He searches the hotel room for a round object. Finding none, he picks up an ashtray from the bedside table. "Imagine this is a baseball," he says. The ashtray is black and square. He grips it in his right hand, his first two lingers and thumb encircling three sides of its perimeter, his other two fingers knuckled under its base. "Now, to break off a real fine curveball," he says, "you have to turn your wrist like this." He holds the ashtray at eye level, his right arm not quite fully extended. He tilts it so that his first two fingers are on top, his thumb below, and looks intently into its scooped-out center. Now he begins to rotate his wrist very slowly. His top fingers move away from him and down and his thumb moves toward him and up until the ashtray has turned 180 degrees from its original position, and he is staring at its base. The original position of his fingers and thumb has been reversed, and now the thumb is on top and his first two fingers on the bottom.
"See." he says, "it's a very simple, natural motion." He repeats the procedure, only this time he rotates the ashtray in a more fluid, sweeping manner, and as his wrist turns he draws the ashtray in to his chest. He demonstrates the motion, slowly and very gracefully, almost with tenderness, as a man might draw a beautiful woman to himself.
"It is a natural motion," he says softly. "It's real easy and natural." He repeats it again and again and again, each time drawing that woman to his chest until it is apparent that the repetition is only in small part for his student's sake and more for his own. With each repetition he seems to be reaffirming the clarity and logic of that motion, and with each reaffirmation he takes great pleasure. As he repeats the lesson, he speaks in that soothing drawl of his, that opiate that softens resistance, that makes men open and receptive to his teaching. It is as if you slept while a foreign language recording played over and over and, on waking, you discovered you had learned a new language. Only it is not really learned, not consciously acquired, but rather absorbed—and absorbed so effortlessly that it seems not new after all. It becomes something natural that one has possessed all along, though it was buried, and this teacher deserves credit only for nudging it to the surface. Then this new possession, rather this old possession newly discovered, becomes in one's mind one's very own in a way nothing learned ever can be.
He stops, puts the ball in his left hand and says, "If you throw it correctly the ball should break something like this." He cups his now empty right hand and draws a backward S in the air. "See, it goes away from a batter and down at the same time." He draws another backward S, then another, and another, each one drawn gracefully, with care, the shape of that beautiful but elusive woman he has committed to memory. He takes the ball in his right hand and, standing beside his bed, he begins his motion. He is wearing a pale blue shirt, a dark blue tie and navy flared slacks. He pumps, reaches back, kicks, moves forward, and at the last possible second pulls that woman to his chest.
Johnny Sain, the 54-year-old pitching coach of the Chicago White Sox, is a big man, almost 6'3" tall and over 200 pounds. He has one of those slight men's builds that with age takes on weight through the chest and arms while the legs remain thin. His face is small-featured, leathery, creased, and his cheeks are lumpy from years of chewing tobacco. He would look to be a very gruff man, without tenderness, if it were not for his smile, which is faint, and his eyes, which are a clear, youthful blue. That smile (not a smile, really, just a show of teeth) and those eyes (wincing, vaguely distant) lend him the air of a man perpetually scanning the horizon for uncertain shapes and shadows, for, quite possibly, windmills, whose presence he is sure of but whose form escapes him.
When Johnny Sain became the Chicago White Sox pitching coach in the fall of 1970 he inherited a staff that during the previous season had recorded the highest earned-run average (4.54) in the major leagues, and in the American League had allowed the most hits (1,554), had given up the most home runs (164) and the most runs (822). The team's most successful pitcher was eight-year veteran Tommy John, who had won 12 games and lost 17.
After a season under Sain the White Sox finished fourth in their league in team pitching and fifth overall. They had reduced the staff ERA to 3.12; had placed three pitchers in the league's top 15; had produced a 22-game winner in journeyman Wilbur Wood, who in his nine previous years in the majors had won only 37 games: and had developed two young pitchers of promise—Tom Bradley, winner of 15, and Bart Johnson, winner of 12. As a team Chicago finished third in its division, and there was speculation that the club's rookie manager. Chuck Tanner, might be voted the American League's Manager of the Year.
