Ron Guidry’s fork-in-the-road moment occurred on an interstate just outside of Harrisburg, Pa. in the summer of 1976. Angry about his most recent demotion to Triple-A Syracuse, the 25-year-old New York Yankees pitching prospect decided he’d had enough of the yo-yo treatment and the ridicule spewed by bombastic Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who grumbled to his front office people that Guidry “didn’t have any guts” after watching the lefthander get rocked by the Boston Red Sox.
So, when he received the news he was being shuffled to the minors for the third time in three years, Guidry told his wife, Bonnie, they were heading back to their native Louisiana for good. He was quitting baseball. See ya!
After cramming the belongings from their New Jersey apartment into the trunk and backseat of their car, they embarked on a drive that would change their lives forever. About five miles before reaching the Harrisburg exit to Interstate 81, which could have taken them either south to Cajun country or north to Syracuse, Guidry’s wife, Bonnie, piped up.
“She hadn’t said much all the way from New York, but just before we reached that exit, she asked me to reconsider my decision,’’ recalled Guidry, who will sign autographs during the Rochester Red Wings game at Frontier Field on July 11. “She said something to the effect that this was the first time she had ever seen me quit something before I saw if I could truly do it or not. She told me I should think about giving it one more shot, and if it didn’t work out, then we could move on.”
Guidry pondered what she said, then pulled their car onto the exit ramp for 81 North. He didn’t realize it at the time, but he was embarking on a journey whose final destination would be Monument Park in Yankee Stadium.
Over the final three months of that season, he made International League hitters look like T-ballers, going 5-1 with nine saves and a miserly 0.68 earned run average out of the bullpen. That stellar showing with the Syracuse Chiefs earned him an invitation to the Yankees spring training camp in 1977. The wiry, 5-foot-11, 165-pounder made the big club, but didn’t get a chance to strut his stuff until two months into the season when a series of injuries forced the Yankees to use him as a starter. Guidry seized the opportunity, posting a 16-7 record with a 2.62 earned run average in 25 starts as the Bronx Bombers won their first World Series title in 13 years.
The following year, he would live up to his Louisiana Lightning nickname by turning in one of the greatest seasons in Yankee and baseball history, going 25-3 with a 1.73 earned run average and nine shutouts—the most by an American League southpaw since 1914. In three of his losses, the Yankees scored just one run, so his .893 winning percentage—best ever by a 20-game winner—could have been even more spectacular had he received more support.
“My mindset was to put my team in position to win each game I started,’’ he said. “Interestingly, had I lost just one more game, I still would have had a great year statistically, but we wouldn’t have won the pennant or the World Series.”
True that, because in 1978 the Yankees had to wipe out a 14-game deficit in order to finish the regular season tied with Boston. The deadlock precipitated a one-game playoff, which Guidry wound up winning in Fenway Park with support from Bucky Dent’s famous home run. That also was the season in which Guidry set a team record by striking out 18 in a single game and igniting the Yankee Stadium tradition of fans whooping it up each time an opposing hitter accumulated two strikes.
“Strangely, after warming up before that game in the bullpen, I told (reliever) Sparky Lyle that I was having a real problem getting the ball into the strike zone,’’ he recalled. “My velocity was good and my slider was really breaking, but my control was way off. Sparky told me to just keep battling and eventually it would come. Fortunately, after about two innings, it did.”
Guidry would go on to win 170 games, five Gold Gloves for fielding excellence and make the All-Star team four times—career achievements that won over the antagonistic Steinbrenner and prompted the Yankees to retire the southpaw’s No. 49 in 2003. When he reflects on his illustrious career, Guidry thinks of his wife’s sage advice, and the powerful support of Gabe Paul, a Rochester native and former Red Wings executive and Yankees general manager who went to bat for Guidry. Steinbrenner was all ready to trade Guidry, but Paul convinced him it would be one of the biggest mistakes in franchise history.
“I’ll always be appreciative to have someone believe in me the way Gabe did,’’ Guidry said. “My name was always the first one to come up in trade talks. Gabe said to George, ‘If other teams value him so much, maybe it’s time we show we value him, too.’ ”
The 68-year-old Guidry spends much of his time these days tending to his 60-acre property in Louisiana. He hits the road for some charity golf tournaments and autograph appearances, and the Yankees Old-Timers’ Game, where he’ll usually toss an inning and reconnect with former teammates and the current Bronx Bombers he works with in spring training.
“The arm feels great because I don’t have to use it much anymore,’’ he said, chuckling. “But after I get done throwing, it’s sore and so is everything else. These days I’m better at talking a good game than playing one.”
There is much to talk about, thanks to that gutsy turn he made 43 summers ago.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.