Before they go back north six weeks from now, some of them must be gone. The farms. Dealt. Released. Disabled? And before the season is long under way, some will be surprises and some will fail. Maybe even someone will be back, recalled from the bushes. Arms will hurt. Roles will change...."
—From Part One of a series on the Chicago White Sox pitching staff, SI April 18.
The baseball season corresponds to the agricultural cycle; in either case it is the midsummer drought that will kill you. Oh sure, the championships are played in the fall, harvest time, and in the spring, when everything begins, the 26 teams are equal in the all-important dream column, and the attention devoted to each is exceeded only by happy delusion. But it is the summers, those sultry days of routine, incessant and unforgiving, when seasons are won.
It is no mere coincidence that a lot of mediocre clubs regularly come a cropper with a June Swoon. That's when the best breaking pitches finally start to break consistently, and more sharply. June is National Off-Speed Month. Before that, your Bingo Hitters—"N-34, G-52," the wise guys call out from the opposing dugout when an acknowledged B.H. strides up with his lumber—can dig into the cold earth and look for hanging curves or, on 2 and 0, for a steered half-fastball. April and May you will have no-account hitters lacing smashes, lashing ropes; the same guys will fall below the Mendoza Line in the summer heat, when the good breaking stuff looms. (The so-called Mendoza Line, drawn in the agate dust precisely at .200, was so named by some dugout wag after the immortal Mario Mendoza, a shortstop who usually flirted with the bicentennial digits.)
The summer is when the whole staff matters. In the spring, with all the off-days and rain-outs and cold-outs, a team can get by with a couple of starters going good. Same thing at the other end. It isn't staffs that win the World Series: Two starters and one fireman can get you four games out of seven, and never mind what else you have for arms. But after the solstice, when the ground bakes and the heat waves, it is whole staffs against each other. In the next 41 days the schedule gave the Chisox only one day off.
Dave Duncan, the pitching coach, recalls that in May a year ago, when he was with Seattle, the vaunted Orioles were six games under, and he asked Ray Miller, his opposite number on the Birds, if Miller wasn't worried. "No," said Miller casually. "We'll be fine when the summer comes." And the Orioles went over .500 right about when school let out and the stadiums started to fill, and the staff won 94 on the year.
Of course, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. "All a good hitter has to do is get his one-for-fours in the spring, and he can move up where he belongs when it gets hot," says Tony La Russa, T-Bone, the Chisox manager.
"It gets warm, you can stretch," says Jerry Koosman. "What is it you can't stretch, Herm?" Koosman asks. "Tendons or ligaments?"
"Ligaments," says the trainer Herm Schneider.
"Yes," the aging southpaw goes on, "that's what I was saying. It gets warm, you can stretch all those tendons. Good hitters make their living hitting in the hot summer months."
Koosman maintains that his best months have generally been the cool ones. But then, he hails from the North Country—Minnesota—and a tolerance for the broiling low-latitude climes may not be in his genes. Then, too, Koosman has always been a fireballer. It does not take him till Father's Day to get any fancy-dan back-door slider fine-tuned as an Out Pitch. Forty years old, he's still airing out the hard one. "A freak," declares Duncan, meaning either a) Koosman or b) Koosman's arm.
But wait a minute now. Forty? If you read the first installment about these Chicago hurlers, you surely recall that Koosman turned 39 on Dec. 23. But here he is 40, in midsummer. "I don't know where I lost a year," he says, drawing on a Tareyton. "I kept seeing where I was 37 when I was 38 and 38 when I was 39, but what did it matter? But 40 means something." Forty is in. In June, Koosman pitched a game against The 300 Winner, who is 44. Thoughtfully, Koosman left some false teeth on the mound for his elderly opponent—"right in the hole where he strides"—but The 300 Winner is not amused by middle-aged junior high pranks.
Anyway, set free by the unvarnished truth about his age, Koosman went over to play pluck, which is a card game something like bridge, "only easier, so ballplayers can manage it," Koosman explains.