Before Sain was hired by Chicago he was working in the minor leagues, having been dropped as pitching coach by a succession of major league clubs—the Athletics, Yankees, Twins and Tigers. It wasn't that Johnny Sain wasn't doing his job. It seemed, in fact, that he was doing it too well. In New York he had coached Jim Bouton, Ralph Terry and Whitey Ford to 20-game seasons, the only times in their careers they achieved such records. In Minnesota, Mudcat Grant and Jim Kaat became 20-game winners under Sain, also for the first and only times in their careers, and Dave Boswell and Jim Perry improved noticeably and became 20-game winners shortly after Sain departed. Finally, in Sain's years in Detroit, Denny McLain won 31 games and 24 games. Earl Wilson won 22. a mark he never approached before or after in his 11-year major league career. And Mickey Lolich, although only a 19-game winner under Sain, became a 25-game winner after the pitching coach left the Tigers. "Without Sain's help I never would have done it," Lolich says today.
Johnny Sain came from Havana, Ark., a village close by the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, and signed his first professional baseball contract—$50 per month—with Osceola of the Class D Northeast Arkansas League. In the next five years Sain was to play for three other minor league teams, all of which felt he did no have sufficient speed to become a major league pitcher. One major league scout watched Sain hurl a shutout and then wrote his front office saying he hadn't seen a ballplayer on the field. Sain himself did not believe he ever would become a major-leaguer. He regarded his summer ballplaying as just another job. He got better pay as an athlete than as a soda jerk. For a while he was an automobile mechanic like his father, and occasionally he worked as a waiter but usually just to earn enough money to pay his way to still another try-out camp.
Sain managed to put together two winning seasons in Class D ball and then moved on to the AA club in Nashville. But after posting a 6-12 record his manager told him to bring a first baseman's glove to spring training the following year. He had batted .315 as a part-time first baseman. However, that year (1942) so many young pitchers were drafted into the military that Sain was allowed to remain a pitcher. In fact, he was invited to try out with the Boston Braves and he so impressed the club's manager, Casey Stengel, that he was brought North to start the season. At the time Sain was 24; he had a good curveball and decent control but little speed. Used almost exclusively as a relief pitcher, he posted a 4-7 record before he, too, went into the military. He joined the Navy Air Corps along with Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky. However, Sain spent 22 months trying to earn his flight wings while some ballplayers earned theirs in less than a year. "I've always been a slow learner," says Sain. "That's helped me a lot, both as player and coach. I have to go over things again and again before they stick in my mind. But when they do, they stick better than if I had picked them up quick."
During the war years Sain pitched in service leagues throughout the South, developing an assortment of sliders and curveballs. He improved so rapidly that at one point he struck out Ted Williams three consecutive times in a service game. When Sain returned to Boston in 1946, he astonished everyone by winning 20 games that season. In the five years from 1946 to 1950, when Sain and Warren Spahn pitched together and Boston fans chanted, "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain," Sain won 95 games and Spahn won 86. Yet it was Spahn, younger, more ebullient, with stylish form and a good fastball, who captured the imagination of writers and fans. Even his profile deserved attention by its very sharpness, while Sain, older, reticent, with only modest ability, seemed the epitome of blurred edges. In those years Sain seldom contributed to team discussions of methods for dispatching opposing batters. He never had been coached in the minor leagues (no one considered him enough of a prospect to waste the time) and had had to educate himself, slowly, painstakingly, so he had grown quite parsimonious of his hard-earned pitching knowledge.
Because of Sain's reputation for dependability and his inherent unobtrusiveness, most people were stunned in July 1948 a few days before the All-Star Game when Johnny Sain threatened to quit baseball. "I meant it," he says. "I was going to walk away from the whole thing." What had angered the previously unflappable Sain was the news that Brave Owner Lou Perini had signed an 18-year-old pitcher named Johnny Antonelli for $65,000. Sain, a proven 20-game winner, was playing for $21,500 after an unsuccessful holdout for more. Eventually Sain got the $30,000 he demanded and a two-year contract. It was not the money that mattered to the modest-living pitcher but what it signified to him. He had come to view the respect and loyalty a team had for him in terms of its salary offer. How much did a team respect him and his talent, he wondered, if it gave an untried youth three times what it offered him.
