A three-time All-Star with the Milwaukee Brewers, Dan Plesac was a left-handed pitcher with a mid-90s fastball and a biting slider who became one of the game’s dominant closers during the late 1980s. In addition to the time spent with the Brewers, Plesac’s 18-year major-league career included stints with the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Philadelphia Phillies.
Daniel Thomas Plesac was born on February 4, 1962, in Gary, Indiana. He was the second of three sons of Joseph and Gloria Plesac. Joseph was a veteran of the US Navy and a steelworker at the Inland Steel Company.1 He passionately enjoyed racing and training standardbred harness horses, and was a lifetime member of the Illinois Harness Racing Association.2 Joseph’s love for horses was later shared by Dan. Gloria was a hairdresser who later owned a salon in Crown Point, Indiana. Dan’s brother Joe, who was a year older, was also a baseball player. Joe had a younger brother named Ronald.
Joe was recruited to play baseball at North Carolina State University. A right-handed pitcher, he was a two-time first-team All-ACC selection (1980 and 1981) who was drafted in the second round of the June 1982 amateur draft by the San Diego Padres. He advanced as far as Double-A. He finished his professional career in 1987 with a career record of 19-31 and a 6.18 ERA. Joe’s son, and Dan’s nephew, is Zach Plesac, a right-handed starting pitcher who broke into the majors with the Cleveland Indians in 2019.
Dan started playing baseball with Gary’s East Glen Park Little League.3 He attended Andrean High School in Merrillville, a Gary suburb, for two years. After his sophomore year, the family moved to Crown Point, a city 17 miles south of Gary. He attended Crown Point High School for his final two years and graduated in 1980.
Plesac was an all-around athlete in high school. He played baseball, football, and basketball, and ran track. However, baseball was not his first love. According to Plesac, “I certainly didn’t think my life was headed toward baseball. Basketball was my sport, and baseball was something I did in the spring to get busy.”4 In fact, he signed a national letter of intent to play basketball for North Carolina State. All this changed when Crown Point baseball coach Dick Webb asked Dan if he would be willing to pitch.
Plesac spent his junior and senior baseball seasons primarily patrolling the outfield and playing first base for the Crown Point Bulldogs when Webb approached him about pitching. “He said, ‘Listen, we have a pretty good team but don’t have any pitching, would you want to pitch?’” Plesac recalled. “I said alright, but I had no training and no idea what I was doing. Then one game turned into 15 strikeouts, then another game, and the next thing you know I’m the 41st player taken in the 1980 draft, by the St. Louis Cardinals.”5 The Cardinals selected Plesac in the second round.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, he did not sign with the Cardinals and decided to attend North Carolina State, with one small change — his scholarship was transferred to baseball. Reflecting back on the decision, Plesac said, “It wasn’t as difficult a decision as you might think, because I just didn’t have any idea what I was doing in baseball. Kids today are so far advanced compared to where I was in terms of mechanics. I really hadn’t pitched that much, I felt like I needed to go to college to learn more about pitching. I don’t think I’d have reached the big leagues if I’d signed with the Cardinals.”6
While at North Carolina State, Plesac earned Second Team All-ACC honors during his freshman year (1981). After his junior year, 1983, he was selected in the first round (26th overall) by the Milwaukee Brewers and started his professional career with the Paintsville (Kentucky) Brewers of the Rookie Appalachian League. In 14 starts, he went 9-1 with a 3.50 ERA and struck out 85 in 82⅓ innings pitched. His nine victories led all hurlers in the circuit.
On July 28 Plesac came within one out of throwing a seven-inning no-hitter against the Pikesville (Kentucky) Cubs. Pikesville outfielder John Turner ended the no-hit bid with an RBI single as the Brewers beat the Cubs, 4-1, on a pair of two-run home runs, one of them hit by future major leaguer Glenn Braggs.7
Plesac started 1984 with the Stockton Ports of the Class-A California League. He made 16 starts for the Ports and was 6-6 with a 3.32 ERA before being promoted to the El Paso Diablos of the Double-A Texas League. Plesac made seven starts for the Diablos and finished 2-2 with a 3.46 ERA. He returned to El Paso in 1985 and in 25 games (24 as a starter) he went 12-5 with a 4.97 ERA.
