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TOMMY JOHN IS . . . : BACK AGAIN : This Time, Going on 43, Pitcher Wants a Chance to Be Old and a Yankee

March 08, 1986|BILL SHIRLEY | Times Staff Writer

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The tall, slim fellow in pinstripes running around the outfield at Yankee Stadium South looked familiar. Tommy John, appearing as fit and trim as he did 15 years ago at Dodgertown, was back hard at work in yet another spring training camp.

No player, it often has been said, works harder on a baseball field than John. He likes to run . . . and run . . . and run. He thrives on work. That's why, although he will be 43 May 22, he appears much younger. He is, as usual, in good shape at 200 pounds. His hair is still short and neatly groomed, his manner engaging.

Outspoken and honest, John is one of the nice guys in sports. "Ask him the time of day and he'll tell you how to make a watch," goes a gag among New York baseball reporters.

This is not an ordinary spring, though, for T.J. For more than two decades, it didn't matter how effective he was during spring training. As a starting pitcher for six teams, he never had to worry about his job.

Now, in his 25th year in the major leagues, in a game in which mostly young men excel, he is fighting to hold on for one more season.

"He looks good; he's throwing well," John's manager, Lou Piniella, said the other day. Still, Piniella added that it was too early to predict that John will make the team.

Said pitching coach Sammy Ellis: "I think he threw the ball yesterday as well as he threw with us in 1982. But we're talking about batting practice and throwing on the sidelines. It's too early to predict what his chances are of making the club, but he is making some good strides in the right direction."

Owner George Steinbrenner said: "Tommy has a place in baseball somewhere. I wouldn't be surprised to see him pop up in our organization someplace."

Right now, however, John's only wish is to pitch for the Yankees. "I still think I can pitch well enough to win," he said.

John, who said he likes challenges, has a big one to face in the next few weeks. There are 26 pitchers in camp, including 16 with major league experience, who have been invited by the Yankees to compete for the positions that remain unfilled. Ten of the prospects are 30 or older. John is the oldest of the challengers and is not even on the roster.

In his view, however, age is not his problem. "It all boils down to whether I can get batters out in spring training," he said. "If I can, I have a chance. It's hard to assess my chances now because I haven't gotten anybody out. But if I have as good a spring as I did last year with the Angels, I'll make the club."

Regardless of how he fares, he said, this will be his last year.

"I won't try anywhere else. This is it unless--I'll put an unless on it--unless there is an unusual circumstance where a club wants me and says I can pitch."

In a quarter of a century, John has pitched for the Indians, White Sox, Dodgers, Yankees, Angels and A's. His departure from at least three teams--the Dodgers, Yankees and Angels--was not real friendly.

On his Dodger contract negotiations, he once said: "When I was winning ballgames, Al Campanis (a Dodger vice president) could never find time to negotiate. But when I had badly pitched games . . . interest in negotiations would suddenly ignite."

Of the time he did not report to Dodgertown in 1975 without a contract, John later wrote in a book, "Here was the guy who tried to start a mutiny on the Good Ship Lollipop."

John was a starting pitcher for the Yankees for four years after leaving the Dodgers in 1978. But in 1982 he had some nasty things to say about Steinbrenner and the way he was used that season by the Yankees.

"I probably should have kept my mouth shut," he said the other day. "But I felt I had to say what I said for my professional life. I just didn't like the way I was being used (as a relief pitcher) at the time. I didn't think I could help the ballclub and I told them, 'I can't do that.' "

Why then, after such a bitter departure, did John choose to end his career with the Yankees?

"I had my best years in baseball with the Yankees," he replied. "I had a lot of fun playing in New York; I love the city. And I have a good feeling about the Yankee fans and the way they supported me in 1981 when my son, Travis, was injured."

Travis, now 7 and healthy, was seriously hurt in a fall from an upstairs window.

As for his harsh words about Steinbrenner, John said: "That was strictly business. I like to play for George Steinbrenner. He's tough and he speaks his mind. He's outspoken; I'm outspoken. But if he has something on his mind, he'll tell you out front.

"Buzzie Bavasi (former Angel and Dodgerexecutive) was that way. They may hurt your feelings, but it's the best way to handle things."

Regardless of how his remarks to the press sounded, John said: "I've always considered George as my friend. I could go to him with any request, as friend to friend."

Steinbrenner, told of John's remarks, said: "It goes both ways. He did have some terrible things to say, but he's right. It was strictly business. I am happy to have him back."

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