Escape From New York Put Career Back on Track
Ed Whitson’s eyes smolder with resentment, the sinews in his neck are stretched taut.
The subject is New York, and Whitson has difficulty formulating the proper words to describe the experience. This is a time in his life that he has longed to forget, a time in which he became closer than anyone would know to quitting the game of baseball.
Today is the three-year anniversary of the day he escaped the shackles of playing for the New York Yankees, and for the first time since being traded back to the Padres, Whitson spoke extensively about the 18 months that he described as a “living hell.”
Speaking ever so softly, almost in a whisper, Whitson said, “There wasn’t a day that went by where I didn’t fear for my life, or the safety of my family. Every day I went out that door I wondered what would happen to me. I didn’t know if I’d be shot. I didn’t know if somebody’d blow up my car. I didn’t know if somebody’d run me off the road.
“I felt like I was carrying a bull’s-eye on my back, waiting for someone to take that first shot.”
Whitson closed his eyes, momentarily allowing his mind to recapture the feeling that threatened his sanity, his face showing an odd mixture of relief and appreciation.
Bizarre as it sounds, Whitson says that if not for his days in Yankee pinstripes, this fantasy season he’s living might not have been possible.
He enters the All-Star break with an 11-6 record, three victories shy of his career best in 1984 and on pace to become the Padres’ first 20-game winner since Gaylord Perry in 1978.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” Whitson said in his Tennessee drawl. “The worst time in my life might be responsible for the best time in my life.
“Boy, who would have ever figured?”
It’s the day after Christmas, 1984. Whitson is driving to his Dublin, Ohio, home from the Columbus International Airport, where he had just spent the past 45 minutes talking with Yankee owner George Steinbrenner.
The radio’s blaring as Whitson cruises down the road, and he grimaces when he hears the weatherman predict snow. He recalled the conversation he had just had with Steinbrenner, feeling good that a man of his stature wants him to play for his ballclub. But he’s a country boy who was raised with a fishin’ pole in one hand and a can of worms in the other, and Steinbrenner reluctantly understood when Whitson turned down his offer.
Suddenly, with no one else in the car, Whitson blurts aloud, “How much did he just offer me?”
A five-year contract that would guarantee him $4.4 million.
Shoot, the most money he’d ever seen in his life while growing up was the $5,000 the Pittsburgh Pirates offered him out of high school. And now someone wants to provide him financial security for life?
“I remember turning the radio down and saying to myself, ‘I’ve got to think about this.’ I mean, I’m thinking so hard I’m driving 30 m.p.h. in my Corvette, and you know, a Corvette don’t run too good at 30 m.p.h.”
When he reaches home, he tells his wife, Kathleen, of the offer. He knows it sounds crazy to be talking about living in New York, but even a fella like himself from the back hills of Tennessee can figure out that $4.4 million over five years is a whole heck of a lot better than the $2.8 million over four years that the Padres are offering to keep him.
In a matter of an hour, he telephones his agent, Tom Reich, who is on a skiing vacation in Utah. The following afternoon, he is a member of the New York Yankees.
“When he signed that contract, I think all of us had a funny feeling about this,” said Doug Harrison, Whitson’s longtime buddy from Erwin, Tenn. “I think Eddie had that same kind of feeling, too. But when Steinbrenner made that offer to him, I remember him telling me that he came home, looked at his wife and little girl and said, ‘I’m crazy not to go.’
“He told me, ‘I don’t like New York. I really don’t want to play for New York. But I can’t pass up that security. I’ve got to do it for my family.”
Virtually every decision Eddie Lee Whitson has made in his 34-year-old life has been based on his family. His father left a wife and nine kids to fend for themselves when Eddie was 7, and he has been working to help support the family ever since.
There’s Bradford, Buford, Eugene, Dennis, Martha, Trula, Randy and Susan, and in one way or another, Eddie has helped every one of them. Then, of course, there was Eddie’s mama, Anna Mae, the backbone of the family. When she died of cancer eight years ago, the whole town of Erwin mourned.
