Pagan: From Sask. to Yankee Stadium, pitching for Billy Martin
* Dave Pagan defied long odds to pitch in the big leagues, travelling from small-town Saskatchewan to Yankee Stadium ….
By Kevin Glew
Dave Pagan felt numb as he peered in for a sign from Thurman Munson.
And a case of nerves was understandable for a 23-year-old prairie kid who had grown up in a tiny farming community in northeast Saskatchewan and was now pitching in front of more than 28,000 boisterous fans at Yankee Stadium.
It was Canada Day 1973 and Pagan was toeing the big league rubber for the first time. Starting the second game of a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians, the 6-foot-2, 175-pound right-hander was poised to deliver his first pitch to up-and-coming third baseman Buddy Bell.
“My first pitch to Thurman Munson landed about six feet in front of the plate,” recalled Pagan. “When I was warming up in the bullpen, I couldn’t feel anything.”
The hard-throwing Canadian rebounded to get Bell to bounce back to him for his first major league out, and he managed to hold the Indians scoreless in his initial inning.
Unfortunately, after surrendering four hits in the second, he was lifted by Yankees’ manager Ralph Houk. The Bombers still won 11-3, but it wasn’t the storybook debut that Pagan had hoped for.
But the resilient righty would fare much better in three ensuing relief appearances to lower his ERA to 2.84 that season. And for Pagan to be in the big leagues at all was miraculous in itself.
Born in Nipawin, Sask., in 1949, Pagan was raised on a cattle farm on the southside of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town called Snowden. With about 75 people in his community, Pagan had a difficult time finding someone to play catch with, let alone play a game against.
Pagan says his love for baseball blossomed in Grade 7 when he competed against Grade 11 and Grade 12 students for a spot on a school team being formed to participate in “Sports Day” – an annual day of competitions across the province. He didn’t make the team, but he knew then that he had a passion for baseball.
“I was an only child, so I never got to play catch with many people, unless I went to town, so I played with a sponge ball against the barn,” he said, adding that he has always been a pitcher.
In his early teens, he yearned to play on a team, so he decided to help organize one.
“We were 14 years old and we put on our own raffle,” he said. “We got equipment and we started playing. We organized ourselves and we ended up playing against the other little towns.”
Pagan’s pitching prowess soon wowed the other teams.
“I played locally for Snowden and I played against Prince Albert, a city that was about 60 miles from Snowden, and they were pretty decent and they noticed me, so I went with them for some games for playoffs and for provincial playdowns,” he recalled.
While competing for Prince Albert, Pagan met Gary Brandon, who was playing at Wenatchee Junior College in Washington. Brandon had heard that Bellevue Community College was starting a program and was looking for players. He recommended Pagan to Bellevue coach Jim Harryman.
Pagan reported to Bellevue in 1970 and dominated, going 8-0 with a sub 2.00 ERA and was named the team’s most valuable pitcher. His performance also garnered him significant interest from scouts.
At that time, Canadians weren’t eligible for the major league draft, so scouts from the Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates and Montreal Expos all pursued Pagan as a free agent. But it was Yankees scout Eddie Taylor, who also signed Mel Stottlemyre, that eventually convinced Pagan to sign with the Bombers.
“The Yankees had me in a room and I said, ‘OK, I’ll sign,’” recalled Pagan. “And the Expos were trying to get me out of the room and offer me twice as much to sign with them.”
Pagan was more comfortable signing with the Yankees because they had drafted his college teammate Eugene Moser. The Canadian right-hander reported to the Yanks’ rookie-class team in Johnson City, Tenn., in 1970 and was promoted to class-A Short-Season Oneonta that same season.
After spending 1971 in Class-A Fort Lauderdale, Pagan won 14 games for the Carolina League’s Kinston Eagles in 1972, earning him a promotion to double-A the following year. He posted an impressive 1.86 ERA in 12 double-A starts in 1973 before being recalled by the Yankees.
During the 1973 and 1974 campaigns, Pagan was shuttled between triple-A Syracuse and the majors. He recorded his first big league win on July 9, 1974, when he held the Kansas City Royals – whose lineup included George Brett, Amos Otis and Hal McRae – to two runs on six hits in a complete-game victory. But that win came with a price.
“That’s the night that I think I tore my rotator cuff,” said Pagan. “In about the seventh inning, I went out and wondered why I was so stiff and I shouldn’t have been because in the minors I wasn’t sore or anything like that. Then the next day I couldn’t lift my arm.”
A hard thrower to that point, Pagan had to alter his approach. Without that extra zip on his fastball, he relied more on movement and honed his curveball, and he was forced to make these adjustments with a Yankees organization that was being dubbed the “Bronx Zoo.”
In March 1973 – prior to Pagan’s first big league call-up – Yankees pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson announced they were swapping wives and children. This bizarre transaction served as prime tabloid fodder.
By the time the Yankees promoted Pagan, Kekich had been traded to the Indians. But unfortunately for the young Canadian, he inherited Kekich’s No. 18.
“There are no names on the back of the Yankees’ uniforms,” explained Pagan. “So a lot of fans thought I was Kekich. They would be yelling at me about wife swapping and stuff like that.”
