HOUSTON, Texas -- Baseball Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers made the handlebar mustache famous in the 1970s while pitching for the Oakland Athletics. A generation later, rookie A's pitcher Daniel Mengden has brought it back.
Mengden, the 23-year-old starter with a funky old school over-head windup, has actually done better than his 1-4 record shows. He starts on July 8 in the second of a three-game series with the Houston Astros, the team that traded Mengden last summer in the Scott Kazmir deal.
Fingers, who put the handlebar mustache on the map during his eight seasons with the A's and went to three World Series, hadn't heard of Mengden until last month. That's when some friends, while watching Mengden pitch against the Brewers on TV, texted Fingers a video clip and still shots, straight off the TV. They were stunned by Mengden's uncanny likeness on the mound to Fingers.
The two recently talked by phone about pitching and the ‘stache. Fingers shared solid advice from 17 seasons in the game. During the upcoming All-Star game festivities, Fingers will play in the All-Star Legends & Celebrity Softball game on July 10 at San Diego's Petco Park.
"I see you have the Colonel Sanders thing going there," Fingers said.
"Yeah," Mengden laughed, "it's a little mix of yours and [Hall of Famer] Jim ‘Catfish' Hunter's."
So, what advice did Fingers share with the rookie starter? Keep working on the changeup.
"The best pitch you can have is a change up," Fingers said. "That screwed up a lot of hitters. That one pitch made a big difference."
Ironically, Fingers spent his A's career (1968-1976) without ever throwing a change up. It wasn't until he got to the San Diego Padres in 1977 that he started throwing the difference maker.
Starting out his career, Fingers had good control of his fastball and slider, but he felt he needed more. "I tried a circle changeup and a palm ball, I messed around with a fork ball," in Spring Training that year then he found his changeup. "When I started getting it over the plate, [opponents] were saying, ‘what the hell is he throwing now,'" Fingers said.
Mengden's best pitch is his 90-94 mph fastball, followed by his 80-84 mph change up and 12-6 curveball. "You have a pretty good fastball," Fingers told him. "I threw 92 mph, you're getting it up in the 94 range."
"I can rev it up to 96," Mengden said.
"That's beyond me," said Fingers, a Cy Young Award winner.
Much of Fingers' success came from learning early in his career. He studied how to change speeds and was taught the importance of control watching his more experienced teammates, especially Hunter, Mudcat Grant, and Ken Holtzman, who knew how to locate the ball and mixed pitches well.
There's nothing more important for a pitcher than control. Only when that's mastered can a pitcher become great, he offered.
It also helps to make friends on the field with the umpire by throwing to where the catcher sets up. "If you do that, umpires are your best friends. They hate the guys throwing all over the place."
As a closer, Fingers mostly came into situations with runners on base. "I hated to face guys like [Hall of Famers) Wade Boggs and Rod Carew, they'd wear you out. Guys like [Hall of Famer] Frank Robinson had more holes in their swing and were easier to strike out."
And of course, getting a first pitch strike to get ahead in the count makes all the difference in the world.
Hall of Fame
Though Fingers began as a starter, he ended up as a reliever, pitching 17 years in the majors without a serious injury. That seems incredible today when so many pitchers succumb to Tommy John surgery.
After the A's, Fingers spent four seasons with the Padres and five with the Brewers before retiring in 1985 with a then record 341 saves. A few years later, sports writers started asking him about his chance of getting in the Hall of Fame. In typical Fingers fashion, he'd retort, "I don't know, you're the ones that vote on it."
During his career, he never considered the Hall of Fame because he had nothing to evaluate himself by. The first reliever ever inducted was in 1985, the last season Fingers played with the Brewers, when knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, who had 227 career saves in 21 years, won the honor.
Fingers was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1992, but it was 20 years earlier when the handlebar mustache first appeared in the A's dugout. The story behind it, most people don't know, actually started with another A's superstar, Reggie Jackson.
Jackson showed up to Spring Training in 1972 with a regular mustache, despite the clubhouse's no facial hair rule, and refused to shave it off. So Fingers, Hunter, Darold Knowles and a few others decided to also grow mustaches, thinking they'd all be forced to get rid of them by opening day. Fingers and Hunter decided to go big and sport the handlebar. Instead, team owner Charlie Finley offered $300 to any player who wore a mustache at the beginning of the season. Everyone on the roster, including coaches, got the money.
For the next three seasons, 1972-74, the A's were unstoppable winning three back-to-back World Series.
The ‘crazy' mustache
Fast forward to 2012, when Mengden pitched for Texas A&M. His coach had a no facial hair rule, except for a mustache which he wore. Trying to one-up the coach, a friend suggested that Mengden "do something crazy" like grow a Rollie Fingers mustache. He did, and the fan club loved it. After being drafted to the Astros, Mengden grew it while in the minors. Last summer, while still sporting the handlebar mustache, Mengden was traded to the A's in the Scott Kazmir deal.
"Maybe it had something to do with the trade," Mengden joked.
The ‘stache is definitely an attention grabber to which Fingers had one more piece of advice.
"If anybody gives you any heat for the mustache," he said, "you shut them up by getting guys out. Then they'll leave you alone."
Karen McDonough is a Dallas-based freelance writer, editor of worldartstoday.com and author of A Ballerina For Our Time, Olga Pavlova