Milwaukee Manager George Bamberger was strangely humble the other night after Kansas City's Rich Gale beat the Brewers 9-2 for his 10th win. On April 30, when Bamberger saw Gale for the first time, he called the 24-year-old righthander "a two-pitch pitcher," though Gale had defeated the Brewers 3-0 that day for his first big league win. Now, after being beaten by Gale for the third time, Bamberger had changed his tune. "I was wrong about him," he said. "Gale has good stuff."
Bamberger's early criticism was understandable. Most hot-starting rookie pitchers do not go on to have fine careers, particularly those who rely almost exclusively on a fastball and a slider. But it is unlikely that Gale will fizzle. For one thing, he is more a 2½-pitch pitcher than a two-pitch one, because his fastball comes in two different versions, one that rises and another that runs in on right-handed batters.
There are more than a dozen good rookie pitchers this season, some of whom are playing important roles in the division races. Lance Rautzhan (1-0, 1.50 ERA) and Bob Welch (2-0, 2.63) of the Dodgers, Jim Wright (5-1, 2.88) of the Red Sox, Steve Comer (3-2, 0.69) of the Rangers and Matt Keough (6-6, 2.62) and John Johnson (7-6, 2.76) of the A's have all pitched effectively, at least in spots. But the 6'7" Gale literally and figuratively towers above them all. At week's end he topped the Kansas City staff with an 11-3 record and was largely responsible for the Royals' holding a 2½-game lead in the American League West.
After beating the Brewers on six hits in his first start, Gale went on to whip the Red Sox 3-1 on two hits, fanning Jim Rice twice and forcing Carl Yastrzemski to hit three pop-ups. He later held Texas hitless for six innings in one game and for 6⅖ in another. Then he learned how to pitch.
"I had been trying to be too fine," he says. "My walk-strikeout ratio [46-23] was terrible." But on June 26, pitching in the twilight and haze at Anaheim during a game that started at 5:10 p.m. to accommodate national television. Gale was urged to throw every fastball down the middle. The Angels saw few of them as he struck out 10 in a 4-0 win.
"I learned something in that game." Gale says. "I found out that my fastballs move enough so that I can throw them all at the middle of the plate and they'll naturally move around and hit the corners." Using this approach, Gale has walked just 14 hitters in his most recent six games, and last week he picked up his 11th victory with a seven-hit, three-walk performance against the Rangers.
Gale adds to the effectiveness of his live fastball and hard slider by throwing them both with an overhand delivery instead of the more common three-quarters motion. "A pitcher who comes over the top has one major advantage," said Ryne Duren, the former Yankee reliever, as he watched Gale get his latest victory over the Brewers. "Their pitches always move up and down rather than in and out. They always look like they're in the strike zone when they're coming toward the plate, and the hitters swing a lot more at bad pitches. If I have any criticism of Gale, it's that he doesn't pivot enough in the hips. People who throw three-quarters and use more body motion usually last longer than people who go over the top. At least theoretically."
A physician's son, Gale grew up in Littleton, N.H. and was on skis at age three. He began pitching as a Little Leaguer and has regretted it ever since. "Kids should play all the positions," he says. "And when they pitch, they shouldn't throw any breaking balls until they're 14 or 15. Their arms aren't mature enough to take the strain of the curve. Instead, they should learn to throw strikes and change speeds, which are more important parts of the art of pitching."
In high school, Gale was most artistic as a basketball center, averaging 21 points a game. But he liked baseball enough to turn down basketball scholarships at Florida State and Tennessee. Instead, he chose to attend the University of New Hampshire, which promised to allow him to minor in baseball. But after breaking his right ankle and then badly spraining his left ankle by the time he was a junior, Gale came to doubt his future in either sport. It was only at the insistence of scout Al Diez that Kansas City made him a fifth-round draft choice in 1975.
Gale was scheduled to start his first game for K.C. last Sept. 1, but was left in Omaha when he suffered a cracked right wrist. He won two more games before the fracture was placed in a cast.
After all those broken bones, it is natural that Gale plans to learn more about anatomical matters. "More players today are thinking of an education," he says. "I'm one semester away from my degree, but I'd like to take some courses just for my own good—kinesiology, exercise physiology, things like that—so I can understand my arm and lengthen my career. I'd also like to help young athletes learn how to lengthen their careers.
"I was an environmental conservation major," says Gale, who hunts, fishes, traps and hikes. "My wife and I have 120 acres. I'd like to have a barn and some animals and be self-sufficient. Maybe some day we can build and manage the place for wood production. I'm very big on wood stoves and renewable fuels, as opposed to fossil fuels."
Once Gale gets rolling, his conversation reflects a wide range of interests—the cause of hunters and trappers, squash (the game, not the vegetable), fly-fishing for Atlantic salmon. "I'd also like to learn to play the piano," he says. "It would be great to be able to sit down and express myself. I admire Mike Reid for being able to give up pro football to become a concert pianist. I guess this isn't the image people have of the big jock, is it?"
Nicknamed Big Red, Gale has a remarkable resemblance in stature, hair color and philosophy to Dave Cowens of the Celtics. "Dave and Bill Walton are my idols," Gale says. But he refuses to see himself as being anywhere near as pivotal to his team as Walton and Cowens are to theirs. "People keep asking me about being the stopper," he says. "I don't feel that way at all. As long as we have pitchers like Dennis Leonard and Paul Splittorff, I don't feel any pressure."
"I don't know where we'd be without Gale," Splittorff said about the rookie's role on the Royals. Then he shook his head. "Yes, I do know, too."