“The people in New York are the most sports-oriented people I’ve ever been around. I mean they are geared into it. The game on the field carries over. They hate you so bad and they don’t even know who you are.”1 — Doug Sisk, 1989
On a team of pranksters and cut-ups Doug Sisk, who hailed from Tacoma, Washington, would fit right in in 1986, even if the fans were not always in his corner. The unusual started early for Sisk. During his freshman year of college Sisk suffered the first of a number of arm injuries that would define his career. “I threw a Wiffle ball at the paperboy. He was teasing my dog. I nailed him, hit him in the head.” But in so doing, Sisk ripped the tendons in his elbow. “The doctors called me into the office, showed me the x-ray, and told me to forget about a career in baseball. They told me not even to pick up a ball for a year, and I didn’t.”2
Douglas Randall Sisk was born in Renton, Washington, on September 26, 1957. His father was a lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Department. During his years at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Sisk not only was hurling baseballs, but he was also proficient at shooting a .22-caliber rifle. He even was asked to try out for the 1976 Olympics but passed on the opportunity due to his baseball commitments.3 Sisk excelled in the Senior Babe Ruth League tournament in 1976. The 18-year-old pitched a complete-game (seven innings) 1-0 shutout, allowing only four hits.4 After graduating from high school, Sisk played at Green River Community College in Auburn, Washington. He came back from the Wiffle-ball injury to pitch in his sophomore year and then transferred to Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, pitching for the Cougars in 1980, and winning his first four outings5 before graduating that spring with a degree in criminal justice. During his college years, he spent his summers playing in the Southwest Semi-Pro League in Tacoma.
Because of that early arm injury, Sisk was not drafted. He signed as a free agent with the New York Mets on June 10, 1980. His first stop was Rookie League ball at Kingsport, Tennessee, in the Appalachian League. In his first outing as a professional, he defeated Paintsville, 6-3.6 He pitched in 15 games, each as a starter, and went 8-5 with a 2.66 ERA.
Sisk made three moves in 1981. The first was to Lynchburg, Virginia, in the Carolina League and the second was to the bullpen. He went 3-2 with seven saves in 36 games at Lynchburg before the third move, a promotion to Jackson, Mississippi, in the Double-A Texas League. At Jackson, he pitched in 14 games for manager Davey Johnson, went 3-0, and added another four saves to his résumé.
In 1982, still at Jackson, Sisk had an 11-7 record with a 2.67 ERA and five saves. Of his 44 appearances, 35 were in relief, and his performance earned him a late season call-up to the Mets.
Sisk made his major-league debut on September 6, 1982, against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh. After he retired the first two batters, he faced perennial Met nemesis Willie Stargell, who was in his last season. Before the game the slugger had been showered with gifts. Against Sisk he came off the bench as a pinch-hitter and capped his night with a single to right field. He left the field to a standing ovation, and Sisk retired the next batter to record a scoreless inning in his first appearance.
Sisk’s appearance on September 15, 1982 provided the only blemish on his initial season with the Mets. New York was playing at Montreal and the game went into extra innings. The Expos were very much in contention and the last-place Mets were playing out the schedule. Mets manager George Bamberger used 21 players. The 21st was Doug Sisk, who entered the game to pitch the bottom of the 11th inning. The only batter he faced was Andre Dawson whose home run, on a 3-and-1 pitch, ended the contest and saddled Sisk with his first major-league loss.
Dawson’s home run was the only run allowed by Sisk in 1982. He recorded his first major-league save on September 22 when he got the last four outs, all on groundballs, as the Mets defeated the Cubs, 5-2, at Wrigley Field. During his first go-around in the big leagues, Sisk pitched in eight games and had a 1.04 ERA in 8⅔ innings.
