Where Are They Now?
By Doug Kennedy
Pittsburgh Pirates of the 1970's, led by the "Lumber Company,"
entertained fans at Three Rivers Stadium throughout the decade
and ultimately won two World Series. A key bat in that line-up,
in the middle of the decade, was outfielder Richie Zisk.
"It was a lot of fun," said Zisk. "When we went to Wrigley Field, the Cubs' players were not allowed to watch our batting practice. They would have to go inside their clubhouse. If someone hit four of six line drives, you had to hit five out of six. It was very competitive and helped make you a better hitter."
Now a 58-year-old resident of south Florida, Zisk admits that when he broke into the Pirate organization in 1967 he was around a lot of people who could hit.
"Not all of them could catch," Zisk laughs, "but they could certainly hit."
For four seasons, Zisk continued to move up the minor league ladder, leading his league in home runs three times. He hit .308 in 1972, his final minor league season.
"I pretty much knew that I was going to get only one shot at this," he said. "If I couldn't play for Pittsburgh, I was going to show someone that I could play in the big leagues."
During that '72 season, many major league players were on military reserve, so minor league players were sometimes up and down a number of times during the season and that's what happened to Zisk.
"I wasn't getting a lot of playing time. I was just a warm body," he remembers.
Zisk finally made the parent team as the fifth outfielder in 1973. Because of the untimely death of Roberto Clemente following the '72 season, the Pirates had planned to put former catcher Manny Sanguillen in right and Milt May behind the plate. When that experiment failed, Gene Clines became the rightfielder until he tore up his ankle in June. Through a process of elimination, Zisk became the starter and ended up batting .324, locking up the job full-time for the 1974 season.
Before his promotion, Zisk was mostly spelling Willie Stargell in left field once or twice a week.
Over the course of the next three seasons, Zisk went on to hit 58 home runs and drive in 264 runs.
With free agency a factor after the 1976 season, the Pirates decided to trade him and Silvio Martinez to the Chicago White Sox for Goose Gossage and Terry Forster.
"I had spent eight years in the organization and was comfortable with the guys and my surroundings, and then I'm uprooted and it became tough," said Zisk, who realized by that the major leagues was all about business.
"At the time, free agency was in its infancy," he said. "The parent club controlled how long and where you played."
Going to a White Sox team that was somewhat of a joke around Major League Baseball at the time, considering they were coming off a 100-plus loss season, was relatively challenging for Zisk. Bill Veeck, the innovative ChiSox owner, had a plethora of gimmicks in 1977 that included the players wearing shorts and shirts that were not tucked in and had big collars.
"We had blue pants with white socks and blue stripes, but they were comfortable. It was like playing in your pajamas, but playing in our shorts made it tough to slide."
By July, the White Sox actually were sitting in first place. Veeck had all kinds of promotions that season which included selling hard liquor at the ballpark.
"You never knew what would happen later in the game," laughed Zisk. "Fortunately, I was one of the good guys. They would always take their anger out on the visiting team."
That '77 team had some thumpers of their own that included Zisk, Oscar Gamble, Ralph Garr and Chet Lemon - a group that went onto become known as the South Side Hitmen.
"They came out with t-shirts with the words on them and the players holding violin cases," said Zisk. "I still have one."
According to Zisk, if Kansas City hadn't gone on a tear in the final month or so, the Sox might have had a chance for the pennant, but winning 90 games was quite a turn-around.
Following his one-year stint in Chicago, Zisk moved on to Texas for three seasons and Seattle for another three, but his best years were probably behind him. With his career winding down, Zisk became a DH-only for Seattle.
"By that time, I had seven knee operations. They (the doctors) told me that if I wanted to walk when I was forty, then get off the field," said Zisk, who had his left knee replaced in 2001.
In 1984, Seattle placed him on the 60-day disabled list and he never suited up for a game. At season's end, he was released and professional baseball was in the rear view mirror for Richie Zisk.
"I could see it coming. Because it happened so fast, I didn't have time to dwell on it," said Zisk, who admits that he would like to get just one more at bat. "I'll bet if you'll ask 99 percent of the players who are no longer playing, they would say the same thing."
After baseball, Zisk went to Barry University in Miami and got a degree in communications. At the time, a local cable station was doing Yankee spring training games and some college games and he ended up doing play-by-play for them.
However, it didn't take long for hi, to realize he would rather be in uniform than behind the mic, and when was offered a job in the Cubs organization in 1986 as the team's roving hitting instructor, he accepted it.
Zisk has been a part of the Cubs organization since, serving in a variety of capacities including managing.
"I've been real fortunate that Chicago has allowed me to pick the spot that I want to work at in the summertime," said Zisk, who also does some substitute teaching in history during the off-season, at the same high school his wife works.
Late last season, Zisk was totally surprised when the Daytona Cubs planned a ceremony to retire his number and give away Richie Zisk bobbleheads - ones that had him in a Pirates' uniform.
"It was a very nice gesture on their part and totally unexpected," said Zisk. "I was really caught off guard. They had to get permission from the Pirates and Major League Baseball to use my bobblehead that night," laughed Zisk.
When asked why he hasn't returned to Pittsburgh for any old-timers games, Zisk simply said, "I just haven't."
And he wants everyone to know that he never actually "retired" from the game of baseball - "It was the doctors and medical staff who kept me off the field."