Don Aase (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Don Aase

This article was written by Bill Nowlin

Don Aase (THE TOPPS COMPANY)Drafted out of high school, Don Aase began his professional baseball career with what might have seemed like something of a nightmare season for a pitcher — he was 0-10. When he made it to the major leagues five years later, he was hailed as almost the Second Coming for his debut year with the 1977 Boston Red Sox.

When he left the game, he had put in 13 seasons in the big leagues with five different teams and endured a couple of significant operations: Tommy John elbow surgery and shoulder surgery. He’d earned a save in the 1986 All-Star Game and in 1979 had won the first postseason game in Angels history.

Donald William Aase was born in Orange, California, on September 8, 1954. His mother, Catherine, was Dutch-German; his father was of Norwegian ancestry. His parents divorced when Don was in second grade. His mother remarried, to Joe Laird. “My stepfather was an electronics tech — mainly TVs, and then he was a supervisor for an electronics company,” Don said in an August 2020 interview.1

Don had an older brother, an older sister, and a younger sister. He grew up about four miles from Anaheim Stadium, but he himself was a Giants fan and most of his friends favored the Dodgers.2

As a youngster, Don played Little League, Colt league, and American Legion baseball. A right-handed pitcher, he grew to stand 6-foot-3 and was listed at 190 pounds. He graduated from Savanna High School in Anaheim, and was signed by veteran Red Sox scout Joe Stephenson after being selected in the sixth round of the June 1972 amateur draft. In his senior year, he’d been 13-2 and named a second-team all-star pitcher in CIF baseball.

Aase was assigned to play short-season ball in the New York-Penn League under manager Dick Berardino. The Williamsport Red Sox team record was 22-47, but Aase’s was worse: 10 losses without a win in 12 starts.. It was Berardino’s second season; he was valued by the Red Sox and spent the next 13 years managing their Elmira Pioneers.

What had Don thought about starting his professional career 0-10? “That I couldn’t play college baseball! That was pretty bad. I had a couple of people who really helped me out. Bill Slack. Angels manager John McNamara. Dr. Lewis Yocum.”3

After the season, Aase went to the Florida Instructional League and worked under the tutelage of Mace Brown and Charlie Wagner. The year, Aase said, “wasn’t much like high school, where I’d just poured the ball though the strike zone and won.” He was understandably discouraged, but credited Berardino for sticking with him and telling him he’d be OK, and said that the instructional league coaches had “smoothed out my delivery and taught me to pitch…I didn’t have much of a curveball until Brown and Wagner got hold of me…When I started to win my confidence came back.”4

Aase’s first full season was in Class A ball, pitching for the Florida State League’s Winter Haven Red Sox. His 12 wins led the team. His 3.60 earned run average was better than the team average and a real improvement over his 5.81 in 1972. His 15 losses were the most by any pitcher in the league, three more than anyone else. He was still only 18 years old.

His 1974 season was excellent. Still in Class A, in the Carolina League, he was 17-8 for the Winston-Salem Red Sox with a 2.34 ERA. He worked 18 complete games, striking out 176 batters in 230 innings. The team only finished in third place, but his 17 wins and his ERA both led the league and he was named Pitcher of the Year.

Though he had added a curveball, a hard slider, and a changeup to his repertoire, Aase was primarily a power pitcher. “I like to challenge the hitter, because I really think I can overpower him,” he said early in 1975. “I’ve always been a big Nolan Ryan fan. I watch him pitch whenever I can and last year I saw him three times. I like power pitchers –you know, guys who throw hard but keep the ball down.”5

In 1975 Aase was jumped to the Triple A Pawtucket Red Sox (International League). Joe Morgan’s 53-87 team finished in last place, 32 1/2 games out of first place. Aase had 29 starts and finished 8-13 (3.63). “The less said about the team the better,” wrote Peter Gammons in the Boston Globe, but he quoted PawSox manager Morgan on Aase: “He was the best in the International League by far. Not a good prospect, a super prospect.”6

