees’ all-time leader in games pitched (a record now held by Mariano Rivera).

Sitting in a Bay Area bistro and decades removed from his last big league appearance, reflecting on his highest moment as a player — a no-hitter, against the rival of rivals, on our nation’s happiest day — Righetti veers toward what should have been another celebratory moment, but instead hangs on to a seemingly harmless bit of needling. It’s a brief Daily News writeup by Phil Pepe that, in his mind, attempted to take the shine off his new record by comparing his career effort to that of Whitey Ford, who had established the mark of 498 games pitched on the road to the Hall of Fame.

“Can you just say ‘Congrats?’” Righetti recalls thinking. “Whitey Ford was the first guy to greet me. And he knew what it meant to me. But the papers and everything, it was like I wasn’t good enough to do this.”

Now 64 years old and still working as an advisor for the San Francisco Giants, Righetti isn’t sour. He’s consistently smiling and knee-slappingly hilarious during the better part of a day in and around his Morgan Hill, Calif., home, so much so that it’s easy to see why Rags was an adored and beloved clubhouse presence for so many years.

“I’ve had a lot of teammates, a lot of great teammates,” said Willie Randolph. “And Dave, he’s at the top of the list.”

And there’s a timelessness to Righetti, and to his Independence Day feat. Forty years later, he still has the baby-face features instantly recognizable to fans who remember him pitching and coaching during a wildly successful baseball life. But his career memories, and the glimpses toward the sport’s present and — if unchanged — its future, are tinged with pain. The book of Ecclesiastes — or, if you prefer, versions by Pete Seeger or The Byrds — tells of “a time to weep and a time to laugh,” of “a time of wailing and a time of dancing.” Perhaps most relevant here, there’s the “time to break and a time to build.” Listening to Righetti’s stories, the tune keeps ringing out.

The paradoxes tell the tale as much as the images and mementos that line the walls and bookshelves of his home office. They’re frozen in time, so many of them, yet baked under the hot summer sun.

“It was just a bad time,” Righetti says, looking back at the 1980s New York Yankees. “But it was also the best time in the world.”

When pitcher and catcher embraced under the late-afternoon sun on July 4, 1983, it was plain to see the totality — and diversity — of emotions in the moment. After catching Dave Righetti’s gem, Butch Wynegar remembers the pitcher looking like a “limp noodle,” elated but completely drained after keeping Boston hitless on a 94-degree day.AP Photos

A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever.
— Ecclesiastes 1:4

The no-hitter is one of the simplest baseball feats to understand, the rare bit of sports lingo that makes sense at surface level. You didn’t give up a hit. There’s no judgment, no grandeur. There’s not even an assessment of the ultimate measure of success; it doesn’t indicate whether you won or lost. Seven years after Righetti’s no-no, Yankees pitcher Andy Hawkins would no-hit the White Sox, but lose the game on account of two walks, a stolen base and three errors in the eighth inning. They’re all different, yet also kind of the same, from George Bradley in 1876 through the Astros pitchers’ combined effort in Game 4 of the 2022 World Series.

But watching tape of Righetti’s gem through 2023 eyes, it’s easy to see how much the game has changed. For one thing … fans sure did like taking off their shirts in the ’80s. But there are also rhythms that are totally incongruous with today’s game. The pitch count keeps climbing, and as he walks Jeff Newman to lead off the top of the ninth, with Goose Gossage warm in the bullpen, you half expect Billy Martin to call for help, even as you know how it’s going to end.

Despite it being the last game before the All-Star break, the getawayest of getaway days, Boston ran out a lineup full of stars. Boggs, Jim Rice, Tony Armas, Dwight Evans … it was the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, after all.

“We were kind of thinking one or two of those guys might have a day off, but they didn’t,” Wynegar said.

Between the opponent and the weather, the catcher knew that he would have to keep his pitcher under control.

“Ragsy, he could have a tendency to lose his command and throw a lot of pitches,” he recalled.

Sure enough, as the Sox struck out seven times in the first three innings, it was tough to measure the virtue.

“I thought, ‘OK, I like this,’” Wynegar said. “But on the other hand, I’m going, ‘He can’t continue this pace. He can’t sustain that.’”

For Righetti, there was a statement to be made even before he took the mound. The pitcher believed that he should have been named an All-Star, and he was determined to prove it in his last outing of the first half, against his team’s biggest rival. (Pepe, it should be noted, would pen a column in the Daily News two days later that excoriated the American League for leaving Righetti off the roster.) The lefty wanted to go into the break with a 10th win, the better to make 20 a realistic goal, and he knew that he couldn’t keep striking everyone out. A five-pitch fourth inning got things back on track, and for the rest of the day, he aimed for democracy over dictatorship.

