Tommy John went to spring training with the Yankees as a non-roster player in 1986, figuring he would get some exercise before returning to his Anaheim home and beginning life after baseball.
He pitched well enough, however, that the Yankees asked him to remain in Ft. Lauderdale with their minor league affiliate and stay in shape until they needed him. On May 2, when pitchers John Montefusco and Ed Whitson were put on the disabled list, John was back in the big leagues. And by season's end, he had the lowest earned-run average (2.93) of any Yankee starter.
John, who turned 44 Friday, decided enough was enough, though, and he embarked on a new career as the pitching coach at the University of North Carolina. But on Nov. 21, one month after taking the job, he resigned, citing "irreconcilable differences" with head coach Mike Roberts.
John talked with Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who offered him "any job in the organization I wanted . . . except manager or something like that."
"I told him I'd like to pitch again," John said. "And he said, 'I was hoping you'd say that.' "
So T.J. is back in pin stripes and up to his old tricks, frustrating hitters with an assortment of slow sinkers and breaking balls.
Take Monday at Anaheim Stadium, for instance. He pitched 6 innings, yielding eight hits and three runs as the Yankees beat the Angels, 6-3.
John, who is 4-1 with a 3.71 earned-run average, also had four strikeouts Monday, giving him 2,100 in a major league career that has spanned 23 years.
"T.J. still knows how to pitch ground balls for five to six innings," Angel Manager Gene Mauch said. "He's retired a few times before, and he can do it a couple of more times before we get to New York if he wants."
Not likely. Three times this season, John has gone six innings without giving up a run. He put together one string of 16 scoreless innings, and the Yankees have won six of his seven starts.
There were rumors that John would be released when free-agent holdout Ron Guidry returned to the team. If John's recent outings weren't enough to dispel that theory, Manager Lou Piniella called him into his office last week and made sure.
"He told me I'd still be on the team when Gator (Guidry) came back," John said. "Maybe starting and maybe in the bullpen, but on the team. He said, 'You can get people out, I know that.' That took a lot of pressure off my shoulders."
It wasn't as if John was desperate about losing his job. His baseball career has been left for dead a number of times. The Angels released him in the middle of the 1985 season, and he popped up again in Oakland a month later. In 1986, he was a free agent who didn't need an agent--general managers around the league weren't exactly beating down his door--before pitching his way onto the Yankees.
"I think you can pitch as long as it's still fun," he said, "but finding the time in the off-season to stay in shape and keeping the young guys off your back is increasingly difficult. My children (Tamara, 12, Thomas, 10, Travis, 8, and Taylor, 5) are old enough now that they're doing so much in school, it's hard to find the time.
"And I've spent 25 summers on the road. I'd like to stay home and play ball with my kids and watch them play ball."
Obviously, John has a firm grip on perspective. Monday's victory was the 268th of his career, tying him with Jim Palmer for 26th on the all-time list.
Is that magic 300 number a burning desire?
"I've never been a goal-oriented person," John said. "The only thing that burns inside me is Szechwan cooking."