If my father had been alive for Christmas in 2016, I think I would have wanted him to give me the gift of Fastball John. Luckily, I already have one, courtesy of a review copy sent to me by the book’s co-author, David Jordan. He and former major league pitcher John D’Acquisto have collaborated on one of the best baseball books of the year, a book that may be as influential as anything written by a former major leaguer not named Jim Bouton or Jim Brosnan.
At his peak, D’Acquisto threw a fastball clocked at over 100 miles per hour. (It’s believed that among pitchers in the 1970s, only Nolan Ryan threw harder.) He had only moderate success at the major league level, but did last for 10 seasons with the San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Padres, Montreal Expos, California Angels and Oakland A’s. He put together his best season in 1978, posting an ERA of 2.13 with 10 saves for Roger Craig’s Padres. D’Acquisto saw a lot during his career and had the chance to play with numerous Hall of Famers, including Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Lou Brock, Dave Winfield, Ozzie Smith, Rollie Fingers, Gary Carter and Andre Dawson.
As baseball books go, Fastball John has an epic length of over 500 pages, but they are 500 pages that go quickly. It is full of the kind of behind-the-scenes stories and full-length details that any diehard fan craves. D’Acquisto names names, not in a vicious, vendetta-settling way, but in a manner that reflects the readers’ thirst to know what goes on in the clubhouse, in the dugout, and on the field.
Recently, I talked with D’Acquisto about his book and his career. He talked about his favorite manager, the sad decline of Bobby Bonds as a player, the conflict that developed between Bonds and his manager in San Francisco, and his own personal travails, specifically the story behind his 63-month prison sentence after conviction on charges of forgery and conspiracy.
Markusen: You last pitched in 1982. So, what was right about the timing of the book coming out in 2016?
D’Acquisto: I had started writing one about 10 years ago, but I really wasn’t ready. My friend Dave Jordan saw a lack of first-person athlete stories on the web—this was well before The Players Tribune ran with the idea—and Dave has always loved my life’s journey. Around 2012, I began offering my thoughts on the current events in baseball for Instreamsports.com. What I had found was that many fans enjoyed the stories from my playing days. When I noticed that my articles were being retweeted by major sports websites, I realized there was an audience for my stuff outside the usual Giants, Padres and Expos nostalgia. Since I’ve been working for Major League Baseball, so many wonderful writers suggested that I get back on the book and here we are.
Markusen: There are so many great behind-the scenes accounts in this book, which some have likened to Ball Four. Was there any story that you thought twice about telling, if only because of the possibility of embarrassing some of the people involved?
D’Acquisto: There’s a fine line with the baseball autobiography. If you’re too fawning, it “has no teeth.” If you’re too bitter, it’s a “hit job.” Dave and I read literally every single negative review of every baseball autobiography and “team” retrospective published in the last 20 years. We wanted to be absolutely certain that we didn’t make any of the mistakes of the books that came before us. We sought out to create the most honest and self-aware baseball memoir ever published, and I think we accomplished that. Did I witness some rather juicy events that didn’t make the book? Well, Fastball John is 525 pages long. Couldn’t fit them all in.
D’Acquisto: Charlie Fox and Roger Craig. Charlie was like a father watching over me at the beginning of my career. He taught me the ropes of being a big leaguer. You’ll see in the book how much that man was in my corner all throughout my life, both on and off the field. Roger Craig gave me a second chance as a reliever with San Diego in 1978. As you read the later chapters in the book you’ll see how Roger always tried to find a spot for me in his clubhouse.
Markusen: Of all your managers, was Vern Rapp in St. Louis the worst that you had to deal with?
D’Acquisto: Rapp wasn’t the easiest to deal with, but to be fair, the circumstances in St. Louis in 1977 were pretty difficult, too. He was replacing Red Schoendienst who was the Cardinals’ skipper for 11 years. He had to make his mark early on to overcome that legacy. I don’t think there’s a better example of the old saying, “Ya wanna be the guy who replaces the guy who replaces the legend,” than Vern Rapp’s time with the Cards.
There was also quite a logjam of starting pitching on that staff at the opening of the season. Bill Rigney, much like Rapp, couldn’t deal with the new age players and especially had a tough time communicating with his pitchers. Rapp managed only 179 games with the Cardinals and lasted like three-quarters of a season with Cincinnati in 1984; Rigney didn’t get past 1976.
Markusen: You write extensively about the power struggle that developed between Charlie Fox and Bobby Bonds. Why do you think that situation developed the way that it did?
D’Acquisto: Charlie was concerned about Bobby’s drinking, rode him quite hard at times, too. Charlie wanted Bobby to set a better example as a team leader and Bobby wouldn’t have anything to do with it, which was a shame because we all loved Bobby, we all looked up to him and looked to him for team leadership. We go into this a great deal in the book.
Markusen: How much of a factor was Bonds’ lifestyle of “living in the fast lane” in contributing to his early decline as a ballplayer?
D’Acquisto: It was his demise. You can see that on the back of the baseball card or his baseball-reference page. It hurt his game tremendously. He was a world-class athlete and probably one of the top 175-200 offensive players of all time. If he would have left the booze alone, that number probably goes to 75-100 easy. He had all the tools.
(Author’s note: Bonds’ last productive season came when he was 33 years old. By the age of 35, he was a shell of his former self and out of the major leagues.)
D’Acquisto: Jay Johnstone [a teammate in San Diego] was the wildest, the craziest, and most unpredictable. Jay was one funny guy and taught me some of the greatest practical jokes ever. One of the best ones was when we, the Padres, were in Philadelphia playing the Phillies. Ron Reed started against us. Jay came up to me in the clubhouse and Said, “Johnny, Check this out. I tied some surgical tubing to the bat handle and I am tucking in my sleeves when Reed throws the first pitch to me I will throw the bat at him and then the tubbing will pull it back to me it will scare the crap out of him…”
“So, sure enough he goes up to the plate, takes his stance, Reed readies to the plate, the windup, the pitch, and there goes the bat right at Reed. It gets to be about five feet from him and Reed hits the dirt. The bat flies back to Jay and we are all cracking up and here is Reed on the ground just shaking his head. Oh, and did I say this was in front of a full house at Veterans Stadium. Oh, and I got the win in that game.
Markusen: Your book is full of those comedic kinds of stories, which are worth the price of admission alone, but it also delves into the serious side of your life. That includes the most difficult chapter of your post-baseball life: your time in prison. You were sentenced to 63 months on charges of forgery, conspiracy, and wire fraud, but you have maintained your innocence from day one. Make your case about how the justice system got it wrong.
D’Acquisto: Plain and simple. My attorney, who still teaches at Columbia, tells his law class, “John D’Acquisto is a man who didn’t do anything and got 63 months in prison.”
“How did this happen? First, I was accused of forgery. I never touched the documents in question. They never had my fingerprints on them. So how can you forge a pre-internet document without having it in your possession? Conspiracy? That means more than one person [was involved in the crime], yet the people involved solicited my firm with the deal. As we were in the process of performing our due-diligence, the counter-party tried to push through a check to my bank account. After I was in prison, the San Diego prosecutor handed down a 39-count indictment that I learned about on the radio rather than from my lawyer. How did the AP get the news before my representation did? Bruce, we spend the better part of 80 pages telling my side of this. It’s all in the book if you want to follow the bouncing ball further.
Markusen: What’s next, John? Will there be another book to follow?
D’Acquisto: Yes, there will be a couple more books. We have one in the mix but right now we’re focused on building off the success and kind words of all those who have enjoyed the book.
Fastball John, a publication of Instream Sports, is highly recommended.