What? No Vultures this week? That’s quite understandable since this is a short week with the All-Star break cutting into opportunities for carrion eating. Instead we shall reminisce about another old bird, possibly the namesake himself. A player his teammate Sandy Koufax dubbed: “The Vulture”
Philip Raymond “The Vulture” Reagan. Born April 6th, 1937 and still a going concern at age 79. He’s had both an extensive pitching AND coaching career. His last baseball job was pitching coach for the St. Lucie Mets, New York’s high A minor league affiliate. He retired last year but not before seeing and instructing the likes of Zach Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey as those pitchers went through the Mets System. Not sure how much impact he had, probably not all that much but didn’t hurt either. Sometimes just keeping the players on track and interfering as little as possible is all that is needed.
My own familiarity with Reagan was as a baseball manager because he was hired extensively in the LVBP (Liga Venezolana de Beisbol Professional). He managed from 1989 until 2009 in the league with stints from 5 different teams. But he also managed in the Dominican Republic prior to that in 87-89 and even won a championship and the Caribbean series. I don’t recall anything remarkable from his managing career except he would get credit when teams performed well and the blame when teams tanked. More or less the same as how it goes in MLB. He only had one shot at an MLB managing job with the Orioles in 1995 but was fired and replaced with Davey Johnson (this seems to be a familiar recurrence in the Maryland-D.C. area).
But a long time ago in a mound far, far, away Reagan began baseball life as a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. He was signed by the organization in 1956 and worked his way up through the farm system. He pitched for the Tigers between 1960-65. He worked primarily as starter. He went through some growing pains but by 1963 he seemed to have secured the #3 starter role ending that season with a 15-9 record and 3.83 ERA (those were the stats they paid attention to back in the day, his modern peripherals were not as rosy and FIP showed him to be an average or sub-par starter). Then it all went downhill in ’64 and ’65 as his performances got worse. He was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers who used him exclusively from the bullpen and so began the Great Adventure.
Reagan was an All-Star in 1966 as he went through a career resurrection as a high quality relief pitcher and closer with 14-1 record and 1.62 ERA. It’s the huge pile of wins that earned him his nickname, though I will say that most of the wins occurred when the Dodgers were tied or behind in the score and then they would rally and get the lead with Reagan as the pitcher of record. That’s not really vulture like behavior in the way we define it nowadays.
1966 would be the high point of Reagan’s pitching career. He would still be a mostly high quality relief arm for the rest of his pitching days but the following year he lost the closer role but was still very good. A few years later the Dodgers decided they didn’t need two high quality late relief arms and traded Phil to the Cubs who immediately slotted him as their fireman and he proceeded to save 25 games for them. What’s most amazing is the fact the he routinely threw over 100 innings a season as a relief pitcher. Nowadays 90 innings for a relief arm is considered a lot. There is speculation that this over work with very frequent appearances and primarily high stress innings may have led to his decline in the late 60’s. He ended his MLB career with just 10 appearances for the Chicago White Sox in 1972.
And what about his fame as a Vulture? He didn’t have any while pitching for Detroit as a starter. He only started recording them when he moved full time to the Bullpen in Los Angeles. Koufax’s playful nickname notwithstanding, by our definition, in 1966 Phil Reagan only vultured twice (on July 15th against the Mets and August 24th against the Braves). He would vulture two more times in 1967, but he would really get into his groove in ’68 after being traded to the Cubs with FOUR Vultures, something only the kiddies these days can dream of.
That year his notable vulture was on August 11th against Cincinnati. He came in the bottom of the 7th inning with man on 1st and 2nd, 1 out, and a 5-2 lead which he evaporated over the course of the next two innings by allowing one inherited runner to score and then two of his own in the 8th. Gotta hand it to Phil Reagan though. He cleaned up his own mess by pitching through the 15th inning until Chicago broke the tie plating 3 runs. Phil ended up pitching 7.2 innings in relief. In 1969 he’d notch another two vultures. For the 1970 season he only had one carrion eating dinner. For those counting at home that’s 11 vultures.
His 12th and final vulture came in June 2nd, 1971 against the Reds (again). Holding a 1-0 lead pitcher Joe Decker had more or less managed to keep the Reds in check through 6 innings of shutout ball. He ran into trouble in the 7th as he allowed back to back singles to Hal McRae and Woody Woodward (that’s such a baseball name, it rolls off the tongue much better than William Frederick Woodward). Decker ran out of gas so in comes Phil Reagan to face Jimmy Stewart (who was pinch hitting for Don Gullet). Jimmy made a bunt (in which case why summon a pinch hitter? Was Don that bad with the wood?) that apparently Phil Reagan screwed up because he reached base on an error.
Now comes Pete Rose. Yep. That Pete Rose. Bases loaded and no outs. You are probably thinking at this time that Pete Rose lit a match and torched Phil Reagan to get a 15 year head start on the world’s first Burning Man concert. Nothing as dramatic as that. Rose hit a fly ball that allowed McRae to tag up and score. Woody moved to third on the play. Tommy Helms would hit a ground ball to short that Don Kessinger fielded and fired to home plate nailing Woody for the 2nd out. Lee May would ground to third for the last out of the frame.
The Cubs came roaring back in the 8th by taking the lead on a Billy Williams three run home run. They did not relinquish the lead for the rest of the game. Ron Tompkins pitched in relief of Phil Reagan both the 8th and 9th innings recording the save.
Phil would keep pitching for the rest of the year and in 1972 moved to the south side to pitch for the White Sox, but only for a few appearances before calling it quits. And thus ends the illustrious career of one of the more notable and famous Vultures of yesteryear.