Don Stanhouse

By Benjamin Pomerance

December 19, 2011

This can’t be Don Stanhouse. Not this guy, the man wearing the suit and tie and brokering deals via cell phone. Stan the Man Unusual would never act this way. His brokering was done on the baseball diamond, where his tools of negotiation were a sharp fastball, a quick mind and a ritualistic scream taken right out of Tarzan’s playbook. Suits and ties were out. All-black t-shirt and jeans combos were in.

Off the field, he’d race around in a Cadillac and get into frat house-worthy mischief with teammates. His hair looked like a kitchen mop struck by lightning, the sort of mane Harpo Marx might envy. This man’s hair is white and thinning, and…well, quite frankly, he doesn’t do anything as exciting as pitch for the American League champions. He’s a venture capitalist, an entrepreneur who knows his way around Wall Street, married to the same woman for nearly three decades and a father of three grown children, and while those attributes are fine for most folks, they just can’t fit Don Stanhouse. Because if they did, it would mean that Stan the Man Unusual was living a life that seems — dare we say it — quite usual indeed.

Believe it. Stanhouse the reliever, baseball’s beloved flake, and Stanhouse the businessman, principal owner of a nationally recognized energy broker’s group, are one in the same. For fans who cheered for the 1979 Baltimore Orioles, the team for whom most games ended with Stanhouse on the mound, frizzy hair flying, the realization can be shocking.
For the retired pitcher himself, the double-life can be hard to reconcile. “When I was in the big leagues, I thought it would last forever,” he remembers. “I didn’t think about life after baseball. But even if I had, I never would have dreamed that I’d end up doing what I’m doing now. This is light years away from where I’d ever thought I’d be.”

Where he is now is Trophy Club, Texas. He owns a home with his flight attendant wife, Kyle, which doubles as command central for projects with the Pro Players Legacy Group, Stanhouse’s attempt to merge retired athletes with business leaders. Currently, he spends the bulk of his time working with Pro Players Power and Gas, assisting businesses and home owners reduce their per kilowatt charges by monitoring their monthly kilowatt usage and then shopping the market to find the best available rate for their needs. 

Overall, though, his dreams are larger: a Pro Players business empire which, at present, also includes divisions in financial services, social media services, and emergency air services. All of this began with Stanhouse & Associates, the business group he started about 15 years ago with a little business experience, many contacts, and a seemingly bottomless reserve of enthusiasm for his new line of work.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Stanhouse says. “The key now is to get more retired pro athletes to buy into this. That’s what I’m working on now. I can take any pro athlete and make him a success without anything except his portfolio of relationships.”

“Let them talk to people in a crowd. Any pro athlete who can get the ear of an audience has built a relationship by telling stories from their careers. Then the next thing out of your mouth is ‘By the way, we have a group that operates under the same values of leadership and teamwork and determination that we built on the field, and I’m part of that group.’” He pauses. “And then,” he concludes in a decisive tone of voice, “you’ve got them on your side.”

Yet as successful as the “new” Stanhouse has been, the outgoing competitor still reminisces fondly about his days on the diamond. Stories from games in the late-70s spill out of his mouth as if he had just played yesterday. Names, dates, and stats return in the course of conversation with almost encyclopedic precision. “There was nothing like being out there in the heat of battle,” he says fondly. “Nothing is like being control of a situation that is in dire straits. Top of the ninth, runners on the corners, one out, and the ball is in your hands. At that moment, your power is tremendous.”

From the start, Stanhouse wanted the ball in his hands when the game was on the line. Not just the round ball, but the oval pigskin, too. From humble beginnings in Du Quoin, Illinois, where he was raised primarily by his mother, Stanhouse forged an identity through athletics in high school. In baseball, he was a standout pitcher and shortstop. In football, he was one of the best quarterbacks in the country. “I had a contract with my receivers,” Stanhouse says. “I said ‘You be where you’re supposed to be, and the ball will be right there where it’s supposed to be.’” Most of the time, it was.

In his senior year, Stanhouse earned All-American honors in baseball and football. Upon graduation, he was regarded as the best athlete the school had ever produced in both sports. He also faced a decision most aspiring athletes would drool over: whether to accept a football scholarship at either Missouri or Notre Dame or sign a contract with the Oakland Athletics.

