Joe Pignatano, RIP: The vegetable man

Joe Pignatano

As a player, Joe Pignatano was a reserve whose career ended with an unlucky three. As a coach, Pignatano grew bullpen vegetables while keeping the nuts from going completely squirrely.

According to outfielder Art Shamsky, Miracle Mets bullpen coach Joe Pignatano had one job: “to keep control of the pitchers out in the bullpen who were out of control.” According to starting pitcher Jerry Koosman, “Piggy was [manager Gil] Hodges’ spy.”

According to Mets history, Pignatano—who died this morning at 92 following a battle with dementia, the last living member of the Miracle Mets coaching staff—was once a reserve catcher who made an indelible impression in what proved his final major league plate appearance on 30 September 1962.

Piggy took over the catching from Choo-Choo Coleman in the bottom of the sixth in Wrigley Field against the Cubs. After the Cubs scored a pair of unearned runs off Mets reliever Craig Anderson in the bottom of the seventh, Pignatano came up to the plate in the top of the eighth with nobody out and back-to-back base hits from Sammy Drake and Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn setting a lovely table for him.

The man who eventually became fabled for growing a vegetable garden in the Shea Stadium bullpen couldn’t eat the meat that might have left the Mets as close as a single run behind. It wasn’t for lack of trying, either.

Pignatano ripped a bullet to the right side and right at the Cubs’ Rookie of the Year-in-waiting second baseman, Ken Hubbs. Hubbs went to first at once to nail the once-fleet Ashburn before Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, the big bully, whipped one to shortstop Andre Rodgers to bag Drake. The Cubs held on to win.

“It mattered not that the New York Mets won or lost, or even how they played the game today before 3,960 fans at Wrigley Field,” said the New York Times‘s lead. “For the record, though, the season’s final, for which Casey Stengel asked and obtained volunteers, went to the Cubs, 5-1.” Volunteers, indeed.

The Original Mets may have been baseball’s precursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but even they couldn’t have made this up. In the final game of that surrealistic 40-120 season, Pignatano became the only major league player ever to end his playing career by hitting into a triple play.

He became one of Hodges’ coaches when Hodges ended his own playing career to become the manager of the Washington Senators’ second edition. He had the pleasure there of giving Hodges one of the best laughs of his early life as a manager, even if it was serious business to the serious skipper.

“In spring training one year,” Hodges remembered to Times writer Joseph Durso (for Amazing: The Miracle of the Mets), “I was standing across the street from the hotel when I saw four of my players leave.”

It was about ten minutes before curfew. I hung around for a half hour, and they didn’t come back. The next day in the clubhouse, I made a little speech. I told the club that I knew some of the players had broken curfew, and I was going to give them an opportunity to save some money. If they wanted to pay fifty dollar fines right now, the case would be closed. If the money wasn’t in by the end of the day, I’d hold another meeting and name names. The only thing was that the fines would then be one hundred dollars apiece.

I told them to leave their checks on the desk in my office. About an hour later, Joe Pignatano, one of my coaches, walked over to where I was hitting fungoes. He had a great big grin on his face and said, “You made a smart move. You offered four guys a chance to admit they broke curfew. Seven guys have paid the fines already.”

As the Mets’ bullpen coach, Pignatano did have to preside over a kind of psych ward. “[Ron] Taylor could be very funny,” he remembered to Maury Allen for After the Miracle: The Amazin’ Mets Twenty Years Later, while back in uniform at a Mets dream camp. “Just a lot of one-liners for the moment, getting on a guy about something.” Which was nothing compared to known flake Tug McGraw:

The day McGraw got that waiter in a white suit to bring trays of ribs and chicken and hamburgers to the bullpen and started heating everything over a sterno can really was something. It wasn’t the food that annoyed me. It was that the guy said I had to pay the bill.

Go ahead, say it. Piggy and the Stooges.

Pignatano enjoyed the Miracle Mets ride as much as anyone. He also suffered more than most when Hodges suffered his fatal heart attack in April 1972, after a round of golf in West Palm Beach. “We finished playing on a real fine day,” Pignatano told Allen.

Then we sat down with Jack Sanford, the old Giants pitcher, who was the club pro, and had a couple of beers at the nineteenth hole. We began walking back to the hotel, maybe fifty yards away. We were talking about the golf as we walked across the grass to the concrete path leading to the hotel rooms. [Third base coach Eddie] Yost and [pitching coach] Rube [Walker] were off to the left, and Gil and I had rooms to the right. Just as we reached the walk where the paths split, I turned slightly to Gil and asked, “What time do you want to meet for dinner?” He never answered. He just fell over backwards on that path and landed on his head. You could hear the crack as his head hit the sidewalk.

“Pignatano got up from his chair in that Florida dream camp clubhouse,” Allen wrote. “He shook his head. There were tears in his eyes. The interview was over.”

Hodges and Pignatano went back to Piggy’s first season as a Brooklyn Dodgers player and remained besties even after the team moved to Los Angeles and Pignatano moved on to the Kansas City Athletics, the Giants, and finally the Original Mets. As a catcher, Pignatano caught the final Dodger game at Ebbets Field, 29 September 1957, including eighth inning relief from Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax against the Phillies.

He remained the Mets’ bullpen coach until 1981, then coached for Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre in Atlanta a spell before leaving the game but returning with the Braves’ organisation as a minor league pitching coach in 1988. Much later in life, Pignatano enjoyed associating with the Mets again, particularly relief pitcher John Franco, who rooted for the Miracle Mets as a boy in Brooklyn.

He also remained friendly with other old Dodger teammates such as Koufax, with whom he once roomed on the road. According to Koufax biographer Jane Leavy, the pair attended a Baseball Assitance Team dinner in New York and Pignatano found an empty seat next to Koufax. “Hey,” Leavy recorded a voice asking almost demandingly, “how come he gets to sit there?” Koufax smiled. “Roomie seat,” he replied.

“On the surface,” Leavy wrote, “Pignatano is everything Koufax is not—paunchy and balding, indifferently dressed in the manner of baseball men who never had to decide what to wear when they got up in the morning, his accent Brooklyn thick. In fact, they are not so ¬†different. Piggy is who Koufax aspires to be—just another guy happy to be on this side of the grass.”

“And all the lot is what I got/It’s what I wear, it’s what you see/It must be me, it’s what I am/vegetable man,” went a lyric by Pink Floyd’s ill-fated founding guitarist and songwriter Syd Barrett.

That haunted soul self-shorn from the heights couldn’t know his words fit a guy happy to be on his own side of the grass, whether keeping the nuts from cracking in the bullpen, mourning the loss of his best friend after a time check on dinner, growing vegetables in the pen, relaxing with a Hall of Fame teammate.

Pignatano had two great loves in his life, baseball and his wife, Nancy, who died two years ago. His sons and grandchildren’s mourning may be cushioned only by knowing that he and she are reunited serene and happy in the Elysian Fields.