Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 30: Catching Up With Rick Waits
Steve Eby | On 05, Mar 2016
As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the greats who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.
Countdown to Opening Day – 30 days
Former pitcher Rick Waits, who began his Indians career in 1975 wearing #30 before switching to his normal #36, will always be remembered in Cleveland as a solid left-hander who won 74 games for the Indians over a nine-year stretch. Baseball history, however, will always remember him for one game that led to one of baseball’s most historic moments.
On the last day of the season in 1978, Waits was the starter for the sixth-place Tribe at Yankee Stadium against the first place New York Yankees. The Yanks were looking for a win to clinch the American League Eastern Division, while most of the Indians were ready to schedule their tee-times for the following week. Waits, however, had the task at hand fully on his mind.
“I don’t want to speak for the other guys and what they were thinking that day with it being the last day of the season and we weren’t going anywhere,” Waits said, “but I always got up for every game that I pitched.”
A Yankee win would eliminate the Boston Red Sox, who sat one game behind New York and were hosting the Toronto Blue Jays that Sunday afternoon. Boston would eventually get the victory and needed Waits to come through as well.
“First, as a team, we really didn’t like the Yankees,” Waits said of the Indians. “I always wanted to beat the Yankees or at least put my best performance out there. The second part of that was that I grew up as a Red Sox fan.”
Waits allowed two first inning runs and then shut out the Yankees the rest of the way for a five-hit, complete game victory to send the Bronx Bombers into a first place tie with the Red Sox. For his efforts, as the 5-0 Boston win was ending in Fenway Park, the Red Sox scoreboard flashed “FINAL; CLEV 9 — NY 2; THANK YOU RICK WAITS”.
“I wasn’t thinking too much about (the pennant race) as I was about how I was going to get those hitters out, but it was a fantastic day for the Cleveland Indians and for me to get to pitch that game against Catfish Hunter. Of course, nine runs from the offense helps too. We got some runs and I was able to go nine innings and finish strong and it did allow my childhood team to get into the one-game playoff.”
The playoff became one for the ages, even though Waits’ boyhood team did not come out on top. The game will forever be remembered as ‘The Bucky Dent Game’, as the light-hitting shortstop smacked a game-winning home run to send the Yankees to the ALCS. New York eventually won the World Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Indians win over the Yankees had set the stage and also capped off a career year for Waits.
“I get the years mixed up a little, but I think the year that I won the most games was in ’79, but I still consider ’78 to be my best year,” Waits accurately remembered. “I went 13-15 but I had 15 complete games. Even though my record was under .500, game in and game out that was the best pitching I did.”
For the next four years, Waits remained in the starting rotation on an overall very poor Indians squad. Waits started over 30 games for the Tribe every year from ’78-’80 and was rewarded with one of his career highlights at the start of the 1982 season.
“Starting Opening Day for any other club might not be as special, but it certainly was for the Cleveland Indians,” Waits said of his ’82 Opener at The Stadium. “Of all of the places I’ve been in 41 years being in the minor and Major Leagues, Opening Day in Cleveland is the most special place I’ve ever been. This was especially true in the old stadium because you could get up to 70,000 people.”
The ’82 experience opened the season for the Tribe at home, but Waits had fired a couple of other Home Openers as well.
“I had three Opening Days and I remember the first one was against the Red Sox,” Waits said of his 1979 masterpiece. “It was a cold day and it seemed like there was 100,000 people in the stands. There was that buzz in the Stadium after they had the parade downtown and that was special. Then I was able to shutout and one-hit the Red Sox on that day. That’s a day that will stick out in my memory forever because of the appreciation I felt from the fans when the game was over. We got standing ovations not just for my pitching performance but for the team as a whole…it was a great way to start the season.”
Waits was awarded by being named the American League Player of the Week for that start against Boston and he remained with the Cleveland Indians into the 1983 season. The memories he has of his time in Cleveland are of the great people that he worked with, since the team struggled for the majority of his time on the shore of Lake Erie.