Sain finished out his productive years as a relief pitcher with the Yankees and there became friends with Ralph Houk, who used to warm him up in the bullpen before relief appearances. Houk was a light hitter who was to spend most of his time in bullpens, but he put this to good use. He studied each game carefully, discussed various situations with pitchers, especially Sain, and prepared himself for that day when he hoped to manage the Yankees. Houk's diligence was eventually rewarded. And when he got the job years later he remembered Sain, who was not only a friend but also someone whose pitching knowledge he greatly respected.
Sain played out his career in Kansas City, retiring in 1955, and the Athletics hired him as their pitching coach in 1959. "To become a pitching coach," he says, "you have to start all over again. You have to get outside of yourself. You might have done things a certain way when you pitched, but that doesn't mean it will be natural to someone else. For example, I threw a lot of sliders and off-speed pitches because I wasn't very fast. But that's me. I could also pitch with only two days' rest [he once pitched nine complete games in 29 days] whereas many pitchers need four, although I think they shouldn't. I have never believed much in running pitchers to keep them in shape. A lot of pitching coaches make a living out of running pitchers so they won't have to spend that same time teaching them how to pitch, something they are unsure of. It would be better to have those pitchers throw on the sidelines every day than run. Things like this I learned on my own. I picked up everything by observation, which is the best teacher. Nothing came easy to me. I had to think things over and over more than guys with natural ability did. Maybe this has made it easier for me to get my ideas across to pitchers.
"I don't know any answers. I don't give pitchers answers. I try to stimulate their thinking, to present alternatives and let them choose. I remind them every day of things they already know but tend to forget. I repeat things a lot, partly for them, but also for my own thinking, to make sure what I'm saying makes sense.... I don't force anyone to be like Johnny Sain. I want them to be what's natural to themselves. I adjust to their style, both as pitchers and people. I find some common ground outside of baseball that'll make it easier for us to communicate. I used to talk flying with Denny McLain. Once you can communicate with a pitcher it's easier to make him listen to you about pitching. You know him better, too. You know when to lay off him, when to minimize his tensions and also when to inspire him. That's why you've got to know him. Pitching coaches don't change pitchers, we just stimulate their thinking. We teach their subconscious mind so that when they get on the mound and a situation arises, it triggers an automatic physical reaction that they might not even be aware of."
Sain lasted less than a year with the Athletics. At the time Kansas City was considered both a farm team and a burial ground for the Yankees. It seemed that every aging body New York disposed of finished out his days with Kansas City, and that every talented youngster the A's produced was sent to New York to aid the Yankees in another pennant drive. Sain resigned his position with the A's a month before the close of the 1959 season because, as he told sportswriters, he felt the organization wasn't trying to build for the future. "I didn't want to be someplace where I was putting more into an organization than that organization was." The realization that he might be dawned on him one day when he asked General Manager Parke Carroll for four tickets to a game. Carroll produced the guest tickets but asked Sain to pay for them. Sain paid and left the room inwardly furious. As a coach he was making only $12,000. "Well, if they don't care that much about me, I'm going," he decided.
Sain spent the next year in Walnut Ridge, Ark., where he owned a ear dealership. However, when Houk was appointed the Yankee manager in 1961, Sain knew he'd have a job in baseball again. Houk did not rehire longtime Yankee Pitching Coach Jim Turner and gave the job instead to Sain.
At first things did not go well for Houk. He was confronted with the problems any manager who had been a bullpen catcher on a team of Fords and Mantles and Berras would face when placed in charge of those same men. Houk turned to Sain for help. One day after a particularly dispiriting loss Sain advised, "Ralph, things look pretty dark right now, but don't let any son of a bitch know it. Let's not panic." A few weeks later, when the Yankees moved into first place, Houk, puffing a cigar, told reporters, "Yeah, things looked pretty bad for me last month, but I wasn't about to let any son of a bitch know it."
The Yankees won pennants in 1961, '62 and '63, and the World Series in 1961 and '62, under Houk's managership. And in 1961 Houk was named Manager of the Year. During that same period Ford, Terry and Bouton had their 20-game seasons. Says Ford of his old tutor Sain, "If you don't know a coach personally, you try his stuff once or twice and if it doesn't work, you stop. But you get so personal with Sain, you admire the man so much that you just have to give his ideas an extra chance. It was Sain's teaching me a hard slider and pitching me with two and three days' rest, instead of the four and five days I needed before, that made me a 20-game winner."
