Butch Metzger; He was a Giant? By Tony the Tiger Hayes

Former San Francisco Giant pitcher Butch Metzger is the latest in a series of topics by Tony the Tiger in the feature “He was a Giant? (photo by Topps Baseball cards)

Butch Metzger – RHP – 1974 – # 48

He Was a Giant?

By Tony the Tiger Hayes

During the 1970s, the cash-strapped Giants were dominated in the standings by the meat -grinding Reds and Dodgers mega teams. But the decade that brought us Watergate and neck ties as wide as Van Ness Avenue was not a total disaster for the Orange & Black.

At least the Giants looked cool during the “Me Decade.”

While the conservative leaning Cincinnati and Los Angeles clubs had square grooming guidelines for their players, the Giants let their players let it all hang out.

Perhaps the club was more concerned about keeping the club financially afloat than fussing about the length of their shortstop’s shag hairdo.

Gravity defying Afros, corkscrew perms, droopy horseshoe mustaches, mutton-chop sideburns and the odd shaven head was the Giants signature look of that era.

If they had traded their Orange & Black baseball threads for leather jackets, bell-bottom jeans and aviators, the Giants would have resembled actors on hip-cop TV shows such as “Kojak” or “Starsky & Hutch.”

But, what was more impressive for a San Francisco club that wobbled at the edge of bankruptcy throughout the decade of unbreathable fabrics, was the franchise’s unique ability to introduce a steady stream of hot-shot award-winning rookies.

Catcher Dave Rader (1972) and outfielder Larry Herndon (1976) were each named National League Rookie Players of the Year by The Sporting News. Right-handed pitcher John D’Acquisto (1974) snagged TSN’s NL Pitcher of the Year honor.

More prominently, the Giants farm system originated three official NL Rookie of the Year Award winners (each player also received corresponding TSN nods): outfielder Gary Matthews (1973) and back -to -back winners right-handed pitchers John Montefusco (1975) and RHP Butch Metzger (1976).

Wait. Butch… Who?

Say you don’t remember Metzger’s record setting 1976 season when he dazzled the Senior Circuit with a 11-4, 2.92 record with 16 saves.

That might be because Metzger’s ROY campaign came as a member of the Gravy Brown & Hot Dog Mustard Yellow color schemed San Diego Padres – two seasons after Metzger’s cameo with the 1974 Giants.

Why Was He A Giant?

Hailing from the Sacramento area, Clarence “Butch” Metzger was drafted by San Francisco with their second-round selection of the June, 1970 amateur draft.

A standout at the Capital City’s John F. Kennedy High School, Metzger played three years of varsity ball, posting a 15-5, 1.49 record with 253 strikeouts over 149 innings.

The lanky, boyish-looking pitcher was signed by legendary Giants scout Eddie Montague who famously inked Willie Mays to his first Giants contract in 1950.

Between 1970-74, San Francisco wasted little time advancing Metzger throughout the farm system. He climbed a rank every season – Great Falls, Decatur, Amarillo and Phoenix.

In the minors, Metzger was primarily used as a starting pitcher. But once he reached the majors, all but one of his 191 appearances came in relief.

After striking out 148 for Triple-A Phoenix in 1974, Metzger, age 22, was green lighted to Candlestick Park and deemed ready for prime time.

Just as the ultimate ‘70s cop show – the ratings grabbing “Streets of San Francisco” was beginning it’s third season on ABC television – Metzger walked to the mound in Atlanta for his MLB debut (9/8/74).

The first batter he faced was coincidentally a fellow athlete from River City – the Braves’ outfielder Dusty Baker.

“Strangely enough I was not as nervous as I thought I would be,” Metzger told Tom Kane of his hometown Sacramento Bee. “I knew Dusty by reputation, but I had never pitched against him.”

Metzger retired Baker on a fly ball, then allowed one unearned run over two innings in a 5-3 Atlanta win.

Bizarrely, in 1995, Metzger, age 42, and long removed from organized baseball, would return to the Orange & Black and pitch in an unusual spring training exhibition.

The San Francisco manager who sent Metzger into the game? Dusty Baker.

Before & After

After his debut outing, Metzger appeared in nine more games down the stretch for San Francisco in ‘74 – posting a 1-0, 3.55 ledger.

Butch appeared to have a bright future in the Giants bullpen. But then suddenly, he was gone.

Metzger had just fully digested his Thanksgiving dinner when word came on 12/6/74 that he had been dealt to San Diego along with second baseman Tito Fuentes in exchange for utility-man Derrel Thomas.

Metzger would spend most of 1975 in with minors for San Diego before breaking camp – still technically a rookie – with the Padres in 1976.

Metzger celebrated the country’s Bicentennial with a fabulous 11-4, 2.93 record to go with 16 saves. His 77 appearances for San Diego set a big league rookie record.

Metzger would share 1976 NL ROY honors with Cincinnati RHP Pat Zachry. Each pitcher received 11 votes. It marked the first time in the then 25-year-history of the award that the honor went to more than one player.

Furthermore, in ‘76 Metzger tied former New York Giants sensation Hooks Wiltse’s 72-year -old MLB record by starting his career 12-0. Metzger won his only Giants decision in 1974, then began his Padres career a perfect 11-0.

But for Metzger, it was a case of “no good deed goes unpunished.”

The Padres thanked Metzger by immediately signing All-Star free agent closer Rollie Fingers to anchor their bullpen in 1977.

Metzger slid into an alternate bullpen role, but after an ugly implosion in an embarrassing 23-6 loss at Chicago (5/17/77), in which he was bombarded for three straight home runs and threw behind a batter out of frustration – San Diego traded Metzger to St. Louis.