Most of the Chicago moundsmen do not, like Koosman, mainly just bring it. "Our pitching staff doesn't overpower hitters," Duncan says. "That's not our style. It's a control staff."
This was a truism repeated oft in the spring, when the Chisox pitchers paced Chicago to the cellar. Perhaps you will recall that, when last we saw the staff, LaMarr Hoyt had just thrown a slider down and away to open the season. The Sox lost that game. The next night, Jim Kern, their elongated closer, came in to relieve Floyd Bannister. The third man he faced tapped one near the mound, and Kern made the throw to first off-balance. Catcher Carlton Fisk, Pudge, came out. "You O.K., Jim?" he asked. "It looked like you grimaced when you threw that."
Kern said he was fine, but after he missed with a couple of pitches to the next hitter, he decided to "step on it." Halfway through the pitch, Kern felt the most excruciating pain of his life. All the way to the dugouts they could hear his arm. It went pop. Kern fell to his knees, although he doesn't remember that. The ball went 30 feet over the batter's head, although he doesn't remember that. All he remembers is that suddenly he found himself walking behind' the mound toward second base, cradling his elbow in his glove. Somehow he had ripped the tendons and muscles clear away from the bone. Just throwing. The doctor said he had heard of people like wrestlers doing that to other wrestlers, but he had never heard of a human being doing it to himself. "Another first for good old-fashioned Jim Kern," says Jim Kern.
The White Sox lost that game, too. The next night, Richard Dotson pitching, they lost again and Texas had a sweep. Also, if you recall, the Sox' young left-handed ace, Britt Burns, had gone on the disabled list a couple of days before, felled by a virus he caught in his shoulder from the air conditioning in his motel room. One series into the season and the Sox had lost all three games and two of their best hurlers.
But life goes on, and another one of the Chicago pitchers chose these dark days to embark on his own personal journey of marital bliss. This was Kevin Hickey, the southpaw spot reliever: Hic Man, freckled, with the map of Ireland on his face, the erstwhile softball star who grew up in the veritable shadow of Comiskey Park, where he still lives. He was planning on being engaged all season with autumn nuptials. But his fiancée, Terri, lived way out in the suburbs, and Hic Man wanted her "in the neighborhood." So they got married just before the season started, and after the Chisox lost the three games (and their closer) in Texas, T-Bone seized on the happy bridegroom as reason enough for a party. It was a whale of a party, too, the sort that stretches ligaments, and two days later in Detroit, Dennis Lamp, replacing Burns in The Rotation, finally got Chicago its first win. As for the newlywed, Hickey had the best beginning on the staff—five saves the first month.
The next Chisox team party—paid for by the accumulated petty fines—was on July 17 in Cleveland, and this time the Pale Hose were rampaging (at least as that term applies in the AL Waste, where .500 sends shivers up grown men's spines). But poor Hickey had disappeared. He hadn't had a save in well over two months, and he hadn't pitched but 2‚Öî innings—bad innings—in three weeks. Gallows humor prevailed. "Well," said DH Greg Luzinski, The Bull, when La Russa finally give Hic Man another chance, "now you're down to only $20,000 an inning."
"Gee, Kevin," Hoyt hollered, "when did they call you back up?"
Luckily, Hickey was undaunted. "Me frustrated? Never," he snapped. Just to be sure, he gave up smoking, 2 p.m., EDT, July 18.
Koosman was the last to depart the party in Cleveland. "All he ever says is 'Let's talk baseball,' " La Russa explains. "Parties are good because he can get people in a corner and tell them about baseball." Koosman comes not without credentials in this matter, though. All winter, then all spring training, he advised the younger manager—La Russa is a callow youth of 38; he could be a playing manager if only he could have played—that he should be prominent in The Rotation, even ahead of some of the Young Arms. But La Russa stuck Koosman back in the bullpen, where he compiled a generous 4.98 ERA. Finally, on May 24, T-Bone moved Koosman to the starting slab, and he has been 7-5 as a starter since then, going next for big No. Two-Oh-Oh, Lifetime.
