25 years ago, ex-Pirates pitcher Jim Rooker made good by trekking from Philly to Pittsburgh
Whether it was opponents, the media and even his own team, Jim Rooker rarely, if ever cut some slack. A feisty left-hander and outspoken team leader, he once said, noting his teammates' poor play, “With the kind of money some guys are getting on this club, it's a shame.”
“Rook” could be quite the charmer, all right. But he also was funny, smart and slightly off-kilter, qualities that directed him straight from the mound to the Pirates' broadcast booth. He said many words about many subjects, some of them caustic and critical. None, however, packed a wallop like the relatively innocuous remark he uttered nearly a quarter century ago.
On June 8, 1989, during a night game at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, Rooker off-handedly told his radio audience that if the Pirates blew a 10-run lead against the Phillies he would walk back to Pittsburgh. Sure enough, they did just that. A few months later, so did Rooker. Over 13 days, Rooker and a friend, Carl Dozzi, covered roughly 320 miles on foot through the scenic, autumnal Pennsylvania countryside.
The media was all over “Jim Rooker's Unintentional Walk,” which started at the Vet on Oct. 5, followed a good portion of Route 30 westward and ended at Three Rivers Stadium on Oct. 17 (the day of the earthquake during the World Series in northern California).
Radio, TV and newspapers hyped the walk and provided updates. ABC's “Good Morning America” covered the departure. Had the Internet as we know it existed then, Rooker and Dozzi, both lively conversationalists, surely would have tweeted along the way. They might have been YouTube sensations.
From his first season with the Pirates in 1973 through 1977, Rooker averaged 207 innings, 14 wins and a 3.00 ERA. He was a key figure in the 1979 World Series, and no Pirates' pitcher has since matched his 262 2⁄3 innings in 1974. But it took a long hike to cement his legacy.
“A lot of people I've run into since I've been out of baseball say, ‘Oh, wait, you're the guy who did that walk,' ” Rooker, 71, said last week from his home in Jacksonville. “I have to remind them I won quite a few games in the big leagues, too. But it is a fun thing to talk about.”
Other than the blisters and other aches and pains, and the exhaustion, and the 18-wheeler that might have killed them, they had fun, too. Rooker seemed to relish talking about the golfers they hustled on a public course near Carlisle en route to stopping to visit Sid Bream's mother, and the gourmet picnic waiting for them in Everett, complete with linens, crystal, fine wines and a violinist.
There were unpleasant two days in Lancaster County during “fertilizer season,” Rooker said, and a polka festival at Seven Springs they crashed and left with pockets stuffed with cash and checks. They grabbed buckets and mops and helped out a window washer (neither could recall where), simply to break the monotony. They visited a hunter in Ebensburg who enthusiastically showed off the heads of his kills, and went to a scheduled meeting in Harrisburg with then-Governor Bob Casey, who was not there because “someone messed up,” Dozzi said.
A jazz band sent them off from the Vet. They were welcomed to Three Rivers Stadium by a sign inked with the footprints of Rooker's young grandsons. Rooker remembers passing the Civic Arena, “and the street was lined with people — black, white and Hispanic. It was a feeling of self-accomplishment, and how people came together. Everybody was pulling for us.”
The walk raised thousands of dollars for the Bob Prince Charities (Dozzi was on the board) and Children's Hospital. Estimates vary to this day, but Dozzi is sure it was more than $100,000. Rooker also helped a former minor league teammate who had multiple sclerosis, giving him $10,000 to buy a van equipped with a lift.
Dozzi, who then worked for a construction company and now owns a Downtown store that sells imported Italian items, was instrumental.
“I might not know everybody,” he said, “but I know all the right people.”
The Pirates came into the Vet cranky over a seven-game losing streak. Ten runs in the first inning provided a lift, but Rooker, having played the game, knew there were no sure things.
“If we don't win this one, I don't think I'd want to be on that plane ride home. Matter of fact, if we don't win, I'll walk back to Pittsburgh,” he said.
John Sanders, doing play-by-play next to Rooker, said he “didn't think much about it at the time.” Besides, he said, “Jim wasn't afraid to speak his mind.” Rooker forgot about it, too, even after the Phils stormed back to win 15-11. Looking at what transpired, Rooker remains fascinated by the name of the Pirates' starter who gave up six runs and failed to get past the fourth inning. It was Bob Walk.