In 1983 Sisk enjoyed a good spring and was prepared to head north with the Mets when he received a shock. He was summoned to manager George Bamberger’s office at the team’s spring-training facility. “I thought, ‘Oh God! Did they change their mind? What did I do?’ George said, ‘Sorry Doug, I can’t keep you. You’ve got to report to Tidewater.’ He was looking down at me and he says, ‘Do you have anything to say,’ and I said, ‘No, George.’ And he said, ‘That’s good because that’s a crock.’” At that point, his teammates, who had been in on the gag, and were listening in, were howling.7
Sisk saw his first 1983 action on Opening Day. It was an electric atmosphere fueled by Tom Seaver’s return to the Mets after almost six seasons with the Reds. When Seaver, whose left thigh was beginning to tighten, left the scoreless game for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the sixth inning, Sisk took over on the mound. The Mets gave him a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning, and Doug pitched scoreless ball over the final three innings. There were a couple of anxious moments in the final stanza when the Phillies put runners on first and second with one out. But Sisk was up to the task, retiring Mike Schmidt on a fly ball and striking out Tony Perez with a slider for his first major-league win.
“I must be dreaming. I can’t believe it. Tom Seaver’s return, Steve Carlton pitching for the other guys, and I win the game. And I have to get Mike Schmidt and Tony Perez for the last two outs of the game. Naw, talk to me tomorrow when I wake up.”8
“I thought about taking him out in the ninth inning,” said Mets manager and pitching coach George Bamberger. “And if it had been the middle of the season, I might have. But these kids are never going to learn how to pitch out of a tough situation if you’re going to take them out all the time.” Said Sisk, “There was no way they were going to beat me. I wanted to win it for George. I wanted to show him that he made the right decision by leaving me in.”9
The 1983 Mets, despite the presence on the roster of some of the players who would take them over the top in 1986, were still losing more games than they won and finished last in their division. Sisk was an asset nonetheless, posting a 5-4 record with 11 saves. He was the top right-handed reliever on the team and appeared in a team-high 67 games with a 2.24 ERA. By June 23, Frank Howard had replaced Bamberger as manager. On that day, the Mets were playing the St. Louis Cardinals at Shea Stadium, and Sisk had his best outing of the season. Howard called on him in the top of the fifth inning after the Mets had taken a 7-4 lead. Sisk pitched the last five innings, allowing only one unearned run and five hits. Of the 15 outs Sisk recorded, 12, including the last nine, were via the groundball.
There were some new faces on the Mets in 1984 as they made the jump from mediocrity to contention. In the second game of the season, the Mets were playing in Cincinnati. One of the new faces, Ron Darling pitched the first six innings before being removed for a pinch-hitter in the top of the seventh. Sisk relieved and pitched three scoreless innings for his first save of the season. He went on to pitch in 50 games. Although his won-lost record was only 1-3, he saved a career-high 15 games. His ERA, which was under 2.00 as late as September 7, was a career-best 2.09 for the season. In one 23-game stretch, from April 29 through July 1, Sisk saved nine games and allowed only one earned run in 39⅓ innings. He teamed with lefty Jesse Orosco to form the best relief tandem in the National League. They were also a team off the field, sharing a house in Queens during the season.
Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre was high on his relievers, particularly Sisk. In July he said, “We used to use Sisk to get to Orosco. Now, they’re both game-enders.” Sisk relied on his sinker, which Stottlemyre said “is better than mine ever was. Doug’s sinker explodes. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect him of throwing a spitter.”10
The tandem was the talk of the league as Davey Johnson’s squad vaulted to first place in late July. Johnson said, “Our best scenario is for the starter to carry us six or seven innings. Then I can go to my bullpen and one of those guys will finish up.” Orosco noted, “It’s not that we’re so close buddies. We just get along. We’re actually different types. He’s an outdoorsman. He hunts and fishes. I like to paint and draw, maybe go bowling. The main thing is, there’s no rivalry. When Doug gets the call, I tell him, ‘Close the door.’ We go home and replay the game. But we don’t care who gets the save.”11
It was during the 1984 season that Sisk began to hear the booing that would become louder and louder during his remaining time with the Mets. In a game at Houston on July 17, he was brought in to save a game for Darling. He walked Terry Puhl and gave up a home run (his first and only homer of the season) on a 3-and-2 pitch to Mark Bailey to lose the game. On July 21, in the Mets’ 91st game of the season, Sisk got his 14th save. He would not have another until September.
