The important thing right away is to ease up on all this slander about Kent Tekulve's looks. Scarecrow indeed. Bean pole. Stork. Ichabod Crane. It has been said he could hide behind a pencil, or that he occasionally misplaces his shadow. One sportswriter, no doubt reaching for a simile after a long day in the blazing sun, wrote that Tekulve looks like a poster child for an anti-scurvy campaign. Tekulve reads that last observation and looks wounded—which he does extremely well. "Aw, come on," he says. "Now that's going too far, you guys."
It sure is. Fun's fun, but the plain truth is that this man is streamlined. There are degrees of such things, and this doesn't mean that he's smooth like an old Airflow De Soto—he's more jagged than that—but he is streamlined just the same. Tekulve is 6'4" and weighs perhaps 170 pounds, although as the season wears on, even he will lose weight. When he stands on the mound contemplating a batter, the angles and planes and hollows of his body fall in a fine, logical sequence from his sloping shoulders. If Tekulve were to stand perfectly still in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art, strollers would pause to admire him and nod in approval.
This sort of body structure, early lanky, also tends to create an air of fragility and slight confusion, which is just dandy with Tekulve. As everybody in Pittsburgh now knows, it's all part of the plan. He comes out of the Pirate bullpen looking as if he had been lightly spot-welded at the joints, and from the bleachers there is an impression that he clinks and clanks when he walks. He peers nearsightedly toward home plate as if to say, "I can't quite see you, but I know somebody's there." He looks down at the ball cradled in his glove as if he had no idea what in the world it could be. He shakes his head to the catcher, agreeing on the signs. And then his right arm starts whipping around in this wide arc, and down go the hitters, either swinging wildly or scattering ground balls all over the infield. This, assuredly, ain't no scarecrow or Ichabod Crane, folks. There is not another pitcher in the major leagues—starter, reliever or what have you—with a move anything like Tekulve's.
It wasn't just Willie Stargell who emerged from last year's World Series as a world champion and a folk hero. Consider Kent Tekulve and his Magic Sidearm. His appearances were late-inning cameos, wonderful and improbable walk-ons by a guy who didn't look as if he could do it. He relieved in five of the seven Series games and he saved three of the four Pirate victories, allowing only one single from 16 batters in the last two games.
May 4, 1980
Says Pittsburgh Manager Chuck Tanner, "I keep reminding Tekulve that he's ugly. I mean ugly. But, I swear, when he comes ambling out there in the ninth inning, he looks just like Paul Newman to me."
The Series was postseason frosting on a cake Tekulve had been baking all year. The last game of that contest marked appearance No. 101 in '79. Before the playoffs and Series began, he had appeared in 94 games, more than any other major league pitcher, saving 31, matching a club record for the second season in a row. He also emerged with a 2.65 lifetime ERA and a new gunmetal-blue Datsun 280 ZX, a little present to himself for making it through the year. The roof line of the car catches him at about mid-thigh, and pleating his body in and out of it kept him in shape through the winter.
With all this, one would think that Tekulve might also have won the N.L.'s Fireman of the Year award. It was close, but that designation went to Chicago's Bruce Sutter. Still, Sutter didn't play left-field—leftfield?—as Tekulve also did in an emergency, and, golly, he made the final putout.
The triumphs of the last two seasons have brought fame and fans to Tekulve. Grown-ups besiege him and children follow him around when he leaves the ball park. People surround his table at Pittsburgh restaurants, happily approving the prime ribs and baked potatoes: Attaboy, eat, eat, it's going to be a long season. A few weeks ago he slipped into a department store to buy a box of diapers for his infant son Jonathan, and there was bedlam. "I stood there signing everything from pillowcases to sales receipts," he says, "and before I knew it, two hours had passed. My wife was waiting at home, wet child in her arms. Then it got to be three hours, and still people kept coming. I started getting this hopeless thought, 'By the time I get out of here my son will be toilet-trained.' "
Has success spoiled Kent Tekulve? No way. His just-swing-it-on-around pitching motion is relatively easy on the arm, and he has other survival secrets. Tekulve is wryly thoughtful, given to rummaging around in his psyche and nodding pleasantly at all the wonderful baseball things he has learned.
He understands the peculiarities of other pitchers, for example. "Some of the strong-arm regulars in this game are a bit strange," he says. "I mean the overhead, 100-mile-an-hour guys."
Tekulve is hunched forward on his clubhouse stool. He is wearing two articles of clothing: cotton underdrawers of the style your grandmother called snuggies, and over that, tattered long-john bottoms that extend to mid-calf. Both garments reveal moth holes. He is also wearing oversize aviator glasses with photo-gray lenses; they darken or brighten with every nuance of light, maybe even match his moods.
