From Chapter 4:

1971-1976: The Altobelli Era


Altobelli’s was not the only identifiable face returning, as 17 of the 21 players from the 1975 squad would wear the red and navy in 1976. Royle Stillman, Bobby Bailor and Mike Flanagan stuck with the Orioles, while the new faces on the Red Wings included pitcher Bill Van Bommel (acquired in the block-buster trade which sent Reggie Jackson, Ken Holtzman and Van Bommel from the Oakland A’s to Baltimore for Don Baylor, Mike Torrez and Paul Mitchell), 1B/OF Tom Kelly, on loan from the Minnesota Twins organization, and two outfielders up from Double-A, switch-hitter Chuck Heil (Southern League batting champ at .322) and Creighton Tevlin.

Perceived team strengths included left-handed hitting, with the likes of Mike Fiore, Larry Harlow, Tevlin and Heil. Harlow, Tevlin and Heil were joined in a “capable” outfield by Alvin McGrew. The infield was anchored by Kiko Garcia, who returned to his natural shortstop position. Tom Matchick was set at third; Taylor Duncan was available there as well and would see a lot of time at designated hitter, which returned to the league after a two-year absence. Rich Dauer was installed at second. Fiore and Kelly were expected to platoon at first. Jim Hutto and Dave Skaggs would initially share duties as well, behind the plate.

Weaknesses included little team speed, and the lack of a right-hand reliever, despite the fact that seven of the nine hurlers threw from the right side. Mike Willis and Jimmy Freeman were the sole lefties and Willis had been moved to the bullpen by request of Baltimore. Freeman was joined the rotation by Randy Stein, Dennis Martinez and Bob Galasso. Martinez, 20, was a highly-touted prospect — in ’74 he was 15-6, 2.06 with Class-A Miami. The year after, he started with Miami, went 13-3, and was called up to Asheville where he had a 4-1 mark. Willis would share the bullpen with Van Bommel, Bob Babcock, and Gary Robson.

The roster was not entirely set, however. It did not include the absent Bob Sekel, the only unsigned player in the Baltimore organization. Tom Shopay, who had learned the catcher’s position in an attempt to stick with the parent club as the third receiver, was left unprotected and not drafted by any other organization. He was rumored to be coming down to Rochester. Pitcher Dave Johnson, who broke his wrist in a January motorcycle accident, retired after being assigned to the Wings, reconsidered after a couple days, and was placed on the disabled list. Jim Fuller also refused to report after being cut by the O’s and clearing waivers, hoping to be traded or released so he could get a fresh start in another organization. The Rochester front office was attempting to purchase the slugger’s contract from the Orioles, hoping to split the costs with Baltimore. The final roster situation of both Rochester and Baltimore was further clouded when Reggie Jackson failed to show. Andres Mora, Shopay, Stillman or Flanagan were all floated as possible final cuts once Jackson appeared.

Perhaps the most interesting scuttlebutt of spring training involved the rumor that the Red Wings would buy the financially-troubled and owner-unstable Rochester Americans hockey club. In a story that was basically generated by the print media, Amerks’ brass admitted they would be willing to talk, but RCB president Vince Stanley unequivocally stated that the Wings were not interested. (In mid-June the board of directors voted down a proposal to financially assist the struggling Amerks, who needed $100,000 by August to be able to open the season.) Also in March the Wings announced, on the suggestion of County Manager Lou Morin, that field dimensions would also be expressed in meters on Silver Stadium’s outfield fences.

The Red Wings closed out the season with an unusual pair of exhibition games in Baltimore against the Orioles, who were already five games into the season. The squad opened in Charleston, sporting a new set of uniforms — red road jerseys, with white sleeves and “Red Wings” in script. The team also had a set of white jerseys, and could don red pants to create an all-red outfit (one player, after viewing that combination, stated it made the players look like “giant blood clots”). The hat was changed to a navy body with a white front panel and red brim.

