This is a sad day for baseball and in particular for the Yankee family as we learned today of the passing of Billy Connors last night. A number of news outlets have written about his life as a player and coach in major league baseball, particularly his time as a Yankee pitching coach and a key member of the Yankees’ front office, holding a senior position in the team’s player development system.
The times I spent with Billy at his home near the Yankee minor league and spring training facilities in Tampa, Florida were some of the most memorable days and nights of my life. We talked about pitching for hours. What else would I want to talk about? He always told me that the pitcher’s job was to “get out of the inning.” Sounds simple enough. He was so eager to tell me stories about things that happened on and off the field during his long career in baseball going back to when he played in back to back Little League World Series in 1953 and 1954, winning the title in ’54 for Schenectady, NY.
He showed Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux how to throw a cutter, a pitch that changed Maddux’s career. Then he worked with Mariano Rivera to perfect his un-hittable cutter. Connors was the unsung master of the pitching coach fraternity. His home in Florida had two pitching mounds set on the back of the property where he would work with pitchers (mostly during rehab assignments for Yankee pitchers) in a private setting, away from reporters and onlookers. He was always straight forward and honest with those major leaguers. He never sugar-coated anything for them because they were stars. He turned around many a players career. Just go ask Dwight Gooden.
On that big piece of propert,y Billy also had a few roommates in the yard. Two bulls, a few goats and some donkeys. We would be talking baseball and one or two of those guys would mosey over and nudge us for some treats. Billy loved those animals and named them after ball players he worked with as well as some famous major leaguers. If you went there you never wore dark colors because you would leave with an outfit covered in hair. If you stayed overnight, you would have the company of three of his big friendly labradors. They liked to sleep in the bed with visitors.
Billy was very happy in his surroundings in Tampa. He cherished his life in baseball and when the Yankees eased him out after the passing of George Steinbrenner, he began to withdraw from the sport that he loved so much. The Boss loved Billy and faithfully trusted his judgement and expertise when it came to coaching, developing and rehabbing the Yankee pitching staff at all levels of the organization.
People are saying that Billy died sad because he was no longer a part of the everyday life of being a Yankee. I reject that idea and and I am convinced that Billy Connors left this earth with a smile on his face knowing that he had a very good and productive life. I know that when he took his last breath he was picturing himself on the mound at Yankee Stadium telling one of his staff how to “get out of the inning.”
In the game of life, Billy Connors today pitched his last complete game. He was a true caricature of the game and will be missed by all that knew him. Rest in peace my friend.