Skip to main content

Steve Carlton toes the rubber. He is unthinking, no more than playing a game of catch. As the heavy slider thumps into catcher Tim McCarver’s mitt for strike three, a large contingent of St. Louis Cardinals fans erupt at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Carlton has just become the last of a dying breed, a 30-game winner.

Seven months earlier, a blustering wind blows outside of Veterans Stadium. It’s February 25, 1972. Philadelphia Phillies General Manager Paul Owens feverishly dials the number of Cardinals General Manager Bing Devine for what seems the umpteenth time this week. Owens feels he has the young pitcher in his grasp, but Carlton is water slipping through his fingers.

Devine has ruminated on the move countless times, Rick Wise for Carlton should be a no-brainer for the Cardinals. Yes, Carlton had more wins in 1971, but Wise is a star, moving a player with an ERA of 3.56 for a player with an ERA of 2.88 is obvious, but for Devine, it doesn’t sit right.

The trade falls through when Devine insists on Greg Luzinski as well as Wise. The price is too steep for Owens. All momentum towards the completion of the deal stops, Owens knows he’s forever lost the chance at bringing a once-in-a-generation talent to Philadelphia.

The Phillies finish in the cellar the following year, winning just 52 games, shockingly, it’s their lowest total in only eleven years. Losing is an institution in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, something special is going on in St. Louis. Magic is in the air when Carlton is on the mound. No, the Cardinals are not an impressive team, but Carlton is the talk of the baseball world.

Nearly 50,000 pack Three Rivers Stadium as the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cardinals begin the season finale. On the surface, this game seems unimportant, but Carlton tries for a record thought to be buried four years earlier after “the year of the pitcher.”

Bob Gibson shocked the world with a 1.12 ERA in 1968, and Denny McLain made history with MLB’s first 30-win season since 1934, but since then the mound had been lowered and the strike zone shrunk to prevent such feats from ever occurring again.


But Carlton has 30 wins in his sights in 1972. He isn’t getting help from the umpire, he isn’t getting help from the mound or even performance enhancing drugs, this is a battle between him and baseball and what was thought possible.

Carlton is mechanical on the mound, yet effortlessly at ease. He pitches the same way he played catch with his dad in his Miami backyard as a 10-year-old.

“To me it was like an advanced game of catch, it was me and the catcher, if I got the ball to the hitter that’s not too good, but if I got the ball to the catcher, you know, that’s success,” Carlton would later say about his 1972 season.

Champagne flows in the wrong clubhouse later that evening. The Pirates lost the game but won the NL East and will go to the playoffs. The Cardinals finish fourth, but Carlton made his mark upon history. The Cardinals won effortlessly behind a shutout from Miami Kid and eight runs from the St. Louis offense. And Carlton got his 30th win.

Carlton, the man who made the celebration possible for St. Louis, doesn’t partake. He sits alone in the trainer’s room, swigging from a Magnum bottle, not the Great Western brand bought for the team by ownership.

Scroll to Continue


Individually, like peasants visiting their feudal lord, his teammates file in to congratulate Carlton on his achievement. His personal catcher, McCarver, decides to stick around. He holds out a plastic cup which Carlton fills with his own champagne.

Meanwhile, at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, the Phillies are trending up. A revitalized farm system and new manager Danny Ozark have begun to move the needle for the Phillies. They’re a long way from competing, but the process is beginning to show its merit.

By 1975, the Phillies win 86 games in a season, their highest total since the disastrous collapse of 1964. In St. Louis, Steve Carlton hasn’t ever lived up to his 1972 season. He’s made a few All-Star teams, but the Cardinals are dead on arrival every season.

Hard work in Philadelphia finally pays off in 1976, as they make the playoffs for the first time since 1950, riding on the backs of homegrown sluggers Luzinski and Mike Schmidt. Even former superstar Wise puts together a resurgent season at age 30. Carlton’s Cardinals finish 5th ahead of only the lackluster Montreal Expos.

The Phillies however have reached their peak. In 1977, when fan favorite Wise takes the mound, he can feel the tendons in his arm stretch. He’s lost velocity in his fastball and his curve doesn’t have the same bite it once had.

After games, Wise spends extended time in the trainer’s room at Veterans Stadium where Owens once hoped Carlton would celebrate great victories. Wise sits in the dugout during off days and watches the team he’s called home since 1964 fall barely short of the playoffs in 1977, 1978 and 1979. Just a few games back at the end of each season, it seems they’re missing just one piece.

Owens is fired following 1979, so is the ever-optimistic Ozark. The Phillies promote Dallas Green to general manager, but things stay the same as the Phillies descend into mediocrity, lacking leadership in 1980.


In St. Louis that year, Carlton makes headlines as a 35-year-old, winning his second Cy Young for a Cardinals team that finishes fourth behind the Expos, Pirates, and Phillies.

Wise retires following the 1981 season, while Carlton continues to improve. In 1982, the Phillies trade away Luzinski and Schmidt to the American League in an attempt to rebuild a once promising core.

Yet for Carlton, the end of season scene is much the same as 1972, but this time the whole Cardinals team is the focus of celebration. Carlton once again stays huddled away in the trainer's room. Age 37 sees him win his third Cy Young for a World Champion Cardinals team that beat Luzinski and the Milwaukee Brewers in just six games.

Now a broadcaster, McCarver forces his way into the trainer’s room where Carlton is huddled away from the celebrating masses, but he doesn’t want to speak with the media.

Carlton will be a Hall of Famer once his career ends, he knows it, McCarver knows it, the fans and the players all know it, but the man once known as the Miami Kid doesn’t care. More than anything Carlton wants some peace and quiet. He wants to go home and play catch where nothing else matters.

More From SI's Inside The Phillies:

Make sure to follow Inside the Phillies on Facebook and Twitter!