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Reusse blog: Deduno serves as a reminder of Joe Decker

  • Blog Post by: Patrick Reusse
  • June 8, 2013 - 7:48 AM

There will be a column on Frank Quilici in Sunday's print edition. Frank was an infielder, a coach, a manger and a broadcaster for the Twins from 1965 to 1982, with a couple of interruptions. He was the manager in 1974 and 1975, when I first started covering the Twins as a beat reporter, and I love the guy.

The idea that I had to talk to Frankie came about indirectly: I was watching Sam Deduno pitch two starts ago, and decided that he was remindful of Joe Decker, who made 80 starts for the Twins in the mid-'70s, and then decided I had to talk to Frankie, who was the manager for 68 of those starts.

Joe Decker doesn't get a mention in Sunday's column, which is the reason we have these things called "blaaghs,'' so we can get back to the premise, in case it gets lost along the way.

As with Deduno, Decker was a pitcher gifted with a darting fastball and an exceptional breaking ball. And, as with Deduno, the problem for Joe was to convince those pitches to stay in the area of the strike zone.

Only the talent and unpredictability were similar for Deduno and Decker. The career paths were completely different.

Decker was a ninth-round pick of the Chicago Cubs in 1965 (the first year of the major league draft). He made his major league debut with the Cubs at age 22 in 1969. He pitched his last game for the Twins at age 29 in 1976, and pitched in the big leagues only briefly with Seattle after that.

Deduno was signed by the Rockies for a few bucks as a 19-year-old Dominican in 2003. He didn't reach the majors with Colorado until 2010, when he made four relief appearances at age 27.  He pitched twice in relief for San Diego in 2011, and didn't make his first big-league start until last July 7, for the Twins vs. Texas.

He is scheduled to make his 18th big-league start in Sunday's split doubleheader with Washington. He will turn 30 on July 2.

Decker was an off-the-wall character. He was among my favorites, probably because we had an equal fondness for late-night cocktails in those days. If you filed a game story and made it under the wire to the hotel bar, there was a good chance to encounter Joe Decker.

Or, George Henry as we often called him, since that was his full name. Where the Joe came from, I can't remember.

Decker was 25 and had pitched in a total of 54 games (23 starts) for the Cubs when he was part of a trade on Nov. 30, 1972. The Twins sent Dave LaRoche, a well-regarded lefthander, to Chicago for veteran starter Bill Hands and Decker.

Joe was little-used out of the Twins' bullpen in the first two months of the 1973 season, then made his first start in the second game of a doubleheader on June 6. He beat Cleveland with six strong innings and was in the rotation for the rest of the season. Included in his 24 starts was a 4-0 shutout of the White Sox on June 26 in Comiskey Park -- when he struck out 15, walked three and allowed four hits.

Decker finished 10-10 with a 4.17 ERA. There were 109 strikeouts (and a Deduno-like 88 walks) in 170 innings. He was set for the rotation when the Twins went to spring training in Orlando in 1974.

Bob (Buck) Rodgers was the new pitching coach on Quilici's three-coach staff (yes, three coaches). "I told Buck to keep an eye on Joe as closely as he could ... try to make sure he would get his 'rest' before making a start,'' Quilici said. "Buck did a great job with that. He got the best a team ever was going to get out of Joe.''

Decker went 16-14 with a 3.29 ERA in 37 starts. He pitched 248 2/3 innings and had 11 complete games in 37 starts. He struck out 158 and walked 97 (under 3 per start, a tolerable number).

As I recall, it was during the second half of that season that Joe developed his cough. The cough seemed to be a nervous habit, although Joe also liked his cigarettes. By spring training in 1975, the cough was more constant.

Quilici said: "To tell the truth, I went in to see Calvin [Griffth] after the 1974 season, and I said, 'We should trade Joe for something good. He's not going to be able to repeat what he did this year. He's not wired for long-term success.' Calvin thought I was crazy.''

Mysteriously, the Twins had let go Rodgers after the 1974 season and replaced him with Lee Stange. The Stinger was more than competent, but taking away Rodgers from Decker was the equivalent of taking away offensiver coordinator Scott Linehan from the Vikings' Daunte Culpepper after the quarterback's great 2004 season.

Decker showed up in spring training and was challenged to keep his pitches inside the cage during batting practice. Veterans Twins' hitters were doing everything possible to avoid taking a turn against Joe during live batting practice.

He had 36 walks in 26 1/3 innings for the Twins in 1975. He spent much of the season on the disabled list. Quilici was fired after the season and replaced by Gene Mauch. Joe made 12 starts for the Twins, was 2-7 with a 5.28 ERA, and was released on June 25, 1976.

He made it back to Seattle for nine games and two starts in 1979. He pitched in the minors until 1983, a journey that included stops with the Mexico City Reds and Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican League.

I gave Quilici some bad news on Friday that I had run across a year ago while looking up some info on Decker: He died in March 2003 at his home in Frasier, Mich. He took a fall and was found at the bottom of the basement stairs. If Joe's death received a mention in the Twin Cities media at the time, I missed it.

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