Making it Right: Jim Rooker the Unintentional Walk
The Pittsburgh Pirates were in the midst of a 7 game losing streak that began on May 31, 1989 the last game of a home stand as Jose Rios and the Cincinnati Reds beat them 4-3. Afterwards they flew to New York to seek better fortunes, only to be swept by the Mets. They then hoped on a bus and drove south on the New Jersey turnpike to Philadelphia and promptly dropped their first three to the Phillies.
Our story unfolds during a Thursday afternoon game played on June 8th at 3:20 pm. It was perfect weather for the National Pastime, seventy-five degrees and not a cloud in the sky. Not only was perfect baseball weather, the Pirates’ luck appeared to be changing. Manager Jim Leyland posted a lineup that featured many of the players that would help win division championships in Pittsburgh during the early nineties. Such as Barry Bonds, Jose Lind, Andy Van Slyke, Bobby Bonilla, Jeff King and Gary Redus. That afternoon, the Bucs’ skipper sent their pitching stalwart, Bob Walk to the mound. The Pirates would send sixteen batters to the plate during the top of the first inning, yielding 10 runs on eight hits. Pittsburgh’s offensive outburst featured Barry Bond’s tenth homerun of the season.
So it should come to no one’s surprise when Jim Rooker turned to his broadcast partner John Sanders and said: “If we don’t win this one, I don’t think I’d want to on that plane ride home, Matter of fact, if we don’t win, I’ll walk back to Pittsburgh!” (I had interviewed Jim for Seamheads.com’s ‘Around the Bases’ on nd he explained this quote was born from frustration. What he actually meant was the Pirates had not won a game on that particular road trip, so if you are going to win one, this is the type that you need to win)
Undaunted by the large deficit, the Phillies began to chip away during the bottom half of the first. Beginning with Randy Ready’s leadoff double, followed by a Von Hayes’ homerun. Making it 10-2.
The Pirates failed to score in the second and third but Von Hayes hit another two run homer. The score was 10-4. Then the next inning Steve Jeltz followed with a two run home run to cut the lead to 10-6.
Pittsburgh scored a run in the top of the fifth to make the score 11-6. The Phillies scored four more at the bottom of sixth, with Steve Jeltz hitting another homerun, this time from the right side of the plate. (He batted left handed for his home run. At the time, Jeltz was the first Philly player to hit homeruns from both sides of the plate in the same game in 107 years). The Pirates’ lead had shrunk to 11-10.
During the bottom of the eighth, John Kruk hit a one out single. He advanced to third after walks to Juan Samuel and Bob Dernier and came home on a wild pitch to Dickie Thon. Darren Daulton knocked in the go ahead run which was followed by a bases clearing triple by Curt Ford to make it 15-11!
Steve “Bedrock” Bedrosian came in to close the door for the top of the ninth. He struck out Bennie Distefano, Quinones singled, RJ Reynolds struck out before John Cangelosi flied out to left field to end the game!
Initially, Jim Rooker did not think anything concerning his comment early in the game. But many of his listeners were not as forgetful. The following day, the switchboard at Three Rivers Stadium lit up with people inquiring if he actually took the walk. After being convinced that people were not going to let him forget his comment. He agreed to “make good” on it!
When the Pirates jumped to a 10-0 lead over the Cardinals ten days later, Pirates’ announcer Lanny Fratera turned to Rooker and asked, “And if we lose this game?” Which Rooker replied, “Yes, if we lose this game…our road record will be 11-23.”
At a press conference on August 30th, Jim Rooker announced the details for making good on his promise. Rooker would take the 327-mile hike between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The plan is to walk a minimum 17 miles a day, with a maximum of 33, weather permitting. He would He collected pledges for the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and Bob Prince Charities. It would be billed as “Rook’s Unintentional Walk.”
Jim would set out from Veterans Stadium on October 5th and expects to enter the centerfield gate on October 17th. A sporting goods store donated hiking gear and four corporate sponsors have underwritten the trip.
A little more than six months later, Jim sat down with Larry Dierker (the former Houston pitcher, manager and broadcaster of the Houston Astros)
In their interview, Rooker admitted that he began to have serious reservations after Jeltz hit his second homerun of the game. As far as the walk, the first day was the worst. He walked some of the interstate and climbed over some mountains but going through West Philly without a gun was probably the most dangerous. Then it rained on the second day. It was twenty-five miles of nothing but rain between Westchester and Intercourse, Pa. Jim developed blisters the first day, and then the constant rain caused him to have blisters on blisters. After eight hours of walking, he went into a daze. Jim was at a point where he did not want to eat or drink or even talk, he was a vegetable but he would pick himself up, have dinner then a couple of beers.
But by the second day, Rooker got into a routine and the weather cooperated. Jim just leaned forward and went. He allowed his mind go blank, kind of autopilot. This worked well until the journey reached Sidling Hill…
Jim confessed that this hill was a nightmare, although it was only two or three miles but it was like walking up the upper deck at Three Rivers Stadium.
“I will never go up that hill again…not even in a car!”
As he got closer to his destination, crowds of well wishers began to appear. In fact during the final three days, he felt the celebrity treatment from the Pirate fans. He broke the tape as he strode through the big wagon gate in the center-field fence, weary but proud, he had made it.
Rooker’s unintentional walk netted $81,000 for charities in the area. It succeeded in bringing the community and Pirates organization closer together.
At the end of their interview, Dierker asked him if it was worth it?
Rooker’s reply was: “Now that it’s over, I’m glad I did it. It’s a lot of fun thinking about it and reminiscing but would I do it again? No, never, never, never, never!”