From Chapter 4:
1971-1976: The Altobelli Era
During the off-season, the IL, concerned about the decrease in playoff attendance (the drop due primarily to a season that didnt conclude until late September), made a number of scheduling changes. The league cut back the number of games from 144 to 140, ending its schedule on Labor Day. The two-division format was scrapped, and the Junior World Series revived with the American Association. However a return to the three-ump system, as well as the designated hitter, were voted down.
Baltimore had likewise been busy, pulling the trigger on a pair of multi-player deals. Among those leaving the organization were Rob Andrews, Enos Cabell and Bill Kirkpatrick. Nonetheless, the 1975 edition of the Red Wings was seen as a team that would easily make the playoffs, with realistic expectations for a trip to the Junior World Series. A mixture of highly-touted rookies and veterans from the pennant and Governors Cup winners made the Wings look potent, at least on paper.
The mix of old and new was seen in all areas. Bobby Bailor returned in the infield, installed at the shortstop position he had expected to hold the season before. Kiko Garcia, who played some shortstop in the playoffs, was shifted to second. Mike Fiore was penciled in at first base, probably to split time with Jim Fuller, back from the Orioles. Rich Dauer, Baltimores 1974 top draft pick, was slated to start at third, ahead of another rookie, converted shortstop Taylor Duncan. Duncan was feeling the pressure of coming to the Oriole organization in the oft-questioned 1972 trade with Atlanta for catcher Earl Williams (Duncan and Williams to Baltimore for pitchers Pat Dobson, Roric Harrison, catcher Johnny Oates and second baseman Davey Johnson). He was battling for the utility spot despite hitting .293 and .292 in his last two years at Asheville. Veteran Tom Matchick was in camp as a free agent after being released by Toledo. He was also hoping for a backup role.
The returning Royle Stillman and Mike Reinbach were joined in the outfield by rookies Larry Harlow and Alvin McGrew, with Fuller also expected to see time in the pasture. Tommy Shopay was also a possibility, if he again failed to stick with the Os. (Shopay was ultimately sent down, and named as player/coach).
Three of the pitching mainstays for the 1974 team returned, although the status of two was unsettled. Dyar Miller and Paul Mitchell were sent down despite strong performances in Baltimores training camp. Miller was potential trade bait, or could be moved to the bullpen in order to give one of the Wings youngsters a spot in the rotation. Mitchell was facing motivational problems, feeling that he had nothing further to prove at the Triple-A level. Mike Willis looked to carry over his strong half-season into his first full year at Rochester. The Orioles wanted right-hander Bob Galasso to take Millers place in the rotation. He was a highly-regarded power pitcher until a 8-13, 4.44 year for Asheville in 1974. Galasso was looking to regain his prospect status, while Mike Flanagan (16 wins in a year-and-a-half of pro ball) was looking to enhance his. Right-handed reliever Dave Johnson was a late demotion from Baltimore, while veterans bullpenners Bob Snyder (the lone left-handed reliever), Bob Sekel and Randy Stein added experience, although the latter trio each had histories of back problems. Handling the staff would be holdover catchers Jim Hutto and Don Hickey.
The Wings went 3-7 in their exhibition season, with the team in a collective batting slump. But optimistically, Altobelli saw second base and the bullpen as the only unsettled areas. The team opened in Tidewater, with Matchick and Shopay not part of the 23-man active roster. Willis was given the starting nod, mainly in tribute to his 1974 dominance of Tidewater (three shutouts in three starts). But the bullpen lived up to Altobellis doubts, as the Wings blew leads of 3-0 and 4-2 en route to a 5-4 loss. Six errors in three games led to three losses, matching the longest drought of the 1974 team.
There was cause for concern, at least for a team with such high expectations, although it was much too early to panic. It was pointed out that the quality of the league had improved. Altobelli was, however, anxious to add some veteran leadership to the mix, and wanted to get Matchick and Shopay onto the active list.
