No one is more keenly aware of athletic mortality than a baseball pitcher. His arm is his livelihood, and that ordinarily durable member is so cruelly abused in the course of his working day that, in time, it becomes as fragile as a butterfly's wing. Of necessity, a pitcher regards his arm not so much as a part of his body as an exotic pet to be coddled, pampered and, above all, protected. For if the arm goes, so will the pitcher.
The pitching arm is imperiled by any bodily malfunction. A sore toe can bring about a minute adjustment in the pitching motion that can damage the arm and wreck a career. The motion itself is so delicately structured that the slightest alteration, the tiniest departure from ritual, can hasten disaster. The delivery is even vulnerable to sabotage from the psyche. The right arm of former Pirate Pitcher Steve Blass survived 10 years in the big leagues, but because of some undiagnosed malady of the subconscious, his motion did not. And his once luminous career was ended.
Every time a pitcher ascends the mound he stands before the abyss. Fortunately, most pitchers are able to set aside this disturbing fact. For others, the reality is always there. They have looked into the abyss and narrowly escaped the terminal plunge. They are wiser for the experience.
Two such pitchers are Jim Palmer of the Baltimore Orioles and Tom Seaver of the New York Mets. Both suffered injuries a year ago that resulted in their worst seasons and threatened their careers. They have recovered and are en route to their best seasons. Considering their past performances, that is no small matter.
Palmer won 20 or more games every year from 1970 through 1973. He has a career record of 142-75 and an earned run average of 2.68. He was named the American League's Cy Young Award winner in 1973. Seaver, who has had three 20-victory seasons, is a two-time National League Cy Young winner. In three years he has led the league in both strikeouts and ERA. He is the first National League pitcher to strike out 200 or more batters seven years in succession, and he shares the major league single-game strikeout record of 19. He has a career record of 159-92 and an ERA of 2.41.
Both Seaver and Palmer have been World Series heroes. Both are handsome, intelligent and articulate men who are team leaders and spokesmen. They share a scholar's curiosity about their game and probably are the two best all-round pitchers in baseball today. Certainly many of the men who bat against them think so. "Seaver's the best pitcher around," says the Cards' hard-hitting Ted Simmons. "Palmer's top in the American League in my book," says Lee Stanton, even though one of his Angel teammates is the reigning fastballer, Nolan Ryan. But last year Seaver had an 11-11 record and Palmer was 7-12. They were at the abyss.
Seaver recalled those grim times while polishing off a steak in an Atlanta restaurant last week. He looked pained. "I had had a tender shoulder in 1973," he said, "so I went to spring training last year with the idea that I was not going to hurt my arm. I didn't push myself throwing. I felt it would all be there when I needed it. When the season opened, I tried to throw hard and nothing happened. Then I tried to compensate by overstriding. The constant pounding, the strain, put my pelvic structure out of balance. The muscles in my back were pulling down. There was pain in my hip." He pressed a fork down on the table for emphasis. "My mechanics were all wrong. I couldn't get far enough out of my problem to look at it. I was scared. Throwing off balance like that, I could have easily hurt my arm."
He consulted Dr. Kenneth Riland, an osteopath who includes among his patients Vice-President Rockefeller. "I didn't believe that something like that could be cured overnight," Seaver continued. "But Dr. Riland just said, 'Your pelvic structure is out of balance,' and he began yanking here and pulling there. Suddenly the pain was gone. My last game of the season I struck out 14."
Palmer sat by a motel pool in Oakland, basking in the sun and in his own rediscovered glory. He is no stranger to adversity, having missed almost all of the '67 and '68 seasons with back and shoulder injuries. Last year he was on the disabled list from June 20 to Aug. 13. He had lost seven consecutive games when he went on the list. He had never before dropped more than three straight.
"I hurt the ulnar nerve, which runs through the elbow," he said, tracing the course of the injury on his tanned right forearm. "The pain went from my elbow to my hand. I thought it was just tendinitis at first, but my wrist was so tender I couldn't even touch it. After I was put on the list, I went to Los Angeles to see Dr. Robert Kerlan. He prescribed six weeks of rest, hot and cold water treatment and medication to reduce the inflammation. I could have had an operation to move the nerve over, but after three weeks the pain eased. We were playing so poorly, I felt I'd better make a comeback. I pitched well in my last 16 games, but I was still not certain of my arm. I had a tingling there. It's hard to live with the feeling your talents are diminishing. Your arm is what you are."
