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A look back at Jim Rooker

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The walking man.

Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball - Jim Rooker Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Jim Rooker was born September 23, 1942 in Lakeview, Oregon but grew up in the Denver area and graduated from Cherry Creek High School in 1960. He was an outfielder in high school but after signing as a free agent with the Detroit Tigers, he was converted to a pitcher. He worked his way through the Tigers farm system with stops in various places in Americana such as Jamestown, Duluth, Montgomery, Rocky Mount and Toledo.

He excelled for Toledo in 1968, going 14-8 with a 2.61 ERA. The Tigers, who were in the midst of a World Series winning season, called up Rooker in mid-season. He made his debut on June 30 and made another appearance on July 6 before being sent back to Toledo. He was not added to the Tigers’ post-season roster, which caused some bitterness with Rooker, who felt he had better stuff than two other pitchers on the Tigers staff. Dick Drago was a teammate of Rooker’s on that 1968 Toledo team and felt that he too, should have been given a look by the Tigers. Drago put together a 15-8 record for Toledo that summer, but never got a call up.

The baseball gods often work in strange ways, and in the case of Rooker and Drago, that was true. In June of 1968, the Tigers acquired former Kansas City Athletic hurler John Wyatt from the Yankees for a player to be named later. On September 30, fresh off their World Series victory over St. Louis, the Tigers named Rooker as the player to be named later. Rooker’s career with the Yankees would be brief.

On October 15, the new Royals used the sixth pick in the expansion draft to select Rooker from New York. The Royals later used the thirty-first pick in the draft to select Rooker’s former teammate, Drago.

Reunited, the two pitcher’s career’s took different paths. Drago found immediate success, quickly establishing himself as the ace of the Royals staff. Rooker, who had flashes of brilliance, struggled.

Rooker’s 1969 Rookie card

He went 4-16 in 1969. His ERA wasn’t that bad, only 3.75. Seven of those losses came by one run. In four of those games the Royals scored one run or less. Rooker played in Kansas City from 1969 to 1972, finishing with a 21 -44 record and a 3.93 ERA over 488 innings.

He had some moments. On July 7, 1969 playing the Twins in Bloomington, Rooker got the start and pitch seven innings, only allowing four hits. Unfortunately, one of those hits was a bases clearing three run triple to Twins pitcher Jim Kaat. The Royals ended up losing this game by the score of 6-5. Rooker did his damage with the bat. He hit two home runs off Kaat, becoming the first Royal to hit two home runs in a game.

On June 4, 1970, Rooker pitched possibly his finest game in Royals uniform against the Yankees in New York. Rooker held the Yankees hit less for the first eight innings. The Royals were nursing a 1-0 lead going into the bottom of the ninth when Horace Clarke led off with a single, spoiling Rooker’s night. Bobby Mercer then stroked a double into the right-center gap to tie the game. Rooker got out of the inning and worked a clean tenth. He gave up back to back singles in the 11th, but got Danny Cater and Thurman Munson to end the threat.

The Royals could not score against future teammate Lindy McDaniel and somewhat unbelievably, Royals manager Charlie Metro brought Rooker back for the twelfth. Rooker gave up two singles and a walk before Metro called on Moe Drabowsky. Horace Clarke ended things with a sacrifice fly to center, giving New York a 2-1 victory. Pitch counts didn’t exist in those days but since Rooker faced 45 batters, you can estimate that he threw as many as 180 pitches that evening.

On October 25, 1972, Kansas City traded Rooker to the Pittsburgh Pirates for sidewinding reliever Gene Garber. Rooker spent the winter playing in Venezuela and began working with a two-seam fastball. The new pitch had a lot of movement and was enough to change his career trajectory.

From 1973 to 1977, Rooker started 138 games for the Pirates and posted an excellent 67 and 45 mark with a 3.00 ERA. He went 29-17 in 1976 and 1977 while pitching 403 innings. How nice would it have been to have that kind of production on those Royals playoff teams? Rooker’s numbers in 1976 and ’77 would have placed him as a solid #2 or #3 starter behind Dennis Leonard and Paul Splittorff.