The Wings returned north for their April 17 home opener. Head groundskeeper Dick Sierens and his crew had a tough time getting Silver ready, as an early-April blizzard blanketed the field with snow, including 200 wheelbarrow-loads on the infield alone. Despite the struggle, Sierens, Silvers artisan since 1940, had the diamond ready. A crowd of 8,171 witnessed the 10-3 victory over Tidewater, with home runs by Duncan and McGrew powering the Wings. On the same day it was announced that Baltimore had traded disappointing catcher Earl Williams back to Atlanta, for pitcher Jimmy Freeman. The left-hander, an IL all-star with Richmond in 72 and 73, was promptly assigned to Rochester.
The Wings whipped off five in a row at Silver, which gave fans some free games, as a guaranteed-win promotion (free admission to the next game as long as the Wings won) was part of the opening homestand. The Wings followed with a win in Memphis for their first road triumph of the season. While in Tennessee they also managed to lose a wild one. After a rallying from a 7-1 deficit to lead 10-8 in the eighth, the Wings watched Memphis score four in the final frame to win 12-11. Starter Stein gave up seven runs in the first two innings, while reliever Sekel was once again bothered by back pain. Most painful, however, was the manner in which the winning run scored with the ball in Stillmans mitt as he waited to make sure of a call at first base.
The presence of Stillman at first base was Altobellis attempt to find a way to get the leftys potent bat in the lineup without his glove damaging the team on defense. Very slow afoot, Stillman was a mediocre outfielder at best. When teamed with Fuller in right field, not very fleet himself, the duo gave center fielders McGrew and Harlow responsibility for far too much real estate. Until the Memphis miscue, Stillman had played fairly well at first, but Altobelli was hesitant to label the change permanent, as it would put three newcomers together in his infield, two at positions new to them.
Despite a .500 start, the team at least looked to be more proficient than the 74 team in at least one category power. A solo round-tripper by Hutto provided the only run needed in a 1-0 win at home versus Richmond, the teams 16th home run in the first 14 games. Another reminder of the previous season the Wings strange connection with no-hit games was experienced on May 3. Stein didnt surrender a hit until one out in the ninth in a game against Pawtucket. He ultimately lost the shutout as well, but held on for a complete-game, 4-2 win which placed the Wings in second, a game back of Syracuse.
Placement of an ailing Sekel on the disabled list touched off a flurry of roster moves. Matchick was activated, creating a crowd in the infield. Dauer, struggling at the plate (.191), was demoted. Pitcher Gary Robson was recalled to take his roster spot, which made the moves basically a wash: a pitcher and infielder lost, a pitcher and infielder gained. However the infield seemed set for the time being with Stillman at first, Garcia at second, Bailor at shortstop and Matchick at third ahead of Duncan.
Matchick hit .412 in his first five starts and provided a steadying influence. With seven other position players hitting over .300 (the team at .275), a mid-May run of seven wins in a row and 12 of 14 put the team in first place. The Wings 20-9 mark included a 5-0 mark in extra-inning games.
The winning habit as well as Huttos 16-game hit streak came to a halt in a doubleheader loss in Toledo. The loss promptly sent Rochester in the opposite direction, and the Wings dropped eight in a row. The string included a bizarre loss at home against Syracuse on May 19. With the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the ninth, Reinbach hit a potential sacrifice fly to right field. McGrew tagged from third with the tying run; however Stillman wandered off second base and was tagged out when the Chiefs outfielder threw behind him to second. Stillman was registered as the third out, and as the tag was applied before McGrew, trotting home from third, could score, the run did not count and Syracuse had stolen a 7-6 win.
The losses included a number of one-run contests, as 21 of the Wings first 36 games were decided by a single tally. With that many close decisions (the team was 12-9 in those games), only a slight change in fortune was needed to send the Wings off in a losing skid. The last four losses of the streak were doubly painful. In each game the other team came from behind to win; in three, the opposition captured the game in the last inning.
The oft-ailing Bob Snyder was released near the end of the skid, and Stein placed on the disabled list. Familiar George Manz was picked up, two weeks after being released by the Chicago Cubs. The right-handed Manz had pitched for the Wings from 1971-73, notching a 22-14 record, with 11 saves.
All eight of the losses were on the road, highlighting the teams schizophrenic personality: 14-4 at Silver and 8-14 on the road. Orioles Director of Player Development Jack Pastore came to town to discuss some changes that could help to right the ship. The main problem was the bullpen, the same quandary plaguing Baltimore. The weak link forced Altobelli to use some of his starters as relievers between starts.
