Mario Soto changes speeds. He can throw body heat (98.6), and yet, from the same motion, he can throw a pitch that might be described as a "braking ball." Some batters say they can hear the screech of brakes as the ball approaches the plate. Soto—and the Cincinnati Reds—swear by his changeup, hitters swear at it, and pitching coaches around the majors are trying to capture its magic. Soto is all the rage.
He changes speeds, all right. By nature, he's relaxed, friendly, smiling, a picture of good will. But every now and again Soto loses it. He's lost it twice this year, once in Chicago and once in Atlanta, and it cost him five-day suspensions each time. There was no excusing his behavior, but in neither adventure was Soto asking for trouble. Because of circumstances beyond his control, he found it. Now the rage is all the public seems to know about Soto.
And that's a shame, because some people in baseball believe he's the best pitcher in the league—in either league, for that matter. "If I had to build a pitching staff from scratch, I'd start with Soto," says St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog. Soto turned 28 last week, but he is already fifth in career strikeouts on the Reds, the first team in baseball. He has never won more than 17 games in a season, but through no fault of his own. The mind boggles at the thought of how many games Soto might have won for the Big Red Machine of the mid-'70s.
Thus far this season, Soto is 9-3 with a 3.31 ERA, and he has seven complete games in 19 starts. He won eight straight at one point for a team that's 11 games under .500. And for one week he was probably the first pitcher in major league history to have more five-game suspensions (two) than losses (one).
Soto made the All-Star team for the third time, but in San Francisco last week, media people seemed to shy away from him. Or as one reporter put it, "So there's the crazy Dominican." In the All-Star Game, Soto retired all six batters he faced. He struck out Boston's Jim Rice on a fastball, which, as the cliché has it, is like throwing a lamb chop past a wolf.
The fastball has always been an inspiration to the language of baseball, and nowadays more pitchers than ever seem to "bring it." What do they bring? They bring heat, light, gas, high octane, hard cheese, dead red and a number of words best left unwritten. They throw seeds, aspirin, little baseballs, strawberries through brick walls and peas at the knees.
"The fastball is still the best pitch," says Soto. "Whenever I'm in trouble, I go to it."
But a pitcher can't live by dead red alone, and in the Cincinnati organization, minor league pitching coach Scott Breeden teaches an off-speed pitch called "the circle changeup." A simple way to describe the grip is, make the A-O.K. sign with your pitching hand, put a baseball inside and squeeze. It's similar to a palmball, but it's a very difficult pitch to master. To throw it correctly, a pitcher uses the arm speed of his fastball—the ball just won't get there as quickly.
"Mario has one of the best changeups I've ever seen," says Red pitching coach Stan Williams. "And I pitched with Johnny Podres and Carl Erskine, who had great ones. They threw theirs differently, sort of like they were pulling down the window shade. Any way you throw it, it keeps the batter guessing."
Soto throws two different changeups, which can break away from both righties and lefties. He also has a slider, but that's mostly for show, since he feels the slider hurts his arm. Whatever he throws, he throws it with uncanny control. Soto gives up about 2½ walks a game, remarkable for a pitcher who averages nearly a strikeout an inning.
"Take nothing away from him," says Claudell Washington, the man Soto did battle with in Atlanta. "Mario Soto is a great pitcher. He has the best stuff in baseball."
"I say there's no one better, left-or righthanded," says rightfielder Dave Parker of the Reds. "Some of his episodes on the field might lead you to believe otherwise, but he's a very nice guy, a leader and a great competitor."
"He has a million-dollar arm," says Atlanta catcher Alex Trevino, who was Soto's personal catcher with the Reds last year, "and a 10-cent head."
There are two sides to every story. But even given the magic of television, there is sometimes only one image. The lasting picture of Soto from the Chicago incident on May 27 is that of an enraged bull charging the umpires, only to be stopped by the open-field tackling of Reds catcher Brad Gulden and Cubs coach Don Zimmer.
Back up. On that day Soto had received telephoned death threats at his hotel, the kind of thing that tends to make one nervous. In the second inning, Ron Cey hit a ball off Soto that was clearly foul, but third base umpire Steve Rippley called it fair. An angry Soto allegedly bumped Rippley in the ensuing argument, although some observers say he never touched him. The other umpires then reversed Rippley's call, and for half an hour the argument went on. When it was over, Cubs manager Jim Frey and Soto were ejected. That brought Soto barreling out of the dugout and this comment from Cubs announcer Harry Caray: "This is one of the biggest baseball fights of all time."
"I should've seen it coming," says Reds manager Vern Rapp. "Imagine how a thoroughbred might behave if it had to wait in the paddock for half an hour. I motioned for a new pitcher, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Mario take off. I tried to chase him, but I'm not as fast as I used to be." Rapp did eventually wrestle him to the ground, after Gulden and Zimmer intercepted him. Then, as Soto was being escorted back to the Reds' dugout, a vendor threw a cup of ice that hit him in the chest. Soto started to go after him with a bat, but was restrained by teammates.
Said Soto afterward, "I didn't have mayhem in my heart."
Soto was suspended for five days by National League president Chub Feeney and fined $1,000. Neither Soto nor the Reds appealed, partly because Soto had a blister on his pitching hand, which would have kept him out of his next start.
On June 16 in Atlanta, Washington homered off Soto in the first inning, giving him four homers and a double in eight at bats against Soto this year. According to the unwritten code, Washington should have expected some chin music his next time up, and he got it.
