PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Down here where the flowers bloom in the spring, tra-la-la, you won’t find erstwhile New York Yankees outfielder Ross Moschitto at Tradition Field following the Mets, nor in nearby Jupiter at Roger Dean Stadium checking in on the Florida Marlins or the St. Louis Cardinals. Neither will you find Moschitto, who spent 20-plus years in Garnerville running a security business, up the road in Viera at Space Coast Stadium wondering how the Washington Nationals are progressing.
Rather, you can usually find the tall, still-trim, still-athletic, personable 68-year-old from Fresno, Calif. — where he was a teammate of the Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver at Fresno City College — at his busy, updated St. Lucie Golf Range. The facility, nestled off highway U.S. 1 in Port St. Lucie, and which might have served as model for the movie “Tip Cup,” when Muschitto took over in January 2012, is an offshoot of Swing Doctor Golf. Muscitto’s responsibilities, which include private lessons, have cut drastically into his own time on the course, but are lightened by the invaluable help of his partner, Barbara, a fan of the Mets (or at least she WAS a fan of the Mets).
Moschitto, who signed with the fabled pinstripe franchise in 1964 and eventually wound up as a “caddie” or late-inning defensive replacement for the legendary Mickey Mantle in his declining years, took up the game when his own career in baseball ended following an Achilles’ tendon injury
“I was with the Yankees in Fort Lauderdale in 1968 when I popped an Achilles’, and was never the same after that,” recalls Moscitto, whose four children (two boys, two girls) attended Catholic schools in Garnerville, and North Rockland High School. “I could fly (run) and had a cannon for an arm, but once I was injured I hurt my arm by trying to compensate. It wound up I couldn’t play; I was in too much pain.”
North Rockland HS athletic director and longtime football coach Joe Casarella paused for a moment, then laughed deeply when asked about Moscitto, whose children are now scattered — in upper Manhattan and across the river in Tuckahoe, Dobbs Ferry and Scarsdale.
“Ross, that brings back memories,” offered Casarella. “He was all right, he was never any trouble. His kid played baseball, but was not as good as his dad. Ross was very athletic … he was good to us.”
Bye-bye baseball, hello golf
Once his playing career was over, Moschitto transferred his skills on the diamond to the links, with the help of former Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry, later a member of the Senior Tour, and has distanced himself from baseball beyond the mere span of years. The distance, too, has grown in his heart.
“It’s not baseball as I knew it; it’s show business,” rues Moschitto. “All they (players) care about is the money, being like a rock star or a movie star. They don’t even eat together as teammates, but go their own way, with private planes, agents, hair stylists, publicists … I see very few games. The players today have a hang nail and go on the disabled list.”
Asked gently if he was disenchanted with the game, Moschitto replied not with anger but more with sadness for a time gone by.
“Disenchanted?” he repeated. “You got that right. It’s all about the money. Even spring training is not the same, with everyone in cages like a zoo. You can’t get close to the players. This is not the baseball I knew; I can’t watch. The players are all about themselves.”
Moschitto, however, has fond and meaningful memories. He remembers the quiet, country-boy humor of a young Mickey Mantle, whose career was cut short by injuries and perhaps a bit too much nightlife; he remembers the way a veteran backstop Johnny Blanchard took a young rookie, Moschitto, under his wings; and he remembers how a young, talented but impetuous Joe Pepitone became his roommate and would try to get him, Moschitto, into trouble.
“It was great going with the Yankees, but if I went with the Mets instead, would have had probably a long career,” Moschitto offers. “(Manager) Gil Hodges would have played me, instead of me sitting on the bench playing behind Mantle. I never got up (at bat) that much. If I went with the Mets I might have been on that championship team in 1969.”
(Ed. note: Moscitto’s at-bats were limited to the extent that he is one of only seven players to have more career game appearances than plate appearances.)
In his tenure with the Yankees (1965-67), Moschitto hit one homer, at the old Yankee Stadium. He remembers it well, nearly 50 years later.
