March 1, 2009
Al Fitzmorris didn't win a Cy Young Award in his 10 seasons as a major league pitcher, but he just might win a Grammy or an Oscar someday. A middle-of-the-rotation sinkerballer who was mostly with the Royals in a career stretching from 1969-1978, Fitzmorris is now a creative entrepreneur, having traded in the baseball life for documentaries, stage musicals, rock and roll, and more. An analyst on Royals' broadcasts for several years after hanging up his spikes, Fitzmorris had his best seasons in 1975 and 1976, when he won 16 and 15 games respectively. Fitzmorris talked about his life in the game during the Ball Four era, including his memories of Amos Otis and Lou Piniella, and the many projects that he immerses himself in today.
David Laurila: Let's begin with the early part of your professional career. How did you get to the big leagues?
Al Fitzmorris: Initially, I signed with the White Sox, and I was with them for about three and a half years, a year and a half of that as an outfielder. I switched to being a pitcher, and after the 1968 season I was taken by the Royals in the expansion draft. I spent a relatively short time in Omaha before I got called up to the major league club; I really only pitched about a year and a half in the minor leagues.
DL: What prompted the move to the mound?
AF: It was kind of my choice, because I was really struggling as a hitter. Hitting is really difficult, obviously, and being in kind of a hurry, I thought that pitching might be a better opportunity for me. I didn't have a lot of experience with it, but it was kind of either that, or maybe getting released.
DL: Despite your inexperience, you led the Carolina League in strikeouts in 1968.
AF: You know, I'm not really sure how that happened. I guess that if you throw enough innings you're going to get some, but I was able to throw strikes and get my breaking ball over, and in the minor leagues, if you can throw your breaking ball for a strike, you're going to have some success. I had a pretty decent slider. Ironically, when I got to the big leagues, I wasn't a strikeout pitcher at all. I was mostly a sinkerball, ground-ball guy. I totally changed, but at least I was able to get an opportunity.
DL: Were you similar in style to Brian Bannister?
AF: Kind of, to a degree. I had a similar type of stuff; I wasn't a power pitcher, but rather a guy who depended on pitching to contact. Brian did make some mistakes, leaving the ball up this past year, but what I did was keep balls down in the zone, trying to induce a lot of ground balls, and I had one of the best defensive ball clubs in the game behind me, which definitely helped. Up the middle we had Freddy Patek and Frank White in the infield, and we had Amos Otis in center field. John Mayberry was a good defensive first baseman, George Brett was a good third baseman. We had a good defensive ball club, and consequently, they made a lot of plays.
DL: In 1974, you threw a 12-inning complete game in which you struck out only one batter. Do you remember that game?
AF: I remember a 12-inning game, but I don't remember it specifically. I think that I threw a couple of games where I went into the 11th or 12th inning, and I'm not sure who that one was against. I believe I pitched against Catfish Hunter in the game where he won 20 games for the first time, and that one was 11 or 12 innings. That would have been in 1971, though.
DL: No one has pitched as many as 12 innings, with one or fewer strikeouts, since-so it was a pretty remarkable outing.
AF: Facing a lot of hitters, you'd think you'd get some strikeouts, but I didn't get too many. I don't know what my pitch count was that game, because we didn't keep them back in that era, but it might have been that I just got a lot of guys early in the count. It wasn't advantageous for me to throw five, six, seven pitches to a hitter, because I basically just went after them with three pitches, mostly a sinker and slider. So, without a great variance, the more pitches they'd see off of me, the more the odds went in their favor.
DL: As you mentioned earlier, the Royals selected you in the 1968 expansion draft. Did you look at that as a good thing?
AF: I did. The White Sox had some tremendous arms in the minor leagues, so I don't know how long it might have taken for me to get up to Chicago. Going to the Royals gave me a chance to get to the big leagues sooner.
DL: What do you remember about your big-league debut in 1969?
AF: It was in Oakland, and I think I actually got a win. I pitched three or four innings, relieving Jerry Cram, who was actually my roommate. The night before he started the game, he kept me up, asking how I should pitch to the A's. He asked how he should pitch to Bando, and I said I had no idea. He asked how he should pitch to Reggie Jackson-no idea. Rick Monday, I said no idea. He kept going on and on, so I finally started making stuff up so I could get some sleep. But after that game, I went back to the hotel and called my mom and dad and talked to them for a long time. It's what I had always dreamed of, and not only was it my dream, it was also their dream.
AF: You know, it was actually a hilarious book. It was very funny, but the thing is that he named names. That was the thing that people had an issue with, regarding what Jim Bouton did. It's happened throughout baseball history, and it's happening today. People are naming names to make some money, and I think that's a shame. Basically, Bouton was on his way out at the time, and he ended up having trouble getting back into everyone's good graces, even for old-timers' games.
DL: How different was the life of a player back then, not between the white lines, but off the field?
AF: I think there was a lot more camaraderie. We'd go out to eat, and it would 10, 12, or 15 of us at one time. And we didn't have to worry about bumping into somebody, or spilling a drink on somebody, and being sued, like will happen today. There was a lot more running around at that point in time, where in today's day and age you have to be a lot more careful about what you do and where you are. Look at Michael Phelps. Everybody has cell phones, many that can shoot photos and video, so it's a day of immediate media. And looking at the things we did, ten years before us it was even worse, as far as going out and having cocktails, or whatever it might be. It's like when my grandfather and my father told me about things they did when they were younger. Today, I'd end up in jail if I did something like fighting in public or something of that sort. What you did, especially when you were with your friends, stayed right there-but a wrench has kind of been thrown into that.
