Monday, May 5, 2014

Card #34: Joe Sambito

Who Can It Be Now?
Joseph Charles Sambito was born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 28, 1952.  Sambito grew up in typical Long Island fashion -- he attended Bethpage High School in Bethpage, New York, before attending Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.  And, he was a Yankees fan.   He was not drafted out of high school, and was selected in the 17th round of the June 1973 Amateur Draft by the Astros.  

He signed nearly immediately and progressed through the Astros farm systems reasonably quickly.  When the Astros needed pitching help with a flurry of doubleheaders facing them at the end of July in 1976, Sambito was called up.  In his second major league start against a terrible St. Louis Cardinals team on August 29, 1976, Sambito threw a four-hit shutout in front of 7,098 fans in the Astrodome.  Despite this initial success as a starter, Sambito started just 3 more games after this shutout.  

Instead, the Astros moved him into the bullpen -- mainly, according to an old Sports Illustrated article about his hair, because Sambito was a left-handed pitcher and the Astros did not have any lefties in the bullpen.  In multiple interviews, including the SI article but also from a radio interview from February of 2014, Sambito said he really did not care that he was put into the bullpen -- he was just happy to be in the major leagues.

Sambito may have been a guy who was "just happy to be here, hope I can help the team" in true Bull Durham style, but he flourished when he went to the bullpen.  By 1979, Sambito was the Astro's only real closer.  He finished with an 8-7 record, a 1.77 ERA, 22 saves, and a K/BB rate of 3.61 over 91-1/3 innings.  During that year, he kept opposing teams scoreless for 40-1/3 straight innings and made his only appearance on the All-Star team.  In an interview in 2001, Sambito recalled how he felt in that game (and, he got the details correct!):
Please keep in mind that as I looked across the clubhouse locker room at Rose, Morgan, Winfield, Carlton, Brock, Schmidt, etc. I was trying to understand how and why I was there.  I recall sitting in the NL bullpen early in the game and looking directly into the AL dugout.  Sitting on the bench, with his bat, was Reggie Jackson, fresh off of three successful seasons with the Yankees.  He was the biggest thing in baseball at the time.  I turned to Joe Niekro and told him all I wanted to do was face Reggie.  As it turned out, in the sixth inning, Gaylord Perry ran into some trouble and with Reggie announced as a pinch-hitter, Tom Lasorda brought me into the game.  Reggie and I had quite a battle as he fouled off 4 or 5 pitches with two strikes; he then grounded to 2B.  I intentionally walked Roy Smalley and got George Brett to fly out to shallow centerfield.  When Don Baylor was announced as the next hitter, Lasorda took me out.  I had my fun and maybe my most satisfying memory in my baseball career.
Along with Dave Smith and Frank LaCorte in 1980, Sambito formed one of the best bullpens in baseball at that time.  The Astros made it all the way to the NLCS, but the bullpen -- Ken Forsch in particular, but Sambito pitched too -- could not keep the three runners that Nolan Ryan left on base from scoring, and the eighth inning in game 5 of the best-of-5 series turned into a nightmare for Houston -- 5 runs in that inning gave the Phillies the lead.  The Astros stormed back to tie the game and send the game to extra innings, but the Phillies scored in the top of the 10th to win the game and the series.  

Sambito pitched extremely well again in 1981 -- but, perhaps, all the toil out of the bullpen over those five seasons had taken their toll on his arm.  Sambito pitched in 422-1/3 innings out of the bullpen between 1977 and 1981 -- an average of 98 innings per 162 games.  And, it was not like these were low-leverage innings, either.  Sambito finished 200 of his 292 games in that time, and only 94 of the 292 games were "low leverage" appearances according to Baseball-Reference.

As of 1982, then, Sambito was recognized as being the key guy in the Astros bullpen in many respects.  He started 1982 well -- an 0.71 ERA through 12 innings.  But, after locking down his fourth save of April on April 27 -- and being interviewed by Sports Illustrated in an article which quotes pitching coach Mel Wright as saying, "I can't ever recall his having a pulled muscle or sore arm" -- Sambito felt pain in his elbow.  At first, it was diagnosed as tendinitis.  In reality, Sambito had bone chips in his elbow and had ruptured the ulnar collateral ligament.  Yup, it was Tommy John surgery for Sambito.  

In 1982, TJS meant that a player missed at least 18-24 months, and that is what Sambito missed -- 24 months.  He did not make another appearance in a major league game until May 25, 1984.  By that point, the Astros had Frank DiPino (along with Dave Smith, Bill Dawley, Mike LaCoss, and Vern Ruhle) closing games for them. Sambito pitched in 32 games that year.

By early 1985, the Astros lost confidence in Sambito's ability to pitch and released him during spring training.  Sambito signed with the New York Mets on April 27, 1985, after tryouts with the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Montreal Expos.  Sambito was not the same pitcher after 1984, though, and his Mets experience was not a good one.  Neither were his two years at the end of his career with the Red Sox in 1986 and 1987.  After the 1987 season and at the age of 35, Sambito called it a career.  Not bad for a guy who was just happy to be there.

Orange You Smart
While he was with the Red Sox -- and perhaps seeing his career was winding down -- Sambito joined Bill Buckner and Marc Sullivan at Northeastern University in continuing their respective college educations.  While the story does not mention what Sambito was taking for classes, it's pretty clear that what he was doing was preparing himself for life after baseball.

And what is that life after baseball?  Being a player agent.  His career has been spent with SFX Baseball, which is now known as Relativity Sports.

Here's a list of players -- past and current -- whom I can find Sambito being referred to as being their agent:  Andy Pettitte, Ryan Klesko, Jeff D'Amico, Morgan Ensberg, Will Middlebrooks, the infamous John Rocker, Paul Goldschmidt, Evan Meek, Daniel Nava, and Casey Kelly.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I knew who Joe Sambito was back in 1982 -- and he's fairly well described above.  He was a lefty closer who had a bad elbow.  I remember the NLCS back in 1980 as well.  I was hoping that the Astros would win that series because I really felt bad for them having to go through the trauma of having their best pitcher -- J.R. Richard -- have a stroke before a game that year.  But, that was not meant to be.

Sambito is a genial guy, from all indications I have found through interviews and news stories.  I mean, the Long Island Business News went out of its way in 2000 to distance its native son from the whole John Rocker/Sports Illustrated interview.  The story is told, certainly, from the fan boy perspective -- I mean, when one of the paragraphs says, "He was 14 the first time I ever saw him pitch, an eighth-grader brought up to play for our freshman team", well, you know it will be a favorable column.

That said, the story from the LIBN talks about how Joe Sambito went to his first major league spring training -- by leaving behind his father who was dying of cancer. It's tough to dislike the guy with that story out there.

Then again, he is a player agent.  That might change at least a couple of minds.

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