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Milt Wilcox

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1983 Fleer Stickers #248 Milt Wilcox

Milton Edward Wilcox

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[edit] Biographical Information

Milt Wilcox pitched for 16 seasons in the major leagues. While never an All-Star, he won over 100 games and struck out 1,000 batters. He appeared in two World Series, losing one game at age 20 and winning another game at age 34; the latter year, he won a career-high 17 games. He won the Allie Reynolds Award as the top pitcher in the American Association one year, one of two times he made a postseason All-Star team in AAA. He was the third pitcher in AL history to come within one out of a perfect game only to fall short.

[edit] Youth

Wilcox's father was a track star in Hawaii and tried to get his sons to follow suit. When Milt opted for baseball instead, his father purchased lots of baseball books to try to teach him the game. [1]

[edit] 1968-1971: The early years with the Reds and their farm clubs

The younger Wilcox was taken in the second round of the 1968 amateur draft by the Cincinnati Reds, the 34th overall pick. The only other future major leaguer the Reds drafted that year was Mike Willis in the 25th round. [2] He split the year between the GCL Reds (1-2, 4.15) and the Tampa Tarpons (3-3, 1.34, 28 H, 48 K in 47 IP). Returning to Tampa, he was only 4-1 with one save and a 5.48 ERA in '69. In 1970, the 20-year-old hurler had a 12-10, 2.84 line for the Indianapolis Indians. He led the 1970 American Association with five shutouts, was second to Cisco Carlos in wins and second to Ross Grimsley in ERA. He and Vida Blue were the All-Star pitchers in the AA that year and he won the Allie Reynolds Award. [3]

Called up to the Reds, he went 3-1, 2.84, won a game in the 1970 NLCS, then lost one in the 1970 World Series. He held the record for the youngest pitcher ever to win a postseason game, a few months ahead of Francisco Rodriguez, until Madison Bumgarner broke the mark in 2010. In the NLCS win, facing the Pittsburgh Pirates he struck out Matty Alou, Freddie Patek, Roberto Clemente (on three fastballs on the outside corner) and Willie Stargell in order. He relieved Tony Cloninger with a 2-2 tie in the 6th and worked three shutout frames before turning the ball over to Wayne Granger with a 3-2 lead. [4]

Wilcox had another fine year for the Reds (2-2, Sv, 3.32) and for the Indianapolis Indians (8-5, 2.20, 22 BB in 102 IP) in 1971. He tied two other pitchers for the 1971 American Association shutout lead (3) and joined J.R. Richard as the league's All-Star hurlers. Had he qualified (he was 38 IP) shy, he would have beaten Richard for the ERA title. In Cincinnati, Milt ran into conflict with Johnny Bench and Sparky Anderson after repeatedly shaking off their signals - "For some reason both Bench and Anderson thought they knew more about pitching than a twenty-year-old rookie." [5]

[edit] 1972-1974: Cleveland, trying to learn the spitball, injuries

Milt was dealt to the Cleveland Indians for Ted Uhlaender in December of 1971. That winter, he was 3-2 with a 2.32 ERA for the Tigres de Aragua in the Venezuelan League. He then went 2-1 in the postseason to help the team win its first title. [6] With Cleveland, he benefited from the tutelage of Gaylord Perry. Wilcox tried to learn the spitball from Perry, but had little success - "[t]hrowing it was easy. Throwing it near home plate was the tough part." Batters around the American League knew Wilcox was trying to learn the spitball, but did not know of his failure to do so. As a result, he was able to play mind games with hitters. [7] He went 7-14 his first year in Cleveland, but his 3.40 ERA was about average for an AL starter.

He went 9-4 with a 3.10 ERA for Aragua in the winter of 1972-1973 and was 1-1 with a 2.33 postseason ERA. He tied Oscar Zamora for third in wins in the regular season. [8] For the 1973 Indians, Wilcox fell to 8-10, 5.83. He got his first arm trouble that year. Perry gave him some balm to help but it made it worse and he allowed four runs and let the bases get loaded with none out in his next outing. He lost some velocity, essential for a guy who relied heavily on his fastball. [9]

With the Cardenales de Lara in 1973-1974, he was 7-7 with two saves and a 3.63 ERA. He tied for 6th in the league in wins, tied for 3rd in losses, was second with 78 strikeouts (13 behind Dave Hamilton), was second in IP (126 1/3, 1 1/3 behind Hamilton) and tied Gene Garber and Jim Todd for the most complete games (5). The Indians tried converting him to the bullpen and he was a bit better in 1974 (2-2, 4 Sv, 4.67). He returned to Aragua for the 1974-1975 winter and posted a 9-6, 2.93 record. He was second in Venezuela in wins, one behind Tom House. [10] He was 1-0 in the postseason as Aragua won its second title.

