ELIMINATOR OF THE VARIABLES

When Steve Carlton concentrates, things happen: 27 wins for last-place Philadelphia, the richest contract in baseball history for a pitcher and commercials at thousands a throw
April 09, 1973

The tall young athlete in the checkered sport coat walked quickly past the swimming pool as old men in flowered bathing trunks scuttled in his wake, their wrinkled limbs pumping below protruding bellies. "Hey, Steve," one of them trumpeted, "gonna win 30 this year?" Steve Carlton, baseball's best pitcher, smiled gamely, but his small darting dark eyes betrayed the uneasiness he experiences when trapped in a crowd. "Sure," he said without looking back. The old man guffawed, shaking his head as if that were the most preposterous boast he had heard in a lifetime of suffering braggadocios. Wasn't that Steve a caution....

Carlton had come to the improbably named Waikiki Resort Motel in Miami Beach to revive old times, not oldtimers. Ten years ago he had been a pool boy there, a youth so tall and gaunt he seemed an Ichabod Crane to the septuagenarian clientele. But he had been good at his job, just as he had been good at almost everything then that did not involve books or classrooms.

Young Steve Carlton was a Dade County Paul Bunyan. Why, he could knock a line of birds off the telephone wires with nothing more than a handful of rocks. Once, while walking in the woods, he came upon a quail and scared it into the branches of an oak. He took an ax in his big left hand and flung it hard. The blade cut that little bird's head off as neatly as a surgeon's knife. The ax, stained red, just hummed in the trunk of the tree until Steve fetched it.

He could throw a football 75 yards in the air, and though he was only a forward, he could outjump almost any basketball center in the county. At the Waikiki, he could stack mats higher than any pool boy and he was the champion comic diver. One day he dived off the roof of the pool shack to rescue a little girl from drowning. He was something.

He was something else now, suddenly, after adult years of mostly humdrum competence. He was a national celebrity, and as he sat sipping beer and reminiscing with the help in the motel coffee shop, the old people outside began clambering out of the pool to approach him. There was only a trickle at first. Then they came in a geriatric torrent, and Carlton retreated to the parking lot in full, if controlled, flight, a Gulliver pursued by Lilliputians. Menus, cocktail napkins, claim checks were thrust at him as he made his way to his rented car. He signed them swiftly, courteously. He was smiling as he started the car engine, but his eyes were dead ahead, away from the faces pressed against the windows.

As he drove off, he turned to his companions and said levelly, "I suppose they have to identify with someone. That's what it's all about, isn't it?" His marketing consultant, David Land-field, answered. "The day they stop identifying," he said, "is the day your salary stops."

Carlton's salary for pitching with what has been one of baseball's worst teams, the Philadelphia Phillies, will be $165,000 this year, or more than any pitcher has ever earned. In an erratic career with the St. Louis Cardinals—he lost 19 games one season, won 20 the next—he had had a background of salary disputes, the last of which led to the now infamous trade that sent him to Philadelphia just before spring training last year, a consignment, it was believed at the time, to purgatory. Instead, the trade was heaven-blessed for Carlton. Grimly determined and with complete mastery of both his emotions and his formidable pitching arsenal, he compiled in 1972 perhaps the most extraordinary record of any pitcher in history.

He set major league marks by winning 27 games for a last-place team and by accounting for 45.8% of all his team's victories. He led the National League in wins, games started (41), complete games (30), innings pitched (346), strikeouts (310) and earned run average (1.98). Only Sandy Koufax among National League lefthanders had won as many games in a single season, and Koufax in 1966 was pitching for a pennant winner, not a last-place team.

Astonishingly, the Phillies did not play like Phillies when Carlton was pitching. Balls that ordinarily filtered through their infield sieve were somehow stopped; outfielders, conditioned to watching the play as spectators, caromed off fences in pursuit of certain two-base hits; and batters who regarded a trip to the plate as a journey into the unknown manfully took their cuts in his behalf.

