Under Further Review: Fastball John

Many baseball fans make the mistake of thinking the game is “easy to play.” Sitting three levels up while a pitcher hangs a hit-me curve or an infielder gets eaten by a line drive, how often do we cry, “How could he throw that pitch?” or “Why didn’t he get his glove down?” I once stood behind the batting cage at Olympic Stadium in Montreal and watched in awe as Greg Luzinski nonchalantly slammed fastball after fastball—most at “practice” speeds of 70 mph—into every deep recess of the park. I would have been lucky to make contact with one pitch 10 mph slower. Just ask Michael Jordan and Tim Tebow how easy it is to play baseball.

When comparing major league players with each other, everything is relative, but one thing should always be clear: Getting to the Show is a daunting task, and those who eventually make it, no matter how famous or obscure, have an engaging story to tell about that long road.

John D’Acquisto certainly has a story, and Fastball John, his just-published memoir with Dave Jordan, is the printed proof.

A breezy and at times painfully honest account of his career pitching for the Giants, Cards, Padres, Angels, Expos, and Athletics from 1973 to 1982, it’s less dry and scholarly than Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season and Pennant Race, and less funny and snarky than Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, but is still packed with rollicking stories, R-rated language, and small revelations.

I was very aware of D’Acquisto back then, having owned his Topps and Strat-O-Matic cards, but I had no idea he was blackballed by the Angels for “going after” Gussie Busch in a union meeting beside Don Baylor during the 1981 strike year, with—no surprise—Buzzie Bavasi and Gene Mauch the perpetrators. Or that he was marooned in the Montreal bullpen when the Phillies edged the Expos to win the NL East at the end of the 1980 season. D’Acquisto had sterling numbers against Mike Schmidt, but manager Dick Williams apparently “never realized it,” something that would be unforgivable today. Or that his post-career activities with race horses, an old teammate and gambling addict named John Montefusco, and some shady European characters resulted in fraud accusations and some jail time before the case was eventually thrown out. The messy off-the-field incidents follow his hot-blooded baseball exploits almost seamlessly and make for a very enjoyable, eye- and soul-opening read.

D’Acquisto plunges you right into the spring training camps, locker rooms, contract meetings, doctor appointments, after-hours mayhem, romantic relationships, and high-speed drives through the desert, many scenes replete with dialogue he had long collected in a journal (“my little green book”). Other information was kept in his scrapbooks, “which my mom saved, then gave to my sister, who kept everything.” In the late ’90s, between putting out fires for the Boron Prison Fire Department in the California desert, he began “burning up legal pads like crazy,” getting his notes down for the future memoir.

Paramount in Fastball John, though, is the baseball. D’Acquisto recounts his entire pro career, from being drafted by the Giants in 1970 through his time in instructional leagues and later a short stint with the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders, which probably could have been a book in itself. D’Acquisto wonderfully captures the highs and lows of being a young phenom, a one-time All-Star, and a physically fragile major league pitcher, along with all the personal life changes that come with those. Check out this passage from September 1975, early in the morning at Candlestick Park, when he was trying to recover from Dr. Jobe arm surgery:

Couple days later, all alone, right there in the bullpen, you pop the adhesions. Your screams of pain echo throughout the barren stands, and when it finally goes mute, you look up at the auburn, empty seats and you want to hear cheers. You step off 60 feet from the wall. You pick up the baseball and make the most important pitch of your career, the invisible crowd roars with encouragement in your mind like a child in the backyard pretending it’s Game Seven as you whip that damn ball against the bullpen wall, grunting through your delivery. It makes a crackling sound that reverberates through the park. It’s the most exhilarating pain you ever felt.

The unforgettable parts of the book, though, are detailed accounts of two showdown games facing the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson in 1974. Gibby, who was at the tail end of his Hall of Fame career on June 19 when the Giants visited St. Louis, went the distance in the Cards’ 5-4 loss despite giving up 14 hits. D’Acquisto went eight and a third and got the win, and the rookie and the veteran took turns knocking each other down when they came to the plate. “He was mean, nasty, and would throw at his own mother,” D’Acquisto says. “The first time up I went down like a sack of bricks, and my helmet was broken in half.” Later, in the hotel elevator, the pitchers traded “fuck yous” and got into a fight, rolling around in the elevator with the door banging open and shut on them. Two months later on August 16, Gibson beat D’Acquisto 2-1 in another great duel, and Gibby told John how much he respected him for standing up for himself earlier in the season.

Today, D’Acquisto lives in Phoenix, where he works for Major League Baseball as a field tech coordinator at Diamondbacks and Arizona Fall League contests. Though he was raised in San Diego and still has a lot of ties there, “I was born a Giant and once a Giant, always a Giant.” He finds the game “strictly a business right now,” with most of the players protected by no-trade clauses and management that babies them. “Back then we played with our shoulders and elbows hurting, with our bodies aching, because if we didn’t, someone else would take our jobs,” he says. He’s come to accept the current replay technology and asserts that if it had existed when he pitched, “I would’ve had two no-hitters under my belt.” He’s a believer in advanced stats but also feels that people need to be knowledgeable about a player’s “effort, guts, and instinct.” D’Acquisto, if anything, was unafraid to speak his mind in an era when players needed to walk on eggshells more. His vocal beatdown of Cards manager Vernon Rapp on the St. Louis mound when the team was jerking him around early in 1977 stands out among a wealth of experiences in which he was forced to hold his tongue, and it gives Fastball John a searing, transparent quality many baseball autobiographies lack. When I asked him who the toughest batter he ever faced was, D’Acquisto shocked me by saying, “Enos Cabell. Damn guy hit like .500 off me.” Only later did Pete Rose take him aside and tell him that back then there was a period he’d been tipping his pitches—which certainly explained how Enos Cabell could hit .500 off anyone.

Again, in John’s room, there’s only honesty.

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Jeff Polman lives in Los Angeles, writes about baseball and culture, and has had four historical baseball novels published. You should follow him on Twitter.