The booing really began to rain down in late July. The Mets were playing the Cubs at Shea Stadium on July 28. Sisk entered the game in the eighth inning with the score tied 3-3. By the time he left the field, he had given up the lead and the bases were loaded. He faced four men and failed to get an out. He walked his first batter, threw a wild pitch, allowed two singles and then misplayed a bunt. The Cubs went on to score eight runs in the inning, won the game 11-4, and pulled to within 3½ games of the first-place Mets in the NL East. (The Cubs overtook the Mets on August 1 and pulled away over the final two months of the season.)
“All I know is I screwed it up. I walked the first guy. I almost hit the second guy in the head. And (Leon) Durham [who singled] well, I got behind again. You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever been booed. Oh well, I guess you’ve got to get booed once in a while.”12 The Cubs cemented their lead when they swept the Mets in a four-game series in early August. In less than two weeks, the Mets went from 4½ games ahead of Chicago to 4½ games behind them.
It was also during this season that Sisk began to experience pain in his shoulder that caused him to lose control of his sinker. The strike zone and Sisk had never been on the friendliest of terms, causing manager Johnson to rely on Rolaids to the point where he got a commercial endorsement. But this was different. Sisk recalled that the pain began in a game against the Cardinals on July 24. In that game, “I didn’t even feel like I had any leverage on the ball anymore. It started doing different things on me.”13 It was the beginning of a rough patch for Sisk that limited his availability down the stretch. He appeared in only six games with one save during the final two months of the season. The pain was diagnosed as tendinitis and, on August 9, Sisk was placed on the disabled list. He began to question his future. “Yeah, you think about all kinds of things when you’re on the bench. You wonder, ‘Is my arm going to be all right when I start airing it out, or is it going to keep hurting? Then if it’s okay, how are (the Mets) going to use three short men in the bullpen, now that Wes (Gardner) is here’?”14 He was reactivated on August 30. During Sisk’s stay on the DL, the Mets lost ground on the Cubs and were 5½ games behind when he returned.
The Mets finished in second place at 90-72, 6½ games behind Chicago. Injuries were to plague Sisk for the balance of his career. In 1995 he reflected, “For me, it’s always been some sort of physical problem, not a question of talent.”15
In 1985 the Mets once again fell short. Sisk had only two saves. Roger McDowell emerged as the Mets’ top right-handed reliever while Sisk continued to struggle with injury. He pitched the entire season with loose bone chips in his right elbow,16 and his ERA skyrocketed to 5.30. The Shea faithful grew more impatient with him; the Mets were only 14-28 in games he pitched. In one seven-game stretch between April 17 and May 4, he allowed 17 runs, including two homers, with an ERA of 13.11. After a disastrous performance on May 4, when his ERA rose to 8.53, the Mets sent Sisk briefly to Tidewater.
When Sisk returned to the Mets on May 24, he was pitching exclusively out of the stretch. “I got in trouble before because I was throwing the ball, just trying to get it over, and not even bothering picking my spots. With a stretch, you basically have less time to screw up and you can spot the pitch more effectively.”17 But he was still inconsistent.