Despite their mutual success, which should have enhanced their friendship, Sain and Houk began to drift apart. Houk confided less and less in his pitching coach, and when he did it was seldom on the personal basis it had been. Sain, as usual, said little. It was during those years that Houk, an ex-Ranger, began to build a reputation as a forceful disciplinarian. (He flattened a slightly drunk Ryne Duren with one punch on the train that brought the Yankees back to New York after their 1958 World Series victory.) Soon, Houk was being referred to by fans and in newspapers as The Major.
Jim Bouton, wearing bell-bottoms and a body shirt of robin's-egg blue, leans forward over his desk at New York's WABC-TV and says, "But does he still like me? I mean, after the book and all. Does Johnny still like me?" Assured, Bouton sits back and says, "Sain taught me everything I know, from how to put on sanitary socks [inside out so as not to get a blister from the lint that forms in the toes] to how to negotiate a contract. I admire him more than any man I ever met. All players like him. Black, white, liberal, conservative, loud, quiet—they all do. Sain gets a pitcher's allegiance before any manager could. Managers don't like this. But it isn't Sain's fault. He doesn't try to undermine a manager's position. He can't help it, can he, if what he is appeals more to pitchers than what their managers are?
"Johnny sees very deeply into things. A lot of managers can't stand to have him around after a while. What general likes a lieutenant that's smarter? Who wants to live with a guy like Sain, always standing off in the corner watching you, and every time you do something lousy to a player, there's John, not saying anything, not revealing what he sees, just looking like some knight in shining armor who knows all. Take Chuck Tanner, for instance. He's a nice guy who didn't know where the bodies were buried when he came to the White Sox. Now he's a successful manager, mostly because of Sain's help. How long do you think he'll want to look over his shoulder and sec Sain reminding him just by his presence that he owes part of his success to someone else? It takes a big man to be able to live with that. That's why Ralph Houk got rid of Sain in '63.
"At first Houk sought out Sain because he was insecure. But when he became a successful manager, The Major didn't need a talented coach anymore, especially one who reminded him of the past. All he wanted was someone who was loyal, and Sain is loyal to himself first, his pitchers second and his manager third. When Houk quit and Berra took over, Houk was afraid Berra would be a winner with Sain's help, and that would diminish Houk's success, so he got rid of Sain."
When the Yankees lost the 1963 World Series to the Dodgers in four straight, Sain found it strange that Ralph Houk, always a bitter loser, did not seem particularly upset by that humiliation. Then Sain read in the newspapers that Houk had been promoted to general manager and Yogi Berra had replaced him as field manager for the 1964 season, and he understood. "There was a rumor that Yogi would be the manager that year," Sain recalls, "and I thought, 'No way. The players won't respect him.' When I read about it in the papers I began thinking—Ralph is a man I always believed leveled with me, and here he didn't tell me about Yogi until after I read it in the papers. Houk sent me a letter saying he hoped it wasn't too big a shock, and a while after that I got a letter from Yogi asking me to work for him. I wrote Houk a letter saying that due to increased expenses I needed a $2,500 raise from the $22,500 I was already getting, which at the time I believe was the highest salary ever paid a pitching coach. I also wanted a two-year contract. Houk called me on the phone and said Topping wouldn't go for the extra money. I said, O.K., send me my release. He did. If he had been my friend, like I thought, he would have tried to talk me out of leaving. But he didn't. When Bouton found out, he offered to give me the extra money I had asked for out of his own salary. He thought it was just a salary dispute. They put Whitey in as pitching coach, and after him Jim Turner came back, and I know what Ralph Houk thinks of Jim Turner."
"Jim Turner is the best pitching coach ever," Ralph Houk said emphatically not long ago. "Understand? The best ever! A good pitching coach deals only with mechanics. It can be detrimental to a team if a pitching coach gets too personally involved with his pitchers. He should treat them mechanically. That's why Johnny Sain had his troubles. I've heard a lot of bad things about Sain since he left us. He can't seem to hold a job, can he? Jim Turner's been a pitching coach with the Yankees for years. He knows what I expect of him. We get together, and I tell him how I'm gonna use the pitchers and he does it."
