Many Denver residents are unaware of sharing their small-town community with a former Major League Baseball player-turned-coach.
And that’s just the way he likes it.
Tony Cloninger, a Lincoln County native, spent 12 years pitching in the majors before going on to coach for 15 more. Cloninger decided to return to Denver rather than staying in one of the many big cities he’s passed through over the last four decades.
“I grew up a country boy and I’m still a country boy,” he said.
Despite living a relatively quiet post-retirement life at his St. James Church Road home, his passion for baseball still burns in his eyes.
Cloninger,70, spent his childhood years in Iron Station, and graduated from Rock Springs High School in 1958 when he was 17 years old. He immediately signed with the National League’s Milwaukee Braves upon graduation and began playing major-league ball in 1961. He pitched for the Braves until 1968, an eight-year span that witnessed the Braves’ relocation to Atlanta and Cloninger’s record-setting performance in a 1966 game that proved he could do more than just pitch.
On the eve of the Fourth of July 1966, during a game against the San Francisco Giants, Cloninger became the first National League player, and only pitcher to date, to hit two grand slams in a single game. In baseball, a grand slam refers to batting a homerun when the bases are fully loaded. Since setting the record in 1966, only 12 other MLB players have accomplished the feat, none of whom have been pitchers.
“I always swung hard just in case,” Cloninger joked, referring to the stereotype that pitchers’ aren’t the best batters. Cloninger supposes his record will remain unbroken, citing increased pressure from the MLB that the National League adopt the designated hitter rule, which allows a designated player to replace the pitcher when it’s his turn to bat.
In 1968 Cloninger left Atlanta for Ohio when he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. Two years later, he experienced the thrills of participating in the 1970 World Series, appearing in two games before the Reds lost to the Baltimore Orioles in Game Three.
After finishing the 1971 season with Cincinnati, Cloninger spent 1972 playing for the St. Louis Cardinals before his career as a professional player came to a close. The former right-handed pitcher said he was released from the Cardinals in the wake of the 1972 MLB players’ strike, saying he “was one of the guys [the Cardinals] could do without.”
As a player, Cloninger compiled a 113-97 career pitching record, with 1,120 strikeouts and a 4.07 ERA (earned run average) for the 1,767 innings he pitched. At bat, he ended with a career batting average of .192 with 67 runs batted in (RBI) and 11 total homeruns, five coming in the 1966 season alone.
Cloninger said he couldn’t choose a favorite from the three MLB teams he played for, saying each was a unique experience with great people.
“I enjoyed playing with each organization very much; I was lucky to be a part of those three, they were first-class,” he said.
Subtle, yet compounding injuries sustained during his 12-year playing period also contributed to the stark finality of his playing days. In 1967 Cloninger was diagnosed with ocular histoplasmosis syndrome or OHS, a vision-threatening eye disease that can sporadically evolve from a fungal infection. Cited by the National Eye Institute as a leading cause of vision loss in middle-age Americans, Cloninger’s temporary loss of his peripheral vision could be considered lucky. Although his eyesight did, for the most part, return after intense treatments of prednisone, his inactivity during the healing process undoubtedly hurt his career.
Cloninger also suffered from chronic shoulder pain after pitching double-digit innings in near-freezing temperatures. He said although he learned how to play through the pain, he knew he would never reach his full pitching potential again.
“After I had really become a pitcher, I blew it in one night,” he concluded.
In the years after his split with the Cardinals, Cloninger unsuccessfully piddled in other occupations; he attempted to provide managerial services, briefly held a car-salesman position and worked at a sporting goods company. However, none of those seemed to bring fulfillment to his life.
“I never found the satisfaction that I got from baseball,” he said.
His fervor for the sport eventually led him back to professional ball in the late 1980s, this time as a coach, not a player. After serving as a lower-league pitching coach for a few years, Cloninger was promoted to Pitcher Coordinator for all of Minor League Baseball in 1989. Throughout the four years he held that position he helped coach then-up-and-comers by the likes of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Sterling Hitchcock.
In 1992 Cloninger broke free of the MiLB circuit and accepted a coaching position with the New York Yankees. For 10 years the former power pitcher served as a bullpen and pitching coach for the Yankees, a time span during which the Bronx Bombers racked up four World Series titles (1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000) and a runner-up finish in 2001 – his last season there.
Cloninger started as a pitching coach for the Boston Red Sox the following season. However, he was eventually forced into premature retirement after being diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2003. Cloninger said although he tried to continue coaching while undergoing treatment, his rundown body couldn’t handle the stress and extensive traveling of an MLB coach.
“I was taking chemo and going straight to the ballpark,” he said.
After intensive rounds of chemotherapy and weeks of rest, the cancer went into remission. Returning to coach in the majors, however, was no longer a feasible option for Cloninger. He sold his Kings Mountain property and farmhouse and moved to Denver, where he bought the house he currently lives in.
Although he still does some scouting in the Class A Carolina League, Cloninger now spends the majority of his time taking care of his dogs, exercising, and volunteering at New Hope Baptist Church. A lifestyle certainly less fast-paced than his days in professional baseball, but one he is satisfied with.
Cloninger, who had four kids with his wife before they divorced in 1974, seems to have passed his high-level sporting ability down the genealogical line. Two of his sons, Daren and Michael, enjoyed brief stints in professional ball, and his grandchildren are living up to his reputation as well.
In addition to a grandson with a promising future in golf, he has a granddaughter set to play fast-pitched softball in college and a grandson, Byron Sherrill, with a scholarship to play baseball at Wingate University. Sherrill graduated from North Lincoln High where he was a standout baseball player this past spring.
When asked to share some coaching advice for baseball players, whether they aspire to be on a pro team or a high-school team, he happily obliged.
“Be coachable. Above all, listen to your coach. Be in shape and be dedicated. Be a team player and always try and throw strike one,” he said.
Cloninger also wanted to thank the people of the community and his family for both being supportive of him as a professional athlete and helping him adjust to the more slow-pitch style of retirement life.
“The people of Lincoln County have been very supportive of my career and I appreciate the way they have stood by me.”
Oct. 6, 2010
By Tyson C. Leonhardt