Friday, January 22, 2016

And Then Pudge Said to Spaceman: Conversations From Major League Mounds

One of my favorite scenes from the movie Bull Durham occurs on the pitcher's mound. The manager sends the coach out to break up an abnormally long conference involving the entire infield. When the dutiful coach arrives, he finds out that the long list of problems being discussed includes the fact that the pitcher is "scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man's here." Also, they need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose's glove and "nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present. . . .we're dealing with a lot of shit."

The coach nods thoughtfully and then suggests, "Well, uh, candlesticks always make a nice gift, and, uh, maybe you could find out where she's registered and maybe a place-setting or a nice silverware pattern.Okay, let's get two. Go get 'em."

Surprisingly, a lot of major league pitching mound conferences are not that different.

Carlton Fisk was known as a steely commander behind the plate. Part of his job description included being a psychologist to struggling pitchers as well as occasionally kicking some butt. He received a quick lesson on what veteran pitchers expected during a late-season call up in 1971. Tough lefty Gary Peters was on the mound for the Sox and appeared to be struggling. The rookie catcher thought, "Well, I'm supposed to take charge here," and walked out to talk to his pitcher.

Peters, greatly annoyed at having given up a couple of weak ground ball hits, was in no mood to be bothered. He turned his back and stood behind the mound. Fisk, not knowing what else to do in front of fans and teammates, patiently waited. Finally, Peters turned around and was not happy to find the rookie still there. "What the F*** do you want?" he snapped.

Fisk, surprised at the assault, just shrugged. "The next time you come out here, you better have a pretty good idea how we're going to get out of this situation," snarled Peters. "Get your ass back behind the plate." It was Fisk's Welcome to the Big Leagues moment. He dutifully walked back behind the plate, but it was the last time a pitcher would ever chase Carlton Fisk off a mound.

Fisk and outspoken teammate Bill Lee had some memorable confrontations on the mound. Temporary roommates in their first stop in the minors, in Waterloo, Iowa in low A ball in 1968, they were friends and each held respect for the competitiveness and ability of the other. This friendship and respect vanished completely, however, when Fisk began one of his slow, studied walks to the mound during an inning.

Lee liked to work fast and often threw pitch sequences which defied any explanation other than by his own convoluted thought process that few human beings could follow. Even though these pitches were successful more often than not, they drove the conservative catcher absolutely nuts. And Fisk drove Lee nuts by taking his time during the game. Confrontations were inevitable.

Lee later said that he immediately became irritated by the slow, deliberate way Fisk called a game. "He was . . .slow at putting down signs. I used to think, 'Jesus, what's taking him so long? I've only got two pitches.'

Lee wrote, "Fisk demanded your total concentration during a game. If you shook him off and then threw a bad pitch that got hit out, he had a very obvious way of expressing his displeasure. After receiving a new ball from the umpire, he would bring it out to you . . . There would be an expression on his face that said, 'If you throw another half-ass pitch like that, I'm going to stuff this ball down your throat.'"

By the mid-70s Lee and Fisk provided public entertainment on the mound. They were known to have shouting matches in the middle of the infield. Lee would shake him off just for the fun of it. Sometimes when Fisk would start out to the mound, Lee would turn and walk toward second base, making Fisk follow him.

One game Lee shook Fisk off six consecutive times. Fisk came out to the mound and yelled, "How the hell can you shake me off six times! I've only got five fingers!"
Lee: "My point exactly."

Lee: "Who knows better than I do what kind of stuff I have."
Fisk "Your catcher."

Lee, admittedly sometimes excitable on the mound, said Fisk would help by calming him down--"By screaming at me. 'Cut the shit, bear down, and we'll get two.'"

Bill Lee was far from the only pitcher who enjoyed Fisk's brand of motherly love. Sometimes Fisk would come out and fire, "What the hell are you doing out here?" Often, he would purposely goad the pitcher, like when he used to ask Marty Pattin, "When are you going to put the ball over the plate, Martha?" Sometimes Pattin would respond as planned, sometimes not. Once when Fisk stalked to the mound after Pattin gave up a couple of long fouls to a hitter, Pattin shouted, "You do the catching and I'll do the pitching," and the pitching coach had to rush to the mound to separate them.