On the first pitch of his third at bat against Soto, Washington let go of his bat, and it ended up in the hole between first and second. He decided to retrieve it himself, but he didn't take the most direct route. Instead, he detoured to the mound, yelling at Soto. Mindful of his Chicago experience, Soto stood stock still on the mound. Then home plate umpire Lanny Harris, who shouldn't have let Washington head for the mound in the first place, came charging out. The next thing anyone knew, Washington and Harris were on the ground. Soto bopped Washington on the head with the baseball, and then he reared back and fired the ball into a group of players wrestling with Washington. He hit Atlanta coach Joe Pignatano in the left shin.
This time, Feeney suspended Soto for five days and fined him $5,000. Washington was given three days and a $1,000 fine. "What would you do," says Soto, "if someone came into your house and attacked you? Wouldn't you fight back?
"I do feel bad about what happened. But everybody blows away once in a while. Sometimes you do things and don't remember that you did them. In Chicago, all I wanted to do with the umpires was argue with them. In Atlanta, I was only trying to defend myself. It's only a moment, but people aren't going to let me forget."
Soto has taken some heavy flak in Cincinnati, the city he has chosen to stay in rather than test his value on the open market. The afternoon disc jockey on WLW in Cincinnati, Gary Burbank, did some funny, if cruel, routines on Soto for a week, and his theme song was that old standard They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa. Both The Cincinnati Enquirer and WKRC-TV came out with strong editorial stances demanding stiff penalties for Soto.
Jerry Dowling, a cartoonist for the Enquirer, drew Soto sitting atop a Cincinnati bridge known, ironically enough, as the Suspension Bridge. Soto is depicted reading a letter—"Dear Mario, Your recent request for a name change to Soto Low Bridge is hereby denied. Also, the Washington Bridge referred to is named after George, not Claudell. Love, Chub."
Says Rapp, "I wish people knew where Mario comes from, how he had to fight to achieve what he has. Think of him as someone who grew up in the Depression, when things were tough and you had to be strong to become somebody. They don't know that when he was 14 he worked for 10 cents an hour in construction to support his family. Of course he's going to fight to protect what's his.
"He still has to learn self-control, to act like a professional. It's a lesson I had to learn—in my case, I was rough on umpires because I couldn't stand to see them do a disappointing job—and Mario and I have sat down and talked about this. What he did this year had no malicious intent to it as far as I can see. I think he just became frightened, more than anything else. Somebody was trying to take away his livelihood."
Soto grew up in Bani, Dominican Republic, a city of about 40,000, southwest of Santo Domingo. "People there are very tough, real fighters," says Dominican-born Felipe Alou, a Montreal coach and Soto's manager for many years in the winter league. "The soil isn't very fertile, so they have to work in the salt mines, or in hard labor." When Soto was eight, his parents separated, and Marta, his mother, took in laundry for the Dominican air force. "We used to go down to the river at six in the morning, baskets of laundry on our heads, and not come back until the evening," says Soto.
When he was 14, Soto dropped out of school and took up construction work full-time. He became a skilled mason in a short time—Soto has always been a quick study. "Once a scout came to me at work and said he wanted to see me play, but I told him, 'Not unless you pay me what I'm making in construction.' I was making $7.50 a day for 12 hours' work."
Soto wasn't a pitcher, but a catcher, and a very good one. "The only thing was, I couldn't run and I couldn't hit." Eventually, somebody found a use for his rifle arm, and two months after Soto became a pitcher, Johnny Sierra spotted him for the Reds. Sierra had to talk scout George Zuraw into shelling out $1,000 for Soto.
Throughout his first few years in the minors, Soto had all kinds of injuries and often thought of returning home. As is the case with many Latin American players, he found learning English to be a frustrating experience. "My first year at Eugene [Ore.], I remember being in tears after a clubhouse meeting because I didn't understand a word," he says. Today, Soto speaks almost flawless English with an accent that sounds as if he had been raised in California. Like the mermaid in Splash, he picked up the language watching television. "Movies, soap operas, talk shows—you name it, I watched it," he says.
In 1977 Sparky Anderson, then the Reds' manager, took a liking to Soto and called him up from Indianapolis. At the time, Anderson, who's sometimes given to overstatement, said that Soto could be the next Juan Marichal. Anderson turned out to be prophetic in more ways than one.
Soto was up and down between Cincinnati and Indianapolis until 1980, when he mastered his change-up. Since 1980, his victory totals have gone from 10 to 12 to 14 to 17. Last September he became the highest-paid player in Reds' history when he signed his $6 million contract. He could have become a free agent at the end of this year, but he says, "I like the city. It's quiet, not like New York, and the people have been nice to me."
Why is it that every Latin American ballplayer is hung with the label "hot-tempered"? Away from the field, Soto is—the word seems inadequate, yet it fits—nice. He always speaks to the press and has a smile for everyone. At the All-Star Game workout, he could be seen chatting with Washington. Soto is a man of honor. It's when his honor is impugned that he shifts into overdrive.
On Saturday night the moon was full, yet Soto didn't lay waste to any umpires, send Expos sprawling in the dirt or take his bat into the stands. Of course, he didn't pitch very well either. His control was off, and he gave up six runs in 3‚Öì innings of the Reds' 6-2 loss. After the game, though, he was the essence of control. Other pitchers would have hidden in some off-limits area, but Soto answered questions freely and casually. "If I keep pitching like this, I'm going to get a sore neck," he said. "I'm doing a great job of throwing the ball where their bats are. Maybe they should take me out of the rotation. Maybe they should send me to Wichita. But I think I'll win another game, somehow. I'm just having some control problems."
If Soto can control his other control problem, there's no telling how many more games he'll win.