In just over a week, nearly 30 retired major leaguers will come to Cooperstown to participate in the inaugural Hall of Fame Classic. The group will feature several former Yankees, including a fairly prominent and well-traveled pitcher from the mid-1980s.
One of my favorite old ballplayers, the late Pat Dobson, liked to invent new baseball jargon and give out quirky nicknames. He labeled former Yankee Dennis Rasmussen as “Count Full Count,” a reference to the tall left-hander’s tendency to throw too many pitches to each batter. The words “three and two” often accompanied Rasmussen’s struggles with opposing hitters.
Like many of those full counts, Rasmussen took a twisted career path to the Bronx. At one time a top prospect in the California Angels’ organization, Rasmussen came to the Yankees as the player to be named later in the deal that sent Tommy John to the West Coast. The deal, which took place after a dismal 1982 season, made good sense for the Yankees. Firmly in rebuilding mode, the Yankees had unloaded an aging John in exchange for a young left-hander of considerable promise. In the 1980s, however, the Yankees often turned their back on rebuilding at a moment’s notice, reverting back to a win-now philosophy whenever possible. So less than a year later, the Yankees sent Rasmussen to the Padres as the player to be named later for veteran right-hander John “The Count” Montefusco. In other words, they acquired “The Count” for “Count Full Count.”
Wait, there’s more. In the spring of 1984, the Yankees once again reversed course on Rasmussen. Graig Nettles infuriated George Steinbrenner with revelations in his new book, Balls, which angered The Boss so much that he traded his veteran third baseman during spring training. Steinbrenner sent Nettles to the Padres for a package of two prospects: the infamous player to be named later and, you guessed it, Dennis Rasmussen.
Now firmly ensconced in New York, Rasmussen finally made his Yankee debut later that season. Rasmussen brought an amply supply of natural talent to the Bronx, including an above-average fastball, a full repertoire of four pitches, and a dandy pickoff move that foreshadowed Andy Pettitte. He showed some of that promise as a rookie, despite an elevated ERA, by striking out 110 batters in 147 innings and winning nine of 16 decisions. After an up-and-down sophomore season, Rasmussen broke through the fence completely in 1986. Emerging as the ace on a mediocre Yankee staff, Rasmussen went 18-6, logged 202 innings, and kept his ERA a respectable 3.88. At 27, he appeared to be solidifying himself as a legitimate front-of-the-rotation starter.
Rasmussen also made people take notice because of his height. At six-feet, seven inches, Rasmussen was one of the game’s tallest pitchers in the years before Randy Johnson’s arrival. He looked even taller to me, like he was about six-foot-nine, perhaps because he had a bit of awkwardness in his delivery to the plate. His height was either a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective. Scouts love tall pitchers, especially southpaws. Yet, some scouts believe that pitchers taller than six feet, five inches can have inherent problems. With long limbs and multiple moving parts, tall pitchers sometimes have difficulty keeping their mechanics in order. Rasmussen was not immune to that concern.
Perhaps the Yankees factored his height into the equation the following season, when they decided to trade him. Rasmussen pitched poorly throughout the summer, with an ERA approaching five, causing the Yankees to wonder whether his awkward mechanics and lack of an overpowering fastball would doom him to mediocrity. Whatever the reason, the Yankees traded Rasmussen to the Reds for Bill Gullickson in late August, losing four inches of height in the transaction.
In spite of my seeming obsession with his height, that’s not necessarily the first thing to come to mind when I recall the onetime Yankee. Instead, I’ll always remember an incident from the 1980s, when Rasmussen hit Jorge Bell of the Blue Jays with a pitch. Bell was furious with Rasmussen over what he considered an intentional infraction. After the game, Bell unleashed a tirade against Rasmussen, repeatedly referring to him as “she.” Bell’s intent was clear; he was questioning Rasmussen’s manhood. Whether Rasmussen had meant to hit Bell or not, it was a stupid and chauvinistic reference to make, especially when he made it over and over. Then again, those were the kind of comments that Bell made during a career of mouthing off with the Jays and the White Sox.
With Rasmussen scheduled to come to Cooperstown in just over a week, I’m debating whether to bring up the incident with Bell and find out Rasmussen’s reaction to it. Rasmussen might look at the episode nostalgically, emphasizing the comedic nature of the often volatile Bell. Then again, Rasmussen might think I’m as big a jerk as Bell often was during his career. Perhaps I should stick to the safe side on this one.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.