After weighing his options, Stanhouse chose the A’s. “Originally, they wanted me in the infield,” he recalls. “I think they wanted me as a third baseman. Then they realized I was a pitcher. Then I got traded to Texas. And suddenly, I was in the big leagues.”

He made his major league debut on April 19, 1972, a relief pitcher with aspirations of becoming a starter. Dreams of higher salaries also crossed his mind. “That first year with the Rangers, I think my salary was $12,500,” Stanhouse says. “That seems pretty puny by today’s standards. Even then, it wasn’t much.”

“But I was naïve enough to think that the big money was on its way, that this was all going to last forever. What else could I do? I had signed right out of high school. I had no college degree, no real skills that I could fall back on if playing ball for a living didn’t work out for me.”

Stanhouse played two years in Texas before being traded to Montreal in time for the 1975 season. “Word on the streets was that the Rangers were pretty mad at me,” he laughs now, “because they traded me right out of the country.” He would pitch two years in Montreal as both a starter and a reliever, seasons marked by high expectations and inevitable frustrations. “That was a darn good team,” Stanhouse recalls. “But we never went anywhere. Our staff was good, but we could never put up any runs.”

In 1977, the Expos hired Dick Williams as the team’s new manager. One of the new skipper’s first acts was to make Stanhouse a full-time “short man” out of the bullpen, a role Stanhouse quickly embraced. That year, the Expos appeared to be putting together pieces for a championship, if not a dynasty. Warren Cromartie, Ellis Valentine and future Hall-of-Famer Andre Dawson patrolled the outfield. Another future Hall-of-Famer, catcher Gary Carter, was behind the plate. Steve Rogers had emerged as the leader of a solid pitching staff.

“I spent the winter in Montreal that year,” Stanhouse remembers. “After seeing how we played in 1977, we were all excited. We thought 1978 was going to be our year.”

Then came the message Stanhouse didn’t want to hear. The Expos had traded him back to the American League. Stanhouse was going to the Baltimore Orioles, a strong team searching for bullpen help. “I loved it in Montreal,” Stanhouse says. “It was much, much better than I thought it would be when they first sent me up north of the border. Really, I hated to leave.”

The following March, however, when Stanhouse reported to Florida for his first spring training with the Orioles, his irritation at being forced to leave Montreal subsided. “Somehow,” he recalls, “as soon as I put on that uniform, Baltimore just felt like the right fit.”

Stanhouse’s instinct proved to be correct. Baltimore would be the finest stop of his career. On paper, the Orioles were overshadowed by other American League teams, particularly the Yankees and the Red Sox. Yet a team composed largely of underrated heroes — shortstop Mark Belanger, catcher Rick Dempsey, outfielder Ken Singleton, pitchers Jim Palmer and Dennis Martinez, slugging first baseman Eddie Murray — became the dominant force in the American League during Stanhouse’s tenure.

Stanhouse attributes this success greatly to one individual: manager Earl Weaver, a man known for being about as quiet as Mount Etna in mid-eruption. “A lot of yelling,” Stanhouse says when asked what he remembers of the man best remembered for piloting winning teams and kicking dirt on umpires. “There was a funny thing about Earl. None of us realized how short he was until after we had retired.”

It was Weaver, with an assist from Palmer, who turned Stanhouse into a closer, the role in which he found the greatest success. The defining moment, as Stanhouse recalls it, occurred during bunt drills in spring training. All the pitchers were lined up on the mound. Weaver would bunt the ball toward one of them and then watch as the pitcher fielded it, screaming “C’mon! What are you gonnna do with that ball?” at each player.

“When it came time for Palmer’s turn, Earl bunted the ball, and Palmer sort of jogged in to field it,” Stanhouse remembers, “and Earl started in on him. ‘What are you gonna do? What are you gonna do with the ball?’ And Palmer turned and flipped the ball to me, and said ‘You’re going to bring him in from the bullpen and give the ball to him. That’s why you got him, isn’t it?”

Whether Weaver listened to Palmer, a player whom he once said he had “given more chances (to) than my ex-wife,” or whether the move was already in the back of the manager’s mind, Palmer’s words proved prophetic. “What Jim Palmer said that day is exactly what happened,” Stanhouse says. “When things got tight in the late innings, they’d turn to me and say ‘OK, Fullpack. You’re in.'"

