Reflecting on the volatile moods of the Atlanta Braves, a subject that has confounded more than a few wise baseball heads of late, Relief Pitcher Danny Frisella feels that after one full season with the team he has an explanation. "Remember," he says, invoking a credo passed on by some dugout sage, "half this game is 90% thinking."
That seemed to sum up the jumbled state of mind of a club that finished fifth in the National League's West Division last year by hitting better and pitching worse than any of its competitors. This season, after the big emotional blastoff of Henry Aaron's 715th home run, the Braves reverted to the old schizophrenic ways that Atlantans have come to know and reject. Playing before as few as 3,029 lonely souls, Manager Eddie Mathews' impressionable charges spent the first 5½ weeks of the season so near the bottom of their top-heavy division that they were on the verge of predictability.
But wait. As any of the budding pop psychoanalysts on the Atlanta roster would readily attest, you can't keep a good manic-depressive team down. Beginning in mid-May, the Braves took off on a monumental high, winning 25 of 33 games to overtake the Cincinnati Reds and close to within five games of the front-running Los Angeles Dodgers. And they did it—surprise!—largely on the strength of their pitching.
Unaccustomed to such giddy heights, the Braves could be forgiven if they suffered a case of acrophobia last week, especially considering that they closed out June with nine games against the Reds and three against the Dodgers in just 10 days. Though the Braves lost eight of the 12, there was still exhilaration and a suggestion that this was a different Atlanta team in the fact that nine of the contests were decided by one run. For a club that once considered an 11-9 game something of a pitchers' duel, that was no small achievement. Says flame-haired Carl Morton, the muscular righthander who started off the 12-game stretch by blanking the Reds 1-0, "We're playing Dodger baseball now. We get two or three runs a game, play good defense and get good pitching. It's exciting baseball—if the heart holds out."
The mind, however, remains the critical factor. Four of the Braves' starters—Morton (10-6), veteran knuckleballer Phil Niekro (8-6), towering Ron Reed (5-4) and Roric Harrison (6-8)—are holdovers with a new outlook. Notably, they are cheered by the fact that nearly 50% fewer home runs are being hit in Atlanta Stadium these days because the fence in the left-center power alley has been moved back 10 feet.
But when it comes to positive thinking, the real difference in the Braves mound staff is an unlikely pair of freshly developed talents named Lee William (Buzz) Capra and Thomas Ross (Puma) House. Though they are frequently mistaken for bat boys, they take command on the field with a kind of Napoleonic air that is as effective as it is necessary. At 5'10" and 168 pounds Capra is just a shade smaller than House. Throughout their careers both have suffered because they do not fit the image of the modern major league pitcher: a tall, robust fire-baller. The Braves have come to think differently, even though they like to refer to the two as "our pair of pygmies."
Capra, 26, is a fidgety craftsman who mixes off-speed breaking pitches with a sneaky fastball. A righthander, he dips so low off the mound that he seems to deliver the ball from the vicinity of his kneecaps. "He can't throw high," says Aaron, "because he's so low to the ground to begin with."
Capra endures the ribbing good-naturedly, though he is convinced that he did not make his mark in the majors sooner because "they held my size against me. What people don't realize is that because you're small you work twice as hard and sometimes succeed twice as well as the big guys." As a Chicago schoolboy Capra went bare-chested to his freezing cold garage each winter morning to hang for several minutes from an iron bar. His father had a theory it would make him grow taller.
When Capra, an art major, left Illinois State in 1969 he was not highly touted—by a long stretch. Not only was he the 625th choice in the player draft, he was brought up to the majors by the New York Mets, a team that tended to measure its recruits by the strapping standards of its ace starters, Tom Scavcr and Jerry Koosman. Though Capra was mostly a starter in the minors, where he compiled a 42-17 record, he says the Mets put him "in the bullpen because they didn't think I was strong enough to go nine innings." In last year's playoffs with the Reds, his sole contribution was to warm up twice. "In the World Series," he says, "I did even better. I got to warm up five times."
House, 27, an amiable, bespectacled fellow, is a left-handed relief pitcher. On the mound he stirs memories of little Eddie Lopat, with his compact delivery and pinpoint control. Though his strikeout pitches are a wicked screwball and a "slurve," a cross between a curve and a slider, lately he has been taking more chances with his fastball which, says Braves Catcher Johnny Oates, "on a scale of five is a three."
On the "hyper" scale, House is off the charts. "I can't help it," he says. "I'm just a very excitable person. When I get into a game my voice goes up four octaves. Between innings I used to jump around and yell in the dugout. But this season I've learned to control myself a little bit." Measurably so, says Frisella. "When the phone rang in the bullpen last season," he says, "Tommy would jump a foot and a half. Now he only goes up six inches."
House received the same cool treatment as Capra on his way up. Appalled at the shabbiness of the minor leagues, he went back to USC last year to get his master's in marketing, partly so he could write a thesis foretelling "the demise of the farm system as we know it."
After years of anonymity, both Capra and House quite literally, if briefly, leaped into prominence. Buzz, so-called because of the frantic way he swung a bat as a child, was one of the most spirited combatants in last year's playoff brawl between the Reds and Mets, trading punches "to show that a little guy can take care of himself." Nicknamed Puma because of the catlike way he pounces on grounds balls, House is the fellow who caught Aaron's 715th home run ball and then sprinted it in to Henry at home plate. "Ever since I caught that ball," he says, hinting at things magical, "everything has been going good for me."
Before the season opened neither House nor Capra was very confident about his future. House, in fact, went job hunting during the winter as a hedge against being cut from the team. And Capra says that "no matter how they counted it, I was the 11th man on the Mets' 10-man staff." He did not know how fortunate that position was until Braves General Manager Eddie Robinson bought him for $35,000 during spring training and told him, "You're going to see some action in Atlanta, son."
Going into the Braves' big mid-May winning streak, Capra was 0-2 and a reliever and House had pitched only 17 innings, those without undue distinction. But as the momentum gathered, the diminutive pair became the Braves' one-two punch. By last weekend, Capra had won nine straight games, including four shutouts, and had a 1.32 earned run average, the lowest among National League starters. House was 1-1 with six saves and an almost equally impressive 1.76 ERA.
No one is prouder of their performances than Herm Starrette, the Braves' new pitching coach. House, who reveres Starrette as a father figure, says, "Herm keeps telling me to think great thoughts, and it's a thrilling feeling."
Though the Braves are not yet ready to start thinking pennant, Capra does have one great notion in mind for Met Manager Yogi Berra, the man who ignored him all those long months. "What I'd like to do," he says, "is make Yogi pick me for the All-Star team."