I had the stuff. I just didn't have the heart. Or, more precisely, I always had the stuff, which was why I never had the heart. I didn't need it. Then, in the arrogance of youth, with those early years of effortless success in Little League, American Legion, and high school, all the no-hitters and one-hitters and bushels of strikeouts, I felt indomitable. Eventually, however, when it all went south in my 20s, it dawned on me, dimly, that maybe my stuff wasn't enough, that I lacked something.
I tried to find it, too late, without a clue as to what it was. I looked for something outside myself, a new pitch, a new motion, when I should have been looking elsewhere, inside myself for that "thing" beyond just "stuff" that every great pitcher has. Some not-so-great pitchers have it , too, the workmanlike plodders, the serviceable, fourth or fifth starters on a staff of superstars, the Joe Blantons grinding it out in the shadows of bigger names, Doc Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, his teammates when he was with the Phillies.
Pitchers like Blanton are good enough to go six innings on their good days, give up maybe nine hits and three earned runs, just enough to keep their team in the game, with a chance to win it in the eighth or ninth inning. I always liked guys like that, with mediocre stuff at best, who persevered, and survived 12, or 14 years, with a record of something like 102-103, and an ERA of 4.59. They pitched into their late ‘30s, maybe made a lone All-Star appearance the year they had a good first half and finished 13-11, then retired with a few big contracts under their belt, perhaps enough to buy a small farm in the Piedmont of North Carolina.
Of course, I also admired great pitchers with the big stuff: Warren Spahn, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, and Justin Verlander. I admired, too, the very good pitchers with nice stuff: Vic Raschi, Bob Lemon, Robin Roberts, C.C. Sabathia, James Shields, and my old minor league teammate, Phil Niekro. But over the years, I have most learned to appreciate the Joe Blantons of baseball, the bricklayers of their craft like Livan Hernandez, Mark Buehrle, and Tony Cloninger, my minor league teammate. I had better stuff than all of them put together, except for Tony, yet I lasted only three years in the minors, while they all pitched successfully in the major leagues for years.
What did they have that I lacked? Fifty years after my failure, I'm still searching for the answer to that question.
One morning in May, I opened the Greenville (S.C.) News, as I do every morning at 5 a.m., and turned to the major league box scores. That's the only reason why I get the News. It's a boosterish, provincial paper with a front page dominated by breathless stories of the latest hot new yuppie bars, restaurants, and high-rise condos that are revitalizing downtown Greenville. World news is relegated to the second page, truncated two-paragraph clips that the News culls from USA Today, itself a newspaper of truncated clips. The sports section rings with a single, clanging note, an incessant drumbeat for the University of Clemson football team, one of the great underachieving sports teams in history. Each season, after another top recruiting class, the Tigers rattle off early-season victories over schools like Troy and Wofford before performing their usual second-half swan dive. In 2012, this culminated in a masterpiece of underachievement, a 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, 70 points being the most ever scored by a football team in a bowl game.
Is it any wonder that I go straight to the box scores each morning? Or, to be more precise, the pitching linescores? I am as addicted to those mysterious letters and numbers as I am to the pecan pancakes at the Mennonite Restaurant on Highway 20. I have even taught my sports-hating wife, Susan, how to read them to me whenever we make long drives with our four dogs and Florence, the parrot, in our little Subaru. Susan hunches over beside me as I drive in the dim light of the early morning, one dog on her lap, one in the wheel well at her feet, two in back with Flo, squinting at those arcane letters and numbers.
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"Go to the Yankees," I say. "The pitching linescore."
She finds it with her forefinger. "Kuroda," I say.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Hiroki Kuroda. The Yankees' pitcher." She finds the name. I say "IP."
"He doesn't have any."
I glance at her.
She thrusts the paper at me. "See for yourself. Nothing. Zero."
"Very nice," I say to myself. She shrugs. I say "How many Ks?"
She looks up confused. "What's a 'K'?
"Why do they call it a ‘K'?"
"Just read the number."
"One point nine nine."
She smiles. "Thank you."
"Not you! Kuroda. He pitched a beautiful game."
"How do you know? You didn't see it."
"The numbers don't lie."
Other mornings, before she's awake, I study those linescores alone like an archaeologist studies sediment, or maybe the way an old crone in a turban studies a crystal ball. In those cryptic numbers and letters I'm looking for the hidden clues to my past failure, something that might unravel the mystery that has befuddled me these 50 years.
I always imagined that one day a light bulb would flicker over my head, or maybe a dark curtain would be drawn from my eyes and I would shout out in blessed relief, "Eureka! I have found it!" Then Susie would stumble into my office rubbing sleep from her eyes, muttering, "Found what?" And I could finally say, with that blissed out smile of one who has experienced the Rapture, "the secret."
