SABR

Dave Ford

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf.

In the first round of the 1975 amateur draft, the Baltimore Orioles chose 18-year-old right-hander Dave Ford. Blessed with an “explosive fastball” and pinpoint control, the 6-foot-4 Ford drew comparisons with Jim Palmer.1 Ford quickly progressed through the Orioles farm system and debuted with 15 scoreless innings in a September call-up in 1978. Hampered by elbow pain and chronic shoulder miseries in subsequent seasons, Ford won five games in his big-league career, which ended after the strike-shortened season in 1981.

David Alan Ford was born on December 29, 1956, in Cleveland. His parents, Harry and Lottie (Czerpa) Ford, were hard-working native Clevelanders who stressed education as a means of providing a better future for their four children, daughters Rosalayn and Marlene and sons Steven and Dave, the youngest in the family. Harry drove a bus and held down a second job at the local Carling Black Label brewery loading and driving trucks. Lottie was a seamstress and homemaker. Dave grew up in a tightly-knit neighborhood where youths played pickup baseball, basketball, and football year round. By the time he was 8 years old he began pitching in Little League in nearby Brookside Park and for his grade school, Blessed Heart. Tall and athletic for his age, he progressed to the American Legion and the highly competitive Connie Mack League. “I started to really learn how to pitch by playing against older guys in the Connie Mack league and took my lumps. I was coached by Rich Liskovec, who was very strict and disciplined. You learned a lot about baseball from him,” recalled Ford, whose teammates included Chris Bando (Sal’s brother) and future NFL player, Wade Manning.2 At Lincoln West High School Ford was an all-state basketball player and baseball pitcher. He cut an impressive presence on the mound and began attracting major-league scouts to his games as a sophomore. “By my senior year,” he said, “scouts were at practically every one of my games.” Ford had scholarship offers to play basketball and baseball in college, but unlike his three siblings, he decided to forgo college in order to pursue his dream of playing in the big leagues.

Ford was chosen by the Baltimore Orioles with the 23rd pick in the first round of the amateur draft in June 1975. “I didn’t know in advance that Baltimore was going to select me in the first round,” he recalled, “but I had a feeling that I would be drafted high.” Ford got the news on one of his last days in high school. “I was in English class when the phone rang and was told that my services were wanted in the office,” he said. A writer from the Cleveland Plain Dealer told him the good news.

A few days after the draft, Dave Ritterpusch, longtime director of scouting for the Orioles, arrived at the Ford’s house to begin contract negotiations. “We had no representation,” Ford said of his initial meeting with Baltimore. “My parents had just a high-school education and we really didn’t know what to expect being a first-round draft pick. We were trusting the Orioles.” Ford was upset and insulted by the club’s initial offer of a $12,500 bonus, about one-third of what he had anticipated, and he politely broke off the conversation. He contacted the International Management Group in Cleveland to negotiate on his behalf. Three weeks later they secured a salary and an approximate $40,000 signing bonus.

A professional baseball player about a month after graduating from high school, Ford drove to Bluefield, West Virginia, where he was thrust into action with the Orioles’ affiliate in the Rookie Appalachian League. He quickly showed his potential by completing four of seven starts and logging 52 innings, which earned him a promotion to the Miami Orioles of the Class A Florida State League. The youngest player on the team, Ford made two starts and tossed a shutout.

Ford reported to the Orioles’ minor-league spring training in Miami in 1976 and was introduced to the “Oriole Way” of teaching young pitchers. “Ray Miller was the minor-league roving pitching instructor,” said Ford. “He wanted us to work fast, throw strikes, change speed, and be able to field our position well. It sounded simple, but isn’t.” The Orioles built their success on fundamentally sound baseball. They eschewed overpowering, fastball pitchers, in favor of athletic and mentally tough ones. Ford had gotten by with his fastball in high school and in his half-season of professional ball in 1976, but recognized that he had to make adjustments. “I liked to work fast but I had to learn how to change speeds in the minor leagues, where the hitters are better. I soon realized that batters could catch up to anything. I didn’t need to strike everyone out. I had to hit my spots and let my defense work. Everything about the game is quicker.”

