Rob Picciolo sat in the Milwaukee Brewers dugout in the early summer of 1982, watching Robin Yount and Jim Gantner execute another double play. The smooth coordination of the two fielders told Picciolo what he already knew: Barring an injury, he wouldn’t be needed in the Brewers’ middle infield any time soon.
Picciolo (pronounced \PEACH-uh-lo\) had been traded to the Brewers by his original team, the Oakland Athletics, in his sixth major-league season. As a rookie in 1977, Picciolo had been the A’s everyday shortstop, but year by year his time on the field had eroded, down to 195 plate appearances in 1981. Now, with the Brewers, he would be an insurance policy, along with fellow sub Eddie Romero, for Yount and Gantner. Otherwise, Picciolo was an adept utility player who could carry a glove to most any position on the field, and perform without embarrassment. Picciolo’s patience and willingness to study the game he loved were the qualities that would blend him into a skillful coach and mentor in the future.
“People think it’s hard playing behind Robin, but it’s really not,” Picciolo told Bob Verdi of the Chicago Tribune. “It would be a lot harder if I were playing behind somebody who wasn’t as talented or wasn’t as devoted. I wouldn’t say I’m in awe of Robin. I just totally respect the man.”1 So Picciolo sat, waited, watched — and learned.
Robert Michael Picciolo was born to Angelo and Rose Marie (Paone) Picciolo on February 4, 1953, in Santa Monica, California. The couple had one other child, Bruce, who was two years older than Robert. Angelo was a veteran of World War II who went to work for the Hyatt Regency hotel system after the service. Robert (Rob) attended Westchester High School, where he was all-league in baseball, batting .403, and also played basketball. Graduating from Westchester, he moved on to Santa Monica Junior College, where again he played both varsity sports. He became the first Santa Monica College baseball player to be named Athlete of the Year in 1973, batting .323 as a sophomore.2
Major-league franchises were very interested in Picciolo and his skills as a second baseman, but he proved to be an elusive target to sign. He was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the second round of the amateur draft on January 10, 1973, but did not sign. He was drafted again on June 5 in the fourth round of the secondary draft, this time by the Kansas City Royals; he did not sign, but opted to continue his education at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.
Pepperdine, under Coach Wayne Wright, had had a losing season in 1973, but Picciolo and his teammates brought success to the Waves the following year. The team had a 37-10 record, was the West Coast Athletic Conference champion, and beat Southern Cal, 4-2, in an NCAA District 8 playoff game before faltering. Wright had moved Picciolo from second base to shortstop; he led the team in doubles, stolen bases, and sacrifice flies, and was named to the All-District team. In 1982 Picciolo was named to the Pepperdine Athletic Hall of Fame.
In June of 1974, the Detroit Tigers made Picciolo the sixth pick of the first round — but he still no didn’t sign as he continued his studies at Pepperdine into his senior year.
Finally, on January 9, 1975, the Oakland Athletics signed Picciolo in the first round of the January secondary draft. The Athletics had just won their third consecutive World Series, but all was not well with the franchise. Players like Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, and Catfish Hunter were demanding pay increases to match their success, and not getting them. Athletics owner Charlie Finley was disinclined to throw his money around, and his franchise coffers were not as deep as you might expect. Despite their success, Oakland’s star players had done little to endear themselves to the community, and the A’s attendance barely reached a million once in the three championship seasons. Finley was either trading or not re-signing his players, opening the door to Picciolo and his fellow prospects.
Along with the obligations of his baseball contract, Picciolo was able to complete his education at Pepperdine, graduating that June with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. That spring (1975), Picciolo reported to the Birmingham Barons of the Double-A Southern League, where he was the regular shortstop throughout the year, batting .277 with little power, but some ability to steal a base; he was named to the Southern League All-Star team at the end of the season. The next season the Athletics moved him up to manager Harry Bright’s Tucson Toros of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Again, he would be the team’s everyday shortstop, replacing veteran Tommy Sandt, who had joined the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Picciolo’s batting average rose to .298; as at Birmingham, a promising trend. On November 1, 1976, longtime Oakland star shortstop Bert Campaneris was granted free agency; it was time for Picciolo to graduate to the majors. His initial salary was $20,000.3
That same winter, on January 29, 1977, Picciolo married Debra Gelderman, also a Pepperdine graduate. The couple had two sons, Breton, born in 1983 and Dustin (1986), both of whom became future Pepperdine graduates.