“I wanted to get to the seventh inning somehow,” Righetti said. “I told myself, if it was within four pitches, fine. Every at-bat that goes longer than that, I’m looking for an out. We need outs. Because I could feel it.”

Even as he labored, the pitcher found a way to endure. In the eighth inning, he again needed just five pitches, and as he paced around the mound between every pitch in the ninth, it wasn’t just out of exhaustion. He also was determined to stay loose, knowing that both Jerry Remy and Boggs were lefties who could pull grounders to first, and that he’d have to be limber enough to get over to cover. Wynegar, meanwhile, did everything he could to rein in the pitcher, who had a tendency to overthrow as he got tired. He called for lots of fastballs up in the zone, before a devastating slider that Boggs — who would lead the Majors with a .361 batting average that year — swung through to end it.

“You can see the weight of the world just fall off his shoulders,” Wynegar said of their embrace, noting that he was trying to hold Righetti up as much as anything else. “And he just went into a limp, Gumby-looking guy on the mound, walking off and coming toward me and everything. He was absolutely exhausted.

“You don’t know how proud I was of Ragsy after that game.”

For the pitcher, though? It would never be quite that simple.

All the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place where the rivers flow, there they repeatedly go.
— Ecclesiastes 1:7

Righetti is calm and he’s cool, California through and through. Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka, another native of the Golden State, spent time working with Righetti this past March at the World Baseball Classic, when the hero of our story was Team USA’s bullpen coach.

“Super laid back,” Higashioka said. “Never any panic, always just even-keeled.”

The f-bombs Righetti drops even as a digital recorder rolls are easy, playful, the language of an old-school ballplayer. Colorful, not malicious.

His career spans so many very different generations, from dominant starter to lights-out reliever to championship-winning pitching coach, but it can also be centered easily on a single day four decades ago. There’s so much more to Dave Righetti than those nine innings, yet that afternoon under a blazing Bronx sun offers a useful thumbnail sketch.

It’s just that he always felt people wanted more from him, different from him, someone else than him. He was traded to the Yankees as a Minor Leaguer after the 1978 season and was called the next Ron Guidry, never mind that Guidry had just gone 25-3 and still had a decade in pinstripes ahead of him. When Righetti wasn’t immediately an ace, people wondered why.

“In ’81,” he said of the year he was named American League Rookie of the Year, “everything was fine because we went to the World Series, I pitched good, whatever. But the next year, we fired three pitching coaches because I got off to a tough start.”

Righetti couldn’t stare straight ahead and not think about the second-order effects. If he struggled, he thought, people lost jobs. He says that when he accidentally cut his hand on a bullpen water cooler, George Steinbrenner had coaches and relievers take lie detector tests to make sure there hadn’t been a fight. A few years later, Righetti smashed his toe, but he insisted on pitching through it, afraid to draw the owner’s wrath over another freak accident.

“You get tired of that,” he said. “It wears you down. Sitting in my apartment pacing back and forth at four o’clock in the morning. I never slept. I’d sleep at the ballpark. Day games after night games? Back by the side, I’d go on the sofa. Because I was afraid to go home. Because I wasn’t sleeping.”

He’d hide in a corner of the dugout during starts, nervous that a coach who was about to get fired because Dave Righetti wasn’t Cy Young would try to pick apart his output. Eventually he realized that it was smarter to retreat to the clubhouse whenever the Yankees were batting.

“The funny part was, as soon as I ran out of the dugout, up the steps? Perfectly fine. It was the waiting around. I could feel my stuff wasn’t going to be the same.”

But the acclaim could be as hard to accept as the criticism. After the no-hitter, Righetti had his pick of curtain calls during the All-Star break. He didn’t want any of them. “I didn’t go on ‘Letterman,’” he said. “I didn’t do anything. I left town to get away.”

Not that Righetti could totally control it. He and Graig Nettles drove to Atlantic City, N.J., after the game, and when they got pulled over for speeding on the way down, the police officer recognized the pair and called some more cars to escort them the rest of the way. Shecky Greene even briefly stopped his show to acknowledge the newest Yankees celebrity who had walked through the door.

In his mind, though, he was only as good as his next start.

“I thought, ‘George is going to crush me. There’s no way you can live off one game,’” Righetti said. “But Guidry actually said it. He said, ‘Nobody else has thrown a no-hitter since Don Larsen. We’ve won World Series and stuff. You’re allowed to have fun and enjoy this.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but how? I’ve got a game in four days.’”

Righetti’s first home start after the no-hitter was against Texas. The marquee at the old Stadium, which always posted the matchup, this time made things a bit more personal — RIGHETTI VS. THE RANGERS.

“So we go to run out for the anthem like we always do,” he said, laughing but also still uncomfortable four decades later. “I turn around. They all stay in the dugout. They’re laughing their [butts] off. ‘It said up on the marquee, you’re playing against the Rangers.’

