Exclusive Interview: John “The Count” Montefusco

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted over the phone.

How do you feel about the 2020 Baseball season?

JM To be honest I do not watch baseball anymore. I have become tired of the games. I can’t watch them. The games are too long. Four hours It is not the same game we played in the 1970s. If they want to save the game they need to make the pitchers have a 20 second clock. When I was a young player playing in New Jersey, we played in a tournament with a 20 second clock. It helped speed up the games. The games were over in one hour and a half. The games were great. MLB needs this. I remember watching Major League games that routinely ended in two hours or less.

Tell us about your Major League debut.

To answer this question I have to begin with a story about my time in the Minor Leagues just before I got called up to join the Giants.

I started the season AA Amarillo. I worked out with the Phoenix team in AAA in Spring Training of my rookie year, 1976. I was disappointed when Rocky Bridges send me down to AA at the end of Spring Training, where I pitched very well. I started the season in Amarillo going 2-6 and I was ready to go home after a month and a half. My ERA was in the high 4s and I was very discouraged. Then one day Frank Funk, the traveling pitching coach for the Giants, came to see me to talk about how I was doing. He told me the Giants were about to promote Ed Halicki to the big club.

That talk rebuilt my confidence. I then won six straight and was leading the league in shutouts and strikeouts when I got the promotion to AAA Phoenix. The next thing I know Denny Summers is trying to reach me to tell me I am going to Phoenix. He told me I had a week to prepare before traveling due to various circumstances. I decided to leave immediately. I was so excited that I made it to Phoenix in a matter of hours. Rocky Bridges, the manager, was surprised to see me there. He could not believe I was with his team so quickly. I was determined to succeed and make my mark.

In Phoenix I lost my first couple games then won 7 in a row. Then in one game in the 8th Inning while I am in trouble Rocky Bridges comes out to the mound to tell me say “The faster you get out of this inning the quicker you will get to the big leagues because you are being promoted to the Giants.”

Needless to say I was thrilled and got out of that inning with no problems.

My last night in Phoenix I partied all night with some buddies. We were up all night and I got zero sleep. I took a late-night flight to LA, then went straight to the ballpark.

Walking into the locker room and seeing my name on the back of a Major League uniform for the first time was a big thrill.

When I arrived in Los Angeles the Giants were beginning a three-game series against the Dodgers. I was told by a Giants official I would not face the Dodgers or the Reds because they were in the playoffs. The Giants were not in contention that year but to avoid the impression of not doing their best the team’s management did not want to start any rookies against the two teams fighting it out for a Division Championship. In the locker room I got dressed with excitement even though I was very tired when I went out for batting practice.

Then Wes Westrum, the Manager, comes up to me to tell me I will be the first guy out of the bullpen tonight. I was surprised. As soon as he told me all that I got excited, the adrenaline started pumping. I thought, with Ron Bryant pitching (he won 24 games last year) there was no way I was going to get in the game. I sat down and enjoyed watching the women in the stands and getting my first taste of the Major Leagues.

We scored two runs in the top of the first. Then Ron Bryant could not get anyone out in the bottom of the first. The next thing I know the phone rings and they say Montefusco, get up. I throw 15 pitches, the sweat is pouring off me, I cannot throw one strike and I am terrified. Now they are calling me into the game and I come out of the bullpen and I am just scared as hell. The stadium is huge, the crowd is going wild. I wanted to turn around and go back into the bullpen. I had not slept the night before. I was too excited to even get one bit of rest. I get to the infield and Tito Fuentes comes up to me and gives me a pep talk. Wes tells me “Just don’t fucking walk anybody!”

Tom Paciorek is at bat. With a 3-1 count and the bases loaded I threw him a batting practice fastball praying it was going over the plate. He hits into a force play. I strike out the next two hitters and we get out of the inning.

In the top of the second I had my first Major League at bat. I get up with a man on first and I am supposed to bunt. Doug Rau threw me four balls and I walked. After another walk Gary Matthews hits a grand slam. Now we have the lead and I get very excited. I had no idea how long I was going to pitch. I was in trouble every inning except for the ninth. I had men on base every inning it seemed. After I pitch two more scoreless innings in the second and third my confidence goes way up. I n the top of the third I have my second at bat. I get up with a man on first. Charlie Hough, a knuckleballer, is pitching. I take a pitch. I had told myself not to swing at the next pitch either. He threw me a fastball and for some reason I swung hard. I thought it was a double and run my ass off. I get to second base and Davey Lopes, the Dodger second baseman says “Slow down kid you got a home run.”