Picciolo at 6-feet-2 and 180 pounds, made his major-league debut on April 9, 1977, in Oakland as the starting shortstop against the Minnesota Twins; the Athletics won, 7-4, Picciolo going hitless in four at-bats. Two days later, on April 11, he beat out an infield single to California Angels shortstop Bobby Grich for his first major-league hit; Nolan Ryan was the pitcher. Then, on April 15, Picciolo hit his first major-league home run, a fifth-inning solo shot off Paul Thormodsgard of the Minnesota Twins. The milestone that was more of a challenge was the first walk: Picciolo had 45 plate appearances without a base on balls before drawing a pass from White Sox pitcher Francisco Barrios on April 22.4
Charlie Finley liked to have nicknames for his players, perhaps because, like his gold-and-green uniforms, they gave his team color — and sold a few seats — without increasing Charlie’s expenses. So Charlie decided Picciolo should be nicknamed Peach, perhaps hypnotizing fans into thinking of his shortstop in the same terms as Ty Cobb (the Georgia Peach) — a real stretch of the imagination.5 The similarity to Cobb never materialized, but the name stuck.
Picciolo went on to start at shortstop in 137 of the Athletics’ games that 1977 season, usually batting ninth in the order. The team started out with Jack McKeon as its manager, and did well for the first few weeks of the season; the new faces, Picciolo included, were surprising winners. But then reality dawned, the team started to lose, and McKeon was fired with a 26-27 record. Bobby Winkles became the manager, and the A’s slipped to a seventh-place finish, going 63-98 for the season. Picciolo’s batting average stayed below .200, approaching the end of the season. A relatively robust 31-for-122 (.254) September raised his average; on the last day of the season, he went 3-for-5 against the Texas Rangers to reach .200 even.
In the spring of 1978 the Athletics sloughed off their remaining star from the championship teams — pitcher Vida Blue — to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for seven players, one of whom was shortstop Mario Guerrero. Guerrero had more major-league experience than Picciolo, and a batting average in the .270 range, and so Picciolo was relegated to the bench, a utility infielder. The end result was that Picciolo rarely started a game, and was often pinch-hit for when he did. He finished the year with 98 plate appearances and a .226 batting average, also spending a portion of the season demoted to Triple-A Vancouver. The Athletics continued to stumble about, firing Winkles, and bringing McKeon back to manage.
Oakland opened 1979 with yet another managing change as Jim Marshall was hired to run the team. The A’s lack of success would worsen as players became disenchanted, plagued by injuries and lack of fan support; any hope for a winning season was killed by a 5-24 record in June. Picciolo’s career was given fresh air when Guerrero became susceptible to injury and dissatisfaction with his contract.6 He had opportunities to take the place of Guerrero or others who were hurt, or whose eagerness to play was dampened by the team’s losing attitude; he made the most of his chance that August.
Picciolo started 27 of the team’s 29 games in August, playing shortstop, and also logging time at second and third. He batted .362 for the month, going 34-for-94, with eight multi-hit games. By the end of August, his batting average had climbed 45 points to .279. The Athletics had had their best month in a disastrous season, going 14-15, finishing with a 54-108 record. Picciolo had demonstrated his value. His .253 average at the end of the season was well under the league average of .270, but acceptable for the bottom of the batting order. And his versatility on defense was showing the league that he would be a valuable component on most rosters.
When Marshall stated in a postseason interview that Guerrero was still the team’s shortstop, Picciolo disagreed with this decision. Referring to his 1979 performance, the usually unassuming Picciolo said, “This time I made use of the opportunity when it came. I showed I can do the job. I think I should be considered the No. 1 shortstop next spring.”7
On the day before the A’s opened their 1980 spring training, Finley fired Marshall and brought in Billy Martin as manager; the results were impressive. The offense led by Rickey Henderson and Tony Armas, along with a determined five-man pitching rotation that completed 94 games, made the Athletics winners; they finished second in the American League West with an 83-79 record. Picciolo lost his shortstop’s position back to Guerrero, who had regained his enthusiasm, but Martin switched Picciolo to second, where he got the majority of starts for the first three months of the season. “Billy is the manager. I’m happy he thinks I’m good enough to make the transition,” Picciolo remarked.8 Eventually, Picciolo shared time with Dave McKay, another light-hitting utilityman, but saw steady playing time throughout the year.