DL: One of your teammates when you broke in with the Royals was Moe Drabowsky. What was he like off of the field?
AF: Moe had a tremendous sense of humor; he was a real practical joker. He'd do a lot of different things for laughs, or shock value, but nothing that would hurt anybody. He did things like rubber snakes. I remember one time in Baltimore, back when you could use the phone in the bullpen to call around the ball park. Moe called the Orioles' bullpen and said that Dick Hall should start warming up. He did, and the next you know, Earl Weaver is calling their bullpen to ask why Hall was throwing. So he did things like that. Or he'd be calling a restaurant, asking them to deliver food to the bullpen. He never came into the game until the seventh or eighth inning, so until then he had fun, and we had fun with him.
DL: Lou Piniella was another early teammate of yours. What was he like back then?
AF: Lou also had a tremendous sense of humor, but he was very intense. Nobody expected more of Lou than Lou. Lou did not like going 0-for-4. He was very competitive, and he asked a lot of himself. Lou drove himself so hard, that at times it was hard to imagine that he really ever enjoyed the game. He would go hitless, and would be totally distraught.
DL: Was Amos Otis one of the best players that a lot of today's fans don't know about?
AF: I think that Amos Otis is the best player the Royals have ever had, as far as tools. He could run, catch anything, hit, hit for power, steal bases; he was probably the most complete ball player I saw. The problem with Amos was that he had a fear of failure. I think there was one year when he stole about 40 bases and only got thrown out two or three times, and we asked him why he didn't run more, and he said he didn't want to risk getting caught. I don't know, maybe Amos just didn't push himself as hard as he might have. But then again, not many balls dropped in front of him; he got to everything. He put in some pretty good years in a Royals uniform, but who knows what more he might have been able to do.
DL: You played for Bob Lemon. In which ways did he impact your career?
AF: Bob Lemon was my favorite manager. He was a really competitive guy, but he didn't have a personal agenda; he was all about the Kansas City Royals. What he cared about was the name on the front of the uniforms. I remember a game I pitched in Boston: I had pitched eight really good innings, and when I was taking the mound for the ninth, he said to me, "If you get in a jam, I am going to take you out. Don't feel bad, you have just pitched too good of a game for me allow you to lose it." How can you not love a man like that? I finished the game.
DL: You won 15 games for the 1976 Royals team that lost to the Yankees in the ALCS, yet you didn't pitch in that series. Why was that?
AF: Yeah, Whitey [Herzog] and I kind of got in a big argument. We were in Oakland and kind of got into it, and started screaming at each other. But what didn't make a lot of sense to me-and we had some good pitchers-is that Whitey said that if we get to the World Series, I'd be starting, because [the Cincinnati Reds] have a lot of right-handed hitters. The Yankees were loaded with left-handed hitters, so they had seen a lot of left-handers all year. And they hit well against them. Larry Gura pitched a pretty good ball game against them, but there was really no reason other than the personal thing between Whitey and me.
DL: After the 1976 season, you were taken in an expansion draft for a second time, this time by the Blue Jays. You were then traded, later that same day, to the Indians. What impact did those moves have on you?
AF: It was devastating, to be honest with you. I had basically grown up in the Royals' organization, had been there for over eight years, and we had finally reached the point where we were a team to be reckoned with. Now I was going to another expansion team, at a time where I no longer had several years left in the big leagues. My first thought when I was drafted by Toronto was, "Here we go again." And then, on the same day, I got traded to Cleveland, and I'm not sure that was a whole lot better than Toronto. I played with some good guys there, some who are still friends, but I just didn't enjoy Cleveland that well. I had just left the Royals after eight years, and I felt that there was such a bright future ahead, and I still wanted to be a part of it. We, as a team, had finally learned to win as a team, each player supporting the other. Cleveland had not yet learned these lessons; it was about each man surviving.
DL: You threw your last pitch in the major leagues 30 years ago. What is happening with your life today?
AF: Since retiring from baseball I have pretty much worked each and every day, mostly in sales positions with various companies. I have sold a variety of different products from ceramic tile to transportation. I currently own an apparel company where we manufacture sports uniforms, mostly for youth teams and leagues, but also do a lot of logo'd apparel for corporations. I am developing a line of higher fashion casual women's wear, tops, totes, and accessories. This business venture is the brainchild of myself and my very good friend Danni Boatwright, who won the eleventh season of "Survivor." She represented Kansas in the Miss Teen USA and Miss USA pageants as well in the early to mid 90's. She also modeled internationally for a number of years. I also have a production company that deals with my music and writing. I have actually been a serious musician/writer my entire life, and have been devoting a lot of myself to these endeavors for the last six or seven years. I have some original music in a documentary that is scheduled for national release, as well as having purchased the story rights of a little girl from Missouri who grew up with two Meth labs in her house and has had to deal with this. I am writing a documentary around this story, which I hope will create income for this little girl and help her with her expenses, as well as college when it is time. I have a stage musical in the works, and several other musical pieces that I am creating for film as well. I also enjoy playing with my band, usually once a month. Meatloaf considered one of my songs for his last CD. I would like to write for other artists, as well as for film, and hope that professionally my best years are yet to come. While I am very proud of what I was able to do with my baseball career, I would hate to think that that was all there was. I like to think about what I am going to do. I have a great support system in place with my wife Jan and my entire family, and I have great friends with vision, hopes, and dreams as well. The past is already out there for all who are interested in reading or hearing about it. The future is uncertain and exciting, and I look forward to it.