During parts of four seasons with the Yankees, Pagan pitched for three different managers: Houk, Bill Virdon and Billy Martin. He says Martin was the most fiery of the three.
On April 10, 1976, Pagan found himself in the middle of one of the season’s most controversial plays. With the bases loaded and the Yankees leading 9-7 in the bottom of the ninth at Milwaukee’s County Stadium, the Canadian right-hander relieved Sparky Lyle and found himself pitching to Brewers third baseman Don Money.
“I was in the set with a runner on third and Money was the go-ahead run at the plate,” recalled Pagan. “It was the bottom of the ninth and we had the third base dugout and Martin was trying to get me into the wind-up. So the first base umpire raises his hands up because he knew that there was some problem. I think Martin was calling time, but the only umpire that could really see him was the first base umpire. So when the first base umpire raised his hands, I threw the ball and Money hit a home run to win the game, but then they called it back.”
The first base umpire was fellow Canadian Jim McKean, but Pagan wasn’t initially sure what was happening after the home run.
“Martin came flying out of the dugout because he saw the first base umpire raise his hands,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Holy crap, he’s after me,’ because he was so fiery and he didn’t back down very easily. I was thinking, ‘Holy crap, here he comes to get me.’ Then he just ran right by me to the umpire.”
The umpires would rule that time out was called and Money’s homer was disallowed. The Yankees won the game 9-7.
Pagan was also a Yankee when George Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973.
“He didn’t really know baseball that first year and he was trying to make decisions for the managing staff,” said Pagan. “He was in the clubhouse a lot, but he definitely wanted a winner.”
After registering a 2.28 ERA in seven games with the Yankees to start the season, Pagan was dealt to the Orioles as part of a 10-player blockbuster on June 15, 1976. The Canuck hurler was shipped to Baltimore with Rick Dempsey, Tippy Martinez, Scott McGregor and Rudy May for Elrod Hendricks, Doyle Alexander, Grant Jackson, Ken Holtzman and Jimmy Freeman.
“Dempsey was my roommate at that time. And he came back to the room and said, ‘Did you hear we were traded?’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ I didn’t care. It didn’t matter to me,” said Pagan. “But in another way, I was ticked off because the Yankees had a chance to go somewhere that year.”
But once he settled in Baltimore, he enjoyed his 20-game stint with the club.
“I would say that Baltimore was more like a family than any other team I played for, a big family” he said. “Everybody was the same. Brooks Robinson would spend an hour talking to you and so would Jim Palmer.”
Pagan also has fond of memories of Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver.
“He liked to have a smoke back in the dugout, and he’d get red in the face and you could tell when he was ticked off because he’d be back there having a smoke and he’d be ranting,” remembered Pagan. “He didn’t like a lot of umpires. He used to go crazy with the umpires. Even before the game, he’d be mumbling about the umpires in the dugout. But I really liked Earl. He would always stick up for you.”
The Orioles attempted to re-sign Pagan, but he preferred to wait until after the expansion draft in November. He liked the idea of playing for Toronto or going back to the Seattle area, where he had played his college ball. He ended up being selected 29th in the draft by the Mariners.
In the Mariners’ inaugural season, Pagan was shuttled between the bullpen and the starting rotation. He pitched his only big league shutout on May 19, 1977, stifling an Oakland A’s attack that included Manny Sanguillen, Dick Allen and Tony Armas.
“There were a lot of balls that were hit pretty well that game, but they were right at somebody,” Pagan recalled modestly.
That August, the Mariners dealt Pagan to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Rick Honeycutt. He tossed three shutout innings in relief in his sole appearance with the Pirates on Sept. 27.
After two more seasons in the Pirates organization, Pagan retired from the pro ranks. He returned to pitch in Nipawin, but soon Saskatoon contacted him to pitch for their Saskatchewan (Senior) Major League squad.
“I came back and pitched with the Saskatoon Liners and we went to the Canadians a couple of times,” he said.
Following his pro career, Pagan worked at a lumber yard for 11 years and then as a supervisor for Nipawin and District Services to the Handicap (Handiworks) in a woodworking shop for 20 years, before retiring in June 2010. He was also elected to the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.
Pagan and his wife, Brigitta, still live in Nipawin. His daughter, Shari, lives a few blocks away, while his two sons, Todd and Craig, reside in Alberta. He also has six grandchildren: Danika, Tanner, Colby, Evan, Carly and Keaton.
When he isn’t chasing his grandchildren around, Pagan plays slo-pitch, umpires baseball and curls in the winter.
“I’m still trying to be active in sports because I enjoy playing them,” he said.
And now 63, Pagan still pitches periodically for a local baseball team.
“I still pitch in more of a fun league against neighboring towns,” he said. “We play maybe 10 to 12 games a year.”
It’s clear in speaking with Pagan that his passion for baseball is still strong. And while it’s true that he was blessed with a golden right arm, you get the feeling that it was his passion and determination, more than anything else, that were responsible for his miraculous odyssey – one that saw him progress from throwing sponge balls against the barn to throwing fastballs at Yankee Stadium.