In the ninth inning of a game at Yankee Stadium last Friday night, with two outs and two strikes on large Lamar Johnson, Dave LaRoche unloosed his patented LaLob. The Texas pinch hitter took a mighty cut, whiffed and screwed himself into a heap on the ground. As Johnson lay there giggling, Umpire Ken Kaiser counted him out as he would a boxer, then helped him up, and the Yankee and Ranger benches erupted into scenes of great hilarity.
In a season that would have driven most reasonable men raving mad, LaRoche may yet get the last LaLaugh. Just that day he was called up from the Columbus Clippers for the fourth time this season. It would be one thing if LaRoche had been demoted for ineffectiveness, but his ERA as a Yankee is 1.03, and the 2‚Öî perfect innings he pitched in the 6-0 victory Friday extended his major league scoreless streak to 24‚Öì innings. On Sunday he retired three more batters before the Rangers ended his streak. And LaRoche is hardly a kid in need of seasoning; he is the same age as his uniform number, 34, and a two-time All-Star who is ninth on the alltime list in saves.
So why has he been getting what some people might call LaShaft? LaRoche has been an innocent victim of the general lunacy surrounding the Yankees this year. He has been recalled four times and, including spring training, has played for three different managers, Bob Lemon, Gene Michael and Clyde King. He's worked with five different Yankee pitching coaches, Jerry Walker, Jeff Torborg, Stan Williams, King and Sammy Ellis. He's one of 12 players who have performed for both New York and Columbus this year. Does he mind being the Yankee/Clipper? Well, a little. "But actually, they've treated me fairly well," he says. "And besides, I have this." He points to his 1981 American League championship ring.
Sometimes LaRoche drives between New York and Columbus, and sometimes he flies. He knows Interstate 80 intimately—Hope is halfway between the New Jersey border and Allamuchy—and he has Hank Williams and Willie Nelson on his tape deck to keep him company. "I'm singing On the Road Again to myself a lot these days," he says. He has more than a nodding acquaintance with the skycaps at the Port Columbus International Airport. "Whenever I arrive, one of them will say, 'Will you be staying with us long, Mr. LaRoche?' "
The shuffling began the weekend before the season opened. LaRoche went with the Yankees to New Orleans for two exhibition games, and from there he was asked to go to Columbus. First he went home to Fort Scott, Kans., then he reported to the Clippers. On April 26 the Yankees purchased him from Columbus to fill the roster vacancy left by Graig Nettles, who had a thumb injury. LaRoche drove the 10 hours to New York. He pitched only once, giving up two runs on May 4 against Oakland—he hadn't given up any more while pitching for the Yanks this year until Sunday—before he was sent down on May 5 to make room for First Baseman Steve Balboni. He drove back to Columbus and was all set to fly to Tidewater to join the Clippers.
He never had to report because on May 10 he was re-recalled to replace Doyle Alexander, who had punched out a dugout wall, incurring a broken finger on his pitching hand. More about this trip later. Three days afterward LaRoche was optioned to Columbus so that Infielder Andre Robertson could be called up. On May 27 he flew from Rochester to New York just for the Mayor's Trophy Game against the Mets. He wasn't used, and the next day he flew to Syracuse to rejoin the Clippers.
On June 3 he was re-re-recalled when Balboni was sent down, and joined the Yankees in Toronto. On July 18, with 21‚Öî scoreless innings behind him, he was optioned so that Dave Righetti could be reactivated. "LaRoche handled that so well," says Torborg, the Yankees' bullpen coach and LaRoche's close friend. "I knew the story, but I was still upset and disturbed." Though LaRoche wasn't all that happy about going down, he didn't complain. George Steinbrenner was so touched that he let it be known that he might offer LaRoche a job in the organization after his playing career ended. "I did ask that they pay me my major league salary while I was in Columbus," says LaRoche, "and Bill Bergesch [one of the Yankees' five vice-presidents] said, 'You beat us to the punch. We were going to offer it to you anyway.' "
Last Friday LaRoche was re-re-re-recalled when Starter Roger Erickson was placed on the disabled list, and he'll probably stay with the Yankees the rest of the year, although nothing's a lock on that team. LaRoche flew in from Rochester to New York while his wife, Patty, flew from Columbus with their two children, Jeff, 4, and Adam, 2. "If we drive," says Patty, "the 10-hour trip takes 15 hours. The kids want to stop at every rest area to play ball."
"The only thing I've really lost this season is sleep," says LaRoche. "I think I've really benefited as a pitcher and as a person. I remember the morning after the second time I was sent down. I picked up the newspaper and on the front page there were wars and scandals. In the sports section, where it's supposed to be fun, there were strikes, drugs and renegotiations. Why should I add to that negative stuff by complaining?"