Behind the torrid start of Duncan (11 hits, seven RBI) and Dauer (hits in all six games) the Red Wings opened with a three-game sweep of the Charlies and returned to Rochester for their home opener at 4-2. It was the first Saturday opener in 13 years, and with advance sales of 6,000 (including a record number of season-ticket holders — 1,152) the Wings expected a crowd in the neighborhood of 10-12,000. Motorcycle daredevil Rex Blackwell was also scheduled to attempt to jump 15 cars on his motorcycle after the game, but rain canceled the opener, and also the next two games.

In what was labeled an “unprecedented move,” Rochester management postponed the remaining three games of the homestand due to the weather and condition of the field. Instead the team would travel to Tidewater to play three exhibition games against the Tides, then continue to Richmond for a regular three-game set. The rescheduled Silver opener was set for May 8. Other news that day included the announcement that Fuller had signed a contract and would join the Wings, causing a demotion for a “shocked and disappointed” Tevlin.

Fuller looked to be the slugger of old, as he hit two home runs in a 16-10 exhibition win against the Tides. After two more practice games in Norfolk, the Wings journeyed to Richmond, where they were once again rained out. A doubleheader sweep the next day, the Red Wings’ first official games in 11 days, put the team in first place with a 6-2 mark.

Opening Day II came on May 8. A crowd of 6,949 watched the Wings fall behind early 9-2, before dropping a 10-7 decision to Memphis. A post-game closed-door meeting by Altobelli had little immediate impact, as a shutout loss the next day (the fourth in a row) dropped the Wings to 7-7.

Reggie Jackson had finally agreed on a contract with the Orioles and ended his four-week holdout at the beginning of May. His addition led to the demotion of Tom Shopay. Shopay, 58 days short of qualifying for a major league pension, did not immediately report to Rochester, instead mulling over retirement. He finally reconsidered, but would not rejoin the team until a road trip to Rhode Island (the Red Sox were still in Pawtucket, but had renamed the team Rhode Island).

Nine of the Wings first 13 home dates were rained out, but at least the team got in the May 12 game, in which tightrope walker Karl Wallenda walked 500 feet, 60 feet above ground, from the centerfield fence to the grandstand roof.

The team was consistent in its inconsistency. A four-game losing streak preceded a three-game win streak, which was then followed by six straight defeats. Unfortunately it got worse, and the losses got uglier. Slow-footed veterans Matchick, Hutto and Fuller were all hitting well below .200, and it was beginning to look like the end of the line for the 25-year-old Fuller. Except for Dauer, who hit in 17 of the first 21 games and was leading the team in hitting, none of the speedier rookies (Garcia, Harlow) were producing. The lack of a left-handed reliever was costing games, and when the defense went through a streak in which it committed 14 errors in five games, Altobelli was furious.

Pitcher Bill Kirkpatrick was picked up after his release from the Expos’ Triple-A Denver franchise. The 29-year-old veteran, who had 46 wins in five previous seasons with the Wings, hoped to help the struggling bullpen corps, which had a 5.64 ERA. Heil, McGrew and Gary Robson were all dropped in order to make room for Shopay, Kirkpatrick and Randy Stein, the latter coming off a short stint on the disabled list.

On May 25 the Wings announced the acquisition of outfielder/first baseman Terry Crowley, who last played with the team in 1971. The Cincinnati Reds’ top pinch hitter for the last two seasons, Crowley had been traded to Atlanta two days before the end of spring training. The Braves subsequently released him a month later. Unlike his previous demotions to the Wings, Crowley was not overly bothered by coming to Rochester, stating, “I wouldn’t play in the minors for Cincinnati or Atlanta or anyone else. But I would in Rochester.” A roster spot unfortunately opened up when catcher Skaggs fractured his right thumb. His injury put the Red Wings in a difficult situation, as it left them with only Hutto as a catcher. (Shopay was counted on for some catching, but leg problems had limited him to duty in the field or as designated hitter.) The team also picked up 28-year-old left-handed reliever Earl Stephenson from the Braves’ organization, and demoted Van Bommel.