Plesac made the Brewers roster out of spring training in 1986 and made his major-league debut on April 11, 1986, at Yankee Stadium, when he relieved starter Bill Wegman with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning. With runners on first and second, he struck out the first batter he faced, Mike Pagliarulo, who had hit a two-run home run off Wegman in the bottom of the fourth. Plesac pitched 2⅓ innings of scoreless baseball and gave up only a harmless single in the Brewers’ 3-2 loss.
One week later Plesac earned his first major-league victory, at County Stadium in Milwaukee. Entering the game in relief of Wegman with the Brewers trailing the Yankees, 5-2, Plesac pitched four innings of no-hit baseball as the Brewers rallied for three runs in the seventh and one in the eighth to win, 6-5.
Plesac finished his rookie season with a career-high 10 victories to go along with a 2.97 ERA. His 14 saves were two fewer than the 16 recorded by Brewers closer Mark Clear. He did not garner a single vote for American League Rookie of the Year, but was named to the Baseball Digest 1986 Rookie All-Star Team, and the future looked very bright for the 24-year-old.
It was during his rookie year that Plesac received sage life advice from a Brewers teammate. “Robin Yount, a teammate of mine my rookie year who’s now in the National Hall of Fame, said something to me one day in the outfield that really resonated with me. He said, ‘You know Dan, it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.’”8 It was advice he said he took to heart.
After Plesac’s rookie year, he began dating Leslie Caufield, a friend back at Crown Point High School. On January 9, 1988, they were married. They had two daughters, Madeline and Natalie. In 2005, after nearly 18 years of marriage, the Plesacs divorced. According to Leslie, it simply became too difficult to balance the needs of her family with the demands of her husband’s professional baseball career. “I tried to hang on to me, but it was tough to do in the fast-paced life that required Dan to be gone nine months a year.”9
The Brewers and Plesac got off to a hot start in 1987. The team won its first 13 games, tying the major-league record for consecutive wins to the start the season.10 Plesac, who by this time had moved into the closer role, earned his fifth save in the record-tying victory and saved seven in all during the month of April. By the end of June, Plesac was 4-0 with 16 saves and a minuscule 1.29 ERA. His performance during the first half of the season earned him a spot on the American League All-Star team.
Plesac made his All-Star Game debut on July 14 at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum when he pitched the top of the eighth inning. He tossed a one-two-three inning, retiring Bo Díaz on a fly to right, getting Dale Murphy on a pop foul, and striking out Hubie Brooks. The National League All-Stars went on to win the game 2-0 in 13 innings.
After the All-Star break, Plesac, who never suffered a major injury or spent time on the disabled list, went 1-4 with five saves, a 3.72 ERA, and eight blown saves. The fall-off, in part, was attributed to a sore left elbow he injured on August 19 when he ran into the outfield wall while shagging fly balls.11 He finished the season with a record of 5-6, 23 saves, and a 2.61 ERA. After the Brewers’ hot start, they finished in third place in the American League East with a record of 91-71.
Plesac’s 1988 season followed a similar pattern as the previous year. He was 1-1 with 22 saves and a 2.08 ERA at the All-Star break, earning his second consecutive spot on the American League squad. With two outs in the top of the eighth, he was brought on to face Darryl Strawberry, who stuck out to end the inning. The American League hung on for a 2-1 victory at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium.
Plesac appeared to be on pace to break the franchise’s record for saves in a season — 31 by Ken Sanders in 1971 — when tendinitis in his left shoulder limited him to eight appearances over the last two months of the season. He finished the year with a record of 1-2, 30 saves, and a 2.41 ERA.
In 1989 Plesac did break the record, recording a career-high 33 saves to go along with a 3-4 record and a career-best 2.35 ERA. His record-setting 32nd save came against the Toronto Blue Jays on September 23 at County Stadium. Coming on in relief of Chuck Crim with two out in the bottom of the ninth, he retired Fred McGriff on a fly ball to left to end the game.
Plesac made his third and final All-Star Game appearance on July 11 at Anaheim Stadium. With runners on first and second and two down in the top of the eighth inning, manager Tony LaRussa called on him to relieve Texas Rangers right-hander Jeff Russell. Left-handed-hitting Von Hayes greeted Pleasc with a single to left to drive in Alvin Davis and cut the American League’s lead to 5-3. Doug Jones relieved Plesac to record the last out of the inning, on his way to a four-out save.
