|JEFF TERPKO (PART IV / EPILOGUE): AN UNLIKELY PATH TO MAJORS — SHOULDER INJURY FORCES RETIRMENT, BASEBALL LIFE COMES FULL CIRCLE (2017-08-13)
By TIM BIRNEY
Valley Sports Report
SAYRE — Following the 1972 season, for a variety of reason, Jeff Terpko walked away from his professional baseball career. His return was facilitated by the same person who nearly derailed his career before it even started — his mother.
“In 1973, I did not pitch. I did nothing with baseball,” said Terpko. “I came home and my father was livid, but he didn’t say anything.”
Terpko did stay active, though.
“I played softball all summer long for the Cork-N-Bottle,” he laughed.
About 20 years after she nearly derailed his baseball career, Julia Terpko began the process of getting her son’s journey to the Major Leagues back on track.
“I didn’t know it, but my mother had been corresponding with the Farm Director of the Texas Rangers.
“In January of 1974, my mother said to me, ‘I don’t know how much longer I have, but I want you to do one thing for me. I want you to go back and give it one more try just for me,’” said Terpko. “It was like getting hit by a ton of bricks.
“I did it for my mother,” he added.
In his mind, Terpko knew things needed to be different this time around.
“I went to the minor league spring training camp in Plant City, Florida. The farm director, Hal Keller, told me he couldn’t guarantee me anything,” he said. I asked him to do one thing for me — make me a relief pitcher. I didn’t want to start any more.
“I thought it was the quickest way for me to get to the majors, but it was tough at first because you’re not accustom to throwing every day at first,” said Terpko.
The re-boot of his professional baseball career also got off to a bit of a rocky start.
“As fate would have it, the second hitter I faced in spring training, I took a line drive off the rib cage,” said Terpko. “They wanted to take me out of the game, and I said ‘I need to pitch.’
“The next time through the line-up, the same guy comes up and hits another shot right up the middle, and I knock it down with my glove, then my attitude kicks in,” added Terpko. “As he’s running down the line, I’m yelling at him to pull the ball and I throw him out … it escalated into a bench-clearing brawl.”
From there, it was upward and onward.
Between AA and AAA in 1974, Terpko had an 11-2 record with nine saves and a 1.43 ERA. He struck out 59 batters in 69 innings.
He earned a September call-up to the Texas Rangers (originally the Senators, but moved to Texas before the 1972 season), where he pitched in three games. He pitched seven innings and allowed just one earned run for a 1.29 ERA. He struck out three and walked four.
“I went to AA as a relief pitcher that year,” said Terpko.”Believe it or not, after taking a year off and playing beer league softball, I went from AA to AAA to the big leagues.”
Terpko remembers the night he learned the news he was headed to “the Show.”
“That was the year we won the Pacific Coast League championship,” said Terpko. “I was in Spokane, Washington, and the assistant coach congratulated me and told me I got called up. I didn’t believe him, but the manager, Del Wilbur, said ‘oh yeah, you’ve been called up.’
“That was an incredible moment,” he noted. “It was the most exciting thing I can remember, calling my mother to tell her I was going to play in the majors. She was thrilled.
“She passed away during spring training in 1975,” added Terpko. “She never saw me pitch in the big leagues, but she knew I made it.”
Terpko also vividly remembers his first night in a major-league uniform.
“We were at home playing against Oakland,” he said. “We were only one-half game out of first place behind Oakland, which had won the World Series in 1972 and ’73.
“I warmed up, but I didn’t pitch.
“After that, Kansas City came to town,” noted Terpko. “They were a team on the rise with George Brett, Hal McRae, Amos Otis, and several other good young players.
The first batter I ever faced was Vada Pinson and he hit a chopper over the mound for an infield single, and I said ‘uh-oh, this ain’t gonna go so well,’” laughed Terpko. “Then again, it could have been worse, he could have hit one five miles.
“I got out of it without giving up a run, though,” he added.
Terpko remembers his first strikeout came at the expense of perennial Kansas City all-star second baseman Frank White.
He also remembers giving up one of Hall of Famer Rod Carew’s 3,053 career hits.
“We were in Minnesota in the final week of the 1974 season,” said Terpko. “It was October and it felt like it was gonna snow.
“I pitched five innings and I can remember facing Rod Carew,” he notes. “I can still see him standing five miles away from the plate. I remember thinking, ‘I know he’s a good hitter, but I’m not throwing anything middle in on him.’ I threw a fastball six inches off the plate and he hit a rocket between short and third for a single.
“That’s how you learn to pitch,” added Terpko. “The best way to pitch a guy like that is throw it down the middle and take your chances.”
