Bob Knepper, the Houston Astros pitcher, was sitting in his St. Louis hotel room, crooning along with Mario Lanza to a song on his CD player. The top of the television set was laden with oatmeal cookies, and the small desk near the window was cluttered with periodicals: National Cattlemen, Beef, Stockman/Grass Farmer, the quarterly journal of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Oregon fish and wildlife journal and Evangelist, Knepper, who subscribes to 19 publications, says his favorite is the National Federation for Moral Decency newsletter.
Knepper's suitcase rested on the floor, loaded with 12 books on Christian doctrine and philosophy and a handful of paperback Westerns. Packed among the lefthander's polo shirts were two recently purchased Shirley Temple video-cassettes, Heidi and Rebecca of Sunny-brook Farm, for his children.
Earlier in his career, Knepper would bring an empty suitcase on road trips and fill it with treasures from out-of-the-way bookstores. Once he stuffed 40 pounds of books into his extra bag. After an elderly bellhop in Cincinnati nearly threw out his back lifting it, the Astros' equipment men begged Knepper to show some restraint.
Knepper now compromises by traveling with several small carry-on bags. In a black tote he crams 30 compact discs, including the greatest hits of the Carpenters, Tennessee Ernie Ford, the Mills Brothers and Barbara Mandrell; Beethoven piano sonatas; Verdi arias; Madama Butterfly; La Bohème; Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2; and Vivaldi's Four Seasons.
Knepper's blue tote bag houses a 35-mm camera and several lenses. He is working on a photographic record of the 1988 season. In St. Louis, Knepper woke at 5 o'clock the morning after he pitched, to capture on film the sunrise through the Gateway Arch. He has photographed the blue-collar grit of Pittsburgh on a damp gray afternoon and the bustle of New York City.
Of late, Knepper has also been lugging a large Astro duffel bag. Inside it are many of the more than 300 letters he has received regarding remarks he made several months ago about women lacking the qualifications to be major league umpires. At the end of a spring training game on March 14, Knepper praised the work of home plate umpire Pam Postema, who was hoping to land a job in the majors after 11 years in the minor leagues. But then Knepper added, "This is not an occupation a woman should be in. In God's society, woman was created in a role of submission to the husband. It's not that woman is inferior, but I don't believe women should be in a leadership role."
The reaction to Knepper's assessment of women and their roles was swift and stinging. Editorial writers and columnists took him to task, making Knepper the early favorite for sexist-of-the-year honors. The mail has been evenly divided between men and women, and so far the tally is running two-to-one in his favor—or so says Knepper.
Wrote a Gatlinburg, Tenn., woman: "Thank you for speaking out for the majority of women and the few real men that are left in this world of bra-burning women and wimpish men."
From a Houston man: "It's about time someone told women who they should be."
And from an Indio, Calif., housewife: "In my previous life (before Christ), I was a probation officer. Prior to that, I wanted to be a policeMAN. Thank God, God already had a handle on my life, or perhaps I wouldn't be so secure in my career as a happy homemaker."
Many of the anti-Knepper missives are short and not so sweet. Wrote Lydia Justice Edwards, the state treasurer of Idaho: "Go back to your cave!" And a Decatur, Ill., woman asked, "What rock have you been living under for the past 50 years?"
Knepper answers each letter with a photocopied three-page response citing Scripture he feels supports his statements about Postema. He also sent a similar explanation to Postema, who is once again calling balls and strikes in Triple A. She hasn't written back.
"God has created woman to be a special gift to man," says Knepper's boilerplate response. "As man has strayed far from God's word, man's relationship with woman has deteriorated...to the point of abuse.... It is little wonder that women have rebelled against man. The mere mention of the word 'submission' forms visions of cruelty, slavery and inequality.... Jesus made it very obvious that men and women were equal."
Knepper has never been afraid to express his opinions. He is also a bit out of step with the baseball world around him. He buries his nose in books in the clubhouse, and he prefers to spend free time with his family or alone with his thoughts. In the off-season, the Kneppers live on a 1,300-acre cattle ranch in Wilbur, Ore. Their place is tucked into the lush valley between the Coastal Range and the Cascades, 160 miles south of Portland. There, Knepper shuts out the complexities of modern society and seeks a simpler existence for his wife, Terri, and their three children, Jacob, 8, Tyler, 5, and Heather, 3. For guidance, he turns to the Bible.