Over his career, Picciolo’s reluctance to accept a base on balls had gained notoriety. In 1980, he had almost pulled off a totally walk-free season. Orioles manager Earl Weaver had cracked at midseason, “He must be leading the league in “off-base percentage.”9 On October 2, in Chicago, Picciolo faced Richard Dotson of the White Sox and drew his first walk of the season. In a spirit of good humor, the game was stopped, and the ball presented to Picciolo. The next batter, Rickey Henderson, made Dotson pay dearly, hitting a two-run homer into the upper deck in left. Picciolo walked again on October 5, the last game of the 1980 season.10
If Picciolo had a patsy in the American League, it was the White Sox. Over his career, the White Sox had walked Picciolo 10 times, giving him the only intentional base on balls in his nine-year career. A Chicago Tribune column once stated that the “book” on Picciolo was that he could not resist a slider into the dirt, but White Sox pitchers must not have heeded the advice.11
In 1981 Picciolo saw a reduction in plate appearances, from 281 down to 195, but a noticeable split in batting against left-handed pitchers. Overall, he had a .268 average, but against left-handers he batted a formidable .338. His OPS of .687 was the highest of his career. Much of the reduction in plate appearances was due to the Athletics’ addition of Fred Stanley from the New York Yankees.12 The Athletics, under Martin, reached the playoffs, then swept the Kansas City Royals, three games to none, in the American League Division Series. Picciolo started the second game, hitting a single in three at-bats. Picciolo then started the first game of the Championship Series against the New York Yankees, again collecting a single; the Yankees won the series, three games to none.
As the 1982 season began, Picciolo was getting some starts, along with Stanley and Jimmy Sexton — but he was hitting a weak .224 in 52 plate appearances. Picciolo was traded by the Athletics to the Milwaukee Brewers on May 14, 1982; the Athletics received minor-league first baseman Johnny Evans and pitcher Mike Warren. Billy Martin respected Picciolo’s value to the A’s, and was upset: “I’m not happy about this one bit; I liked Picciolo so much. …”13 The Brewers were looking for insurance to protect their World Series aspirations against the loss of one of their position players. “It became evident when Robin Yount got hurt that we needed another infielder. We wanted to get the best one available. We’ve always liked the way Picciolo played,” said Brewers manager Buck Rodgers.”14 Picciolo had a pair of sure hands for multiple field positions, and he had developed as a threat to left-handed pitchers.
Two weeks after Picciolo became a Brewer, Rodgers was fired and replaced by Harvey Kuenn. For two seasons, Picciolo was treated the way any important insurance policy would be: kept in a safe place and, hopefully, not needed. Picciolo played in 36 games over the two-year period, making nine starts. Most often he was a late-game defensive change. He pinch-hit, pinch-ran, played shortstop, second, and third, and even got into a game at first base. He came to the plate a total of 53 times. Although he did not appear in a postseason game, his team got to the World Series, and he was an important element in the dugout and clubhouse.
After the 1983 season, Picciolo was released by the Brewers. Returning to West Coast, he signed a contract with the California Angels. The Angels were fifth in their division in 1983, and were opening 1984 with a talented rookie, Dick Schofield, as their new shortstop. Picciolo, a utilityman once again, was to back up Schofield, and plug other holes that emerged for manager John McNamara. Picciolo saw more action than he had with the Brewers, playing short, second, and third, even a game in the outfield; but his results at the plate were diminishing, a .202 batting average and no walks. Again he was released, then signed on February 5, 1985, by his original team, the Athletics, managed by Jackie Moore.
Picciolo had few opportunities to play for the A’s until third baseman Carney Lansford fractured his wrist on a hit-by-pitch in late July, whereupon Picciolo became the best alternative off the bench. But the opportunity didn’t work out. Picciolo’s second game in Lansford’s place found him grounding into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded, stopping a sixth-inning rally, and then committing an error in the seventh that resulted in three unearned runs. The A’s lost the game to the Brewers, 4-3.
In a postgame interview, Picciolo did not go easy on himself: “I hurt the club. It’s just a shame it happened tonight because it makes Carney’s injury look even worse. Exactly what I didn’t want to happened, happened.”15 Shortly thereafter, the A’s put Picciolo on the disabled list with a stomach ulcer; he did not play again until September 1. Picciolo appeared in games throughout September, but was never again penciled into the starting lineup. At the end of the season, he retired as a player; he had a .234 lifetime batting average with 17 home runs and 25 bases on balls.