Despite his September success, Terpko spent the entire 1975 season at AAA. He posted a 6-4 record with 13 saves, and a 4.11 ERA. He fanned 46 in 70 innings.
In 1976, Terpko made the Rangers out of spring training and pitched alongside future Hall of Famers Bert Blyleven and Gaylord Perry, as well as longtime major leaguers Mike Hargrove, Toby Harrah, and Jim Sandberg, and former “Rookies of the Year” Jeff Burroughs and Tom Grieve.
“It was my best year,” Terpko said.
Terpko posted a 3-3 record with a 2.39 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 52 innings.
At one point in 1976, Terpko appeared in 15 consecutive games without allowing an earned run.
“The worst thing you could do was tell me my stats,” said Terpko. “Sid Hudson came up to me and told me I had 27 scoreless innings in a row, and my ERA was under 1. Of course, he jinxed me and I gave up a run that night.
“Shortly after that, were in Minnesota again,” he noted. “I was sitting in the bullpen and the Jumbotron is listing team leaders and when it gets to ERA, my name pops up. I had no idea, I really didn’t pay much attention to my stats.
“I had a 1.26 ERA,” added Terpko. “I get called on to pitch in that game, and gave up a two-run double on a high fastball on a 1-2 pitch to a little punch-and-judy hitter. The Twins were always a thorn in my side.”
During the season, Terpko was told by Ranger owner Tom Corbett that Texas was about to make a big trade with the Twins, and Minnesota wanted him as part of the deal.
“Tom Corbett told me, ‘I’m going to be up front with you, there’s a trade in place and the Twins want you,” said Terpko. “I did not want to play in Minnesota. I told him, ‘I really liked Texas,’ to which he replied, ‘let’s re-negotiate your contract.’”
The trade went through (without Terpko) on June 1, 1976 with the Rangers sending Roy Smalley, Mike Cubbage, Bill Singer, and a minor-leaguer to the Twins for Blyleven and second-year shortstop Danny Thompson, who died of leukemia shortly after the season.
After the 1976 season, Terpko signed a two-year deal worth $55,0000.
“The most I ever made in the big leagues was $35,000, which is probably meal money for those guys today,” he said.
After the 1976 season, John Terpko passed away.
“Like my mother, my father never saw me play professional ball either,” said Terpko. “He always thought he would jinx me.
“We were at Yankee Stadium in 1976. My wife came home and took her mother and other relatives, but my father wouldn’t go.
“At the end of the ’76 season, we were in Boston and my father loved the Red Sox,” noted Terpko. “I bought him a plane ticket and had tickets for him at Fenway Park, but he didn’t go.
“My father died that November,” he said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but he had planned on going to Boston, but changed his mind at the last minute.
“Neither one of my parents ever got to see me pitch in the big leagues,” added Terpko. “Later on, I found out from some of his friends on the railroad that he would listen to my games on the radio whenever he could.”
During spring training in 1977, Terpko was traded to the Montreal Expos for speedy infielder Rodney Scott, who was moved along to Oakland in another deal.
“It was tough,” said Terpko. “I had spent nine years with the Rangers organization.”
“And, as fate would have it, a week before I got traded my wife (the former Debbie Dipio) had a miscarriage, and she was not doing well.
“People don’t understand that when you get traded, you go,” added Terpko. “Your family, which in this case was my wife, is left to take care of everything.”
The baseball was the only thing Terpko really enjoyed about Montreal.
“When I got to Montreal, we had a team on its way up. There were veterans like Tony Perez, Rusty Staub, and Dave Cash, and young guys like Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie, Steve Rogers.
“But it was the worst place to play,” said Terpko. “Olympic Stadium was like Candlestick Park, it could be 80 degrees here, but when you walked into the park it was winter coats and long johns.
“And the Canadian fans hated us,” he continued. “Whoever scored a run, they cheered. It was all about hockey there.
“It was also a learning experience for me, coming from the American League to the National League back then was completely different,” said Terpko. “In the National League, if you were a rookie or a newcomer to the league, you didn’t get the call. I remember throwing pitches down the middle and having them called balls.
“There was no inter-league play, and both leagues had their own umpires, so they didn’t have any idea how I pitched,” he added.
The politics of the time didn’t help either.
“The other thing that year was that Quebec was trying to secede from Ontario, so if you spoke English, no one would talk to you,” said Terpko. “We couldn’t find any place to live, so we had to drive 50 miles to the park and back home every day.
“It was tough,” he added.
Technically, it wasn’t the first time Terpko had been traded.