"Choosing to live the life-style we do separates my family from the team," says Knepper. "I know that I'm responsible, but it doesn't make the loneliness any easier."
On the field, Knepper is very much a part of Houston's powerful pitching staff, which after the first two months of the season ranked third in the National League in earned run average. At week's end Knepper had a 7-1 record and the third-lowest ERA (1.91) in baseball. At 34, Knepper is also the most durable pitcher in the majors. Over the last decade he has averaged 33 starts per season. He has missed only one scheduled start, when he cut a finger slicing a grapefruit in 1980.
After his senior year at Calistoga (Calif.) High, Knepper was selected by the San Francisco Giants in the second round of the 1972 free-agent draft. He had a 94-mph fastball, and while with the Triple A Fresno Giants in 1974, went 20-5 and struck out 247 in 239 innings. "They used to say I could throw ripe strawberries through battleships," Knepper says.
But his major league career has been erratic. His record is below .500 (129-136), and he has an overall 3.52 ERA. Personal difficulties off the field and a tendency to overanalyze his pitching evidently have prevented him from realizing his potential. "I've always been too introspective," says Knepper. "I'll break down my pitching mechanics, dissect them into a million little pieces. Then I'll put them all back together, and I'll look over and see some pieces are still left."
In 1978, his first full season with San Francisco, Knepper became a born-again Christian. He and several other Giants were outspokenly zealous about their faith, and they were nicknamed the God Squad by the local press. A newly serene Knepper breezed to a 17-11 record, including six shutouts. He struck out 147 batters and finished with a 2.63 ERA as the Giants came in third in the NL West. That year remains his best ever.
The next season, the Giants fell to fourth, and some players blamed the team's demise on the God Squad. The born-again Christians were accused of a lack of aggression. Knepper took the criticism to heart and faltered, finishing 9-12 with a 4.65 ERA. More tension erupted in 1980 after Knepper was quoted as saying that it was "God's will" when he gave up a game-winning home run against the San Diego Padres early in the season. Though he repeatedly denied making the remark, Knepper's psyche was damaged, and he came unglued. He wound up 9-16 with a 4.10 ERA and was traded that winter to Houston for third baseman Enos Cabell.
"The press and the Bay Area fans really tore into me," says Knepper. "The criticism came so fast and hit me so hard that I couldn't cope. I retreated within myself. I quit being outgoing and aggressive."
Knepper also decided to change his pitching style, to rely on finesse rather than on power. "When I was younger, I hadn't learned how to pitch," he says. "I was just throwing hard. I've finally realized that on the mound I have a phlegmatic personality, that I have to hunker down and get guys out with sinking stuff."
After winning just 20 games all told in his first three seasons with Houston, Knepper finally regained his form. He won 15 in both 1984 and '85, and then matched his career high with 17 in '86 as the Astros won the Western Division title. However, during the Championship Series with the New York Mets, Knepper again fell victim to his psyche, suffering a tremendous letdown after the Astros' 7-6, 16-inning loss in Game 6. For eight brilliant innings, Knepper held the Mets scoreless, giving up just two singles. But he was knocked out in the ninth.
"I was too emotionally drained to cry," Knepper says. "I felt as though I'd blown a game that would have been the pinnacle of my career. I was always tagged as the guy who couldn't handle pressure, somebody who wouldn't kill to win. I just wanted to be accepted as a quality pitcher."
Knepper replayed the game time and again that off-season—while doing ranch work, watching TV and lying in bed. "All of a sudden, he would shake his head and close his eyes," says Terri. "It was one of the hardest periods of our married life. It was difficult to understand why we had to experience such a sick, sorrowful, lost feeling."
The depression affected his preparation for 1987. He refused to work out, and by season's end he had established career highs for losses (17) and ERA (5.27). This past off-season, though, Knepper trained with a vengeance. Outside one of his barns, he filled a tub with 130 baseballs and fired them one by one at the aluminum siding. He also converted a two-car garage into a high-tech workout room. Although he was well prepared physically and mentally for this season, his early success scares Knepper. He says he is beginning to hear himself think out there.
