His fastball is gone, but his quips still have zip
One in a series of occasional articles about former prominent athletes in the area.
A commanding fastball got him to the major leagues. Pinpoint control kept him there. But it was a boundless sense of humor that piloted Billy Travers through a nine-year career in pro ball.
Whether it meant sneaking a frog into the jockstrap of an unsuspecting teammate, stunning a player with a hot foot, or having a casket-toting mortician pay the locker room a visit, Travers always had the last chuckle. Now 21 years past his final pitch for the California Angels, Travers remains just a memory away from a good belly laugh.
''My old agent is always asking me when I'm going to write that book," the 51-year-old Travers said recently from his Foxborough home. ''I've always loved to laugh. I've had a good time in life, and the ride continues."
Born in Norwood to a police officer father and homemaker mother, William Edward Travers was the local boy who made good. A standout athlete at Norwood High School, where he was named a Globe All-Scholastic, he possessed a strong arm and a fierce work ethic.
''My dad was a Norwood Police officer for 38 years," he said. ''That meant Mom spent most of her time making sure none of her three sons ever got in trouble."
Billy, Peter, and Paul Travers spent summer afternoons in the backyard having a catch or playing Wiffle ball. Their father, Bill, a former semipro catcher, would come home from work and pass the hours hitting balls to his sons.
''Dad was always my biggest influence," said Travers.
In high school, Billy Travers excelled both on the mound and at the plate. Peter Wall, his manager at Norwood High School and for the Norwood Post 70 American Legion team, called him one of the best players he ever coached.
''Billy was a junior in 1969 when I took over," said Wall, the only Massachusetts American Legion coach to guide his team to three consecutive state titles (1975-77). ''I knew then that he was special. He was striking out 15 batters a game and just hitting the ball all over the place. He was a great player. Between the lines he was all business, but he did have a sense of humor."
Wall, who retired last summer after 35 years on the bench, recalled the time he let Travers wear his coach's jacket as he ran the bases.
''Billy took off for second and slid," said Wall. ''And everything in the jacket pockets came flying out: my bottle of Maalox, my lighter, and my pack of cigarettes. You should have seen the look on the face of the second-base umpire."
Bill Enos, a Cohasset-based scout with the Milwaukee Brewers, convinced the team to take Travers with a fifth-round pick in the 1970 amateur draft.
''I remember coming home from Nantasket Beach with [girlfriend and future wife] Linda when my mother came running out of the house to tell me I had been drafted by Milwaukee," Travers said. ''I said, 'Who in the hell are the Milwaukee Brewers?' Before I know it, Bill Enos is at my house telling me all the good things that are going to happen. When he gets my name on the contract, he turns and says, 'Now I'll tell you about all the bad things.' "
Enos described long, dreary bus rides to fields forgotten to all but a scorching sun. ''Bill made me a bet," said Travers. ''If I made it to the majors within four years, he'd take me and my brothers out for lobster."
By 1974, Enos and the Travers trio were cracking open crustaceans at Hugo's restaurant in Scituate.
He made his Brewers debut late that season, striking out the first batter he faced in New York, Yankee designated hitter Ron Bloomberg. He would finish 1974 with a 2-3 record for Milwaukee.
His breakout season was 1976, when a 10-6 start earned him a spot on the American League All-Star team.
''I was told I was going to start, but for whatever reason manager Darrell Johnson at the last minute went with Frank Tanana," he said. ''I didn't even get in the game."
As for the season, when he went 15-16 for a team that won only 66 games, Travers didn't even finish as the best pitcher from his home state. That was the year a gangly righty from Northborough nicknamed ''The Bird" went 19-9 for the Detroit Tigers. ''Mark Fidrych had a great year," said Travers. ''He was incredible."
Travers became a free agent after the 1979 season and signed a four-year, $4 million contract with the Angels. He spent the 1982 season on the sidelines following shoulder surgery. That year the Angles faced the Brewers for the American League pennant. Up two games in the best-of-five series, the Angels would go on to lose three straight.
''It was tough sitting there watching, because I knew so many guys on both teams," he said.
A comeback attempt in 1983 saw Travers go 0-3, surrendering 32 runs in 42 innings. He retired after the season, walking away with a career 65-71 record pitching for perennial basement-dwelling teams.
''I have no complaints. I had a great time," he said.
As for needing to nurse that competitive edge, the player who as a rookie once yelled at Hank Aaron for taking a pack of cigarettes from his locker has always been able to turn to candlepin bowling.
For the past 20 years, Travers has been one of the world's top candlepin bowlers. He was on the 1998 US team that won the World Championships. Wednesday nights he can be found knocking the pins down at the Hanson Bowl, off Route 27 in Hanson.
''I'm addicted to it," said Travers, who once bowled a 207 in a sport where 245 is the highest recorded score. ''I just love it."
Travers said he gets his baseball fill coaching Foxborough's Legion team. ''I made some good money in ball and invested it wisely in Arizona land, so I don't have to work," he said. ''I love my wife, Linda, and our 22-year-old daughter, Tiffany. Life is good."
In May, Travers paid a visit to his parents' house in Norwood. Both died within two weeks of each other last summer.
Searching through boxes, Travers found a pennant from the 1976 All-Star game in Philadelphia. Stenciled on the faded flag were such revered baseball names as Fisk, Gossage, Brett, Carew, and Fingers.
Joining that list was Travers.
''Dad came to the All-Star game," he said. ''But I never even knew he bought the pennant."
For a moment Travers fell silent.
And then he laughed.
''Next to me in the bullpen that night was Luis Tiant," he said. The Cuban-born pitcher, who went 21-12 that year for the Red Sox, was known for turning butchery of the language into an art form. ''I remember trying to figure out just what the hell he was saying."
Leave it to Billy Travers to find the humor.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.