Montreal reliever Jeff Reardon and his wife, Phebe, vividly remember the events of July 28, 1983 at Olympic Stadium. The Expos were playing a doubleheader against the Cardinals, and Jeff had walked home the winning run in the opener. Between games Phebe and several other wives of Expos escorted local celebrities to the plate for a charity batting contest. Phebe was smiling, glad to be of use in a good cause—the fight against hunger. But when her name was announced, many in the crowd of 50,834 booed. Phebe held herself together until she left the field, whereupon she burst into tears.
"It took me a year to recover my composure," says Jeff. "I was nervous every time out, afraid to fail. I figured if they'd do that to my wife, they'd run me out of the city."
"The person I really felt sorry for," says Phebe, "was Jeff." The nightmare continued during the nightcap. As Reardon mopped up in another losing cause, Phebe stayed gamely in her seat behind home plate, and the fans booed some more. Well, booed isn't exactly right: They booed when Reardon pitched strikes and cheered when he threw balls or yielded hits.
The Reardons can remember the events of Thursday, June 13, 1985 a great deal differently. With two outs in the ninth, the Expos leading the Cubs 9-7 and a runner on second, Reardon was called in to face Jody Davis. As the golf cart carrying Reardon headed toward the mound, virtually all the 14,210 fans at Olympic Stadium cheered mightily. They cheered some more when he disembarked from the cart and began to warm up. And they cheered like crazy when he struck out Davis on four pitches to save his 19th game of the season. Then they began yelling joyously: "Ter-mi-na-tor! Ter-mi-na-tor!"
Time has healed some of Reardon's wounds, and guilt has wounded some of the heels who once booed him. Reardon has even acquired a new nickname, coined by Montreal sportscaster Mitch Melnick, who borrowed it from the lethal Arnold Schwarzenegger movie character, and Reardon was posing in Terminator sunglasses last week and weighing the possibility of putting out a Terminator T shirt. "Well, I guess it's a fitting nickname," says Reardon, who in real life is not very frightening. "I terminate the game."
Not to mention opposing hitters. Reardon's 2-2 record, 1.44 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 43‚Öî innings this season only begin to tell the story. He has finished 25 of the 27 games in which he has appeared; he leads the majors with 19 saves in 20 opportunities; and until the Cubs reached him on June 10 for three singles that produced three runs, he hadn't allowed any of the 13 runners he had inherited to advance a base, much less score. That's pitching. That's terminating. And that's why the Expos, picked by many, including SI, to finish last in the National League East, were in first place, a game ahead of the Cubs, with a 37-25 record at week's end.
What's the difference between July 28, 1983 and June 13, 1985? Simply put, Reardon has been given a chance to do what comes naturally. Reardon was born to pitch short relief. Unfortunately, he spent most of his six previous seasons sharing the job: with Neil Allen on the 1979-80 Mets and with several different pitchers on the 1981-84 Expos.
Late in spring training new manager Rodgers told Reardon, "You're my man—be ready." He already was. Anticipating a 120-inning season (he'd averaged 96 from 1982 to '84), Reardon had resurrected a long-dormant curve to go with his fastball. He had worked harder than ever to collar a back problem called spondyloschisis, a condition relating to a congenital fissure of the vertebrae. He lifted weights. He ran. He bicycled. He did enough stretching to torture a Salem witch.
As a result, Reardon's curve returned to him, his back troubles subsided and his fearsome fastball improved. Reardon throws a bewildering hummer that he hides until the last instant with his left shoulder and then releases nearly side-arm. "It's tough for a righthander to stay on top of, and it eats lefthanders inside," says Chicago rightfielder Keith Moreland. "And when he throws the breaking ball from the same place, it seems to climb."
By last week Reardon's elbow was hurting from throwing curves, so he gave it a break. On Wednesday he threw 14 straight fastballs in the ninth inning and retired the Cubs in order to preserve David Palmer's 2-0 win. It was the fifth combined shutout in which Reardon has pitched this season. The next night he threw only one curve among four pitches to Davis, deliberately wasting it outside. "He just blew the fastballs by me," Davis moaned later. "I was looking for something to drive, but that's pretty hard when you're getting 95-mile-per-hour pitches on the corners. He's nasty."
Actually, Reardon's nice. The quintessential small-town boy, he hails from Dalton, Mass., a Berkshire town of 6,797, where his widowed mother, Marion, two brothers and three sisters live. (Topps Chewing Gum Inc. keeps insisting Reardon is from Pittsfield, Dalton's archrival in sports, and Reardon would like to set the record—and his bubble-gum card—straight.) Jeff, who went to the University of Massachusetts, is delighted that he has pitched professionally in New York and Montreal, two cities his family and friends can reach in half a day's drive.
The Expos refer to Reardon as Yak Yak because off the field he doesn't speak much. "He shows the same emotion, win or lose," says pitcher Bryn Smith. "He never hangs his head after a loss, and the most you'll see after a win is a little clenched fist. I sometimes want to yell at him, 'Yak—smile!' "
The closer Reardon gets to a save, however, the more agitated and talkative he becomes. By the time the game is in the seventh inning, he's speaking to bullpen mates about anything that occurs to him: the game situation, the weather, his health.
When the phone for Reardon rang in the bullpen Thursday night, Phebe, a small, olive-skinned woman of Armenian and English extraction, was growing excited in the stands. The Reardon kids, Jeffrey Becket, 4, and Shane Andrew, 1½, were safely tucked away in the Expo baby-sitting center under the stands, and Phebe's attention was focused on the field. A good baseball woman who devours stats with abandon, Phebe could be a pitching coach. "You don't get much leeway when you're the stopper," she said, chain-smoking. "You either stop the hitters right away or they stop you." She paused and smiled. "But this year Jeff's made it easier on me."
Soon after, Buck Rodgers walked out to the mound and signaled for Reardon to come in. The fans were cheering now. It was Terminator time. And that awful July night of two years ago seemed very distant.