Ex-Red Foster calls Mays one of his top mentors

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Retired Cincinnati Reds slugger George Foster was in Terre Haute on Saturday, signing autographs for roughly three hours during a sports card and memorabilia show at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 841 headquarters.

Now 75 and looking fit enough that maybe he could still hit a baseball as far as he wants, Foster broke into the major leagues in 1969 with the San Francisco Giants, the franchise that selected him in the third round of the 1968 MLB January Draft-Regular Phase from El Camino College.

The late-1960s Giants’ roster included one of the game’s all-time greats — and a boyhood hero of Foster’s — center fielder Willie Mays, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 93.

By then, Mays was no longer the highly skilled “Say Hey Kid,” except in the memories of his millions of fans. Yet Mays pinch-hit for Foster in a September 1969 game against the San Diego Padres when he bashed his 600th career home run and Mays still pounded a respectable 28 roundtrippers during the 1970 campaign while setting a good example for young Foster as he tried to make a name for himself in the sport.

In 1971, Foster opened the season on the Giants’ major-league roster for the first time, backing up Mays, Bobby Bonds and Ken Henderson in the outfield. Before the Giants traded Foster to the Reds for shortstop Frank Duffy and pitcher Vern Geishert on May 29, 1971 — what a one-sided deal that turned out to be for the Reds! — Foster made sure he had acquired as much knowledge as he could from the aging Mays.

“I look at him as being one of my top mentors, not only in the game of baseball but in the game of life. I learned a lot from him,” Foster told the Tribune-Star on Saturday before he loosened up his right hand to put his signature on gloves, jerseys and pieces of paper brought by fans while vendors sold cards and memorabilia from tables in front of the stage.

Even after the trade of Foster to the Reds, his connection with Mays remained historic. Read on.

Foster played a bit part in helping the Reds reach the World Series in 1972 when they lost to the Oakland A’s four games to three. Two years before that, 1970, the Foster-less Reds lost to the Baltimore Orioles four games to one in the World Series.

The Reds’ offense, nicknamed “The Big Red Machine,” clearly had built a stacked lineup with Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Ken Griffey Sr., among others, piling up runs.

Little did anyone know, Foster was about to stack it to the ceiling.

When the A’s three-year run on top ended after the 1974 World Series, Foster gradually took over from Bench and Perez as the Reds’ leading power source.

In 1975, Morgan won his first of two consecutive National League Most Valuable Player Awards to match Bench (1970 and 1972) for most on the team. During the regular season, the improving Foster contributed 23 homers and 78 runs batted in as the Reds got to the World Series and this time outlasted the Boston Red Sox to win it four games to three.

In 1976, although Morgan repeated as MVP because of his unique all-round skills, Foster led the team in home runs (29) and led the major leagues in RBIs (121) as the Big Red Machine repeated as world champion by sweeping the New York Yankees in four games in the Series.

The Yankees returned in 1977 to capture the World Series crown and the Los Angeles Dodgers prevented the Reds, who had traded Perez to the Montreal Expos following the ‘76 campaign, from repeating as NL champions. But nobody prevented Foster from being the runaway NL MVP.

His 52 bombs, 149 RBIs, 124 runs scored, .320 batting average and .631 slugging percentage would have made him a shoo-in for most-talked-about MLB player most seasons. But in 1977, Rod Carew from the American League’s Minnesota Twins flirted with being the first player since 1941 (Ted Williams) to hit .400 or higher before “settling” in at .388. For the 1978 preseason issue of the then-popular “Sports Illustrated” magazine, Foster and Carew shared the cover, an honor that Foster expressed pride in Saturday.

Foster’s 52 home runs in 1977 also marked the first time that any major-league hitter had topped the half-century total since 1965 when — guess, c’mon, guess — yes, Willie Mays had mashed exactly 52 for the Giants.

“Baseball’s gonna miss him,” Foster said with sadness about Mays’ death. “He was a great individual.”

Foster described Mays as the greatest all-around player in baseball history “because he could do it all.”

Regarding his own individual performance in 1977, Foster explained it this way: “Everything came together. I was more consistent and I learned more about the [opposing] pitchers. I had started playing on a regular basis in ‘75. So in ‘76, I got to see more of the pitchers. Then in ‘77, there weren’t that many new ones. So I knew their mannerisms. I knew their repertoire, plus I was more ready as a player.”

Foster’s stats slid down in 1978, but only slightly. He still led the NL in home runs with 40, along with 120 RBIs (his third straight season with at least 120). Foster finished with 348 dingers over his 18-year career, which included stints with the New York Mets and very briefly with the Chicago White Sox in 1986. A five-time All-Star, Foster posted a career batting average of .274.

Not surprisingly, Foster offered an opinion when asked if Rose, the all-time hits leader with 4,256, should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, despite being declared permanently ineligible in 1989 after an investigation into his gambling activities.

“I just feel the Hall of Fame is not complete without Pete Rose,” Foster assessed. “He had the most hits of all time.”

Watching today’s modern-day MLB is a mixed bag for Foster. He enjoys it, but he wonders how players can be satisfied with a smattering of home runs accompanied by a batting average hovering around .200.

Foster also enjoys working with youngsters in the Cincinnati area develop their diamond skills.

“It’s great to see these kids get it,” he explained. “Some of them want to get it right away. The way I see it, it’s a process. It’s going to take time and work. … But once they really do get it, it’s exciting to see.”

Teenagers and adults of all ages enjoyed talking baseball with the Reds’ legend Saturday. One of the adults was 58-year-old Jasonville resident Larry Miller, who brought a Foster jersey for Foster himself to sign.

“That was the best team in baseball,” Miller said of the 1970s Big Red Machine. “To this day, there hasn’t been a team as good as they were.”

Miller, who also purchased a Foster bobblehead Saturday, remembers when he was a kid, if a Reds game ran past his bedtime, his mother would listen to the radio broadcast and write down what happened for him to read the next day.