“I hit if off Jim Perry (brother of famed Gaylord), and we still joke about it,” Moschitto says, with a twinkle in his eyes. “You remember the M&M Boys? Mantle and Maris? Well in that game, not only did they homer, but I homered too. One writer wrote, “the M&M&M boys. My shot was into the upper deck and they called me the next Joe D (DiMaggio).”
Moschitto was joking, of course, about being another Joe DiMaggio, but he doesn’t joke in recalling Mantle’s decline.
“Mickey always thought he would die young, like his dad and uncles,” Moschitto said. “If he took care of himself, he might have been 80 or 90. In his later years he became very frustrated with his injuries. It took him hours to wrap his legs and it was hard for him to make any turns running. He became bitter, had an alcohol problem. It was tough for him.”
Pepitone, a fun-loving, left-handed hitting first baseman/outfielder, recognized as the first major-leaguer to bring a hair dryer into the locker room, was another story.
“He always tried to get me in trouble, but I was just a country boy and didn’t know enough to get into any kind of trouble,” Moschitto, quiet and calm, said.
Death takes a toll
Continuing to turn back the pages, Moschitto said he “loved” the late Johnny Blanchard.“We stayed in touch, and I miss him a lot,” Moschitto said. “A lot of guys are passing — Clete Boyer, Tom Tresh, Bobby Murcer, so many guys passing away makes me sad.”
Moschitto also remembers teammates Moose Skowron and Hank Bauer, also gone now, and especially recalls the ex-Marine Bauer’s high-pitched voice.
“He sounded like a girl,” Moschitto laughed about a guy whose face, one scribe once wrote, looked liked a clenched fist. “About 20 years after we had retired, I ran into Moose and Hank. I had been lifting weights, working out, and Hank said, ‘(Holy mackerel), are you on steroids! I miss those guys, but like I said, I don’t even watch the game now. I’m disgusted with it.”
One thing that hasn’t change, however, in Moschitto’s view, is the grind of the game.
“Baseball’s a tough game, a real day-to-day grind, and the public generally don’t realize how tough it is,” he said. “Everyone out there means business. It’s a game, yeah, but it’s a business and a tough one at that.”Not that running a golf range is a walk in the park, either.
“You know what they say about getting what you wish for?” Moschitto says. “I used to come to this range every winter, and it was redneck range — mostly dirt, no grass, tin cups, holes in the mats. I revamped it totally. But it’s work. I went from playing (golf) four times a week to once a month. Running this place takes time and effort, but it’s a blast.”
EXTRA INNINGS: Former Cy Young Award winner Frank Viola, a southpaw who starred at St. John’s University and later pitched for the Twins and Mets, is now a pitching coach for the Mets in Savannah, Ga., a lower Class A team. Viola credits the late Brooklyn Dodgers ace Johnny Podres for turning his career around by teaching him the change-up. Viola, who should know, said, “There’s a lot of (pitching) talent here.” And if there is strength in numbers, the Mets should be strong in that department. On the minor-league roster alone, there are 74 pitchers in camp, from Kyle Allen of Tampa, Fla., to Gabriel Ynoa of LaVega, Dominican Republic. … Rom Romanick, the Mets’ minor-league pitching coordinator, is not particularly fond of this time of the year. “There are too many young-uns to keep track of,” he smiled, as hordes of players scampered about on any number of side and back fields at the team’s sprawling complex adjacent to Tradition Field. Romanick played for manager Gene Mauch when he was with the California Angels. “He was called The General — and that’s what he was,” offered Romanick. Mauch, of course, is best remembered for being at the helm for the celebrated collapse of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1964. … Speaking of today’s penchant for pitch counts and babying pitchers’ arms, Moschitto remembers the great Bob Feller mocking it all. “Feller told me the best way to keep your arm strong was by throwing. For cryin’ out loud, Feller once pitched both games of a doubleheader. Didn’t seem to hurt him too much, did it?”