"Some of these fastball pitchers tend to think of their arm as something with a life all its own," he says. "They give it anthropomorphic qualities, as if it wasn't even attached. I mean, they hold real dialogues with their arms like, urn, like Mark Fidrych talks to a ball." The conversations, Tekulve muses, go something like this:
Pitcher: Hello, arm. How are you feeling today?
Arm: I won't lie to you. I got a twinge.
Pitcher: My God! A twinge? Oh, my God, where?
Arm: Right here, at the bicep. I'm surprised you don't feel it.
Pitcher: Oh, Lord. I do now.
"Now, in an odd sort of way," Tekulve says, "this kind of madness actually makes sense for a power pitcher who lives in constant fear of blowing himself out. Baseball is full of sore-arm tragedies. But that's not for me. Physiologically, your arm is built to hang at your side. It follows that if you can pitch as closely as possible to that position you're O.K. Throwing overhead, the muscles are all out of position; they lift up off the bone. But mine don't. I follow the contours of the way my arms are built."
Hearing this, Tanner nods in agreement, but the wonder of Tekulve's sidearming leaves him inarticulate. "I don't know how to explain it," he says. "It's a natural motion, not forced. It's like, you know, it's like when a person walks. People walk with their arms swinging naturally at their sides, right? They don't walk around holding one arm up over their shoulder, see what I mean? Well, then. That's it, you see?"
"Come to think of it," says Tekulve, "maybe I do look a little like Paul Newman at that."
"No you don't, either," says Tanner. "Y're ugly is what you are. I mean really ugly."
They grin widely at each other. This is a doting father-and-favorite-son exchange with them. Tanner has an honest, open face, and for the briefest flicker of a moment he looks as if he might reach down, snatch Tekulve up off the stool and hug him.
Besides, they're both wrong. Tekulve looks much more like the young Jimmy Stewart of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with his head held forward earnestly, Adam's apple bobbing periodically. Well, to be perfectly accurate, a young Jimmy Stewart before orthodontics. Tekulve has a slight overbite, which gives him advantages not available to those with straight choppers and steady, open grins. Tekulve's smiles can range from aw, shucks to a positively wolf-like leer. And there are times when that lupine grin, aimed at home plate, has a chilling effect.
As for his delivery, Tekulve is candid about what it can and cannot do. "I only have three basic pitches," he says. "A fastball, a slider and a changeup. Mostly, the slider. It comes in at about, oh, 89 miles an hour; there's plenty of time for a hitter to look at it. But then, ideally, about eight or 10 feet away from the plate, it will suddenly break and drop, from maybe eight inches to a foot. The harder I throw it, the less it'll break; the slower I throw, the more it'll break—and sooner."
"It humps in the middle," says Tanner. "It leaves Teke's hand and rises a bit, then starts down. As if that's not bad enough, the way it's spinning, if a guy gets a bat on it he hits it into the ground. Teke here will murder you with ground balls."
They both make it sound easy enough, but virtually every top major league pitcher has a slider in his repertoire. The extra deception here lies in where the ball is coming from. There is no sight in baseball quite as nifty as Tekulve's long right arm swinging far around, slightly below waist level, and then the ball zinging in from somewhere halfway between second and third base.
A righthanded hitter hates this, hates every second of it. With Tekulve out there, he must take a godawful uncomfortable stance at the plate, with his head cocked crazily and his chin resting on his left shoulder in order to spot the ball coming in. Lefties, with a better view, don't feel quite so put-upon. That's why Tekulve gets shelled from time to time, as he was in losing Game 4 of the Series when Baltimore's Earl Weaver left-handed him to death. But from either side, when Tekulve's slider is darting and dipping, the batters could be standing on their heads for all the difference it would make.
Kenton Charles Tekulve began playing ball in Fairfield, Ohio when he was 9 years old. "Even in those days I was lanky," he says. "All elbows and kneecaps. I did all the usual, predictable childhood things. Played Little League and Babe Ruth ball and played in high school—Hamilton Catholic. Not a bad school then, but it's much improved now: they've let girls in. You know, I was even a hitter. No, really. I stopped being a hitter the day some kid finally learned how to throw a curve."
Tekulve started pitching at 11, throwing fastballs that seemed to lead a life of their own, often rattling off the concession stands, and it wasn't until his sophomore year at Ohio's Marietta College that the roundhouse sidearm was perfected. "All of a sudden, everything was in sync," he says. "Maybe the motion evolved from my pitiful body. I wasn't strong then, either; I've never been strong. I can't throw using my chest and shoulder muscles—what muscles?—so I drive my arm by using my legs and lower back. It's a pivot-like swing. And today, where typical fastball pitchers get sore arms, I will occasionally get an ache in the backs of my thighs, of all places."