I always thought that would be sort of a "Star-Spangled Banner" moment, with a lot of cymbals clanging, drums beating, fireworks, and maybe even a cannon going off. Little did I know my revelation would come in silent darkness, in of all places, The Greenville News.
On May 15, 2013, David Price, last year's Cy Young Award winner for the Tampa Bay Rays, got roughed up pretty good by the Red Sox, giving up four runs and five hits in 2 ⅓ innings. After the game, he was put on the disabled list with a sore arm. Price was 1-4 at the time, with a 5.24 ERA, and, for the first time in his career, was surrendering more hits than innings pitched, 65 in only 55. That was a tell, but not about my career. I had never had a sore arm, so I could never blame my failure on fate. Mine stuck to me alone, like pine tar.
The next day I noticed that Justin Verlander got roughed up, too, by the Rangers, giving up six hits and eight earned runs in 2 ⅔ innings, his worst performance ever in the majors. I saw that coming. Two years ago, I interviewed Verlander for a story and he told me he always paced himself in the first few innings so he could summon his 98 miles per hour fastball in the seventh and eighth innings. We argued about that. I told him that sooner or later opposing batters would get wise and attack his 91-92-mph fastball in the first few innings to try to knock him out of the box early before he could call on the 98-mph heater.
He scoffed at me, an old man of distant pitching experience. "Things have changed since your day," he said. I told him maybe, but that back in the day pitchers took the mound throwing smoke from the first pitch. They didn't want the batter to get his timing down after taking lazy batting practice from some old coach lobbing softballs. After the first three innings of throwing heat, just as the hitters started to adjust, the pitchers worked the middle three innings with their breaking stuff, and then in the last three innings they threw everything they had.
Still, there was no lesson for me in Verlander's early-season numbers, and no revelation except that they proved how I thought a game should be pitched. Saving that 98-mph fastball for the eighth inning was like Silas Marner hoarding his shekels all those years. He never got to use them. What was the use in that?
I was glad to see Stephen Strasburg was still throwing well, despite a deceiving record, mostly because of no run support. He won later that night, giving up three hits and one earned run in eight innings. But his walks were up, and his strikeouts down. His arm seemed healthy enough, and he was still throwing mid-to-high 90s, but when I watched him, I saw he was having trouble locating his pitches. He threw a lot of "fliers," almost-wild pitches, as if he was losing his grip on the ball just before he released it. Also, there seemed to be more movement in his motion than in previous years. It was a jumble, all flaying arms and legs like a panicky bird trying to take flight.
His motion wasn't contained, limited to the essentials like the Mets' young stud, Matt Harvey. Harvey has a classic, simple, old-timey hardball pitcher's motion. No curlicues, no extraneous stuff, just a smooth, straight overhand fastball that rides up and in on a right-handed batter, a very good down breaking curveball and a sharp, short, 90-mph slider that doesn't break very much, but does so too late for most batters to differentiate it from his fastball.
I watched Harvey earlier in the season. He threw 98-mph fastballs in the first few innings, then by the middle innings his fastball leveled off to 94-95 mph. By that time, he'd mastered his curveball. Harvey made them hit his best stuff from the first pitch. I liked that. He didn't think too much. Thinking too much ruined more good pitchers than not thinking enough.
In his next start, I saw that Kuroda pitched another nice game for the Yankees. He is 38, and a marvel, still with a great splitter and a low 90s fastball, he isn't afraid to throw inside. He reminds me of Robin Roberts, the old Phillies pitcher in the ‘50s. Roberts had a great fastball and a simple game plan: Jam ‘em up and in, then throw low and away and defy them to beat you.
In 1966, at the age of 39, after tours with Baltimore and Houston, Roberts was ending his career with the Cubs. Bill Hands was a Cubs starting pitcher that year and he told me once, "Robin was amazing. I'd sit there on the bench shaking my head." Why? I asked. "He didn't have anything anymore, yet he still pitched like a fastball pitcher, jamming right-handers up and in." Hands shook his head. "And you know what? He got ‘em out because he still believed he had it." Mind over matter, I guess. Roberts willed himself beyond his talent, squeezing one last season out of a career, a lesson there for me. A hazy picture was beginning to emerge from the mist.
When I came to the box score for the Giants-Rockies game the morning of May 17, the picture defined itself pretty sharply. Matt Cain, who was having a bad early season, 2-2, ERA over 5.00 at the time, started for the Giants. He got slapped around early and hard, giving up six runs before the end of the third inning.
I knew how THAT felt. Hopeless. You think, What's the point? The game's already lost. The bases are still loaded, the batter's smacking your best stuff off the wall, you've lost heart, and all you can do is exhale and wait for your manager to excuse you from the humiliation. But Bruce Bochy, the Giants manager, didn't excuse Cain. He knew something and let him go out there for the fourth inning, losing 6-0.
