Maxwell Kates With Alan Ashby

A FEW MINUTES WITH ALAN ASHBY

By Maxwell Kates
(Virtually Alive)
And Quite Personable

As I wrote in my last Pecan Park Eagle column, on September 29, 2007, the Hanlan’s Point (Toronto) Chapter of SABR welcomed Alan Ashby as a guest speaker at a local meeting. Ashby was completing his first season in the broadcast booth for the Blue Jays after serving the Astros in a similar capacity from 1998 to 2005. Alan Ashby was born in 1951 in Long Beach, California, and was a catcher for the Cleveland Indians as well as the Blue Jays and Astros, 1973 to 1989. What you are about to read is an edited version of the transcript from the question and answer session with Alan Ashby:

Bill Brown and Alan Ashby
Play-By-Play & Color
Houston Astro Days

Question #1

When you played for the Houston Astros, you caught three different pitchers who struck out 300 batters: J. R. Richard, Nolan Ryan, and Mike Scott – who pitched a no-hitter to clinch the pennant in 1986. How would you compare catching those three pitchers?

Nolan Ryan is the greatest power pitcher of all time. He threw the live four seam fastball and it was straight and pure and would generally hop over the bat. He also had the over the top curveball. Late in his career he threw a change-up that was just phenomenal. I had hitters walk up to the plate and say “That isn’t even legal anymore.” That pitch helped him become even more dominant late in his career.

 I caught, by the way, his fifth no-hitter, the record breaker. I was just a skinny kid that had idolized Sandy Koufax. When I grew up in LA, I saw two of Koufax’ no-hitters. To have caught Nolan Ryan’s record-breaking fifth no-hitter over my hero was way too much to believe. Just a great day.

 I wound up catching three no-hitters: Ken Forsch was the first, Nolan the second, and Mike Scott whom you mentioned was the third. He had the great splitter to go along with a mid-90s fastball and for a couple of years, maybe as dominant as anybody in the game.

J.R. Richard might have been the most fear-provoking guy I ever caught. When he was on the mound, hitters were scared to death. Right-handed hitters wanted no part of the action. He was wild enough that you had no idea where it was going to go and hard enough that even if he threw right over you, you expected to have a tough time. There was a unique trio that I had a chance to catch but a lot of fun to be in that position.

Question #2

If you catch a no-hitter, by the fifth inning, do you call the game differently than if you call a normal game?

Yes. Most pitchers, if you get through six innings, you start to think ‘OK now is when we start to act like it’s a no-hitter.’ I’ll get into that in a little bit. A guy like Nolan Ryan or Mike Scott when he was on his game, you could get through four innings and have the realization that ‘today could be the day.’ You might alter things a little bit right there. Let’s say you’ve got a 3 or 4-0 lead. Most of the time when a pitcher falls behind 2-0 you give him a cut fastball. If you look at first pitch batting average for any of the guys around the league, it is going to be higher than any other pitch. Most of the time the hitter goes to the plate looking for a fastball on the first pitch. If he gets it, that’s why he hits for a high average. Once you get a little deeper in the count, especially if the pitcher gets a hit, there’s always the confusion. You have no idea what might be coming and the batting averages dive. If that pitcher falls behind a little bit, you might start throwing the other pitches rather than worrying about the walk.

 Even if a perfect game is in the mix, you’re still going to deal with a no-hitter primarily. Because to me that’s of the larger importance. The perfect game comes along with it and is a great bonus if you can get it. In that regard, you do start changing. You do start thinking in terms of ‘What is the best pitch right now to not give up a hit?” That was always my ploy when I had that opportunity. A 1-0 ballgame, a scoreless ballgame becomes a real challenge because you don’t want to start putting men on base either.

The Joy of Sandy Koufax ~ One Particularly Perfect Day ~
When Alan Ashby Was There as a Witness.

 Question 3

How did you become the starting catcher for the Blue Jays in 1977?