Along with the acquisition of Manz, Dave Johnson was returned by the Os. The moves, designed to strengthen the bullpen, instead made the Wings relief corps lopsided, as reliever/spot starter Freeman was the only available southpaw.
It was the first time in Altobellis five seasons that one of his teams had a slump of that magnitude. Yet when it ended, the Wings were only two games from the league lead. A subsequent 5-1 road trip, including a doubleheader sweep at Richmond, returned Rochester to first. More pitching moves came at the end of the month, when Baltimore traded Bob Reynolds to Detroit for right-handed reliever Fred Holdsworth. Holdsworth was assigned to the Wings and Dyar Miller (5-0, seven saves, 23-11 in three years with Wings) called up to Baltimore.
The Wings finished the 16-game road trip with seven wins, more than respectable considering the string of eight defeats. They returned home for a series with Tidewater, with whom they were tied for first. With 19 home games scheduled for June, Altobelli was confident the Wings could put some distance between themselves and their competitors.
The Wings took two of three from Tidewater, including a doubleheader sweep which featured complete-game shutouts by Flanagan and Mitchell. The teams home success was perplexing, as its lack of left-handed power was embarrassingly evident. Reinbach was the only lefty with two home runs at Silver; behind him were pitchers Flanagan and Galasso with one each. With Reinbach struggling, and Fiore either on the disabled list or sitting behind Stillman at first base, the Wings 18-7 record at Silver was pleasantly puzzling. The franchise lead the league in attendance, but its numbers were behind the teams pace of 1974.
The strong play at Silver continued with the team taking two of three from Charleston. A brief hot flash on the road pushed the teams record away from home to .500 and their overall record to .600 (36-24) until a disastrous trip to Charleston (lost four of five) dropped the Wings to second.
The streaky squad once more made a drastic turnaround, capturing four in a row to retake the top spot. Stillman had game-winning hits in the first three victories, including an 11th inning leadoff home run in the third game, before which he learned of his recall to Baltimore. Mitchell (8-1) won his sixth straight start during the mini-streak.
The Wings and Orioles continued to tinker with the roster. Robson was loaned to Sacramento and outfielder McGrew to Toledo, with Matchick and Stein taking their places upon returning from the disabled list. Catcher Dave Skaggs was called up from Asheville to back up Hickey, the latter a starter because of Huttos shift to first base. Skaggs labeled as good field, no hit would subsequently see playing time behind the plate when Altobelli began to use Hickey in the outfield.
The largest crowd of the season was present on June 28, when 14,081 appeared for the Commissioners Classic promotion. (On the same evening 14,562 showed at Holleder Stadium for a game matching the Rochester Lancers professional soccer team vs. Pele and the New York Cosmos.) It was the largest crowd at Silver in nine years and featured Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, American League President Lee MacPhail, National Association President Hank Peters, along with General Managers Frank Cashen (Baltimore), Paul Owens (Philadelphia) and Bing Devine (St. Louis). The dignitaries were all present for the presentation of the Presidents Trophy and Rochester Area Chamber of Commerces Commissioners Community Cup for service to the community. A pre-game home run hitting featured 1963 teammates Altobelli, Steve Bilko, Luke Easter, and present Wing slugger Fuller. Surprisingly, none could connect off Rochesterian and former big-league pitcher Johnny Antonelli.
The inability of Fuller to go out of the yard even during a home run hitting contest focused attention on his rapidly-deteriorating power numbers. He had no extra base hits in a recent 24-game stretch, with his only RBI coming on a bases-loaded walk. He had cut down on his strikeouts, but at the apparent cost of his power (.227, 15, 39).
Cashen left town after the Classic with Mitchell in tow. The right-hander had a 10-1 record, and over the last two seasons, wins in 15 of his last 16 regular season starts. His stretch of good luck served as a contrast to Holdsworth. The recent acquisition lost a no-hitter in the eighth inning against Toledo and subsequently the game, 2-1, dropping his record to 1-3, but with a 1.93 ERA.
A 21-4 streak by Syracuse put the Chiefs in first place, and despite winning three of five in a home-and-home series against their Thruway rivals, the Wings could gain little ground. Tidewater remained just behind Rochester in third, and Charleston began to fade, making the pennant race look to be more a three-team contest.