In October of 1969, the Cardinals traded four players, including Curt Flood, to the Phillies in exchange for three players. Flood refused to report to the Phillies and challenged MLB’s reserve clause in a landmark case. Flood lost the case, and in November 1970 Flood’s rights were traded to the Senators in exchange for Terpko, Greg Goossen, and Gene Martin. Terpko was later sent back to the Senators after Flood once again failed to report.
Terpko pitched in 13 games for the Expos at the start of the 1977 season, and recorded his only major league at-bat in a game against the Giants.
“John Montefusco was pitching for the Giants. I fouled off two pitches, then he threw a nasty slider and I just walked back to the dugout, but I was proud of myself for fouling off those first two pitches.”
A shoulder injury left Terpko short on velocity and resulted in his demotion to AAA.
“I hurt my arm in 1977 and ended up in AAA Denver, where we won the American Association championship,” said Terpko.
“The Expos took me off the 40-man roster after my arm injury,” noted Terpko. “The Orioles picked me up and I spent spring training with Baltimore.”
He pitched in AAA Rochester in 1978 and was 3-3 with a 5.00 ERA in 36 innings.
Spring training of 1979 was the end of the line for Terpko.
“I didn’t pitch well in spring training and asked for my release. I thought I could hook up somewhere else, but rosters were pretty much set by then.
“I had severed a nerve in my shoulder,” said Terpko. I don’t know how I did it. It was probably a result of all the pitches I had throw in my lifetime. I had muscle atrophy in my shoulder and my arm was constantly tired.
“Plus, I was getting up there in age,” he noted. “Back then, 28 and 29 was old.
“I could have hung on, but my daughter was born in 1979, and I didn’t want to drag my wife and newborn daughter around the country,” added Terpko.
Walking away from professional baseball was not easy, said Terpko.
“It was difficult,” said Terpko.
“And, I had to come back to the Valley and get a job,” he laughed.
“Luckily, my wife had a good job at IBM. I started out putting pools in with Paul Redman,” said Terpko. “Then I went to work at the Agway feed mill, which I kinda liked because it was physical.
“My uncle Andy Bobek talked me into taking the civil service test for the post office,” he noted. “I passed it, and was hired part-time, so I was working two jobs for a while.
“Eventually, I went full-time with the post office was there for 30 years (1979 to 2009) as a rural carrier.”
Terpko didn’t have much to do with baseball for a while, but eventually his old mentor drew him back into the game he loves.
“I started getting back into the game when Ralph Hendershot talked me into helping out here and there,” he said. “Then my son played Little League for Litchfield Township.”
Terpko laughs as he tells a story about taking his son’s Little League team to Williamsport for the College Word Series.
“Jeff Burroughs coached the Long Beach team in the Little League World Series, and we were able to take my son’s team to South Williamsport to watch a practice and a game.
“At the time, my daughter was 16 and we were walking by the ABC-TV trailer, and Jim Palmer was doing the Little League games,” said Terpko. “I had been at spring training with the Orioles, so I asked the kid at the door of the trailer to tell Jim Palmer that Jeff Terpko is standing outside and wants to talk to him.
“The kid looked at me, wearing a tank top and beat-up shorts, like I had two heads,” noted Terpko. “He goes into the trailer and a few minutes later Palmer comes out and says ‘Hey Terp, how ya doing?’ And my daughter is smiling.
“Here’s a Hall of Famer talking with me like it’s nothing,” added Terpko. “Those are the memories I’ll always have. It’s like a fraternity. There were a lot of great times.”
Terpko and his wife Debbie raised a daughter, Stacey, 39, and a son, Jason, 34.
“My wife was a wonderful woman, and we have two great kids,” he said.
Terpko will be 67 in October, but he’s not slowing down a bit.
“I live every day like it’s my last day,” he said. “I work out every day and I try to walk every day.
“I fish a lot,” he laughed.
“I don’t let age district me from what I do and I’m not going to slow down,” added Terpko. “I think you can let yourself get old, and that’s what I like about working with kids — it makes me young again.”
Currently, Terpko is enjoying retirement and also finds satisfaction in working with young players.
“The more I can help these kids, the better I feel about myself,” said Terpko.
“I love running into a parent and have them say, ‘thanks so much, my boy had a great year’ — that makes me happier than anything,” he added.
His baseball life has also come full circle as two of Terpko’s star students are Ralph Hendershot’s grandsons Parker Hendershot, who will be playing Division 1 baseball at Penn State in the fall, and Pierce Hendershot, who will be a junior at Tioga.