When the party broke up, Koosman was over in the corner telling Bannister, age 28, and Dick Tidrow, 36, old hurling stories.
And then the next evening, 105 nights after Hoyt had thrown that first slider in Texas, he beat the Indians 5-3, and the White Sox, who were once 7½ games behind the leader, were at last in first place. "I've carried you young guys long enough," Koosman said. "Now I'll let LaMarr and Dot do it."
Actually, apart from Burns's injury, The Rotation has remained fairly stable. Burns came back in May, and about the same time they had to go with five regular starters. La Russa had Koosman and Lamp swap places.
"I took your place," Koosman said.
"No, you didn't," Lamp said.
"I did, too."
"No, you didn't. Because I don't ever have a place," Lamp explained. Traditionally, he is all over whatever staff he's on. This year he began the season starting, then went long out of the pen and by mid-July had become the last short man, the closer. Not only that, but Lamp went through one period when the newspapers were trading him every day (usually to the Yankees) and another when he was the one asking to be traded. Will the real Dennis P. Lamp please stand up?
No, not this day. The man from USA Today, the nation's sporting daily, which persists in disguising that fact by wrapping itself in a weather map and OTC tables, was there to do Lists with Lamp. Lamp is a major league mimic of major-leaguers, and the USA Today jotter wanted to know which five sluggers and hurlers Lamp felt he was most proficient at imitating.
"Do Hic Man," Hoyt cried out.
So Lamp did Hic Man, slapping his glove on his knee while giving high fives with his left hand. Then, for good measure, he did Hoyt, too, tilting his cap far over his eyes so he couldn't see past the visor any better than an Old English sheepdog, frowning at an imaginary umpire, remonstrating in Hoyt's soft palmetto accent: "Why, I'll have you know my name is Dewey LaMarr Hoyt and I throw 130 pitches a game and 110 of them are always on the black."
Then, by the dugout, Lamp ran through his whole repertoire, finally deciding on a list of these Top 5 hitters: Perez, Yaz, Rose, Garvey and Stargell, and these Top 5 pitchers: Sutcliffe, Perry, Hoyt (local boy makes good), Jenkins and Drysdale.
But if the Chisox Rotation has seen few changes, all its members have endured vicissitudes. Hoyt started off 2-6. Dotson lost four in a row in May, including, in succession, a four-hitter and a one-hitter, when the Oriole rightfielder, Disco Dan, beat him with an opposite-field homer in the eighth. Bannister, who is still routinely identified as "the millionaire lefthander" in the Windy City press, was 3-9 at the All-Star break. And Burns: Though his record was never lopsided with defeats, Burns may have struggled the most.
Just 24, the classic phenom, Burns was so advanced he was pitching for the Sox when he was only weeks out of high school. Right on schedule, he won 15 the summer he turned 21. Last August he was breezing along at 13-4 and thinking very seriously about being the Cy Young. Then he injured his shoulder, but that healed by spring training, and he quietly developed another off-speed pitch, a forkball he considers "unhittable." But then he ran afoul of the air conditioning, and it was May 9 before his '83 season began, five weeks late.
It is fascinating how perspective can influence a pitcher. That first game back, Burns was happy enough just to be on the mound, to discover that he could throw a baseball, that he still had a career. But, that revealed, a kind of post-natal depression set in, one that perhaps will be impossible for him to shake this whole regular season.
"I was always with the leaders," he says—a statement, not braggadocio. But here in May he looked around, and the other leaders were six and seven starts ahead of him, and it just didn't seem that he could ever have A Season in 1983.