In terms of record, the Wings bottomed out at 12-18; in the standings the end of May found the Wings in seventh place, already 8 1/2 games behind the streaking Rhode Island Red Sox. But there were growing signs of a reversal. Shopay had an amazing 20 hits in his first 40 at-bats, and Fuller had a nine-game stretch in which he hit .353, with seven round-trippers and 18 runs batted in. He capped the streak with three home runs in a May 7, 14-6 home win against Charleston, becoming the third Red Wing ever to hit three home runs in a game. Two of Fuller’s blasts were estimated at over 400 feet, while the third, an eighth-inning shot, was estimated at over 500 feet, exiting the park at the 415 mark in dead center. The 45-foot scoreboard, topped by a replica of the Clock of Nations in Rochester’s Midtown Mall, had last been cleared in 1963.

The Wings also added shortstop Bobby Bailor from the Orioles, unable to play the field due to a mysterious shoulder ailment. Frustrated by doctors’ inability to fix his throwing arm, Bailor requested to come down to Rochester, where he could at least DH. He joined the club in early June, but had to wait for a roster spot to open.

A seven-game win streak in early June finally pushed Altobelli’s squad over the .500 mark. Due to the numerous rainouts, 30 of the first 42 games had been played on the road, and the large number of games remaining at Silver was a cause for optimism. Another positive was the continued development of the pitching staff. Willis resturned to the rotation to notch four straight wins (the shift to the bullpen was the Orioles’ idea and Altobelli had looked for any excuse to put him back in the rotation). Veteran Johnson and rookie Martinez were both pitching well. Galasso was perhaps the biggest surprise, carrying a 6-2 mark into the middle of June.

The one negative on the pitching front was the inability of Kirkpatrick to combat the chronic bursitis which plagued his pitching shoulder. After discussing his status with Altobelli, Kirkpatrick decided to go on the 10-day disabled list, which made room for Bailor.

Another spot opened up when Baltimore swung a 10-player deal with the New York Yankees. For the Red Wings, the trade was essentially Jimmy Freeman for Scott McGregor, as the 22-year-old McGregor (4-5, 3.84 in 10 starts with the Syracuse Chiefs), was assigned to Rochester. The trade unbalanced the Wings’ pitching staff, however, as the loss of Freeman left the Wings with one lefty reliever, and six starters.

While Shopay (who didn’t strike out until his 85th at-bat of season) and Dauer (who hit safely in 41 of first 57 games) were consistently fueling the offense, Fiore and the resurgent Fuller were also contributing. Fiore — “Mugs” to his teammates — was quietly leading the team in RBI. Even the losses of Matchick (released when Skaggs came off the DL) and Crowley (recalled, Stillman sent down in his place) failed to slow the offense. When Duncan, hitting a disappointing .245, regained his batting eye (four game-winning hits in a nine-game string), the Wings began a steady ascent up the International League standings.

At one point mired in seventh place, a streak of 27 wins in 37 games pushed Rochester to within a half-game of first place Syracuse, with eight games against the Chiefs in early July. Fuller’s 16th home run of the season, a 450-ft. shot off his 48-oz. bat, capped a four-RBI night in the 6-1 win at Syracuse that pushed the Wings into first place. It was Rochester’s tenth straight victory, and the streak would threaten the team record 19-game win streak notched in 1953 before ending at 16 games. When it concluded (during which the team hit .277, had a 1.65 ERA, outscored opponents 75-33 and beat every team in the league except for Charleston) the Wings had gone from fourth place, four games back, to first place and a 5 1/2-game cushion.

The charge included a 5-0 win against Syracuse on July 3 that attracted a crowd of 15,515, some 1,300 over Silver’s official seating capacity of 14,745. It was the largest crowd since 16,089 came out to see the Wings-Orioles exhibition in 1966. However the crowd and the torrid play on the field could not mask the problems facing the Red Wings’ front office.

Attendance was well down. The cancellation of Opening Day and a small crowd for Commissioner’s Classic Night were the largest factors. The latter, held in late June, was the biggest disappointment. Despite the presence of Bowie Kuhn, National Association President Bobby Bragan, and former Red Wings Specs Toporcer, Luke Easter, Russ Derry, Steve Bilko and Steve Demeter, the promotion, which had drawn more than 14,000 in ’75, brought only 3,573 through Silver’s turnstiles. Average attendance was below 3,000, which, if projected over the entire season, would be under 180,000. Fearing the first operating deficit in 11 years, President Stanley ordered austerity moves.