"The last few outings, my mechanics haven't felt right, and I catch myself wondering," he says. "On some pitches I'll remind myself if I give up just one run, my ERA will go up. On others I'll tell myself, Hey, one shutout and your ERA will be even less!
"I've always been afraid of success. Right now, I have a fear of my own ego. I don't know of anybody who isn't affected by success, from Jimmy Swaggart to Nolan Ryan. I wonder, Will I like success too much? Will I want more fame? More money?"
One thing that hasn't seemed to bother Knepper, surprisingly, is the commotion over his remarks about Postema. And the uproar does seem to have diminished. The signs in ballparks have become scarce (one reads: BOB, IS YOUR WIFE UMPIRING TODAY?), and though several pickets were spotted outside Veterans Stadium when Knepper was scheduled to pitch in Philadelphia in April, a women's rally, scheduled for Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium, was rained out. "That's what God ordained," says Knepper. He laughs off being nominated for Neanderthal of the Year by the Houston chapter of the National Organization for Women.
"NOW is such a blowhard organization," he says. "They are a bunch of lesbians. Their focus has nothing to do with women's rights. It has everything to do with women wanting to be men."
Terri, who has been married to Bob for 13 years, has a somewhat different view of the Postema situation. "If this is what she [Postema] chooses to do, fine," says Terri. "I don't feel a woman umpire is in a position of authority over men. If she's rooming or dressing with men, then it's not all right. I reminded Bob he is in no position to dictate what people should or shouldn't do."
Several Astros believe that Knepper, as is his wont, overanalyzed the question of women umpiring and got himself into trouble. "Bob puts in a great deal of time and effort to come to the right conclusions," says second baseman Bill Doran. "When you put in as much thought as Bob does, you could probably change your mind four or five times before you figure out what you actually think."
Terri agrees: "Bob sometimes goes too deep into things. You get confused if you go too far. I don't know if he can help it. You can't stop your mind."
Knepper holds rigid opinions about other aspects of baseball as well. He says he is disgusted by the cheating he sees in the National League—the scuffed balls and the corked bats—but he refuses to name the lawbreakers, saying his religious beliefs keep him from being a tattletale. "Umpires are afraid to check for scuffed balls," says Knepper. "They're intimidated by pitchers. I've seen them call for balls, look directly at the pitcher, but never once look at the ball. I grew up naive. It has been hard to adjust from the game I dreamed about as a kid to baseball in the real world."
The only perfect world for Knepper seems to be Wilbur (pop. 47). He and Terri scoured Idaho, Montana, Utah and Oregon before finding their paradise. "We wanted to settle into an area that had no promise for expansion," Knepper says. "A place that was totally isolated."
He bought the ranch to help teach his children values, shield them from drugs and protect them from what he sees as the promiscuity of modern times. "People are slaves to their carnal desires," says Knepper. "Since the Beatles burst onto the scene, there hasn't been any romance in music. Nobody sings about love anymore. Society is so information-oriented, so unemotional."
Because he believes in spending quality time—and lots of it—with his children, Knepper says he'll probably give up baseball before he has to. "I don't want to play until I'm 40," he says. "My children don't need me to make a million dollars a year. What they need is time with me. My kids don't know the value of money. Right now, they see me buy a wrench when I need it, tune the car every 3,000 miles. The average person can't afford to do that, but they won't know that until later, when they're frustrated because they can't keep up with their father."
On the ranch, Knepper can often be found riding one of his seven quarter horses or tending his herd of 120 cattle. Four years ago, his friend and teammate, Nolan Ryan, who is a Texas cattleman, sold Knepper 10 cows to help him further the Beefmaster breed in Oregon. Since becoming a rancher, Knepper has played the cowboy role to the hilt. He owns 30 handguns, rifles and shotguns, 15 sets of spurs, a handmade saddle, five antique Spanish-style bits, 12 pairs of cowboy boots, eight Stetsons and a collection of John Wayne memorabilia. "John Wayne was the last great American," he says.
Knepper often fantasizes about living in the days of the Old West. Someday he plans to camp out for a week or two on his ranch, subsisting on fish and rabbit, sleeping beside a crackling fire underneath the stars. "I want to get on my horse," he says, "and ride into tomorrow and see yesterday."