"It is hard to explain," said Paul Owens, who was Carlton's manager for part of last season and is the club's director of player personnel this year, "but you could feel that everything was different when he was pitching. The players would perform differently and I'd even manage differently. He had charisma. You had to be there to sense it. It was like when a beautiful woman walks into a room. No one says anything, but you know something is happening."

So Carlton's contributions to Philadelphia baseball were tangible, intangible and inestimable, and when it came time to negotiate his 1973 contract he was, for once in his nine-year major league career, in the Catbird Seat. He had shown the Phillies what he could do for them. Now what could they do for him?

"It was one of my easiest signings,' said Owens. "We only talked 10 minutes. I just told him that I honestly didn't know what to offer him and he said he honestly didn't know what to ask for. We finally agreed he should be the highest-paid pitcher in baseball. I felt he wanted that. I felt he should get it."

Carlton, whose off-field reputation as a bibulous swinger is only partly earned, is not a big spender, nor is he even remotely interested in the dreary world of commerce. In the age of the businessman-ballplayer, the walking conglomerate, Carlton, at 28, cares only about pitching baseballs and shooting guns. During the season he pitches; in the off-season he hunts. Anything else is an encumbrance.

All of his earnings—and with endorsements, commercials and personal appearances they now may total upwards of $200,000 annually—are turned over to the firm Landfield represents, Athletes Financial Services, Inc., of Buena Park, Calif., which in turn pays his bills, invests his surpluses, negotiates his various contracts, builds tax shelters, calculates his income tax and, if Mrs. Carlton should so desire, buys his groceries. The Carltons—Steve, wife Beverley and sons Steven, 6, and Scott, 4—live comfortably on an allowance doled out by the company.

"When he's through playing," says Landfield, "he can hunt 12 months of the year if that's what he wants."

Landfield, 39, is Dave to the Carlton family, as chummy a marketing consultant as a rich young man could ask for. He is a short, compact Chicagoan who some years ago made the unlikely transition from acting—you may remember him in Beach Blanket Bingo—to jock finance. His diverse background allows him unusual conversational latitude, and of an evening his talk may roam from negotiable securities to Annette Funicello.

Landfield was in Miami one week before spring training acting as a buffer between his client and various television and advertising types who had employed Carlton to film a paint commercial. For reciting such challenging dialogue as "Well, it's gonna take a lot of work, boys," Carlton would be paid $5,000.

Also on the set—at the K-Land Youth Center—was Carlton's father, Joe, a slim, gray-haired 65-year-old of infinite garrulity.

"I still can't believe all this," said Joe as his son took his place among a supporting cast of 8- to 11-year-old boys. "I never was much of a baseball man. I remember when Steve pitched a no-hitter in Little League, I wasn't even sure what was going on. Then, when everybody went out there to hug him after the game, I figured I'd better go, too.

"I tell you, they just don't know the value of the dollar now. I worked hard for every cent I ever earned. You know, down here in Florida we had a Depression before everybody else did. I retired last year. Twenty-five years with Pan American. In maintenance—building, not airplane. But I don't need any help from anybody now. Not even that fella. When Steve was still in high school I told him, 'There is a great big tree out there with an orange waiting to be plucked at the top of it. You gotta climb high to get to it and maybe on the way up you'll have to step on a few fingers. But it's there waiting for you.' Well, Steve's right at the top of that tree now, but it hasn't changed him a bit. He's still the same old stinker."

Like any stage parent watching his child make his acting debut, Joe Carlton was all fuss and bother on the set. Flitting nervously behind the cameras, oblivious to the disapproving glances of the crewmen, he shouted directions at the seemingly unruffled Steve: "Pull in your damn gut. Comb that hair leaking out of your cap." Steve did look heavy, although he insisted his weight was where it should be—215 pounds. He has a deep chest, the product of an off-season weight-lifting program he has followed since his skinny boyhood. Traditionalists protest that weight lifting is harmful to a pitcher—it tightens the chest, restricts the throwing motion—but, as in most things, Steve Carlton has resolutely followed his own course.

