In any serious consideration of the Detroit Tigers' beer-bellied Mickey Lolich, the American League's "other lefthander," several popular misconceptions must be discarded:
1) Lolich is not a beer drinker and 2) he is not left-handed.
Now for the facts. Lolich is overweight because that for him is being in good shape. He pitches left-handed because when he was a small boy a motorcycle fell on him and broke his left clavicle, forcing him thereafter to exercise the injured arm, which he still does. That is also why he rides motorcycles. That and because his mother told him he should stay away from them. By the same token, opposite side, he does not drink beer—except when he is very, very thirsty—because when he was young his father told him he could have one any time he felt like it. So he grew up not feeling like it.
Lest Lolich appear overly contrary, it should be explained that he has carefully nurtured a reputation for eccentricity that he once hoped would earn him the publicity an athlete of his stature merited. Alas, he has received comparatively little publicity, mainly because he has had the rotten luck to be upstaged by two more spectacular attention-getters. First there was Denny McLain, his former teammate on the Detroit Tigers, who had the bad taste to win 31 games the same year Lolich became a World Series hero. Now there is Oakland's Vida Blue, who also pitches left-handed and is virtually the only American League pitcher anybody hears about these days.
This understandably nettles Lolich, who has started more games than Blue and finished only one fewer, has nearly as many strikeouts, has pitched more innings and—most important of all—after Blue's 2-1 loss Friday could conceivably end the season with more victories, since he now trails by only one. And all this with a team that will probably win 15 fewer games than Blue's.
Lolich's sensational 1971 performance is in marked contrast to last year, when he led the American League in losses with 19. He should break the Detroit record for number of games started, which is 44 and was set by George Mullin in 1904. And he most likely will pitch more innings this year than anyone has since Bob Feller went 371 in 1946. With six more starts remaining—Lolich pitches every fourth day—he may even surpass Feller.
But the Cy Young Award for best pitcher in the league almost certainly will go to Blue.
"The publicity does it for you," Lolich says with resignation. "Nobody knows I'm around half the time. What if they should give the award to me? People would just look around and say, 'Who's he?' "
Lolich has learned to live with the knowledge that this is a Blue year. Blue is young and new: Lolich is almost 31 and has been around since 1963. Blue's team is miles out in front in the West Division; Lolich's is trying to maintain second place in the East. And anyway, playing second banana is not a new experience for Lolich. In 1968, when he won 17 games in the regular season and then proceeded to save the Series for the Tigers with three fine victories, McLain, the first 30-game winner in 34 years, was at the very top of his form on and off the field. Lolich's more modest achievements—on and off the field—were largely unrecognized.
Rumors of a feud between the two, given substance by Lolich's assertion that McLain was not exactly selfless, at least gave Lolich some reflected celebrity. Lolich now denies that any rift existed. They have always been good friends, he says. And when Lolich became a 20-game winner this year, for the first time, McLain wired congratulations. Still, as long as McLain remained in Detroit, Lolich played in the shadows. He is not, he insists, embittered by his life out of the sun. If anything, he now accepts anonymity with equanimity.
"This happens to me so much, I'm used to it," he said the day before he shut out the Indians last week for his 22nd win. "Every ballplayer wants recognition. That's the little extra you get out of the game. But I've reached the point where if I get anything at all, I'm surprised when I see it."
If the outside world remains mostly ignorant of Lolich's virtues, his employers at least are acutely conscious of them. Tiger Pitching Coach Art Fowler considers Lolich simply "the best pitcher in baseball." And Manager Billy Martin winces at the thought of where his team might be without him.
"Our motto for the first two months of the season was 'Lolich and whoever and two days of rain,' " says Martin, who is not much of a paraphraser but knows a good pitcher when he sees one. Lolich and Relief Pitcher Fred Scherman were about all the pitching staff Martin had until young Joe Coleman hit his stride. Even now, after Lolich and Coleman, Detroit's starters are named "Undecided" and "To Be Announced."
Martin visited Lolich before spring training in an effort to bolster his confidence after the dreary 1970 season, advising him that because of the paucity of available pitching talent he would be a busy man in 1971. And with the extra work, Martin told him, he should be a 20-game winner.
Lolich prepared for the task by adding seven pounds to his already well-upholstered physique. With his pants slung low and his paunch protruding, his 212 pounds look even heavier, but Lolich is convinced the extra weight is all pitching muscle. Well, most of it; on a warm night he sweats off six or seven pounds.
"I'm in the best shape I've ever been in," he says, examining his formidable middle. "Big bellies run in my family. All the male Lolichs have them. I guess you could say I'm the redemption of the fat man. A guy'll be watching me on TV and see that I don't look in any better shape than he's in. 'Hey, Maude,' he'll holler. 'Get a load of this guy. And he's a 20-game winner.' "
Lolich also prepared for this busiest season by adding three new breaking pitches—a "cut fastball," a slider and a "hard sinker"—to a repertoire previously confined to a hard fastball and a nickel curve.
"Hitters would come up to me and say, 'Man, that was a funny-looking slider you threw at me.' And I'd say, 'That was no slider, that was my curve.' I never was able to throw a slider until this year."
Lolich began experimenting with the new pitches out of desperation. "I was willing to try anything to get out of the mess I was in," he says. He perfected the pitches in spring training and throws them now with confidence, although the fastball remains his staple. The so-called cut fastball is, in fact, only a variation of the conventional high hard one. Lolich throws it with an almost imperceptible turn of the wrist that causes the ball to swerve laterally at the last instant. He dislikes the term "sailing fastball," implying as it does a certain in-decisiveness, but that's what Martin and others call the new pitch.
With or without the extra twist, Lolich's fastball usually moves in some direction. In his shutout of Cleveland, it was moving up and the Indians were swinging under it. Seventeen fly balls were caught by the Tigers that night, eight of them in center field. With all the pop-ups, Lolich threw only 105 pitches, about 35 or 40 below his average. His control is seldom faulty, but he usually works hitters to a big count before striking them out.
The number of pitches he throws and the number of innings he pitches are testimony to his extraordinary durability. Lolich has never experienced any serious arm trouble. One possible explanation for the continued good health of his left arm is that about the only thing he ever does with it is throw baseballs.
"I'm really right-handed," he says. "I can't do a thing left-handed except throw. Or maybe bowl. I write right-handed, I eat right-handed and I even bat right-handed."
The accident that made Lolich a lefty happened when he was about two years old and living in Portland, Ore. little Mickey imprudently rammed a parked motorcycle with his tricycle. The big bike toppled onto him, breaking his collarbone. The therapy afterward got him accustomed to using the arm for throwing things. The accident also left him with a strange attachment to motorcycles, one not shared by his mother, who was terrified of them. Because of her refusal to allow one near the house, Lolich didn't buy his first bike until he turned 21. He now has five, including one for his wife Joyce.
Like his mom, the Tigers were not especially delighted when their star lefthander first thundered into the stadium parking lot aboard one of his machines. But Lolich has proselyted well; at least six of his teammates are now ardent cyclists. "Mickey Stanley and I once took a jump together and touched handlebars in midair," Lolich recalls with relish. "Now, that's what's known as flying in close formation."
Unbeery Mickey Lolich has been flying high all season, but the only one close to him anymore is Vida Blue. It's always somebody.