Sports Illustrated - July 21, 1980
Lefty Has The Right Approach
By Tim McCarver with Jim Kaplan
When I was asked to write a story about my old batterymate and good buddy Steve Carlton, I was at first reluctant to accept. I’m the guy that supposedly made him click- he was 77-41 when I caught him in 1976-79- but now that I’ve become one of the broadcasters for the Phillies, he’s pitching better than ever. Some way to treat your patron saint.
Actually, I’m happy to set the record straight. I may have helped Lefty but I certainly didn’t create him. His career record is 239-162, he has struck out more men (2,841) than any lefthander in history and he’s now gunning for his third Cy Young Award with his third Philadelphia catcher. John Bateman handled him most of 1972 (27-10, 1.98), I worked with him in 1977 (23-10, 2.64), and Bob Boone’s doing a terrific job this year (14-4, 2.21). But I think Lefty could win 20 games pitching to a backstop.
He’s one of baseball’s biggest- 6’5”- and best pitchers. He’s also an independent cuss, as I learned very early in our relationship. The first time I caught him was when we were with the Cardinals in spring training in 1965. Back then I was a newly established star- I’d hit .478 in the World Series the previous fall- and he was just coming up. He went four innings and allowed maybe two runs and five hits. Not a bad March performance for a rookie. Afterward Dick Groat, Ken Boyer and Bill White were at the sink shaving and I was headed there. Lefty came over to me and said, “Hey”- he didn’t call me by name- “hey, you’ve got to call more breaking pitches when we’re behind the hitter.” Well, that really blew my mind. I backed him up against the wall and said, “You sonofabitch. You got a lot of guts telling me that. What credentials do you have?” Lefty turned red, as he often does. The next day we both felt bad. I apologized, but he didn’t.
That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Once we drove across country to go elk hunting. It was 5,500 miles, and we must have argued for 2,750 of them. About everything. Our disagreements are basic because I’m realistic and Lefty’s idealistic. But even if we hardly ever agree, we’re completely honest with each other. And that’s why we get along.
Even though I’m no longer playing professional ball- for the first time since 1959- a part of me is still down there on the field with Lefty. I’m cranked up for every game, especially his, pulling for him and calling the pitches along with Boonie. It gave me special pleasure a couple of weeks back when Lefty threw nothing but sliders the first time he faced Montreal’s Bob Pate. That’s what I would have called. But there’s no substitute for being there. Because I’m so far from the action, I watch Lefty on the TV monitor. If the centerfield camera shows his pitches breaking sharply, I know he’s on. When they weren’t breaking recently against Montreal, I knew he was in trouble, and I said so on the air early in the game. He went on to lose 6-1.
But obviously he hasn’t been in trouble very often. He’s nearly three weeks ahead of his 27-win pace of 1972, and he has a good shot at 30. He’s leading the majors with 158 strikeouts- and he’s lasted six or more innings in every start. Not bad for an old man of 35 who won “only” 18 and 16 games the last two years. In two of his starts this season he’s been sensational. He threw 4 1/3 perfect innings against the Giants on June 9, and if the game hadn’t been delayed twice by rain, for a total of five hours, he might have thrown his first no-hitter. Instead, he was removed at the end of the sixth. And on May 5 he no-hit the Braves for 7 2/3 innings- this time I was positive he had one- before stopping them on one run and three hits.
In all honesty, I blame him for only one careless mistake all season- walking the Red’s Tom Seaver, who score the tying run in a Phillies defeat on May 10. With Lefty pitching, the Phillies are contenders. Without him, they’re a fourth-place team with a losing record. It’s interesting that Lefty got more votes than anybody else when the players gave their All-Star choices to The New York Times.
Lefty isn’t like other pitchers who fall apart in their 30s because they lose their fastball and have nothing else to depend on. Even a good fastball needs a breaking pitch to complement it. Well, Lefty has so much confidence in his favorite pitch, the slider, that he establishes it early in the game and throws it with a 2-0 or 3-1 count. With his powerful grip, he throw what we call a “tight” slider because it spins tightly, like a gyroscope. And because it’s thrown so hard, it breaks and drops. That’s why it’s baseball’s best and is particularly effective against free swingers.
