No. 1: Torrez was armed for success

Top athlete in county history was multi-sport star before MLB

The legend of Mike Torrez never developed completely while he attended Topeka High.


The year he began classes, the Trojans dropped baseball.

Oh, Torrez was still a great prep athlete. Excelled in basketball. But the form he used to win 185 career games in the big leagues was never foreshadowed in black and gold.

For that, Torrez is grateful — something he admitted upon learning he was named No. 1 among the Top 100 Athletes of Shawnee County.

“It benefitted me, because I didn’t hurt my arm or have to do much of anything,’’ Torrez said. “The only time I pitched was in the summer with the American Legion program. And I only pitched, what, 13 games maybe.

“Today these kids are pitching 20 to 25 games. They schedule 50 to 60 games anymore when the kids are 11 years old with all these travel teams.’’

When Torrez played baseball, long outings came on the back end of a shelf life for pitchers fortunate enough to reach the majors and be part of a rotation. Such an existence lasted 18 seasons for Torrez, from 1967-84.

In all that time, his arm never gave out. He is one of 132 pitchers to throw more than 3,000 innings. Only two active hurlers, Tim Wakefield and Livan Hernandez, belong to that club.

Obviously, the list doesn’t reflect modern baseball whatsoever. Pitch count was rarely tracked, let alone flashed on scoreboards.

“Back then if you didn’t pitch complete games, you weren’t considered a starting pitcher,’’ Torrez recalled. “How the game has evolved since then, they try to protect and they try to baby the starting pitchers.

“And I swear to God, I think the pitchers today from the time they were in little league and in college, a lot of the coaches have overpitched kids. They come up lame in the big leagues. Their arms give out because they pitched them a lot.’’


* * * * * *

Still, Torrez was somewhat of an oddity during his time. Even now, in real time.

Often called by the New York Yankees to help with corporate outings, he pitched an hour-and-a-half of batting practice to AT&T execs recently at Yankee Stadium. The next day he could have just as well been shooting a commercial. What little soreness he felt was eliminated with two Alleve.

Granted, Torrez wasn’t throwing heat at the corporate fantasizers. But the guy did turn 65 on Sunday. That should be reason enough to ache just a little.

Credit for the durable right arm can be traced to his youth. Actually to his late father, Juan. Starting out in his own neighborhood, the Cosmopolitan League in Oakland, Torrez was advised to get “good and loose’’ before pitching.

Was he good? Absolutely. He finished 119 major-league games with a lifetime ERA of 3.96. He was the last Yankee to win two complete games in the World Series, helping them capture the 1977 championship against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Was he loose? A story Torrez shared from his 20-win season with the Baltimore Orioles verifies that quality.

Teammate Jim Palmer, a Hall of Fame pitcher who also won 20 games in 1975, ventured to the bullpen one cool September day to watch warmups. This was considered odd since Palmer rarely visited the pen. Torrez then proceeded to shut out the Chicago White Sox and was in the training room getting a rubdown when Palmer resurfaced.

Leaning over the table, Palmer said: “You’re unbelievable. You realize how many pitches you threw today?’’

“No. Why?” Torrez shrugged.

“You threw about 135 pitches warming up before the game,” Palmer counted. “You threw eight or nine warmup pitches between every inning. And in the game you threw 165 pitches.’’

“Oh, really?’’ Torrez again shrugged.

“Aren’t you tired?’’ asked Palmer.

“Nah. Shoot, I kept going. I felt good,’’ Torrez replied.

Fully amazed, Palmer said, “Mike, you’re unbelievable.’’


* * * * * *

Convincing owners of that was a different matter.

Three years after graduating from Topeka High, Torrez made his big-league debut with the St. Louis Cardinals. It was not until 1969, however, that he got a real opportunity. He responded by going 10-4.

“They gave me a $2,500 raise,” Torrez recalled. “I thought, ‘Wow, by winning all these games I’ll have a $15,000 raise by the end of my career.’ It was big business. They tried to pay you with as less as they could. You had no other choice. Eat or go home, they said.”

So Torrez thought about it and always reached the same conclusion. He was better off in baseball, despite the annual haggle over a contract.

“It was something I had to consider,” Torrez said, “maybe going to work at Santa Fe with all my buddies and my family and my dad. Back then, they all worked there. Or at Goodyear, with my cousins.”

Little did he realize just how much influence one of his St. Louis teammates would have on the finances of all major-leaguers.

Litigation brought by Curt Flood to abolish baseball’s reserve clause eventually was heard by the Supreme Court and helped facilitate free agency.

In a recent HBO documentary about Flood and his case, Torrez was cited as the one contemporary player from that era who rewarded Flood for his courage. After signing a seven-year deal for a total of $2.3 million with the Boston Red Sox in 1978, Torrez sent a gift to Flood, one of the first Cardinals to befriend Torrez when he was a rookie in St. Louis.

“I had to give him something, because he was down and out and I had to help him out,’’ Torrez said. “I was happy and proud when I saw that documentary about him.

“Baseball basically black-balled him. But you know what? Once a friend, always a friend. I was always on his side as a player. He did a helluva lot.

“In fact, I think we should nominate him for the Hall of Fame for what he did in baseball, for the players. He changed the game, not only for these players now, but for ourselves when we became free agents.”


* * * * * *

Baseball changed too.

Torrez laughs when breaking down his lucrative contract with the Red Sox and how much it falls short of today’s minimum salary.

He laughs when he thinks about the complete games he hurled, including one streak of eight in a row.

He can even laugh knowing that the most indelible moment in his baseball career wasn’t his two World Series wins for New York in 1977, but the home run he surrendered to Bucky Dent a year later when pitching for the Red Sox against the Yankees in a one-game playoff for the American League pennant.

“That’s Mike. He’s always smiling,” said another member of the Top 100, Topeka High classmate Levi Lee. “He’s not really an outspoken person, but he’d perform on the field.”

Indeed. To the point Torrez often went the distance.

Kevin Haskin can be reached

at (785) 295-1159


Shawnee County No. 1


Born: Aug. 28, 1946 (Topeka).

Age: 65.

High school: Topeka High.

Family: Teresa (wife). Children: Christiann, Iannick, Michael, Wesley. Grandchildren: Hannah, Noah, Chole. Father: Juan. Mother: Mary. Brothers: Johnny, Richard. Sisters: Ernestine, Evelyn, Mickie, Stella, Yolanda.

Career: 18 MLB seasons, 185-160, 3.96 ERA, 1,404 strikeouts, 3,043.2 innings pitched, 119 complete games.

Highlights: Pitched two complete-game wins in 1977 World Series for victorious New York Yankees. ... 20-game winner for Baltimore Orioles in 1975. ... Won at least 15 games each season during a six-year stretch from 1974-79.

One fateful pitch to Dent still lives in infamy




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