The team changed its name to the Rhode Island Red Sox in 1976, for just that one year. Morgan remained manager. Aase had worked out with the big league team but was, not surprisingly, assigned to Pawtucket a couple of days before the season began. Many thought the Red Sox had a pretty good shot at a repeat in the World Series. Aase won his first four games in Triple A (including a one-hitter and two two-hitters) but then developed some soreness in his pitching elbow. Veteran Globe reporter Will McDonough passed on the news that it seemed to just be tendinitis, but the team was being extra careful. He wrote, “Aase is considered the best pitching prospect to come out of the Sox system since Jim Lonborg.”7 The Sox were without a left-handed starter, though, having lost Bill Lee for a couple of months after a melee at home plate during a Yankees game left him with an injured shoulder. Aase was a likely candidate to promote, but his elbow didn’t come around satisfactorily and, to be cautious, his season ended early. He returned to California and enrolled at California State University at Fullerton. He had been signed out of high school, but in the offseasons put in a couple of semesters of college work, at Cal State Fullerton and at Cypress. That proved to be the end of his formal schooling.

It turned out there was some ligament damage as well, but by the spring of 1977 he was ready once more. Favoring his arm just a bit, he felt he developed better control.8

As the Boston team got deeper into the ’77 season, they began to give up on Reggie Cleveland in mid-July and called up Aase. He’d started 18 games and was 6-6 (5.04) with Pawtucket when he got the nod. He debuted against the Brewers, in Boston, on July 26. It was a complete-game, 4-3 win (one of the runs was unearned), with 11 strikeouts. It was a very good debut, and with Sox fans thirsting for something more in ’77, there was something like euphoria in Boston after that first start.

Aase’s second start was a day game in Anaheim, in front of friends and family on July 31 He’d always dreamed of pitching in the ballpark so close to home. He did not disappoint, pitching a three-hit shutout. The game was 0-0 through eight innings. Consecutive singles by Jim Rice, George Scott, and Carlton Fisk got Boston one run, and — after Aase induced a groundout and struck out the last two batters — he had another win, one that lifted the Red Sox into first place. Aase was named Player of the Week in the American League.

A week later, he won again, in Oakland. He worked seven innings, allowing just one run. Bill Campbell finished the game, a 2-1 win, and the ninth win in a row for the Red Sox.

Aase got hammered in his fourth outing, thrown for a loss. It proved to be his worst outing of the 13 starts he had in 1977. He later threw another shutout (a three-hitter against Toronto) and a 7-1 complete-game win. He finished the season 6-2, with a 3.12 earned run average. All this during a pennant race. The Red Sox contended all year long, finishing tied for second place just 2 1/2 games behind the Yankees, despite the fact that not one starting pitcher won more than the 12 games Luis Tiant won. Bill Campbell won 13 as a reliever.

In December, Aase joined his hometown team, traded to the California Angels for infielder Jerry Remy, who had grown up in Eastern Massachusetts and was thus himself coming to play for his own hometown team. The Angels also got enough cash from the Red Sox to enable them to sign Rick Miller.9 There is no indication that geographic considerations had anything to do with the trade. Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe said the Red Sox needed “speed {and] an everyday second baseman of stature.”10

For the years 1978 through 1980, Aase was a starter for the Angels, pitching alongside Nolan Ryan in ’78 and ’79. In 1981 and 1982, he became a very successful reliever.

Aase was the fourth starter on the team that finished second in the AL West in 1978,. He was 11-8 with a 4.03 earned run average. He was the fourth starter in the Angels rotation behind Ryan in 1978 and 1979 as the expansion franchise The Angels finally reached the postseason in 1979.Aase was still the fourth starter, but finished 9-10 (4.81). He started 28 games and relieved in 11 others. They faced the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series. He pitched a scoreless final inning in Game Two, but the Angels were short by a run. In Game Three, he worked the final four innings, in which the Orioles took a 3-2 lead before the Angels won the game with a pair of runs in the bottom of the ninth. Aase was the winning pitcher in the first postseason win in Angels history. The Orioles won the ALCS. Aase never again returned to postseason play.

In 1980 he appeared in 40 games for manager Jim Fregosi: 21 starts and 19 relief appearances. Through July 31, he was 5-13 as a starter. At that point, struggling as a starter, he was converted to a reliever. He wasn’t happy about it, later admitting that it felt like a demotion to him.11 The three decisions he had after the conversion were all wins. His final record was 8-13 (4.03). He never started another game.

