Baseball Way Back: Before coming to the Cubs, Phil Regan left his mark on the Dodgers
• Second of 3 parts
The 1966 season was a relief for Phil Regan in more ways than one.
The previous year, his sixth in the majors, Regan was sent down to the minors for two months in midseason.
His subsequent rise from the baseball ashes was Phoenixlike. But the former starter turned reliever would become popularly known as "The Vulture."
Regan went 15-9 for Detroit as a starter in 1963. During that year, however, the Tigers changed managers, hiring Chuck Dressen, a man who ordered Regan to abandon his best weapon, the slider.
"Charlie hated the slider," calling it a nickel curve, Regan said during an interview from Port St. Lucie, Fla. "So he told me, 'I don't want you to throw your slider. I want to you to throw this curveball.' And I did not have a good curveball."
The numbers fell to 5-10 in 1964 and 1-5 in 1965. By the end of June, 1965, he was in Triple A Syracuse. There, he compiled a 9-5 record and was reunited with the slider, which would serve him handily when he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the offseason after a September call-up to Detroit.
The Dodgers were the defending world champions, anchored by pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and an offense propelled by the speedy Maury Wills.
Regan rates Koufax at the top of the pitching pantheon.
"I played with some great pitchers. I played with Jim Bunning, who struck out 1,000 guys in each league. In the Hall of Fame. Frank Lary was a great pitcher. Ferguson Jenkins, who won 20 games six years in a row. Unbelievable. Not even close to this guy, to Koufax. (Bob) Gibson was great, but if I wanted to win one ballgame, I got to take Koufax over any of them."
Looking back with the eyes of an experienced pitching coach, he said, "He was cool. He was competitive. They talk about a fastball rising. But we know now it's the spin rate that gives you that spin that makes it appear to rise. I would have liked to have measured his speed and his spin rate, because it had to be tremendous. That ball above the belt, they just didn't hit it. Then he had a good changeup and he had a tremendous what they call a 12-6 curveball. It just was off the table."
Initially, Regan thought he would fit into a rotation that also included Claude Osteen. But Manager Walt Alston was pleased by what he saw in spring training from a rookie named Don Sutton and placed Regan in the pen.
The move benefited the 29-year-old right-hander, who led the league in saves with 21, in an era when saves were more difficult to earn, he said, since a pitcher had to face the tying or winning run or pitch three innings.
But it was his ability to snap up wins that earned him the tag "The Vulture" and gained him notoriety. In 1966, he won 14 games against only one loss with a 1.62 ERA.
Koufax, in his final major league season, applied the label after he started two consecutive Dodger victories, only to see Regan get credit for the wins.
One was July 27 against Philadelphia at Dodger Stadium when Koufax and Bunning were locked in a 1-1 pitcher's duel for 11 innings. Alston lifted Koufax in the 12th, and Regan got the Phils out in order in the 12th before Lou Johnson singled home Nate Oliver with the winning run off reliever Darold Knowles.
The next game, on Aug. 1, was at Pittsburgh. Koufax gave up one run in seven innings, before Regan entered to earn the 5-1 victory.
"I came in the clubhouse in Pittsburgh after we won, and he said, 'Regan you're a real vulture, getting my wins like that.' Someone heard it, and that's the way it started."
The name caught on.
"I started getting rubber vultures. (A California) zoo wanted to put a vulture in the bullpen. It was a good time."
The pennant race went to the wire with the Dodgers vying with the Pirates and Giants for the NL crown. They clinched the pennant on the last day of the season when Koufax went the distance in a 6-3 win over the Phillies in the second game of a doubleheader Oct. 2.
The Baltimore Orioles swept the World Series 4-0, but Regan pitched scoreless ball in two games, retiring five out of six hitters and striking out two.
For his efforts, Regan was named NL Reliever of the Year and NL Comeback Player of the Year by the Sporting News.
He had narrowly missed getting a World Series ring. But two years later, The Vulture would land on the North Side of Chicago, where it looked like he would get another chance to win it all.
• Next week: From Leo Durocher and Ron Santo to Kerry Wood