Lefty’s slider confuses the hitters because it acts like a fastball until the last instant. He probably gets more check-swing strikeouts than any pitcher in baseball history. When batters do swing, they often find themselves chasing a pitch that winds up in the dirt.
The Phillies have never measured the speed of Lefty’s fastball with a JUGS gun, but to me that doesn’t mean very much anyway. Unless you’re Nolan Ryan or J.R. Richard, you don’t get people out on velocity alone. Speed is a distant third in importance to location and movement. Lefty may have lost a yard on his fastball, but he’s still got great movement. His fastball jumps late, the way Sandy Koufax’ did. Lefty gets that jump when he throws “inside” the ball. That means as he comes over the top and releases the ball, his hand follows through across his body, his left palm turned outward. When his palm turns inward, his fastball dies. Lefty’s other pitch, the curve, is so slow that it resembles a change of pace with a sharp drop. But it’s not just a matter of the ball being up or down. Lefty gets righthanded hitters out by keeping his fastball and slider on the inside corner and his curve on the outside.
Because Lefty gets so much late action on his pitches, batters are better off waiting on him than being aggressive. The Mets, whose hitters usually just make contact, have beaten Lefty twice this year- by the whopping scores of 3-0 and 3-2- and have a winning lifetime record against him (27-24). But their approach isn’t foolproof. You can’t wait for Lefty to walk you. They say a 3-to-1 strikeout-walk ratio is excellent, but Lefty’s is almost 4-1 after subtracting intentional passes. He has struck out 158 men and unintentionally walked only 42 this year. So he creates a Catch-22. If a batter takes Lefty’s pitches he falls behind in the count and has to start chasing bad ones. If he swings freely, he doesn’t get anything good to hit.
Lefty’s also effective because he’s such a fast worker. My broadcasting colleague Harry Kalas swears that he once came back on the air following a between-innings commercial to discover that Lefty had two outs on the scoreboard and a fly ball in the air for a third. This quick tempo has a galvanizing effect on the team. Mike Schmidt and Larry Bowa play well behind him because he keeps them on their toes.
Mistakes don’t bother Lefty at all. Nothing does. He goes to the mound with cotton plugs in his ears and acts like Bjorn Borg- all concentration, staring straight ahead. He throws “through” the batter, not to the batter. And you almost never see him talk to teammates or complain to umpires.
Lefty does more than just pitch. He helps himself with his bat and pickoffs. Although he’s been in a slump this year, he’s a very good hitter for a pitcher. Lefty has a lifetime average of .204, with nine homers and 102 runs batted in, and in 1978 he hit as high as .291. His pickoff move is so deceptive that Andre Dawson of the Expos told me in an interview that he has no idea when Lefty’s throwing home or going to first. Lefty does have a problem fielding his position, though. Because his follow-through takes him toward third, he has difficulty covering first.
Lefty’s strength and durability- since 1970 he has worked right at 250 or more innings every year, including 346 in ’72- are the result of a strenuous training program that could kill a lesser man. I know because I’ve tried it and it almost killed me. Lefty works as many as 2½ hours a day with Gus Hoefling, the Phillies’ strength and flexibility expert. Gus is a sweetheart of a guy even if he has practiced martial arts for 27 years and calls himself “violent.” Phillie owner Ruly Carpenter won’t let him on the field during fights. Lefty and Gus go through all kinds of exercises- stretching, weights, isometrics, hand-to-hand kung fu. Gus describes what happens during the workouts this way: “Every muscle in the body, including the heart, almost reaches momentary failure.” In one of the more exotic drills, Lefty twists one of his hands into a three-foot-deep bucket of rice. When he reaches the bottom, he does several complete rotations with his wrists and twists upward. In another drill Lefty extends his arm downward and pushed down in the heels of his hands while raising his fingers. Sometimes he does this 49 times in honor of Kwan Gung, a revered Chinese martial artist, who was 49 when he died.
