Andy Messersmith, 24, throws a "hard curve" that hums like a fastball, surprises like a slider and hooks like a curve—that flares, like a flat rock thrown sidearm, or like the cutting edge of a scimitar. And then he throws a hearty fastball that rises a little and sometimes moves in other directions; an overhand curve that proceeds dramatically from eye level to just above the dirt; and two different changeups, one of which edges away, like a screwball, from a left-handed hitter. Taken all in all, that is what you call "stuff." It is the stuff that the Baltimore Orioles last winter wanted to discuss trading Frank Robinson and Tom Phoebus for, but the Angels said no. It is the stuff that a 20-minute movie is being made about, by Messersmith and Doug Barrymore, who was involved with Robert Redford in the early stages of the acclaimed ski movie Downhill Racer. But Messersmith almost lost it all several weeks ago, on camera, because having stuff is not enough for him; he is using the movie to fight a war that he insists on winning.
Several cameras, including a super-slow-motion one designed for studying ballistic missiles in flight, were focused on Messersmith and the ball during the Angels' game with Kansas City on April 19. He pitched eight innings worthy of John Wayne and Audie Murphy, and then he got wounded going beyond the call of pitching duty—strained his right shoulder sliding acrobatically for an essential extra base, and since then Dr. Robert Kerlan had to coax that great stuff back with cortisone.
Kerlan said Messersmith would probably miss two or three starts, and the Angels were inclined to agree, but Messersmith said, "He doesn't know me very well." The moody righthander has pitched right on through his supposed convalescent period, hurting more than usual and losing two while winning one. Now, after beating the Yankees last Saturday night with a complete-game six-hitter aided by his own home run, single and expert sacrifice bunt, Messersmith is 4-3, healthy, averaging almost a strikeout an inning and about ready to establish himself as the best pitcher in the American League.
The movie should be enlightening; from the stands it is hard to appreciate why the hitters are fishing around for Messersmith's offerings prematurely or hacking at them belatedly or taking them bemusedly for strikes. The hitters themselves may prefer something with Yvette Mimieux. They are already inclined to agree with what Billy Martin and Mayo Smith both stated flatly last year: that Messersmith "has the best stuff in the league."
May 17, 1970
"Good stuff" is a curious term. The words suggest something gratifyingly material, whereas in baseball they describe that which, ideally, one cannot get ahold of. Imagine that you are trying to bang a drum and Messersmith keeps moving it so that you just miss either the beat or the part of the skin that goes "boom" or the drum altogether. Last year, when Messersmith, with minimal help from the other Angels, won 16 and lost 11 in his first full big-league season, the league hit .190 against him. The next hardest-to-hit American League pitcher was Mike Cuellar at .204, and Denny McLain was down the list at .237. But such statistics are obscure, and Messersmith is acutely aware that the only thing that makes a pitcher substantial is his number of wins.
Barrymore says he chose Messersmith as the subject of the film because "he is the next Koufax." In terms of style, that is not strictly true. Lefty Phillips, currently manager of the Angels and formerly pitching coach of the Drysdale-Koufax Dodgers, points out that "Koufax had those big hands, those long fingers." He also had that big, powerful motion, whereby his stretching, pumping body served his wonderfully lissome, though ultimately arthritic, arm. "This body," says Messersmith, tapping himself on the barrel chest, "is nothing to me. It's all in this arm." And he holds up a substantial appendage that indeed has a tacked-on look, compared with Koufax' more sinuous build. Messersmith's right hand, which Barrymore has been filming as it shifts gears on Messersmith's Road Runner (for fast, arty crosscutting from baseball-in-hand to shift-knob-in-hand and back), is not extremely large, and his fingers might even be called stubby. "I'm built stocky," says Messersmith. "I can't give it a big kick and wind up like Juan Marichal. I used to watch McLain a lot out there. He's compact. He keeps his arm in a tight circle when he throws." And Lefty Phillips extols Messersmith's "release point. By that I mean his body's not out ahead of his arm; there's no waste motion as he releases the ball. Andy's curveball doesn't come up there and hang, szzzzzz, without coming through and, umf, breaking."
While offering this analysis, Phillips is working on a mouthful of Favorite chewing tobacco and employing his distinctive mode of speech, which suggests a man complaining about his lunch in the act of eating it. Still, he may be getting too dry and technical for the layman. And anyway, Messersmith can speak for himself.