Again Sain sat out a year until, in the fall of 1964, Calvin Griffith, the owner of the Minnesota Twins, offered him a job, asking him to name his salary. Sain signed for $20,000.
Before the season began it had been rumored that Twin Manager Sam Mele would lose his job if he did not produce a winner in '65. When he left home for spring training, Sain remarked offhandedly, "Wouldn't it be funny if Mele became the Manager of the Year?" That season the Twins did win the American League pennant, and Sam Mele was voted Manager of the Year.
Despite both Mele's and Sain's success (Sain had produced his usual 20-game winner in Mudcat Grant, who said of him, "He sure puts biscuits in your pan"), the two men did not get along. Mele distrusted Sain and the power he held over his pitchers. Furthermore, he seldom agreed with Sain's unorthodox pitching concepts, and often the two men had a difference of opinion over the amount of running a pitcher should do, or how many days' rest he might need between starts. But beyond that, Sain felt he was never able to communicate deeply with Mele, that he never knew where he stood with him, which to a man like Sain was disconcerting. After signing a 1966 contract for $25,000, Sain's difficulties with Mele grew until by midseason they were irreconcilable. One day in a game in Kansas City, Billy Martin, then a Twin coach, berated one of Sain's pitchers over a squeeze play. Sain, furious, went to his man's defense. Mele, who was listening to the dispute, told the two coaches to "knock it off." Later, thinking about the incident, Sain became increasingly upset. The following day he moved all his equipment and uniforms out of the coaches' locker room and deposited them in the players' locker room, where he dressed until the end of the season, when he was Fired. Ever since then, whatever club he has worked for, Sain has dressed with the players.
When news of Sain's dismissal was made public, Jim Kaat, a 25-game winner that year, wrote an open letter to the Twins' front office that was published in area newspapers. The letter accused the Twins of making a terrible mistake in firing Sain, and it implied that the team's drop to second place that year rested with Mele's inability to communicate with his players, as well as with Sain.
Dave Boswell, a pitcher at Minnesota in 1966, was until very recently a seldom-used reliever for the Baltimore Orioles. A 20-game winner with the Twins, he subsequently damaged his arm so severely that he was given his unconditional release. He was picked up by the Orioles only on a gamble. "If Johnny Sain had any weakness as a pitching coach," says Boswell, "it was that he didn't understand hard throwers as much as he should. He never made us run wind sprints at Minnesota because he didn't believe in running. Some of the pitchers, me and Kaat in particular, didn't run 10 sprints all year, and we came up with sore arms. But that was our fault, I guess. Johnny left it up to us to run on our own if we thought we needed it. He never pressured you to do anything. He didn't bother you a lot, but when he did, when he talked about pitching and the possibilities of a baseball, you could actually see them before your eyes. As a kid you put that ball in your hand and you thought of it just as a ball. But after Sain put that ball in your hand you didn't see it the same anymore. It had possibilities you never dreamed of."
From 1967 to 1969 Johnny Sain coached under Mayo Smith at Detroit. In 1968 the Tigers won the American League pennant and the World Series, Mayo Smith was named Manager of the Year, Denny McLain became the first pitcher to win 30 or more games in one season since Dizzy Dean in 1934 and Mickey Lolich won three complete games in the World Series to become only the seventh man in history to accomplish that feat. Ironically, but predictably enough, Sain was close friends with Lolich and McLain, both of whom he had been warned were "real nuts," and daily he grew more estranged from Mayo Smith, who, he had been told, was "a real gentleman."
"McLain and Lolich both wanted to improve themselves," says Sain, "and that's all I need in a man. Both were very individualistic, and I like that. McLain may have been a little loose off the mound but on it he was all business. And he's got guts. Both he and Lolich. You know that Lolich rides those motorcycles of his, and McLain's got a pilot's license. If McLain was flying an airplane and it died on him you could bet money he'd still be lighting it when it hit the ground.