From the fourth inning on, Cain pitched as if the game just started. He shut out the Rockies until he was yanked in the seventh inning, now leading 8-6. Now that was pitching! Impressive! How I admire that kind of true grit: 6 ⅓ innings, 8 hits, 6 ER, 2BB, 6 K, a 5.43 ERA, and in the end, his third win of the season. That was a line I would have been proud of.
Except I never had the heart to put up such a linescore. Oh, I had heart when I was on fire, when I had great stuff, with a 96-mph fastball rising up in a batter's eyes, and a straight overhand curveball that approached the plate before the bottom fell out just as the batter began his swing. My managers called it "the Unfair One," and it was. With that stuff, I was almost unhittable, often giving up only a few singles with a lot of strikeouts. But when I wasn't unhittable, when they were smacking my good fastball off the wall, I didn't know what to do. I just stood on the mound in the second or third inning and waited for my manager to free me from the torment. Even to this day, it shames me! That is why I admire all those pitchers, the great ones, the good ones, and even the mediocre ones, who, each in their own way, show the heart I never did.
In 1951 at the age of 31, Warren Spahn won 22 games for the Braves. He did it with great stuff, a moving fastball, sharp overhand curve, and pinpoint control. But the next year he finished 14-19, and even though his ERA was the same, baseball people looked at his record and assumed, like most 32-year-old pitchers, that Spahn was beginning the downswing of his career.
But Spahn wasn't losing his stuff-he was changing his stuff. He knew the days of his good fastball were fading, so before he lost it, he became a different pitcher, depending more on the slider, changeup, curve, and screwball. He didn't wait until he'd lost it, he changed in mid-stride. Now that takes balls.
As a result in 1953, he had the best season of his career, and after that, even though his strikeouts were down, from the age of 33 to 42 Spahn won 20 or more games nine times, including six in a row, all because he had the heart to take a gamble most pitcher's wouldn't. Spahn ended his career as the winningest left-handed pitcher in baseball, and, in my opinion, the greatest pitcher in the modern era.
This brings me to Tom Seaver, the greatest right-handed pitcher in the modern era. (Don't even think of mentioning that cheating dog from Katy, Texas, who doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath.) Yet Seaver was only the third or fourth best pitcher on his high school team, a small kid, 5'7, and 155 pounds. He was still small when he entered USC and he still didn't have good stuff. But he had heart. He had learned how to get knocked around in the early innings and still walk out to the mound. So he worked on his control as a means to survive.
By the time he went off to pitch in a college summer league for the Alaska Goldpanners in 1964, he had grown five inches, put on more than 20 pounds and was now throwing 97-mph fastballs with excellent control. Three years later, at 23, he won 16 games for the lowly Mets. Seaver was the smartest and hardest working pitcher I ever knew, although in my youth I threw harder, something Seaver, now pushing 70, still refuses to admit.
In 1959, Phil Niekro, my teammate in the Class D Nebraska State League in McCook, Neb., was getting pounded unmercifully. It was hard to watch. Phil was signed as a knuckleball pitcher, but he was embarrassed to throw his knuckler in clutch situations because it would elude the hapless catcher and dribble back to the screen. So he threw his fastball and curveball and got slaughtered until our manager told him he was one week away from going back to his hometown of Bridgeport, Ohio and ending up working in the coalmines.
Phil swallowed his fear, started throwing the knuckler, and the rest is history. He was our league MVP with a 7-1 record. But actually, the rest wasn't history. Few managers in those days had any faith in a knuckleball starting pitcher. Every time Phil was called up to the majors, he was soon sent back to the minors because Joe Torre, the Braves catcher, had hands of stone when it came to catching knuckleballs. Phil didn't stick with the Braves until 1967 when he was 27, and went on to win 318 major league games and be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Phil was one of the finest men I ever knew, very shy, gentle, the kind of guy you'd never expect to make it, yet he accomplished all that because he had a big heart, and not only for baseball. Phil knew his knuckleball didn't work when he was fired up and you never saw him kicking dirt, rearing back, and firing a fastball for strike three. He had to remain calm. When it didn't dart around and was slapped off the wall, he had to persevere and do it again, without emotion, with that kind quiet kind of heart he had.
Another minor league teammate, Tony Cloninger, was a bulldog-short, stocky, always red-faced, pissed-off, pumping his fastball up and in, daring batters to hit it. Tony won 113 games and lost 97 before a sore arm retired him at 31. He had been one of the Braves $100,000 bonus babies in 1958 and by 1959 became the butt of a joke: Who's the only $100,000 bonus baby who can't win a game? Tony Cloninger. He went 0-9 that year with a 9.59 ERA at Cedar Rapids.