Gus works on the brain as much as the body. “The brain initiates every motion but the heartbeat,” he says. “When you reach exhaustion, you have to think deeper.” By pushing Lefty to exhaustion, Gus says he increases Lefty’s performance to a rare 50% of potential. Gus doesn’t believe anyone’s capable of anything close to 100%, not even Lefty.
However, Lefty’s dedication is as close to 100% as anybody’s can get. You’d have to hold a gun to Lefty’s head to get him out of his hotel room the night before a start. Working out is a religion to him. He’s a vegetarian who lectures on the evils of chocolate ice cream and cigarettes.
As decisive as Lefty is about pitching and physical conditioning, surprisingly he can’t make up his mind about other matters. He’ll stammer and stutter and delay and back up. He never has post-game plans. He is do indecisive he doesn’t even know when to send his laundry out.
He’s a very paradoxical guy. He doesn’t spend much time signing autographs, but I once saw him work an hour after a clinic helping a kid with his pitching delivery. He says he’s almost moved to tears when he sees a crucifix, but he believes in no organized religion. My producer Steve Silverman says the greatest paradox may be that Lefty’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, but no one knows it. Actually, many of the paradoxes can easily be explained away. If something matters to Lefty, he’ll be obsessive. He’s that was about fine wines, to which he attributes metaphysical qualities dating back to before Christ. If he doesn’t care about something, like explaining himself to the press, he won’t bother.
Unlike many pitchers, he’s not afraid of losing, because he considers failure to be a steppingstone of success. He never admits to throwing a bad pitch. When he sits in the trainer’s room going over the hitters, he just thinks of the guys he gets out. He’s taken note of the guys who hit him and made mental adjustments, but he doesn’t dwell on them.
Lefty reads widely in psychology and Eastern philosophy, things like Taoism and Buddhism. I understand many Eastern thinkers don’t think of experiences as positive or negative, just useful. Lefty’s like that. He acts the same after every game, win or lose. He’s as conscientious about his preparation between starts as he is his pitching. Nothing in life overwhelms him, probably because he believes in reincarnation. He sees life as a journey, and when this one ends, another one begins.
Lefty wasn’t always this calm. After his great 1972 season he went into a three-year slump. Arm trouble had a lot to do with it, but he was also confused. In 1972 he had spilled out his philosophy to reporters and probably given too much of himself. When things went bad in 1973, writers began ridiculing him and his philosophy.
Lefty began having trouble with Boonie that same year. This is no knock on Boonie, because this was his first full year in the majors, but when he’d call for a pitch that Lefty didn’t like, Lefty would question it all through his delivery. Philadelphia signed me in 1975 to catch Lefty because I’d worked with him in St. Louis and he respected me. Now that Lefty respects Boonie, they get along fine. If Boonie calls for something Lefty doesn’t want, he’ll convince himself it’s the right call and give it his best anyway.
Lefty has no use for insincere conversation- how’s your family and all that. The more the media build up a game, the more Lefty plays it down. That’s the sign of a champion. You don’t want to suffer through “paralysis through analysis,” as Gene Mauch says. Lefty doesn’t feel he’s facing Tom Seaver, he feels he’s facing the Reds. He doesn’t give a hoot about records or awards. Earlier this year he broke Robin Roberts’ record for most career strikeouts by a Phillie pitcher. The next day he called Chris Wheeler, the team’s assistant director of publicity, and said, “What was that record I broke? Some lady wants me to write it on a ball.” When he won the Cy Young award in 1977, he was traveling with his family in Montana and didn’t care whether he was reached or not.
Lefty just doesn’t worry about his public image. He’s been in a few bars in his time, and I’ve often been with him. Look, we’re in a high-visibility business. You go out with the troops and have some drinks, someone recognizes you and gets nasty, and something happens. But Lefty’s mellowed. He drinks nothing but beer and wine. I’ve slowed down, too. That doesn’t mean we won’t occasionally go out and get hammered. I wouldn’t want to spoil our reputation.
Lefty has a terrific sense of humor. Like we’ll be on the golf course and he’ll say, “Ninety percent of all putts that are short never go in.” Well, maybe you had to have been there, like the time the team bus was traveling through a crowded street in Manhattan and he looked up from some deep book and screamed, “Stop bree-ding!” The way he said it through clenched teeth made him sound just like Kirk Douglas.
