Monday, June 24, 2019
The Dying Mets Turn to a Vulture
To a lot of people, the Mets are the walking dead awaiting the vultures to feed. So when they canned pitching coach Dave Eiland and bullpen coach Chuck Hernandez last Thursday, it must have delivered a truck load of laughs when they named a vulture as their new pitching coach.
As in, Phil (The Vulture) Regan. Former bird of prey out of the bullpen himself. Who's alive and well, apparently, at 82. Who's probably going to have a few people wondering just how he's going to fix the Mets' talented but struggling rotation and a bullpen that's mostly full of bull.
And, who can't do a thing to fix the Mets' pitching's top weakness — the unsound defense behind them, and the unsound baserunning that runs them out of scoring chances. That's probably one reason why the firings of Eiland (who's respected enough that he isn't likely to remain unemployed long) and Hernandez are considered Met scapegoating while they still can't address their core issue: unsound management from the front office to the dugout.
That's not Regan's problem, of course, And this Vulture isn't worried about either dealing with today's breed of player or his own age.
"I think kids today, they want you to be honest," Regan told Syracuse.com. "I don't ever lie to them. I try to come in and not change their whole delivery. I'm not a big believer in doing that, or taking pitches away from them. But there's a lot of little fundamental things that you have to do as a pitcher. And sometimes a person can see that, maybe just one little thing. Try it, and if you like it stick with it."
Where was he when the Mets really needed him? Actually, Regan has spent a decade in the Mets' organization, and he worked with several of the Mets' pitching staff during their minor league days, including Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Steven Matz, and Robert Gsellman.
Ask him about his octogenarian status, and Regan — who once pitched for the Syracuse minor league team during his years with the Tigers — doesn't exactly sound like a man ready for assisted living. He's even thinking of changing his uniform number to 82 because his age has been mentioned so frequently this week.
"I've always kind of stayed in the game and done different things," the Vulture continued. "I still go to the Dominican in the winter and coach down there. I spent twenty years in Venezuela managing and coaching there. So I've kept busy all year-round. And I think it's kind of helped me keep going. I'm 82 years old now, but I don't feel it."
That means Regan feeling younger than a lot of Mets must feel more often than not this season. This may be the first time the dying were known to invite a vulture to try saving their lives instead of dining on their corpses.
But are the Mets going to start throwing sweat balls?
After life as a sort of swingman for the Tigers in 1960-65, the Dodgers traded Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax's buddy and road roommate Dick Tracewski to get Regan away from the Tigers after the 1965 season. His too-obvious itch to get into games, not to mention an early 1966 spell of coming into tie games from which Koufax was lifted late, prompted Koufax himself to crack, "Regan, you're a real vulture, getting my wins like that."
"From there, the press picked it up," the Vulture says. "I got hundreds of these rubber vultures from all over the country. People would send them in. The zoo wanted to put a vulture down in the bullpen, but they wouldn't let them do it. We had a lot of fun with it."
Regan thinks he kept Koufax from one final achievement in 1966, Koufax's last season. "He could have been a 30-game winner his last year," Regan told the New York Post, "but I vultured a few wins."
And while having his own career year in 1966 — a 1.62 ERA and a 2.33 fielding-independent pitching rate, with a 0.93 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, not to mention a 14-1 won-lost record — Regan began getting away with a pitch nobody could catch for a very good reason.
"I don't use foreign substances," George Frazier would crack much later when he was caught throwing funny pitches. "Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A." Regan could see and raise: he used part of his anatomy to do it. Specifically, his sweat glands.
"He had an awkward diving delivery," wrote David Claerbaut in Durocher's Cubs: The Greatest Team That Didn't Win, "and his out pitch was a moist one that went with a tough slider. Because Regan threw what might be called a clean spitter, allowing the perspiration to run down his arms onto the ball, umpires were never able to bust him, despite their certainties that the ball coming in was less than arid."
The Vulture got away with it long enough. "I can't come right out and tell you that I now throw the spitter," he once told a reporter, "but I'd say: I don't use it nearly as much as everybody thinks." Relief ace-to-be Al (The Mad Hungarian) Hrabosky later said Regan's money pitch was "the slippery elm."
Whatever it was, when the Dodgers traded him to the Cubs with outfielder Jim Hickman for outfielder Ted Savage and minor league pitcher Jim Ellis, Regan was almost damaged goods: he'd opened the '68 season with swollen hands, knees, and legs, including one frightening morning when he couldn't even lift his cup of coffee.
He got a just-as-frightening diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis but it turned out to be an odd temporary form of the affliction that lasted only a month. The arthritis might have cleared but nobody was clear about what Regan was throwing and just when he might throw it. As with the 1966 Dodgers, Regan became the Cubs' bullpen anchor, and in too short order it proved to pull him to the bottom.
