The first time Mark Langston's control deserted him, he was watching The Exorcist in a San Jose, Calif. theater. He squirmed and fidgeted in his seat, elbows pressed tightly to his sides. "For the next six months I was one weird 12-year-old," he says. "I'd look in the mirror and see my eyes changing colors. And every time I heard a rattling in the attic, I'd say, 'Oh no, here it comes.' "
These days, Langston, a 24-year-old Seattle Mariner rookie, is a demon only on the mound. And though he may be an aficionado of trash when it come to films, he doesn't throw junk. He mixes up fast-balls, sliders and hard and soft curves with diabolical brilliance. And he's giving hitters a devil of a time.
His 16 wins against nine losses at week's end were the most in the Mariners' eight-year history. He was five shy of 200 strikeouts and on the verge of becoming the fourth rookie ever to lead the American League in Ks. And he's unfazed that Mets rookie Dwight Gooden's incendiary heat is getting all the ink. Langston understands that playing for the moribund Mariners in the Kingdome, a chamber of horrors about as inviting as a mausoleum, is unlikely to make him a media darling.
Langston favors horror movies because of the tension they build. "I love the intensity," he says. "You know it's around the corner, you know it's going to get you, but you have no idea when it's going to do it."
Opposing batters must experience a similar sense of dread. California's Reggie Jackson calls Langston one of the league's two top lefties. Oakland's Carney Lansford says Langston is the best southpaw he has ever faced. Detroit skipper Sparky Anderson thinks Langston's the best pitcher there is. Period. And Anderson has good reason for holding Langston in such astonishingly high esteem. In two starts against Detroit in August, he surrendered only six hits in 17‚Öì innings and struck out 23.
Despite Langston's fearsome reputation, he is usually a very mild fellow. "I call him Pretty Boy," says Mariner catcher Bob Kearney. "He's blond and got one of them nice pretty haircuts. Blows them bubble-gum bubbles. But when he goes out on that mound, he turns from Pretty Boy to Nasty Boy." Kearney's description sounds a lot like Langston explaining why he was a Teenage Werewolf fan: "He was a normal man who could change into an ugly-looking hairy thing—I could relate to that."
Langston likes being frightened, in movie houses and in ball parks. "I love the pressure out there," he says. "I never panic." At week's end he was 12-4 in night games with a 2.66 ERA. Not bad for a kid who was afraid of the dark until junior high.
The "scaredest" he has been in the majors was in his April 7 debut, against Milwaukee. "Loosening up was so nerve-racking I thought I'd go crazy," he recalls. "It was the same kind of scared I felt sitting in Halloween II. But it wasn't a scared scared. It was more like unsure scared." When leadoff batter Paul Molitor struck out, fear did likewise. Langston got his first win by allowing only four hits and two runs in seven innings while striking out five.
On June 15, Langston whiffed seven Rangers in a row. "It was like one-two-three, you're out," says Kearney. "He asks me, 'How'm I doin'?', and all I can answer is, 'Yeah, Wow!'
"His fastball is like The Thing. It jumps out of the cold, and when you go to hack it, you don't know if it's hard and rising or slower and dipping. His slow curve just creeps up on you, like The Blob."
Geese could migrate from the Gulf of Mexico to Puget Sound in the time it takes that curve to reach the plate. Oddly, Langston didn't begin throwing it until May 29. He had been 2-4 in nine starts and had fanned no more than five batters in any start. But warming up before pitching against Baltimore, he uncorked a delivery that dipped and darted like a bat in a belfry.
"What was that?" asked Frank Funk, then the Mariners' pitching coach. Funk had Langston use the Killer Curve to set up Orioles hitters. He held Baltimore to five hits in 7‚Öî innings and struck out nine. Since then he has whiffed 11 or more batters four times.
Langston revels in the comic as well as the horrific. During batting practice he'll wear a Ghostbusters T shirt under his jersey. He blows bubbles in mid-windup. And he swears that until a year ago, he'd never passed through a revolving door. When he finally encountered one, he was following his agent, Arn Tellem, into a building. Langston stepped into the same section of the door as Tellem and squeezed him against the glass.
"What's going on?" asked Tellem.
"I didn't know you're supposed to go in one at a time," said Langston.
This is a guy who went trick-or-treating in catcher's gear while the rest of his friends dressed as mummies and mass murderers. He'd ring the doorbell and hold out his mitt for candy. He once starred in a homemade Super-8 horror extravaganza, playing an innocent pedestrian who gets battered senseless by mutant Louisville Sluggers. Unfortunately, the film didn't turn out because the "set" was too dark.
"Langley really belongs in a beach movie," says fellow Mariner pitcher Matt Young. "He should be walking along the sand with a surfboard under one arm and Annette Funicello under the other."
Langston was born in San Diego, went to high school in Santa Clara and attended San Jose State, leaving in 1981 after he was chosen in the second round of the free-agent draft. He had begun playing ball about the time he saw his first horror flick, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
As an All-Far West soccer player at Buchser High, Langston honed the agility that makes him such an exceptional fielder. Mariners assistant farm director Bill Haywood thinks that if Langston were righthanded, he'd be the best shortstop in the organization.
Although Langston came to the bigs straight out of Class AA, G.M. Hal Keller never doubted he'd make it. "Mark doesn't get rattled," Keller says. "He's always in command."
One night during Langston's first season in A ball, his roomie, Darnell Coles, emerged from the bathroom peering through a mask of Noxzema. The image triggered the worst nightmare of Langston's life. "The killer dude from Halloween II was just chasing me all night," he says, recoiling at the memory. "I'd climb a fence, and it would grab onto my leg. I knew if I closed my eyes, it'd come back to get me."
After a fitful sleep, Langston was finally able to nod off for good. "It didn't bother me again," he says. "And I was deeply grateful."
American League hitters wish they could say the same.