There have been Monsters and Vultures aplenty in major league bullpens over the years, but until a band of manic gypsies—or was it the Magyar hordes?—left Al Hrabosky at the doorstep of the Cardinals, there had never been anything like the Mad Hungarian. In only his second full season, the 26-year-old Little League reject has become the National League's best relief pitcher, with a 9-2 record and a 1.42 ERA. And while dousing fires all across the land, Hrabosky has also antagonized opponents, incited crowds and raised questions about his sanity. He has provoked these reactions mostly with his habit of psyching himself by stepping behind the mound, turning his back to the plate and thinking long and hatefully about the batter. Then he stomps back to the rubber to deliver a fastball as lethal as a knockout punch.
Hrabosky looks like the meanest man on the Saturday night wrestling card. His hazel eyes squint out from narrow, deep-set sockets. His mustache droops malevolently around his mouth and curls underneath his chin. His is the face of a man who would bite the head off a live cockatoo, or at least the face of a man who very nearly tried.
That happened last week in Chicago, when an inebriated fan leaned into the St. Louis bullpen and placed the bird on Hrabosky's head. Hrabosky grabbed it and contemplated a villainous act that would assure him lasting infamy.
"I want batters to think I'm crazy," he says. "I want them to know I'm crazy." And what could be crazier than decapitating a bird with one fatal chomp? "I wanted to, but my teammates talked me out of it."
Hrabosky is not as mad or even as Hungarian (his mother is of Irish extraction) as he would like people to believe. After all, how bad can a former Disneyland attendant be? And although Hrabosky is passionately booed on the road, he is esteemed in St. Louis, where fans paste I Hlove Hrabosky stickers on their bumpers. They were incensed when Los Angeles Manager Walter Alston excluded him from the All-Star team, a conspicuous omission considering Hrabosky's four wins and two saves against the Dodgers this season. When Alston announced his All-Star pitching staff, the Cardinal management immediately scheduled a Hrabosky Hbanner Hday in protest and expected a few hundred bed sheets to be unfurled. Almost 1,000 banners were paraded into Busch Stadium.
While he blatantly provokes loathing in Los Angeles and hatred in Houston, Hrabosky quietly supports campaigns against muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and other crippling diseases in St. Louis. But call him the Happy Hungarian, as one teammate dared to do on television, and he will complain that such treatment "ruins my image."
Hrabosky's image has been long in the making, and it has been richly enhanced by his telling. For example, there is the matter of his high school football career in Anaheim, Calif. "I was probably the meanest man ever to play the game," he says. "I loved to inflict pain. I made a science of the late hit. Once when a player made a catch in my defensive area, I piled on top of him. Then, while offering to help him up, I slugged him. I was usually thrown out by the third quarter."
As he tells it, he was no less notorious during his two seasons in the Mexican Pacific League. "I always carried a .38-caliber pistol in a belt holster," he says. "It gave me a feeling of power."
In Mexico, Hrabosky became a friend of the local policía, a symbiotic relationship if there ever was one: they would take him to the park in their paddy wagon, and he would lend them rifle ammunition from his personal cache. The hometown fans there loved him, calling him "El Cordobes" after the bullfighter. He called himself "Bandido Loco" or Crazy Bandit. During the playoffs one year, he celebrated each of his team's runs by lighting fireworks in front of the dugout. When the umpires finally made him stop, he gave the rockets to the fans, who launched them from the stands.
Hrabosky is no longer the Bandido Loco of old. "I'm more serious about the game now," he says. "I'm among the elite and I have to respect that. Back in Mexico I didn't know if there was anything I could do very well. Now success has become both my turn-on and my release. I've learned how to control myself better."
There are differences of opinion over the reasons for Hrabosky's success. His teammates consider him a natural talent; he believes he would still be struggling had he not adopted his psyching technique during last year's All-Star break. "People may think I'm a weirdo when they see me, but it's something I've got to do," Hrabosky says. "I consider my fastball only average, but when I psych myself I'll put it against anybody's.
"It's positive thinking. I visualize myself throwing to a certain spot. Then I see the batter swing and miss. I make it a personal battle between the two of us by thinking about something he's done against my team. Too many pitchers look like they are scared to death on the mound. Not me. I try to turn the situation around. I want the hitter to be afraid, to wonder if I am a little crazy."
If Hrabosky is crazy, it doesn't seem to harm his pitching. His .818 winning percentage and 14 saves lead the National League. In 43 appearances totaling 57 innings he has struck out 45, walked just 17 and, despite his ferocious chatter, hit only one batter.
"I'm not the kind of reliever who likes to go in every day," he says. "I want to pitch only when the game is close. If I fail, I don't lose my composure or feel embarrassed. I figure I just didn't have good location with my pitches. On the road, people pay to see me fail. Nothing gives me more pride than a standing boo."