Seaver and Palmer worked hard over the winter to strengthen their ailing bodies. Palmer, who was lean to begin with, even lost eight pounds. Still, they approached spring training with uncertainty. "I kept waiting for my hip to hurt," says Seaver. It did not. And neither did Palmer's arm, although in recent weeks he has been plagued with a recurrence of tendinitis, an inconvenience he says he can live with as "a small price to pay for a major league career."
At this week's All-Star break, Palmer and Seaver were leading or approaching the lead in most pitching categories. Palmer, 13-6, had pitched six shutouts, three of them 1-0 games, and had the best ERA among American League starters and was tied for the best winning percentage. Seaver had won eight of his last nine decisions to run his record to 13-5, and his 1.94 ERA led the National League. In the opinion of many hitters, both were throwing better than ever. Palmer, 29, and Seaver, 30, came to the majors as fastball pitchers. Both still use that pitch most frequently, but they have added refinements.
Palmer's graceful, sweeping motion is considered the best in baseball. As he pitches, he appears to be expending about as much effort as a man reaching for a light switch, but this, of course, is a deception. "When you see an easy thrower like him, you get lulled into believing that ball is coming up there easy," says the Angels' Dave Chalk. "It's not. It's coming up there hard and doing all kinds of things. It's amazing how quick the ball gets to you."
There is nothing deceptive about Seaver's delivery. He explodes on the mound, driving hard toward the hitter with his powerful legs and stocky body like a fullback bursting through a hole in the line. "I can't think of any pitcher with his type of delivery," says Cub Manager Jim Marshall. "His uniqueness is in his rhythm. When he drives toward the plate, he's got it all together—timing and rhythm."
While Palmer's fluid windup lulls hitters into believing he is throwing softer than he is, Seaver's explosive delivery frightens them into thinking he is throwing harder than he sometimes does. "He'll throw you a 75% fastball," says Von Joshua of the Giants. "Then when he gets along in the count, he'll throw you a 90% fastball, and when he gets two strikes on you, he'll throw that 100-percenter you aren't looking for. You figure you've seen his best fastball already, but you haven't."
Putting a little more into their pitches when they get ahead of hitters—or teams—is a trait Palmer and Seaver share. Both seem to be at their best late in games when they have narrow leads. "If you don't get to him early, nine times out of 10 you won't get him," says Tiger Gates Brown of Palmer. "The longer he goes, the tougher he gets. If you ain't got him by the seventh inning, you're beat."
No wonder that when he was asked which pitcher he would prefer to bat against, Cincinnati's Merv Rettenmund, Palmer's former teammate in Baltimore and now one of Seaver's opponents, said, "That is like asking if I'd rather be hung or go to the electric chair."
As if they already were not sufficiently equipped, both Seaver and Palmer approached this season with new material. Seaver had put a changeup in his repertoire, and Palmer had added pinpoint control.
Since his undergraduate days at Southern Cal Seaver had struggled unsuccessfully to perfect a changeup, a pitch thrown with the same motion as the fastball but at considerably reduced speed. He had been advised by some experts that his violent delivery militated against the change. But Seaver continued to try, experimenting with grips as complex as fraternity handshakes. Then while playing catch this spring with teammate Jon Matlack, he chanced upon the solution.
"It came about purely by accident," Seaver says. "I said to Matlack, 'Watch this pitch,' and I gripped the ball in a way you'd never advise a kid to hold it. I formed a circle with my index finger and thumb and put the other three fingers on the ball. The index finger is dominant in most of my pitches, but in this one it is off the ball. As hard as I tried, I couldn't throw the ball hard. I had my changeup."