So Tekulve got into sync, and you can guess the rest, right? The headlines: ACE COLLEGE HURLER DRAFTED, followed by LANKY ROOKIE STUNS SOX; and the autobiography, My Rise to Fame, or Sidearming to Glory.
It didn't happen quite that way. Tekulve wasn't drafted. He was more or less offhandedly invited to a tryout at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field in July of 1969. And when he got there nobody asked him to pitch—"I just sort of lolled around in the stands and watched." As it turned out, the snub was deliberate; Tekulve's performance in that morning's 60-yard dash had been just about the funniest thing the coaches had seen all year. The flailing of long arms and legs had left them chuckling and nudging each other in the ribs. "Now that's ridiculous," Tekulve told them. "If I could run, I'd be stealing bases. Listen, you guys, I'm a pitcher." As a sop they let him hang around and throw a few after everybody else had gone home—and, yep, Tekulve was signed on the spot. Two nights later he was pitching relief for the Class A Geneva (N.Y.) Pirates. In 1974, six and a half years and four minor league teams later, he was called up to Pittsburgh. Ready, at last, for Sidearming to Glory?
Not quite. Tekulve is a contemplative sort who has moved at his own pace. Between his first two minor league seasons he finished college (taking his degree in education). He has always carried a mental picture of himself as an instructor standing in front of an Ohio high school class in a three-piece suit, even if his growing celebrity now makes that dream improbable.
He enjoyed the seasons spent getting to Pittsburgh. "I was young and single and I was getting paid," he says. "Not much, but I didn't need much. I still hold the world record for sustained survival on Mrs. Smith's frozen chicken pot pies. They were cheap and really gluey and good. I ate two of them every day for my dinner for years. If I had had a good day—a save or something—I would pay myself a bonus: a turkey pot pie."
After joining the Pirates, Tekulve discovered that, on Monday nights at the Quality Courts motel in North Versailles, the drinks were free to Pittsburgh players. It was there in the summer of 1975 that he met Linda Taylor, a perky blonde with a disarming smile.
Tekulve was instantly smitten—but with those photo-grays, who could've known? Inside the bar, the lenses had darkened down to where he figured he looked coolly aloof, possibly even handsome and mysterious.
"We were both being terribly suave," he says. "This is the moment where strangers try to impress each other. And our very first conversation went something like this:
"I said to her, 'Hi, there. I'm a baseball player.'
"And she said, 'Oh, really? Well, I'm a baseball fan.'
"And I said, 'Oh, really? What's your favorite team?'
"And she said, 'Oh, I don't know. The, uh, the Chicago Dodgers.' "
Today Kent and Linda live in a new five-bedroom house in the Upper St. Clair suburb of Pittsburgh's South Hills—an area that is always preceded by the word posh—with sons Christopher, 2½, and Jonathan, 1. The sporting celebrity life is a good one, and it is a measure of Tekulve's renown that, in the dark stillness of the early mornings in the big new house, Christopher awakens and shouts, "Yay, Daddy." He doesn't know why he says it yet, but it always brings his old man around to pick him up and kiss him.
And now Tekulve is 33 years old, in his prime and president of the bullpen that Pittsburgh has come to love and depend on. Grant Jackson and Enrique Romo relieve early; Tekulve always comes in late, but ready. The sidearm motion is but one of the survival secrets he figures will keep him in baseball for years to come. He stares at the backs of his huge, gnarled hands and tells about some of the others.
"The toughest problem in baseball is to keep yourself pumped for 162 games a year," he says, "which is why the everyday player hits strange emotional flat spots in midseason. But in my case, it's not allowed. I always seem to come in with the game on the line and I can't afford to be flat, ever. But I've thought it all out and I've got it solved.
"If I can't fully bear down on 162 games, well, I can concentrate on, say, 81. So I divide every game in half. I even did it in the Series. I never zero in on the first five innings of any game. I'm the last guy on the team to suit up. I'll wander around the clubhouse in my underwear and shower slippers, sometimes just sort of vacantly swinging a five-pound dumbbell with my right arm. Then, after the game starts, I'll sit in the clubhouse and answer fan mail or perhaps stare into space. I'm peripherally aware of the TV monitor or a radio account of the game, but not consciously. And then, starting with the fifth inning, I bear down. I concentrate on every move. Innings five and six take me all through the other team's lineup. I watch carefully so that I know who's doing what to whom. And then, from the seventh inning on, I'm ready to go in, and I'm fresh."
He is, indeed. When Tanner waves him into a game, Tekulve is vibrating with intensity. The bulletin boards of his mind are lined with strategies and theories of chance. Then, before he ever throws a ball, he shuts down his field of focus until, he swears, he can see only the hitter, the strike zone and the catcher's mitt. Not the entire catcher, not the umpire and never the stands.