“I wasn’t built for that.”

The next year, Gossage left town, and the team moved Righetti to the bullpen to take his place. It was always a temporary thing, he’d be back starting soon, but then he wasn’t. And he was good! He was the Rolaids Relief Man Award winner twice, an All-Star in 1986 and ’87. His home office is full of awards from seven years in the Yankees’ bullpen. Eventually, though, his contract was up, and the Yankees, who never seemed to value Righetti in the way the pitcher believed they should have, wouldn’t match what other teams proposed. With triplets on the way and family out West, Righetti left one home for another; he’d pitch five more seasons, then retire.

Eventually, he became the Giants’ pitching coach, and he led a stable of some of the game’s best arms to four pennants and three World Series titles. He watched in agony as his pitchers made their way through no-hitters five times, including Matt Cain’s perfect game. But he also saw the Yankees team that he left bloom into a dynasty, and he still imagines being part of that.

“I felt like I had to leave, in a sense, and I didn’t want to,” he said. “I didn’t want to win anywhere else, anyway. I wanted to win in New York.”

Righetti offers a tour of the mementos that tell his life story with obvious joy, his youthful smile still ever-present at age 64. But he also harbors a tinge of resentment about some of the unhappy detours his career took.New York Yankees

I praise the dead who have already died, more than the living who are still alive.
Ecclesiastes 4:2

In 1986, less than three years after Righetti’s no-hitter (and at least 2,000 years after the Book of Ecclesiastes was written), Rabbi Harold Kushner offered his interpretation of the text. He probably wasn’t thinking about the Yankees pitcher when he wrote “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough,” but Kushner’s search for meaning and purpose echoes much of Righetti’s own reflections on baseball, and his life in it:

“Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will at least be a little different for our having passed through it.”

Baseball moments and artifacts exist in timeless shrines. Wynegar has the gloves he used to catch Phil Niekro’s 300th win and Righetti’s no-hitter, along with other bits of nostalgia. Righetti sits at a desk surrounded by photos, jerseys, letters and awards. His home is a monument to achievement, but to a different time. For so long, though, his mind went to what he didn’t do.

“I wanted to do it again, to validate it,” he says of his one career no-hitter. “It’s like winning a championship. ‘Oh, they got lucky.’ When you do it again and again, you validate it.”

Maybe that’s crazy. Or maybe, it’s just how a life in baseball conditions you to think. Maybe it’s what makes some guys great. Like many old-timers, Righetti looks askance at today’s game, frustrated by the ways that he says he saw coaches get replaced by computers when his astonishingly successful tenure as pitching coach approached its end in 2017. There’s contempt that drips from his descriptions of today’s thought leaders, and even anger. But he’s not content to burn bridges or question anyone’s good intent. He even catches himself the one time he utters the phrase, “In my day …” He just worries.

“We can’t get a guy through a season,” he said. “If that’s the way they want to play the game, that’s fine. I don’t have a problem. But I’m worried about the health of the pitcher.”

He speaks fondly of the days when he coached, when he knew everything that was going on, and he wonders how anyone can truly be “in charge” these days. No one, Righetti says, even knows who’s making decisions. It galls him.

He keeps returning to paradoxes. To Righetti, there was a time for more credit and a time to be left alone. There was a time to answer the phone call and a time to dread the ringing phone.

There are contradictions in the way he rails against the modern game’s changes, yet he wants to engage, to teach. He doesn’t want to toss verbal bombs from the sidelines. His job with the Giants today mainly entails working with Minor Leaguers at the lowest levels, the most malleable players, who barely have any idea who he is. He’s happy.

“Anybody can come to me, and whatever they say is not going anywhere,” Righetti said proudly. “They know that. Because that’s my reputation.”

At some point, Righetti stopped chasing the things he didn’t have. He looked to Don Larsen and saw that as the World Series perfect-game artist grew older, he stopped feeling sheepish or chagrined by people who felt the need to contextualize his entire career when discussing the singular masterpiece. Righetti had spent a lifetime trying to justify the no-hitter, to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Now, as he thinks about teaching the game, talking about the game, coaching the game — and sure, enjoying his grandkids more than any of that — he also talks about a realization, one that took him a lifetime to reach.

It came a few years back, during a chat with a Yankees executive, and an inadvertently backhanded comment about Righetti’s career falling during a fallow period for the franchise.

“You didn’t win,” Righetti recalled hearing. It was a comment that he feared for so long, perhaps even because he agreed with it.

This time, though, the pitcher defended himself, his team and his generation.

“We did win,” he said. “We won more games than anybody in that whole decade. But we didn’t win enough, I guess, at the right time.”

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes 1:9

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the July 2023 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at www.yankees.com/publications.



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