"You better think of something quick. Rook," bullpen Catcher Clay Dalrymple hollered at me as I completed my warmups and headed for the mound at Cincinnati's old Crosley Field on May 6, 1968 to pitch in my first—and last—big league game.
I was then what is called a "promising rookie" for the Philadelphia Phillies. "Larry Colton is the best young pitching prospect I've scouted this season," said Ned Garver, a scout for the Reds. "Philadelphia has a fine young pitcher named Larry Colton who is expected to help fill in for the consistent game winner Jim Bunning, who was traded, " wrote SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
I came on in relief in the bottom of the sixth inning to face Pete Rose. Never mind that Rose was working on a 20-game hitting streak; I was just thrilled to be in a big league game.
When Rose sent my third pitch rocketing off the scoreboard for a stand-up double, I was considerably less enchanted. Suddenly I realized that I might need to think of something quick.
I must have thought of something—I can't begin to guess now what it was—because I settled down to retire Alex Johnson, Vada Pinson and Tony Perez. "Nice job," Manager Gene Mauch mumbled as I walked off the mound. Those were the first words he had uttered to me since I had joined the team two weeks earlier. I had visions of greatness as I sat in the dugout waiting to challenge the powerful Reds again
"Pitch one more inning, Colton. Then I'm going to pinch-hit for you," Mauch said, interrupting my fantasy. Although it was late in the game and we were trailing by five, Mauch had not given up, even if Leftfielder Richie Allen had.
In the first inning, Allen had allowed Johnny Bench to stretch a routine single into a double. When Allen returned to the dugout at the end of the inning, Mauch quietly reprimanded him for his lack of hustle. Allen, who wanted out of Philadelphia, sauntered to the end of the bench and said to no one in particular, "I just might not hit for the man tonight." He then proceeded to strike out twice.
The Reds nicked me for a run in my second inning, when Lee May blasted a hanging curveball high off the left-field wall and scored on a bloop single by Tommy Helms. But all things considered, it was an acceptable beginning: two innings, one run, two strikeouts. I was ready for more.
And I was grateful that I had made my debut on the road, rather than before the notorious boo birds of Philadelphia. The Phillies were mired in a 17-year losing streak, and the tolerance of the fans was growing thin. The first time I ever set foot on the lush grass at Connie Mack Stadium, the fans got on me. It did not make any difference that I was just headed to the bullpen to loosen up or that I had never even been in a game A couple of weeks later those same fans booed a public address announcement that slick-fielding Shortstop Bobby Wine had successfully undergone surgery to repair a ruptured disk.
Evidently Mauch was not too impressed with my two-inning performance in Cincinnati, because I did not see any more action for the rest of the month. "He's saving me for the pennant drive," I assured my wife as I prepared for a trip to the West Coast to play the Giants and Dodgers. For me, the visit to California was going to be my triumphant return as a big-leaguer to the state where I was raised I happily anticipated telling my parents and college buddies how it felt to be playing in the bigs.
"How would you know?" chided one friend as we sipped beers in a hilltop bar after the third game in San Francisco.
"Never mind," I replied. "Finish your beer and let's leave this place. I've got to hurry back. It's already past curfew."
"What are you worried about curfew for, Larry? You could miss the game tomorrow and Mauch would never know the difference," my friend said as we left.
Just outside the door we found three hostile-looking bruisers blocking our path. "Excuse me," I said, trying to use the polite approach to get past them. When I felt a solid right-hand crash into my ear, I decided that these boys had not been studying up on Emily Post. "What the hell did I do to you? I don't even know you" I moaned from my prone position on the sidewalk.
Stunned, I rose to my haunches, ready to fight back, and was immediately blind-sided by another blow that knocked me down. This time the fight was over. I suffered a shoulder separation when I hit the sidewalk the second time.
After spending the night in the hospital, I took a cab to the ball park to reveal my misfortune to Mauch. As I walked into the manager's office, I was convinced he was going to fine me heavily for missing curfew and being injured in a barroom fight. On my $8,000 a year—then the major league minimum—I could ill afford it.
"What the hell happened to you, Colton?" Mauch bellowed when he saw me. "You look terrible. Were you in a fight?"
There I stood, my arm in a sling, my eye swollen shut and my cheek puffed to twice its normal size. I could only stammer, "Um...no, sir. My shoulder popped out when I reached for the phone at the hotel, and a friend accidentally hit me in the face with his school ring while we were horsing around."
Mauch looked at me for a second, shook his head and said, "Oh." Fortunately he had other matters on his mind and had neither the time nor the desire to pursue the questioning. "I'll put you on the disabled list and tell the press you separated your shoulder answering the phone," he said. A story in a Philadelphia paper the next day reported: PHILLY PITCHER COLTON LOST A BATTLE TO PACIFIC BELL TELEPHONE.
Six weeks later—and five days before I was to receive a bonus of $6,500 for being in the big leagues for 90 days—Bob Skinner, who had replaced Mauch, called me into his office to inform me that I was being sent to the Phillies' farm in San Diego. "Get that shoulder into shape, and you'll be back up in no time," Skinner assured me.
I spent the next two seasons trying to make it back, but it never happened. After the first year, I was traded to the Cub organization as the player to be named later in the Johnny Callison for Dick Selma-Oscar Gamble deal. I won 27 games in those last two seasons, but it was clear that I had left my fastball high on a hill in San Francisco.
It's just as well, I guess, because now I will be able to tell my grandkids or anyone else who will listen, "Sure, I was a big league pitcher. I averaged a strikeout an inning, just like Sandy Koufax."