One of my favorite local pastimes is keeping tabs on those non-Hall of Famers who visit Cooperstown over induction weekend. Given the induction of heavyweights like Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn, an unusually large number of former big leaguers came to town at the end of July. The list of former Yankees included Jesse Barfield, Paul Blair, Rich "Goose" Gossage, John "The Count" Montefusco, Graig Nettles, and current Yankee broadcaster Ken Singleton. Of this group, the one I took the most interest in was Montefusco, who ironically enough was the player least associated with the Yankees. Why Montefusco? Well, I knew I would have a chance to talk to him since he was scheduled to sign at the Main Street CVS Pharmacy, where my wife works.
Although I didn’t have an opportunity to interview Montefusco, I did meet him on the Saturday of Hall of Fame Weekend. As advertised, he signed autographs for any customers purchasing Coke products, with the proceeds going to a CVS employee who is battling cancer. I came away impressed with the former Yankee, Padre, Brave, and Giant right-hander; Montefusco was scheduled to appear for only two hours, but willingly continued to sign for an extra half-hour and didn’t turn down a single request for a personalized autograph or photograph.
Montefusco came across much differently than I expected. He was quiet and polite, nothing like his reputation as a player. Now, let’s emphasize that I liked him as a player. He was colorful, with a great nickname, and he played for the Yankees—an excellent combination. Beginning with his earliest major-league days in San Francisco, Montefusco had established a reputation for brash words and flamboyant behavior, making him one of the most distinctive players of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Montefusco loved to make bold predictions, which he sometimes fulfilled—and sometimes failed at miserably—earning himself the additional nickname, "The Mouth that Roared." Prior to a 1975 game against the eventual World Champion Cincinnati Reds, he predicted that he would strike out Johnny Bench four times and shut out the "Big Red Machine." He fell short on both counts; he allowed seven runs in a third of an inning, with three of the runs scoring on a home run by Bench.
Regardless of his failure that day, Montefusco made strong impressions as a rookie. With his 97-mile-per-hour fastball and 90 MPH slider (think of him as a thinner version of Joba Chamberlain), Montefusco earned National League Rookie of the Year honors and had some San Francisco followers proclaiming him the heir apparent to Juan Marichal. Earning the nickname "The Count" from broadcaster Al Michaels (a play on his last name’s similarity to Monte Cristo), Montefusco seemed destined for cult status in the Bay Area. The following year, he pitched a no-hitter, once again procuring himself national attention.
Unfortunately, Montefusco couldn’t avoid injury. Pitching with an undiagnosed broken bone in his ankle, Montefusco hurt his elbow late in 1977, forcing him to make the early-career adjustment from power pitcher to sinkerball specialist. Montefusco adopted an unusual motion; he appeared to hunch his back while delivering the ball from a three-quarters arm slot, but he remained mildly effective in stints with the Giants and Padres.
Montefusco found once last return to glory in 1983. After pitching well for the non-contending Padres, the Yankees acquired him in late August for a pair of players to be named later. Almost single-handedly, Montesfusco did his best to help the Yankees win the American League East, winning all five of his decisions while sporting an ERA of 3.32. (Come to think of it, the 2007 Yankees could use a late-season acquisition like Montefusco.) Yet, he didn’t have enough help from the supporting cast of pitchers (there were too many ineffective starts from the likes of Doyle Alexander, Jay Howell, and Matt Keough), as the Yankees finished third behind the Orioles and Tigers in a stacked Eastern Division.
Continuing arm problems relegated The Count to secondary status for the remainder of his Yankee days and ultimately resulted in his 1986 retirement. Just as injuries had become a recurring theme, Montefusco often found himself involved in controversy throughout his career. While with the Giants, he regretfully engaged his manager, Dave Bristol, in a fistfight. The incident resulted in his departure from the Giants, who traded him to the Atlanta Braves. Unhappy with his role in Atlanta, Montefusco failed to make the plane for the team’s season-ending road trip to Cincinnati and earned himself a suspension.
More serious controversy followed Montefusco after his playing days. His wife filed charges that he had committed aggravated sexual assault and made terrorist threats against her, among a number of charges. Unable to afford bail, he spent two years in jail awaiting trial. All along, he maintained his innocence, claiming that his wife had twisted the circumstances of their marital problems. While I don’t know all of the details of the situation, the newspaper accounts I’ve read indicated that many of his wife’s charges may have been "trumped up," if not out and out fabrications. Montefusco was eventually acquitted of all the felony charges and only had to serve probation for criminal trespass and simple assault.
As Montefusco met fans in Cooperstown, I heard him discuss his hopes for the future. He would like to return to baseball with the Giants, his first major league organization, as a pitching instructor. According to some of the people who worked with him while he was coaching in independent minor league ball, Montefusco is particularly good at breaking down a pitcher’s mechanics, a valuable skill for any pitching coach. He has no interest in becoming a coach at the major league level, but would like to work with young pitchers in San Francisco’s minor league system. Given what he’s been through, I hope The Count gets that opportunity.
Bruce Markusen is the author of eight books, including The Team That Changed Baseball, and writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.