SINK OR SWIM (1982)
I pitched half a season at Tidewater. Forty-nine innings, 2.96 e.r.a. with five saves. Davey Johnson, whoíd now moved up to manage there, had always liked to pitch me a lot. When he was managing me later on with the Mets he would say I liked to be abused, because I could throw and throw and throw, and then come back and throw some more. Davey really liked that in me. So I was pitching a lot for him, my arm was holding up, and I was doing well enough down at Tidewater to get back up to New York before long.
I got into twenty-one big league games that summer, but didnít really distinguish myself much until the last series of the season. October 1, 1982. We were in Philadelphia. Rick Ownbey was scheduled to start that night.
Now Rick was a very funny guy, he used to crack me up -- a seriously warped person. He was a blond-haired California beach kid who was always cutting up. Weíd played together in Triple-A, and down there he was practically a legend -- I remember one time we were playing the Yanksí farm team over at Columbus, our big brass from New York had come in for the game, everybodyís on best behavior, and hereís Rick out in the bullpen putting on this crazy comedy show during a rain delay, twirling these white towels around in the air in a perfect imitation of a guy bringing a helicopter in for a landing. Rick was actually a bonafide frisbee master; he could throw a frisbee with his toes. He was also a world-class hackysack kicker. He had all these useless talents. As a pitcher he always had great stuff, but he had terrible control problems. After we all went out to see that movie Rocky Rick had a great line: "Iím the eye of the tiger with the control of a newt." One of the funniest people Iíve ever met, Rick Ownbey. But when Rick came up with a blister and couldnít pitch that day, it was no joke. They threw me into his starting spot.
It had been a long time since I had started anything. There was no way I was thinking of myself as a starting pitcher. I had not pitched more than four innings in any game that year. Then again, I wasnít afraid of starting, either. I saw this as a lucky chance, and I was determined to make the most of it.
There was no particular pressure on me to win the game -- we werenít in contention for anything, in fact we were dead last, about eight games behind the next team ahead of us. But for me there was some personal incentive to pitch well, because I did have something to contend for. It wasnít too hard to see that by throwing me out there they were just giving me enough rope to hang myself. There was a question in everybodyís mind whether I was good enough to stay with the organization. Either Iíd do well in that start and get to stay, or Iíd do badly and give them an excuse to ease me on out by proving that I didnít really belong there. I could just hear them -- "If he doesnít do well, heís gone." It was definitely sink or swim.
Well, I knew all that, but then right at the moment there really wasnít enough time for me to worry about it. I had to go on out and warm up. And fortunately, I felt very loose and relaxed from the first pitch I threw in the bullpen. Why I felt so good, Iíll never know. When things feel that good, you donít ask questions. Ronn Reynolds, who was catching me down there in the bullpen as I warmed up, told me after the game that heíd had an idea I was going to do something outstanding. "I didnít want to tell you," he said, "but you had some of the best stuff Iíve ever seen you have."
I took that good bullpen stuff right on into the game with me. For the first few innings, in fact, while I was still strong, it was almost too good. The ball was moving and sinking a lot, and because of that I was walking a few people. In the third I walked one guy, the number eight man in the Philsí order, and that upset me enough that I lost concentration for a minute. Tried to pick him off first and threw the ball away, and then I walked the pitcher. Now I was in a little spot, guys on first and third with one out. But I worked out of it, got the next hitter -- Gary Maddox I think it was -- on a pop fly, and then Pete Rose on a weak little dribbler to the second baseman.
From that point on things just got better and better. I figured out I was wild because I wasnít following through enough to finish up my pitches right. Made a little adjustment on that, and my control improved a lot. I settled in and stuck with the two pitches that were working well for me, my sidearm sinker and my slider. Ron Hodges, who caught me that night, called that slider of mine a "rising up-shoot." Well, I really had it up-shooting that night.
I walked six guys, but I struck out seven. I had such a good feel for the ball that sometimes Iíd get a little too nitpicky about hitting a corner, and walk somebody. With the kind of stuff I had that day there was the temptation to nip and tuck, and sometimes Iíd get too cocky and miss. But then Iíd just come right back and strike somebody out. The top four guys in the Philadelphia order, Maddox, Rose, Gary Matthews and Mike Schmidt, went 0-for-17 against me. Thatís a fact somebody pointed out to me afterwards. At the time I was in too much of a zone to be worrying a whole lot about who was up.
Copyright © 2000 by Terry Leach and Tom Clark. Excerpted with permission.
Book cover designed by Carolina de Bartolo.