Cooperstown Confidential: Remembering Pedro Borbon

If doctors had ever performed an MRI on Pedro Borbon’s right arm, they might have found ligaments forged from steel and muscles made of rubber. During the 1970s, Borbon put up one of the game’s most amazing stretches of durability, a run that was accentuated by his consistent effectiveness as both a long and short reliever for the “Big Red Machine.”

Borbon, who died earlier in the week at the age of 65 after a battle with cancer, was also one of the game’s truly surreal characters. In retrospect, some of his antics sound so bizarre that they might prompt skeptics to question their validity, but with Borbon, most of them happened. Pete Borbon, it seems, was capable of just about anything.

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Even a perusal of the old Baseball Register, normally a staid piece of reading material, provides evidence of Borbon’s eccentricities. Under the section of player hobbies, Borbon listed “rooster fighting” as one of his favorite activities. Illegal in the United States, the fights became a thriving pastime in his native Dominican Republic.

Borbon returned to the Dominican each winter, not just to live but to pitch winter league ball. On one memorable occasion, Borbon brought his own pet rooster into his winter league’s team clubhouse, to the delight of his teammates. Dominican fans, who knew well of Borbon’s oddities, once tried to distract him by throwing a black cat from the stands onto the playing field and pointing it in the general direction of the pitcher’s mound. Not amused by the gesture, Borbon picked up the cat as it made its way toward the mound. He then tossed it to the catcher.

After the game, he wondered aloud whether he had taken appropriate action with the black cat. “I should have eaten it,” Borbon told a reporter. “That would show them.” Indeed it would have.

Borbon claimed to have an unusual family, with some members reaching extraordinary ages. Borbon told reporters and teammates that his grandfather was 136 years old. That was especially surprising to Pete Rose, who noted that Borbon had claimed his grandfather was 128 years old only one year earlier.

Perhaps the most celebrated incident of Borbon’s career occurred during Game Three of the 1973 National League Championship Series. The game, featuring the heavily favored Reds against the seemingly overmatched Mets, was marred by a brawl that started when Pete Rose ran roughshod over Bud Harrelson during a take-out slide at second base. Resenting what he considered excessive contact, which included an unnecessary elbow, Harrelson grabbed Rose, who wrestled the little shortstop to the ground.

Benches and bullpens swarmed onto the field at Shea Stadium, with Borbon one of the leaders of a classic Pier Six brawl. As Borbon fought with young Mets right-hander Buzz Capra, his Reds cap fell from his head. Seeing a fallen cap on the ground, and assuming that it was his, Borbon picked it up. A few moments later, Borbon realized that the cap had a Mets logo on it. Upset that he had picked up the wrong cap—one that actually belonged to Mets outfielder Cleon Jones—Borbon bit down hard on the stray hat, ripping a hole in the cloth fabric.

One year later, Borbon decided to apply his teeth to an actual player, and not just part of his uniform. As the Reds and Pirates battled each other in a particularly nasty brawl, Borbon pinned Pirates pitcher Daryl Patterson to the ground, pulled out some of his hair and then took a bite out of his side. The bite was so pronounced that the Pirates made sure to give Patterson a tetanus shot after the game.

Later in his career, Borbon became involved in yet another biting incident, this time away from the playing field. During the spring of 1979, Borbon was at a Cincinnati disco when he became involved in a fight with another patron. Borbon ended up biting one of the disco’s bouncers—right in the chest, of all places—prompting a charge of assault. When asked by the Cincinnati Enquirer to explain Borbon’s motivation, the bouncer showed that he had retained his sense of humor. “He’s just a habitual biter, I guess.” Given his attacks against the bouncer, Patterson, and the Mets cap, it was no wonder that Borbon became known as “Dracula” in baseball circles.

Borbon’s off-the-field histrionics sometimes obscured his talents as a pitcher. Originally signed by the Cardinals as an amateur free agent in 1964, Borbon did not make his major league debut for St. Louis. That’s because the Angels took him in the 1968 Rule 5 draft. Due to the draft’s restrictive rules, the Angels had to keep him on their roster the entire 1969 season, but Borbon was clearly not ready. He pitched brutally for California, to the tune of a 6.15 ERA, prompting the Angels to include him in a deal with the Reds that brought Alex Johnson to Anaheim.

At the time, most considered Borbon a throw-in to the trade, but Reds super scout Ray Shore had implored general manager Bob Howsam to extract the young right-hander as part of the package. In the short term, the deal backfired on the Reds, who watched Johnson win an American League batting title while Borbon, after starting the season in the minor leagues, pitched even worse in 12 games for Cincinnati than he had for the Angels.

Wisely, the Reds sent Borbon back to Triple-A Indianapolis to start the 1971 season. Pitching exclusively in relief, Borbon put up his best Triple-A campaign, winning 12 of 18 decisions, with an ERA of 3.06, and a ratio of more than three and a half strikeouts per walk. The Reds rewarded him with a September call-up; Borbon would never return to the minor leagues, as he justified Shore’s faith in his abilities.

Borbon blossomed in 1972, aided by a manager who liked to go to his bullpen early and often. Sparky Anderson, also known as “Captain Hook,” called on Borbon 62 times, pitching him in long relief, late-inning relief, and as a fireman (1970s parlance for a closer). Despite lacking a strikeout pitch, the sinkerballing Borbon logged 122 innings, put up an ERA of 3.17 and chipped in with 11 saves. Sharing fireman duties with veteran Clay Carroll, Borbon emerged as one of Anderson’s most reliable relievers.

