I never had a sore arm in my life.
- Pedro Borbon
He was a licensed barber who once claimed that his grandfather was still alive at age 136. He was well-schooled in the sport of cock fighting, illegal in the United States but a thriving industry in his native Dominican Republic. He once bit an opposing player in the heat of an on-field fight. He was Pedro Borbon, one of the most durable and effective relief pitchers of the 1970s and the pitcher who holds the Reds career record for most games pitched.
The stories and myths that surround Borbon are almost enough to cause one to look past an amazing pitching career, one in which he anchored the best bullpen on baseball's best team for almost a decade. Born in Mao, Valverde in the Dominican on December 2, 1946, Borbon insisted that he knew nothing about baseball until he was coerced into a pick-up game at age 16. Initially positioned at catcher, Borbon was promptly struck on the side of the head when he leaned too far forward to catch a pitch the hitter was swinging at. This incident was enough to convince Pedro that it was much better to be the one throwing the ball than to be the one catching it and so he began to pitch and pitch very well. He was signed by the Cardinals two years later and in 1968 was drafted out of the St. Louis system by the Angels with whom he made his Major League debut the following year.
Legendary Reds scout Ray Shore took a long look at Pedro and strongly recommended him to Reds General Manager Bob Howsam. Considered by most to be something of an afterthought in the five player deal that found the Reds trading outfielder Alex Johnson and infielder Chico Ruiz to the Angels for pitchers Jim McGlothlin, Vern Geishert and Borbon, Pedro turned out to be the most important player in the deal. After brief an ineffective appearances with the Reds in 1970 and 1971, Borbon blossomed into a dependable reliever during the Reds' pennant winning season in 1972 and became one of the game's top relievers in 1973 when he appeared in 80 games (2nd most in the league) and posted an 11-4 record with a 2.16 ERA.
As would become a regrettable theme throughout much of Borbon's career, an incident unrelated to pitching overshadowed his fine work on the mound. In 1973, Borbon's role in a brawl in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series between the Reds and Mets became the signature moment of the season for Borbon. In the fifth inning of the game, Pete Rose slid hard into Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson at second base to try and break up a double play. Rose and Harrelson first exchanged words and then began exchanging punches. As they fell to the ground, benches cleared and an all-out donnybrook ensued. In the visitors' bullpen, Borbon feverishly worked to open the bullpen door which had become stuck. When it finally gave way, he raced to the infield and began tussling with Mets pitcher Buzz Capra. When order was restored, an enraged Borbon reached down to grab a cap on the field. When he realized that he had mistakenly grabbed Capra's cap, he yanked it from his head and proceeded to take a bite out of it. The underdog Mets beat the defending champion Reds in the fifth and final game and many quickly forgot Borbon's fine pitching performance during the season and in the series (one earned run allowed in four appearances), remembering only his unusual method of damaging Mets headgear.
Unfortunately, Borbon would cement his reputation for using his teeth in times of on-field conflict less than a year later during a nasty brawl with the Pirates in Pittsburgh. During the melee, Borbon pinned Pirate hurler Daryl Patterson to the turf, began pulling out clumps of his hair and bit him in the side. Patterson lost a piece of flesh in the incident and received a precautionary tetanus shot.
Borbon's lamentable acts in the heat of on-field brawls could not detract from his value to the Reds. On a team noted for its strong bullpen, led by manager Sparky Anderson who was coined "Captain Hook" for the frequency with which he cycled pitchers off and on the mound, Borbon was arguably the most reliable arm called into service. His was certainly the most oft-used arm and the most resilient. From 1970-1978, no pitcher in the National League appeared in more games, finishing in the top five in the league in games pitched each season from 1972 - 1977. His durability became the stuff of legend. Borbon insisted that he could pitch every day if needed and Reds trainer Larry Starr often joked that the only reason he even knew Borbon was on the team was due to Pedro borrowing a pair of scissors from him to trim teammates' hair. Once Pedro acquired a pair of scissors of his own, the visits to Starr stopped altogether.
Borbon boasted that he had "never had a sore arm in my life" and was found of showing off his arm's prodigious strength. While not known for possessing a blazing fastball, Borbon clearly had one of the strongest arms in the game. He once hit the centerfield fence at Fenway Park on the fly with a throw from behind home plate. Reds pitching coach Larry Shepard once caught Borbon taking aim at the speakers on the roof of the Houston Astrodome, some 18 stories above the field. But it was Borbon's durability, more than his sheer arm strength that was most impressive and most valuable to the Reds. Shepard said that Borbon had a "freak" arm. Borbon attributed his seemingly injury-proof arm to a diligent avoidance of trainers and doctors and to a three pound ball he worked out with everyday.
Of course, Borbon was not only durable but extremely effective. The pressure of post-season competition seemed to bring out the best in him. From 1972 - 1976, Borbon appeared in 20 post-season games for the Reds and posted a combined ERA of 2.42 with a sterling 1.26 mark in League Championship Series play. Although known more for its "Great Eight" starting lineup of All-Stars and Hall of Famers, the Big Red Machine would not have rolled it's way to four pennants and back-to-back World Championships without the quality pitching and Borbon ranks among the very best of this of-overlooked group.
Traded to the Giants in the middle of the 1979 season, Borbon pitched with San Franscisco again in 1980 before retiring from the Major Leagues. He continued to pitch consistently and well in his native Dominican Republic and in semi-pro leagues in his adopted hometown of San Juan, Texas which led to an interesting postscript to his Major League career. In 1995, Major League players and owners were embroiled in a labor dispute which resulted in a lockout of players in spring training. Owners resorted to using replacement players that spring and the Reds invited the 48-year old Borbon to be among them. While most were understandably skeptical, the ever-optimistic Borbon proudly exclaimed, " I'm 48 but I feel like 25. No sore leg, sore arm, nothing."The experiment didn't last long. Borbon was let go and the labor dispute was resolved but in looking back at Borbon's incredible career, a career fueled by a seemingly indestructible arm, it's more than a little intriguing to contemplate how good a 48-year old Borbon may have been.
In 2010, the often thankless work performed by the Reds' most durable reliever was honored when he was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame. A selection of the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee, Borbon joined Clay Carroll (Class of 1980) and Wayne Granger (Class of 1982) in the select group of relief pitchers in the Reds Hall of Fame.