Earlier this week, the minor league Syracuse Chiefs announced that Tim Foli would serve as the team’s manager in 2009. Foli has been the Nationals’ Triple-A manager for three of the last four seasons, but this will be his first go-round here in central New York, with Syracuse now acting as the home of Washington’s top affiliate.
If you remember Tim Foli as a Yankee, give yourself a pat on the back; you are a true Yankee diehard. Considering that Foli spent all of one undistinguished summer in pinstripes, and that his one season here coincided with a down time in franchise history, your memory of Foli shows your sharpness when it comes to all things Yankees.
During the 1983 winter meetings, the Yankees announced that they had acquired Foli from the California Angels at the expense of a minor league reliever named Curt Kaufman and some cash. Foli was coming off an unspectacular season in which he had hit .252 with two home runs. The move made little sense, considering the crowd that the Yankees had already assembled at shortstop: veteran Roy Smalley, top prospect Bobby Meacham, and former top prospect Andre Robertson. I’m not sure why the Yankees thought Foli was better than any of the present alternatives. He couldn’t hit nearly as well as Smalley, didn’t have the range or speed of Meacham, and lacked Robertson’s defensive reputation.
Foli started the 1984 season as the Yankees’ regular shortstop, but soon found himself in a platoon with Meacham, before giving way to a utility role. By the end of the season, Foli had played in only 61 games, hitting .252 for the third consecutive season. (What are the chances of such sustained mediocrity?) After the season, the Yankees packaged him with Steve Kemp, sending them both to the Pirates in the deal that brought Jay Buhner to the organization. Just like that, Foli’s unremarkable tenure in the Bronx had come to a decisive but anticlimactic end.
But don’t think for a moment that Tim Foli was an unmemorable player. Quite the contrary. Always choking high up on the bat, Foli was a remarkably good bunter who regularly led the National League in laying down sacrifices. He was one of the most recognizable players of his era, with that large, arched mustache and those oversized wire-frame glasses. He had a personality to match his looks, kindly described as “strong” by some, less diplomatically as “overbearing” by others. Foli also became known by the nickname of “Crazy Horse.” Foli earned the moniker for not-so-flattering reasons—specifically a ferocious temper that put him at odds with umpires, opponents, and even teammates.
Critics of Foli claimed that he sometimes grated on teammates because of his tendency to tell others how to play the game. It was a habit that older players, in particular, resented in Foli. Shortly after making his major-league debut for the Mets in 1971, he tangled with teammate Ed Kranepool, the team’s elder statesman. Foli became upset with Kranepool when the first baseman decided not to throw the ball to him during routine infield warm-ups. At the end of the half-inning, a fuming Foli confronted Kranepool in the dugout. Outweighed by at least 25 pounds, Foli lost the fight—badly. The bout, which lasted all of 30 seconds, ended when Kranepool decked Foli.
The following spring, Foli became involved in a nasty confrontation with a member of the Mets’ coaching staff. The dispute centered on a misunderstanding over the allocation of hockey tickets. Foli exchanged angry shouts with coach Joe Pignatano and then received a reprimand from manager Gil Hodges. Shortly after the exchange with Pignatano, the Mets traded him to the Montreal Expos.
With the Expos, Foli blossomed into an excellent defensive shortstop, but eventually encountered problems with teammates and club authority figures. During a tumultuous 1976 season, Foli openly defied managers Karl Kuehl and Charlie Fox. He went so far as to curse out Kuehl in full view of his teammates and even called a press conference where he questioned Kuehl’s credibility as a major-league manager. Shortly thereafter, the Expos fired Kuehl and replaced him with Fox. And then, on the final day of the season, Foli embarrassed Fox by refusing to sit in the dugout. Upset that Montreal sportswriters had not voted him the team’s player of the year award, a petulant Foli sulked in the stands at Wrigley Field. The following season, he departed the Expos, in part because of a feud with his new double-play partner, Dave Cash.
Expelled from the Expos, Foli encountered more deep-seeded trouble as a member of the Giants. Some of his Giants teammates, noting his fits of anger and high-strung ways, called him “Rubber Room” behind his back. Not surprisingly, the Giants sold him after only one season, returning him to his original team, the Mets.
Foli saved his most vitriolic anger for opposing players and umpires. He became a legendary bench jockey, riding opponents at every opportunity, at a time when such dugout dialogue had begun to dwindle because of the increasing unity of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Intensely competitive, perhaps to a dangerous extreme, Foli particularly disliked umpires. If he felt that an umpire had wronged him early in the game, even over a relatively meaningless ball or strike call, he carried a grudge until the final out, regardless of the circumstances or the score. Not surprisingly, he received three-game suspensions in back-to-back seasons, one for arguing and another for making physical contact with an umpire. He later carried on a celebrated feud with veteran umpire Paul Runge. Relations between Foli and some umpires reached such volatile extremes that a few impartial observers thought the veteran shortstop received the short end of many close calls.
With his hair-trigger temper bouncing him from team to team, including a relatively successful stint with the Expos, Foli finally found an ideal home in the late 1970s. In the spring of 1979, the Mets traded him to the Pirates, where he prospered under the upbeat guidance of manager Chuck Tanner. Surrounded by Tanner and a group of free-spirited, laid-back teammates, he began to relax and prosper, hitting a career-best .288 for the Bucs in 1979. He helped the Pirates win the National League East and then hit an eye-opening .333 in the World Series, as the Bucs captured the World Championship with a dramatic comeback against the Orioles.
By the early 1980s, Foli claimed that he had calmed his temper, in part because of his renewed faith in the Christian religion. “Everything used to get to me, but then I changed my priorities,” he told the Arizona Republic in 1983. “Jesus Christ became the lord of my life. Baseball is still important to me, but it’s not the only thing I have now.”
Showing some tendency toward mellowing, Foli became involved in fewer incidents. Still, the old fires raged from time to time, even after his playing days. As a coach with the Brewers, he continued his habit of bench-jockeying opposing players. On one occasion, he so infuriated Don Baylor that the strapping slugger had to be restrained from physically attacking Foli during a game.
In the year 2000, Foli joined the coaching staff of the Reds. His tenure would turn out to be eventful and tumultuous, perhaps most notably for a physical confrontation with fellow Reds coach Ron Oester. Much like his scrap with Ed Kranepool years earlier, Foli came out on the short end against Oester, requiring stitches after the fight.
For perhaps one last time, Crazy Horse had reemerged.