When an athlete has toiled for years in obscurity, chances are he'll take fame any way he can get it. And so when Seattle Mariners lefthander Mark Langston's name began popping up regularly in the media this past winter, the pitcher, modest though he may be, seemed to relish the attention. So what if he was becoming famous merely for being trade bait; there are worse ways of making the sports pages these days. Besides, as each rumor surfaced and subsided—he was going to the New York Mets, the San Diego Padres, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Boston Red Sox—Langston's extraordinary pitching record was being recounted for all to hear. It was fame after the fact. But fame, nevertheless.
Lord knows, Langston should have been celebrated by now for something besides his trade-in value. His problem has been that he has pitched for the Mariners for all of his five-year major league career. That means he has played for a team that has never won more than 78 games in a season. That means he has pitched in the antiseptic Kingdome, with 316-foot foul lines, 357-foot power alleys and no wind—a homer haven that surrendered a major league-leading 178 dingers in 1988. That means he plays before mostly small crowds—an American League-low attendance of 1,022,398 last year—in a small media market and in a city that has long favored the NFL's Seahawks over the Mariners.
Confronted with these handicaps, Langston has persevered nobly. In three of his five seasons, including his rookie year, he has led the American League in strikeouts, beating out the infinitely more acclaimed Roger Clemens. His 17 wins in '84 were the most by a rookie lefthander since Gary Peters won 19 for the 1963 Chicago White Sox. In 1987 he won 19 games for a team that won 78. In '88, he won 15 for a team that won 68. He has never pitched fewer than 225 innings a season, except in '85 when he had an elbow injury. He won his second straight Gold Glove for fielding excellence last year. In his only All-Star Game appearance, in '87, he pitched two perfect innings. As of Sunday, his numbers for '89 were 2-1 with a 2.84 ERA and 19 K's in three starts.
As impressive as his figures have been, they are nothing compared with those he might have rung up pitching for a contender. "Everybody in baseball knows he's a 20-game winner," says former teammate Dave Henderson, who now plays centerfield for the Oakland Athletics but is still Langston's next-door neighbor in Bellevue, Wash. "It's just tough mentally for a guy with his ability to pitch maybe 10 or 12 good innings sometimes and come away with no decision."
"The Kingdome hurts any pitcher," says Toronto's Jesse Barfield. "You put Langston in a big ballpark and he could win 20 games easy. Can you imagine him pitching in St. Louis or Kansas City? Wow!" Says former Blue Jay catcher and current broadcaster Buck Martinez, "The whole mental aspect of pitching in Seattle for the Mariners in the dome is a negative. On a good team, I shudder to think. He's the Number 1 topic of the trade talks because he can make a middle-of-the-pack team one of the favorites."
The hottest off-season trade rumor of them all had Langston going not to a middle-of-the-pack team but to the National League East champion Mets, who were prepared to send four players, including Howard Johnson, Sid Fernandez and prime pitching prospect David West, to the Mariners for Langston, outfielder Jay Buhner and minor league first baseman Jim Bowie. The deal seemed so done in late February that when Langston reported to the Mariners' camp in Tempe, Ariz., his presumably soon-to-be former teammates serenaded him with choruses of New York, New York. And Langston even quizzed Buhner, a former Yankee, on the best restaurants in Gotham. But Mariners president Chuck Armstrong unexpectedly backed off, saying at the time that he would rather win with Langston for one season and then lose him to free agency than finish last without him—an arguable premise at best.
Armstrong says now that as long as the possibility remains of signing Langston to a multiyear contract, he wants to keep negotiating with the pitcher's agent, Arn Tellem. A long-term deal seemed hopeless only three months ago when Langston agreed to a compromise one-year $1.3 million contract, with incentives, just 10 days before he and the team were to enter arbitration hearings. But Armstrong says he subsequently saw a ray of hope. If his hope is only an illusion, and the team doesn't make a trade, Langston will become a prime free agent for 1990 and the Mariners, who lost their second-best pitcher, Mike Moore, to free agency and Oakland after last season, will sink even deeper into the hole they have dug for themselves.