Though strapping (6'1", 200 pounds) and even something of a Paul Hornung golden boy in appearance, Messersmith is not a conventional athletic type. He is probably the only major-leaguer who ever rapped at some length with Mario Savio at Berkeley during the time Messersmith (who plans to finish up his degree in business this winter) was there on a baseball scholarship. "I wasn't particularly interested in the Free Speech Movement, because I had my hands full with playing baseball and trying to study," he says. "But I went up to Mario and talked to him after a couple of speeches he made. He was a leader of the school, and I felt I ought to know what he had to say. He's an intelligent man. He saw what was wrong with the school, and he had the guts to speak out. Then people jumped on his back and said he was a radical. Maybe he was, but he opened things up at Cal. Now you can go into the dean's office and feel like you can talk to the guy. Before, you'd go in there and—forget it, you knew you couldn't say anything to him."
Unlike many ballplayers who seem to be reluctant to overindulge in self-consciousness or to give themselves away, Messersmith is anxious to describe his life on the mound. "That's why I'm excited about this film," he says. "I want it to show not just how to throw a curve and all that stuff, but 'Why do I pitch?' 'What's my thing?' 'What is it like?'
"There are things I want to find out myself. I don't have any idea what my stuff looks like to the hitter—I've always wanted to be able to hit against me. The other day they put a belt camera on me and another on the hitter and we focused on his face to catch his expression as he follows the pitch and swings. I haven't seen the print but I hope it'll show what it's like out there.
"When I was growing up, a baseball player was something special; you looked at him with awe. And most people aren't fortunate enough physically to find out what it's like to play."
It could be that Messersmith is so interested in his pitching because he put it together for himself. He had always been a good, hard-throwing athlete during his school days in Long Beach and Anaheim, Calif., but it was only in college that he began to feel that he could play professionally. After making second-team All-America and turning down the Tigers when they wouldn't come up with a $50,000 bonus, he signed with the Angels for $30,000 in 1966. In 1968, after two mediocre years in the minors, he spent the spring in the Angels' training camp, but as then-Manager Bill Rigney recalled it later, "He showed us almost nothing. Honestly, I just didn't think he had the stuff to pitch in the majors. I never hesitated to send him down to the Seattle club. And I thought that might be the end of him."
But down there in the Pacific Coast League, Messersmith showed more promise and was encouraged by Manager Joe Adcock, who recommended that Rigney bring him back up in July.
By the end of 1968 Messersmith was in the regular starting rotation, but in 1969 he lost his first five decisions and moaned to roommate Tom Murphy. "Murf, I think I'm in the wrong profession." Marv Grissom (then the Angels' pitching coach, now with the Twins) convinced him that he was suitably employed and taught him a screwball, and Messersmith blossomed into the Angels' ace. He was 16 and 6 the rest of the way, finishing fourth in the league in ERAs with 2.52 and third in strikeouts with 211.
Messersmith's surfacing as a whole pitcher is reminiscent of his approach to his hobbies. Says his close friend Murphy: "He just took a car completely apart and then started figuring out how to put it back together." Messersmith has been as thorough about constructing a workable game of golf. In a recent tournament he shot 68.
In a contest conducted by the Angels' radio announcers, the winning fan nicknamed Messersmith "The Baron," a name that appeals more to the media than it does to Messersmith, but one which, with its connotation of a World War I German ace, seems unwittingly apt when tested against the movie's theme—the Baron's thing. As he says, "It's the emotional feeling—the highs and lows—that you don't get out of anything else. It's conflict, a war, a battle; a very complex feeling. I'd have a tough time in a regular job—I have so much in me that I want to put forth. Maybe I could do it in writing. But what I have found to do it in is pitching."
An outsider might think, then, that Messersmith is concerned with style, with expressing his sense of the fitness of things in the way he delivers the ball, with what exactly the Great Scorer will write about how he played the game. But Messersmith says, "Winning is everything. Winning 7-5 is better than any way of losing. Actually, what I want to do is not to lose. It's like fighting a war—you're not fighting to kill, you're fighting to stay alive. I've lost, and I know how terrible it feels. There's no excuse for losing more than you can help. There couldn't be anything uglier than to be sitting around in your slippers when you're 40 and looking back and saying, 'Jeez, Messersmith, if you hadn't messed around you could've been good.' "
Winning means knowing the hitters' weaknesses, guessing what they are guessing, keeping them always off balance and maintaining "that little bit of fear in their minds when they know you may knock them down. But I'm not thinking about what's going on in the hitter's mind. I'm thinking about what's going on in my mind, about my concentration and my attitude toward myself. About how I will hate it if I lose, about never saying, 'Oh, screw it' and giving up when I get in trouble."
