BOSTON SUNDAY GLOBE July 4, 1976
Surgery helped him elbow his way to big league heights
By Larry Whiteside
MILWAUKEE — Young Bill Travers likes to think of himself as a modern marvel of medicine, on sort of a low-budget scale. He is the $400 Bionic man. At least that’s how much an operation in 1973 that turned around his career cost.
“One guy wrote that I go out and pitch each game with only half an elbow,” said the left-handed pitcher from Norwood, Mass. “But that’s not exactly true. My doctor finally had to tell everybody that I’m out there minus $400 worth of elbow.”
Travers also likes to think of himself as a very fortunate young many, who through trial and tribulation has emerged as one of the young lions among American League pitchers, although his recent record for the Milwaukee Brewers is nothing to brag about. Three straight losses, including a 1-0 shutout in Yankee Stadium, has turned a brilliant 8-3 start to a suspect 8-6 record.
But records can be deceiving. This young man has some talent.
“I don’t think anybody believed me,” said Brewer Mg Alex Grammas, “when I made the statement that Bill Travers is one of the best lefthanders in the league. He’s not like a Frank Tanana, but he’s up there in talent with a lot of them.
“I made this decision without really seeing him pitch much. I was new to this team, and new to this league I had to judge pitchers this spring by what I saw from behind the batter’s cage. What I saw was a young man with good command of his fastball and changeup, and especially his fork ball, which he developed over the winter in Puerto Rico.’’
Travers, 23, has been developing for a long time, and it has been slow and oftentimes painful. He signed as a tender 17-year-old out of Norwood High School, not exactly a renowned birthplace of major league talent although another former Norwood and Catholic Memorial lad, Skip Lockwood (now with the Mets), has also gone a long way in the majors as a pitcher.
“I really can’t explain why a pitcher from Massachusetts succeeds,” said Travers. “It’s certainly not like California, where you can play all year. We played a 20-game schedule at Norwood. The whole season didn’t last more than six weeks. But I guess I had certain Godgiven talent, and I’m lucky in that way. I made the allScholastic team as both a junior and a senior. I still have the clippings in my scrapbook.”
Travers had been scheduled to pitch the finale of the four-game series against the Red Sox today, but had to cancel out when he bruised his ankle while running in the outfield prior to last night’s game. He has been bothered by arm trouble through most of his brief career, and has had two operations, the second in 1973. Yet, it was his ability to bounce back and even develop a new pitch—a fork ball — that seems to keep him in the Brewers’ good graces.
“But they’ve always been good to me.” he said. “When I signed, they actually allowed me to make the choice of whether I’d be a first baseman or a pitcher. I really enjoyed playing first, but even then I had a good fastball, changeup and curve, and decided to be a pitcher. Some teams might give up on a player who has had the kind of problems I’ve had. But the Brewers stuck with me. Sure, I’d like one day to pitch in Anaheim or Boston. But right now, I love it here.”
One of the reasons the Brewers stuck with Travers was that he kept showing them he had the control of a major leaguer. All he needed was confidence, and got it in, of all places. Sacramento, Calif., which had a ballpark that was just a tad larger than the lobby at the Sheraton-Boston.
“Small?” said Travers with a wide grin. “I pitched there two years and they did us a real favor by pushing the left-field fence back from 231 feet to 250. I think the deepest place in the park was only 360 feet. Heck, we had two guys who combined for 106 home runs in 1974.
“But I only allowed six in the two years I pitched in that park. For about 67 total innings in a bandbox, that’s not bad.”
The Brewers certainly thought so, and brought Travers up to stay last year. He won his first two decisions and posted a 6-11 record as a rookie (4.29 ERA, 60 BB, 57 SO’s) with a club that lost 94 games and finished 28 laps behind the Red Sox.
Then last winter, while pitching for Brewer coach Harvey Kuenn at Mayaguez of the Puerto Rico baseball league, Travers started to experiment seriously with the fork ball.
“I had tried it in 1972 originally,” said Travers, “but had stopped throwing it after my second operation. Then last year towards the end, I threw it some, but I was really afraid to use it in tough situations. But when I tried it in winter ball, it became a super pitch for me. I had a 6-4 record and a 2.90 ERA with it in winter ball. And I was 8-3 at one point in this season.”
Despite losing three straight, Travers is by far Milwaukee’s outstanding pitcher with a 1.96 ERA in 115 innings (44 BB. 66 SO, 25 ER).
“I caught him when he was 17,” said Brewer catcher Darrell Porter, “and he always had a good fastball. But now that he has added the fork ball, it has made him a terrific pitcher. It’s like a knuckler, almost, only faster. Even I don’t know which way it’s going to break until the last second.
“What makes him so good is that he will throw it at any time, and the hitters know that now. It makes his fastball and other pitches just that much tougher. The hitters don’t know what to expect.”
Travers doesn’t think he’ll make it to the All-Star game this year, although it is one of his goals. He’d like to return home to Norwood and take up his two favorite hobbies — fishing and bowling. But that’s not likely to happen, either.
“It’s the one thing I miss about New England,” he said. “I love fishing and I’m a nut for candlepin bowling. I was on one of those TV shows when I was 16 years old and got beat, but I love it, anyway. Around here, they’ve never even heard of candlepins. They look at me like I’m crazy when I say it’s better than the big ball.”
Travers is no nut. And maybe one of these days the rest of the world will find out about him.
“I hope so,” says Bob Uecker, the Brewers’ announcer who does the Monday night games for ABC television. “He may not be another Tanana. But this kid’s got good stuff and command. He can pitch, and I’ll take him over a lot of guys. He’s going to be around a long time.”