Mike Scott is sipping his morning coffee in the kitchen of his brand-new house in the hills beyond Laguna Beach, wistfully peering out the window at the rutted ruin that will someday be his backyard. Workmen swarm about in Marx Brothers confusion, pounding artificial rocks into place alongside the abyss that will be a swimming pool, carting cement to the heap of rubble that will be a patio, dropping bricks into the furrows that will be walkways. "They start at 6:30 in the morning," says Scott sleepily. "It's like having a wake-up call. They work like hell. The contractor is John Cappelletti, the football player, the Heisman winner. He's out there, too, somewhere. Great guy. Still, with all that work, I bet they won't finish before I head off for spring training." He says this without rancor, for if there is anything Mike Scott has learned in eight turbulent seasons of pitching major league baseball, it is patience. "I've never gotten off to a good start in my whole life," he says truthfully. But if last season is any indication, he's proving at age 31 to be one strong finisher.
Scott, working his split-fingered fastball to near perfection, had the kind of season in 1986 that would constitute a brilliant career for most pitchers. It was a year big enough for a whole staff of brilliant pitchers. He led the major leagues in earned run average (2.22) and strikeouts (306), becoming only the fourth National League pitcher and second righthander to strike out 300 or more batters. He tied Houston teammate Bob Knepper for the NL lead with five shutouts. In fact, he allowed more than three earned runs in only four of his 37 starts and only once after May 4. He also saved his best for last, going 12-5 in his last 19 starts with an ERA of 1.97. He became the first pitcher in big league history to clinch a championship (of the National League West) with a no-hitter when he blanked the Giants on Sept. 25.
He had both of the Astros' wins in the League Championship Series with the Mets, closing down the eventual world champions on just one run and eight hits in two complete games while striking out a playoff-record 19. His 14 strikeouts in the opening-game 1-0 win tied another playoff record. The threat of facing Scott again in a seventh game imbued the Mets with a special sense of desperation in their dramatic 7-6 win in the 16-inning sixth game. He had the champs so unnerved, in fact, that they wasted much of the series complaining that he was doing more to the ball than merely split-fingering it. Scott was selected the playoffs" MVP. only the second member of a losing team in either league to win the award.
To top it all off, he was the winner of the NL Cy Young Award. About the only achievement that eluded him was winning 20 games, and he would have done that with wins to spare had it not been for a disheartening 11-start streak in May and June during which a 1.71 ERA earned him only three victories against three losses and five no-decisions. As satisfying as his final 18-10 record was, it was not indicative of the superlative season he actually had.
January 12, 1987
Scott was so good that it almost embarrasses him. "It might have been nicer to spread it out over a couple of seasons," he says. "But it all came at once—the strikeouts, the no-hitter, the Cy Young, the playoffs." He can only shake his head in awe of himself. A calamitous early career has taught this pitcher true humility. Here is a man who only two years ago seemed to be washed-up at 29, a one-pitch (fastball) thrower with a career record of 29-44 and an ERA of 4.45. Up to that point he had never had so much as 100 strikeouts in a season, and he was giving up better than a hit per inning. Until 1986, for that matter, Scott had never struck out more than eight men in a game. Last season he had nine or more K's in 19 games.
Scott wasn't even drafted by a major league team after he graduated from Hawthorne High in the Southern California community of the same name, where he was better known as a basketball player. The Mets finally picked him up in the second round of the June 1976 draft after his junior season at Pepperdine University in Malibu. But after he went 14-27 for them with only 151 strikeouts in 364 innings over four seasons, the Mets gave up, trading Scott off to Houston for Danny Heep in 1982. "He was a nice young man," Mets general manager Frank Cashen recalls. "and he always had a good arm, but he was just trying to be mediocre."
A lesser man would have tasted sweet revenge in his playoff humiliation of the team that had abandoned him, but Scott's career is too loaded with irony for him to savor such triumphs, no matter how delicious. Consider the further irony, bittersweet indeed, that his no-hitter was achieved against a team that was managed by the man who had saved his career and that was operated by the general manager who had refused to give up on him, even in his gloomiest period.
No, Scott is simply too nice a guy to gloat. He's just happy to be where he is, on top. "I guess you could say I've paid my dues," he says. Besides, "Last year is just a memory" that he can't afford to dwell on. Not that he ever had much time for self-indulgence. "I don't think there's been a day since the end of the playoffs that I haven't had something to do, someplace to be."
To begin with, there was the move from Chandler, Ariz.—where he and his wife, Vicki, had lived in the off-season the past four years with their daughters, Kimberlee, 7, and Kelsey, 2—to Laguna Niguel, just down the Pacific Coast from Hawthorne. Mike and Vicki grew up in Hawthorne and went to high school together.