[edit] 1975-1976: Back to the farm

Wilcox was dealt to the Chicago Cubs for Dave LaRoche and Brock Davis. Used primarily as a mop-up man early in 1975, manager Jim Marshall shipped him to the Evansville Triplets, promising him a call-up if he got in shape after six weeks. He went 4-3 with a 4.31 ERA for Evansville. When he was not called up, he called the general manager, who said he was unaware of the deal and brought him back after a talk with Marshall. [11] Overall, Milt had a 5.63 ERA and went 0-1 in 25 outings for the Cubs that year.

Milt did well in spring training but was sent down to the Wichita Aeros to begin 1976 as the long reliever and 5th starter in a four-man rotation. The Detroit Tigers acquired Wilcox on a loan as their Evansville club needed help with an upcoming string of doubleheaders. Evansville eventually purchased Wilcox for some old uniforms [12] and he finished the year 6-7, 3.81 between the two stops. In his last winter in Venezuela, he was 1-3 with a 4.50 ERA for the Águilas del Zulia.

[edit] 1977-1984: Big years in Detroit

Wilcox started 1977 well in Evansville (9-4, 2.44) and was called up to Detroit, where he was put in the regular rotation in the majors for the first time since his arm injury four years earlier. He went 6-2 with a 3.64 ERA for Detroit to finish the season with 15 wins between the majors and minors. Having been a thrower before, Wilcox says he learned to pitch in Detroit. [13] He was two innings shy of qualifying for the 1977 American Association ERA title; he would have won by .10 over Jack Kucek. [14]

Milt had a 13-12, 3.76 year for the 1978 Tigers, starting a run of years of solid starting. He tied Dennis Eckersley, Ron Guidry and Ferguson Jenkins for 7th in the 1978 AL with 16 complete games. He followed with seasons of 12-10, 4.35 in 1979 and 13-11, 4.38 in 1980. He tied Geoff Zahn for 9th in the 1980 AL with 13 complete games. He posted a record of 12-9, 3.03 in 1981, when his 125 ERA+ was the best of his career. He tied Rick Langford and Mike Norris for 7th in the 1981 AL in victories and was 9th in IP (166 1/3, between Larry Gura and Zahn).

In 1982, Wilcox had a 12-10, 3.63 year, again an above-average starter. In 1983, he had a 11-10, 3.97 season. On April 15th, he retired the first 26 batters he faced. Pinch-hitter Jerry Hairston ruined his perfect game bid by lining a pitch just out of the reach of Lou Whitaker. Milt did get credit for a one-hit shutout however but "felt rotten." He did not even go to bed that night, roaming the streets of Chicago instead. It was the third time in American League history that a perfect game had been broken up with one out to go, following Billy Pierce and Milt Pappas. [15]

In 1984, he became the first pitcher to spend an entire season in a team's starting rotation without recording a complete game. This is odd as Wilcox had pitched at least 8 complete games each year in the majors to that point. He had a 1-0 lead after 8 against the Kansas City Royals in the clincher and Sparky Anderson was willing to leave him in, but Wilcox opted to let Willie Hernandez finish up, which he did. 14 years after he had clinched the NL pennant for Cincinnati, he clinched it for Detroit. He said he was looking forward to October 5, 1998. [16] A lot was made about his lack of complete games at the time (the term "seven-inning pitcher" was still considered an insult), but such usage of a starting pitcher became quite common in future years. In 1984, Milt had a 17-8, 4.00 line to set his career high in wins, tied with Bud Black, Doyle Alexander and Mark Langston for sixth in the 1984 AL. He won games in the 1984 ALCS and 1984 World Series to help Detroit claim the world championship. In Game 3 of the Series, he allowed one run in six innings before Bill Scherrer relieved in a 5-2 victory. His 14 years between postseason wins was a record that stood until 2015 when Bartolo Colon had 14 years, 12 days. [17] His 14-year span between first and last Series appearances set a record for a player-manager combo in MLB as Sparky Anderson managed him with both the 1970 Reds and 1984 Tigers. It wasn't until Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich in 2014 that a player-head coach combo in another major US sport passed him (the NHL record was also 14 years). [18]