La Russa and Duncan kept talking about how Burns's competitiveness lagged behind his physical recovery-as if he were a tennis player who had come back from an injury and had all the strokes, as before, but couldn't "play the big points" successfully. It seems to have been more than that with Burns. Another pitcher, one older and (even more important) not so talented, would accept the injury and be grateful to come back playing them one at a time. But Burns had trouble that way...especially as May dragged on, exceptionally cold and rainy. Burns comes from Birmingham, and "Baseball just doesn't seem right unless you can smell the grass." It would have been sacrilege to admit it to anyone, but sometimes he found himself feeling as if the whole damn year were a washout; visions of '84 passed through his mind. When he met people, he disparaged himself. "I'm Britt Burns, five and five," he would say.
Or sometimes just "five and five," as if it were a dirty nickname. Worse, soon he was old "five and six," and he seemed so befuddled when he pitched that people began to question whether or not it was an injured arm he was concealing. It's funny: While we almost expect athletes to fall into slumps, mental slumps are really not acknowledged or tolerated. "One of Britt's biggest assets is his head," La Russa said, shaking his. Maybe if there were someone around who could press Burns for his spot in The Rotation, it might loosen the cobwebs of his mind.
It must be an especially interesting relationship that La Russa and Burns share. La Russa has been managing six years, while Burns has been playing as a pro for six years, and they came up together through the Chicago system. For at least part of every season that the one has managed and the other has played, they have spent time with each other. A few weeks ago, when Burns was angry and puzzled that La Russa had yanked him from a game he could win, he still paused to say, "But I'll tell you one thing: T-Bone cares more about the careers of his players than he does about winning, and I don't know how many other major league managers are that way."
A game Burns pitched in Milwaukee late in July showed the sort of wandering his brain was doing. He was by turns puzzled and dispirited from the outset, when Pudge started him off with two curves. It was the first time in his life Burns hadn't opened with a fastball.
Moreover, Burns believes in one of Koosman's pet theories. To the younger pitchers, Koosman is like some sage old Indian medicine man. Wise Southpaw. "Kooz's idea at the start of a game," Burns says, "is that they haven't seen a real fastball for 24 hours, so at least the first time through the order, you go right at 'em."
Koosman—like Tidrow, who also pitched in the National League—believes that probably applies all the more in the American League, where, generally, more pussyfooting goes on. "It's a little bit of everything," Koosman says. "Like, in the National, for a while they even made you have an extra bat on deck so that if you broke one you wouldn't go back to the dugout. Or, you can't just demand time over there. You have to ask for it, and maybe the umpire won't let you have it. And, of course, the strike zone is up over here, so the pitches are up. More hits, more at bats." The whole tempo is simply more languid in the American and perhaps even more so with the Pale Hose, which suits T-Bone, who is by nature deliberate, by training a lawyer. One time this year the Sox and Brewers took a record four hours and 11 minutes to play nine innings. Ernie Banks would love being with these Sox; often they play two when it is only one.
American League pitchers go in for more teasing and probing than National League pitchers do. "I come in here with a runner on first," Tidrow says, "I might start off with a couple of slow curves. I do that in the National League, then I might well be throwing my third pitch with a runner on third."
A pitcher now in the Senior Circuit who has been in both leagues and thinks "Maybe I'll go back," requesting anonymity on that premise, maintains that National League umpires, generally, are pitchers' friends. Not only do they call the low strike, but they won't go easy on checked swings. "But most important," he says, "in the National, a batter can't take a two-strike pitch just off the corner. Over here, the umpires figure that very few hitters are good enough to lay off that kind of close pitch and call the game for them. Give the hitters that just off the black, pretty soon they'll want an extra six inches."
As a consequence, American League pitchers have a reputation for shaving things too fine—or as Pudge said of Burns about this particular game: "Britt was trying to throw perfect pitches." And the very next night, of Bannister, "He was too picky in the beginning. Every hitter, he's behind two and oh. And it's tough to get guys out when you start off two and oh."
T-Bone and Pudge may have had words earlier in the year about the way the veteran catcher called some games, but there is no question in the manager's mind which part of the battery must assume the major burden of responsibility for pitches thrown. "Don't tell me about the catcher's signs," he snaps. "Who's got the ball?"