And then there was the November trip to Japan, where Scott toured with a major league All-Star team managed by—more irony—Davey Johnson of the Mets. By his own abashed admission, Scott and his "magical pitch" were "sort of the main attraction over there." Coming up is a pleasure trip to the Bahamas. And there has also been an apparently endless series of golf tournaments, television commercials and charity benefits, the sort of public exposure expected of a full-fledged celebrity, which Scott at last has become. Far from feeling overburdened by the demands on his time, he is grateful. "It's exciting, really, and it beats looking back on a 5-20 season."
On this very day, with his backyard in monstrous disarray, he is expected to play a round of golf at a new resort development, Coto de Caza, whose president, John C. Yelverton, is trying to seduce him into a charter membership. Scott drives there in his new Jaguar, another badge of celebrity, enthusiastically chatting on the way about a career that has gone from sour to sweet. "I think baseball people have to have a sense of humor," he says, wheeling through a succession of suburban communities—El Toro, Mission Viejo.... "And they do. It's a way of relieving the pressure." He laughs. "I was just thinking about Nolan Ryan. You know what a competitor he is. I don't think there's anyone in baseball as intense as he is when he's pitching. Well, last year the club hired a new bat-boy, a nice, open sort of kid. Very talkative. Now, Nolan is pitching a great game this day, which he will do. And in the late innings, with us at bat, he's sitting there in the dugout, concentrating as only he can, not making a sound. The rest of us had the sense not to bother him. But the new batboy comes up to him all smiles and innocence and says, 'Hey, you're doing pretty good. How many strikeouts you got so far?' It was all we could do to control ourselves, but Nolan just gave the kid a big smile."
Coto de Caza, nestled in Trabuco Canyon, under the shadow of the Saddleback mountain, won't open for another month. The temporary clubhouse site looks a little like the back of Scott's house, but the course, except for some rough spots on the fairways, is close to being playable.
Yelverton is a lean, blond, youngish looking man who exudes the easygoing familiarity of the social golfer. His newly famous partner, whom he has never met before, is his instant boon companion. Scott, bespectacled (he's very nearsighted) and with receding blond hair, looks stodgy, almost professorial, in comparison with his jaunty host.
"Now, what you gotta do on this first hole," Yelverton advises him, "is stay out of the creek. Me, I haven't done that yet." But he does this time, his drive sailing low and straight to the fairway beyond the "creek," which is actually a drainage ditch. Scott, 6'3", 215 pounds, steps to the tee. His drive is prodigious, but it hooks into a grove of trees well off the fairway. "Got another ball?" Yelverton inquires. "The way I play, I bring an extra ball to the driving range," quips Scott, who in truth is a legitimate 10-handicapper. His next drive is fully as long but down the middle this time. He pats his club affectionately.
Neither man keeps score. The course is only vaguely familiar to Yelverton, who has played it a few times, and it's a mystery to Scott. They play about every other hole, riding over unfinished trails in glistening new golf carts as a clubhouse functionary races ahead of them to install flags on the greens. Scott, as it develops, proves adept at the sort of self-deprecating patter that passes for conversation on a golf course: "How's the snake population down there where my ball is?... Smallest trap on the whole course and my ball finds it.... I wish I could throw a curve that hooks like that drive of mine.... The trouble with this game is you have to play your foul balls...." In an aside, he says, "These guys are so nice they act as if it's their fault I'm playing so badly."
There is no clubhouse as such, so the golfers repair afterward to a nearby general store/cafè for sandwiches and beer. Yelverton and course superintendent Jim Bertoni press their Coto de Caza promotional material on the prospective member. Scott politely tells them he'll give it a good read. He's concerned, though, that the club won't open for a while. He'll be off for spring training in a couple of months. When will he get a chance to play there? No problem, Bertoni advises him. Just give a call, and he can be on the course in a jiffy. Scott remains noncommittal. He is affable but a hard sell.
Yelverton changes the subject. "What I want to know, Mike, is just what that damn pitch of yours does. You know, the split-finger one." Scott sets his beer on the table and moves one of his huge hands steadily forward as if it were an airplane in level flight. Without warning he plunges the hand, now a dive-bomber, toward the table. The others nod. Scott adjusts his spectacles. "What that pitch really does," he says finally, "is save my career."
