Champagne & Styrofoam Cups

By IAN WILSON

There are proper sendoffs and there are forgettable exits.

Sometimes the buildup for a final moment, a last chance at glory, produces the perfect moment.

On other occasions, even when the end is inevitable, the final out is less than magical. It’s just … over.

Right-handed pitcher Ken Forsch had a lengthy and respectable Major League Baseball (MLB) career.

An 18th-round, 399th overall selection of the Houston Astros in 1968, Forsch wasted little time getting to the majors. The 6-foot-4 hurler made his MLB debut with the Astros as a 23-year-old in just his third season of professional baseball.

He didn’t look back after that, working as a starter, middle reliever and closer for Houston for a decade.

In 1979, the Sacramento, California product joined an elite group.

His first start of the season came on April 7th against the Atlanta Braves at the Astrodome.

MAY THE FORSCH BE WITH YOU

Early in the game, the Oregon State University (OSU) alum sensed that something special was happening.

β€œI realized I had the no-hitter way back in the third inning,” Forsch told reporters after the game. β€œAnd in the seventh, I smelled it.”

He was in a rhythm and Atlanta’s batters had no answers for what he was throwing. The end result was a 6-0 victory and the sixth no-hitter in Astros history.

Forsch struck out three batters and walked two in the no-no and joined his younger brother, Bob, as the only set of siblings to toss no hitters.

“I let him throw whatever he wanted,” said catcher Alan Ashby, who showered his pitcher with champagne after the game.

“He used all his pitches. He got a couple of outs in the ninth on curveballs. He really pitched a smart game.”

Forsch played one more season with the Astros before being traded to the California Angels for Dickie Thon in 1981.

CALIFORNIA SEAMING

Serving as a starting pitcher with the Halos, Forsch earned his second MLB All-Star nod – his first in the American League – in his inaugural season with the club. He posted a record of 11 wins and seven losses in his 20 starts, along with a 2.88 earned run average (ERA) and 10 complete games.

Forsch continued to log dependable innings for California for another two seasons, but he missed most of the 1984 campaign after dislocating his shoulder and all of 1985 when the discovery of bone spurs in his right elbow led to surgery.

He rejoined the Angels in a bullpen role in 1986, but the results were lacklustre. In 10 games and 17 innings, Forsch picked up a save and 13 Ks, but he also surrendered four home runs, 10 walks and had a 9.53 ERA.

The veteran of 16 MLB seasons was released in late May and his prospects of a comeback looked somewhat bleak.

The Seattle Mariners offered a lifeline in July in the form of a minor-league contract. If Forsch was to make his way back to the bigs, he would need to perform at a level he hadn’t played at since 1970. The Mariners assigned him to Calgary to play for the Triple-A Cannons of the Pacific Coast League (PCL).

DEADLINE DEAL

For his part, Forsch gave himself a self-imposed deadline to prove that he belonged back on a MLB roster.

“If I don’t make it back to the major leagues within six weeks, I’ll quit,” he said in the July 11th edition of the Calgary Herald.

“I have something to prove to myself. I still believe I can pitch. Now it’s up to me to show it … for me, this is a real test. I think my arm feels good. I think I can still pitch.”

At age 39, Forsch was older than the manager of the Cannons, Bill Plummer, and the team’s pitching coach, Ross Grimsley. He was also the oldest player in the PCL.

His debut with the Cannons came out of the bullpen at Foothills Stadium during a cold and rainy mid-July matchup against the Las Vegas Stars.

Forsch made headlines in the Calgary Herald in the summer of 1986.

“It was fun to be out there,” said Forsch told Herald writer Gyle Konotopetz after the 5-3 loss.

“A game’s a game, a hitter’s a hitter, an umpire’s an umpire and a mound’s a mound.”

Forsch entered the game in the eighth inning, allowing one run in a bases loaded and none out situation. He then retired ninth-inning leadoff batter Randy Ready before the game was called due to heavy rain.

“I was throwing 86-87 (miles per hour) and that’s a major league fastball,” said Forsch.

“That’s not bad for the first time out. If there was anything wrong with my arm, I’d have retired. I feel healthy and my body’s in good shape.”

Plummer also liked what he saw.

“He had some pop on his fastball,” Plummer told the Herald.

Minor-league pitching instructor Gary Wheelock had his radar gun set on Forsch and was equally impressed.

“The first thing you look at is his arm strength – he seemed to have that – and his delivery was good,” noted Wheelock.

FORSCH SHADOW

His first four appearances with the Cannons went well. Forsch compiled a 1.74 ERA and his first start was a five-inning outing that resulted in just two hits and no runs from the Tacoma Tigers. But a Tuesday home start against the Tucson Toros derailed his comeback efforts. Forsch gave up five runs, including back-to-back blasts, by the sixth inning of that 7-3 loss.