In a magnificently pitched 10-inning 2-1 win over the Braves last week, Seaver actually struck out more hitters (3) with his change than with his fastball (2). He also struck out two with his slider and two more with his curve, another pitch he is throwing more effectively this year, although he does not always get it over the plate. Against the Braves, he threw 55 of 80 fastballs for strikes, but only half of his 34 curves. The increased use of the slower pitches has made Seaver's fastball even more devastating.
Improved control has made all of Palmer's pitches more effective. In his last full season, 1973, he walked 113 batters and struck out 158, a high ratio of walks to strikeouts for a 22-game winner. In 175‚Öì innings this year, he has walked 45 and struck out 105.
"When I first came up, all I did was worry about throwing the ball over the plate," he says. "I'd get behind the hitters, then have to come down the middle, and balls down the middle are the hardest hit. Location is the key. It's silly to throw pitches out of the strike zone. The important thing is to stay ahead of the hitters. You must use the corners. You can get by with bad stuff if you're making good pitches. I can't throw as hard as I used to—oh, some days I can—so I've asked: if I threw all that good before, how did I get hit? The answer is I never thought about the corners. Now, I'm putting the ball where I want."
He did not put every ball where he wanted to last week in a 7-1 loss to the World Champion A's, but the defeat was largely not his fault. Palmer's normally proficient teammates played abominably on defense while fighting a losing battle with a bright sun. Shortstop Mark Belanger and Second Baseman Bobby Grich, both Gold Glove winners, lost pop-ups in the sun that fell for damaging hits, and Leftfielder Don Baylor dropped a fly that was ruled a double. Belanger and even Brooks Robinson made egregious errors on ground balls.
Palmer seemed only mildly discomfited by these catastrophes. "You can't expect it to go good all year," he said, soaking his precious arm in ice. "I didn't throw badly, and the arm felt better today. They hit three balls hard and I gave up seven runs [five earned]. When you're going good, things fall your way. When you're going bad...."
Palmer was more concerned about his arm than about one inexpertly played game. He was to return to Baltimore for cortisone injections to relieve the stiffness. Still, he was heartened by the relative absence of pain.
Palmer and Seaver take safety precautions with their arms that can be regarded by the layman only as idiosyncratic. They look upon air-conditioning units with alarm, and they never hang their right arms out the windows of moving vehicles, fearing ill winds even on warm days. They never go to bed without pajama tops, and they always sleep on their left sides. Palmer trained himself in his nocturnal discipline by lying at the extreme edge of the bed and piling pillows against his back to impede him from rolling over onto his right side. Seaver stays off his feet on days he is pitching. An ardent reader of newspapers and fiction, this is a routine he finds more agreeable than constricting. (Seaver finally received his degree in journalism from USC last year, after pursuing his studies on a part-time basis throughout his playing career. He gained credit in a geology course, taught appropriately by a Professor Stone, by writing a paper on the soil consistency of National League infields.)
Palmer devours a stack of pancakes on days when he pitches, a diet that dates from 1966. Stuffed with flapjacks, he won 15 games that season as a 20-year-old. Although many experts now consider high-carbohydrate dishes such as pancakes and spaghetti ideal for pregame meals, Palmer does not continue eating them for any nutritional reasons. He simply is reluctant to brave fate by abandoning a superstition.
If swallowing goldfish or shinnying up flagpoles would ensure longer careers, Palmer and Seaver would happily embrace the practice. After their ordeals of a year ago, they are chillingly aware of the evanescence of the good life in the big leagues.
"It would be very shortsighted to think all this is never going to end, but I would like a long career," says Seaver. "As a pitcher, I feel I'm creating something. Pitching itself is not enjoyable while you're doing it. Pitching is work. I don't enjoy it until I can stand back and look at what I've created. That is something."
Palmer looked almost wistful as he discussed the uncertain future. "I enjoy this game so much I'd like to go on forever," he said. "It's going to end, but I'm going to do everything I can to prolong it. Baseball is the only thing I really know how to do. Look, you're a man playing a child's game, and you're paid a great deal of money for doing it. That's an unreal position to be in."
He paused and rubbed his pitching arm very gently. "The injuries do put things into proper perspective. I guess it's God's way of reminding you that nothing lasts forever."
Seaver has a new change; Palmer has better control—except when eating pancakes.