The way Tekulve sees it, peering out through the photo-grays, is that he must now play pitcher for the Pirates, plus manager of the other team—which is why his eighth-and ninth-inning appearances are always mini-dramas within the overall game. "Got to maneuver them," he mutters to himself. "Dictate to them, move 'em around where I want them. I've got their batting orders, averages, possible injuries, career histories and lifestyles posted inside my mind. Is Garry Maddox walking maybe a little funny because he's secretly got an ankle taped under his socks, or is he going to try and steal on me? Greg Luzinski's coming up, I see. Get to you in a minute, Greg, just stand by." And around comes the streamlined right arm.
"If I can get them to ground out on my first pitch, then I'm really managing them," Tekulve says. "That's the idea: getting them out with a minimum of pitches. Fewer I throw today, more I'll have for tomorrow, and if I'm going to pitch in 90 or more games a year, conservation is everything. There's no use running the count to three-and-two all the time; I don't need that kind of drama." And then he smiles his lupine smile, eyeteeth shining wetly. "Of course, the only problem with this wonderful scenario of mine is that sometimes I over-manage and underpitch."
He shrugs at the thought. "Well, look at it this way. Relief pitchers only come in two brands—the power pitchers and the analytical ones. Rich Gossage is power; he just stands up there and blows it right past them. I don't have the one outstanding big pitch. So it becomes a game of great cunning. Lord, I love it. I can see that slider in my mind's eye before it ever leaves my hand—and the ball actually jumps into focus about halfway to the plate. I guess I'm about the world's ugliest human at the exact instant I release the ball—my head snaps around and my cheeks flap and I'm all distorted—but then it breaks just right, and what a feeling!"
The catcher Tekulve says he never fully sees is usually Ed Ott, who is also his best friend on the ball club. Occasionally Ott goes out to the mound. For those watching on TV, the announcer usually intones something somber, like "Tekulve seems to be laboring. Ott is out there trying to calm him down."
"Well," Ott confesses, "not exactly. You see, Teke is calm no matter what's going on. He's all concentration. I just want to give both of us a breather. Say we're playing in Philadelphia. So I just stroll out there and we assume this confidential crisis position, our heads together. And I say, 'Lissen, dummy, I hate to rush you on a lovely summer evening like this, but I've got a table reserved at Bookbinders in about a half an hour and I'm hungry.' Then I'll stroll on back, looking serious for all the fans, and Teke will strike out whoever is left."
Now Tekulve starts pulling on the rest of his uniform, layering up, as baseball players do. He shoulders into the top half of an old gray T shirt—the bottom has been hacked away raggedly so that it leaves a bare midriff. This shirt, too, is full of tiny holes. In fact, all of the other half-dressed players around him look like this. It is now clear that the Pittsburgh roster carries 25 players and 10 million moths. Tekulve thoughtfully tapes on his long socks and gaiters. Everything has No. 27 stenciled on it. On the little finger of Tekulve's right hand is a chunky gold signet ring with 27 emblazoned in diamonds. "My new Z-car has a No. 27 license plate," he says. "Our family station wagon has a TEKE-27 license plate. I'm planning on getting Linda a new car, and the plates will say MRS 27. Egads, I've lost my identity."
Tekulve rises, coming off his stool in one streamlined motion, and shuffles in his shower slippers over to the training room. He peels off the half T shirt and holds it in one hand, then does a slow turn in front of Trainer Tony Bartirome.
The trainer circles Tekulve, looking him over and shaking his head mournfully. He has the look of a sculptor who can't quite figure out where to chisel next.
"All right," Tekulve says. "You think perhaps you can put this marvelous body back together for just one more game?"
"Jeez, I don't know," Bartirome says. "Listen, are you sure you're a big league ballplayer?"
"You know the rules," Tekulve says. "If I save the game, it's because I'm in such wonderful condition. If they shell me, it's the trainer's fault."
Bartirome stretches Tekulve out on the table and artfully arranges his limbs, as a mortician might. Then he forcefully pulls Tekulve's right shoulder and arm around and tucks the shoulder under Tekulve's chin. "There's not another pitcher in the big leagues who can duplicate this move," he says. "Tekulve's body is all loose and supple, not musclebound." Then he massages Vita Oil into the shoulder.
"I think the Pirates are the only club in baseball that use this stuff," Tekulve says. "It's got liniment in it and maybe 11 secret herbs and spices, plus a shot of baby oil. The action of the baby oil serves to gradually release the heat from the liniment. And between games, we fry chicken in it."
And Tekulve rises, his shoulder shining and smelling fiercely pungent. "Time for the world's ugliest pitcher to get suited up," he says.
Tanner has come around to watch this operation, and now he waits until Tekulve has shuffled out of earshot. The manager leans over confidentially. "Y'know what?" he says. "That Tekulve. He ain't really ugly. You've seen him pitch. Man, he's beautiful."