Stillman returned after a short stint with Baltimore, but his reappearance was balanced by the loss of Bailor to an bad leg, infected after a severe bruise. Garcia was shaky at shortstop in his place, but a series of rainouts for the Wings, wins for the Tides, and losses for the Chiefs found the three teams tied for first place on the morning of July 19.
The Wings closed out the season series with Tidewater by taking three of four at Silver. The series was highlighted by a one-hit, 3-2 win by Holdsworth. Despite the win, Holdworths hard luck up; he lost the no-hitter on a fly ball misplayed by right fielder Reinbach and the shutout on two unearned runs. After the game, Fuller was placed on the disabled list due to a strained back, and Alvin McGrew returned from Toledo.
Willis duplicated Holdworths effort a day later, allowing only one hit in a doubleheader split against Memphis. Stillman went on a tear, going 4-for-5 with two homers, four RBI and a game-winning ninth-inning hit against the Blues. Two days later he smashed a grand slam in the ninth for the winning margin against Charleston. The teams play at Silver also helped to boost attendance, as at the end of July the mark was up over the 200,000 mark, 7,000 ahead of 1974.
Lost in the constant roster shuffling, platooning, and Stillman heroics were the steady seasons being had by Harlow, Reinbach, Bailor and Duncan. Harlow was the teams every-day center fielder and leadoff hitter, third on the team in hitting and playing strong defense while flanked by a revolving set of less-than-mobile outfielders. Reinbach had finally settled in as a respected Triple-A player, and, after two sub-par years with the Wings, had his average up in the .290s. Bailor was the glue in the infield, and leading the team in hits from the number two spot in the order. Duncan finally won the third base job and led the team in hitting for much of the first half before tailing off into the .280s.
The starting rotation of Galasso, Freeman, Flanagan, Willis and Holdworth had also performed admirably, with all but one having an ERA under three. Only the shaky bullpen kept the team from shaking the stubborn Syracuse and Tidewater teams.
Another set of player moves surrounded the July 31 exhibition game against the Orioles. Reliever Johnson was placed on the disabled list with Fuller ready to return, but the Wings were down to eight pitchers. Hickey looked to be the odd man out he had caught only one game since Skaggs came up and had not pinch hit since McGrews return. Hickeys frustration showed when he got into a shouting match with Altobelli over his lack of playing time. He was subsequently placed on the disabled list, and left-hander Myrl Smith added to the pitching staff from Asheville.
The Os exhibition game (won by the parent club 3-0 before 8,866) found the Wings in second place. The news of the day, however, came from Birds manager Earl Weaver, when he stated to the local press that he would not consider Altobelli for a spot on his coaching staff when one of his assistants retired after the season. Altobelli, who had previously stated that he wouldnt return to the Wings in 1976, replied that he didnt know of any bad blood between he and the feisty Weaver.
A number of early August rainouts piled up doubleheaders, wearing down the already suspect bullpen. Dave Johnson (strained nerve in pitching arm) was finally pronounced finished for the season, and a mini-controversy erupted when Sekel, one of the teams more effective relievers (2.19, four saves) was demoted to Asheville. Sekel refused to report and had a number of Red Wing fans on his side. A subsequent four-game losing streak dropped Rochester an equal number of games behind surprising Tidewater. The only satisfying news during the first half of the month was the selection of Bailor, Stillman, Duncan and Flanagan to the IL all-star team. Duncan was added to the team by Altobelli, who would manage the squad, but the other three were voted in the players and coaches.
Prior to the break Stillman returned to first base (with Hutto moving back behind the plate) and resumed his hot hitting, boosting his average up to .303, along with 12 home runs and 60 RBI. The Wings won nine of 10, with McGrew getting game-winning hits in two consecutive days, to close within one game of Tidewater, who lost three players to the parent New York Mets. The streak included seven complete games by six different Rochester pitchers and despite the one-game deficit, the Wings were the odds-on favorites to capture their second consecutive pennant.
