Near Miss Haunts Pitcher : Padres: Twenty years later, Clay Kirby still wonders why he was pulled for pinch-hitter in the eighth when he was working on no-hitter.
Twenty years later, Clay Kirby still can’t understand why it happened to him.
Pitching for the Padres against the New York Mets on July 21, 1970 at San Diego Stadium, Kirby had a no-hitter going for eight innings, only to be taken out for a pinch-hitter. The Padres were behind at the time, 1-0, but that didn’t lessen the shock.
With the Padres mired in last place in the second season of their existence, and headed for a 63-99 record, Kirby figured Manager Preston Gomez would let him bat. Why not?
There were two men out with nobody on base and the Mets’ Jim McAndrew had retired 15 batters in a row en route to what would be a three-hit, 3-0 victory.
When pinch-hitter Cito Gaston, now manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, went to the plate, the crowd of 10,373 let out a thunderous chorus of boos. One fan got so riled up that he vaulted the box-seat railing and tried to make a run at Gomez, only to have Kirby and other Padres intercept him.
The booing continued as Gaston struck out, got louder when Jack Baldschun replaced Kirby on the mound and reached its peak when Baldschun gave up three hits and two runs in the ninth. If the fans had reacted like some European soccer crowds, there might have been a riot.
The next day, the switchboards at the Padres’ offices and area newspapers were inundated by calls from fans howling for Gomez’s scalp.
Through it all, Kirby, who was called “The Kid” because he looked even younger than his 22 years, managed to keep his composure. In the aftermath, he said simply: “I was a little surprised when he took me out.”
Now, though, with his baseball career behind him, Kirby wonders why he was deprived of such an opportunity.
“It’s not that I’m bitter,” he said by telephone from his home in Fairfax, Va. “But with no chance to do it again, I’d like to look back and say a baseball I pitched is in the Hall of Fame.
“When I try to look at the logic behind it, I don’t see it. We were 20 or 30 games behind and we needed something to drum up interest in the ballclub. A no-hitter would have given the franchise a much bigger boost than one more victory.
“If it had been the seventh game of the World Series, I could understand it, I guess. But we were in last place.”
Kirby, who will be 42 June 25, did have himself to blame for being behind. The Mets got a first-inning run when Tommie Agee and Ken Singleton walked, worked a double steal, and Agee scored on Art Shamsky’s infield out.
Still, this remains a controversial baseball game in San Diego because, to this day, no Padre pitcher has thrown a no-hitter.
Nor did Clay Kirby, who pitched five years in San Diego before finishing his career in Cincinnati and Montreal.
Armed with a 95-mph fastball, Kirby was the type of pitcher of whom baseball men would say, “He’s liable to pitch a no-hitter some day.” In high school in Arlington, Va., he pitched a perfect game and struck out 19 batters.
“I figured I had plenty of time to pitch a no-hitter,” he said. “As it was, I came close a couple of times later on.”
Kirby’s two other near-misses occurred in successive starts in 1971 when he won a career-high 15 games--against 13 defeats--for a team with a record of 61-100. He was 10-16 in 1970.
On Sept. 13 in Houston, he held the Astros without a hit until John Edwards doubled with one out in the eighth inning. Five days later in San Francisco, he had a perfect game until Willie McCovey of the Giants led off the eighth with a home run.
Still, the frustration that stemmed from those two near-misses couldn’t match that caused by Gomez’s decision to pinch-hit for him.
“Against the Mets, I figured I had a no-hitter in the bag,” he said. “I had just struck out Cleon Jones in the eighth on three pitches--fast, faster and fastest, and see you later.
“When I came in after that inning, I got a drink of water, and I saw Roger Craig (then the Padre pitching coach, now manager of the Giants) coming in with a long look on his face. He was really upset, because he obviously wanted me to proceed.
“I knew then that something was up. When I put my helmet on, Gomez called me back. He basically said, ‘Get your butt back here.’ I said, ‘What?’ and that was it. Gaston felt bad. He didn’t want to go up and hit for me.”
As disappointed as he was though, Kirby declined to blast Gomez.
“When the reporters came in, they wanted me to say something about Preston,” Kirby said. “I couldn’t do that. I respect him as a man and as a manager.”
Understandably, Kirby’s relatives and friends were less charitable toward Gomez.
“They’re all mad,” Kirby told The Times the day after the game. “My dad was real mad about it, too. He kept saying you come close like that only so many times.”
That day Kirby went fishing with his father, Clayton Laws Kirby Sr., who died two years ago.
But the fans wouldn’t let the subject drop. When Kirby made his next home start, they gave him one standing ovation after another.
“It was very nice for me,” Kirby said. “I don’t think Gomez got booed because I don’t remember him coming onto the field, but I don’t think he appreciated that night. Funny, I pitched an 11-hitter and won.”