Despite joining the Redbirds seven weeks into the season, Metzger still placed second on the club in pitching appearances (58). In total, Metzger posted a strong season: 4-2, 3.59 in 75 overall appearances.

But after pitching in 148 games over two seasons – the work load started to catch up to Butch as he developed arm issues.

The Cardinals unceremoniously dumped Metzger prior to the 1978 campaign. He was quickly scooped up by the Mets and pitched briefly alongside Zachry in New York’s bullpen – but Metzger, his arm lifeless and his efforts largely ineffective – only lasted a half a season in Queens.

After last gasp efforts in the Phillies and Braves organizations – Metzger found himself back in Sacramento. His pitching days seemingly over at age 28.

But that was far from the case. The fame and big league pay checks were distant memories, but Butch’s desire to compete was not.

He Never Had a Bobblehead Day. But…

When Metzger joined the Giants for the final four weeks of the 1974 campaign, the Orange & Black had long been eliminated from competition for the Western flag.

But with a dozen games remaining vs. the division leading Dodgers and the persistent second place Reds, San Francisco’s mod squad had ample opportunities to be spoilers.

When Cincinnati rolled into Candlestick Park for a four game series beginning 9/19/74, the Reds trailed the Dodgers by just 2.5 games.

But the scrappy Giants took three of four contests. By the time The Big Red Machine sputtered out of town, their deficit had doubled to 4.5 games. Cincinnati was never able to make up the difference and finished the season four games back of L.A.

Metzger corralled his first big league victory in the third game of the set (9/21/74).

After the Giants started with a bang, scoring five in the 1st inning, the Reds battled back to make it a game. With two runs in the 9th, the Reds tied the game 6-6.

Metzger took over in the 10th. After walking slugger Tony Perez, he sat down Dan Driessen, Dave Concepcion and Ken Griffey in succession to preserve the tie.

With a runner on and two outs in the bottom of the 10th, the Giants Ed Goodson drove a screaming bolt over the left field fence off Reds RHP Pedro Borbon to make it an 8-6 finale.

An ebullient Metzger, his ERA sitting at 1.69 through 9.2 big league innings, was feeling his oats – but also cautious.

“I know it can’t be that easy, and some day I’ll have my problems,” acknowledged Metzger, before offering his pitch repertoire. “My fastball isn’t really overpowering so I change speeds a lot and make good use of a curve that breaks sideways instead of down – my “swerve” I call it.”

The precious Metzger even produced a smile from normally brusque Giants field general Wes Westrum.

“Metzger has sacrificed speed for control and that is what a relief pitcher needs – the ability to throw strikes,” Westrum opined, before spitting tobacco juice into a styrofoam cup.

Giant Footprint

Ironically, after serving as a bullpen fireman, Metzger became a real life fireman in Sacramento.

But he never extinguished his love of baseball. For years, Metzger was an enthusiastic participant in the City of Trees’ vibrant semi-pro baseball scene, regularly pitching up to 100 innings per season for the Sacto Smokies.

Butch also volunteered as an associate scout for the Giants.

When baseball’s work stoppage – which obtusely led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series – bled over into 1995, MLB began assembling slapdash replacement squads.

Metzger was one of several former major leaguers to head back to big league diamonds.

21 years after leaving the Giants, Butch found himself outfitted again in Orange & Black. The fit and trim fire fighter made it easy on equipment man Mike Murphy. Metzger’s uniform pants were shockingly still the same size.

After years of running into burning buildings and breathing life back into total strangers, Metzger expressed no qualms about crossing the baseball millionaires virtual picket lines.

“When you’ve zipped up a few body bags and washed down a few freeways, you find out what’s important in life,” Metzger told the Bee’s Nick Peters. “I’m not in this for the money… I’m here because I want to play the best baseball I can be exposed to.”

The pitching primed Metzger stepped directly on to a spring training mound for the substitute Giants.

“My biggest concern was whether I’d be taken seriously or be laughed off,” he acknowledged. “I’m comfortable now because people who have seen me pitch say I could still pitch at Triple-A.”

The Giants didn’t disagree.

“It’s not like we’re trying to pass this guy off as a one-eyed person. When you see him in person you’ll be surprised,” said Brian Sabean, then the Giants head of scouting. “When you get up next to him, obviously you see his age, but his body is in good shape.”

Whether management was calling the striking players bluff or not, teams began formalizing their plans to play actual major league games with stand-ins.

It looked like it might actually happen when rag-tag versions of the Giants and A’s met in the Bay Area for their traditional end of spring training Bay Bridge Series.

Stunningly, the Friday night opener (3/31/95), attracted 10,179 baseball starved ticket buyers to Oakland.

With the Giants trailing 2-1, Metzger came on to pitch the bottom of the 8th. He allowed a single to open the frame, but quickly got a double-play grounder. Metzger recorded the third out too and walked from the mound unscathed.

Giants fans, and more than a few Oakland loyalists, stood and cheered.

“Just being out there, the bright lights, having a significant number of people in the stands, I had the fire burning,” said Metzger, pun possibly intended, after the 2-1 Oakland victory.

Whether it a calculated move or not, playing with stopgaps such as Metzger served as a spring board to getting idle major leaguers back on the field.

Once the dueling sides in the labor dispute realized that fans were willing to part with hard-earned cash to watch real life heroes such as Metzger serve as alternate big leaguers, it suddenly hit them that the game would survive without them.

Within a day, an accord was reached.

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