Comfortably Zoned in a Vat o’ Pine Tar

March 23, 2021 at 12:12 am (Comfortably Zoned in a Vat o' Pine Tar)

Once again I’m teasing the book that the great George Grimm, and I, are writing. Publication date is August, 2021.

Rod Gaspar

August 2016

In this episode, Ralph Tyko, Alan Blumkin and Marty Rose welcome former Major League outfielder, Rod Gaspar. Topics of conversation include Rod’s path to the major leagues, his recollections of the Met’s miracle, championship [1969] season, and the correct way to pronounce his name.

Ralph Tyko: Rod, before we get started, what is the preferred way to pronounce your last name?  When you played for the Mets, Lindsey Nelson on TV called you Gas-PAR, but Bob Murphy on the radio side always pronounced it Gas-PER.  Which do you prefer?

Rod Gaspar: We pronounce it Gas-PER, but Gas-PAR is fine. The proper pronunciation is probably Gas-PAR, but for whatever reason my parents always said Gas-PER.

Ralph Tyko: Legend had it that during the 1969 World Series, Frank Robinson the star of the Baltimore Orioles didn’t recognize  you and said somewhat sarcastically, ‘Who the heck is Rod Gaspar?’

Rod Gaspar: A lot of people didn’t recognize me back then so it was not a big deal to me.

Ralph Tyko: But it was a big deal in the press because he was kind of mocking the team as a bunch of unknowns who didn’t belong there.

Marty Rose: The Mets history, prior to 1969, was just horrible. What was the feeling on the team at the start of the 1969 season and was there any feeling at all about getting to the World Series?

Rod Gaspar: I think things changed in 1968 when they brought Gil Hodges in as manager. I’m sure if you ask all my buddies on the team they’ll tell you the same thing.

When Gil came over there was a whole new attitude and new outlook. He had always been a winner with the Dodgers and he brought that attitude to that young Mets team. And we were certainly a young team, we could have fielded a team of players under 24 years of age.

We were young and I don’t think we were smart enough to let the previous history effect us.  As Robinson said, we were a bunch of no names, but so what? It s not the names of the players, it’s how the players play the game.

We may have been a bunch of no-names but we could play ball, which we did in sweeping Atlanta and then winning four of five from the Orioles, who were heavily favored. All anyone knew about the Mets was Tom Seaver because Nolan Ryan really hadn’t made an impact yet. But we had outstanding defense, we had guys who could hit in the clutch, great pitching and the best manager in baseball

Gil ran that team like a business. We all knew what our jobs were. He didn’t have to tell us.

Ralph Tyko: How much of a difference did Donn Clendenon make?

Rod Gaspar:  He gave us some big-time power. Donn did a tremendous job. Tommy Agee had 26 home runs as a lead off hitter but not too many of the other guys were big power hitters

Ralph Tyko: What was the relationship between Gil Hodges and Cleon Jones like?

Rod Gaspar: I guess you’re referring to when Gil took him out of the game in the middle of an inning. Gil was the boss. It’s not like today’s game where the players or their agents run the show and managers are almost like puppets.  But there was a fly ball to left and Cleon didn’t get to it and Hodges started walking out towards the pitcher’s mound, so the pitcher thought he was coming to see him. And then he walked past the mound towards the shortstop and Buddy Harrelson’s thinking ‘What did I do?’ But he kept walking out to Cleon in left and he said come on Cleon lets go. And Cleon followed him off the field. Gil kept him out for a couple of games after that. Gil never made anything of it. He just said that Cleon was hurt and after that we took off again and Cleon ended up leading the league in hitting for quite a while. He hit .340 that year.

Ralph Tyko: Yogi was a coach on that team and later took over when Gil passed away. Tell me some Yogi stories.

Rod Gaspar: I was sitting next to Yogi when Cleon caught the last out of the World Series.  I thought that Davey Johnson hit it well enough for it to go out, but Yogi with all his years of experience said that’s it, that’s the game, as soon as he hit it.

But all I can really say about Yogi was that he was a quality individual. He was the humblest guy out there. He was probably the nicest guy I’ve ever met in baseball.  He was just a sweetheart of a guy. Very funny or course and he always had that big smile on his face.

Alan Blumkin: Rod, you played a number of seasons in Hawaii. What was that like?

Rod Gaspar: We enjoyed it.  You’d rather be in the big leagues of course but if you were gonna be in the minor leagues, Hawaii is the place to play. We won a championship out there too. I have two other Championship rings besides the Mets, but they don’t look as good as that big Met ring.

Ralph Tyko: How did you break into organized baseball?