“She was about the nicest person you’ll ever want to meet in this whole wide world,” Harrison said. “She was this black-haired, rotund woman. She was not real fat, just rotund. She laughed all of the time and made you feel good about yourself. When she died, not only did the family take it hard, but so did everybody else around these parts.”
Everybody is family around here. Why, there was the time Harrison scheduled his wedding during the 1980 All-Star break just so Eddie could be the best man. Wouldn’t you know it? That had to be the year Eddie made the All-Star team with the San Francisco Giants. Whitson told his buddy about the news and even offered to back out, but Harrison would hear none of it.
The wedding went on as planned, but, boy, you should have seen the hullabaloo at the reception. The men had snuck in a small black-and-white TV set, propped it on a table in the corner of the room, and you can imagine just how the women were reacting
“People in town are still talking about it,” said Randy Whitson, Ed’s youngest brother. “His wife was yelling, ‘We don’t want to watch the All-Star game.’ He was yelling back, ‘Well, we do.’ They had just got married, and they were already arguing.
“But there we sat watching that little television set. I think the only time he (Harrison) moved was when they cut the cake, and then he was right back as soon as he swallowed it.”
The news story flashed across the sports pages of the Johnson City Press, and the folks of Erwin were plenty scared.
They read all about Whitson and Manager Billy Martin’s vicious barroom brawl in the wee hours of the morning of Sept. 22, 1985, and when Martin came away with a broken arm, they cringed at the thought of the impending reaction in New York.
The fight started in a hotel bar in Baltimore, went into the lobby, carried into the parking lot and concluded on the fourth floor of their hotel. It remains in Yankee folklore as one of the best knock-down-drag-out fights in team history.
Whitson, who already had been receiving death threats at his home and in the clubhouse because of his 1-6 start, was terrified over what Yankee fans would now do to him. He already was taking every necessary precaution for his family, sending them home to Ohio one day before every trip and having them return one day after he returned, but now he envisioned the worst.
Randy Whitson, who had been laid off from work at the nuclear plant back in Tennessee for 11 1/2 months and was struggling just to put food on the table, telephoned Eddie the moment he put down the paper. They must have talked for hours, he said, but it was of no use. He had never heard Eddie sound so depressed in all his life.
“I was having problems at the time, plenty of ‘em,” Randy Whitson said, “but mine weren’t . . . compared to Eddie’s. To tell you the truth, I was scared for him.”
Randy and Harrison talked it over, and by that afternoon, Harrison was taking a flight from the Tri-City Airport to New York City.
“All I tried to do was take his mind off it as much as I could,” Harrison said, “but he was pretty miserable. I told him, ‘Look how far you’ve gotten in life. Come on, don’t let something like this stop you.’
“I reminded him that he’s his own person, and there hasn’t been a Whitson that I’ve met yet who isn’t tougher than nails. I remember growing up, you could be walking around town feeling kind of tough, and then all of a sudden you’d have some rocks coming out of nowhere at you. Right away you knew that was one of the Whitson boys from Rock Creek.”
New York is a long way from Rock Creek, though, and the way of life in the Big Apple was something that Whitson never had experienced--and, he vows, he never again will. Whitson’s life style is unornamental and direct, stripped down to the bare essentials, ill-suited for the big city’s menace.
Whitson said he could have tolerated the boos night after night. Maybe he could have even overlooked the tacks and nails from irate fans that littered his driveway on occasion. But those threats. Those ugly phone calls. He could not take any more.
“We had guys, FBI agents, in our locker room, in the tunnel and in the dugout,” Whitson said. “Lord knows the game of baseball is big business, but it wasn’t worth risking your life over.
“I was struggling, and I could understand why people were upset, but I refused to take my life in my own hands every time I went out there.”
Whitson’s emotions were in such disarray that Lou Piniella, who became the Yankee manager in 1986, had to completely juggle his pitching staff. Whitson would start only in road games; he’d pitch at Yankee Stadium strictly in relief.
