Photo courtesy of BCB reader kaseyi -- taken in 1984
When I think of Rick Reuschel, the first thing that comes to my mind is "fried chicken".
Now, that sounds ridiculous, but let me explain. For quite a long time in the late 1970's, Rick would throw well in almost every start, then was taken out in the 7th or 8th inning, many times for Bruce Sutter. And we'd sit in the bleachers and look at the clock and it was almost always just about 3:30 and we'd say, "That must be when the fried chicken gets delivered to the clubhouse."
This is an apocryphal story, of course, but it's lent some credence by, of all people, Steve Stone, who was once asked how the clubhouse food spreads were when he played for the Cubs. His quote: "I have no idea. I never had any, because there was always 500 pounds of Reuschels between me and the spread."
Now that I've made fun of Rick's appearance, I should also say that Ricky Eugene Reuschel wasn't a fat man -- just a big man, 6-3 and 235 (nicknamed "Big Daddy" for his size), and despite his somewhat paunchy appearance, he was a tremendous athlete. Born May 16, 1949 in Quincy, Illinois, he attended Western Illinois University and was drafted in the third round by the Cubs in 1970. He was in the major leagues less than two years later and installed in the Cubs' starting rotation -- but not until after making his major league debut in relief on June 19, 1972, at Wrigley Field against the Giants. Starting for San Francisco that day was, of all people, Steve Stone.
Reuschel went a respectable 10-8 with a fine 2.93 ERA in his rookie season, puzzlingly not getting a single vote in the 1972 NL Rookie of the Year voting.
The following year he began to define the term "workhorse". From 1973 through 1980 his inning totals were: 237, 240.2, 234, 260, 252, 242.2, 239 and 257. He started between 35 and 39 games each year, never missing a start, and his familiar no-overhead-windup rocking motion, the big number 48 on his back, was so familiar to any of us who watched the Cubs creak to the end of contention with the late-60's era crew, then fall into the depths, then suddenly recover to flirt with contention again, only to fall to a 98-loss season in 1980, which made Reuschel about the only tradeable commodity on the roster. More on that below.
Despite his workhorse qualities, he was really no better than a .500 pitcher until 1977, when he and the rest of the Cubs roared out to a 48-33 start and a 8.5 game lead in late June. On July 28, he was sent into the game against the Reds in relief in the thirteenth inning, and his single began the winning rally in the bottom of the 13th -- I will never forget the pure-joy grin on his face as he scored the winning run on Davey Rosello's single. (Rick was a good hitter -- in 1977, for example, he hit .207/.225/.299 with 3 doubles, a triple, a HR and 8 RBI.)
With that win Reuschel was 15-3 with a 2.14 ERA and was the odds-on favorite to win the NL Cy Young Award. Needless to say, it didn't happen -- the team collapsed and despite pitching reasonably well the rest of the year, Rick wound up 20-10, and finished third in the Cy Young voting (and also 21st in the 1977 NL MVP balloting). It was the only twenty-win season for a Cubs pitcher between Fergie Jenkins' 24-win season in 1971, and Greg Maddux' 20-win season in 1992.
By 1981, the Cubs had fallen to the depths of the National League, and Rick was off to a mediocre 4-7 start (though with a team that was 15-37 at the time, that's not such a bad record!), so, given the pressure to "do something", GM Bob Kennedy shipped him to the Yankees, in exchange for a PTBNL, who turned out to be Doug Bird, and a prospect named Mike Griffin who never panned out. Bird was a marginally useful starting pitcher, and Reuschel went 4-4 for the Yankees in 11 starts, and did wind up pitching for them in both the split-season 1981 division series, and the 1981 World Series.
But all those innings had caught up with him. He had torn his rotator cuff, and missed the entire 1982 season. By mid-1983 the Yankees tired of this and released him. Dallas Green, partly for nostalgic reasons and partly because he thought the 34-year-old Reuschel had something left, signed him to return to the Cubs. It was a popular signing -- so much so that I drove to Madison, Wisconsin, to see him pitch for the Quad City Cubs against the Madison Muskies on July 9, 1983. The game sold out -- Reuschel pitched five innings, allowed no runs, and left the game, at which time about half the crowd also left. I stayed, and was treated to a baserunning show by Shawon Dunston, who was also playing for Quad City at the time.
Rick made it back to the Cubs for four September 1983 starts, going a respectable 1-1, 3.92, and when Fergie Jenkins was released during spring training 1984, Rick had made it back to the Cubs' major league roster.
Unfortunately, he was about the last man on that '84 pitching staff -- he made only 19 appearances, 14 starts, at one point going from August 10 to September 7 without getting into a game. The rust showed -- he finished 5-5, 5.17, and in a decision that most of us blasted Cub management for, was left off the playoff roster in favor of Green's Philadelphia buddy, Dick Ruthven. Reuschel was just the guy who might have been able to stem the Padre tide in game four or five. But we will never know.
And the mediocre 1984 season performance prompted Green to let Rick leave the Cubs again, via free agency. He signed with the Pirates and had an outstanding 14-8, 2.27 season in '85; this is the sort of thing that a pitcher can do when he wants to prove someone wrong. After a middling 1986 and a decent start to the 1987 season in Pittsburgh, he was sent to the contending Giants -- after the trading deadline, in a waiver deal, and helped San Francisco to the NL West title. He didn't pitch well in the NLCS -- allowing seven earned runs in ten innings in two starts -- and the Giants lost.
That didn't stop Rick -- seemingly wanting to prove he could pitch forever, he had two of his best seasons at age 39 in 1988 (19-11, 3.12) and at age 40 in 1989 (17-8, 2.94, 8th in Cy Young voting). But his body began to break down in 1990; he made only fifteen starts, and missed almost the entire 1991 season. He tried to come back for one final year in 1992 -- I went to see him throw a morning "B" game at the Giants' minor league complex in Scottsdale, in front of me, a couple of scouts, and some bored minor leaguers -- but it was clear he had nothing left, and decided to retire. That "B" game might have been the last time he ever appeared on a baseball pitcher's mound; I went, honestly, for nostalgia to see someone who had been one of my childhood favorites.
Rick ranks high on most of the Cubs' all-time pitching lists: 6th in innings (2290), 8th in games (358), 2nd in games started (343) , 3rd in strikeouts (1367), and 12th in wins (135; he and Fergie Jenkins are the only ones in the top 12 who pitched for the Cubs after 1945).
Since retirement Rick and his brother Paul have operated their family's farm in the Quincy area. Rick owes much to baseball, including his wife -- he married his onetime teammate Scot Thompson's sister.