He said that he enjoyed the change. It was mystifying why he had been so inconsistent as a starter. “I felt good, but I’d be out of the game almost before it started. Maybe I tend to try and pace myself when I started. Maybe I think too much. Maybe I try and make too many good pitches. I definitely know that I developed some bad mechanics and that the bullpen gave me the chance to work them out since I had a chance to do a lot more throwing than when I was starting….My fastball has improved strictly because of adrenaline. I really enjoy it.”12

Aase had a very good 1981 season, appearing in 39 games and closing 32 of them. He was 4-4 with 11 saves and an ERA of 2.34. Gene Mauch had taken over from Fregosi as manager during the course of the season.

Now fully reconciled to being a relief pitcher, Aase said, “I’ve enjoyed my career in baseball. I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather be doing. I’m in a better position to help the team than if I remained a starter.”13

In 1982, he was 3-3 (3.46) in 24 games, mostly the result of just three bad outings. A strained muscle in his right elbow put him on the 21-day DL for most of June. When warming up for the July 17 game, he had thrown so wildly in the bullpen that one pitch hit an opposing player in the Cleveland Indians bullpen. He had to leave the game, his arm hanging limply at his side. It was his last game of the season.

Rest didn’t work. On October 18, Aase underwent elbow surgery. More extensive work was needed than had been anticipated. A ligament needed to be reconstructed and his ulnar nerve transferred.14 A tendon from his left wrist was used to replace a damaged ligament in his right elbow. He was one of the first pitchers to undergo what became known as Tommy John surgery.15 He was out for almost two years.

Manager Gene Mauch lost his job, criticized by many for his overuse of his pitching staff, primarily the bullpen. Mauch had, for instance, used Andy Hassler in 54 games but had him up and warming in the bullpen some 249 times.16 In the spring of 1983, the Philadelphia Inquirer presented what was taken to be accepted wisdom: “Don Aase, tough early in the season, was a victim of overuse.”17

Ross Newhan wrote that, after having arguably contributed to Aase blowing out his elbow, “Mauch later had the gall to publicly impugn Aase’s manliness.”18 Was the criticism of Mauch fair? A year later, Newhan wrote, “The operation was Aase’s ultimate response to Mauch.”19

In July 1983, the Boston Globe reported of Aase, “He apparently has survived [the] Tommy John-type operations (muscle and nerve transplant, ligament and calcium deposits) and will throw three times a week to build up the arm. ‘I’m only allowed to throw the ball 30 feet at first,’ said Aase. ‘But that’s a lot further than I thought I could a few months ago. I’m pointing toward being back and helping the club next season.’”20

Aase harbored a glimmer of hope that he could be back by the start of the 1984 season, but his elbow needed more time. After a brief rehab stint with the Redwood Pioneers of the California League, his first game back in the big leagues was June 18.21 Once back, he was steady and superb. Manager John McNamara used him in 23 games. Only once did he give up more than one run; most of the time he gave up none. His earned run average in 39 innings was 1.62. He was 4-1 with eight saves.

The Angels came up three games short of the Royals in the AL West — and then rehired Gene Mauch. Aase was diplomatic in comments to the Los Angeles Times, simply saying it was up to his agent, but Peter Gammons in Boston may have divined something: “He planned to stay, until Gene Mauch returned as manager.”22

Don Aase (TRADING CARD DB)Aase became a free agent that fall. He was selected by 13 teams seeking to be in a position to sign him. On December 13 he signed with the Baltimore Orioles. GM Mike Port was quoted as saying he thought Aase essentially owed the Angels the chance to match any offer, given that they had paid him through nearly two years of being unable to pitch, but that his agents had not gotten back to him. Aase denied snubbing the Angels, but said that the four-year deal offered by the Orioles was the best deal submitted.23 Malcolm Allen says, “Aase was the third free agent Baltimore signed that week, following Lee Lacy and Fred Lynn, uncharacteristic for a franchise that had mostly avoided free agency. The three appeared together on the cover of the Orioles’ first 1985 scorebook and represented an attempt at a quick fix changing of the guard after the departures of long-tenured players like Jim Palmer, Ken Singleton and Al Bumbry that year. In retrospect, some Baltimoreans considered the trio of free-agent signings the beginning of the end of the ‘Oriole Way’.”24