He smiled back tolerantly at his father, sucking in the offending middle with the exaggerated gusto of a Marine boot. He was letter-perfect in his lines and, fortified at the lunch break with judicious doses of the grapefruit juice and vodka Joe and Dave had provided for the occasion, was relaxed and at ease. Off camera, he ad-libbed in the grand manner of W.C. Fields: "Try M.A.B. paint. It goes great with Scotch."

Still, Carlton was concerned about his condition, both physical and mental. In the past, when he showed only glimpses of his vast potential, as he did when he struck out 19 Mets four years ago, he had not been in much demand. Now, as a bona fide star, everyone wanted a piece of his time.

Carlton had worked hard to control both his skills and his boundless energy. He had been, as one Phillie executive described him, "both a leader and a follower, a Jekyll and a Hyde." Now his tendencies toward wildness off the field had been curbed and he had achieved near-complete concentration on the field. He had become something of an athletic existentialist, one who considered himself the master of his own fate.

"Man is the only one who puts limitations on himself," he said one day. "There are really no limits. A lot of professional athletes play beneath their ability. They may believe they are giving 100% but they aren't, because they are not thinking at their peak. You can create an atmosphere about yourself, positive or negative. The year I lost 19 games, I got all wrapped up in self-pity. I learned a lot about mental attitude that year."

Carlton admits he has benefited from the counsel of an older man in St. Louis who has been writing him encouraging letters for the past three years, but he fiercely protects his spiritual leader's anonymity, describing him only as "a warm, a very wise man."

Carlton's mental preparation for a pitching assignment is considered monastic by the congenial standards of the diamond. He shuts himself off the day of a game, entering, as former teammate Dal Maxvill describes it, "a little dark room of the mind." But win or lose he emerges from this self-inflicted catatonia with renewed verve. "He will psych himself out for 36 hours," says one Phillie front-office man, "then in the next 48 hours he's liable to do anything." "He is," says Owens, "no Little Lord Fauntleroy."

Carlton protests that neither his uppers nor his downers are as high or as low as they are made out to be. His pre-game meditation, he says, is merely a device to banish the "variables" that would otherwise shatter his concentration. "People are always throwing variables at you," he says, as if variables were hard objects to be ducked. Those he ducks include the past, the future, anger, men on base and, preeminently, pressure.

"Pressure just isn't there," he will say in defiance of logic. "It's on the opposition, where it belongs." Indeed, a batter facing Carlton, who glares malevolently down at him from six feet, five inches above the mound and who has at his command a wicked fastball, a sharp curve, a moving slider and the firm conviction that destiny is his consort, may not be faulted for agreeing with the transfer of this intangible burden. Home plate is Carlton's personal property. Batters are merely trespassers.

There are days and nights when his proprietary rights remain virtually unchallenged. On these occasions—when the fastball fairly hums, when the curve breaks supernaturally and the slider becomes a hypnotic amalgam of the other two—Steve Carlton can dominate a baseball game as few pitchers ever have. He enjoyed such a night last Aug. 9 in Pittsburgh before 19,832 Pirate partisans who departed Three Rivers Stadium convinced they had been witness to the athletic reincarnation of Koufax,

The Pirates at that point in the season had a team batting average of .278. Five men in their starting lineup that night were hitting above .300. They were playing at home. They were the defending world champions. They were en route to another division championship. And their ace, World Series hero Steve Blass, was pitching.

Carlton handled them as if they were...well...Phillies.

Entering the ninth, he was leading 2-0. He had personally accounted for one of the runs with a homer in the third inning. Of the Pirates, only Rennie Stennett, with a double in the fourth, and Manny Sanguillen, with a single in the fifth, had reached base. Carlton had struck out 12, all in the first six innings during an amazing stretch when, as Owens described it, "Those hitters couldn't even get a piece of the ball—you could just hear that mitt popping."