"It was Mayo I had problems with. He's a fine guy like everybody told me, and I only really disagreed with him once. But still we never got along. When I came to Detroit I had a reputation behind me, and he was relatively unknown and trying to make a name for himself. Every day sports-writers would seek me out for an interview. They were always asking me questions like why didn't I become a manager, which I could never be, and all the time Mayo was hitting that press room trying to be real nice with reporters. Pretty soon I could sense there was friction between Mayo and me. I don't like friction. It lingers with me. It disturbs me if I have to be on my toes with someone, always afraid I might offend them. That's not what life is all about. Mayo had this ability to keep me uneasy all the time. He was so smooth, I never knew where I stood. I'd rather he declared himself, cuss me out, so we could get things in the open. But he never did. He was always a real nice guy."
Mickey Lolich, the Tigers' 25-game winner in 1971, sits down for breakfast at New York's Hotel Roosevelt. He orders four scrambled eggs, four pieces of toast, bacon, a large orange juice and a pot of coffee. At 6 feet, 230 pounds, Lolich refers to himself as a fat man's athlete. "Fat guys need idols, too," he once said. Now, speaking quietly and occasionally glancing across to a nearby table where Manager Billy Martin is eating his breakfast, Lolich talks about Sain. "He made me a 20-game winner. Yet, he never taught me a single thing about pitching a baseball. Maybe that's because John's not a pitching coach, he's a headshrinker. Even when you learn from Sain, you never feel you've learned a thing from him. He lets you think you did it yourself. McLain wouldn't learn from anyone when he was with Detroit, so Johnny just taught him things without letting Denny know it. McLain used to sneak down to the bullpen like a little kid so he could practice what Sain had taught him without letting anyone know it. I'll bet to this day he'll swear he never learned a thing from Johnny. But every pitcher learns from John. Pitching takes on new shades and nuances. Sain loves pitchers. He doesn't maybe love baseball so much, but he loves pitchers. That's why he doesn't get along with the management. He believes pitchers are unique, and only he understands them."
In the spring of 1970, after the Tigers fired him, Sain was offered a job as minor league pitching coach with the California Angels. To the surprise of many, Sain accepted the position. He spent much of the 1970 season driving across the country, stopping at cities like El Paso, Salt Lake City and Idaho Falls, where he worked with youngsters who were light-years away from the Lolichs and McLains he had been accustomed to. Yet Sain cherishes that experience in which, in his own words, "I rediscovered the country. I had been having marriage problems, and I took that job to get away from things. I'd always thought that in baseball or in life you get to a point where you can relax, level off, but I found you can never rest. You always have the possibility of sinking. This divorce action with my wife has made me stay young as I grow older. She's got six lawyers and she's determined to take my money, my kids and my reputation, and I'm just as determined not to let her. In her thirties she wanted to go back to college, so I encouraged her. But then she seemed to think she was better than me. We always seemed in competition. She said I was too easy, that I like to be kicked around by people.
"I was always an outsider. I was never anyone's glamour boy. I was always looking over my shoulder at some new Dizzy Dean who would make everyone forget me. People were waiting to drive a nail in my coffin. It's a human weakness to hope somebody fails. People are never the way you're taught they should be. We grow up with standards that we find aren't true. I used to believe if you were straight with people they would be straight with you. But they aren't. I hate for people to toy with me, to be superior, but I've got to give them the chance. I don't know why I'm always testing people, but I am. Maybe I'm just playing games with them. Maybe I'm fooling everyone."
Sain, wearing the light blue traveling uniform of the White Sox, stands with his arms folded behind Steve Kealey, who is working steadily off the pitchers' warmup mound at Fenway Park in Boston. Kealey sweats and grunts as he throws. He is 24 with red hair, freckles and the muscled, tapering build of a swimmer. While he sweats, Sain talks softly to him. Kealey does not acknowledge Sain's words, which are few, really only an occasional phrase, an exhortation, rarely a sentence.
"Heh, that had the beginnings," says Sain, "the beginnings." Kealey, impassive, continues to throw a curveball that is flat and does not break down as much as Sain would wish. "He'll get it soon enough," says Sain, speaking just loud enough for Kealey to hear. "It's only a matter of time."