After his three consecutive All-Star seasons, Plesac’s productivity as a closer began to diminish during the 1990 season. That year he blew 10 of 34 save opportunities, his record slipped to 3-7, and his ERA ballooned to 4.43, nearly two runs higher than his career ERA coming into the season.
He did little better in 1991, finishing with a record of 2-7 and a 4.29 ERA while converting only eight saves in 12 opportunities. Closing games requires a pitcher to throw often and by the end of the season, Plesac admitted that his arm wasn’t bouncing back from one outing to the next as it had earlier in his career.12 After 311 consecutive relief appearances, Plesac attempted to reinvent himself as a starting pitcher. He made 10 starts to close out the season and went 2-3 with a 4.69 ERA.
On September 14, in the sixth of these starts, he found himself on the wrong side of history. The Tigers and Brewers were scoreless at the end of three innings when Cecil Fielder, who was on his way to hitting 44 home runs after hitting 51 the year before, led off the top of the fourth against Plesac. Swinging at the first pitch, Fielder drove the ball over the left-field bleachers, completely out of the ballpark. The home run was estimated to have carried 520 feet and was the only one to completely leave County Stadium in left.13 Years later Plesac laughed about it saying, “It was an absolute bomb.”14
Entering the final year of his contract with the Brewers, Plesac came to spring training in 1992 hoping to contend for the fourth spot in the starting rotation. But he struggled with his mechanics throughout the spring, and spent most of the season in the bullpen. In 44 games, four as a starter, he finished with a record of 5-4 and a 2.96 ERA. On September 4 he nailed down a 6-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers for his final save with the Brewers. As of 2021 his 133 saves remained the franchise record.
No longer a dominant closer, Plesac found a new home as a member of the Chicago Cubs bullpen when on December 8, 1992, he signed a two-year, $3.2 million contract. The situation seemed ideal for Plesac because it allowed him to pitch close to home. “The perfect scenario would have been for me to come here and play in Chicago, and it’s come true. It almost seems too good to be true,” the 30-year-old said.15
According to agent Tom Selakovich, both the Texas Rangers and Pittsburgh Pirates showed interest in signing Plesac. However, once the Cubs made an offer, talks with the other two suitors came to an end. Acknowledging that he might have sacrificed more lucrative offers, Plesac rationalized his decision by stating, “This is where I want to be.”16
Plesac’s two-year tenure with the Cubs did not live up to expectations. In 1993 he appeared in 57 games and went 2-1 with a 4.74 ERA. He followed that up with a 2-3 record and 4.61 ERA during the strike-shortened 1994 season. He recorded his only save with the Cubs on July 20, 1994, when he relieved José Bautista in the bottom of the ninth with the Cubs clinging to a 9-8 lead. With runners on first and third and two down, Plesac struck out pinch-hitter Vinny Castilla to end the game.
After not being offered arbitration, Plesac rejected a one-year offer by the Cubs and signed a two-year, $1.8 million contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates felt Plesac would provide stability to a young and often erratic bullpen that lacked a proven veteran arm.17
Plesac was primarily used as a set-up man and situational left-hander with the Pirates. In 1995 he pitched in 58 games and finished with a record of 4-4 with three saves and a 3.58 ERA. This was also the season that he joined the unique “One-Hit Wonders” club.
Plesac’s lone major-league hit came on August 12 in a wild game against Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium in which the two teams combined for 39 hits. The 6-foot-5-inch Plesac came on in relief of Esteban Loaiza with runners on first and second and one out in the bottom of the sixth and the Pirates ahead 7-4. Plesac quickly got out of the inning by striking out pinch-hitter Billy Ashley and center fielder Mitch Webster. Rather than lift Plesac for a pinch-hitter with one out in the top of the seventh, Pirates manager Jim Leyland allowed the left-handed-hitting pitcher to bat. Using a bat he borrowed from backup rookie first baseman Mark Johnson and swinging on the first pitch, Plesac sliced a single down the left-field line off left-hander John Cummings. The Dodgers rallied from three down in the bottom of the 10th, after tying the game in the bottom of the ninth, and beat the Pirates 11-10 in 11 innings. Plesac finished his career 1-for-15 at plate (.067).