In the pantheon of baseball nicknames, Stanhouse’s moniker of “Fullpack” was one of the strangest — and not one of the most complimentary. Stanhouse’s style of pitching contradicted the modern image of a shutdown closer. Practically every ninth inning became a high-wire act for the Orioles, one from which Stanhouse usually emerged unscathed despite walking several batters. From the dugout, Weaver’s stomach churned through every adventure.

After one particularly excruciating outing, Weaver remarked to a reporter that he went through a full pack of cigarettes each time Stanhouse pitched the ninth. The reporter included that quote in the following day’s newspaper, and the designation of “Fullpack” was born. To this day, Stanhouse welcomes the nickname, even incorporating it in his business email address.

The following season, the legend of Fullpack gained a new chapter. In the American League playoffs, with Baltimore enjoying a 9-4 lead over the Angels, Weaver called on Stanhouse to pitch the ninth. Stanhouse immediately surrendered four runs and walked the bases loaded before getting out of trouble to end the game. Immediately, the Baltimore sportswriters descended on Weaver. Why hadn’t he pulled Stanhouse out of the game? Why risk blowing a big lead in the playoffs? “I couldn’t take him out,” Weaver quipped. “I still had three cigarettes left.”

Stanhouse also gained another nickname in Baltimore, this one bestowed upon him by Orioles pitching mate Mike Flanagan: Stan the Man Unusual, a parody of the “Stan the Man” label bestowed on St. Louis Cardinals legend Stan Musial. If “Fullpack” was a bit harsh, this tag seemed to fit Stanhouse perfectly. By this point, Stanhouse’s hair was at its longest and his antics were at their zaniest. His locker in Baltimore contained a stuffed gorilla and included a “Happy Feet” welcome mat on the floor in front of it. Prior to games, his primitive screams shot out of the tunnel to the clubhouse and echoed around the stadium.

Then there was his windup, an elaborate routine involving a lengthy waiting period that drove opponents crazy. “Don Stanhouse holds the ball so long he appears to be hoping the batter will fall victim to some crippling disease,” one commentator wrote sarcastically. For Stanhouse, though, it was all part of controlling the situation. The mound was his, and no one — not players nor fans nor umpires — could get him to pitch any sooner than he wanted to.

The slow delivery eventually led to one of Stanhouse’s defining moments. “Yankee Stadium,” he says, setting the scene. “Reggie (Jackson) up, a light drizzle falling, one out to go in the ninth. We were killing them. I was taking my time, and (the fans) booed unmercifully. So I stepped off the mound, and they booed louder.” In an earlier game, Stanhouse and his teammates had joked about falling asleep between his pitches. Now, they were calling out to him from the dugout: “The Sleeper! The Sleeper!” And in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium, the Orioles young closer decided to have a little fun.

He walked back on the mound, kicked the dirt a little. Suddenly, he dropped his head straight down as if he had fallen asleep. ”Reggie called time,” Stanhouse says. “He stepped out of the box, cussed me out, stepped back in. I did the same thing.” This time, the umpire ordered Stanhouse to hurry up. Stanhouse responded that he was just taking a nap, but would hurry up if the umpire really wanted to leave so soon.
Jackson took his stance again. “And I dropped my head right back down again,” Stanhouse says, laughing now, “but I was watching out of the corner of my eye. And then I suddenly straightened up and threw him a little cut fastball, and he swung, all out of whack, and looped it over to third for the final out. Game over. I almost got killed walking off that field, those people were so mad at me.”

Yet in the end, Stanhouse insists, his multiple eccentricities were subplots in a more important story. “Yeah, I was ‘out there,’” he says. “But I always knew what was going on. And I was a good competitor.” Good enough to make the American League All-Star team in 1979, a year when Stanhouse won 7 games in 10 chances and saved 21 more, along with an earned run average of 2.85. That year, the Orioles made it to the World Series on the strength of what Weaver called “Orioles baseball: pitching, defense, and the three-run homer.”

“We really paralleled this year’s Texas Rangers team that made it to the Series,” Stanhouse says. “Everybody contributed. We just really thought we could win every game. There were some really good teams in the American League that year, and we just beat the shit out of them.”