In the game I must have thrown 150 pitches. Th easiest inning I had was the ninth. I pitched a 1-2-3 inning to end the game. I was so excited.

Al Michaels interviewed me on the radio and I was gushing. I said to him “This game is easy, I will win 30 games next year.” I just beat the Dodgers and I was thrilled.

Two weeks later, I pitched against the Reds, shutting them out. I was having fun.

I hit another home run and I struck Johnny Bench out three times. I should have struck him out four times since I had him in 0-2 count. He got a base hit. That season I beat all the best teams in the National League. I was having fun.

What coach or manager played a special role in your career or formation as a ballplayer?

Nobody. I threw two pitches, a fastball and a slider. I wished somewhat taught me a changeup. I was alone, we were alone in those days. I could throw the ball by people. I was not afraid to blow the ball by anyone but over time you lose a little and so I could have benefitted from learning an off-speed pitch.

Until I joined the Giants I never threw more than 100 innings. Then I threw 244 innings my rookie year, Then 233. Then in 1977 when I got hurt I lost a bit of my fastball. I wish someone taught me an off-speed pitch that could have taken a lot of stress off my body. It would have prolonged my career. In those days all the pitching coaches did was watch us warm up.

I liked John Van Hornan in Decatur Illinois. I was the oldest on the team at 23. He took me under his wing and we hung out. I asked him many questions about what it meant to be an MLB player. He said there is nothing different other than experience. He was the first one to help me think I could make it in the big leagues. Rocky Bridges, my Triple a manager was funny and kind. He let you play He let me work out of jams and showed a lot of confidence in me. I was only in Phoenix for a short time but in one game I gave up 7 runs without recording out.

Rocky Bridges had the catchers work with me on the side for one week on my mechanics before my next start and that helped. He never gave up on me.

Who was your favorite Giants teammate?

Ed Halicki, my buddy. We are both from NJ. We pitched against each other, we knew each-other and we played in the Jersey Shore league. We became best friends when were on the Giants. I met him in spring training in 1974.

I got jealous of him when he threw a no-hitter! I felt I had to get one too. He got lots of publicity when he threw his no-hitter and the competitive fire in me grew a bit hotter as a result.

Tell us a bit about your no-hitter

It was against the Braves in Atlanta. I was not feeling well. I felt kind of awful physically and my stuff was not overpowering. I felt my stuff was just “OK”. Frank Funk had just taught me how to throw a sinker. I experimented with it a bit and in the first three innings I did not allow a baserunner. In the fourth I gave up a walk,

After the fifth inning I started thinking about the no-hitter. My teammates started moving away from me in the dugout. They were thinking about it and they did not want to jinx me. It was all the classic baseball no-hitter stuff where guys avoided you on the bench.

I told them all: “You can talk to me, I know I have a no-hitter going, we can talk about it.”

In the sixth I was fine. In the 7th things started getting seriousl I started throwing harder, focusing more. The only close call was an at bat with Dale Murphy. He hit a line drive that I thought was a base-hit off the bat. Instead it went right to Marty Perez at second base. I was lucky enough to turn around and see Marty catch it. The adrenaline was pumping so much in the 8th and 9th that I did not care who was up or who I was pitching against. It could have been Babe ruth, Lou Gherig George Brett, or Henry Aaron and it did not matter. I was going to get everyone out. Bobby Murcer caught the last out of the no-hitter. I ran towards Garry Alexander and lifted him up. It was Alexander’s first time catching me in the majors. I almost broke my back lifting him up.

After the game we pack our things in the hotel. Charlie Williams and Jim Barr knock on my door and present me with this huge fruit and liquor basket as a gift. I was so excited and thanked them. I call the bellman to pick up my things to bring the basket, as we are coming down through the lobby, the hotel security come up to me to arrest me. These sons of bitches (my teammates) robbed the hotel gift shop and gave the stolen basket to me as a joke.

Who was your favorite player growing up?

Mickey Mantle. I was a huge fan. When I got traded to the Yankees in 1983 at the end of the season I was very excited for the opportunity to meet the Mick. In 1984 at Spring Training Roy White and I got to be pretty good friends. In 1984 Mantle was a coach, he was there at first base working with the players one day in Spring Training and I ask Roy if he would introduce me to Mantle. I was afraid to go up to my hero on my own. Roy walks over with me and says “Hey Mickey, I want you to meet The Count.” Mantle turns around and looks at me and says: The Count! I know all about you.”