Now, leading off the ninth as a pinch hitter for Blass was Roberto Clemente, a nemesis to Carlton as he was to most pitchers. Working with uncharacteristic caution, Carlton allowed the count to reach three and two. Clemente fouled off half a dozen pitches, then walked. The next batter, Gene Clines, singled. Were the dormant Pirates awakening?

Hardly. Stennett, bunting, popped weakly toward the mound, and Carlton, making a shoestring catch, threw quickly to second base to catch pinch runner Dock Ellis, who had gone with the pitch. Double play. Next Al Oliver, with the count two and two, hit a fastball deep to right field. Carlton watched it warily at first, then confidently as Roger Freed overtook it near the fence. The game was over.

Carlton had shut out the best-hitting team in baseball. It was his fourth shutout in his last five games and it extended his string of innings without earned runs to 54. It was also his 13th straight victory, a Phillie record soon to become 15 straight. "Hitting him tonight," said Pirate slugger Willie Stargell, "was like drinking coffee with a fork."

On nights like these, Carlton could be confronting Murderers Row and be only vaguely aware of his opposition, so absorbed is he with the art of pitching.

"My vision is ordinarily limited to the catcher," he says. "A man on base is merely a variable. I see the batter only dimly outlined. I don't care if it's Henry Aaron or Dal Maxvill up there. Either can hurt you, but neither can if I'm doing my job. The hitter will take every advantage he can get, so I must move him back if he digs in too close. I own those corners. Naturally, I don't want to hit anyone. I know what I can do out there—I can kill someone. I can also kill someone driving my car."

Carlton got through the year without killing—or even maiming—anyone, but he did bounce a fastball off Tim Foli's helmet in a stormy game at Montreal on June 25. Since the Expos' pitcher, Ernie McAnally, had hit the Phillies' Joe Lis the previous inning, it was firmly suspected by Montreal Manager Gene Mauch that Carlton was not so much punishing a trespasser as retaliating for the earlier transgression. Mauch trotted out to the mound, tossed a wild punch at Carlton, missed and pulled a muscle in his leg. Players from both dugouts joined the battle., and in the confusion Carlton was somehow kicked on his pitching arm. He remained in the game, however, winning, typically, 1-0. Foli was the only batter he hit all season.

Such incidents scarcely intrude on Carlton's inner calm. They are, well, variables. But he was troubled somewhat by an off-field episode last year. At the end of every season, Carlton and some of his ballplayer friends set off for the wilds on an extended hunting trip. Their arrival this year in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in western Montana was delayed, however, when they were ordered off a Frontier Airlines plane for allegedly drinking their own liquor on board, for playing a tape recorder too noisily and for generally making a nuisance of themselves.

The players—Carlton, Joe Hoerner, Pat Jarvis, Tim McCarver and the illustrious Henry Aaron—steadfastly deny they were guilty of any shenanigans. Carlton, whose behavior on social occasions has not always been decorous, was specifically absolved of guilt by his companions. "I have acted worse on airplanes," Carlton says, "and been treated nicely."

When Joe Carlton read of the exploit in a Miami newspaper, he quickly concluded he had before him a tissue of lies, the work, probably, of subversives. "I wrote that editor and told him it looks to me like you're running some kind of North Vietnam paper here, 'cause it sure don't look to me like an American paper."

Carlton, who to the best testimony of his friends is no longer a wild youth, was sorely embarrassed by the publicity. He was even more outraged at the inconvenience the ejection caused, for valuable hunting time was lost, and if there is any human activity he regards with greater solemnity than pitching it is hunting. In addition to the annual season's-end safaris and other lesser junkets. Carlton takes off with his boys on weekends to hunt quail at friend Bob Hoffman's property outside St. Louis—where Carlton still lives. The entire off-season, for that matter, is pretty well spent popping away at one thing or another. "We're always surprised," says hunting buddy Maxvill, "at the amount of work Steve is willing to do to get to go hunting."