He was 32-years-old by then. He gave the '68 Cubs the second-best season of his career and it came with a price: Leo Durocher depended on him so voluminously that he burned the Vulture out almost as profoundly as he'd burned out the rest of the '69 Cubs by the time the Miracle Mets re-heated for keeps down the stretch.
"We just flat wore Phil Regan out," said catcher Randy Hundley to Rick Talley for The Cubs of '69. Leo started going to him all the time. What did he pitch, 112 innings in 71 games? That's a bunch for a short relief man. Now, if he pitches 80 or 90 innings in 71 games, he might survive. But Leo didn't feel he could count on the other guys out there, so he kept calling on Regan."
Durocher had a well-established pattern of not trusting his youth and over-trusting his veterans, when he wasn't refusing to rest his regulars judiciously or making them feel like quitters if they spoke up about being injured.
Somehow, Regan remained Durocher's favorite bullpen bull despite the toll, until the Cubs finally sold him to the White Sox in June 1972. After 10 more games in which he continued to look anything but the bullpen terror he'd formerly been, the White Sox released Regan and the Vulture retired.
A 1966 all-star, Regan knows only too well the differences between conditioning today and conditioning in his time. Those who think today's pitchers are "babied" and lacking toughness should wonder how it was pitchers in Regan's day survived at all.
"I think that the pitchers today are bigger and stronger and throw harder and are in better shape than we ever thought of being," he says. "When I see the way that they train ... when I was with the Dodgers they said the two things you don't do, you don't lift weights and you don't swim. Well, those are two of the better things for you now. It's an evolution a little bit of where we've come from where we were. But today the pitchers train year-round. Guys, in my era, used to go get a job during the winter because the money wasn't there.
"It's a different era in that in today's society, in baseball, these are major investments," the Vulture continued. "I could tell you I pitched ... in Detroit and never made $20,000 a year. And that's fine. But that was my era and that was a lot of money in those days. But today, when you have a guy that you're making $10 million, you need to protect that investment. And that means take care of him, give him the best medical help, give him the best conditioning that we can give him. You protect him better because when you lose $10 million, that's a major loss as opposed to $7,000."
Pitch for Leo Durocher and you learn only too well about how not to handle pitchers. No two pitchers are quite alike physically; no two pitchers will have the same endurance or the same physical composition. Neglect that and you face disaster, whether you're on the mound or shepherding men to the mound.
A near-inveterate storyteller, the one Regan likes most to remember involves the Dodgers' 1966 pennant clinch, on the final day of the season, when Hall of Famer Don Drysdale's faltering in game one of a doubleheader forced manager Walter Alston to send Koufax out to pitch and win the nightcap on two days' rest, which also altered Alston's pitching plan for the coming and ill-fated World Series.
As Regan and his fellow bulls ran out of the pen toward the clubhouse, a fan snatched Regan's cap right off his head. Twenty-nine years later, Regan received a package in the clubhouse while managing the Orioles. It was the same year Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. broke fellow Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak.
The package contained the cap lifted from Regan's head that day in 1966. The fan who snatched it decided Regan should have it after all those years. Regan invited the fan to an Oriole game personally. "I still have the hat today," he told the Post.
It isn't every Vulture who gets his hat handed back to him.
Now the question becomes whether this Vulture can raise the Mets' pitching staff from the dead before the real vultures make carrion of them. With or without breaking a sweat. Since Regan stepped in, the Mets as of Saturday morning split a pair of games with the Cubs.
In a 7-4 Thursday loss, rookie starter Walker Lockett breezed through the first two innings before losing it for 6 earned runs in the third, one of which scored on a wild pitch by newly acquired reliever Brooks Pounders — but the Mets' bullpen kept the Cubs mostly in check other than a solo home run in the seventh. But on Friday the Mets beat the Cubs 5-4, with starter Jason Vargas surrendering 4 runs, two earned, while Pounders, Seth Lugo, and Edwin Diaz kept the Cubs scoreless with four and a thirds of stellar relief.
Then on Saturday, the Mets thumped the Cubs, 10-2. The Mets' bullpen in the Vulture's first three games worth of shepherding the staff: 12 innings, 1 earned run, 14 strikeouts, and a 0.75 ERA.
"Pitching,'' Regan said, "is a lot of little things and once you get the fundamentals down, you really don't have to worry about where you are throwing the ball but if you do one little thing wrong you begin to struggle on the mound and you have problems. You never stop learning. There are so many things you learn with the technology today."
The Vulture sounds a lot younger than the birds of prey young enough to be his grandchildren and snotty enough to think it won't be long before he makes mound visits with a walker or a wheelchair.