Mickey was cool…. Nice story. Mickey was my idol. I copied his stance, the way he walked, I was a switch-hitter as a kid just to be like him. I idolized Mickey Mantle.When Mantle and Maris were in the running for the home run title, I met Maris and could not understand why everyone was against Roger Maris. I could not understand why there was so much animosity toward this great player. He was the nicest guy. It was a thrill meeting all these Yankee legends.

What players did you enjoy watching the most in your day?

I was an AL fan. I hated the NL but I did love Willie Mays. When I saw him play I could not believe how great he was. He did everything. I was so impressed.

What was the best team you played on in the Majors?

The Yankees, by far. The last six years I pitched in excruciating pain with a degenerative hip. I landed on front leg and feel incredible pain so I could not pitch much for the Yankees. But I won my first five games with the Yankees. I gave up seven runs in the first inning in one game. But because our bullpen was all burned out I had to stay in the game. I managed to get into the 7th and we tied up the score. I could not believe how good our line up was in 1983. If I were not hurt I would have won many games. When I was with the Giants we had no offense. We could not hit homers in BP and it was tough to win a game in Candlestick. As pitchers we always felt we had to shut people out two win a game.

In one weekend Ed Halicki lost 1-0 on error in the 11th. I pitched the next day, a Saturday and I told the guys to get me a get run and we would win. We beat them 1-0 in the tenth. When the reporters came to me Ed turned to the reporters and said “Some guys get all the runs.”

It was healthy competition.

How did you feel about Candlestick Park while playing with the Giants?

I hated it, especially with the astro-turf. It was windy and cold. It was all cement with garbage blowing around. It did not feel like the big leagues. It was one reason I talked a lot because I wanted fans to come out and watch me pitch. I wanted to make the game enjoyable for fans. I did my best to make it a fun place to come. I wanted the fans to get involved. I did not like pitching with empty seats around me in the park.

I love the new Giants Park. It is beautiful and a real gem. I am very happy for the Giants and San Francisco that they got this new park built. It is awesome.

What was your favorite park as a player?

Yankee Stadium, the cathedral of baseball. I met the Yankees in Anaheim when I got traded. We were on the road for two weeks. I flew from San Diego to Montreal then was traded and I had to fly back to LA and pitch the next day against the Angels. We won 6-2. Mattingly hit a three-run homer.

We were on the road for a long time those first days when I was a Yankee. I took an all-night flight to get to New York. I was very tired from traveling but I got in the car from the airport and drove straight to the stadium. I put my uniform and walked to the mound. I wanted a good look at the stadium and just stayed on the field for forty minutes. I was in awe. I was getting goosebumps putting on the pinstripes. The history, the emotions, and the realization that my dreams were coming true made it a very special day in my life.

Tell us about your relationship to Bruce Bochy

I played With Bochy in San Diego for two years. I think he was grooming himself to be a Manager back then. He was always quiet and learning. I was a very social guy, always talking. I would not shut up and he was always silent and taking things in, watching Managers. He was smart as a catcher. Bochy was a very good guy to throw to. I was so happy for him when he won the World Series for the Giants. I really was. I played 13 years in the big leagues and never went to the postseason. As Manager of the Giants He had great pitching and used his players well. He knew how to use his pitching perfectly. Whether it was the starters like Lincecum, Cain, and Bumgarner or his amazing bullpen.

What was your relationship to the Giants after you retired from the Major Leagues?

Every time a Giants pitcher was on the verge of a no-hitter I would get a call from someone in the Giants front office.

After Jonathan Sanchez finally threw a no-hitter for the Giants. Everyone was interested in talking to me about how I felt. They all wanted to know my thoughts since I was the last Giant to pitch a no-no. After Sanchez got his, I told the press, “This Giants pitching staff could throw many more no-hitters.” I said “Lincecum could get two. Cain could. I am glad they did. I am pissed at Lincecum though.”

I was out there for a reunion for the 1978 team and I asked Tim Lincecum to sign a baseball for me, Before I gave him the ball, I asked him to write me a nice autograph, something legible so I could read his name. He took the ball and scribbled something that looked like Farsi. I was pissed.

The older the player the better signature you get. Nowadays they give you a scribble and a number.

Describe your reaction to receiving your Rookie of the Year trophy from Mike Kessler (AKA Surf Maui).

I was shocked and thrilled. It was such a kind and gracious gesture on his part. I could not believe he paid what he paid for it. I hope you can return the favor to him one day. Mike is a great guy. I will never forget this.