Crowds continued to build at Silver as the race intensified. The team had two consecutive nights of 9,000+ crowds in mid-month, and an Aug. 19 appearance of Ernie Banks and Bob Feller drew 10,220, the second-largest crowd of the season. Three days later Joe Garagiola was in town to film a piece on Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball. Garagiolas appearance was dictated by schedule, and by the lights at Silver, considered the best... of any other minor league park.
The Wings moved back into first (by percentage points) on Aug. 23 with a 6-4 at home versus Toledo. The victory also pushed the Wings over the .600 mark at 79-52. The next night, a 14-4 trouncing of the Mud Hens, saw Fuller hit his first home run in 64 games, the occasion marked by a standing ovation from the Silver Stadium crowd. The streak ended at eight consecutive wins, closing out a string of 17 wins in 20 games, including 12 in a row at home. The torrid spell gave the Red Wings a 1 1/2-game lead with five games remaining.
The streak included some late-inning dramatics as the Wings had to come from behind to win the last seven games of the homestand. In an 8-6 win against Pawtucket, Stillman hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth, his 10th game-winning hit of the season. Reinbach hit .412 during an 18-game surge, while pitcher Freeman won five straight to push his record to 7-6. Manz notched four of his eight saves during the streak.
It was pretty much thought to be over after all Tidewater had been tabbed for seventh place at the beginning of the year, and were three players under the roster limit after losing their best hitter. But the lead evaporated with shocking speed. A 9-2 Rochester loss at Toledo combined with a Tides doubleheader sweep to give both teams identical marks with four games remaining. Pitcher Stein left the game after only three innings with a stiff back, and with reliever Smith still bothered with tendinitis, right-handers Dennis Martinez and Mike Parrott were called up from Asheville.
The Wings retook the lead the next night, with an 8-6 win at Toledo, helped by a 10th-inning, two-run shot by Reinbach. Tidewater climbed even the next night, winning as the Wings dropped a 5-3 decision against Syracuse at Silver. The Chiefs snapped a 3-3 tie in the eighth; in the bottom of the ninth, down by two with a pair of runners on base, Matchick hit a potential game-winning home run to right that curled foul at the last minute.
The Wings made a successful comeback on Augusts last day, scoring six in the top of the eighth to erase a 7-2 Syracuse lead. Tidewater also won, and the two teams went into the last day of the season tied for the International Leagues top spot.
Neither game provided much drama. Tidewater dropped Richmond 5-1, while Flanagan notched his 13th win, 11th complete game and fourth shutout in a 6-0 win over the Chiefs. It was the teams 20th win in its last 25 games. Flanagan was immediately recalled to Baltimore, while Bailor and Stillman were told to report after the one-game playoff against Tidewater.
The Wings boarded a plane for Norfolk, as the Tides had won the right to host the game in a coin flip a week earlier. After the drama of the regular season, the game itself was anti-climactic. The Tides scored four runs off starter Holdsworth in the first frame and cruised to an 8-0 victory. Rochesters Channel 13 made a last minute decision to televise the game, and the Red Wing faithful could only watch in anguish as the team managed just four hits against Tide pitchers. The team closed with an 85-55 regular-season mark.
The Wings opened the Governors Cup playoffs in Syracuse, choosing to take the final three games at home, if needed. Through seven innings Rochester was unable to push anybody across home plate, lengthening its consecutive scoreless inning streak to 17. But Garcia went 4-for-4 in Bailors place, and Willis silenced the Chiefs bats until his teammates notched three in the eighth and two in the ninth for the 5-0 win. In uniform during the game was minor league pitching instructor Ray Miller, activated for the post-season in place of Myrl Smith.
Rochesters starting pitching, so strong during the season, fell apart the next two games, an 11-1 loss at Syracuse and a 7-0 defeat at Silver. The latter was particularly ugly; starter Freeman lasted only 1 1/3 innings, while the Wings made four errors in the field. It could have been worse the Chiefs left 17 men on base but Ray Miller pitched the final two innings, allowing no runs. Fiore had to play with a pulled muscle in his thigh, with the Wings down to only two extra position players.
Five days after playing for the pennant, the Wings faced permanent elimination. Down 3-0 after four, Altobelli had to send Willis, who he had optimistically tabbed as his Game Five starter, to the mound. Fiore reinjured his leg during the game and when Reinbach was ejected arguing a third strike call in the eighth inning, hurler Freeman was inserted in left field. Pitcher Galasso, who had three home runs during the year, had to be used as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the ninth. The Wings could not overcome all of the adversity, and dropped a 5-3 decision which ended their season.
