RIP to David West, a former pitcher for four teams in his 10-year career and a key part of the bullpen for the Phillies’ pennant-winning 1993 team. It was announced on May 14 that West died from brain cancer at the age of 57. He was mourned on social media by several of his former teammates, including Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Darren Daulton Foundation. West played for the New York Mets (1988-89), Minnesota Twins (1989-92), Philadelphia Phillies (1993-96) and Boston Red Sox (1998).
David Lee West was born in Memphis on September 1, 1964. He eventually grew to be 6’6″ tall, but even in pee-wee ball, his height put him head and shoulders above the competition — literally. His mother would have to have a copy of his birth certificate with her when he played, because opposing coaches always thought he was too old to play. West excelled in American Legion ball, playing for Millington Telephone, but the big left-handed with the 90 mile-per-hour fastball had to wait a bit to play at Craigmont High School. He was declared scholastically ineligible and missed his first two seasons of high school ball.
“I just didn’t have my priorities straight,” he said at the time.
When he was eligible to pitch for Craigmont, West got a little help from another Memphis native who made good in the majors — Charlie Lea. The late Expos star gave the high schooler some pointers that made him a better pitcher. “He told him to get back to the basics. Don’t try to throw your body ever-which-way,” said Craigmont baseball coach Richard Brock. “He made things much more simple for David.”
The results were incredible. In his senior season, he struck out 109 batters in 52 innings, threw a no-hitter and hit a home run that Brock estimated traveled 450 feet. “He’s awesome. It’s that simple. I can’t think of another word to describe him. The kid’s just awesome,” his coach enthused.
West was drafted by the New York Mets in the fourth round of the 1983 June Amateur Draft, and he joined the team’s Gulf Coast League team that summer. In the offseason, he suffered a terrible fall that could have ended his playing career or worse. He fell from the second story of a Memphis warehouse and broke his left elbow and right arm. It took several years to regain his form, and he remained in Class-A ball until 1986. He put up some impressive strikeout totals, but he walked almost as many batters as he whiffed. In 1985, for example, West fanned 194 batters in 150 innings for Columbia, but he walked gave up 111 bases on balls.
West made up for lost time when he did move up to the higher levels of the Mets organization. He reached Double-A Jackson in 1987 and won 10 games in 25 starts. His walk rate, which had reached as high as 9 or 10 per 9 innings in A-Ball, had decreased to 4.4, and he struck out more than a batter per inning. West’s first full season at Triple-A Tidewater resulted in a 12-4 win-loss record and 1.80 ERA in 23 starts. He was brought to the majors that September, and the 24-year-old debuted with a start against the St. Louis Cardinals on September 24. The Mets scored 3 runs in each of the first two innings, thanks to home runs by Kevin McReynolds, Tim Teufel and Mookie Wilson, so West was given a secure early lead. He was a little shaky but allowed just 1 run on 5 hits, walking 2 and striking out 3. He earned his first major-league win in a 14-1 laugher. West later allowed another run in a 1-inning relief stint to finish with a 3.00 ERA with the Mets.
West’s biggest problem at that point wasn’t his control. It was the fact that the Mets had a starting rotation of Dwight Gooden, David Cone, Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda and Sid Fernandez. “I think five quality starters in New York are holding me back,” West said in 1988. The Mets were still concerned about his control, and there were fears that his slow delivery would make him a target for stolen bases, but West wasn’t wrong. Triple-A pitchers with similar performances that season were being called to the majors early, but West spent nearly the entire season with Tidewater, waiting for an opportunity.
“On any other team, he would probably be the No. 3 starter right now,” said his pitching coach in Tidewater, John Cumberland. “Here you just look at the guys ahead of him and shake your head. But he’s ready.”
West started the 1989 season in Tidewater but was added to the Mets bullpen in June. He was unscored upon in 11-1/3 innings in June, but he was roughed up badly in two starts against Cincinnati and Houston, as a replacement for the injured Gooden. A poor July left him with an ERA above 7, and the next month, he was part of a large trade with the Minnesota Twins that sent Frank Viola to the Mets. The Twins received pitchers West, Rick Aguilera, Kevin Tapani, Jack Savage and Tim Drummond in the deal. West was moved to the Twins bullpen and was rocked. Then Twins manager Tom Kelly gave him a start against Seattle on August 26. West threw 7-2/3 shutout innings on 4 hits in a 1-0 win, and he was added to the Twins’ rotation for the rest of the year. He finished the season with a 3-4 record and 6.79 ERA, but he had at least established himself as a starter for the Twins.
West spent all of 1990 with Minnesota in the rotation and won 8 while losing 9. He had a 5.10 ERA and struck out 92 batters in 146-1/3 innings. But he had some good performances, like the no-hitter he took into the seventh inning against Kansas City on June 23 before Bo Jackson singled. “I just wanted to screw up his night,” Jackson said of the hit. It was the only season of West’s career where he threw more than 100 innings in a season.
West was bothered by a sore elbow and strained abdominal muscles in 1991 and stayed on the disabled list until July 2. “It’s been a hard year,” he said after he threw 8 solid innings in a win against Seattle on August 9. “I think I’ve worked myself back together… I want to go out every five games and pitch as well as I can. I’d like to think I can help our team win.”
