Coluccio reflects on baseball career

If you were a kid in the 1970s, chances are you got your baseball news through newspaper box scores, brief and sporadic radio and television reports, and perhaps on the backs of the baseball cards you collected without concern for their appreciable value.

Those lucky enough to live in major league cities had an opportunity to experience their diamond heroes by attending games, supplementing the weekly richness of the televised Game of the Week with first-hand observation that made those heroes come to life.

Less than a week after yet another brushback pitch to the sport — several players, including Alex Rodriguez, the most highly paid practitioner of the game, were suspended for using performance enhancing drugs — and more than 40 years since his major league debut in 1973, Bob Coluccio related enough memories to put a smile on even the most hardened baseball fan's face.

The longtime Costa Mesa resident and real estate agent, 61, who was drafted in the 17th round of the 1969 Major League Draft by his hometown Seattle Pilots, played five seasons for three teams. The Centralia, Wash. native debuted with the Milwaukee Brewers and also played with the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals. In addition, he had a minor league stint with the Houston Astros organization and was traded to the New York Mets organization before instead electing to retire at age 28 after 370 big league games that included 1,095 at-bats, 241 hits (a .220 lifetime average), 26 home runs and 114 runs batted in.

His best season was his 1973 rookie campaign in which he hit .224 in 438 at-bats with 15 homers, 58 RBIs, 44 extra-base hits and 13 stolen bases.

Coluccio, who married his wife, Terry at age 19, estimates the couple traveled to 42 states during his professional baseball odyssey, which he said he appreciates much more now than he did then.

"It was $500 a month [his first season in the minors] and they offered me $8,000 to go to college," said the 5-foot-11, 183-pound Coluccio, who remains as chiseled as he was in his playing days. "I went off to Billings, Montana to play in the Rookie Pioneer League."

After a three-year rise through the minors, Coluccio said he was invited to major league spring training with the Brewers in 1973 and made the team as an outfielder. But Coluccio said he was anything but awed by having made "The Show" at age 21.

"I never dreamed of playing in the major leagues," he said. "I didn't see a major league game until I played in one. I really didn't understand what it was like until I got there. I really didn't see it as being any different than where I came from. You just got on the field and did the same things you did every day: run and hit and slide and throw."

Coluccio said fielding his position was his strongest asset and a series of photographs depicting one of his many catches while colliding with the outfield wall appears beside a photo of Hank Aaron hitting the first American League home run of his career with the Brewers in a frame that is displayed on a wall at his house.

Coluccio said he obtained an autographed bat from Aaron, whom many still consider the all-time home run king (755), though Barry Bonds later eclipsed that mark (762) as a lightning rod for the steroid era. But he added that most of the artifacts from his playing days are those that have been purchased on eBay by his sons, Brannon, Chad and Rett.

Coluccio recalled negotiating his post-rookie contract with then-Brewers owner and president Bud Selig, who is now in his 21st season as commissioner.

"[Selig] said: 'You had a great year Bob and I don't want you to worry about anything in the off-season. I'm going to give you a $5,000 raise and an off-season job with our Schlitz beer distributorship in Arizona,''' Coluccio said. "My salary went from 18,000 a year to 23,000 and I made pretty good money driving that beer truck, too."

Coluccio said his decline as a hitter came after heeding the advice of then-Brewers' hitting coach Harvey Kuenn, who in an effort to make Coluccio a prototypical leadoff hitter, diminished his aggressiveness at the plate.

"If I had stayed with my style and what I do, I probably would have been much better off," said Coluccio, who hit 16 homers in his final four seasons, never more than six in a single campaign.

Coluccio said a large Italian community in Milwaukee created a sizable rooting contingent and Brewers broadcaster Merle Harmon, paired with the legendary Bob Uecker, came up with a colorful nickname that cemented his popularity among his fellow Italians.

"Uecker and Harmon were talking about Joe Pepitone, [a power-hitting first baseman] who was known at the time as the Italian Stallion," Coluccio said. "So I'm playing one day and Uecker says 'That little Coluccio is like a little horse, a little stallion out there.' And Harmon says 'Yeah, he's like a little Macaroni Pony and it caught on."

Among his personal highlights, Coluccio recalled a doubleheader with the White Sox in which he hit a game-winning home run in both games.

Though he is only a casual fan of today's game, watching virtually no games until the playoffs and World Series, Coluccio said he retains his affinity for the diamond.

"I still love it. I've always loved it," said Coluccio, who coached his three sons in youth baseball and later taught private lessons to area kids. "It was a passion. When you grow up in the Northwest, where you only have about three months a year that you can play baseball ... I had a rubber ball and I was out banging it against the side of the house, even if I was soaking wet from the pouring rain."

Coluccio said when baseball takes a hit, as with the recent suspensions, he is genuinely disappointed.

"I hate to see it," Coluccio said of the recent negative publicity. "Its just a bad scene, especially when [the players] are making this kind of money, and the notoriety they have."

Coluccio said there were no PEDs in his days.

"As far as enhancement drugs, believe me, there were no drugs that we took that ever enhanced us," he said with a laugh. "It all went the other direction."

Coluccio said he took lessons from his former manager, Chuck Tanner, about dealing with people that he has used in every aspect of his life. He also said the discipline he learned as an athlete has served him well in his real estate career.

He beamed when asked if any of his five grandchildren had shown any baseball skills.

"My little grandson who is 3 can hit the ball," Coluccio said. His granddad and his father showed him how to do it and he knows what it's all about."

The grandson's name? "Bobby C.," Coluccio said.

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