It is mid-July and Kealey is 1-1 with an ERA of 4.35. He is a hard thrower with adequate control, but even he will be the first to admit he is far from being a finished pitcher. But he has confidence that wherever his potential might lie, Sain will unearth it. "He tells me things I never considered before," says Kealey. "They make sense when you think about them, but who thinks of the things Johnny Sain does? John's whole life is teaching pitchers. It's like, by teaching us to get hitters out it proves he could have done it today, too. You know, his success lives on. This is the second year I've worked with him. When I was in spring training with the Angels I talked to him once. But the front office wouldn't let any big-leaguers talk to him. They told us to stay away from Sain."
After Kealey finishes throwing, Sain walks to the outfield where the rest of the Chicago pitchers are standing around, stirring themselves infrequently to retrieve a fly ball in a halfhearted lope, but more often planted, spread-legged, like gray-flanneled pelicans. Sain moves from pitcher to pitcher. He stands beside each one for a few moments, his arms folded across his chest, spitting tobacco juice into the still, sunny afternoon, passing the time in small talk that only occasionally drifts into, then out of, the subject of pitching.
Sain says very little about pitching to Wilbur Wood, the club's 29-year-old knuckleballer, because as Sain admits, "I don't know much about knuckle-balls." Wood, a chunky, smiling man, is a nine-year veteran, a castoff of the Red Sox and the Pirates, both of which used him primarily as a relief pitcher. In 1970 as a reliever with the White Sox he was 9-13. The club's '71 brochure said that "some thought was being given to restoring him to a starting role on occasion." That thought belonged to Sain. Sain made one other suggestion to Wood, and it was that he pitch often with only two days' rest between starts. Sain felt that as a knuckleballer, Wood put less strain on his arm than did other pitchers with more orthodox stuff, and therefore he could absorb the extra work with case. Wood started 42 games in 1971 and won 22 of them. He pitched 334 innings, the most of any White Sox pitcher since 1917 and second in the American League in 1971 to Mickey Lolich's 376 innings. Wood's ERA was 1.91, second in the league to Vida Blue's 1.82.
Sain also says very little to Vicente Romo, the club's 28-year-old, Mexican-born relief pitcher, but for a different reason. Romo, a smooth-skinned man who resembles an overweight bullfighter, is another Red Sox castoff. He possesses a windmill motion, similar to Luis Tiant's, that seems to deliver a thousand different pitches from a thousand different angles. He speaks little English, and for this reason Sain finds it difficult to communicate with him as deeply as he wishes. With Romo he deals primarily with pitching mechanics. To speak to him in more personal terms would be to risk a misunderstanding, says Sain.
Sain talks a good deal with Joel Horlen, the club's 33-year-old veteran. Horlen, a small man with a preoccupied gaze, is at a crucial juncture in his career. He was once the ace of the Chicago staff, winning 19 games in 1967, but he has lost speed from both his fastball and his curve and has been losing. Sain is trying to help Horlen make that adjustment all pitchers must make in their mid-30s when the quality of their pitches deteriorates and they must increase their quantity. Sain is working with Horlen on a screw ball that he hopes will prolong his career. "He doesn't say much to guys who are going good," says Horlen. "He's a funny guy. He seems to spend more time with guys who are having their problems. Like he always says, he waits for guys to hit bottom before he talks to them." After a 6-16 season in 1970, Horlen posted an 8-9 record in '71, his first year under Sain. (Horlen is now with the Athletics.)
Rich Hinton, a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Arizona, had pitched only five innings at tins point of his career (he would be traded to the Yankees). Yet Johnny Sain calls him a terrific prospect if for no other reason than, "He looks at you real straight." Of Sain, Hinton says, "Working under John is the best break I could get. Every club he's been with has had a 20-game winner. The only problem is he's been with so many clubs that all the pitchers he's taught cut each other's throat. It's like telling everyone in a card game the same trick. Pretty soon they'll all use it and nobody benefits. What I like best about John, though, is that he never second-guesses you. He'll come out to the mound and say, 'Don't you worry, that was a helluva pitch. He never should have hit it.' Then he'll say, 'Now, this batter is a poor breaking-ball hitter, but you can throw him whatever you think best. You're the judge.' And when you get the guy out with a breaking ball, you believe it was your pitch, not his. You made that final decision. Johnny Sain lets you make the act of will."