Larry Andersen, the astros' comic relief man, lopes through the clubhouse wearing a set of jagged false teeth, chino trousers rolled to high-water length and a T-shirt labeled ROSES ARE RED. VIOLETS ARE BLUE, I'M A SCHIZOPHRENIC AND so AM I. The sunflower seeds speckling his face make him look like a beekeeper who has had a bad day at the hives.
He spies Yogi Berra talking to another Houston coach and ambushes him in midsentence. "A few things have been eating at me." says Andersen. "Was Robin Hood's mother known as Mother Hood? How do you know when you run out of invisible ink? Why does sour cream have an expiration date?"
Berra eyes him narrowly, grunts and walks away. The conversation is over even before it's over.
When not scattering paradoxes like birdseed. Andersen spends his time setting up the Astros' bullpen stoppers. Dave Smith and Juan Agosto. At week's end, Andersen had made seven appearances and had yet to give up an earned run. Though he's still looking for his first win, he sanctifies each Houston victory with a glottal rumble he calls the Nuclear Belch. "I let out a little smelch after a loss." he says, "but it's not Three Mile Island caliber."
Andersen, who's 35, attributes his own mental meltdown to 18 years of being traded, loaned, disabled, outrighted and released. "I don't know if my brain deteriorated," he says, "but it's definitely gone in the wrong direction. I was normal until 1978, when I stopped being a regular starter."
As a reliever, he became renowned for his pranks and his penchant for disguise. He still carries a rubber cockroach and a conehead mask with him on road trips. His last team, the Phillies, once had 40,000 Larry Andersen masks made up and passed out to the crowd at Veterans Stadium. "For the next year or so I was accused of holding up convenience stores all over Philly." he says.
On the field, Andersen is considerably less threatening. It's only when he has to snare a hot comebacker that he becomes mildly manic. "When the ball's hit, jolts of energy surge through my body," he explains. "I say to myself, 'Jeez, I have to catch it, then I've got to throw it!' It's just too much to handle at once. It's as bad as having to issue an intentional walk."
Putting people on is one thing; putting batters on, quite another. Andersen considers a free pass successful if his pitches don't hit the backstop. Last month in spring training he gave up a freebie and practically strutted off the mound at the end of the inning.
"What are you so proud of?" demanded his catcher, Alan Ashby. "You just gave up two runs."
"Didn't you see my intentional walk?" asked Andersen. "It was beautiful!"
He was in a more contemplative mood last week in Atlanta after surrendering a game-winning single to Dale Murphy.
Was anything on your mind, Larry?
"Yeah," he said, pensively pressing his fingertips together. "If Americans throw rice at weddings, do Chinese throw hot dogs?"