West turned in a 4-4 record and 4.54 ERA during the regular season, but he was invaluable in the AL Championship Series against Toronto. When starter Scott Erickson lasted 4 innings in Game Three, West threw a scoreless 2-2/3 innings in relief. He fanned 3 and walked 3, allowing just 1 hit as the Twins came back to tie the game. They later won it with a Mike Pagliarulo home run in the tenth inning. West also picked up a win in the deciding Game Five with three hitless innings in relief. Unfortunately, he couldn’t repeat his performance in the World Series. The Twins beat the Atlanta Braves to be crowned champions, but West was ineffective in his two games. He failed to retire a single batter and allowed 4 runs on 4 walks and 2 hits, one of which was a home run to Lonnie Smith.
The Twins had West spent most of 1992 in Triple-A Portland, and he didn’t return to the big-league roster until August. He picked up his only win of the season with 5 innings of 1-hit relief against Seattle on August 14. Outside of that performance, he was 1-3 with an ERA of nearly 7, and a change of scenery was needed. That December, Minnesota traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies for reliever Mike Hartley.
A new team and a new role — he was exclusively a reliever in 1993 — resulted in West’s best season. He appeared in a career-best 76 games and win 6 of 10 decisions with a fine 2.92 ERA. He allowed just 60 hits in 86-1/3 innings and struck out 87. He also picked up the only three saves of his career. Though West was hesitant about working as a reliever earlier in his career, he thrived in the role. West also had a better rapport with manager Jim Fregosi and pitching coach Johnny Podres. The pitcher pointed out that he was known for a good fastball and pitching into deep counts (aka he threw a lot of balls), and neither of those things were favored by Twins manager Tom Kelly. “I always felt I could do what I’m doing right now,” he said. “I had some good times in Minnesota… But things didn’t work out and now I’m with a team that has a lot more confidence in me.”
West’s success ended in the postseason. He was hit hard by the Braves in the NLCS, with a 13.50 ERA over 3 appearances. The Phillies advanced to the World Series, where they lost to Toronto in a thrilling seven games. West made three appearances and retired three batters. He gave up 5 hits and a walk, allowing 3 earned runs to score. West faced two batters and gave up two hits in Game One, allowing two go-ahead inherited runners to score and tag starter Curt Schilling with the loss. He gave up 2 runs on 3 hits in an inning in Game Four and walked the only batter he faced in Game Seven.
The Phillies kept West as a late-innings reliever in 1994, but he didn’t have nearly the success he did in the previous season. So the team tried him as a starting pitcher — and he did just fine in the role. Used as a reliever until mid-May, he was 0-4 with a 5.12 ERA. Used as a starter the rest of the season, he was 4-6 but with a fine 3.16 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 79-2/3 innings. In his second start of the season, he no-hit the Astros for 6 innings, striking out 7 in the process. Reliever Heathcliff Slocumb preserved the no-no for two more innings before giving up a leadoff single to Steve Finley in the ninth inning. Houston rallied, but Doug Jones closed the door on the 4-2 win. Nothing much went right for the Phillies as they tumbled into fourth place following their World Series appearance, but the reemergence of West as a solid starter was a bright spot.
West harbored no ill will for the Phillies fans who had booed him for his early-season struggles. “The fans want excellence and, if they don’t get it, they’re going to react. They’ve got a right to. They want us to play good and there’s nothing wrong with that,” West said.
It was West’s last full season in the majors. He entered spring training as one of two established starters the team had — “Schilling and West and hope for the best,” Fregosi said, putting a spin on the old Spahn & Sain couplet. But he made just 8 starts scattered throughout the season, which was ended by shoulder surgery in July. West played well when he could pitch, as he had a 3-2 record and 3.79 ERA. He also hit his only major-league home run on July 6, which was his last start of the season. It was a 3-run blast off Pittsburgh’s Steve Parris that contributed to a 10-5 win. After more than a year of recovery and rehab starts, West returned to the Phillies in August and won 2 more games in 7 appearances, 6 of which were starts. The Phillies let him leave via free agency at the end of the season.
West ventured to Japan for 1997, pitching in 19 games for the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. He won 8 games but had a 6.38 ERA. He returned to the U.S. in 1998 and played for the Triple-A affiliates of Houston and Boston. He made 6 appearances for the Red Sox but gave up 6 runs across 2 innings. He was released by Boston in September, ending his major-league career. West pitched briefly in the Dodgers organization in 1999 and also made 6 appearances for the Lehigh Valley Black Diamonds of the independent Atlantic League. They were his final appearances in professional baseball.
Over parts of 10 seasons, West had a 31-38 record and 4.66 ERA. He pitched in 204 games in the majors, including 78 starts. He struck out 437 batters in 569-1/3 innings and walked 311. His WHIP was 1.468 and had an ERA+ of 89. In his four seasons with the Phillies, West’s ERA was 3.50 and his ERA+ was 120. He came into the majors with considerable hype as a Mets prospect, and he was on the verge of fulfilling it in Philadelphia before injuries and surgery derailed his career.
West was praised for being a great teammate by many former Phillies, including broadcaster Larry Anderson. He wrote the following: ““It is with great sadness that I write this message about my roomie and best teammate ever. David West had the biggest heart to go with his huge personality. He was always there to give you a pat on the back when you were down, or a hilarious one-liner when things were going well. He was the ultimate teammate, but an even better friend. He will certainly be missed. Rest in peace, my friend.”
For more information: Philadelphia Inquirer