As Oakland Pitcher Matt Keough stepped out of the shower one day last week, Coach George Mitterwald yelled across the clubhouse, "Matt, you haven't quite got it yet. You shower after the game."
Indeed, there was the towel-wrapped Keough dripping wet before the game. And that speaks volumes about the way his season has been going—backward. His record is 0-12, which puts him within reach of the mark for consecutive losses in one season, 19. He also dropped his last four decisions in 1978 and thus his 16 straight defeats spanning two seasons keep him in contention for the all-time consecutive-loss record of 23, set in 1910-11 by Clifton Curtis of the old Boston Pilgrims.
Yet a year ago Keough was the A's representative in the All-Star Game, in which he bailed Baltimore ace Jim Palmer out of trouble and had an ERA of 2.16, second only to Ron Guidry. Since then, his record has been a no-star 2-23. His current ERA is 6.00. His last win was Sept. 1, 1978.
"I don't think all this is any reason to walk around being a brooding maniac," says Keough, an affable righthander with a curveball which, in its glorious prime, was known to buckle hitters' knees. "What I have in mind is pitching in a World Series game. Somehow, I'll get there. And even if I have to become a lefthanded screwball pitcher to get there, I will."
Obviously, a large part of Keough's problem is that he pitches for the worst team in baseball. All year Oakland has been last or close to it in team batting, fielding, home attendance, morale and the standings (a 28-76 record at week's end).
Of course, Keough has been less than awesome as well, and he admits it. He hasn't been throwing the curve as much this season, relying instead on his slider, which is his fourth-best pitch. When he hurt his knee last year (his season record was 8-15), he got out of the habit of throwing the curve and has been slow to return to the good old ways. Routinely he gets behind batters, then is forced to throw fastballs, with predictable damage. Says pitching coach Lee Stange, "All I know is that a person who didn't enjoy pitching as much as Keough does might have problems with a record like his." For his aggravation, Keough is paid about $40,000 a year.
Oakland Manager Jim Marshall says, "He's learning his trade at the major league level. If our system was stronger, maybe Matt would be pitching in AAA. It takes a lot of courage to go out and pitch when they flash 0-12 on the scoreboard. But I do think Matt is getting a good perspective on his profession."
And that view, no matter how distressing, is not going to depress Keough's towering spirit. On the contrary, he laughs as he says, "Being just 24 years old, I'm not supposed to be good for four more years yet." He takes delight in showing off a small plaque a fan sent him which says, "Losing is nature's way of keeping you from winning." It hangs in his locker. Marshall recently advised Keough, "When you're out there, pretend every batter hits like your father did." The old man, journeyman outfielder Marty Keough, who retired in 1966, after 11 seasons in the bigs, had a .242 career average. And, naturally, people everywhere ask Matt about The Streak.
Aren't you tired of this focus on failure?
"No, it shows people are paying attention."
But doesn't the press drive you crazy?
"It's not the media's fault I'm 0-12."
How are you able to cope so well?
"I don't take the ball park home with me. And I remember that when things were going tough for my dad, I didn't hear him whining."
In an era when ballplayers often try to hide their failures by ducking the press, Keough plunges headlong into self-analysis. "The whole point," he says, "is you don't quit. Not ever. If I quit now, then that's telling people a lot of things about me. If I quit now when there's no pressure, don't you believe people would think I'd be likely to fold under playoff or World Series pressure?"
Playing on a young team means enduring a lot of youthful mistakes. Last Saturday's game in Oakland against lowly Seattle provided classic examples. Keough fielded a high chopper, turned to throw to first, and discovered nobody was covering. The other six hits he gave up during his four innings were singles through the infield, several of which he thought were eminently stoppable. But he walked three men and threw three wild pitches. The A's went on to win 6-5 but Keough was not involved in the decision. "I was terrible," he said as he hurled his uniform around the clubhouse. "I should have gotten a loss. I lost my poise."
Lots of things that don't show up in box scores are killing the A's—and Keough. Perfect double-play balls that only produce one out, throwing to the wrong base, atrocious base running, poor relieving. Keough understandably is circumspect about placing blame. He says, "There is no question there are times when we have teams stone beat, then lose. We're being humbled all the time. But we won't forget who has been swinging on us on 3 and 0 and playing hit-and-run when they're ahead by 10 runs. They're walking on our faces."
In truth, Keough should have at least five wins so far. For example, in the second game of the season, against Minnesota, he pitched 8‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings and allowed but one run, but got no decision. In early May against Boston he pitched nine innings, gave up two runs and lost 2-1. Against Cleveland he went 7‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings and gave up no runs, but the A's lost anyway. At times he has been hit hard, too. "A pitcher is only going to have great stuff about one-third of the time," he says. "The rest of the time he has to figure out a way to get by."
For much of his career Keough had been an infielder as well as a pitcher. When he hit .210 at AA Chattanooga in 1976, "I had to realize that I probably wasn't a bona fide big league infield prospect." He had, however, pitched some—and brilliantly—in high school, and before the 1977 season, A's owner Charlie Finley suggested he give the mound a serious try. By August he was in Oakland, where he retired the first 10 big league players he faced. "That was my shot," says Keough. "If I hadn't done well, I wasn't going to keep banging around in the minors. I love baseball, but not on a minor league level where the game doesn't love you back. See, love is a two-way relationship."
Al Jackson, now a Boston coach, knows how Keough feels; Jackson twice had seasons for the Mets in which he absorbed 20 defeats. Says Jackson, "He has to say to himself, 'If I was a bad pitcher, they wouldn't keep sending me out there and giving me the chance to lose this many in a row.' "
After his disappointing effort Saturday, Keough showered after the game. At least that's a step in the right direction.