“Even then, it didn’t do any good,” Piniella said. “When he walked to the bullpen, he wouldn’t even walk across the field. He always walked under the stands.
“He just became useless here. Even when I called for him in the bullpen, he’d get real fidgety. He was worrying about everything except getting batters out.
“He got off to a bad start with the fans anyway because he was struggling, and then when they found out they were getting to him, it just snowballed. And once he had the problem with Billy Martin, well, what can I say, he became a basket case.”
Whitson, with no other recourse, turned to Steinbrenner. He asked out. Trade me, he pleaded, please trade me.
“When I signed Ed,” Steinbrenner said, “I promised him that if things don’t work out, I’d do my damnedest to send him to where he wanted. I knew what he was going through. He had problems with Billy Martin, but lots of guys here have had problems with Billy. But all of the other things he was going through, I couldn’t keep him here. You don’t do those things to people.
“I know things didn’t work out here for Ed, but never once did he complain. He took a lot of b.s. from a lot of people, and he took his share of slings and arrows of misfortune, believe me.
“I’ll always respect Ed because he was a real man. He never whimpered to me or made excuses like a lot of these guys do nowadays. He took it all without saying a word.
“I know we didn’t get what we should have in return for Ed, but he’s a tremendous person. Whatever good things come to him in this game he deserves.”
Said Whitson: “A lot of people thought George Steinbrenner was a bad man, but I’ll tell you right now, I’ll respect him to the day. He’s as honest as any man I’ve ever met.”
The way Whitson has it figured, he was born and raised in the hills of Tennessee but grew up in New York. He arrived there a thrower and left a pitcher.
“I learned about life there, maybe more than I ever cared to know,” Whitson said. “But I do know it’s helped me. I’ve learned to deal with certain situations, and really, it’s helped me on the mound.
“I know how to handle things now, where as before, if I gave up a homer or something like that, I’d just lose it. I mean, if I gave up a homer, you could have been as assured as I’m sitting here that I’d be out of the game in two innings.
“Don’t get me wrong, I still get flustered when I leave a game, and I’ll get my tail feathers ruffled, but I won’t dwell on it and let it ruin my next start. And Lord knows that’s what happened in New York, I just tried to do more than I was capable of.”
This is why Whitson believes that he’s pitching better now than at any time in his life, and if there are any doubts, check out his 21-12 record since June 3, 1988.
“That’s the thing that hurt him so much in New York,” Piniella said. “He’d be cruising along for four or five innings, throwing 91, 92 m.p.h., and suddenly give up a bloop single, or we’d make an error. And then he’d just lose it. He’d start throwing in the mid-80s, and before I had a chance to get anyone in there, he was getting rocked.
“From what I can tell, he’s a whole different pitcher than he was here. Going back to San Diego was the best thing that could have ever happened to him.”
Whitson’s teammates, curious to see how he had changed since leaving for New York, were surprised, and almost astonished, to see that he returned his same old easy-going self in July of 1986.
“We had heard all of the horror stories,” outfielder Tony Gwynn said, “and about people chasing him out of the ballpark, and everything else. But as soon as he walked through the clubhouse door, I knew that he was the same guy that left here.
“I’ll never forget that moment when he walked though the door. He just grinned from ear to ear, and he looked like the happiest guy in the world. His face said it all.”
Oh, it was not easy when Whitson returned. His confidence was so shot that he went 1-7 with a 5.59 ERA and was 10-13 in 1987, failing to win a game after July 31. Slowly, his confidence began mending. He won 10 of his last 16 decisions of 1988 and now firmly believes that he has never pitched better in his career.
“I’ve got New York to thank, every one of those fans,” said Whitson, his face breaking into an expansive grin. “Every day I worked out over the winter, I kept thinking about them, because I want to prove every damn one of them wrong. They thought I wouldn’t be back. They thought I was washed up.
“Now look at me.”