The Mets were in first place on June 7 when they faced the fourth-place Cardinals at Shea Stadium. The game went into extra innings tied at 1-1, and Sisk relieved in the 13th inning. Disaster ensued. As Keith Hernandez wrote, “[Shortstop Rafael] Santana starts things with an error. Sisk gets a groundball out, then everything collapses. Five hits, six runs, and a second error later, we’re finished; it’s our worst inning of the year. It’s all or nothing with Doug these days. I understand why Davey (Johnson) continues to use him — we’ll need Sisk later on, in the stretch — but I don’t know of another manager who would stick with him this long. Add in the fact that Doug is pitching in some bad luck, too. The team may start thinking negatively when he comes in: ‘How will things go wrong this time?’”18
Sisk was on the wrong end of hate mail. One letter urged him to “Take one Tylenol and one cyanide capsule — per day.”19
But occasionally things went right in Sisk’s enigmatic season. On June 21 the Mets took a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the sixth inning and handed Sisk the ball. He pitched a perfect three innings. His reward was his second win of the season, and the Mets were tied with the Cardinals for the division lead. Sisk’s view of his season was philosophical. “I’ve been terrible. I gave up walks, home runs, grand slams. You name it, I’ve done it. I’ve even been getting letters recommending I take cyanide. When you’re going bad, you don’t know what to do to get better. Fortunately, I stayed within myself and didn’t go nuts. But you feel like a weight on the team.”20
The Mets game on July 4 showed the best of Sisk and the worst of Sisk. The Mets were in Atlanta to play the Braves and it was fireworks night. Although it was raining, the Braves were not about to postpone the game and send the big crowd home. Finally the game began at 9:04 P.M. In the bottom of the eighth inning Sisk was summoned to relieve Orosco and protect a 7-5 lead. There were two outs, but Orosco had walked in a run and the bases were loaded. Davey Johnson ordered Sisk to throw strikes and the first batter, Dale Murphy sent one of those strikes to the outfield wall for a double that cleared the bases. Sisk stayed in the game and retired the Braves. The Mets tied the contest at 8-8, and Sisk pitched scoreless ball through the 12th. The game was interrupted by rain and did not end until 4:00 A.M., with the Mets winning 16-13. The Braves then exploded the fireworks, much to the consternation of the neighborhood.
By August Sisk had become the forgotten man in the bullpen, and when the stretch drive came, he was on the disabled list. His last win of the season came on September 8. The Dodgers and Mets played a 14-inning marathon in Los Angeles that took almost five hours to complete. Sisk entered the game in the bottom of the 13th inning and was the Sisk of old, retiring the side in order with two groundouts and a strikeout. Mookie Wilson led off the top of the 14th inning with a home run. Then Sisk retired the Dodgers on three groundouts to secure the win and move the Mets to within a half-game of the division lead.
But Sisk did not pitch after September 13 and had elbow surgery just before the end of the season. He was a question mark for 1986, and the love affair between Met fandom and Sisk was definitely over.
Sisk did find love away from the ballpark and in December of 1985, he married Lisa Michaelson.
In 2011 Sisk remembered those days. “You’re supposed to ignore the negativity and pitch well. But it’s much, much, much easier said than done. When you know that your home fans are going to kill you every time you take the field, well, that isn’t helpful. I don’t care what people say about mind over matter — always getting booed takes a toll. It has to.”21
Sisk started the 1986 season with Tidewater in the International League.To strengthen his arm, he started and relieved, and after nine appearances and 30 innings he was recalled by the Mets on May 20. He quickly established his place in a quartet of relievers (Sisk, Orosco, McDowell, and Randy Niemann) who would complement the team’s outstanding starting rotation. The Mets started the season by winning 44 of their first 60 games. The bullpen quartet won 11 of those games and saved 16. Sisk pitched in seven of the games and was the winner on June 16 as the Mets established a division lead of 11½ games.
For the season, in 41 appearances, Sisk’s record was 4-2 with a 3.06 ERA. He had one save; there were not many save opportunities for Sisk as McDowell was now the right-handed closer. Down the stretch, however, Sisk won two games as the Mets cruised to their first division championship since 1973.
