clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Offseason reading recommendation: Fastball John by John D'Acquisto and Dave Jordan

When I received John D'Acquisto's new autobiography in the mail, the first thing that hit me was the sheer heft of it. The former fireballer's memoir checks in at 524 pages, sparing, as you might imagine, no detail. Everything is there, from D'Acquisto growing up in San Diego watching both the Pacific Coast League and Major League Padres, his illustrious high school years, his draft, injuries, and trades, all the way through his post-playing career, covering in great detail the circumstances which led to him spending years in federal prison convicted of securities fraud. The bevy of information and anecdotes about baseball in the '70s and '80s is worth the price of admission for any fan, especially those of the Padres and Giants, but the book itself is very well written. The narrative tone chosen by D'Acquisto and co-author Dave Jordan keeps the reader engaged, while everything works to keep the story as a whole moving forward. They also have a knack for dropping seemingly innocuous details that one wouldn't think twice about, then rendering them relevant pages or even chapters later. It's done subtly and artfully, as is the constant theme of tying in the music of the time. In many ways it reads more like a detective novel than an athlete's autiobiography, right down to the climactic betrayal at the hands of a character we met very early in the book.

John D'Acquisto fell in love with baseball at the age of seven, watching his older brother Fred play with Graig and Jimmy Nettles. He took quickly to the game, throwing numerous no-hitters throughout Little League and his time at St. Augustine High School. His hometown Padres considered him for their number one overall pick in 1970, but ultimately choose Mike Ivey, and D'Acquisto slid to the seventeenth where he was selected to the Giants, who had sent the Carl Hubbell to scout him. During the months leading up to the major league draft, D'Acquisto had another draft hanging over his head: the United States selective service draft. They came calling a month after the Giants did, and things took an interesting turn after he accepted his fate and vowed to serve as best he could.

D'Acquisto came to age in the Giants' farm system, both on and off the field; tales of young men painting strange small towns red give way to stories about Willie McCovey, Bobby Bonds, and the like, including a recounting of one incident of Sudden Sam McDowell's infamous and seemingly infinite appetite for liquor. Even in recalling some of his many romantic endeavors on the way up, D'Acquisto doesn't come off as a braggart, but as matter-of-fact, even when discussing being in an open relationship with two roommates, both named Tammy. Instead, he gives the impression of a hopeless romantic, in both his observation of a teammate's marriage, as well as in a story I found sad about him and a woman getting rather fond of one another when he was in A-ball, then having to part ways at season's end. This character trait continues to come up again throughout the book.

While his personal stories and those about his teammates in San Francisco were riveting, his trade to San Diego after less than half a season in St. Louis brought me to the part of the book I'd been looking forward to since the day I got an email telling me that such a book existed. The late '70s and early '80s is not a time in Padres history that has been particularly well-covered. All the names are here, though, from him being greeted by Rollie Fingers and his old friend Randy Jones, through the parade of managers including John McNamara, Bob Skinner, Alvin Dark, Roger Craig, and Jerry Coleman. He didn't play for Dick Williams in San Diego, but he did play for him in Montreal toward the end of the 1980 season, long enough to have a few run-ins with the future Hall of Famer.

But before he joined Williams north of the border, D'Acquisto spent over three years pitching for his hometown team, and the anecdotes about that time were aplenty. Some were legends I vaguely recalled, and many more were brand new to me. One story I knew of, but appreciated reading about in greater detail, was when he was the National League All-Star team's unofficial alternate in 1978, the first year San Diego hosted the Midsummer Classic. He was told he'd be on the team if any pitchers had to drop out due to injury; he participated in all the All-Star festivities with all the players who were officially on the rosters, and served as an ambassador of sorts, but was never needed to suit up.

Also covered is the emergence of Ozzie Smith, the departure of Dave Winfield, Mickey Lolich's comeback after a year away from the game, and Alvin Dark being fired as manager during Spring Training, among other things I knew of vaguely but was thrilled to learn more details about. All of this is tucked in between anecdotes about Randy Jones and others, along with inside looks at the construction of the rosters of the time, all while D'Acquisto's story progresses alternately through trials and triumphs on and off the field.

Off the field, speed was as important to D'Acquisto as it was on it, and his love of fast cars, specifically Porsches, is frequently touched on in the book. From his first one back when he was with the Giants, which he drove in a very unconventional and unsanctioned road race, through his time with the Padres, when he put one at stake in a bet which was both friendly and high-stakes, and all the way to his final one, which helped spur the aforementioned betrayal merely by existing, D'Acquisto speaks of the machines in reverential tones. His pride is noticable on the page when you read stories of various teammates purchasing one just because they liked his. In one case, his Porsche served as an icebreaker with one very reserved Padres teammate who expressed admiration for it and then, after taking it for a drive, bought one of his own the very next day.

Another passion of D'Acquisto's which bled over and blurred the lines between his baseball and personal lives was his love for playing music. He formed a group with a fellow Padres pitcher who also played guitar, accompanied by accomplished local musicians, which they gave a band name that alluded to their day jobs. They were well received and played frequently in the area; eventually their band took on a new member, young infielder Tim Flannery, who would go on to a measure of success and acclaim as a musician for years to come, even to this day. The group was relatively short-lived, as D'Acquisto's days in a Padres uniform came to a close in August, 1980.

After leaving his friends on the Friars, D'Acquisto finished the year with a short but eventful and dramatic stretch north of the border before his first foray into free agency. As with all other aspects of the game and his life, he provides an in-depth and fascinating look behind the curtain. When his time on the market came to a close, a handshake deal he made was pushed aside, which would eventually prove to have lasting ramifications. As D'Acquisto lands with the Angels we are painted a picture of how some less scrupulous agents sacrifice what is best for one client in order to manipulate the big picture.

From that point his baseball career was all but over. An immediate change in team management, labor strife, vindictiveness and vengeance from the powers that be, and the eventual arm injuries all seemingly conspired to cut short his days as a big league player. From there it was on to the world of finance, in which he was progressively more and more successful until it all came crashing down around him in the mid-'90s. The circumstances of the charges against him are laid out in detail here, as is the process of his trial and his subsequent incarceration. Thankfully, his story does not end there.

The tail-end of the book finds us reading the words of a seemingly content man. While he doesn't have the excesses he enjoyed in his past high profile careers, he has peace and what it seemed like he was seeking all along, love. The man who once threw faster than anyone besides Nolan Ryan, the same man who led a group that nearly bought the Padres, and the man who was scapegoated, blackballed, backstabbed, and railroaded along the way are all part of the same, yet different, man who doesn't need to be defined by any of it.

While this book centers around baseball, and is a virtual roll call of all the names you know from the time and some you might not, it would still be a fascinating and engrossing read if he had any other profession. After all, I don't know anything about or care one bit about the paper industry, but I will forever love The Office. One doesn't need to be a bowling aficionado to appreciate the greatness of The Big Lebowski, and not being a baseball fan is not a stumbling block to enjoying this book. While structured completely differently, Fastball John is reminiscent of the all-time great book Ball Four in that it serves as a look inside a man and as a snapshot of an era, with tales about those in his profession serving as both bait and bonus.

On my scale that I just made up on the spot, I give Fastball John 19 out of 20 baseballs. It is now available wherever you buy books, both physically and digitally.