What we have here, then, is a pitcher whose be-all and end-all is winning, even if by a score of 7-5, on a team that was recently compared by a nightclub comedian to facial tissues: "They are soft and absorbent, and they pop up one at a time." Granted, such derision is not entirely just, as the Angels have demonstrated this year by acquiring solid hitters in Alex Johnson and Ken McMullen and staying near the top of the Western Division. But the Angels are still not widely identified with winning or even contending. Unlike the other clubs in the first expansion crop—the Mets, Astros and Senators—the Angels began early to produce stars and to show promise; but the stars all more or less faded, and the team got lost in the vast desert reaches of the American League middle. Consequently, they have acquired an image of stagnation, which doesn't fit Messersmith.
"Andy sees himself as a pitcher like Tom Seaver," says Murphy. "Not that he would consciously emulate Seaver, but he wants to be that kind of winner, that kind of leader. And, let's face it, unless Andy wins we don't go anywhere."
The Angels and Messersmith went together fine in his first start this season, a 12-0 Opening Day four-hitter over the Brewers. Late that night he woke up in bed with a start and wrenched his arm. The resultant stiffness hampered him in his next two turns—a 6-3 win over the Royals and a surprising 8-2 loss to the Twins after a near-perfect five innings. Then came an incident that makes you understand why winning can be as important to a pitcher as it is to a politician.
"I go into every game," says Messersmith, "thinking about a no-hitter. I'm not hell-bent for one, but I'm thinking about it until the first hit." The first hit off him on the day the movie cameras were rolling was a Kansas City line drive that Shortstop Jim Fregosi would have speared, except that he couldn't get around the umpire. The other hit was a limp little plop to right that Bill Voss lost in the sun. Aside from an intentional walk, Messersmith went to three balls on a hitter only once in eight innings, and he struck out eight men.
Later, Phillips told the press, "Ed Runge, who has umpired a lot of games, said that Messersmith's first five innings against Minnesota the other night were the best five innings he's ever seen a fellow pitch. The eight innings today must have been the best eight he ever saw, because they were even better. But it looked like the Man Upstairs didn't want us to win."
Possibly. In the bottom of the eighth Messersmith took the Angels' offense into his own hands. "He helps himself a lot, and keeps himself in the game, by being a complete athlete," says Phillips. "He can bunt, and I can trust him to get his bat on the ball on a hit and run." Leading off the eighth, Messersmith slapped an apparent single over the third baseman's head and then, going on his own initiative, stretched the hit into a double by sliding on his right side and arm, somehow flipping over and throwing himself beyond the second baseman's tagging range, reaching back with his left hand to grab the base as he went by—and finally shooting his right hand out to the bag when his momentum pulled the left off. He scored on a single by Fregosi, and that should have been the ball game for him, 1-0.
But when he went to the mound in the ninth he couldn't get the ball over. He had strained his shoulder at some point in the sensational slide and, after walking a man, he had to be relieved. The runner went to second on what was nearly a double-play ball, scored on an error and the game was tied 1-1. Eight magnificent innings and Messersmith was no longer the pitcher of record. Four starts into the season and only two wins. Messersmith threw a towel over his head, sagged and then got up from the bench and went to the clubhouse. At the close of one of those grindingly prolonged anticlimaxes that only baseball can generate, the Angels lost it in the 13th on a hit batsman, a passed ball and like that.
Afterward Messersmith appeared at his locker, his shoulder bright pink from being iced down, and a visitor could have heard a sanitary sock drop. To murmuring reporters he murmured back the only appropriate sentiment: "A tough one to lose."
Five days later his arm hurt too much to break off his hard curve, and he was hit hard and beaten by Frank Howard and the Senators. He flew to New York, where Dr. Kerlan was attending the Los Angeles Lakers during the NBA playoffs. Kerlan pronounced the tendon strain "curable." "Maybe the slide could have ruined my arm," said Messersmith, unrepentent, "but maybe it wins the game for us."
And that probably tells more about Andy Messersmith, pitcher, than any movie ever will.