George Steinbrenner employed 18 pitching coaches during his tenure as the Yankees’ principal owner. Billy Connors had the job three times before becoming Steinbrenner’s pitching guru and close adviser in Tampa, Florida.
Connors, 76, died Monday, the Yankees announced, and they observed a moment of silence before Wednesday night’s game at the Stadium.
Connors, a native of Schenectady, played baseball and basketball for Syracuse in the early 1960s. He pitched in 26 games for the Cubs and Mets from 1966-68. He spent 17 seasons as a big-league pitching coach and was credited with the development of the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Orlando Hernandez. He also helped Dwight Gooden, who joined the Yankees for the second time in 2000.
“Billy was great,’’ Gooden said in a phone interview. “He redefined my mechanics, got me the opportunity to jump-start my career.’’
After Gooden retired in 2000, he worked with Connors in Tampa for five years. “A true baseball man,’’ he said. “George loved him, he was George’s right-hand man. George trusted him a lot.’’
Connors was with the Yankees from 1989-90, 1994-95 and on an interim basis in 2000 when Mel Stottlemyre was on medical leave. Connors departed as pitching coach in July 1995 but was retained as Steinbrenner’s adviser. Manager Buck Showalter was said to have perceived Connors as Steinbrenner’s “spy.’’ At the time, Connors said in a published report: “Every day, it was like I had a test. Buck would ask, ‘Did you talk to George? Did you talk to George?’ ’’
Showalter would lose his job after the 1995 season. Connors eventually was elevated to vice president of player personnel, and he worked from the minor-league complex in Tampa.
In 2003, Steinbrenner sent pitcher Jose Contreras to work with Connors in Tampa over the objections of manager Joe Torre, who reportedly thought that he and pitching coach Stottlemyre had been undermined.
“I really don’t care what anyone says about me,’’ Connors told Newsday then, “but the idea that I am trying to undermine Mel is ridiculous, and the thought that I have any influence over what The Boss wants is naive.’’
Connors was the Mets’ batting practice pitcher in 1971 before becoming their minor-league pitching instructor from 1972-76. He was with the Phillies in a similar capacity from 1977-79 before coaching in the major leagues, which included stops with the Royals and Mariners.
Connors retired in 2015, when he was caring for a menagerie of pets that reportedly included three dogs, four donkeys, a bull and a talking parrot who was more than 50 years old.
Greg Maddux mentioned Connors prominently during his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2014. Maddux, who credited Connors with teaching him the cut fastball, recalled an encounter with Connors while in the Cubs’ minor-league system.
“He asked, ‘Do you ever wonder how good you can be?’ Of course I said no. And he said, ‘Why don’t you go out there and try to find out?’ I’ve been trying to find the answer to that question every day since.’’