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Where have you gone, Joel Horlen?
03/27/2002 8:23 PM ET
This is the second -- wait, check that -- the third retirement for Joel Horlen, and he's just about got it right this time.

Until the phone rings.

On the other end of the call is San Diego Padres pitching prospect Jason Middlebrook, one of his former pupils who is spending his off-season in Austin, Texas, only a few hours drive from Horlen's San Antonio home.

Middlebrook made his Major League debut last season and explains his need for a few pitching tips to help him get through the winter. With that, the 64-year-old Horlen gets in his pickup truck and is off.

"Somebody wants some help, I'll try to help them," Horlen says.

Horlen, a crafty right-hander who never struck out more than 125 batters in a season, found a second career in baseball after his playing days ended, just as many former players do. But in Horlen's case his coaching career didn't begin until 15 years after he threw his last pitch.

Having signed with the White Sox hours after helping Oklahoma State win the 1959 College World Series, Horlen won 113 games in 11 seasons and remained in the organization until 1972, when he was released during Spring Training. He was picked up by Oakland and helped the A's to their first of three straight World Series titles.

In Horlen's era, the Sox were notable for their ability to have an outstanding season and fall just short of a pennant. The Sox won at least 94 games from 1963-65 without getting to the World Series and then finished three games behind Boston in 1967 after a memorable American League pennant race.

Horlen was ecstatic to get his ring after so many close calls with the Sox. But even though he was only 35 and had gone 3-4 with a 3.00 ERA as a spot starter and reliever with the A's, Horlen ended his playing days after the 1972 season.

"I made myself a promise early in my career," Horlen said. "Early Wynn was my first roommate and he was trying to win his 300th game and he really struggled. He lost a lot of pride. He was a great man. I have a lot of pride and I told myself I wasn't going to hang on."

From his retirement until 1986, Horlen tended to his roofing business and also endured some personal hardships that included the death of his father in 1977. Not long after losing his Dad, Horlen's younger brother, Bill, was killed in a private plane crash.

"In a period of nine months I lost my father and my brother, my two best friends," Horlen said.

The tragedy contributed to the end of Horlen's first marriage in 1979, but by the mid-80s he had remarried and was feeling an itch to get back into baseball. He had immediately received offers to stay in baseball as a pitching coach when he retired, but the timing was never right.

Horlen was approached by White Sox General Manager Ken Harrelson at an Oldtimers Game at Comiskey Park in 1986 about joining the minor league coaching staff. At about the same time, the New York Mets also made him an offer. When Harrelson left after the end of the 1986 season, Horlen chose the Mets.

For the next 13 seasons, five in the Mets organization and eight with the San Francisco Giants, Horlen served as a minor league pitching coach at all levels, from rookie ball to Triple-A. He left the Giants organization after the 1999 season but was coaxed back by the Padres last year for a final season. He thinks.

"Well, I keep telling everybody I'm definitely retired ... maybe," Horlen said. "It's fun working with the young men, getting them to the big leagues. But I never wanted to coach in the big leagues. It's tough enough to get the young guys to where they're willing to change."

Horlen had to deal with a change of his own during his playing career. In the five seasons prior to the 1969 rule change that lowered the pitching mound five inches, Horlen never had an ERA higher than the 2.88 he posted in 1965.

The change was designed to add offense, which had decreased to the point that in 1968 Boston's Carl Yasztrzemski led the AL with a .301 batting average and St. Louis' Bob Gibson posted an unimaginable 1.12 ERA.

The change didn't hurt Horlen's record, which went from 12-14 in 1968 to 13-16 in 1969 but his ERA soared from 2.37 to 3.78. In 1970 he went 6-16 with a 4.86 ERA and lost his job as a regular in the Sox rotation.

"I didn't think [lowering the mound hurt], but everybody said it did," Horlen said. "It made it a little more difficult. What made it difficult was they put AstroTurf in Comiskey Park. They did it because of the offense that we had.

"We were always near the bottom of the league. They thought it might make it better, but it made it worse."

One of the finest days in Comiskey Park history came on Sept. 10, 1967 when White Sox pitcher Cisco Carlos threw a shutout in the second game of a doubleheader against Detroit.

Doesn't ring a bell? It shouldn't. Carlos' feat was an afterthought, easily forgotten due to the no-hitter Horlen threw against the Tigers in the opener. That remains the last time the Sox had two shutouts in a doubleheader and Horlen's gem was the last no-hitter thrown by a Sox pitcher at Comiskey Park, old or new.

"I felt like I had pretty decent stuff," he said. "I didn't throw many curveballs, threw mostly fastballs. My ball was really sinking that day."

Horlen not only walked away with a no-hitter that day, he also landed himself some new threads.

"[White Sox manager] Eddie Stanky told all the starting pitchers if you throw 21 ground balls in a game, I don't care if they're hits or not, I'll buy you a suit," Horlen said. "I didn't even think about it. By the end of the season I'd won five suits and that was one of them."

Horlen is as mild-mannered now as he was 35 years ago when he dominated American League hitters and frustrated reporters looking to fill a notebook.

When he went 19-7 with a league-best 2.06 ERA in 1967 he finished second in the Cy Young voting, which many at the time thought was an oversight. Boston's Jim Lonborg won with a 22-9 mark and a 3.16 ERA -- a full run higher than Horlen's.

"I probably wasn't a very good interview," Horlen admits. "I thought my actions on the field would speak for themselves. I'm still that way today. I'm living a great life afterwards. That's all I care about. I played baseball and to me that's no big deal.

At 64, Horlen has had his share of health problems. He underwent lower back surgery a few years ago, has had surgery on both knees, and in 1995 had to have his shoulder rebuilt when he tore it up while throwing batting practice.

Even so, Horlen and his wife, Lois, are avid travelers and recently returned from a trip to Italy. More often than not they can be found in San Antonio, possibly playing golf or tennis, but most likely doting on the four grandchildren they have between them.

Almost certainly, they won't be talking baseball.

"My wife now doesn't even know how to spell baseball. To me I'm just her husband and that's fine with me. Playing baseball was a great thrill. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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