The 59-year-old Stanley himself faced a good deal of the blame, since it was his decision (deemed “ill-conceived” with the advantage of hindsight) to cancel the opening homestand. RCB’s president was also under fire for the friction between he and Barnowski. Accused by his detractors of being on an ego trip — it was said he hoped to leave with a legacy of being the greatest money maker in RCB history — Stanley insisted on having a hand in everything. An interview with the RCB president in the July 4 Democrat & Chronicle contained thinly-veiled criticisms of Barnowski’s promotional planning, underscoring the tense working relationship between the franchise’s most important off-the-field personnel.

On the field, the Wings’ pace slowed when a series of injuries cost them Shopay, Fuller and McGregor. Fuller was originally expected to be out only 10 days, but it was later pegged at six to eight weeks. The loss of McGregor, who led the team with a miniscule 0.39 ERA, caused a slump by the pitching staff. The subsequent three-game skid led to a reduction in the team’s lead to 3 1/2 games.

With Fuller’s longer-than-expected absence, switching hitting first baseman/outfielder Eddie Murray was promoted from Asheville. Drafted by Baltimore in 1973, the 20-year-old Murray was hitting .294, 12, 44 for the Double-A team. It was the first year of the apparently successful switch-hitting experiment for Murray, a natural right-hander. After an 0-for-7 start, Murray had six home runs and 20 RBI in his first two weeks in Rochester. Wearing number 10, Murray, called by one sportswriter a “switch hitting Willie McCovey,” quickly became a favorite of the Silver Stadium crowd.

The everyday line-up of Harlow (CF), Dauer (2B), Kelly (RF), Fiore (DH), Stillman (LF), Murray (1B), Duncan (3B), Garcia (2B) and Skaggs (C) helped take the team on another tear. A rallying point for the team became the lack of opportunities in Baltimore. Both Stillman and pitcher Mike Flanagan (sent down in early July when Fred Holdsworth was recalled) blasted the morale on the Orioles upon their demotions and affirmed their pleasure in playing for Altobelli. Flanagan called Weaver a “very negative person who has no rapport with younger players,” and it was rumored that the O’s skipper was on thin ice in Baltimore. Soon-to-be free agent Wayne Garland later added fuel to the fire by saying the O’s should hire Altobelli and stating he would re-sign with the club if the Rochester skipper was given the job. With the Orioles struggling at two games under .500, and 10 1/2 games back in the standings, players having standout years such as Shopay, Fiore, Martinez (10-4, 2.02), Willis and Galasso (9-2, 2.76) all openly wondered why they had not been given a shot.

Unlike the 1971 squad, this team’s success was not due primarily because of the offense (in mid-July, the team was last in the league with a .268 average), but rather a defense that turned 111 double plays in the first 91 games and a pitching staff that had 47 complete games in the first 105. Dauer (hitting in the .330s and challenging for the batting crown), Garcia, and Harlow gave the Wings strength up the middle. Pitchers McGregor and Flanagan were a combined 9-1 since joining the team, while the performances of Martinez and Willis forced 11-game winner Galasso to the bullpen. In early August, when Martinez notched his 14th win and 14th complete game, talk began about the Nicaraguan right-hander perhaps becoming the IL’s first 20-game winner since 1956.

Another stretch of victories, this one 14 games, included a run of three straight shutouts, and a string of seven games in which the staff allowed just six runs. The Wings were also having incredible luck in doubleheaders; a 5-0, 1-0 sweep versus Richmond on Aug. 2 was the 10th Rochester twin bill sweep.

When the parade of wins ended on Aug. 4 (giving the Wings streaks of 16, 14, seven and seven during the season) Rochester had won 57 of 74 games and 37 of 43. The record stood at 70-36, a winning percentage of .657, giving the team a 12 1/2-game lead.

