SI Flashback: Making Hay
THE BUSHES need trimming. The barn out back is in need of repair. The green '57 Chevy, the first car he ever called his own, stands like some beleaguered sentry over the backyard, awaiting a fresh coat of paint before it becomes his eldest son's car. The carpet must be cleaned (thanks to the puppy) and the hay over at the cattle ranch needs to be baled, and surely he cannot forget his promise to take the three boys fishing. There is much for
There is no ball game tonight, and there might never be another one for Gossage, who though seated on a chair in front of his Colorado Springs house, appears prepared should one, like a brushfire, break out. He is wearing a Seattle Mariner T-shirt, athletic shorts and shower sandals, just as he would in a clubhouse during the hours before the first pitch.
His world at this moment is absolutely quiet, with Cheyenne Mountain towering above him and not so much as a rustling leaf disturbing the afternoon stillness. Then, from some place high but unseen, softly comes a beautiful melodic ringing sound. It is coming from the mountain, from the Shrine of the Sun, a tower dedicated to
''I know I could have thrown my last pitch and may never put on a uniform again,'' he says. ''I'm O.K. with that. Don't get me wrong. I'm going to miss the game. For me it's been like going to Disneyland and riding the best ride in the whole place and never getting off. That's what I wish people understood. We're players. There's nothing we'd rather be doing than playing baseball right now.''
Gossage is housebound because of a player strike that is now in its fourth week, with no sign that it will end anytime soon. On Aug. 15, three days after the start of the strike, he had taken one of his trucks to a service station to get a tire fixed. The attendant, recognizing the famous relief pitcher, harrumphed, ''Well, I know whose side I'm on.'' Gossage thought to himself, Do you? But he decided not to say anything because most people never get beyond equating major leaguers with the ridiculous sums of money so many of them make.
Someday there will be baseball in major league cities again, and everything about the game will be back in its place: its perfect distance between the bases, its lovelorn fans in the stands and all of its confounding intricacies, which, like yesterday's crossword puzzle, turn up solved in the next morning's paper in the deceitful tidiness of the box score. There is no recovery, though, of a ballplayer's most precious commodity: time. It runs out especially quickly if you're a 43-year-old pitcher and four teams in the past five years have already decided you're finished.
Twenty-four years have passed since that day he ran home to the one-bedroom house on Beacon Street in Colorado Springs -- the house so small that he slept in the same bedroom with his mother while his father slept at an aunt's house -- flung open the door and announced, ''Mom, I've got a job working as a counselor at the summer camp!'' Mother Goose had replied, ''Son, you've got another job. There's a man here from the Chicago White Sox, and he says they've drafted you in the ninth round.'' So overwhelmed was the boy that he ran off alone into the mountains and cried.
Gazing now upon the same range of mountains, he knows that it might all be over, this heart-racing ride of a major league career that began before the designated hitter, before free agency and before
''The innocence,'' he says, ''is gone.''
Is this how it ends for him? Silenced by a strike? How odd. Because this is exactly how it began.
It was April 1972, and Rich Gossage, a 20-year-old kid less than two years out of high school, stood alone on a Chicago street corner with $28 in his pocket and nowhere to go. Never before had he been in a city this big. He had made the White Sox after reporting to spring training as a nonroster player, and just when the season was about to begin, the players called the first strike in baseball history because of a dispute with the owners about the players' pension fund.
God, he thought, here I am on the club, and we're not playing. I'm being paid $12,500 to play this game. Hell, I'd pay them that much to play. I mean, if I had that much money. I don't understand this.
He walked the streets until darkness fell, and then, lacking the funds for a hotel room, he checked into a bar owned by Chicago Cub first baseman
And then two figures, having taken notice of a strapping young man out by himself at such an hour, approached him in the darkness of the street. Like to have a good time with us? they wondered. Jeez, these are men, he thought, and hurried off. He was scared and convinced he could not spend another night like this. When morning came, he telephoned his sister, Lavonne, in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines. Of course, she told him, she had room for him.
He spent a few days with Lavonne until they decided he should go home to Colorado. They drove from Des Plaines to Colorado Springs, but when they arrived there, a day later, he found out that the strike was over. So they got back in the car the next morning, turned around and drove to Kansas City in time for Opening Day, April 15, at old Municipal Stadium. He made his big league debut the next night, throwing one shutout inning against the Royals in relief of
Gossage is the last active player left from that 1972 strike, which was so long ago that people like
You know that fight over the pension in '72? Now he is scheduled to receive $11,221 a month starting at age 62. Remember the lockout of '76, when the owners futilely tried to hold back the arrival of free agency? Less than two years later he parlayed free agency into a six-year, $2.75 million contract with the New York Yankees. And what about the 1981 strike, in which the owners (in vain, again) tried to attach a prohibitive compensation system to free agency? Gossage cashed in as a free agent less than three years after that, signing with the San Diego Padres for $6.25 million for five years.