Scott's cheerful mood holds fast in the drive through traffic back to Laguna Niguel. "I've always had a good fastball," he says. "I suppose it's the reason people like Al Rosen stayed with me when he was our G.M. In college all I had to go with the fastball was a lollipop curve. I'd tried every kind of breaking pitch, even a knuckle curve. When you're struggling you'll try anything. I heard once that Wilt Chamberlain said he'd be great teaching people how to shoot free throws because he was so bad at it that he tried every way possible to do it. For that reason I'd be the perfect pitching coach, because there isn't a pitch I haven't tried. It just goes to show that speed isn't everything. I had a 95-mile-an-hour fastball, and I couldn't strike anybody out. The hitters would just sit on that pitch. No, you can't get by in the big leagues with just a fastball. The funny thing is I finally got so I could throw a pretty good slider. People forget that I was 10-6 in '83, my first year in Houston. And I missed the first month of that season with a problem with my shoulder. I felt good about that year.
"Then in '84, I lost my slider. Just lost it. Right from the start, in spring training. Sometimes I'd be warming up and it would be there. 'Ah, there it is,' I'd say. 'It's back.' Then I'd get in a game and it would be gone. Nothing. I was totally out of sync. It just got worse and worse. I was lucky to last five innings. I didn't know if my career was over, but I did know it wasn't moving very fast."
As depressed as he was by this latest misfortune, Scott still went to the team's annual postseason golf holiday, which Houston owner John McMullen hosts at the Pine Valley Golf Club in southern New Jersey. He was at dinner there one night when Enos Cabell, then a teammate, approached him. Cabell had been with Detroit in 1983 and had seen what wonders Roger Craig, the pitching coach, had worked with the Tiger staff. The Tigers had just become world champions, and Craig's pitchers, notably split-finger expert Jack Morris, were a primary reason. Craig quit after the Series, apparently having no more worlds to conquer, and repaired to his ranch near San Diego to await managerial offers. Cabell had an idea. He suggested that Scott learn the split-fingered pitch that Craig was teaching. McMullen overheard the conversation and took it up with G.M. Rosen. Rosen knew that his manager, Bob Lillis, was an old teammate and good friend of Craig's. Why not approach the split-finger maestro about helping Scott? Craig was between jobs, after all, and had no National League allegiances. Rosen and Lillis then made the necessary arrangements. The only principal in this unusual transaction who would not later have cause to regret it would be Scott. Before the '85 season would end, both Craig, as manager, and Rosen, as president and G.M., would be with the division-rival Giants. Lillis, as a coach, would join them in '86.
But Rosen's loyalties were then with the Astros, and he told Scott to take off for San Diego and spend as much time and money there as he needed to learn that pitch of Craig's. Scott holed up in the Town & Country Hotel and spent 90 minutes a day for eight days working with Craig at a nearby junior college. "We didn't even try the pitch at first," Scott recalls. "Roger just watched my mechanics. Then he showed me the grip, how to spread my fingers. And he told me, 'Don't let up. Don't push the ball. Just throw it like a fastball.' I was successful with it right from the start. "My hands are big, so the grip was no problem. And I could always throw with the hardest throwers. The ball just started breaking for me. And never the same way twice. Sometimes it would go down and in. Then down and out."
In spring training of '85, Lillis told Scott to throw nothing but fastballs and split-fingers. Wonder of wonders, he was getting people out. All the time. That season, he executed one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent times, going from 5-11 and a 4.68 ERA to 18-8 and 3.29. He was throwing the split-finger at least 35% of the time, sometimes more. He discovered that the more he threw it, the better it got. And if for some reason it wasn't working quite as well as it had been, he simply readjusted his grip and got it back. Shortly before the next season he signed a three-year contract worth $2 million.
Emboldened by sudden success, Scott experimented with yet another new pitch last spring, the cut fastball. This pitch, thrown with a fastball grip just slightly off center, tails away from right-handed hitters much of the time, but some of the time it just homes in on a straight line. Ordinarily, a pitch that doesn't move spells disaster, but not for Scott, because it's the only one he has that doesn't move. His conventional fastball sinks—"everything I throw just naturally sinks"—and the split-finger sinks out of sight. A nonsinker was just what he needed to catch the hitters unawares. Looking for the big drop, they found themselves swinging at balls sailing past at shoulder-blade level. Scott is convinced the addition of the cut fastball was the reason his K's climbed from 137 in '85 to 306 in '86.
There are those, however, who are convinced that Scott has yet another pitch in his arsenal—an illegal one. Jim Frey, for one, found it impossible to believe in '85, when he was managing the Cubs, that anyone pitching on the square could go from being so bad one year to so good the next. In June of that season he mailed a scrap of sandpaper to then National League president Chub Feeney. Frey claimed his first baseman, Leon Durham, had found it near the mound during a game Scott had pitched. In that same game Frey had called upon plate umpire John Kibler to examine Scott's glove and had him check the ball on 10 occasions. Kibler found no signs of foul play. And the sandpaper was hardly conclusive evidence. Who knew where Durham had found it, or if he had found it? Scott was more amused than annoyed by the brouhaha. "Maybe next time I'll go out there with a portable workbench and power tools," he was quoted as saying.