As keen as he is on tracking and dispatching his prey, Carlton is not insensitive to the supplications of the ecologists. There are occasions when he is almost defensive about his recreation.

"The kill is not important," he said during one contemplative moment, "although I understand the psychology of that. Yes, I know—the Hemingway thing. But for me, it's mainly getting away after all that time spent in cities. It's getting on top of a mountain in clear, clean air and looking down on green valleys below. It's the loneliness, the challenge, even the danger.

"Once, going down the side of a snowy mountain, I decided to speed things up a little by sliding on my rear. I hit some ice and I slid all right. I couldn't stop. I grabbed at trees, bushes, logs, anything, but I couldn't stop. I could see myself getting killed. Finally, and I'm not even sure how, I stopped in a clump of bushes near the edge of a cliff. I was that far from dead. There are many different kinds of fear, and I guess I was scared. But mostly, I felt thrilled."

It was a warm, breezy Miami evening, the kind that rouses even the most decrepit tourist to a night on the town. The Carlton entourage—Steve, Joe, Mom and intrepid adviser Dave—had opted for mackerel and stone crab at the Mike Gordon Seafood Restaurant on 79th Street.

There was trouble almost from the start. The lines of waiting diners were long and quarrelsome. The Carlton name meant nothing to the hostess, and when the group was finally seated it was determined that it was not large enough for the appointed table. Would the Carl-tons accept lesser accommodations? Certainly not.

"Let's go someplace else," said Dave.

"The food here is good," said Steve.

Drinks were ordered—a Beefeater on the rocks with a twist for Steve, a vodka martini on the rocks for Dave, bourbon and water for the elder Carltons.

"Let's not wait for the drinks," said Dave. "Let's just go someplace else."

"Wait'll you taste the food," said Steve.

Dave seemed mollified. He began an analysis of famous show business personalities he had known, Annette Funicello had little talent, he advised the group, but she sure was built.

Joe was quiet. He was fresh out of adolescent Steve anecdotes and he had exhausted his catalogue of philosophical observations. He sat there examining the silverware and running his napkin over the rim of his water glass. Mom—Mrs. Anne Carlton—wondered what everyone was going to order.

Steve was worried about his shape. All those damn banquets. Variables, all of them. Beverley and the kids were still in St. Louis. He had not seen much of them this winter.

The drinks arrived. Dave sipped his, then brought his fist down heavily on the table. "Gin, dammit! This is gin! I ordered vodka. Let's go someplace else!"

Steve watched with rising irritation as the waitress poured a single shot of Beefeater into a large glass filled with ice and lemon. The liquid barely occupied the bottom of the glass.

"That does it," he bellowed, more angry now even than Dave. "A single shot! What kind of a cheapskate is this Mike Gordon?"

"We wanna see Mike Gordon," said Dave.

"He's doing the dishes," said the waitress.

Stories of how Steve had been known to stage scenes in bars and restaurants sprang to mind.

"We're just gonna have to do something to this place," he said ominously. He was eying two expensive nautical lanterns on the shelf behind him. Visions flashed of the lanterns in smithereens, of angry voices, a great commotion...

"Yes," said Steve, "we definitely gotta do something." He looked furious. He grabbed the menu, a slim paper volume with fish jumping over Mike Gordon's name on the cover. He held it before him. Then, theatrically, ripped it in two. He smiled a satisfied, good inner smile. He had caught himself. Almost, anyway.

"Vindictiveness," he said very slowly, "is a variable."

"Why don't we go someplace else," said Dave.

PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.CASHING IN on his new fame, Carlton films a paint commercial for TV. His fee was $5,000. PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.STEVE ACCEPTS SOME GERIATRIC GAZING PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.AUTOGRAPH SEEKERS DROP IN ON A FLORIDA REUNION OF CARLTON AND HIS FATHER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)