Pitchers are often said to run out of gas, which brings us back to the story of LaRoche's second trip to New York this season. He drove east all night in his Mercedes (not exactly a bullpen cart) but couldn't find an open gas station that pumped diesel. He made it to within a mile of the Hudson River but finally ran dry in Nyack, N.Y. at 5 a.m., five miles short of his destination, North Tarry-town, where he was to stay with a friend. LaRoche walked for a while and noticed a gas pump beside someone's garage. He knocked on the door of the adjoining house, then pounded on the door, then gave up and went to a pay phone across the street to call his friend. Before he finished the phone conversation four police cars drove up in response to a call from the frightened people in the house. LaRoche hung up, ran across the street and told the skeptical policemen his tale of woe. Convinced, they drove LaRoche back to his car, where he waited for his friend to pick him up. Although he had told his friend where he was, there had been some confusion, and LaRoche waited and waited. "There it was, seven in the morning, I'm out of gas, I have to catch an 11 o'clock flight to Anaheim, and I'm willing to trade the rest of my career for a bed," says LaRoche. "I'm thinking of calling Mr. Bergesch to tell him I'm through." Finally, at 8:30, the friend arrived, and LaRoche barely caught his flight to the Coast.
Three days later, after making the trip with the Yankees to Oakland, he was sent back to Columbus.
The Rangers' Doc Medich, who's been pitching against LaRoche for eight years, says, "Some company that makes yo-yos would be smart to get Rochie to do an endorsement." Signed as an outfielder by the Angels in 1967, LaRoche became a pitcher by accident when his minor league team, the Quad Cities Angels, ran out of arms. In 1971 he met Torborg, then an Angel catcher, and had his first outstanding year. "He did some legendary things," says Torborg. "Once he threw the ball at the scoreboard in Anaheim—which was some throw—because he wanted to show the bullpen coach he was loose. Right after he hit it, the scoreboard started printing hieroglyphics. Then there was the time they called for Rudy May instead of him, and Dave decided to go anyway. We had two pitchers standing on the mound."
After the '71 season, LaRoche was traded to Minnesota, and after '72 to the Chicago Cubs. A disappointment in Chicago, he was dealt to Cleveland before the '75 season and reunited with Torborg, then the Indians' bullpen coach. In two years there he had 38 saves, a 2.22 ERA and an amazing 198 strikeouts in 178 innings. "Once he didn't show up for a workout," says Torborg. "We were worried about him until we saw him, in uniform, waving to us from the top of the scoreboard."
"It was a clear day and I just wanted to see the Cleveland skyline," says LaRoche. Cleveland traded him back to California in the middle of the '77 season, and he continued to pitch effectively until '79; at about the time he found Christianity, he temporarily lost his fastball. He struggled through the next two seasons. In his last appearance of the '80 season, though, at the behest of fellow relievers Mark Clear and Don Aase, he introduced the lob pitch he'd been working on in the bullpen. He retired the last 20 Brewers in a row—four or five of them on lobs. The Angels, however, released him in spring training of '81.
By this time, Torborg, after whom LaRoche named his older son, had gone to the Yankees, and he suggested that they sign LaRoche. The Yankees made a better offer than the Pirates and, reunited with Torborg, LaRoche had a 4-1 record, a 2.49 ERA and pitched a perfect inning in the World Series. LaLob, so named by a New York writer, attained full glory on Sept. 9 when Gorman Thomas of the Brewers struck out on it and then smashed his batting helmet.
When they met again on June 30 of this year, LaRoche fed Thomas seven straight LaLobs before Thomas finally singled. "I asked Dave why he did that," says Torborg, "and he said he thought it was only fair to give Thomas a chance to get back for last year. Then I screamed, 'Fair to him? Was he in the car with you when you were driving all night from Columbus and ran out of gas?' "
Last Saturday the Yankees held their 36th annual Old Timers' Day, and by a pleasant coincidence LaRoche dressed next to Steve Hamilton, a former Yankee lefthanded reliever who threw his own blooper pitch, the Folly Floater. The two compared notes, and Hamilton complimented LaRoche on his performance the night before. "Yours is much more of a weapon than mine was," said Hamilton. "I just lobbed it up there, you throw yours with top spin. But you really had the fans going last night."
"What can I do?" said LaRoche. "The fans love it. I even had it timed at Columbus—28 miles per hour. George may not like it, managers may not like it, but people boo me when I don't throw it."
"Ordinarily, I'm not too fond of LaLob," said King on Saturday, "but last night I couldn't help but break up when Johnson was lying on the plate." The funny thing was that the final LaLob seemed to lift much of the tension the Yankees had been playing under all season. If they do climb back into the pennant race—they ended up taking three of five from Texas and were 8½ games out of first after the weekend—LaRoche might have sounded their clarion call.
Clarion is located just off I-80 in Pennsylvania, between Leeper and Sligo.