However, the hue and cry of '85 was but a whisper compared with the uproar Scott raised in '86, the year of the Big K. And one of the first to complain—hold on here—was the guru himself, Roger Craig. On June 13, in a game Scott actually lost to the Giants 3-1, Craig trotted out of the dugout three times to demand that his star pupil be searched for scuffing paraphernalia. Scott was frankly flabbergasted. It was Craig himself who had warned him that nonbelievers in the mysteries of the split-finger would accuse him of wrongdoing. Had Craig now joined the ranks of the Philistines? Or was he just practicing gamesmanship?
When Scott pitched his no-hitter against the Giants the last week of the season, Craig was gracious in defeat. He had been with the Dodgers when Don Larsen pitched his perfect game against them in the 1956 World Series, but Scott's game against his team, he said afterward, "was the most overpowering no-hitter I've ever seen." And, he acknowledged, this one was achieved largely with the very pitch he had taught his oppressor. "Why did it have to be me who taught Scott the damn thing?" Craig asked in misery.
"The only reason I complained," Craig now says, "was because the split-finger drops down, and Scott suddenly had a pitch that tailed up and away. That was the perfect complement to the split-finger." Craig chuckles. "I could never tell if he was actually scuffing the ball. I never found any evidence. I was just playing with his mind, trying to upset him. What Mike did last year, he did on his own."
The Mets had begun building their case against Scott during the season; in the playoffs they tried to take it to court. In the first inning of the first game, Gary Carter asked plate umpire and crew chief Doug Harvey to examine the second ball Scott threw to him. Harvey said the ball was as clean as a desk top. Carter then struck out for the first of three times, a record of futility matched in that game by teammate Keith Hernandez. Soon, Mets Wally Backman and Howard Johnson started collecting balls they claimed had been mutilated by Scott. They had 17 ready for official inspection after the fourth game, which Scott also won handily. Because the fifth game was postponed by rain, creating a slow news day for the sporting press, the Mets' complaints received a brisk airing. Scott was headlined in one New York daily as having THE RIGHT SCUFF. But the league and the umpires declared him innocent. "I've checked him 65 times this year, and in my heart all I know is, the man is clean," said Harvey. "It [the Scott split-finger] is as close to being an unhittable pitch as I've ever seen, but believe me, he's doing it legally." Grumbled manager Johnson, "I think he could make a cue ball dance." Said Cashen of the former mediocrity and his pitch, "It takes the damnedest detours I've ever seen. I've never seen that kind of stuff."
"It doesn't bother me at all," says Scott, who does in fact have a workshop in his new home—for purposes of household repairs, not for doctoring baseballs. "If scuff is on the hitter's mind, it's to my advantage. I think the hitters cork their bats, but I don't let that bother me. Actually, if I was a hitter and I saw that split-fingered fastball, I would ask for the ball, too."
Vicki Scott is a slender blonde who began dating Scott when they were both juniors in high school and has been poking gentle fun at him ever since. Scott was a basketball star, but she still kids him about the "air balls" he threw up before his visit to an optometrist as a sophomore. Because Mike enjoys cooking, she also calls him "a terrible nuisance" in the kitchen. She jokes at his taste in movies—"he likes scary pictures." But she's every bit as grateful as her husband is that the career he seemed to be losing control of has since become one of the brightest in the game.
The Scotts were still living in Arizona last February when Mike went off with the Astros to spring training, leaving Vicki and the kids behind for a time. In his absence she went to a Giants workout in Scottsdale. At the park Vicki spotted a tall, gray-haired gentleman whom she quickly realized was Roger Craig, the San Francisco manager and the savior of her husband's career. "I'd never met him before, but I knew what he'd done, so I walked up to him and introduced myself. 'Thank you,' I said. 'Thank you very much.' He was very nice about it."
Craig knows now, of course, that he has created a monster. But a good-hearted monster. "He was one of the most dominating pitchers I've ever seen." says Craig. "But it couldn't happen to a better guy. He is a fine person."
Scott is still having trouble comprehending how big he has become. He can't believe that people will actually pay him several thousand dollars just to hear him talk. "Business people will ask me to give speeches at their meetings," he says, back in his kitchen, sipping a cup of coffee. "Now, what can I possibly tell them?" He walks to the window to check on the hubbub out back. A few years ago such a mess might have seemed hopelessly beyond repair to him. Not now. He has learned optimism to go with his natural caution. In fact, as the dust flies out there, he sees hope. "You know," he says, "maybe those guys will finish this yard before I have to leave, after all." The way Scott has been going lately, he can plan on it.