By that time, Kirby found himself bombarded by mail from sympathetic fans.
“I got boxes and boxes and boxes of letters,” Kirby said. “I guess the thing made headlines all over the country.”
As far as Kirby is concerned, the tremendous support he received from the public gave him much more satisfaction than any vitriolic words he might have aimed at Gomez.
“I was probably in a position to bury the manager if I’d wanted to pop off,” Kirby said. “I think we needed motivation in the form of attendance, but that’s as far as I went.”
As for Gomez, this wasn’t the first time he had pulled a pitcher for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning with a no-hitter going . . . nor was it the last. He did it with Phil Ortega in 1964 while managing Spokane in the Dodger farm system and he did it with the late Don Wilson in 1974 while managing the Houston Astros. Wilson had already pitched two no-hitters for the Astros, in 1967 and 1969.
Gomez, now assistant to General Manager Mike Port of the Angels, takes the same stance on his decision of 20 years ago that he did then.
“I always felt that when you’re playing this game, you play to win,” Gomez said. “Sure, you want to see somebody get a no-hitter, but in this particular game, we were behind 1-0.
“I knew after the seventh inning that Kirby was scheduled to bat third in the eighth. (Ed) Spiezio and (Bob) Barton were ahead of him. If Spiezio hits a home run or if one of them gets on and I can bunt with Kirby, then he stays in. But my mind was made up to hit for him if neither one of them got on.
“I don’t care if we were 160 games behind. I’d do the same thing. The commissioner (Bowie Kuhn) called me and so did several other managers, and they all said it was the only way to play the game.”
Gaston, the man who was reluctantly cast in the unpopular role of the pinch-hitter for Kirby, had just come off the disabled list after recovering from a back ailment. He was the Padres’ leading hitter that year with a career-high .318 average.
“I would have done the same thing,” Gaston said. “Who’s to say Kirby would have pitched a no-hitter? In a situation like that, they’ll second-guess you no matter how you do it.”
Although Kirby recalled Craig being upset, Craig said he agreed with Gomez’s decision to remove Kirby from the game.
“You have to do what you can to win a game, and that’s what Preston did,” Craig said. “Some managers would leave him in, figuring a no-hitter would be a confidence builder. Then again, he might have come out in the next inning and given up a hit anyway.
“I’ll say this for Preston. He could probably run a game as well as any manager I ever saw.”
Buzzie Bavasi was the Padre general manager when Gomez yanked Kirby. He gave Kirby a $250 bonus, half of what he had given Bill Singer for pitching a no-hitter a year earlier when he ran the Dodgers.
Referring to the outrage expressed by the public, Bavasi said, “I just wish the people who phoned us and sent us wires would show up at the ballpark. We’d have 50,000 out there.”
Dave Garcia, then the Padres’ first-base coach and now a scout for the Milwaukee Brewers, noted that Kirby had only himself to blame for being a run behind.
“He was mad, but I told him it was his fault,” Garcia said. “I told him a manager does what he has to do. The Mets and Pittsburgh were fighting for first place and we had to try to win every game we could.”
Dave Campbell was the Padres’ second baseman then, later became one of their radio/television voices and is now a broadcaster for ESPN. He casts still another vote for Gomez.
“I’ve always put myself in the manager’s place,” Campbell said. “When you manage, you do everything you can to win. I wasn’t surprised he took Kirby out. I was surprised there was so much flak. The story seemed to magnify as time went on.”
Four years later, Campbell was with the Astros when Gomez removed Wilson with a no-hitter going.
“Preston walked by me after he made the move,” Campbell said. “He said to me, ‘Do you remember seeing this before?’ I said, ‘I sure do.’ ”
Two of Kirby’s fellow pitchers, starter Pat Dobson and reliever Gary Ross, feel that Kirby should have been allowed to stay in. Dobson, the Padres’ big winner with 14 victories that year, is now their pitching coach. Ross owns a liquor store in Encinitas.
Dobson: “I didn’t think it was a good idea to take him out. It would have been a big boost for him and the franchise. I wouldn’t have been very happy if it had happened to me.”
Ross: “I couldn’t believe it. Preston Gomez didn’t think the way anybody else felt. He didn’t communicate at all, and the whole organization was mismanaged. You’ve got to give a guy a chance to pitch a no-hitter.”
Today, Kirby, who became a grandfather on his 41st birthday last year, is involved in various businesses--real estate, international trading, electrical contracting and mortgage brokerage.
“My kids are grown (23 and 20) now, and I wouldn’t mind getting back into baseball,” he said. “I’m footloose and fancy-free.”
Finally, Kirby took a look back at a career in which he compiled a 75-104 record before injuries cut it short at 28.
“I didn’t realize how good I could have been,” he said. “If I had, I might have done something different. I wouldn’t have listened to everybody.”