Ford was assigned to the Charlotte (North Carolina) O’s in the Double-A Southern League for 1977. Facing typically more-seasoned pros, Ford still had a dominating season, leading the league in practically every pitching statistic, including wins (17), innings (212), complete games (19), shutouts (4), and strikeouts (121), and posted a 2.50 ERA. He was an all-star and was named the league’s most valuable player in a poll of managers and sportswriters.3 “That was the best stretch of pitching I ever had,” said Ford. “But it was also a learning process. My ability to throw was probably ahead of my mental aspects.” The only disappointment was surrendering a game-winning home run to Jim Obradovich of the Orlando Twins in a one-game playoff to decide the Eastern division championship.4

Ford was invited as a nonroster player to spring training in 1977. The Sporting News raved that he was the “best looking pitching prospect to come through the Orioles system since Jim Palmer.”5 Pitching coach George Bamberger was most impressed with Ford’s control, but Ford was a long shot to make the team considering the Orioles’ surfeit of young, talented starters like Dennis Martinez and Scott McGregor. Being around so many great veterans was awe-inspiring to the 20-year-old Ford. Early on, “I threw batting practice to Brooks Robinson. I was excited and throwing real hard. I had a good control but a few balls got away from me and sailed up around his head. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is Brooks Robinson.’ He finally stepped back and said, ‘Hey rookie, slow down and take it easy.’ ”

Ford was optioned to Triple-A Rochester to start 1977. “I had my first rough year in baseball and it was tough on me mentally,” he said. Against veteran batters and many former major leaguers, Ford struggled, won just nine of 23 decisions, and yielded 27 home runs in 176 innings. Manager Ken Boyer was nonetheless optimistic about his development, saying, “He’s learned a lot about what it takes to pitch. He’s only 20 years old and he’s already in Triple-A. That puts him two years ahead of the game.”6 In the offseason Ford was added to the Orioles’ 40-man roster. “I realized after my first year in Rochester that I needed to pitch inside more,” he recalled. “I had an overhand fastball with average velocity, but my control was above average. My changeup became average to above average. My breaking balls, slider and curve, were average at best and needed refining.”

Orioles manager Earl Weaver typically began the regular season with nine pitchers on his staff (just four starters); consequently, competition was fierce among pitching prospects. “We got along but we knew there weren’t many spots available,” Ford said of his relationship with teammates from Rochester, all hoping for a shot in the big leagues. “You feel like every inning in spring training and every session on the side is being scrutinized. It’s a stressful time in late March when teams are made. You are well aware of your competition and how they are pitching.”

Optioned again to Rochester, Ford rebounded to win 11 games, log 156 innings, post a 3.81 ERA (all second-best on the club behind Sammy Stewart), and earn a spot on the league’s all-star team. In September the Orioles called up Ford, Stewart, and reliever Tim Stoddard.

In the second game of a doubleheader on September 2, 1978, Ford made his major-league debut at Memorial Stadium against the Chicago White Sox. “I remember walking in from the bullpen and not feeling my feet,” he remembered. “I was so excited but as a pitcher you don’t want to get out of rhythm.” Keeping his emotions in check, Ford yielded just five singles through eight innings before getting in trouble in the ninth nursing a 1-0 lead. Singles by Mike Squires and Chet Lemon gave the White Sox runners at the corners with one out. Weaver replaced Ford with Tippy Martinez, whose curveball to pinch-hitter Lamar Johnson led to a game-ending double play and Ford’s first big-league win. In his only other appearance, he tossed 6⅔ innings of scoreless relief against Milwaukee on September 14, surrendering just three hits.

Landing a spot on a big-league staff is inextricably tied to ability, luck, and timing. The Orioles’ quartet of starting pitchers (Jim Palmer, Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez, and Scott McGregor) started148 of 162 games in 1978; only Palmer was older than 26. “I thought I had a chance to make the team,” Ford said about spring training in 1979. “We had four guys (Tim Stoddard, Stewart, Joe Kerrigan, and myself) competing for two spots. I had a good September with the club (15 scoreless innings to start his career), came off a real good year in winter ball in Puerto Rico, and pitched well in spring training. When I didn’t make the team I was disappointed and wondered what more I could have done.” The Orioles chose Stewart and Stoddard and broke camp with nine pitchers.