On August 27 the Mets were wrapping up a successful road trip in San Diego. They had taken a 5-0 lead and were sailing toward their eighth victory of the nine-game trip. Then the Padres tied the game in the eighth as McDowell and Orosco faltered. Sisk relieved in the bottom of the 10th inning and retired the side on three straight groundballs. The Mets pushed across a run in the top of the 11th inning to take the lead, and Sisk was looking to finish things up as the Padres came to bat.
Garry Templeton led off with a double and Davey Johnson’s already depleted inventory of Rolaids took another hit. With the Padres’ bench depleted, Sisk struck out pitcher Craig Lefferts, who was pinch-hitting for Goose Gossage. Then Tim Flannery singled to center field. As Templeton raced home with the tying run, Len Dykstra charged the ball and unleashed a perfect throw to catcher John Gibbons. Gibbons absorbed a collision with Templeton and held on to the ball after tagging the Padres shortstop. Flannery had not stopped running on the play and, seeing Gibbons sprawled on the ground, dashed toward third base. Sisk called for Gibbons to throw the ball to third base, where Howard Johnson put the tag on Flannery to end the game.22 The Mets had extended their first place lead to 20 games. The magic number was 16, and it was still August.
August turned into September and the Mets just kept on rolling. Sisk came into a 3-3 game against San Diego on September 7 at Shea in the top of the sixth inning. Things did not go well in his first inning of work. He allowed a run on a single and three walks. The Mets scored three runs in their half of the inning to take Sisk off the hook and Roger McDowell held the lead over the final three innings. Sisk had his fourth win of the season, the Mets had won another four in a row, and the magic number was whittled to six.
By the time Sisk registered his only save of the season, on September 27, the Mets had clinched the division title. In the postseason, Johnson used him sparingly. He pitched a scoreless inning in the League Championship Series, and a scoreless two-thirds of an inning in Game Two of the World Series.
Sisk enhanced his reputation for keeping the ball in the ballpark; he was the only pitcher in the league to face 200 or more batters without giving up a home run. During his first 334 innings with the Mets, over five seasons and 208 appearances, Sisk allowed only six home runs. He went into the 1987 season not having allowed a homer in 122⅓ innings. His streak started on May 31, 1985, and included 70 appearances.
The homerless streak ended in 1987 but Sisk had a good season, posting a 3-1 record with three saves. His 55 appearances were the most since 1983 and he posted a 3.46 ERA. His best outing came on June 14 in Pittsburgh. He entered the game with one out in the fourth inning, the Mets leading 4-2 and runners on first and second. He allowed one of the inherited runners to score and then pitched effectively through the eighth inning. In 4⅔ innings, he allowed three hits and got his second win of the season.
But throughout the 1986 and 1987 seasons, Sisk was the target of irate fans and it was not just the booing. One time, as he waited to bat, fans threw ice at him. Another time, fans trashed his car in the parking lot at Shea Stadium. Toward the end of the 1987 season, he requested a trade.
After the season, New York traded Sisk to Baltimore for two minor leaguers. He essentially went from the penthouse to the poorhouse, as the Orioles finished the 1988 season with a 54-107 record, the worst in the American League. Sisk went 3-3 with an ERA of 3.72. Although he had no saves, there weren’t many save opportunities that season. It was a year of lost causes as the Orioles lost 44 of the 52 games in which Sisk pitched. He suffered tendinitis in his shoulder during the season, and spent most of July at Triple-A Rochester on rehab. After the season, the Orioles released him.
In 1989 Sisk found his way to spring training with the Oakland A’s but before the season began, he had reconstructive surgery on both knees and missed the entire season.23 He signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Indians before the 1990 season, and was released after pitching briefly with Colorado Springs. He then signed with the Mets and pitched effectively at Tidewater, where he posted a mark of 5-1. The Mets traded Sisk to Atlanta and he returned to the big leagues with the Braves in July, appearing in three games without a decision. Sisk by then was 32 years old with not much in the way of a future in baseball. When the Braves placed him on release waivers, there were no takers.