Certainly by midseason, any pitcher and catcher working together should understand each other. Duncan, one of only four pitching coaches in the majors who was a catcher—"The advantage I have is, a pitcher never has to worry that I'm going to say to him, 'Now when I was pitching, here's the way I did it' "—prides himself on pitch selection. Pitchers who constantly overrule their catchers he calls "impulse pitchers," and, he says, "They blame the catcher, but what it really is, they just never get to know themselves well enough." Invariably, impulse pitchers are losers, he says.
Still: Who's got the ball? In the 3,471‚Öî innings he's pitched, Koosman has only once or twice had "catchers argue with me with their fingers." Dotson, like Burns, is only 24, but he knows the way it has to be: "The pitcher has to do the calling. Sure, you win as a team, lose as a team, but your team loses, you're the only one they give the L to. You go out and get another newspaper, and it's still the same numbers."
Bannister, the other southpaw in The Rotation, is almost obsessively determined, even for a pitcher, to command his own destiny—as private a professional as he is a person. A devout man, happily introverted, Bannister studied engineering at Arizona State, and it is an ordered universe he pitches in. If only "Bannister's anger can be aroused," pleaded a Windy City paper. Not likely. Then it wouldn't be Bannister.
Second Baseman Julio Cruz, The Jumping Jack who also came over from Seattle to the Sox, shakes his head. "No, nothing ever upsets Banni," he says. "Well, cheap home runs. That would get to him, because it just wouldn't seem right to him the way they could yank a good pitch out of the dome, down in the corners. After a while, Banni just wouldn't throw inside in the Kingdome. He wasn't going to let them take him for a cheap one there." Bannister also has a reputation for taking himself out of a game if he feels his arm is in any way damaged—not right. He is as unforgiving of his own imperfections as of any other's in an imperfect game.
And yet, Bannister can sometimes be positively stoic in the face of adversity. In a game against Kansas City last year, he was hit in the throat by a batted ball in the first inning, but he hung in and pitched seven, bravely. At the start of this season, facing all sorts of questions, even innuendo—Can the millionaire lefthander win with a contender when it counts?—Bannister first suffered a strained abductor muscle and then endured an extraordinary run of bad luck: In his nine defeats before the All-Star break his teammates hit .160 for him, eking out 13 runs. Yet he never alibied or tried to shift the blame, thereby gaining. La Russa says, "tremendous respect" from the others—all the more an accomplishment in that Bannister keeps so to himself, seldom even acknowledging the most proximate clubhouse horseplay. Because the Chisox appear to be on the way to their first title in a generation, there is an increasing tendency to inquire again if Bannister can handle the pressure. That may be missing the point. Pressure should be quite easy to handle for someone so good—7-0 since the break—and as guarded as Bannister, especially wherever precision trumps passion.
At the start of spring training the betting was that Burns, Bannister, Hoyt and Dotson would be the top four in The Rotation, with Lamp or Koosman the fifth man. And into August there it was. But what kind of odds could you have gotten that the Pale Hose would be in first place, even though right through July old Koosman had more wins than both Burns and Bannister, and that these two, the glamour portsiders, would be far back of the righthanders?
Both Dotson and Hoyt were minor league throw-ins in major league deals, and neither quite looks the pitcher's part, Dotson resembling a rosy-cheeked preppie, Hoyt exhibiting considerable adiposity, even on a club that Koosman concedes is "mildly plump." Besides, Hoyt is a blue-collar pitcher and not complicated; his idea of pitching is to put it over the fringes of the plate and see what they can do with it. He calls his style "relaxed aggression."