“He’d be in almost any other rotation in baseball” was an oft-heard comment about Ford’s predicament at this time in his career.7 Asked if he regretted being a starting pitcher in an organization that set the standard for pitching excellence, Ford responded philosophically. “If I had gone to a different organization, say Cleveland or Houston, maybe I could have gotten to the big leagues quicker. But then I look at the stability and the coaching in the Orioles organization. Who knows how I would have developed in a different organization. From teammates to coaching in Baltimore, I could not have done better.”

Soon after beginning his third season with Rochester in 1979, Ford developed tendinitis in his elbow which required cortisone shots in April and May. He pitched well (won six of 11 decisions and averaged more than seven innings per outing for his 15 starts), but the pain worsened, landing him on the disabled list in June. After rehabilitation in June and July, Ford prepared for his return. “We were in Richmond and I realized that I am not throwing my slider very well and don’t feel real comfortable with it.” A torrential downpour canceled the game before he threw a pitch. After the game, manager Doc Edwards informed him that the Orioles had just called him up. “I hadn’t pitched a game in about six weeks,” Ford told the author, “and now I am heading to the big leagues.”

Ford and reliever John Flinn reported to the Orioles to replace the injured Palmer and Stoddard. Ford started on June 25 against the Seattle Mariners in Baltimore. He pitched well enough to win (five hits and two runs in six innings), but Sammy Stewart blew the Orioles’ 4-2 lead in the seventh en route to a 5-4 loss. Ford knew something was still wrong with his elbow. “I had good speed, but was tentative with my slider. I got by on my fastball and changeup for the rest of the season.” Used primarily in long relief, Ford made eight more appearances (earning a win and picking up two saves). He limited the Twins to five hits and two runs in six innings on August 24 to win his only other start of the season. While the Orioles ran away with the AL East crown, Palmer returned to form in August and Stoddard in September, making Ford the odd man out for the team’s playoff roster. Ford posted an impressive 2.10 ERA in 30 innings for the season. Though inactive, he was dressed for Baltimore’s ALCS against the California Angels, participated in pregame warm-ups, and remained in the dugout during the games. In the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was also in uniform and threw batting practice, but changed to civilian clothes to chart pitches during the games.

Ford got his big chance in 1980 when, out of spring training, he was named to the team’s starting rotation because of injuries to Dennis Martinez and Scott McGregor. After a rough outing against Chicago in his season debut, Ford tossed his first and only big-league complete game on April 18 against the White Sox, limiting them to four hits and two runs in a 5-2 victory. Ford’s moment of glory was fleeting. He ceded his spot to McGregor for the next scheduled start. Thereafter he pitched exclusively out of the bullpen (except for one start in mid-May) and did not win another game that season. He finished with a 1-3 record and 4.26 ERA in 69⅔ innings. The Sporting News still rated the 23-year-old as “an excellent prospect,” but Ford realized that he was not the same pitcher from 1978.8

Ford began noticing chronic shoulder weakness and fatigue in the 1980 season, and it persisted throughout the 1981 strike-shortened season as well. “I wasn’t bouncing back from pitching a few innings of relief, starting, or even warming up,” he said. “I seemed to wear down and lose strength and velocity throughout the season.” He received treatments from the Orioles’ medical staff and tried to rest his shoulder, but nothing seemed to help.

Slated for the ninth spot on the staff to start the 1981 season, Ford struggled in his first three relief outings, surrendering 15 hits and 10 runs in eight innings. After tossing five innings of one-run ball in relief against the Texas Rangers on May 10, Ford relieved an injured Steve Stone to begin the third inning on May 16 against the Twins. He pitched seven scoreless innings, yielding just four hits to earn what proved to be his last big-league victory, 7-0. Hit hard in subsequent appearances, Ford bluntly admitted “I was borderline staying in the big leagues when the strike happened.” His shoulder did not respond to two months of strike-caused inactivity. In his five appearances after the strike, he surrendered 16 hits and 10 runs in 7⅓ innings. When the season ended, the Orioles announced they had “placed [Ford] on the trading block,” but didn’t expect much in return given the pitcher’s arm problems.9

Ford realized that he had to do something to salvage his career. Teammates Mike Flanagan and Jim Palmer suggested going outside the Baltimore organization and recommended Dr. Arthur Pappas, the Boston Red Sox’ nationally renowned team physician. Ford wanted to avoid surgery; consequently, he began a rigorous physical therapy program designed by Dr. Pappas at the University of Massachusetts Hospital in Amherst to rehabilitate his atrophied shoulder. After five weeks, Ford noticed marked improvement.