The Orioles got a good return on their investment in the first two years of the deal. In 1985, Aase worked in 54 games, closing 43 of them. His ERA for the year was 3.78 (10-6, with 14 saves.) In ’85, Aase blew a save on Opening Day and had a 7.07 ERA when manager Joe Altobelli was fired in mid-June. Earl Weaver replaced Altobelli. “It was a tough start,” Aase said. “When Earl came, he pulled me into his office, looked at my stats, threw them away and said, ‘You’re my No. 1 [reliever].’ He went with his gut, and him showing confidence in me really changed things around.”25

In 1986, he had perhaps the best season of his career. It wasn’t reflected in wins and losses (he was 6-7), but that’s not what one looks for in a closer, which was essentially what he had become. He appeared in 66 games, closing 58, and recorded 34 saves (second in the league and notable in that the last-place Orioles only won 73 games all season long.)26 His earned run average was 2.98 — he was Pitcher of the Month in May, and he had been performing so well in the first half that he was named to the American League All-Star team. The game, played in Houston, was a 3-2 A.L. win. Aase secured the final two outs and earned a save. “In two pitches, it was over. I’m thinking, ‘Now what do I do?’” Aase said. “I had all this adrenalin going; it takes a long time to wind down from something like that.”27

Returning by taxi to the hotel that night, he turned to his wife, Judy, grasped her hand and whispered, “Nobody can ever take this away from me.”

Aase was leading major league baseball in saves until late August when he hurt his back while lifting his 4-year-old son. At season’s end, he was named the Most Valuable Oriole.

In 1987, he won on Opening Day at Memorial Stadium after taking over for Mike Boddicker in the eighth; the game was 1-1, won by a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth. It was his only win of the year. He didn’t lose a game. After three appearances he was put on the 15-day DL with right shoulder tendinitis. He pitched in four games in May. After May 23, his ERA was 2.25 but his season was over. He returned to California to consult with Dr. Lewis Yocum. On July 3, it was announced that he would need season-ending shoulder surgery. The stress on the human body prompted by a power pitcher can be severe.

As with the surgery, “damage was more severe than first announced,” and he wasn’t able to start 1988 on time.28 He only missed a month, though, appearing in his first game on May 10. The Orioles lost every one of their first 21 games of the season; by the time Aase first pitched, they were 4-26. He worked the rest of the season, appearing in 35 games with neither a win nor a loss. His ERA was 4.05. It was also the first (and only) season of his career in which he walked more batters than he struck out, resulting in the worst WHIP (1.650) of his career.

His contract having been completed, he was given his release by Baltimore in October, and was invited to spring training as a non-roster player by the New York Mets, then signed to a Tidewater minor-league contract. They were looking at him as a possible setup man in the pen. He gave up only one earned run in 8 1/3 innings in spring training and looked good overall. He made the team in spring training, signed a $200,000 contract on Opening Day, got into the game, and pitched two scoreless innings, earning a save.29 Only the Mets’ closer, Randy Myers, was used in more games. His record was 1-5 in 49 games, but in only one of the five losses had he surrendered more than one run. He’d brought his ERA back under 4.00, to 3.94.

After the season, the Mets let him know they were planning to go in a different direction. A free agent once more, Aase signed with the Albuquerque Dukes, the Triple-A farm club of the Los Angeles Dodgers, just before spring training 1990. Teams at the time were allowed to carry 27 players for the first 21 days of the regular season. Aase was one of the extras, added so late that his name did not appear in either the team’s media guide or the program for the first game in which he appeared, April 9.30 He came in, pitched a scoreless inning, and earned a save. “He was probably our best relief pitcher in the spring,” said catcher Mike Scioscia. “He’s throwing the ball a lot harder than he did last year.”31

He lost a game in his second appearance, but it was the last “L” of his career. There was a 21-day DL stint with right rotator cuff soreness. By the end of the year, he had won three and saved three. His ERA was 4.97. It was his last season in baseball. He was 35 years old. There was no invitation to spring training.

He gave pitching lessons for a few years, but he received a phone call from a friend asking if he would be interested in working for him. That led to what has become a second career working for a construction company doing estimating and project management for commercial properties.

Don and his wife Judy (they married in 1981) live in Yorba Linda, California. Judy is a homemaker. They have three children — a son Kyle, a daughter Kallie, and a son Kelby. “Their actual first names all begin with “A” but they all go by their middle names,”
he said. “They’re all A.K.A.s.”32 They have seven grandchildren as well.