Typical was a recent game against Cleveland, when Hoyt faced 25 batters, throwing strikes on the first pitch to 21 of them. Down 0 and 1, 0 and 2, the Indians hit a lot of warning-track flies. Long outs. "I found my fielders," Hoyt explained. Isn't it funny how it's the good pitchers who give up long outs and loud fouls? Then, when Hoyt got ahead 5-0 with two service breaks, he gave up a home run. "I was just playing around a little then," he explained. "Tell you the truth, I didn't think he could hit it out of here." Hoyt is the kind of pitcher who gives when it is tolerable to give. It's like Cakes, the Orioles' underwear model, who has allowed 293 homers over nearly 3,900 innings pitched but never once let a man take him for a grand slam.
However, unlike Cakes, Hoyt is not pretty. His ERA is fatter than it's supposed to be; also the rest of him. The Chisox have petitioned him to slim down. Dewey LaMarr—The Lammer—understands. "Well, I imagine they do that because it just don't look right," he opines, "a fat guy with a beard and long hair."
He's up to 240 now and is the ace of the staff at 15-10; worst year he ever had, he played at a svelte 165.
He was in the Yankee system then, and one day in spring training he just sidled over to Catfish in the outfield and asked him what advice he had to offer about pitching. "Well," Catfish ventured, "a man can make a living on the outside of the plate."
"I got it so now," the Lammer explains, "a lefthander can't even touch a pitch of mine outside the black. I mean, he can't even foul it off. The only trouble with me is, I haven't hit a man all year. And they know it. They stay in on me and hit some good pitches they oughtn't."
He shrugs and takes another swallow of lager, resembling all the more a Hals painting. Or Mickey Lolich. Whatever, the one thing everybody says about Hoyt is: LaMarr keeps you in the game. From the beginning of last season through the end of last week he had started 58 games and come away with 55 decisions—which figures out to one of the highest percentages in history for staying in the game. Did even old Iron Man Joe McGinnity keep you in the game like that, 58 for 55? Nowadays they have relievers, too. LaMarr, what's that mean exactly, you keep them in the game?
"Well, it means you don't give up a run till they give up a run."
But probably because Hoyt is a fat guy with scruffy hair, nobody much notices. He had the most wins in the league last year at All-Star time and didn't make the squad; he had the most wins for the season last year (19) and didn't get a single vote for the Cy Young. "Yeah, I'm just the Rodney Dangerfield of baseball," Hoyt says. "But the good part is, I can still hide in the bushes. And I've learned something too: To be good is one thing, but to be in the right place at the right time is another."
While nobody can Stay Around The Plate like Hoyt, Dotson's control improved as soon as the warm weather came, and that turned him around. He also tried hypnotism once. The Pale Hose keeps a hypnotist on the payroll.
"You know," Burns explained one day, "me and Pudge were talking about La Russa. T-Bone wasn't a good player himself, and he had to look for every edge for himself, which is good. Only some of us don't need every edge."
You mean, if you have enough talent?
"Yeah, with some people, edges might even get in the way."
But then, all skippers look for edges. That's why they're skippers. Koosman remembers the time he was playing for Gil Hodges, who had been a very good player. Koosman got stung on his pitching elbow by a line drive. Hodges came out to inquire if Koosman was O.K. "Yeah, I'm fine," he said, massaging it.
"All right," Hodges said. "Tell you what: Ask for one practice pitch, throw it up on the screen, then say you're fine." Which Koosman did, to the consternation of the next hitter, who then had to be shoved into the batter's box.
As for Dotson, after he was hypnotized, he gave up three runs in the first inning. "Not even a hypnotist can keep me from hanging a curve," he said.
But he won 9-7, which is an edge, and not an L, in any newspaper you can buy.
Two of the things that don't count for nearly as much as they used to are virginity and complete games. As La Russa says, "We don't pay off on complete games here." Of course, in most other places the banner of complete games must be kept waving. A CG remains a goal so that when pitchers fall short, as invariably they do, they will feel guilty and, as well, suffer one more black mark should they ever come to arbitration. Also, it is psychological. Tidrow, who used to be a starter, explains: "It's hard to tell a starting pitcher: give me six good innings, and then I'll get you out, because then the starter's liable only to think in terms of six and he won't go but four."