Amid rumblings that he had failed to fulfill his promise as a first-round draft pick, Ford battled Ross Grimsley and Don Stanhouse (both of whom had missed the entire 1981 season) and Paul Moskau for the last spot on the staff in 1982. Ford was eventually optioned to Rochester, where he logged 100⅔ innings and hurled a team-high three shutouts. “I had taken a step back and guys were passing me by,” Ford said candidly. “I’m a third or fourth starter, but I am looked at differently by the organization.” The Orioles now pinned their future on top prospects 20-year-old Storm Davis and 24-year-old Mike Boddicker.

In the offseason, the Orioles released Ford outright, thus initiating a three-year odyssey that tested his resolve and commitment to baseball. After participating in the Orioles’ minor-league spring training, he was sent to Rochester, where he was ineffective (3-2, 6.54 ERA), suffering from chronic shoulder pain. In midsummer he was unexpectedly traded to the Triple-A Tacoma Tigers, the Oakland A’s affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. Despite a 7.23 ERA in 19⅔ innings with the Tigers, the A’s invited him to their minor-league camp in 1984.

Surprisingly, Ford got off to a hot start in 1984 with Tacoma, but it soon soured after an unfortunate and nerve-racking experience. “In late July the manager told me that I was being called up to the big leagues,” recalled Ford. “I’m ecstatic. About an hour later I am at home and I get another call. I’m told that they can’t get me to the big leagues because of a procedural problem. I wasn’t on the 40-man roster.” Understandably devastated, Ford was released in the offseason when the A’s acquired five highly rated pitched prospects in a trade for Rickey Henderson.

Following failed attempts to land a contract in Japan and Italy, Ford accepted an invitation to the San Francisco Giants’ minor-league spring training in 1985. “I probably shouldn’t have been there,” he said honestly. He was released, but the Milwaukee Brewers offered him a spot with the Monterrey Sultanes in the Mexican League. “That was a tough year,” said Ford. “The conditions weren’t very good and the pay was not great. That was the stepping stone to saying that I can’t do this anymore.” A few ineffective late-season outings with the El Paso Diablos in the Texas League reinforced his decision to retire.

Ford’s transition to life after baseball was not as easy as he had anticipated. Before retiring he had occasionally worked for International Management Group, laying the foundation for a future career, but the expected job failed to materialize. After working in construction, he began throwing batting practice for his hometown Cleveland Indians in 1986 and continued doing so for a few years. In 1987 Ford went to work for the city of Rocky River, a suburb of Cleveland, where he became the manager of a civic center in the department of recreation.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Ford participated in annual Orioles fantasy camps in Florida and got involved in charity golf outings with the Indians. In April 2013 he participated in the Orioles’ tribute to Earl Weaver at Camden Yards.

As of 2013 Ford still called Cleveland home, living there with his wife, Cindy, and their son, Will.

 

Sources

The Sporting News

BaseballLibrary.com

Baseball-Reference.com

Retrosheet.com

Author interview of Dave Ford on March 18, 2013

 

Notes

1 The Sporting News, March 26, 1977, 14.

2 The author expresses his gratitude to Dave Ford, who was interviewed on March 18, 2013. All quotations from Ford are from this interview unless otherwise noted.

3 The Sporting News, September 18, 1976.

4 The Sporting News, September 18, 1976.

5 The Sporting News, March 26, 1977, 14.

6 The Sporting News, September 3, 1977, 34.

7 The Sporting News, April 5, 1980, 34.

8 The Sporting News, November 8, 1980, 53.

9 The Sporting News, October 3, 1981, 3.

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