''The union is stronger than it's ever been,'' he says. ''These players understand what we've gained. Take a
''Back then, in '72, we weren't sure. It was, God, we hope we're right. Now we know what we're doing is right. From every crisis I think you gain strength. The players aren't going to fold. The waters are charted now.
''The owners have never been up front with us. Attendance is up, new stadiums are being built, they want to expand -- and this is supposed to be a business in trouble? If there are franchises in trouble in any other business, you move it. I played in Pittsburgh. I don't want to see that team move. But should the players be the ones to bail it out? I just knew this strike was coming. The writing was on the wall.''
However, if there is one thing about today's players that really rankles the Goose, it's that the game is overpopulated with brats who love what they can take from the game more than they love the game itself. ''That's what has changed,'' he says. ''Guys see the big dollar signs instead of letting the dollars take care of themselves and just going out and playing the game for fun. That's why I'm thankful I came along and played when I did, to have played in that era.
''Money has never been at the bottom line for me. The bottom line is, I got to play a game I love. Yeah, the innocence is gone. But then I see the innocence is gone out of Little League, so it figures. They stack teams in Little League! They put the best players on the same team, and they kick the ---- out of everyone. It is gross!
''Every parent thinks he's got a big league player out there in Little League,'' he goes on. ''They don't see a kid playing baseball. They see dollar signs. I want to tell the parent, 'Hey, you're missing the ---- boat!' I want to go up and slap the ---- out of that parent and say, 'What are you doing?' ''
All Gossage asks of young players is that they respect the game. In spring training two years ago, while he was pitching for the Oakland A's, two minor league pitchers from the Cub organization,
Gossage was watching television one day when he came across an interview with
Gossage jumped out of his chair. ''God, Willie, that's it!'' he shouted at the TV.
''That's the way I feel too,'' Gossage says now. ''It just hit me then. Bam! Willie's such an unselfish person. I love the guy. For me it's always been the chance to go out there and turn people on. There's nothing greater. I mean, to go out there in a stadium packed with 50,000 people and just bring the house down. It's a turn-on. It's an adrenaline rush that no drug could ever give you.
''When I'm out there on the mound and I have a ball in my hands, something happens to me. I'm a different person. I'm like some animal. I don't know. It's scary. I swear, I scare myself sometimes. I can't believe it's me.''
One day during the 1990 lockout Gossage was throwing batting practice to his son Keith, who was 10 at the time. Keith was having trouble hitting the < outside pitch because he stepped away from the ball rather than toward it. ''You're stepping in the bucket,'' Gossage hollered. ''Let's work on it.''
So Gossage tossed a pitch outside. Keith stepped in the bucket and whiffed on it. Gossage tossed another pitch outside. Keith missed it again. He made no adjustment. This happened again and again and again -- 10 times in all -- before that frightening alter ego overcame Gossage. And so the Goose, one of the most fearsome fastball pitchers of all time, wound up in that unmistakable chaotic motion of his, first showing his hulking back to the plate and then, in a sudden, violent windmill of arms and legs, unleashing something only slightly less than his most terrifying fastball at his fifth- grader.
''Something happened between winding up and letting it go,'' he recalls now. ''It just happened.'' He drilled his son. Nailed him flush on the left thigh, a direct hit that would turn the kid's leg ''black, blue, green, purple, yellow -- all the colors of those real nasty ones,'' Gossage says.
The boy hobbled to his feet. ''Dad,'' he screamed, ''you're an a--hole!''
Keith laughs about it now, about how he could hardly walk for a couple of days. His father laughs too. ''I used to joke about how I'd drill my own mother if she were up there,'' Goose says. ''I guess maybe I would. I mean, I hit my own kid.''
He was born to throw a baseball. Just before this season went dark, he became only the third pitcher in history to appear in 1,000 games. Four nights later he saved a win against Texas, the 310th save of his career. ''He's a Hall of Famer,'' Piniella says. ''The nicest guy in the world, but he still gets that mean look when I come out to the mound. He just wants the ball.''
He has lasted this long, he says, because of genetics, good mechanics, dedication and mental toughness. ''You've got to be a ---- to last in this game,'' he says.
It helps, too, that two years ago his kinesiologist in Denver recommended that he quit drinking beer. ''Yeah, right,'' he had said then. ''Did my wife tell you to say that?'' He hasn't had a drink since. When he goes to a bar with Piniella, he orders club soda. ''I know for a fact it's kept me in the game,'' he says.
No one scored off him in his last eight appearances before the strike. Nothing but Goose eggs. He allowed only three hits over 10 1/3 innings in those appearances. Since then he has done his only throwing on the front lawn of his house, every few days emptying a bag of baseballs into a net that's 60 feet, six inches away.
Who knows when the strike will be over? Maybe he gets to pitch again. Maybe he doesn't. Either way, he'll be ready.