“I would say I spend most of my time thinking about the guys that I played with or other guys that were in the clubhouse with us like (clubhouse manager) Cy Buynak or Jimmy Warfield, our trainer, who was a dear friend,” Waits remembered.
Of course, as was the case in the late 70’s, Waits always wonders what could have been with the Indians.
“But that core of players when we first started in ’75 like I did were guys like Buddy Bell, Duane Kuiper and Rick Manning and then Andre Thornton came over in ’76. There was also Alan Ashby and Dennis Eckersley…that group really could have been something if we had all stuck together. I’ll never forget those days of comradery in the clubhouse.”
“We all got traded away eventually, but I still stay in touch with almost every one of those guys and it’s been over 30 years,” Waits said. “I see Rick Manning often in Arizona. He’s most recently moved to Phoenix in the offseason and I live in southern Arizona, so we get a chance to get together either in Fantasy Camp or just to play some golf. Other former Indians that live or visit out there are guys like Terry Francona, Ron Hassey, Mike Hargrove and some of the older guys like Mike Paul and Eddie Leon all live around the Tucson area and we play golf often.”
After being dealt by the Indians in 1983, Waits’ career took a very interesting…and international…turn.
“I got traded from Cleveland to Milwaukee after nine years and spent a few years there, but then I retired from baseball and went to Italy,” Waits said. “I played baseball for three years and managed for two years in the Italian League—I won a few championships, had a great time and then never really wanted to come home.”
Waits won two championships as the manager of the Rimini Pirates in 1987 and ’88 and then won the European Cup Championship in 1989. Waits did end up coming back to the states, but lights up when recalling his time in Europe.
“Of course the total quality of talent in Italy is not as up to par as it is in the United States,” Waits said. “Its level is probably anywhere from an A level to a AA minor league level here. You, of course, have some great players over there, too—players that probably could have played in the Major Leagues but were never given a chance when they were young. Overall, though, the baseball is the same, the rules are the same and the practices are the same. A big difference over there is that most of the players have full-time jobs as well. Baseball is their passion, but it comes after they work their jobs all day. They practice at night and play at night so they only have about three games a week.”
Waits may not have wanted to come back after his amazing experience, but he did and currently works his baseball magic again in the Major Leagues.
“Eventually, however, we did and after a few years of being home I decided to get into coaching here in the States and went to work with the New York Mets in their minor league system for 17 years. Then I’ve been with the Seattle Mariners for four years.”
At the time of the interview, Waits was serving as the Pitching Coach for the M’s—one of the top pitching staffs in baseball. It was a gig that Waits earned to start the 2014 season.
“When I came over here in 2011 I was the pitching coordinator in the minor leagues,” Waits said. “I was basically in charge of all of the pitchers and all of the pitching coaches and helping to develop players to get to the Big Leagues. This past winter [prior to the 2014 season] I was hired as the Major League pitching coach. It’s my first time being a Major League pitching coach and my job is to go out there and win ball games. I think that that’s the number one job and my second job is to make sure that our pitching is consistent, well-trained and conditioned to be able to compete for 162 games.”
While the majority of the Mariners staff is very solid, Waits had the opportunity to work with one of the game’s best as well.
“I’ve known Felix Hernandez for three years but haven’t coached him until 2014,” Waits said of the 2014 Cy Young runner-up. “I’ve got 41 years in this game—and 21 as a coach—and I’d have to rank him number one as far as anyone I’ve ever coached. It’s simply because of his competitiveness and his tenacity to be good. It’s not just occasionally—it’s every hitter, every inning, every game. He’s really incredible in his preparation and routine before games and I don’t think I’ve ever been around anybody that’s as good as he is.”
Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon and his coaching staff were let go following the 2015 season, but the front office offered for Waits to remain with the organization and moved him into the role of minor league pitching coordinator, the same position he previously had with the club.
Besides coaching, Waits likes the outdoors and also to reminisce and have fun with his former Cleveland teammates.
“Most of the things that I do outside of the game are fishing, playing golf and I like to go to Indians Fantasy Camp.”
Photo: 1977 Cleveland Indians postcards