Thursday, February 4, 2016

Cups of Coffee: Larry Yount

This is the third in a series of posts about Astros players in franchise history who played in one career Major League game. The first post was the sad tale of Jay Dahl, then the sort-of-awesome tale of John Paciorek. Today we take a look at the bizarre - and wholly unique tale - of Larry Yount.

Larry Yount was born on February 15, 1950 in Houston, Texas, but graduated from Taft High School in Woodland Hills, California - the alma mater of Larry Dierker, Gabe Kapler and, of course, brother and future Hall of Famer Robin Yount. Yount went to Arizona State and became the Astros' 5th Round pick in the 1968 draft - a draft that, including Yount, only produced four Major Leaguers. Of those four, only Ken Forsch posted higher than a 0.2 WAR.

Yount was sent to Greensboro of the Carolina League for his professional debut in 1968 and went 1-4 with a 4.21 ERA as the youngest pitcher on the team by two years, and was briefly teammates with Forsch. He made the jump to Triple-A Oklahoma City and went 0-3 with a 5.85 ERA/1.60 WHIP to round out his first minor-league season.

In 1969, Yount split time between the Instructional League and Peninsula of the Carolina League, posting an 11-6 record with a 2.27 ERA/1.23 WHIP, but struggled with walks - 56 of them in 103IP. He made the jump to Double-A in 1970 with Columbus in the Southern League, and cut his walks drastically - to 2.8 BB/9, going 12-8 with a 2.84 ERA/1.12 WHIP in a career-high 184IP.

In their inaugural season in 1970, the Columbus Astros - led by Yount, Forsch, and Cesar Cedeno - edged the Montgomery Rebels for the Southern League title by one percentage point, .569 to .568, going 78-59 while the Rebels played two more games and went 79-60.

Yount spent Spring Training with the big-league club in 1971, and was sent to Triple-A Oklahoma City for the season. Over the previous two seasons, across three levels, Yount had thrown 287IP, allowing 219H/84ER, with 247K:114BB. He made 22 starts for the 89ers, second on the team behind a 21-year old pitcher named J.R. Richard, and went 5-8 with a 4.86 ERA/1.60 WHIP as his control issues reared their ugly head once more, walking 5.5 per nine, throwing ten wild pitches and hitting nine batters. The team finished 71-69, two games behind Denver for the West Division title.

With the minor-league season over, the 21-year old Yount had to spend a week to fulfill a military obligation, but was called up to the Astros upon his return. Yount said in 1989:
I was just sitting around for a week and hadn't done anything. I usually had some stiffness when I had come back from other layoffs and there was no question at the time that I had no business trying to pitch that soon. But I was a 21-year old kid, and like any 21-year old, I wasn't going to turn down a chance to show them what I could do.

1971 was the Astros' tenth season in existence. They would go on to post a 79-83 record, their tenth straight season at .500 or below, but 1972 would bring the team their first winning record. September 1971 saw the Astros fighting to get there, though. From September 5-13 the team won eight straight games - the last seven on the road - and they had taken both games in a two-game set at Atlanta on September 6/7. September 14 would mark the first game in a ten-game homestand with the Astros in 4th place, ten games back. The Astros dropped both games against the Padres to open up the homestretch, and would face the Braves at the Astrodome on September 15 and 16 sitting at 73-75.

Phil Niekro got the start for the Braves, facing Houston's Jack Billingham. The Astros got a run across in the bottom of the 1st to take a 1-0 lead, the last lead of the game. Billingham gave the run right back in the 2nd. Tied 1-1, the Braves took a 3-1 lead in the 4th, and then, in the 5th inning, Hank Aaron hit the 636th homer of his career to put the Braves up 4-1 and end Billingham's night.

Side Note: Following the season, Jack Billingham would be sent to Cincinnati along with Ed Armbrister, Denis Menke, Cesar Geronimo, and Joe Morgan for Tommy Helms, Lee May, and Jimmy Stewart. On April 4, 1974 Billingham gave up the homer that tied Aaron with Babe Ruth for career home runs. 