“I was in trouble the whole time I was out there. I was really wild,” Forsch confessed to Herald reporter Daryl Slade.

“I was getting behind the hitters and walking the leadoff hitters (four times). In this park, you’ll pay for it.”

Despite the poor outing, which cranked his ERA up to 4.11 with the Cannons, Forsch remained optimistic.

“I’m confident my arm is sound, and I feel good physically, but there’s only so much you can do. You just throw and hope something happens,” said the pitcher.

“I didn’t want my career to be ended by injuries. I’ve been on rehabilitation for so long, I wanted to give it a good shot … I have no regrets. I’m giving it my best shot and that’s all I can do.”

Bill Haywood, the vice-president of player development for the Mariners, was in Calgary to monitor Forsch’s progress.

“He’s got a ways to go. He may not get there … there’s no way you can tell right now whether he’s good enough to get back to the big leagues,” Haywood told the Herald.

“I’d sure like to see the Ken Forsch of old. He knows how to pitch, he’s got good command of his pitches, he’s got a good breaking ball, good movement on his fastball and he’s experienced. It’s just a matter right now of seeing how he comes through in his next few starts. When he gets in shape, we’ll make a decision at that time.”

Added Haywood: “We’re trying to see why he’s been a successful major-league pitcher and, if he proves it here, we’ll give him that opportunity again … we could use a good starter in Seattle, because we’ve had a limited starting rotation because of injuries here and in Seattle.”

BAD TO WORSE

If Forsch’s comeback momentum was dented before, it got blown up in August during a Foothills Stadium beatdown.

Forsch allowed six hits, three walks and five runs in two innings against the Albuquerque Dukes in a 16-3 drubbing.

“That’s pretty much it,” a downtrodden Forsch told Konotopetz after the game.

“I might have to retire.”

1973 Topps baseball card of Forsch

He mused about making his retirement official in the days ahead.

“It’s not an easy decision when you’ve played organized ball since the age of nine. It becomes a part of your life. I don’t know what’s wrong, but I couldn’t throw strikes tonight. I don’t have the control in my arm anymore,” said Forsch.

When the emotion of the loss – which snapped a five-game win streak for the Cannons – wore off, Forsch decided to put his retirement on hold and finish the season with Calgary.

He regained some of his old form working out of the bullpen and picked up his first PCL win during a mid-August relief appearance.

During this time, he was also coming to terms with the fact that his MLB career was behind him.

On Aug. 18th, he threw a complete game in front of 6,044 Calgary baseball fans, resulting in a 6-4 triumph over the Hawaii Islanders.

“I didn’t even break a sweat and I had seven good innings,” said Forsch.

“Until now, I hadn’t been able to get past five innings. It’s good to know in my mind I can go the full distance. I’ve pretty much decided to retire after this year but I still really enjoy pitching. This might be my last year but I’ve had a long career and when it’s over, it’s over.”

THE FINAL CURTAIN

The end was indeed near.

On a late August Thursday night, Forsch climbed atop the mound at Albuquerque Sports Stadium for his last professional start.

It wasn’t a vintage performance but it was good enough.

Forsch conceded nine hits and three runs through six innings, while striking out three batters and walking two. The Cannons prevailed 6-5 and the victory marked Forsch’s fourth straight win in his final four starts.

Before the game, he called Dick Balderson, the general manager of the Seattle Mariners, to see if the parent club had any plans on calling him up.

When the answer came back as a no, Forsch confirmed his retirement plans, which included a deep-sea fishing vacation followed by a business career.

“I still think I can pitch but if the team with the worst pitching staff isn’t interested, I can’t see why anybody else would be,” Forsch told Konotopetz.

“I’m disappointed but I’m not upset. I can’t be upset with baseball.”

Ken Forsch (right) gets a champagne shower from catcher Alan Ashby after throwing a no-hitter for the Houston Astros on April 7th, 1979.

His final numbers with the Cannons included 13 games, seven of them starts, and 23 strikeouts through 55 innings. He finished with a 4.91 ERA, a 4-3 record and two complete games.

The MLB career stats for Forsch showed a 114-113 record, 51 saves, 1,047 strikeouts, 70 complete games and 2,127 innings pitched.

When he returned to the visiting clubhouse from his final win in professional baseball, a bottle of bubbly was waiting for Forsch.

“The champagne’s courtesy of the pitching coach,” said Forsch while sipping from a styrofoam cup.

“Have some. I’ll only have one glass. This stuff makes me dizzy.”

And with that, it was over.

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