By mid-August the race was all but over, although a 5-9 slump and 11 consecutive wins by Syracuse streak cut the lead late in the month to six games. Four players were named to the IL all-star team; Dauer and Martinez were voted in, while Garcia and McGregor were added as reserves. Player moves dotted the rest of the month, as the Wings prepared for the Governors’ Cup playoffs. Pitcher Kirkpatrick, who had been reactivated for a spell, was placed on the inactive list, but stayed with the team as a coach. He ended his Red Wings career with 47 wins, the winningest Rochester pitcher in the last 20 years. Bailor (called by a local columnist the Rochester version of “Charlie Hustle”) and Fuller both returned from the disabled list in time for the playoffs. Flanagan, who went 6-1 with six straight complete-game victories, was recalled, with slugger Andres Mora coming down from Baltimore. (Not known for defensive prowess in his natural outfield position, Mora had an improbable stint at second base when a slight injury to Dauer reduced the Wings to three infielders for a short spell).

Martinez went into a mini-slump which cost him his outside shot at 20 wins, and so the only drama to be played out was Dauer’s shot at the league batting crown. Before the end of the season he was named team MVP — collecting 17 1/2 of the 25 ballots cast by his teammates — and was a favorite for both league MVP and Rookie of the Year honors. It was a far cry from his 18-game stint in 1975 during which he hit a mere .191.

Rochester officially clinched its 16th International League pennant on Aug. 25, appropriately with a 9-7, 8-0 doubleheader win in Syracuse. It was the team’s 12th twin bill sweep, and its 40th road triumph. From the low point of 12-18, the Red Wings had gone an astounding 72-28. It was the third pennant in six years for Altobelli, and a special moment, considering that three days later the Rochester manager made it official that he would not return in 1977. “Under no circumstances will I return here or anywhere in the minor leagues to manage next year,” was his statement. The American League was adding two expansion teams in 1977, Seattle and Toronto, and during the year Altobelli was rumored to be under strong consideration for both jobs.

A more unexpected job opening came four days later, when Ed Barnowski announced his resignation. The 33-year-old general manager’s official reason was “an opportunity in private business” — a sales position with a local sporting goods dealer — and a desire to spend more time with his family. Off the record, it was clear to those involved that pressure from Stanley, the “hard driving and perfectionist” president, had driven Barnowski from the job. The ex-Red Wing pitcher handled his exit with class, refusing to make any waves, stating, “I have only the best interest of the ball club in mind.” The loss of both the team’s general manager and manager, at a time when a drastic attendance drop and possible deficit loomed, cast a shadow over the team’s incredible performance on the field.

(The controversy over Barnowski’s exit caused ripples well into the next year. In an August 1977 interview, Stanley contended that Barnowski knew that 1976 would be his last season as general manager 10 months prior to his resignation. Barnowski’s fate was decided, stated Stanley, when he took a “management test” in November of 1975 that showed he wasn’t qualified to be in business management. Barnowski confirmed he took the test, but while it showed his educational short-comings in business management, he felt he could have continued in the role of GM due to his sales and promotions skills. Barnowski also stated the test wasn’t a factor in his resignation, which he still claimed as being for personal reasons.)

Dauer’s chase for the batting title went down to the season’s final game. The Rochester second baseman went 2-for-2 the day before to raise his average to .3358, placing him ahead of Miguel Dilone of Charleston, who stood at .3349. The word was that Dilone had gone up to the parent Pirates, so Dauer decided to sit out the final game of the season. But it turned out that Dilone’s promotion was for the end of the season, and worse, that his batting mark had been inaccurately reported. Dilone’s average actually stood at .33578, still behind Dauer’s, computed at .33587, but since he would play his team’s final game, Dauer’s lead was in jeopardy.

Because of the emotional letdown, Dauer still planned to sit out the last game, but changed his mind 10 minutes before game time. The decision seemed disastrous. After grounding out in the first inning and popping up in the third, Dauer dropped behind Dilone. Even more frustrating was the news that the Charleston-Memphis game had been rained out. It Dauer had sat out, he would have clinched the title.