Reliever Skip Guinn, making his 2nd appearance for the Astros in 1971, would hold the Braves there, throwing 3IP alllowing a hit and walking three - one intentionally - but no earned runs. Down 4-1 in the bottom of the 8th, the Astros pinch-hit for Guinn with Rich Chiles, who flew out. Roger Metzger also flew out, and Joe Morgan grounded out to first to end the inning.

Warming up in the bullpen for the top of the 9th was Larry Yount. Yount hadn't pitched yet for the Astros despite being with the team for a week. Due up for the Braves was Ralph Garr, who came into the game hitting .332/.364/.428 and this guy named Hank Aaron.

"I'll tell you how much I remember: I can't remember whether it was in the Astrodome or Atlanta."
-Larry Yount

Yount's elbow had been bothering him, but he wanted to pitch. "I knew that I couldn't pitch when I went to the mound from the bullpen," Yount told the Milwaukee Journal in 1989, "but I tried it anyway...Maybe it had something to do with Henry Aaron was coming up."

The PA announcer said his name and home plate umpire Ed Sudol wrote Yount's name on the lineup card. Yount threw another warm-up pitch with his aching arm. He threw another warm-up pitch and "it felt like someone had stuck a cattle prod" in his right elbow.

"You figure you'll run out to the mound," Yount said, "that the adrenaline will be pumping and that you'll figure out what's wrong. I threw a couple of pitches and said, 'Something's wrong,' then called the coach. That might have been the most sensible thing I've done."

The diagnosis was tendonitis, which cleared up with rest and Yount went off to the instructional league, where he pitched well and, incidentally, got his real estate license. He struck out the first six batters he faced in Spring Training in 1972, but he was the last player sent to the minors before Opening Day.

Yount started at Oklahoma City 3-0, but faltered his way to a 5-14 record with a 5.15 ERA/1.66 WHIP, striking out 112 but walking 85 batters in 166IP.

"I completely lost the ability to throw the ball over the plate. I just got progressively more screwed up. I couldn't throw it near the plate," Yount told the LA Times.

In 1973, Yount again was in Triple-A, this season with new affiliate Denver. He went 3-12 with a 6.79 ERA/1.91 WHIP in the thin mountain air. He struck out 69 batters and walked 89. And so on March 30, 1974 Yount was traded to Milwaukee with Don Stratton for Wilbur Howard. Howard would play in five seasons for the Astros, hitting .252/.285/.327.

Yount, meanwhile, was with the Brewers, the home organization of his younger brother Robin. Six days after Yount was traded to Milwaukee, Robin - the Brewers' 1st Round pick in 1973 - would make his Major-League debut at the age of 18 and begin a career that would culminate in 3,142 hits (still 18th all-time) and a Hall of Fame election in 1999.

Yount tried to get his head straight. He went to Maury Wills' psychologist and also to talk to his high school coach Ray O'Connor, who told him that his mechanics were so messed up by his coaches that he couldn't find himself anymore. "He couldn't come close to the plate...I don't think his coaches were smart enough to develop the tools he already had," O'Connor told the LA Times. "They took him and tried to make him into what they wanted."

Yount did not pitch in 1974. He came back in 1975 between Single-A Burlington and Double-A Thetford Mines, posting an 8-16 record with a combined 4.82 ERA/1.72 WHIP, his walk problem not yet solved: 83 walks in 153IP with 62 strikeouts. The Brewers released him in 1976.

And so, Larry Yount of the Houston Astros has one of the more heart-breaking lines in baseball history:

Yount turned to real estate, using the license he got while in the instructional league the fall after his lone appearance in the majors to build LKY Development. He also served as his younger brother Robin's agent throughout his career. The two had been in business together for some time and owned land near where the Diamondbacks planned to build Chase Field and put a brewery on the Chase Field complex.

I had plenty of opportunities to make it back. Nobody can say I didn't have the chance.

Check out the fantastic Baseball Project's "Larry Yount:"