Once, young pitcher Don Aase was laboring and told Fisk he was tired. The catcher snapped, "Bear down, you've got all winter to rest."

Pitcher Jim Wright, a rookie in 1978, said in a spring training game, after he gave up a monstrous line-drive home run to Johnny Bench, Fisk strolled out to give him a new ball and said, "Don't worry, that wouldn't have gone over the Green Monster. It might have gone through it . . ."

But it wasn't all sarcasm and growls. Wright said, "He was different with everybody. Some guys he really got on, others he was more of a cheerleader. He learned what worked best with each pitcher. . .  One game I had given up a few runs and my curveball was hanging. He came out and told me, 'You don't have your curveball today, it's getting you in trouble. So we're going to do it with your fastball. We'll show them a few sliders, but it's going to be the fastball mostly. The rest of the game that's what we did. I just threw wherever he put his glove and I made it into the ninth inning."

Turk Farrell was a hard-throwing, hard-living pitcher for Philadelphia and Houston in the late-fifties and early-sixties. A manager or pitching coach never knew what would happen when he went out to visit the Turk. Once as a coach neared the mound in the middle of an inning, Farrell growled "Get the hell outta here! We're trying to pull the hidden ball trick."

Another time when Farrell was getting bombed by the Reds early in a game, when the manager finally went out to get him, Farrell yelled, "What took you so long? I could've gotten killed out here."

The Orioles Jim Palmer and Earl Weaver, both of whom felt they needed no help whatsoever with anything, had some memorable mound exhibitions. Palmer, who frequently said that the only thing Weaver knew about pitching was that he couldn't hit it, would purposely stand on the very top of the mound, taking the high ground, to further emphasize the difference in their heights and to force the diminutive Weaver to look up at him.

Weaver frequently resorted to reverse psychology. Once when a spent Palmer asked him to take him out in the ninth inning of a close game, Weaver said, "Look down there at the bullpen. Do you think we've got anybody down there who's as good as you?"

Big Red Machine manager Sparky Anderson, known as Captain Hook for his proclivity to yank pitchers, by rule brooked no conversation with a pitcher on the mound. He simply held out his hand and expected the ball to be placed there. Once when a rookie, Pat Darcy, in the excitement of the moment, asked to stay in the game, and told him, "I feel good, Skip." Anderson didn't miss a beat. He answered, "Yeah, but you'll feel a lot better in the shower."

With no outs and a man on third in the ninth inning of a tied Game Six of the 1975 World Series, young reliever Will McEnaney, a left-hander in every sense of the word, crossed up catcher Johnny Bench on a two-strike pitch to dangerous Fred Lynn, throwing a fastball instead of a breaking pitch. Lynn lifted a fly ball down the left field line that was caught by George Foster, whose throw home to get the tagging runner was in time but took a high hop off the grass. Bench made a great play to hold his position, blocking the plate while reaching up to get the ball and then making the tag--narrowly avoiding disaster. After the play, an angry Bench went to the mound to confront McEnaney, "Will, what the hell? You crossed me up. I gave you the slider sign. You know the sequence."

Bench was surprised to find the pitcher ecstatic and unapologetic. "Yeah, I guess I did. But heck, John, those things work out, don't they?" For one of the only times in his career, Bench was speechless.

When the umpire walked out to keep the game moving and asked, "What's going on?" Bench could only shake his head. "You wouldn't believe it if I told you."

John McNamara was obviously feeling a little nervous about the start of the 1979 season as the new manager of the Reds. After all, the man he was replacing, Sparky Anderson, had only won five division titles, four pennants and two World Series in the past nine years. He felt a little better on Opening Day with his ace Tom Seaver on the mound, giving the Reds the top Hall of Fame vote-getting battery in baseball history (Seaver was elected in 1992 with 98.84% and Bench in 1989 with 98.4% , the first and eleventh highest in history before this year). Seaver wasn't sharp, however, and the Reds were quickly trailing. When the dyspeptic manager went to the mound in the fourth inning, already trailing by five runs in the new season, a smiling Bench greeted him with, "Enjoying your new job so far, John?"

So the next time you see players and coaches congregating on the mound just remember, they might be seriously discussing very important issues--or they might be talking about the game.