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A toast to Bob Tewksbury, a local hall of famer

  • Concord’s Bob Tewksbury sits in his Yankee Stadium locker stall after his successful major league debut on April 11, 1986. Tewksbury will be inducted into the Merrimack Valley High School Hall of Fame on Saturday. GARO LACHINIAN / Monitor file

  • Concord’s Bob Tewksbury points at a pop up during his major league debut against the Milwaukee Brewers on April 11, 1986, at Yankee Stadium. GARO LACHINIAN / Monitor file



Monitor columnist
Friday, September 14, 2018

The champagne remains corked, 32 years later.

It sits in Bob Tewksbury’s dining room in Concord, a gift from George Steinbrenner, sent by the owner to the home clubhouse after the 25-year-old rookie won his major league debut.

Following that night at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, Tewksbury beat the odds, withstanding trades, demotions and, most significantly, injuries to win more than 100 big league games through 1998.

And for that – along with the perseverance of a tired boxer wondering how much longer he could last – he’ll be part of the first class of athletes to be inducted into the Merrimack Valley High School Hall of Fame.

He’s going in Saturday with former three-sport star Laurie Steckel, the first basketball player in school history to score 1,000 points, and former baseball coach Dave Anderson, who just happened to be Tewksbury’s coach at Merrimack Valley in the late 1970s.

The ceremony starts at 6 p.m.

“It’s really exciting, a real honor,” Tewksbury said by phone this week. “To be inducted with coach Anderson makes it real special, and I don’t know Laurie, but to score 1,000 points speaks for itself.”

Making sure he mentioned Steckel was typical Tewskbury, a man forever concerned with other people as well as his own image. He balanced this public-relations consciousness with a fire that allowed him to stare down the fear of failing, writing “Nothing to lose” under the bill of his Yankees cap all those years ago.

Tewksbury was a fascinating story, beyond the small-town angle and guts it took to thumb his nose at so many setbacks. His fastball was slow, relatively speaking, but he proved that velocity was overrated, that you could win if you threw strikes, painted corners, fooled hitters, out-thought them.

Tewksbury once told me he could throw a pitch up a gnat’s ass, and, essentially, he could. He played the percentages, which said a hitter would probably make an out if he made contact. That’s baseball, a game steeped in failure, and Tewksbury knew it.

He averaged 1.5 walks per nine innings, second fewest since the dead-ball era began in 1920. Pause here for a moment. Second in the history of the game. That’s called focus.

It’s no wonder Tewksbury later earned a master’s degree in psychology from Boston University and served as the sports psychologist for the Red Sox. He now works for the San Francisco Giants.

Tewksbury used his head to win ballgames. In fact, his recently-published book, Ninety Percent Mental, explains how to harness the power of thought to help you succeed.

That’s what he brought to the Yankees on April 11, 1986. That night, more than anything else, Tewksbury finally showed he belonged.

“That first one was a long time ago,” Tewksbury said. “I remember snippets of it. I felt confident going in because I had such a good spring training. I felt I was in a good place mentally and physically.”

He had pitched 20 consecutive scoreless innings that winter in Florida. He pitched 7⅓ innings in his big league debut and earned the victory in a 3-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Tewksbury walked just one, typical for him, and struck out just two, also typical. That’s what Tewksbury did through his 13-year career. Change speeds to keep the hitter off balance, avoid the middle of the plate and never, ever issue a walk.

Anderson, the high school coach who had always told his ace to throw strikes, was there that night, a Friday, in the Bronx. He recalled seeing his former pitcher alone, running from foul line to foul line before the game, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” blasting from the loudspeakers, the grounds crew smoothing the dirt and watering the grass.

“Here is a guy from a little town in New Hampshire who realized his dream,” Anderson told me.” It was very satisfying.”

Tewksbury remembered he had been given advice by a veteran pitcher or two during spring training after a great start, when the crowd cheered as he left the mound.

Phil Niekro? Rick Rhoden?

The veteran had told the rookie that he needed to tip his cap under those circumstances, let the crowd know he appreciated their appreciation, so when manager Lou Piniella took the ball from Tewksbury in the 8th inning that April night so long ago, Tewksbury made sure to tip his cap on the way to the dugout.

Then he tipped it again. Paul Molitor, who was playing with the Brewers and would later be voted into the Hall of Fame – the national one – still jokes with Tewksbury, saying he tipped his cap four times, once in each direction.

Tewksbury maintains he tipped it twice. Either way, he was fined later in the clubhouse by the team’s Kangaroo Court for – wouldn’t you know it? – tipping his cap. Fifty bucks total, $25 for each tip.

“They had told me to do it and I still got fined,” Tewksbury said. “That’s what they did, if you missed a belt loop or your shirt wasn’t tucked in.”

Tewksbury’s family and friends were at Yankee Stadium – the woman who would become his wife, his mother, his sister, his younger brother, a good friend and his wife, his shortstop in high school.

I was there too, the rookie covering the rookie. The storyline went perfectly, the local-boy-makes-good theme. I remember Tewksbury punching the air as he approached the dugout after Piniella had taken him out.

“I don’t remember, but you can use that,” Tewksbury told me. “I was having an out-of-body experience at that point.”

I also remember Tewksbury sitting at his locker after the game, answering questions from the grizzled New York media. At one point, former Monitor photographer Garo Lachinian, one of the best, snapped a shot of Tewksbury in a sleeveless gray undershirt tossing a ball in the air.

Taking photos in the locker room was not permitted, which meant another $50 fine for Tewksbury, handed out by star pitcher Ron Guidry.

“It cost me a lot of money that day,” Tewksbury said. “But if you told me, ‘Tewks, you’re going to get to the big leagues one day and pitch at Yankee Stadium and win the game, just sign on the dotted line,’ I would have signed on the dotted line right there and then.”

And received a bottle of champagne.

Corked forever.