Rotund comedian Jackie Gleason threw out the first ball last Friday at Candlestick Park for the San Francisco Giants' season opener against San Diego. Gleason was the oldest and fattest pitcher of the afternoon, but not by much. The Padres' Gaylord Perry, 39 and chubby, pitched well for six innings, whiffing eight and hiking his career strikeout total to 2,855, which tied him with Jim Bunning for third on the all-time list.
And the winner for San Diego was 37-year-old Mickey Lolich, who has such an ample belly that he would look more at home in an untucked-in bowling shirt with SAM'S GARAGE written across the back. More surprising than the fact that Lolich can pitch effectively despite his girth and age is that he can do it despite having been out of baseball for a year. At this time last season Lolich was playing slow-pitch softball for the VFW post in Romeo, Mich.
At least he was pitching for the VFW, right?
"You kiddin'?" he says. "In slow-pitch softball you let 'em hit it, and all my life, man, I've been trying to make 'em miss it. I played first base so I could talk to everybody who went by."
April 17, 1978
Now Lolich is back, trying to make them miss again, which he did so uncommonly well for 13 seasons with the Detroit Tigers and one with the New York Mets. Twice he has been a 20-game winner. Five times he has struck out more than 225 batters in a season, and he has more strikeouts than any lefthander in history. Never, though, has Lolich been asked to do commercials for the President's Council on Physical Fitness.
In 1976 Lolich was no world beater for the Mets, completing five games in 30 starts and finishing with an 8-13 record. Not atrocious—he had a 3.22 ERA—but certainly nothing to write home about for a man who has 41 career shutouts and the third most wins among active pitchers (trailing only Perry and Philadelphia's Jim Kaat). So he retired to play softball and work as a salesman for an advertising company.
Then in January, San Diego General Manager Bob Fontaine met in Los Angeles with lawyer Bob Fenton, who represents Padre Pitcher Bob Owchinko and, it happens, Lolich. Fontaine remembered that the Mets had formally released Lolich after he retired and asked if he could still pitch.
Lolich reconstructs the maneuvering:
"My attorney says, 'Well, he sure can pitch.' That's a natural answer. About three days later Fontaine calls him back and says, 'Hey, I've been thinking about it. Can he pitch?' And my attorney says, 'I think I better call him and find out.'
"So he calls me and says, 'Do you think you can still pitch?' I say, 'Why, what softball team wants me?' I wasn't sure, you know. He says, 'No, the Padres are talking about bringing you back....' I say, 'Sure, I can still pitch.'
"He says, 'O.K.' So he calls Fontaine back and they get together, and the next thing I know I'm in Yuma, Arizona for spring training. That's about how it all happened."
Fontaine knew that Lolich had always been a starter, but he wanted Lolich as a short reliever. He was pleased when Lolich also suggested that role himself. Still, there was the question of Lolich's ability to come back from retirement. Nobody in the Padre organization could remember a pitcher staying out a season and then making a successful comeback. Bob Feller and others had returned after World War II, but they were much younger than Lolich.
Lolich started slowly in spring training—some batting practice, an inning here, an inning there. "We were a little concerned about Mickey early," says Roger Craig, who was the pitching coach when Lolich came to the Padres but became the manager on March 21 after Alvin Dark was fired. "He wasn't really poppin' the ball like we thought he could. But things were different the last four or five times he worked. I don't know if he ever threw the ball better than he's throwing it right now."
General Manager Fontaine was never worried, or so he claims now. "Lolich is an amazing guy because he threw strikes from the first day," says Fontaine. "He walked in and he threw hitting practice the first day like he'd never been away. I am surprised he came back as quick as he did. I thought it might take a minute longer.
"He's got a very basic delivery and everything is on the plate. You'll notice there are no pauses in his delivery. He's always had a 'free arm,' and as soon as you saw that the arm was still free, you knew he could throw."
Lolich worked 8⅖ innings in spring training and gave up two hits and no runs. He then signed a Padre contract and joined Rollie Fingers and Dan Spillner in what could become a formidable bullpen. Lolich soon will bring one of his motorcycles to San Diego, which should provide a startling contrast in the players' parking lot to the white Rolls-Royce of Leftfielder Oscar Gamble.
"Lolich has got the kind of arm that can relieve," says Craig. "It doesn't bother him to pitch maybe four days a week or every other day. Most relief pitchers—a guy like Fingers, for instance—can pitch three days in a row and then maybe take a day off and pitch again. That's the kind of arm Mickey's got.
"But if some of my young pitchers fall by the wayside, then Mickey'll be starting, too. As a starter he had the good arm and the endurance and stamina to pitch nine innings. He's got a lot of complete ball games.
"Two years ago I tried to get our club to acquire him because I thought he could help us. I've always liked and admired him, and I know that the guy can still pitch because in his last year, with the Mets, he threw the ball real well. It doesn't take a genius to know that he's a great pitcher. I think he's going to be a big help to us."
While saying those complimentary things about Lolich, Craig was relaxing in the visitors' dugout at Candlestick, seemingly unconcerned about his imminent major league managerial debut. It also did not seem to bother him that he was counting on aging pitchers to start and relieve, that he had just taken the unusual step of naming a 26-year-old outfielder, Dave Winfield, as his team captain and that his infield of First Baseman Gene Richards, Second Baseman Derrel Thomas, Third Baseman Bill Almon and Shortstop Ozzie Smith was probably the least experienced this side of the Connie Mack League. Only Thomas was at a position he had played in the majors for any length of time. And in April of last year rookie Smith was performing for Cal Poly of San Luis Obispo.
Perry was making his first start against his old team, the Giants, who traded him to Cleveland in 1971, but the only man in the lineup he recognized was Willie McCovey, who is even older than he is. Perry was trailing 2-0 when he was replaced by a pinch hitter in the seventh.
In came roly-poly Lolich, whose last relief appearance was two years ago, for one game, and before that, eight years ago, for one game. Jack Clark flew out to center, Terry Whitfield struck out, and Marc Hill grounded out to shortstop. Never mind that Lolich in his yellow-and-brown Padre uniform looked a bit like one of Candlestick Park's juicy Polish sausages slathered with mustard. He had just won the game by throwing only six pitches, because the Padres scored the go-ahead run in the top of the eighth, Fingers came in to stop the Giants during the last two innings and San Diego prevailed 3-2.
Did old man Lolich remember his last win?
"Yeah," he said, "I beat the Cardinals in St. Louis for the Mets back in 1976. I had to pitch nine in those days. I think I've found an easier way to do it now."
Lolich declined to head directly for the showers after his short stint, explaining to Craig that he had to wait to grab the game ball. He said he had game balls from every one of his previous 215 major league victories. Whereupon Craig laid claim to the ball, as a souvenir of his winning debut as a manager. A mock debate followed, ending only when Coach Whitey Wietelmann volunteered to saw the ball in half and make plaques for both Lolich and Craig.
Craig was obviously and understandably tickled about having been able to use 40 seasons' and 536 wins' worth of pitching experience against the Giants.
"Well, we just had our oldtimers' game today," said Lolich, sitting in the locker room with a large ice pack strapped to his left shoulder. "I never thought I'd ever play baseball again. You know, when I retired, I retired. I was dead set on that."
If Lolich relieving Perry becomes a regular thing, it will prove that the belly series is not just a football term.