Commentary

Whit's wisdom to Javy: 'I've been there'

Ed Whitson ends long silence about his hellish stint with Yankees in the '80s

Updated: May 1, 2010, 8:19 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Ed Whitson will talk about the booing, the hate mail, the death threats, and what Javier Vazquez needs to do at Yankee Stadium on Saturday afternoon, but first he would like to share a piece of trivia about his turbulent stay in New York.

He was 15-10 with the Yankees. That's 15 victories and 10 defeats. That's .600, better than the career winning percentages posted by Bob Gibson, Walter Johnson and Warren Spahn.

"A lot of people would take that record," Whitson said from his home in Dublin, Ohio. "Do you know how much money 15-10 gets you today?"

[+] EnlargeEd Whitson
AP PhotoPlaying for Billy Martin, center, is the one subject Ed Whitson, 38, won't broach.

That's easy. Vazquez went 15-10 for the Braves last year and makes $11.5 million for the Yanks.

So Whitson was on the phone Thursday to give what he called the first extensive interview he's granted a New York reporter on the subject of the Yankees, and his hell-on-earth experience in the Bronx in the mid-'80s, since George Steinbrenner traded him out of his misery and back to his peaceful San Diego life.

Every time an athlete struggles to cope with the brightest lights of the biggest city, Whitson's name is summoned by default.

Drop a critical World Series ball, and you're Bill Buckner. Miss a critical Super Bowl kick, and you're Scott Norwood. Blow a 3-foot putt on a Masters Sunday, and you're Greg Norman.

Let the jeering Yankee Stadium masses rattle you out of your pinstripes, and you're Eddie Lee Whitson.

"It's like working in an office and your boss comes in and says, 'You suck,' after you've tried your best," Whitson said. "Now multiply that by 50,000 bosses, all of them telling you that you suck, and imagine what that feels like.

"You feel like everybody's against you, and sometimes you just want to quit. But you can't ever quit."

Out of a town in the east Tennessee hills, the son of a logger, Whitson's life changed for keeps the day after Christmas 1984, in a 45-minute meeting with Steinbrenner at the Columbus (Ohio) International Airport. Whitson politely declined the Yankees owner's free-agent offer of five years and $4.4 million, returned to his Dublin home, and started having second thoughts.

Whitson went 14-8 with San Diego in 1984, and he was brilliant against the Cubs in Game 3 of the NLCS. So he was hurt by the Padres' recruitment of Rick Sutcliffe and by their offer of four years and $2.8 million.

"Then my agent [Tom Reich] called that night," Whitson said, "and told me George Steinbrenner would give me a sixth-year option and my choice of any six teams I wanted to be traded to if it didn't work out. And I said OK to that."

Whitson had a terrible first start at Fenway and opened the season at 1-6. He spoke then of receiving hate mail, of fans chasing him out of the Yankee Stadium parking lots, and of verbal abuse so vile he refused to let his wife, Kathleen, attend his home games.

He'd never been comfortable in New York as a visiting player, confining himself to his hotel room before and after games. But Whitson had no idea the fans and the media could lock him in such an unforgiving vise.

"I was in awe of being in Yankee Stadium and the big city," Whitson said. "Some people can handle it, and some people can't. ... You dream about pitching in Yankee Stadium as a kid, but it can be pretty overwhelming for a guy coming out of a small hometown and smaller media markets. I was so excited, I tried to overthrow everything."

Finally, with his world collapsing around him, with the June 11, 1985, crowd booing him on introduction, Whitson decided enough was enough.

"I wasn't going to put myself under that pressure anymore," he recalled. "I said to myself, 'The hell with it. I'm just going to throw it, and wherever it goes it goes.'"

Whitson retired 19 consecutive Toronto batters, lasted 9 1/3 innings, and walked off the Stadium mound in the 10th to a standing ovation.

[+] EnlargeEd Whitson
Ken Levine /Getty ImagesEd Whitson enjoyed his most productive seasons with the San Diego Padres.

The Yankees lost the game, but Whitson won back his faith. He went 9-2 over the next three months, then ended up in a wild hotel brawl with Billy Martin in Baltimore, breaking the manager's arm.

Without knowing a single fact about the fight, this much was likely any time Billy Martin was injured in a late-night bar brawl: Ol' No. 1 had it coming to him. But Thursday, Martin was the one subject Whitson declared off limits.

"I will never mention that man's name again, ever," he said.

Whitson will talk about Steinbrenner, and the mercy he showed on the pitcher's tortured soul. In 1986, manager Lou Piniella knew Whitson wanted out of New York, knew he felt suffocated by the press and felt threatened by the fans (one had left tacks under Whitson's car tires in his New Jersey driveway). Piniella reduced him to a mop-up man and refused to throw him in Yankee Stadium, even though Whitson never requested a road-only workload.

Steinbrenner traded Whitson and his 5-2 record back to the Padres in July, traded the pitcher back to a quieter, saner culture and his favorite fishing spot on Lake Poway.

"George is a great human being," Whitson said. "He never once said a bad word about me, and he honored every single thing he told me he'd do."

Only it wasn't over for Whitson in New York, not even close. Before his next scheduled start against the Mets at Shea, the phone rang in his Manhattan hotel room.

"Is this Ed Whitson?" the voice said.

"Yes."

"If you start this game tonight, I'm going to blow your brains out."

Whitson asked the man to reveal his identity, and the caller repeated the threat before hanging up. The pitcher alerted the Padres, who then contacted the commissioner's office.

George [Steinbrenner] is a great human being. He never once said a bad word about me, and he honored every single thing he told me he'd do.

-- Ed Whitson

"I had to ride to the ballpark with Bart Giamatti and his security team," Whitson said. "Stuff like that can tear a guy up."

Whitson wouldn't let the cretins defeat him. He won 53 games and made 132 starts for the Padres between 1987 and 1990, his last four full seasons, and his ERA in '89 and '90 was 2.66 and 2.60, respectively.

"Once I felt relaxed again," Whitson said, "I knew it would come back."

These days Whitson, 54, plays golf and acts as a volunteer coach for Dublin Jerome High School, where his son, Drew, is a promising first baseman. Whitson watches his fair share of big league baseball, and yes, he's had his eye on Javier Vazquez for some time.

"I was impressed with him in Atlanta," Whitson said. "He's got great stuff, and when he's relaxed and has his confidence under his belt, that boy can be nasty.

"He's got all the tools it takes to pitch in New York if they'll just give him a little breathing room. Right now his confidence looks really low, just like mine was."

Any advice, from one accidental tourist to another?

"I would tell Vazquez I've been there," Whitson said. "I'd tell him to forget about everything people are saying and just throw the damn ball like you threw it in Atlanta. I'd tell him you can't make every pitch perfect, because only God himself can do that."

Yes, there's a reason Eddie Lee Whitson, survivor, knows a few things about God and baseball.

He's been to hell and back.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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