In 1977, Rick Cerone was the starting catcher, and Phil Roof was his backup. All spring long there were rumours that I was going to be traded to the Angels for Ron Jackson. The Blue Jays kind of went about that entire spring that I wasn’t going to be a part of the team. So we got into the first week of the year.

Cerone was still the catcher and I was still supposed to be traded. About a week or nine days into the season, they decided the trade wasn’t going to happen. Cerone got injured and that’s how I got to play.

Questions 4 and 5

There was a guy, Gaylord Perry, reputed to be throwing something for twenty years. The spitball. He acknowledged it after his career with his book.

And Mike Scott, for three or four years he was amazing, with whatever the hell he was throwing.

(Editorial Note: The writers questions (4) & (5) appear to be the same implied question about both Gaylord Perry and Mike Scott. That is, was the catcher helping them? ~ As often is the case, ask an oblique question and then wait five seconds for an oblique answer to come rushing back to you.)

What’s your implication? You’re just beating around the bush. Mike was accused of scuffing baseballs and the only common denominator I can see is the catcher.

Mike Scott was Lights Out for Foes of His 1986 Houston Astros.

Question 6

In the 1980 NLCS, Vern Ruhle of the Houston Astros was pitching against the Philadelphia Phillies. There was a play that was almost a triple play and the umpires took twenty minutes to decide that it was only a double play.

They called it the only play that it couldn’t be. Someone hit a little looper to the mound, just a little four feet in the air, five feet in the air. The looper came down and there were two or three guys on base. When the huddle was all said and done, they decided to call it a double play which was, in reality, the only play they could not rule it to be. They didn’t rule it a triple play and they didn’t rule it one out. There was a question as to whether he had caught the ball and the runners were moving. Umpires were calling the wrong thing and it caused runners to go. But in reality it should have been a triple play but they wound up calling it a double play to appease both sides. Meanwhile we all sat there and said “But that’s the only one you can’t call it.” Next time you see it, consider the possibilities, and that’s the only one you can’t. (Editorial Note: I guess you had to physically be there with the Commissioner, the Chief of MLB Officiating, your best record of the actual runners on base situation, your own copy of the rule book, great far sight vision, and the finest instant replay system available to actually later explain that situation to the baseball world at large in printed form.)

Question 7

1980 NLCS: Joe Morgan returned to Houston in time to team up with shortstop Craig Reynolds for the Astros’ first really close near miss at a World Series appearance.

The 1980 NLCS was the one where Pete Rose said to Craig Reynolds ‘It’s a shame somebody has got to lose this series.’ In the five game series, four went into extra innings. I believe the Astros lost Game 5 by a score of 8-7. What do you recall about that playoff series?

The Astros had a two games to one lead going into Game 4 in the Astrodome, where I believe we won 50-some odd games that year. By the way, the Blue Jays with a win tomorrow have a chance to make it 50 at home. I’d like to take a look at the teams that have won 50 at home this year; it’s very impressive.

We had a 2-1 lead in the series and we had a 2-0 lead in the Vern Ruhle game, in Game 4 that got away. Then Nolan Ryan got the start in the deciding Game 5. We had a lead in the 8th inning in that one and that got away. That was just a devastating loss. The Phillies went on to win it.

In 1986, the Mets beat us after a great comeback in a 16 inning game in the Astrodome in Game 6 before Mike Scott was to pitch Game 7. The Mets went on to win the World Series.

In 1981, we led the Dodgers 2-0 in a best of 5 series and the Dodgers came back to beat us three straight and they won the World Series.

Alan Ashby’s Walk-Off Homer in the 1981 NLDS

Question 8 (Implicit Request)

You had a pretty good game in Game 1 of that 1981 NLDS series.

I had a walk-off home run if I’m not mistaken, yeah, against Dave Stewart, one of your old guys.

Question 9

Of all your opponents you played against over your career, which one would you say made the most use of a limited ability?

That could have been me.

 

Alan Ashby as a Toronto Blue Jay

Question 10

Who was the most talented player you ever saw?