Langston, of course, is in the catbird seat, rare accommodations for one so long in the peanut gallery. If he's traded, he'll most certainly be with a better team. If he's signed, he'll be richer. If he becomes a free agent, he'll be richer still. The whole process both excites and amuses him. "This week, it's me for [Wade] Boggs," he says. "Next week, who knows? But as far as I'm concerned, until I'm on a plane headed for someplace else, I'm a Seattle Mariner. And I don't mind that at all. In fact, I'd like to be a part of this team when we finally turn it around. We're a young ball club that needs leadership, and I think we've got that in [new manager] Jim Lefebvre. And I love living in Seattle. In the summer there's not a nicer city around."
If he hangs around long enough, Langston might even become familiar to the city's ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d's, whereas a couple of years ago he was just another young guy looking for a table. Here's how he tells the story: "I was going to meet some friends after a game at a place called F.X. McRory's near the dome. I pitched that night and won, but I was a little late getting to McRory's. My friends were already seated, so I walked up to the ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d' and told him I was Mark Langston of the Mariners and I wanted to join some people inside. There was a long line of people waiting to get in, and the ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d'just looked at me and said, 'Buddy, the line's in back. Get in it.' So much for the VIP treatment."
At 28, Langston looks more like a television anchorman than one of baseball's premier lefthanders. He is a lanky 6'2", 190 pounds, handsome, with blue eyes and scrupulously unruffled sandy hair. He has a blonde, blue-eyed wife, Michelle, who is studying acting, and a blonde, blue-eyed daughter, Katie, 3½, who likes ice cream. Mark and Michelle are born-again Christians who neither smoke nor drink. Whoever signs this paragon may rest comfortably assured he will not prove a boon to the circulation of Penthouse. But Langston is not without playfulness. He and teammate Alvin Davis have mastered nearly flawless impersonations of public-address announcers around the league, and Langston has even done turns as a disc jockey on Seattle's KUBE and KISW radio and on MTV.
And he is a fierce presence on the mound. "The guy is nasty," says Kansas City Royals outfielder Pat Tabler. "I mean nasty with a capital N. He has that nasty old slider that gives me fits."
"He throws hard, and he has a 50-foot breaking ball and a 50-mile-an-hour changeup," says Oakland slugger Mark McGwire, exaggerating slightly. "He keeps you off balance as well as anybody." Says White Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen, "He's the greatest in the league. Are they going to trade him to the Mets? Please get him out of this league."
Texas Rangers manager Bobby Valentine compares Langston with four-time Cy Young Award winner Steve Carlton, and Lefebvre puts Langston in even faster company: "He can close out a hitter. [Sandy] Koufax was like that." And, says Lefebvre, Langston is a better athlete than the Dodger legend. "He may be the best shortstop in our organization, even if he is lefthanded. And he had the fastest time—111 miles per hour—on our bat-speed meter. And here's a guy who doesn't ever hit."
Most American Leaguers agree that Langston was an even better pitcher last year because of his devastating new changeup. "After watching the success of [Frank] Viola and [Bret] Saberhagen," says Langston, "it became clear to me the importance of changing speeds. I'll probably use the off-speed pitch even more this year."
Langston could always throw hard, even as a 160-pound senior at Buchser High in the pleasant northern California town of Santa Clara, where his father, Van, is a Silicon Valley softwear engineer. Soccer was Mark's game then—he was all-state—but he decided to take the only baseball scholarship offered to him, by nearby San Jose State, after the Chicago Cubs offered him only $10,000 to sign when they drafted him in the 15th round. In his junior year at San Jose, he started the season 4-0, but came down with a virus on a road trip to Hawaii and lost 10 pounds—and 10 mph off his fastball. He finished with a losing record, but the Mariners saw enough to draft him in the second round in June 1981. Three years later, he won 17 games in the big leagues.
As much as he likes Seattle, the frustration of playing on a persistently losing team has frazzled his nerves on occasion; last year he got into a brief name-calling session with manager Dick Williams. It is a frustration ex-teammate Moore fully understands. "On the one hand, you feel blessed just to be in the big leagues." says Moore. "But on the other, you want the chance to win." Indeed, of all the star pitchers from the rookie class of 1984—which includes Clemens, the Mets' Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling, L.A.'s Orel Hershiser, K.C.'s Mark Gubicza and Toronto's Jimmy Key—only Langston has not appeared in a postseason game. Frustration.
"I don't mind not getting the attention," Langston says cheerfully enough. "That doesn't matter to me at all. My job is to play baseball." Then his smile fades. "But someday," he says slowly, "I just want to be one of those guys you see jumping into the catcher's arms after the last out of the final game of the World Series. That's the bottom line."