Garber meanwhile, appeared in 58 games for the Royals between 1973 and 1974 showing some flashes but not enough to keep him in town. Kansas City sold him to the Philadelphia Phillies on July 12, 1974. Garber went to the Atlanta Braves in a 1978 trade, where he found success as a closer and foil to Pete Rose.

You may recall in that summer of 1978 Rose had fashioned a 44-game hitting streak and the nation was watching intently to see if he could challenge Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game record. With two outs in the ninth and the Braves leading 16-4, and the Atlanta crowd chanting “Pete Rose, Pete Rose” Garber got Rose swinging at a change up out of the strike zone to end the streak. Rose was memorably quoted after the game as saying, “I was a little surprised that in a game that was 16-4, he pitched me like it was the seventh f*cking game of the World Series. I guess he thought it was f*cking Joe DiMaggio up there.” Rose never forgave Garber and Garber, rightly, never apologized. He said it was his job to get hitters out.

But back to Jim Rooker. Rooker broke his arm in a September 1977 car accident and was never the same. His numbers started to slip in 1978 and by 1979 he was relegated to spot duty. He did play a big part in the Pirates 1979 World Series victory over the Baltimore Orioles. Rooker pitched 3 23 innings of relief in a Game One loss, only allowing two hits and no runs. Then with the series on the line, he got the game five start with the Pirates trailing the Orioles three games to one. He pitched five strong innings, only allowing one run. Bert Blyleven came on in relief and pitched four shutout innings and the Pirates scored seven runs in the next three innings to stay alive in the series. Who remembers Blyleven playing for the Pirates??

Rooker appeared in four games for Pittsburgh in 1980 and retired after the season ended. The popular Rooker then immediately joined the Pirates radio and television broadcast team, where he worked from 1981 to 1993. He also spent three years at ESPN from 1994 to 1997, but his claim to fame came with the Pirates on June 8, 1989 in a game against the Phillies in Philadelphia. Both teams were terrible but headed in opposite directions. The young Pirates had some talent and were an emerging team, while the Phillies were heading in the opposite direction. In this game, the Pirates scored ten runs in the top of the first which prompted Rooker to say, “if we don’t win this one, I don’t think I’d want to be on that plane ride home. Matter of fact, if we don’t win, I’ll walk back to Pittsburgh.”

Von Hayes hit two home runs for Philadelphia and light hitting Phillies shortstop Steve Jeltz hit two of his five career home runs. The game was a wild one, with the Phillies scoring five runs in the bottom of the eighth which was enough to pull off the unlikely 15-11 victory.

Jeltz, who played college ball at the University of Kansas, naturally would finish his career in Kansas City. The Royals, always hungering for light hitting shortstops, acquired Jeltz straight up for a young pitcher named Jose de Jesus. De Jesus played reasonably well in Philly, going 17-17 while pitching 311 innings over two seasons. He too, came back to Kansas City for the final five games of his career in 1994. In those days, the Royals were always good for a last paycheck for a fading player. Jeltz ended up playing 74 games for the 1990 Royals where he slashed a very ‘90’s Royal like .155/.200/.194. The Royals released him in November of 1990 and his career was mercifully over.

Rooker though still had a walk to make. Always a man of his word, Rooker waited until the season ended before embarking on the 258-mile trip. On October 5, Rooker walked out of the parking lot of Veterans Stadium and for the next 12 days walked the length of the Pennsylvania, arriving at Three Rivers Stadium on October 17. ABC’s Good Morning America covered part of the stroll. The walk also raised thousands of dollars for the Bob Prince Charities and Children’s Hospital.

In retirement, Rooker spends time training dogs and spending time with his grandchildren. He also has written several children’s books with plots that combine reading and baseball. Some of the titles are: Matt the batt, Paul the baseball and Kitt the mitt. No word if he’s written a book for the Phillies faithful titled Pat the Bat.