To understand his heart you had to see him pitch in the 1960 Florida Instructional League. I was in the bullpen that day, watching, and I never saw a pitcher get hit so hard in my life. Nothing but line drives off the wall for doubles, and home runs over the wall. Finally, our manager went out to the mound to take him out. But Tony wouldn't go. He insisted on staying in the game until he got the batters out. He had a good fastball, but it was straight as a string. The only thing he knew how to do then was try to throw harder and harder, and he threw one pitch so hard he fell on his face to the laughter from the fans and opposing players. Still, he wouldn't quit. The next year he was with the Braves.
Livan Hernandez is out of baseball this year, but one never knows how long that will last. He always seemed ageless. His listed age is 38, and when he came to the U.S. from Cuba, in 1995, he claimed he was 21. But many people thought he was a lot closer to 25-years-old. Whatever his age, he always pitched like a wise veteran, a master at nibbling at the plate, his mediocre fastball and curve looking fat, but never quite strikes, until a batter swung at them.
His one talent was that he never gave into a batter. Whether the count was 3-0 or 3-2, he continued to nibble, even if he walked the batter. He threw a lot of pitches in a game, always worked high counts, with a lot of foul balls, walks, hits (he gave up more than 500 more hits than innings pitched in his career), but he never tired and never gave into the batter. Sometimes watching Hernandez was an exhausting experience, but he didn't care. He nibbled his way to a 17-year career, with a 178- 177 record (talk about mediocrity!) with the kind of stuff that could only be called, charitably, "adequate," earning $53 million. Not bad for a guy with nothing but a heart and brains.
The two active pitchers today most like Hernandez, but with considerably better stuff, are Mark Buehrle of Toronto and James Shields of Kansas City. Buehrle has pitched most of his career for Ozzie Guillen in Chicago and when Guillen went to manage the Marlins, one of the first things he did was acquire Buehrle. I asked him why. Guillen said, "'Cause he's an innings eater." In 12 big league seasons, Buehrle has never made fewer than 30 starts a season or thrown less than 200 innings.
Shields has the same kind of stats, only more glittering. More strikeouts, less hits and often a better ERA than Buehrle, and the kind of heart while he pitched for Tampa Bay that earned him the name "Big Game" James. The Rays never seemed to score a lot of runs for Shields, but he took the mound anyway, game after game, pitching well and often coming away with only a no decision or a bitter, one-run loss. Still, he became the team's winningest pitcher in history, 89-79, and now, at K.C., he is still pitching beautifully. Of course, the Royals don't score for him either.
There are others, too, like C.C. Sabathia, used to his great stuff for so many years, but now, without it, sometimes giving up 10 and 11 hits a game. But he still takes the mound, gives up four runs early with his 90-mph fastball, but guts it out for seven innings, giving the Yankees a chance to win almost every time.
And finally, there is the Angels' Joe Blanton, who on that day in May was 1-8 with an ERA approaching six, giving up 100 hits in 63 ⅔ innings with a career record of 84-83, a miracle considering the kind of stuff he throws-mediocre fastball, small slider, not much, really. And he throws short-armed, like a beer drinker throwing darts in a bar.
Now that takes heart, but Blanton never gives up. In his next start, against Houston, in eight innings he gave up three hits, two runs and struck out 11. But he lost, and his record dropped to 1-9.
After I left baseball in the early ‘60s and was trying to become a writer, I had an interview in Boston with Robert Manning, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He asked me a lot of questions about guys I played ball with-Torre, Niekro and Tommie Aaron. Finally, I interrupted him and said, "What about my writing?" He smiled and said, "What makes a jock like you think you can become a writer?"
I understood what he meant. Although I was only a professional pitcher for three and half years and have been a writer for almost 50, for most of those years I always thought of myself as a pitcher who happened to be writing. I used to tell people "Writing is what I do, but pitching is what I am."
Now, at last, I realize that was a delusion. Scanning the box scores, I finally understand that pitching was just my apprenticeship for becoming a writer. Somehow, even in my failure, baseball taught me that you only succeed when you grind it out, year after year, fail and still come back, confronting that blank, accusing piece of paper after still yet ANOTHER rejection.
No matter what, I kept pitching stories-Women's Day, Reader's Digest, and then, gradually, to more prestigious magazines, with bigger paydays. I even wrote a few books, no best sellers, but a few nice reviews. Then one day a few years ago, 48 years after I met Robert Manning, I sold a story to The Atlantic Monthly. Of course, by then, he was long gone from the magazine. But today, at 72, I am still working, the last man standing, by attrition, if nothing else.
How did I do it? Looking at the linescores, I finally understand.
It was easy. I just didn't quit.
Joe Blanton would be proud.