Ultimately, the O’s fell just short of their goal, dropping the World Series in seven games to Willie Stargell and the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates. It would also prove to be the final statistical hurrah in Stanhouse’s career. In 1980, as a free agent, he signed a large contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers: five years for $2.1 million, an amount almost unheard of for a relief pitcher at that time. Then Stanhouse hurt his back, limiting him to only 21 ineffective appearances that year. His ERA ballooned to an ugly 5.04, earning him the ire of Dodgers fans, many of whom still chafe at the mention of the reliever’s name today.

After one year, the Dodgers had seen enough. The following season, the team cut him loose, leaving Stanhouse without any major league suitors. “That injury really was the end,” Stanhouse says. “But I didn’t see it. I kept hoping that I had more left in my career than I really did.”
There would be one last moment of glory. In 1982, having not pitched on a major league field for a year, Stanhouse signed a contract with the Orioles.

Returning to Baltimore, he was unsure of the reception he would receive from the fans he had left as a free agent two years earlier. On Opening Day, he received an emphatic answer. The PA announcer hadn’t even finished saying Stanhouse’s name in the pre-game introductions when the capacity crowd at Memorial Stadium rose for a standing ovation, welcoming home their quirky but beloved prodigal son. “That,” Stanhouse says, “was the biggest thrill of my whole career.”

Stanhouse would finish out the year with Baltimore, but struggled in his relief appearances for the team. The end, he says, was painfully obvious. In the winter of 1982, at the age of 31, Stanhouse announced his retirement from baseball. For the first time since high school, the standout athlete needed a job.

Originally, he assumed a coaching gig beckoned. When none were immediately forthcoming, he threw himself into a foreign playing field: the world of big business. As teachers, he recruited some of the biggest men and women on Wall Street — although they didn’t realize they were being recruited at the time.

“I found out that when you’re an ex-professional athlete, people want to hear all about your life as an athlete,” Stanhouse says. “So I tell stories to make new contacts. That’s what I did on Wall Street. I swapped stories about playing in the major leagues for information about the market and the nuts and bolts about how to do this.” In a remarkably short time, he had reinvented himself as an investment banker, a field in which he worked for more than a decade.

He also transformed himself into a new role as a husband and father. During his career, he had met Kyle when a teammate asked him to drive her home one night to the hotel where she was staying between flights. “So I did,” Stanhouse laughs, “and I like to tell people that I’ve been driving her home ever since. Best thing I ever did.”

They were married 29 years ago, just before Stanhouse’s retirement. “When you get out of baseball,” he says, “and you’re married with a baby, life is different. You aren’t hanging around with the ballplayers all the time anymore. You spend time with your wife and your kids. I drove carpool for a lot of years, and I was proud to do it. That’s where my time has been spent since I got off the field.”

Which brings us to today, with Stanhouse a noted businessman who travels — in an SUV, not a Cadillac — frequently to meetings to promote Pro Players and then rushes home to his family. “I have a wonderful family,” he states. “Our kids are too good to be true — respectful, loving, good-looking, dedicated. I’m in relatively good health, which, given how wild I was, is something of a surprise. I told you that I never would have imagined myself here back when I was playing. Right — I never could have imagined that at my age, I would have it so good.”

Yet the pitcher’s mound remains a special place, which is why Stanhouse can’t resist an epilogue to his statement of good fortune. “But you know something?” he says, chuckling lightly. “Someday, I could be back in that dugout, and Earl will be looking over at me and saying ‘Better get Fullpack up again.’ And I’d be ready to go. The game’s always changing. If you can just relax and change with it, life will be good.”  For Stanhouse, the infielder turned starting pitcher turned relief pitcher turned entrepreneur and father and husband, changing with an ever-changing game seems to be just business. Business as unusual.

Benjamin Pomerance has written more than 350 published articles, including profiles of Johnny Podres, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, and Mike Marshall. His article on Jackie Robinson’s time with the Montreal Royals, including interviews with Rachel Robinson and George “Shotgun” Shuba, can be read at http://www.apnmag.com/fall_2009/pomerance_JackieRobinson.php. He can be reached by email at bpomerance@albanylaw.edu.         


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