I guess it’s hard to imagine a stand-offish guy being compassionate, but that’s Lefty. He’s devoted to his wife Bev and their sons Steve and Scott. When the Phillies asked him to write his “biggest turnoff” in the yearbook, he said lack of consideration. (The press, of course, will find this ironic.) He’ll take himself out of a one-sided shutout so another pitcher can get work. There’s no more popular guy on the team.
One winter in Montana we were snowed in at a lodge appropriately called The Hole in the Wall. An old guy with maybe three teeth was sitting in the corner. He was somehow chewing tobacco, and the tobacco-juice stain on the side of his face had been there so long it looked like another wrinkle. Well, at about 8 p.m. the owner began playing the accordion. Lefty, who hadn’t said a word since 11 a.m., jumped up and asked the old-timer to dance. They must have danced the polka for an hour. I bet the old fellow hadn’t had so much fun in his life.
Lefty’s basically a simple guy, if you discount his wines and Mercedes and lavish home. I think when his baseball days are over he’ll disappear into the Burgundy vineyards for 10 years. I know he really enjoyed his visit there last winter.
I’ve enjoyed being Lefty’s Boswell. I don’t pretend to be impartial about the guy. He’s one of my best friends, and he added four years on my career. Now, I’m happy to say, there may be a fifth. In 1959, when I was 17, I reported to the Cardinals for a cup of coffee. I stayed for dinner. When the Phillies expand their roster this September, they’ll give me the chance to be the first modern catcher to play in four decades. I’ll probably just pinch-hit. I wouldn’t want to break up Lefty’s happy marriage to Boonie. But I’ll be there if he needs me.
Baseball- N.L. East
By Anthony Cotton
Philadelphia (4-0) went ahead of Montreal (3-2) as Steve Carlton recorded his 14th win and 2,833rd strikeout and the Phils beat the Cardinals 8-3. “I’ve seen Lefty better,” said Manager Dallas Green, “but basically he did what he usually does, get us a win when we needed it.” Catcher Bob Boone delivered key hits in victories over the Cubs and Pirates. Against the Cubs he stroked three singles, one of them good for two runs in a 5-3 victory. And facing a five-man infield in the ninth inning against the Pirates- who had brought Dave Parker in from right field to second- Boone slapped a single to break a 4-4 tie.
The Expos fell half a game back despite the return of Ellis Valentine, who had missed 28 games because of a shattered cheekbone. Valentine was 5 for 11 with five RBIs in three games, two of which were wins over the Cardinals and Cubs. Also back, but less successful, was Bill Lee, who was pitching for the first time since June 6. The Expos staked him to an early 6-2 lead, but the Cubs rallied for an 8-6 win, with Reliever Stan Bahnsen taking the loss. Early in the week Montreal scored five runs in the 10th inning to meat the Mets.
Pittsburgh (2-2) went 20 innings with the Cubs before Omar Moreno singled in Ed Ott for a 5-4 win. The Pirates’ other victory came against the Mets when part-time Leftfielder Mike Easler doubled and scored, then hit a three-run homer for a 4-2 triumph. Easler’s 36 RBIs are second only to Parker’s 43 on the Pirates.
New York (1-3) hung on to fourth place, although it twice missed chances to reach the .500 mark. Pat Zachary gave the Mets their lone win, shutting out the Pirates on three hits as Lee Mazzilli hit his fifth home run in eight games. But in the next two games, Mazzilli ran into double trouble: first his 18-game hitting streak came to an end, and then he misjudged a fly ball to help the Cardinals to an 8-6 win in 12 innings.
St. Louis (2-2) moved out of last place, and Chicago (1-4) moved in. The Cards got- glory be!- airtight relief pitching, especially from John Littlefield, who won his fourth game since coming from Springfield. The Cubbies got one victory when Cliff Johnson hit a grand slam to beat the Expos, but otherwise all was gloom. Does Manager Preston Gomes fear for his job? “I can’t even do my job if I worry about it,” he replied.