In 1996 Plesac had an expanded role with the Pirates. He appeared in 73 games and went 6-5 with a 4.09 ERA and 11 saves, as he split the closer duties with rookie right-hander Francisco Cordova. It was the last year Plesac recorded double-digit saves.
After the season Plesac was traded with infielder Carlos Garcia and outfielder-first baseman Orlando Merced to the Toronto Blue Jays for Craig Wilson, Abraham Núñez, José Silva, and three minor leaguers. The nine-player deal was the Pirates’ biggest since the 10-player deal that sent future Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner to the Chicago Cubs in June of 1953.18 While the Pirates were able to shed payroll in a much-needed cost-cutting move, the Blue Jays didn’t get much out of the trade. Only Plesac was with the team beyond 1997.
The Blue Jays used Plesac exclusively as a left-handed specialist — a role he occupied during the remainder of his career — frequently called upon to retire one hitter or to finish an inning. In 1997 he went 2-4 with a 3.58 ERA and one save. In 1998 Plesac appeared in a career-high (and franchise record for left-handed pitchers) 78 games. He finished with record of 4-3, a 3.78 ERA, and four saves.
Plesac got off to a rocky start in 1999 and never seemed to get on track. His record was 0-3 with an 8.34 ERA — despite holding left-handed hitters to a .186 average — when on June 12, the Blue Jays traded him to the Arizona Diamondbacks for infielder Tony Batista and right-handed pitcher John Frascatore.19 The Diamondbacks were in need of a second left-hander in the bullpen and just like that, Plesac went from a third-place team, 10 games out of first place in the AL East, to a first-place team with a two-game lead in the NL West. In 34 games with the Diamondbacks, Plesac went 2-1 with a 3.32 ERA and one save to help the team win the division title with a record of 100-62.
Plesac had his first and only taste of postseason baseball when the Diamondbacks faced the New York Mets in the National League Division Series. Plesac made one appearance in the series. The Diamondbacks were trailing 4-2 in Game Three with one out and the bases loaded in the bottom of sixth when Plesac came on in relief of right-hander Darren Holmes to face left-handed-hitting John Olerud. Olerud singled to right, scoring Bobby Bonilla and Rickey Henderson. Roger Cedeño followed with a single to left, driving in Edgardo Alfonzo as Olerud took third. Cedeño stole second and both runners held when Robin Ventura grounded out to second. Darryl Hamilton then singled to center to score Olerud and Cedeno, prompting Diamondbacks manager Buck Showalter to remove Plesac. In what seemed like a heartbeat, the Mets’ lead increased to 9-2. Plesac never appeared in another postseason game.
Plesac returned to the Diamondbacks in 2000 and enjoyed a solid season. In 62 games he went 5-1 with a 3.15 ERA as the team finished in third place in the NL West. After the season he signed a two-year, $4.4 million contact with the Blue Jays and returned to Toronto.
Plesac went 4-5 with a 3.57 ERA and one save for a Blue Jays team that was, at best, mediocre in 2001. In 2002 he was 1-2 with a 3.38 ERA when he was traded once again. This time the Blue Jays sent him to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for right-handed pitcher Cliff Politte. In 41 games with the Phillies, Plesac was 2-1 with a 4.70 ERA.
For Plesac, the highlight of that season may have come at Veterans Stadium in a game against the Montreal Expos on August 28. That night he became just the seventh major-league pitcher to pitch in 1,000 games. After the game Plesac thanked Phillies manager Larry Bowa for allowing him to reach the milestone. “I appreciate Larry giving me the opportunity to get there,” a grateful Plesac said. “With the possible work stoppage and rain forecast for [Thursday], this was a unique situation and he wanted to make sure I had the opportunity. I can’t thank him enough.”20 The only thing that spoiled the evening was that the Expos beat the Phillies, 6-3.
As it turned out, 2002 was not Plesac’s final season. Now 41 years old, he returned for one more season with the Phillies. In 58 appearances, he was 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA and two saves. On September 28, in the final game of the season, Plesac stuck out Ryan Langerhans to record the last out in the top of the ninth of the Phillies’ 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves. In doing so, Plesac became the last Phillies pitcher to pitch at Veterans Stadium. At the end of the season, he retired as a player.