Needless to say, the unexpected elimination left a bitter taste. The ending to the season overshadowed the positives: the August run for the pennant that gave the Wings 85 wins, but left them one short of a 16th pennant; the heroics of Royle Stillman (.313, 14, 75), the steadiness of Bobby Bailor (.297), the steady seasons of Mike Reinbach (.287, 11, 62) and Jim Hutto (12 home runs), and the solid play of rookies Taylor Duncan (.281), Kiko Garcia and Larry Harlow. Mike Willis and Mike Flanagan anchored the pitching staff after the recalls of Mitchell (10-1) and Dyar Miller. Willis (14-8, 2.58) tied for the league lead in wins, while Flanagan (13-4, 2.49) had the circuits top winning percentage. Freeman and Galasso had respectable years and recorded winning records and ERAs under three. Manager Altobelli handled his team skillfully, as the teams .603 winning percentage came in a season in which 92 of his teams games were decided by one or two runs. In December, Stillman, Bailor and Flanagan were all named IL all-stars, with Duncan, Mitchell and Reinbach also receiving consideration.
The major disappointment was Jim Fuller, who hit just .167 in the last half of the season and .071 for the playoffs. He ended the year at .215, while leading the team with 17 home runs, but was treated roughly by the demanding Silver Stadium patrons.
The seasons conclusion was also saddened by the Aug. 25 death of superfan Victor Red Smith, the teams unofficial lead booster since 1928. The 90-year-old Smith, known as The Old Cheerleader, was a former fight announcer known for his booming voice and his cheers of Ya! Ya! which reverberated through Red Wing and later Silver Stadium. Manager Altobelli, GM Barnowski and players Hutto, Johnson, Galasso and Manz all served as pall-bearers at the funeral.
The front office was no longer seen as a trouble spot, except for an incident in July, when two part-time employees resigned in protest when raises promised them failed to materialize. Attendance finished at 280,852, an increase over 1974, yet the announced profit was down about $7,000 to $53,606. Because of the drop, the Wings announced their first season ticket campaign in 20 years, hoping to raise the number of annual pass holders from 956 to about 1,400.
Barnowskis growing comfort in the general managers job was evidenced at the league meetings in December, where he was the front man for the Wings proposal to re-design the Governors Cup playoff system, which, in the words of the Rochester GM, had become practically useless. The post-season series had originally been implemented as a way to increase attendance. Yet the extension of the season into September and the start of school had, along with recalls by parent clubs, actually caused an attendance drop from regular to post-season. Barnowski proposed a split season, with the winners (or, if a team won both halves, the team with the overall second best record) meeting in a best-of-seven playoff for the league championship.
The Wings were also asking for a change in the formula for the distribution of playoff gate receipts, since, as the leagues best home draw, the Wings were habitually short-changed. (None of the proposals would be adopted, although it was apparent that at some point changes would be made. At the same meeting, former Rochester and current Charleston Charlies general manager Carl Steinfeldt proposed a 126-game schedule that would end in August, with the playoffs done before Labor Day. This was also turned down.)
The largest issue of post-season debate was the future of Joe Altobelli. Earl Weavers mid-season statement that Alto would not get the next opening on his staff left the Rochester manager convinced that his major league future would lie outside the Baltimore organization. His five-year reign was unique in a time when managers and players came and went through baseballs minor league towns. He had originally planned on three years as the Red Wing manager, but his standing as a hometown (since 1963) boy and the quality of the city and franchise had convinced him to stay longer.
Despite his in-season insistence that he would not return in 1976, Altobelli did not feel the door completely closed on his return, nor did Orioles General Manager Cashen feel that his future was non-existent in Baltimore. Many in the organization felt Weaver out of line in his insecurity about Altobelli.
Altobelli was, as promised, not given the spot on the Os coaching staff over the off-season. He was considered for the top spot with the Milwaukee Brewers, but as the 1976 season drew near, with no major-league offers, he returned, albeit reluctantly, as skipper of the Red Wings.
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