“They are both very talented young men,” said Terpko. “Parker is going to play Division 1 baseball, and Pierce could end up being better than Parker in the long run. And, more importantly, they’re both fine young men.”
Terpko also speaks highly of the boys’ father — Ralph Hendershot’s middle son, Tom.
“Tommy has a lot of baseball knowledge,” said Terpko. “He’s a whiz with the computer and is always coming up with good drills for the kids. He may have learned a few things from me, but I’ve learned a lot from him.
“And I can tell you, if Ralph’s looking down on us, he’s certainly proud of Tom and his boys,” Terpko added.
Terpko is hopeful the Valley can produce another major leaguer in his time.
“In the future, I just want to keep working with the kids,” he said. “My biggest hope is that one day we can get another kid from the Valley to experience some of the same things I did and make it to the Major Leagues; that’s the one thing I’d really like to see.”
In a final reflection on his first 66-plus years, Terpko notes today’s minimum MLB salary is in excess of $500,000 per year.
“I’d like to play one year. I would take minimum wage for one year and I’d be happy.
“Seriously, it is what it is. I’m not spiteful about what I made,” he said. “I had the time of my life.
“It blows my mind. I’m from the East Side. I was fortunate enough to have a little bit of ability and some luck on my side,” notes Terpko. “I had a charmed life. I had a great wife, two great kids, and great parents.
“I don’t have one regret. If it were to come to an end today, there are no regrets.”
During a three-hour interview, Jeff Terpko shared numerous stories and anecdotes that didn’t find their way into the four-part series, but are too good not to share.
ON HIS YEARS IN THE MINOR LEAGUES
“As the years have gone by, I’ve sat back and thought about all the guys I faced in the minor leagues,” said Terpko. “We played Reading and they had Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski, and we played Pawtucket and they had guys like Carlton Fisk and Cecil Cooper. The list goes on and on.
“It was just such an incredible experience,” he added.
ON PLAYING AT YANKEE STADIUM
“It was an awe-inspiring experience. I remember the first time walking into Yankee Stadium. I watched the Yankees my whole life growing up in Sayre.”
ON FENWAY PARK AND FACING FUTURE HALL OF FAMER JIM RICE
“I remember the first time I pitched at Fenway and I looked over my shoulder and the left fielder is standing behind the shortstop.
“I wouldn’t pitch anyone inside in Boston,” said Terpko. “I remember facing Jim Rice and pitching him outside. That was a mistake, he took me into the bullpen and quick.
“I wasn’t too phased by it, I wasn’t the only one to give up a home run to Jim Rice,” he added.
Rice had 382 career home runs and 1,451 RBI, to go along with 2,452 hits and a .298 career batting average in 16 career season. In 1978, he was the A.L. MVP and led the league with 46 homers, 139 RBI, 213 hits, and 15 triples.
ON PLAYING FOR BILLY MARTIN
“When I got to the Rangers in 1974, Billy Martin was the manager,” said Terpko. “When we went on a road trip, Billy didn’t care what bars you were at, but his one rule was if he showed up at that bar, you could finish your drink, then you had to leave.
“We were at a hotel in Kansas City and it had two bars. It was funny, we had to leave each bar about six times,” laughed Terpko. “Billy would come in and we’d leave for the other bar. Then, he’d come to the other bar, and we’d go back to the first one. It went on most of the night.”
ON LYMAN BOSTOCK
“The team I could never beat was the Twins, from the minor league up through the majors. They gave me fits.
“They had this kid named Lyman Bostock and I could never get him out. I use to tell him, ‘just go down to first base, or second base, or wherever you’re going to end up.’
“I did finally get him out in the PCL Championship game,” laughed Terpko. “He was the first guy I faced and he hit a rocket to Mike Cubbage at second base. That may have been the only time I ever got him out.”
Bostock hit .311 in his four-year MLB career, and hit .336 with 14 HR and 90 RBI in 1977. He was shot and killed in Gary, Ind. late in the 1978 season.
ON LEARNING FROM HALL OF FAMER GAYLORD PERRY
“I learned a lot about the game by talking to the older players,” said Terpko.
(In 1976), Gaylord Perry always told me if you see a hitter leaning over the plate, the middle of the plate and away is yours, and the middle of the plate and in is his,” noted Terpko. “If he takes the middle away from you, you take the middle and in away from him. That’s what I always tried to do.”
ON FISHING WITH FUTURE HALL OF FAMER FERGIE JERKINS
“Shortly after I got called up to the Rangers, I ended up fishing with Fergie Jenkins and Steve Foucault,” said Terpko. “Fergie was a great guy. He was suppose to come to the Valley to go deer hunting, but never made it.”
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