Sisk earned a spot on the Braves roster again in 1991, and pitched in 14 games in the first two months of the season, going 2-1 with a 5.02 ERA. In his last major-league appearance, on May 23 against San Diego, he pitched an ineffective two-thirds of an inning, yielding three hits and four unearned runs. Atlanta placed him on the disabled list with tendinitis in his shoulder and released him after the season.
Four years later Sisk had his last hurrah. The strike that had brought the 1994 season to a screeching halt continued into spring training in 1995, and Sisk went to the Mets camp as a replacement player. The then 37-year-old started a spring-training game against the Yankees on March 4. He pitched two innings, allowed a run, and was tagged with the 2-1 loss. He knew that “Whenever I fly back home, I know that this thing [his beleaguered arm] will not throw another baseball.”24
After his brief re-emergence, Sisk returned to Tacoma, where he did some scouting for the Mets, worked for a beer and wine distributor, worked at the local Boys and Girls Club, and announced for the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers. He and his wife, Lisa, have three children.
In addition to the sources cited in the notes, the author also relied on:
Barnes, Craig. “Sisk Relieved to Escape Mets’ Fans (and Manager),” Sun Sentinel (West Palm Beach, Florida), March 7, 1988.
Moran, Malcolm. “For Sisk, Darkness is Beginning to Lift,” New York Times, September 12, 1985: D33.
“Sisk on Disabled List, Says He Fears a Trade,” New York Times, August 14, 1984: B9.
Sisk’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame library.
1 Wayne Coffey, “At Shea, Sisk Was at Risk: Road Was Relief for Doug,” New York Daily News, June 27, 1989: C30.
2 James Tuite, “Sisk Accepts Mets Relief Role,” New York Times, April 7, 1983: B18.
3 “Missed Opportunity,” New York Times, May 30, 1983: 26.
4 The Daily Chronicle (Centralia, Washington), July 30, 1976: 10.
5 “Cougars Whip Up on Gonzaga,” Walla Walla (Washington) Union-Bulletin, April 2, 1980: 8.
6 Lexington (Kentucky) Herald, June 20, 1980: D-3.
7 Malcolm Moran, “Another Step Up for Sisk,” New York Times, June 18, 1983: 15.
8 Emery Filmer, “Pitcher Perfect,” Stamford (Connecticut) Advocate, April 6, 1983: C-1.
9 United Press International, April 5, 1983.
10 Jack Lang, “Orosco, Sisk Form No. 1 Bullpen Duo,” The Sporting News, July 16, 1984: 20.
11 Joseph Durso, “The Odd Couple,” The Sporting News, August 6, 1984: 29.
12 Kevin Dupont, “Sisk Is Dismayed After His Collapse Against the Cubs,” New York Times, July 29, 1984: S-4.
13 Bob Klapisch, “Shoulder Aching, Sisk Put on 15-day DL,” New York Post, August 10, 1984.
14 Klapisch, “Sisk Watches as Gardner’s Value Grows,” New York Post, August 17, 1984: 91.
15 David O’Brien, “Sisk Is Willing — if Able,” Sun-Sentinel (West Palm Beach, Florida), March 7, 1995.
16 Jeff Pearlman, “The One Met Their Fans Most Loved to Hate,” Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2011.
17 Filip Bondy, “Sisk Hopes to Turn Jeers into Cheers,” New York Daily News, May 22, 1985: C30.
18 Keith Hernandez (with Mike Bryan), If at First … A Season with the Mets, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986): 124.
19 Craig Carter, “Negative Prescription,” The Sporting News, July 16, 1985
20 Joseph Durso, “Surging Mets Are First Again,” New York Times, June 22, 1985: 47.
21 Pearlman, “The One Met.”
22 Matthew Silverman, Mets Essential, (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2007): 93.
23 Pharos Tribune (Logansport, Indiana), April 1, 1990: C-10.
24 Jack O’Connell, “An Unsure Sign of Spring: Sisk,” Hartford Courant, March 5, 1995.