Up until a certain point, I’ll tell you who I think is the most talented player I’ve ever seen. Cesar Cedeno was initially the most talented player I had been around. He had some problems in winter ball that seemed to impede his career. You talk about five tool guys – and five tool can get really over-talked – but he had all the tools. He had them all and he was truly amazing.

The best game breaker player that could do everything that I’ve ever seen – and I’m not talking about Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and all that sort of thing – but a guy you’ll be surprised to hear the name, Carlos Beltrán. And his name is Beltrán. With the Astros in the postseason I have never seen a talent just take over and dominate the game. He can fly, he can do everything defensively, he can hit home runs, he can hit for average, the guy is a phenomenal talent.

Question 11

When the Astros signed Ryan, and there was all the talk of putting Richard, Joe Niekro, Ryan three in a row and how could anybody adjust game-to-game-to-game facing pitchers like that. Is that accurate and as a catcher, is it difficult to go from the blazing heat to the knuckleball to the blazing heat?

We had the two great arms and then Niekro in between. To me, there was nothing quite like catching Joe Niekro. My broken fingers come from the knuckleball and it practically ruined my catching ability. For some reason, I lost the ability to handle him with one hand. I became very two-handed and it infiltrated the rest of my game defensively for years to follow and that knuckleball just destroyed me. To the basic question, I’m not sure there is any reality to the premise but it sure sounds good. You’ve got two guys who can throw like Ryan and J. R. Richard and then throw the knuckleball in between and as a manager I would probably do the same thing. As a hitter, if I wake up tomorrow after facing Ryan, it’s a brand new day. So I don’t know if there’s anything to it.

Nolan Ryan recorded his 5th MLB no-hitter as an Astros back in 1981.

Question 12

How did you enjoy your return to Toronto? How would you sum up the year in terms of broadcasting with the Jays and the other broadcasters?

I broadcast for eight years with the Astros. My termination there was a complete surprise not only to me but to the fans in Houston and a big disappointment. I loved broadcasting so therefore I’m very grateful for the opportunity once again and I hope to be able to do it for a long time. I’ve had a wonderful time in Toronto. I find the Blue Jays to be a very intriguing team. I thought the original starting staff was doomed but you can’t really play that game on the air. You keep your fingers crossed and your eyes closed a lot of the time and hope that some guys can be successful. I think what really was fortunate for the Jays this year was that when they flamed out early and it gave the young guys a chance to come on early

 POSTSCRIPT

Alan Ashby ended the meeting by recanting an anecdote from Roy Hartsfield, his manager with the Blue Jays. Hartsfield was notorious for calling clubhouse meetings that were rife with expressions and idioms that few players who were not from Georgia would have understood. The meetings would usually finish with, “and it would finish “…’and if you’re not proud to play with this uniform’…one of the uniforms at home said Blue Jays and the one on the road said Toronto and invariably, he would get it wrong every time.”

Alan Ashby remained a Blue Jays broadcaster until 2012. Returning to Houston, he resumed colour commentary on Astros games for another four seasons, from 2013 to 2016. He and his wife Kathryn continue to live in the Houston area. Some time ago, another Astros broadcaster – Greg Lucas – suggested that I write a biography of a player common to “our two cities.” I trust Greg meant Houston was his city and not Kokomo, otherwise I would have written about Tom Underwood. So here it is, the life and times of Alan Ashby, “Catching Rainbows and Calling Stars.”

Former FOX SW Network Astros broadcaster Greg Lucas and our TPPE contributor and doggedly determined and colorful baseball writer, Maxwell Kates, sharing a smile over the thought that the 2019 baseball season is now coming at us faster than a Houston Sky shooting star always once did ~ on a long ago summer night.

 

https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/3db1785c

 

******************************

Bill McCurdy

Principal Writer, Editor, Publisher

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One Response to “Maxwell Kates With Alan Ashby”

  1. bobcopus Says:

    Enjoyed it Bill!!

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