After a fielder’s choice in the fifth frame, Dauer needed to finish with two hits in his final two at-bats to take the crown. A single in the seventh kept his chance alive, but with two outs in the ninth, Dauer was in the on-deck circle, not assured of even having a chance to get the final hit he needed. Syracuse pitcher (and Rochester native) Scott Delgatti purposely walked Harlow — his Syracuse teammates, wanting Dauer to win, had told Delgatti, a recent call-up, to do so — and grooved a fastball to Dauer on the first pitch. Dauer lined the pitch off the left field wall (over a extremely slow-breaking Chief left fielder), giving him the batting crown .3364 to .3357. (League President George Sisler Jr. vowed to investigate the circumstances of the final at-bat, vowing “somebody [on the Chiefs] is going to pay.”)

The Wings finished up at 88-50, a winning percentage of .638, topping the Rochester franchise record previously set by the 1930 team that went 105-62, for a percentage of .629. Despite the runaway victory, the Wings were not an overwhelming favorite for duplicating their Governors’ Cup triumphs of 1971 and 1974. If there could be a criticism of Altobelli, it would be that he overworked his starting pitching staff. After going the distance in 50 of the first 112 games, the starters finished only six of the final 26 games, with a 6-5 record and 4.46 ERA in those games. Martinez finished with a pitching triple crown (only the second in International League history), leading the league in wins (14), strikeouts (140) and ERA (2.45), but last won on Aug. 6.

Ominously, the Rochester defense, which led the league in fielding, was unusually loose at the end of the regular season. The team committed 10 errors in the last five games, with Murray struggling in left field. Syracuse won 27 of its last 37 games, and Richmond, the Red Wings’ first-round opponent, had to win eight of its last nine in order to qualify for post-season play. A Syracuse player, looking ahead to a potential meeting with Rochester in the Governors’ Cup final, called the Red Wings the “best team in Triple A baseball,” but warned “they can be beaten.”

All the negative omens proved true in the playoff opener at Silver. Martinez lasted just four outs in a 7-3 loss. Statements made after the game indicated that the slump by the 21-year-old Martinez could not be attributed solely to arm fatigue. Unnamed teammates stated that the pitcher had developed “bad night-time habits,” and enjoyed the party life. He showed up at 1:20 for the 2:00 playoff opener, and many of his teammates were angry with him. He’s “playing with our money” was the common complaint.

One loss did not mean the series, not with Willis, McGregor and Galasso available, but the Wings lost a heart-breaking Game Two. During the game the Wings had two runners cut down at the plate. Richmond fans watched the Braves score a pair of runs with two out in the bottom of the ninth to capture the game 5-4. Martinez missed the plane to Richmond, which incensed Altobelli, who stated that he might not let Martinez rejoin the team in Virginia.

Martinez’s presence was made moot. In retrospect, the come-from-behind victory was the key. The Braves easily captured the third game, a 6-0 victory at home, and took the series.

The abrupt playoff departure dropped the 1976 Red Wings a notch in conversation of all-time great Red Wings teams, but it was simply a case of a team peaking during the regular season. In the 100-game stretch in which it won 72 times, Joe Altobelli’s last squad staked its claim as one of the finest Rochester teams in history, although its failure in the playoffs certainly tarnished the season.

The pitching staff had four winners in double figures: Dennis Martinez (14-8), Dave Johnson (12-5), Bob Galasso (12-5) and Mike Willis (12-6). Scott McGregor won eight of nine decisions, while reliever Earl Stephenson posted a 1.14 ERA. Rich Dauer won the batting crown, led the team in runs and RBI, was Rookie of the Year, and shared league MVP honors. Tom Kelly had a quietly solid season of .290, with 18 home runs and 67 RBI. Kiko Garcia hit .274 and provided strong defense. Larry Harlow was disappointing at the plate at .236, but productive in the lead-off spot (81 runs), and solid, if not spectacular, in center field. Veterans Taylor Duncan (.269) and Mike Fiore (.267, 12, 67) contributed, while Jim Fuller (19 home runs, but a .228 average) and Jim Hutto (.244) were perhaps disappointing. The partial-season performances of Tommy Shopay (.347), Bob Bailor (.311), Royle Stillman (.293) and Eddie Murray (.285, 11 home runs, 39 RBI in 165 at-bats) all helped push the 1976 Red Wings to their record-setting performance.

The performance on the field was unfortunately overshadowed by the instability in the front office. Moves during the off-season would loom large in the future of the Rochester franchise.

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