[edit] 1985-1986: Injuries again

Wilcox hurt his arm early in 1985 and needed surgery, ending his season early at 1-3, 4.85. He even contemplated learning the knuckleball. [19] He pitched in winter ball for the first time in almost a decade, going 6-3 with a 3.54 ERA for the 1985-1986 Aguilas Cibaeñas. He was two wins behind league leader Mickey Mahler. He had a 11.12 ERA in the finals but his team won the title. [20] Detroit released him after 9 years together and he was picked up by the Seattle Mariners, but only had a 0-8, 5.50 record for them when he was released in June of 1986, signalling his career was over.

[edit] 1989-1990: Senior sensation

In 1989, he went 12-3 with a 3.19 ERA for the St. Petersburg Pelicans of the Senior Professional Baseball Association. Wilcox led the league in wins. In 1990, he again played for the Pelicans and pitched in 5 games and was 3-1 with a 4.50 ERA when the league folded. [21]

[edit] Career summary

Wilcox had gone 119-113 in the majors with a 4.07 ERA and was 3-1 in the postseason. In the minors, he had been a two-time All-Star at AAA and had been 47-44. He was 29-22 with 7 saves and a 3.26 ERA in the Venezuelan League, 4-2 with a 3.54 ERA in the Venezuelan postseason. He was 6-3 with a 3.54 ERA in the Dominican League.

[edit] Superstitions

Milt claimed not to be superstitious - it was only a coincidence he ate blueberry pancakes on the day he was to pitch, he never stepped on the foul line because of a habit, threw the same eight pitches in his warm-up as a routine, etc. [22]

[edit] Trivia

In 2005, Wilcox competed with his dog "Sparky" (named for Sparky Anderson) at diving dog competitions (sort of a canine long-jump) and placed 5th in the national finals. He now owns Ultimate Air Dogs, a national dock jumping organization that sponsors dock jumping events. [23]

Milt has been a coach at Tiger Fantasy Camp in Lakeland, FL for a number of years. [24]

[edit] Notable Achievements

[edit] Sources

  1. The Fall of the Roman Umpire by Ron Luciano, pg. 135
  2. BR Draft
  3. 1971 Baseball Guide, pg. 397-405; The American Association by Bill O'Neal
  4. The Fall of the Roman Umpire, pg. 136-137; Box score of the game
  5. The Fall of the Roman Umpire, pg. 137; 1972 Baseball Guide, pg. 397-405
  6. Pura Pelota for all LVBP stats
  7. The Fall of the Roman Umpire, pg. 137-139
  8. 1972-1973 LVBP leaders in wins
  9. The Fall of the Roman Umpire, pg. 139-140
  10. 1974-1975 LVBP win leaders
  11. ibid., pg. 141
  12. ibid., pg. 142-143
  13. ibid., pg. 143
  14. 1978 Baseball Guide, pg. 416
  15. The Fall of the Roman Umpire, pg. 143-144; Retrosheet listing of near-perfect game
  16. The Fall of the Roman Umpire, pg. 149; Detroit Tigers 1984 ed. by Mark Pattison and David Raglin
  17. CBS
  18. ESPN
  19. The Fall of the Roman Umpire, pg. 149-150
  20. Dominican League official website
  21. SPBA stats courtesy of Stephen Soltis
  22. The Fall of the Roman Umpire, pg. 145
  23. Ultimate Air Dogs; ESPN story; Battle Creek Enquirer
  24. Detroit Athletic Company; Lakeland Ledger article

[edit] Further Reading

  • Maxwell Kates: "Milt Wilcox", in Mark Pattison and David Raglin, ed.: Detroit Tigers 1984: What A Start! What A Finish!, SABR Publications, Phoenix, AZ, 2012, pp. 164-168. ISBN 978-1933599441
  • Milt Wilcox (as told to George Vass): "The Game I'll Never Forget", Baseball Digest, June 1986, pp. 46-47. [1]

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