Finally, remember what Archimedes told Pythagoras, that if one hurler goes all nine, zero is left for the firemen. A bullpen is a rickety enough emotional structure as it is.
Through last week the Pale Hose did, in fact, lead the American League in saves with 35, but it took six different firemen to accumulate that total—and only one of them was in double figures. "A masterpiece," Roland Hemond, The Wily G.M., says in praise of the way La Russa has shifted his arms. But you're better off if you have the privilege of managing dull, with a set bullpen, like Kansas City's, which has 34 saves but 31 of them from one arm, the submariner's. As Duncan says, "When you lack the dominant force in the bullpen, the way we do, every time you have to change roles it creates mental strain."
Lamp, with his sinker, is the short man now, the closer, replacing Salomé Barojas, who faded at midseason. Barojas pitches year-round, Mexico and the States, and maybe he went through what Hoyt calls a "lull in your arm." It appears that Barojas is snapping back now; Hoyt also says that "an arm can get a second wind." In June, Juan Agosto, a baby-faced southpaw from Puerto Rico, was the temporary surprise answer. In spring training, Agosto wasn't even among the top 15 candidates for the staff; four years ago he played in Puerto Rico because no team in Organized Baseball would sign him after the Bosox said he wasn't good enough for A-ball. But Agosto got married this March Gust before Hickey), and he went out to Triple A and blew people away for Denver. He hadn't given up a single extra-base hit when the Sox called him up, and he debuted on June 2 with a win—one hit, no runs—going three and a third. "They'll have the whole Denver team up here tomorrow," a nervous veteran exclaimed in the clubhouse that night...and a month later, Agosto's ERA was still only 1.00.
And then, just like that, he couldn't get anybody out on either side of the Mendoza Line, and in another month his ERA was nearly five, the worst on the staff.
Meanwhile, Tidrow shaved off his beard and maintained a respectable ERA, but he suddenly started chucking gopher balls. Hickey couldn't regain his command, and after he blew a lead for Barojas against the Yankees on the last day of July, the Sox put him on the 21-day disabled list with a sore arm. Hickey is probably too unflappable, too neighborhood, to stay down, though. One time a couple of years ago, when he was struggling just to pop up from Double A, he gave up a home run in spring training...to a college team. It was Eckerd College the Sox were playing. "So, from now on," Hic Man advised The Wily G.M. afterward, "we should play Walgreen's instead of Eckerd's." A year later, Hickey came north with the Chicago varsity and won his first major league game on Easter Sunday in Yankee Stadium. His teammates stole the game ball from him, painted it like an Easter egg and gave it back to him that way.
With Hickey on the 21-day, there was a vacancy on the staff again. This time last year The Wily G.M. scraped up three major league additions, and he was reaching out again to try and touch up some clubs. It was understood that 206 and 612 were the area codes he was most familiar with. But: No go. He would have to look to the farms for the new arm.
Richard Barnes, the extra lefthanded starter in spring training, has had some major league experience, and he passed his 24th birthday in July with a 10-3 record, the most wins in the American Association. By contrast, two other pitchers the Sox sent out, Randy Martz and Steve Mura, had spent much more time in the bigs; in fact, both won in double figures last year. But both pitched poorly in Triple A. Martz started off 2-6, Mura 1-6.
Maybe this is not so surprising. Whereas Barnes was pretty sure he'd go out, and prepared himself for that fate, Martz and Mura could only curse the luck that had brought them, proven major league winners, to a staff deep with more proven major league winners. Tidrow, who knew Martz well, having been on the Cubs' staff with him, stayed in touch with Martz. He says that at first Martz was so upset by his demotion that he simply could not accept that fact and take the measures that might lead to his return. "Very understandable," Tidrow says. "Human nature."