Picciolo joined the San Diego Padres organization as a minor-league manager, directing the Spokane Indians of the Northwest League (Rookie; short-season Class A) for two seasons. After a 39-35 record in 1986, he led the Indians to the league championship with a 54-22 record; he was named Northwest League Manager of the Year. The Padres then reassigned him as a roving field instructor for two years before bringing him up to the Padres staff.
In June of 1990, Picciolo was made the Padres’ first-base coach at midseason under new manager Greg Riddoch. Padres general manager Jim McIlvaine had asked Riddoch to retain one coach from the preceding regime in order to maintain continuity; Riddoch chose Picciolo. An unnamed Padres infielder remarked: “I can’t believe how good he is. I’ve been in this game for a while, and he’s the best I’ve seen.”16
Picciolo was then the Padres’ bench coach from 1993 to 2002, then third-base coach from 2003 to 2005. The Padres changed managers twice more during Picciolo’s years, going to Jim Riggelman at the end of 1992, then to Bruce Bochy in 1995. He was fired after 20 seasons with the Padres.
Picciolo then signed with the California Angels to be the franchise’s roving infield coordinator, a position he held for five years. On November 10, 2010, Picciolo was promoted by the Angels to become their bench coach, replacing Ron Roenicke, who had been hired by the Milwaukee Brewers as their manager. Picciolo remained in this position for three years under manager Mike Scioscia, but when California had a losing season in 2013, only their second in 10 years, the Angels opted to retain Scioscia, but fired both Picciolo and hitting coach Jim Eppard. Scioscia summed up the club’s thinking: “You’re not going to find a guy who works as hard as Rob, but it’s time for Dino (Ebel) to move to the bench. We’re just looking for a different dynamic. …”17
At this point, Picciolo retired from baseball. He had played for eight major-league managers over nine seasons, coached for four others over 23 seasons, and been a teammate or mentor to eight Hall of Famers. As a student of baseball, his portfolio was full.
Picciolo died on January 4, 2018; the cause of death was not disclosed. The night before his death, he was reported to be out and about in downtown San Diego, feeding the homeless.18
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org. I also greatly appreciate the assistance of Vanessa Weaver of the Los Angeles Angels organization, who provided information from Angels media guides.
1 Bob Verdi, “Yount Reluctantly Accepts Hero’s Role,” Chicago Tribune, October 18, 1982: 61.
2 Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1973: 347.
3 The Sporting News, April 23, 1977: 29.
4 This was not an aberration for Picciolo: During his two full seasons at Birmingham and Tucson, he had drawn 37 walks in 1,127 plate appearances.
5 Articles written about Picciolo early in his career often referred to him as “Pic”; perhaps the writers were mixing up the pronunciation of the name with that of Brian Piccolo, the Chicago Bears running back who died of cancer in 1970, and about whom the movie Brian’s Song was made.
6 Tom Weir, “Guerrero Just Sits and Sulks on A’s Bench,” The Sporting News, September 8, 1979: 61.
7 Tom Weir, “Picciolo Galled by No. 2 Rating,” The Sporting News, November 17, 1979: 56.
8 Tom Weir, “Billy’s First Report Card — All A’s,” The Sporting News, March 22, 1980: 43.
9 Peter Gammons, “A.L. Beat,” The Sporting News, June 28, 1980: 23.
10 Robert Markus, “Sox Victory Over A’s Is Full of Firsts,” Chicago Tribune, October 3, 1980: 60.
11 “Notes,” Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1980: 64.
12 The A’s traded pitcher Mike Morgan to the Yankees to acquire Stanley.
13 Kit Stier, “A.L. West,” The Sporting News, May 24, 1982: 26.
14 Tom Flaherty, “A.L. East,” The Sporting News, May 31, 1982: 26.
15 Kit Stier, “Lansford’s Wrist Toughest Casualty,” The Sporting News, August 12, 1985: 22.
16 Bob Nightengale,”Coaching Staff Sports New Lineup,” Los Angeles Times, April 5, 1991: 371.
17 Mike DiGiovanna, “Angels Shake Things Up, but Not at Top,” Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2013: 27.
18 Jeff Sanders, “Longtime Padres Coach Picciolo Dies; Just Loved the Game of Baseball,” sandiegouniontribune.com/sports/padres/sd-sp-long-time-padres-coach-rob-picciolo-dies-at-64-20180103-story-html, accessed February 22, 2018.