He doesn’t keep in touch with former players as he did earlier when he was going to charity golf tournaments and the like. He did visit Fenway Park in 2012 for the 100th anniversary of the ballpark, and enjoyed that greatly. “I do see a couple of people now and then but nothing on a regular basis.”33

Last revised: September 22, 2020

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Malcolm Allen and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also accessed Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org. Thanks to the Boston Red Sox and to Rod Nelson of SABR’s Scouts Committee.

 

Notes

1 Author interview with Don Aase on August 6, 2020.

2 Bob Ryan, “’77 Red Sox — Don Aase,” Boston Globe, July 31, 1977: 78.

3 August 6, 2020 interview.

4 Phil Elderkin, “Rookie Throws Lightning Bolts,” Christian Science Monitor, March 10, 1975: 11.

5 Elderkin.

6 Peter Gammons, “Sox Farms: Good Arms, Little Else,” Boston Globe, September 13, 1975: 21.

7 Will McDonough, “Red Sox Get Good News, Too,” Boston Globe, May 19, 1976: 54.

8 Larry Whiteside, “Don Aase: He Could Start for Sox, But First There’s the Arm,” Boston Globe, February 27, 1977: 46.

9 Ross Newhan, “Bavasi Trades Remy to Red Sox for Aase,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1977: G1.

10 Bob Ryan, “Remy for Aase? A Brilliant Trade,” Boston Globe, December 11, 1977: 83.

11 Elliott Almond, “Don Aase Relived To Find that there is Life after Being A Starter,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1977: April 2, 1982: OC-F14.

12 Ross Newhan, “Aase Gets His Game Together in the Angel Bullpen,” Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1981: E14.

13 Elliott Almond.

14 “Elbow Surgery Will Sideline Aase in 1983,” Los Angeles Times, October 20, 1982: D3.

15 Ross Newhan, “Angels Pitcher Won’t Rush It: Aase’s Comeback So Near Completion, Yet So Far,” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1984: D1. According to Jon Roegele’s historical database of Tommy John surgeries (accessed on September 23, 2020), Aase was among the first 10 professional pitchers after John himself to undergo the revolutionary elbow surgery.

16 Ross Newhan, “Mauch Was Let Go, But Rightfully So,” Los Angeles Times, April 1, 1983: OC A1.

17 “American League West Preview,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 1983: E20.

18 Ross Newhan, “Mauch Was Let Go, But Rightfully So.”

19 Ross Newhan, “Angels Pitcher Won’t Rush It: Aase’s Comeback So Near Completion, Yet So Far.”

20Larry Whiteside, “Red Sox Notebook,” Boston Globe, July 20, 1983: 1.

21 A good article about his rehab work and attitude during the time off is by Chris Dufresne, “A Re-Armed Aase Gears for Return,” Los Angeles Times, May 26, 1984: E1. Sarah Smith wrote an article after his comeback: Sarah Smith, “Angles Breathing Sigh of Relief Over Aase,” Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1984: OC B1.

22 Peter Gammons, “Maybe This Year, GMs Will Do More Than Talk,” Boston Globe, October 21, 1984: 48.

23 Ross Newhan, “Baltimore Signs Aase; Angels Feel Snubbed,” Los Angeles Times, December 14, 1984: G6. The deal was worth $2.4 million, per Jim Henneman, “Orioles Gave Lynn What He Wanted,” The Sporting News, December 31, 1984: 61.

24 Malcolm Allen, email to author, September 4, 2020.

25 Mike Klingaman, “Catching Up With …former Orioles Reliever Don Aase,” Baltimore Sun, July 7, 2017.

26 Also notable is that two of the losses came in one day — he lost both halves of the August 28 doubleheader in Oakland.

27 Klingaman.

28 Richard Justice, “Aase Likely Will Open on the Disabled List,” Washington Post, February 6, 1988: C1.

29 Jack Lang, “Mets’ Gamble Pays Off,” The Sporting News, April 17, 1989: 22.

30 Alan Drooz, “Aase, Saves Day for Dodgers’ Short Staff,” Los Angeles Times, April 10, 1990: C6.

31 “Bullpen Is Vulnerable for Start of Season,” The Sporting News, April 23, 1990: 15.

32 August 6, 2020 interview.

33 August 6, 2020 interview.

Full Name

Donald William Aase

Born

September 8, 1954 at Orange, CA (USA)

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