“Isn't that a mind-blower?” Rooker said.
The next day, calls from fans swamped the Pirates and KDKA-AM, where Rooker was doing a talk show with Goose Goslin. Rooker said Goslin, who died last year, kept pressing him on whether he would make good on his claim. Rooker had not intended to do so but relented under one condition: He would walk for charity.
“I said I'm not gonna walk from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh for nothing,” he said.
Plans were made, sponsors lined up. Dozzi managed to finagle some track suits and sneakers. The logistics would be tough, but Pirates president Carl Barger provided a support team of staffers to plan the route, arrange nighttime housing and take care of other details. He also threw in a motor home.
Dozzi immediately volunteered to come along. He said he told Rooker, “How can you walk from Philly to Pittsburgh? You have trouble walking from ground level to the announcers' booth.” Rooker replied, “I'm in better shape than you are.”
By October he was not. Dozzi had trained diligently for 10 weeks, trekking several miles a day and working out at a gym. Rooker worked out, too, but not as much. As he reminded Dozzi, “I'm a former professional athlete.”
Rooker won 103 big league games, 82 with the Pirates after a trade with Kansas City. After a depressing, injury-marred regular season in 1979, Rooker was called upon as an emergency starter in Game 5 of the World Series against Baltimore. He gave up one run in five innings. The Pirates won 7-1 and took the Series in seven games. He was an accomplished major leaguer.
But this was different. Rooker was 47 (the same age as Dozzi), and it showed. In West Chester, according to Dozzi, Rooker asked how much further they had to walk. Dozzi said he replied, “Are you out of your mind? We have 12 days to go.”
They averaged more than 24 miles a day, sometimes exceeding 30. Sideling Hill was the worst, Rooker said, and afternoons, when “your mind goes in so many different places,” were difficult. Rooker said he came up with the term, “Two o'clock mad,” which meant after that time of day, “your temper level increases, especially when you're presented with something stupid or dumb.”
Pain was constant, the blisters and “the blisters next to the blisters,” and the prickly feeling in the feet and legs.
“Picture youself getting out of bed and stepping on the floor and it feels like a bed of nails,” Rooker said. “We didn't have a clue what we were getting into, and by then it was too late. It beat you down physically and mentally.”
But they finished.
Rooker these days is kicking back in Florida with his second wife, Becky. He plays golf and spends time with the grandchildren who live down there. He said he has a “black belt in not doing much,” but he has written three children's books — “Kitt the Mitt,” “Matt the Bat” and “Paul the Baseball” — and tweets political commentary in language too salty for this publication.
Rooker grew up in Compton, Calif., and married at age 17. He signed out of high school with Detroit and immediately was converted from the outfield to pitcher. He languished eight years in the minors before a brief stay with the Tigers in 1968, who won the World Series without him. He went to the Royals in the expansion draft, becoming the first player in franchise history to hit two homers in a game. The Pirates traded reliever Gene Garber for Rooker after the 1972 season.
Rooker pitched for most of 13 seasons in the big leagues, all business on the field and some monkey business off it. He once roller skated from the team hotel in St. Louis to the ballpark and burned his (non-pitching) hand grilling hot dogs in the visiting clubhouse at Wrigley Field. He enjoyed his evenings, and early mornings, after the game.
“I'm not flakey,” he told a reporter many years ago. “I just like to keep everybody on their toes.”
After joining the Pirates, Rooker said he nearly fought with pitcher Dock Ellis, a himself a lightning rod who also came from Compton, over some uncomplimentary remarks. They later became good friends. He frequently criticized the media for what he perceived as negative coverage. After Major League Baseball players and the NFL both went on strike, Rooker claimed the local papers were too hard on the Pirates and too easy on the Steelers. He still feels that way.
Besides his second career in broadcasting, Rooker twice ran for political office, once each as a Democrat and Republican. He lost big both times. He owned a bar in Ambridge and was arrested three times for DUI before spending 28 days at Gateway rehab.
“I got a hell of an education the wrong way,” he said.
It wasn't all roses, but it definitely was interesting. And, once upon a time, he and his buddy, Carl, took a very long walk. Rooker said there were more than a few doubters, including his ex-teammate, Dave Giusti.
Rooker and Dozzi showed them, all right. Said Rooker, “We were both stubborn and stupid and determined.”