Rod Gaspar: I was always kind of small for my age. At 16 I was 5*2 and 105 pounds. In high school I was just an ordinary ballplayer but I was a good athlete and could compete with the bigger kids. When I graduated I was 5-9 and I went to Long Beach City College and I made the team and wound up leading the team in hitting. I got bigger and stronger and attended Long Beach State College and played well there for two years and made All-Conference.

The Mets drafted me in 1966 out of college but I didn’t sign so they drafted me again in 1967 and then I signed with them. I went to their Double-A club in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and played for Roy Sievers, who had led the American League in home runs at one point of his career. He was in his 40s and he was probably still a better hitter than any of us guys in their 20s. He couldn’t tell you how he did it but he could sure hit the ball.

Ralph Tyko: Were you intimidated at all when you signed and went to Double-A?

Rod Gaspar: No, I was very confident in my abilities. I had actually lost my confidence at an early age because physically some things happened to me, but I regained my confidence and got stronger. I always thought I was the best player on the team, no matter where I played.

I went to Double-A and I didn’t play for the first week and I was pissed. When I signed they told me I would be playing right away, and then after I signed I didn’t play. And then after the first week I got a paycheck for $83 and I thought, ‘Man I got paid for doing nothing?’ So finally Sievers got smart and put me in centerfield and the guy who had been playing out there was a Silver Glove Award winner in the Eastern League, and was considered a very good outfielder. But I had watched this guy for a week and I could see why he didn’t make any errors, he didn’t go for anything. He was very cautious. I didn’t play that way I was very aggressive. So I started playing and I had a decent year.  I was tenth in the league in hitting with a .260 average. I always hit better than that in college but this was pro ball, and the Eastern League was considered a pitcher’s league. The ball parks were big and old and the air was heavy.  The league only had one guy who hit .300, that was our third baseman, Bernie Smith, who never got a shot at the big leagues.

So the next year they moved their Double-A club to Memphis, Tennessee, in the Texas League, where the air was thinner and I hit .310 that year, but I thought I had a better year, when I hit .260 the year before. But sometimes it just depends on the environment.

Ralph Tyko: What was Jerry Grote like?

Rod Gaspar; He actually predicted in our 1969 spring training that we were gonna win it. He thought we had the pitching staff to win it in 1969. According to Tom Seaver, Grote was the best catcher he ever pitched to, and Seaver also pitched to Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk! So that was very high praise for Jerry.

Ralph Tyko: I once heard that if Grote played for Cincinnati, Bench would have been moved to third base.

Rod Gaspar:  I heard that too. Jerry had a rocket for an arm.  I’ll tell you a Grote story. Jerry Koosman was pitching to Grote in the 1969 season and Grote was a was a real red ass. He’d fire the ball back to the pitcher just as hard as they threw it to him. He did that once to Koosman and Koosman told him ‘you ever do that again and I’ll kick your ass.’ And he would have too. Koosman was no one to mess with.

Alan Blumkin: What was the reaction in the dugout when Ron Swoboda made that miraculous catch in Game Four of the World Series?

Rod Gaspar: That was the best play I’ve ever seen an outfielder make. I’ve see films of the Willie Mays catch and all the plays these kids now make today but that was an amazing catch. I was a good defensive outfielder and I would go in as a late inning replacement for Ron in right field and it really ticked him off to be replaced like that, so he worked his butt off to become a better outfielder.

We were at a card show years later and he brought it up to me about replacing him in the late innings. He said. You know Rodney,  that really pissed me off.” And I told him that I didn’t blame him for being upset. Ron worked his tail off and had Eddie Yost come out every day and hit hundreds of fungoes to him in the outfield just to improve my defense.

So when Ronnie made that play on the Brooks Robinson fly ball  I was so happy for him but of course happy for us too because if the ball got by Ron the whole series could have changed right there.

But the reason I thought it was the greatest outfield play I’ve ever seen was because Swoboda wasn’t supposed to make those plays. And you notice that after he caught the ball he got up and threw a rocket to home plate. He didn’t get Frank Robinson at home, but we tied it and I scored the winning run in the next inning and that was Tom Seaver’s only World Series win.

Ralph Tyko: What was the transition to civilian life like when you stopped playing?

Rod Gaspar: In 1976 I was with Hawaii of the PCL and we won the league championship. I hit .291 and played centerfield. Our manager Roy Hartsfield got the job as manager of the expansion Toronto Blue Jays the next year and if I had been picked up in the draft I might have played a few more years, but I was ready to get out of the game by then. We had two children and we were getting tired of moving around. That’s when I learned what the real world was like. I sold life Insurance. It’s a whole new ballgame.  

Ralph Tyko: We have that in common. I sold insurance for New York Life a long time. And as my grandfather used to say there is no one with endurance than the man who sells insurance.

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