In 2009 Plesac reflected on his decision to retire and the time he spent in Philadelphia. “When I put the glove and bat down for the last time, I knew it was time to walk away,” he said. “I will always have special ties to the Phillies. Part of me wishes I’d played all my 18 seasons in Philadelphia. It’s a tough place, but they are the most passionate, loyal sports fans in America. That was part of what I liked so much about playing there. You knew you were accountable for what you did on the field.”21
Pleasc finished his career with 1,064 games pitched, seventh-most all time as of 2021, a record of 65-71, 158 saves, and a 3.64 ERA. His longevity and durability were hallmarks of his career.
After retiring, Plesac returned to a passion he inherited from his father and became a trainer of standardbred harness horses. In 2009 he estimated that he had owned all or part of 150 horses since 1982.22
Plesac began a broadcasting career in 2005. He said the transition to broadcasting was a natural one for him. He worked as a news telecaster for Comcast Sportsnet Chicago, co-hosting the Chicago Cubs and pregame and postgame shows from 2005 until the end of the 2008 season. Plesac joined the MLB Network as an analyst in January 2009. He also worked as a broadcaster for the MLB: The Show video game franchise.
Last revised: October 25, 2021
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on Baseball-reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
1 Joseph F. Plesac. Retrieved from https://legacy.com/obituaries/post-tribune/obituary.aspx?n=joseph-f-plesac&pid=117526256&fhid=4991.
2 Joseph F. Plesac.
3 Curtis Hankins, “A Northwest Indiana Life in the Spotlight: Dan Plesac,” NWI Life (Munster, Indiana), March 11, 2020. Retrieved from https://nwi.life/article/a-northwest-indiana-life-in-the-spotlight-dan-plesac/.
4 Paul Trambacki, “Plesac Pleased to Be Back at Crown Point,” NWI Times (Munster, Indiana), May 15, 2004. Retireved from https://nwitimes.com/sports/plesac-pleased-to-be-back-at-crown-point/article_9e0ef28f-9cb4-5cac-925c-1c7c2fdf3bed.html.
7 Turner ended a no-hit bid by Bristol’s Joe Perrotte with a leadoff single in the bottom of the seventh inning of the opener that evening, a 7-1 victory by Bristol over Pikesville.
9 Leslie Plesac, “About Me,” retrieved from leslieplesac.com.
10 The 1982 Atlanta Braves were the first team to open a season with 13 consecutive wins.
11 Rick Gano, “Plesac’s Aching Elbow Keeps Him on Sidelines,” Fond Du Lac (Wisconsin) Commonwealth Reporter, September 9, 1987: 17.
12 Rick Gano, “Plesac Hoping to Land Fourth Spot in the Rotation,” Daily Citizen (Beaver Creek, Wisconsin), March 28, 1992: 13.
13 Chip Greene, “September 14, 1991: When Cecil Fielder’s Home Run Left the Park,” in G. Wolf (Ed.), From Braves to Brewers: Great Games and Exciting History at Milwaukee’s County Stadium (Phoenix: Society for American Baseball Research, 2015), 228.
14 Mike Heller, “WATCH: Cecil Fielders Home Run Out of County Stadium in 1991.” Retrieved from https://foxsports1070.iheart.com/featured/the-mike-heller-show/content/2017-05-26-watch-cecil-fielders-home-run-out-of-county-stadium-in-1991/.
15 Alan Solomon, “Cubs Staff Bolstered by Plesac,” Chicago Tribune, December 9, 1992: 67.
17 “The Press Box: Plesac Goes to Pirates,” Chicago Tribune, November 90, 1994: 60.
18 Paul Meyer, “Payroll Savings Plan,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 15, 1996: 40.
19 Jack Magruder, “Diamondbacks Trade for Plesac,” Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), June 13, 1999: 31.
20 Sam Carchidi, “A Long Night Ends with a Defeat,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 29, 2002: E01.
21 Nicole Kraft, “Ex-Phillies Reliever’s Greatest Save,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 28, 2009. Retrieved from https://inquirer.com/philly/sports/phillies/20091128_Ex-Phillies_reliever_s_greatest_save.html.