The 1972 campaign marked the start of an eye-opening six-year run for Borbon. From 1972 to ‘77, Borbon pitched at least 122 innings a summer. Over that entire span, he pitched 755 innings. And he delivered quality along with durability, keeping his ERA at 3.35 or lower each of those seasons.

Borbon also pitched well in the clutch. The Reds won division titles in 1972, ‘73, ‘75 and ‘76, resulting in frequent appearances in the National League Championship Series. He compiled a 1.26 ERA in four NLCS, contributing to an overall postseason mark of 2.42. Pressure games rarely seemed to have much of an effect on Borbon, who maintained his offbeat personality regardless of the situation.

The veteran right-hander also became popular with his Reds teammates. They especially appreciated his abilities as a licensed barber. Borbon often gave his Cincinnati teammates free haircuts before games.

As he continued to pile up innings for the Reds, Borbon showed few signs of wear and tear. He did not spend a single day on the disabled list during the six-year span from 1972 to 1977. In fact, Borbon never went on the DL during his entire career and liked to brag that he never experienced a sore arm. Borbon credited his strong right arm to the daily lifting of a three-pound weighted ball and a strict avoidance of doctors.

When other players questioned the boasts about the strength of his arm, Borbon offered to make a bet on how far he could throw a ball. As part of his pre-game ritual, he would stand near home plate or the dugout and then launch the ball toward the outfield wall. More often than not, the ball reached the outfield bleachers.

Borbon did not restrict his throwing exhibitions to the regular season. Killing some time before a 1975 World Series game at Boston’s Fenway Park, Borbon decided the time was right to put on a show. Refusing to take any warmup pitches, Borbon heaved the ball over the wall in center field.

Although Borbon’s antics often endeared him to the Cincinnati faithful, they tested the patience of a conservative Reds organization. After the 1979 disco incident, Reds GM Dick Wagner criticized Borbon publicly. The temperamental pitcher responded by issuing an ultimatum to Wagner, who essentially served as his boss, in which he threatened to “break his face.”

Wagner sought the first opportunity to dump the insubordinate Borbon. Shortly after the trading deadline, he sent him to the rival Giants for fringe outfielder/third baseman Hector Cruz. Borbon pitched poorly for San Francisco before drawing his release just before the start of the 1980 season. Borbon then signed with St. Louis, but with his control having abandoned him, he drew his release in late May.

Borbon’s major league career appeared to end, but he attempted an unlikely comeback 15 years later. As the players’ strike lingered into the spring of 1995, Borbon agreed to become a replacement player with the Reds, drawing criticism from pro-union forces. Borbon was now 40 pounds above his usual playing weight and well past his 40th birthday. In one of the early spring training games, Borbon slipped while trying to field a ground ball and then fell to the ground. Clearly, he was not in shape to play the game at a competitive level. The next day, the Reds gave him his unconditional release.

The would-be comeback had little effect on his Reds legacy. In 2010, Borbon gained election to the Reds Hall of Fame, becoming only the third reliever to garner such an honor. Borbon joined Clay Carroll and sidearming Wayne Granger as members of the team’s Hall.

Then came his bout with cancer, which came to an end on the first Monday in June.

I can’t say that Borbon was one of my favorite players, if only because his behavior, particularly the biting incidents involving the Pirates and the Cincinnati disco, could be so poor. But his other traits, including his stunts with the black cat and the Mets cap and his amazing durability, made him the kind of free spirit that the game needs, whether it be the wild decade of the 1970s, or the more corporate atmosphere attached to baseball today. Unpredictable at all times, Pedro “Pete” Borbon was never dull.

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Comments

  1. glenn-troy ny said...

    I remember the last game of 1978..Sparky Anderson pulled Tom Seaver & some of the other starting nine with the Reds up big over the Braves at Riverfront..Pete Rose was trying to get to 200 hits for the season,ended up with 198..Pedro comes in the top of the 9th & gives up 5 runs allowing the Braves to tie the game..Game goes extra innings with the Reds winning but Rose upset he was pulled denying him a chance to reach 200..R.I.P. Pedro

  2. Steve Treder said...

    He was a real good pitcher.  He didn’t throw hard at all, but had pinpoint control, worked very quickly and efficiently, held runners well, fielded his position well, and induced a steady diet of ground balls.

  3. Bruce Markusen said...

    Steve, good recollection of Borbon. I wonder how he’d be regarded today, given the lack of strikeouts. It seems that if you don’t strike out a lot of batters, then you’re just “lucky” and the luck will eventually run out. But with Borbon, he was “lucky” enough to last ten years in Cincinnati, most of them good seasons.

  4. Steve Treder said...

    The game is different today than it was in the 1970s, for a variety of reasons, and so (a) pitching today, Borbon’s stats wouldn’t be as contact-extreme as they were, and (b) in any case, fewer pitchers are able to succeed today by pitching to contact.

    But some still exist.  Those who do survive in the modern era tend to be starters instead of relievers; guys like Joel Pineiro, Paul Byrd, or Carl Pavano.  And it is, for sure, the superficial assessment that dismisses their success as luck.  The more perceptive analysis comprehends the genuine value that is achieved by walking nobody and limiting the home run ball.

    It’s certainly true that sometimes an inferior player puts up a good record in a given season primarily because of good luck.  Maybe even two seasons.  But when the successful seasons begin to pile up, year after year, it’s time to recognize that it’s a result of skill, not luck, and that the fault lies in the analysis, not in the player.

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