Nevertheless, Martz was the one they finally chose. Once he had come to grips with his lot in life for '83, he turned himself around. After that 2-6 start with a touchdown ERA—six points—he went 5-1, 2.79. So, they brought him up and T-Bone stuck him in The Rotation for a few days and put Burns in the pen to give him a "change of scenery." Now, Burns is back on the starting slab. The Wily G.M. also dipped all the way down to Class A for a kid with a sneaky fastball named Al Jones when the twin bills stacked up—even had to start Tidrow once. But now Jones is back in Appleton, and the question is what to do with Martz when Hickey comes off the DL on Aug. 22. Without Hic Man the Pale Hose are a southpaw short in the bullpen, and they still lack the flamethrower who can close it out with Ks—The Kloser.
The man who would be The Kloser remains with his family down in Arlington, Texas. That is Jim Kern. His rehabilitation—for '84—has finally begun. Sometimes he goes up to Chicago to check in with the team doctors there, and other times he goes over to the Rangers' park to scout for the Sox, but it took him almost four months before he could bring himself to visit his teammates again. "It's been extremely hard for me to go to the ball park, to watch but not be able to participate," he says. "I've been surprised how hard."
Kern, you see, was never that great a baseball fan. His real love is the outdoors; in Michigan, where he grew up, he was running a trap line when he was nine. He pitched because he found out that he had a whip attached to his shoulder, one that could propel a baseball almost 100 mph, an aberration that could educate him and make his family comfortable. But even by 1979, when he was The Fireman of the Year in the American League, he thought primarily of baseball as a vocation that enabled him "to afford this foolishness I love out in the woods."
Only now that he is 34 and his career is threatened—now he sees better what was there all along. "I miss the competition," Kern says. "To come in with the bases loaded and get out a Jackson or a Baylor—that's more than a thrill. That's extremely satisfying. And I miss the camaraderie, that sense of a second family, the team all pulling together. And the terrible thing is, all the time I've been in the majors, I never was on a legitimate contender, so I was especially looking forward to this year because we appeared to be a real contender and I was going to be asked to contribute. I was still throwing in the high 90s last year. They virtually gave me the short-relief job."
Instead, this is the summer he goes over and works at a gun shop three mornings a week, and drives his wife, Jan, crazy the rest of the time, hanging around the house with his arm. Bad enough she's pregnant in a Texas summer, ready to deliver their third child.
Kern has found out how much he misses pitching, and besides, while he is guaranteed $300,000 this year, he must make the club to earn that next season. "Baseball is a nice fiasco that keeps on running because you never allow yourself to look at the end," Kern says. So, while he fools with his guns, he has started to repair his arm, and he goes over to the Rangers' park and cases the opposition for The Wily G.M.
"I look at the games from a different view now," Kern says. "I finally understand what they've been trying to tell me all these years. Always before, I was just intelligent enough to be dangerous to myself. But if there's one thing I've seen from this new standpoint, it's that most pitchers try to be too fancy. They'll blow two fastballs by somebody and then figure they have to throw a breaking ball, some pitch that's maybe 60 percent as effective as the hard one. All they have to do is throw their good pitch again, just maybe in a new location, maybe with a little off it. That's all.
"I was looking forward to playing with Duncan, too, because he's communicative. He has the statistics to support what he says. Mostly, even in the majors, they just say, Do it this way. But nobody ever sat me down and told me why do it this way. Why? Because. You know where I learned the most about pitching? You'll never guess. Having beers with Boog Powell when we were at Cleveland. Because he told me what hitters think. Isn't that funny? All your life you're a pitcher and you're trying to outthink the hitters, only nobody ever tells you what they think. It was Boog Powell who helped me most as a pitcher."
The doctors have told Kern that he should be able to start lobbing in November, and if all goes right on schedule, he'll be 100% by next midseason. "Look, if I can pitch on the level I'm used to," he says, "I can be a helluva bargain for the White Sox." For a kloser, $300,000 would be a steal. If they'd had him this year, the bullpen would have been all in order at last and the Pale Hose wouldn't have had to scuffle in the early going, and they wouldn't just be running away with the AL West. Why, they might even be good enough to play in the East.
NEXT: The staff in September.