Persons of a literary bent seem particularly vulnerable to seizures of despair, to those black moments when The Reaper himself is seen poised at the threshold. John Curtis, a lefthanded pitcher for the San Diego Padres and an aspiring author, was so afflicted only a year ago, when his baseball career appeared to be approaching an untimely end. In recalling that time, Curtis summons up images of a decidedly sepulchral nature. "I was not only buried," he says, "but they were heaping the dirt on me." It was then, when he—was figuratively six feet under, that Curtis achieved a catharsis through self-examination. "I still had visions of becoming a big winner. Then I opened my eyes and saw what I really was. The two [the idealized Curtis and the real one] were as far apart as Maine and Arizona. I had reached the point where I had nothing to lose. I was only 31, and the end was near. I wanted to go out giving it my best shot. I decided to fight for my life."
When he was given a rare—some might say "freak"—start for San Francisco against Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium on the night of May 30, 1979, Curtis had pitched only eight innings that season and had an earned run average of 13.50. The Giants' manager at the time, Joe Altobelli, was employing him as a long reliever, a role Curtis describes as "ignoble," because as Altobelli himself so aptly put it, "I want to use you to get through the order just once so I can get to my short men." Curtis wouldn't have been called out of the graveyard that night had not the Giants' pitching staff, then considered one of the best, been ravaged by illness (Ed Halicki's viral infection) and injury (John Montefusco's sore arm).
It would be agreeable to report that Curtis shut out the mighty Dodgers that night, but, alas, he didn't even win. He did survive seven innings, though, and except for home runs by Ron Cey and Davey Lopes, he might have been leading at the time of his departure, instead of being tied 5-5. Although the Giants eventually lost 6-5, Curtis had kept them in contention, and he had shown Altobelli that he had the stomach for starting. He also had awakened himself spiritually. "I knew I had to make the most of my opportunity," Curtis says. "I didn't know when I might be taken out of the rotation, so I scratched and clawed in every start." As a result, he became the only Giant starter with a record better than .500. His overall mark was 10-9 with a 4.17 ERA, and in games he started he was 9-7 and 3.57.
In more sensible times, such modest accomplishments might have merited a pat on the back and something extra in the paycheck. But when the Giants demonstrated little willingness to re-ward him according to the more extravagant standards of today, Curtis elected to become a free agent. He was selected by 14 teams in the reentry draft and was finally signed by the Padres to a whopping five-year, $1.8 million deal. His salary for this, the first season of the contract, is a reported $400,000, up from the comparatively pauperish $70,000 he received last year. "To borrow from Neil Simon," says litterateur Curtis, "this is chapter two of my career."
Curtis protests that he wasn't all that anxious to defect from the Giants. Even though he is New England-born and Long Island-raised, he loves San Francisco. "I don't know what it is, a zest, an effervescence, but I haven't found it anywhere else," he says. He and his wife Brenda will continue to make their permanent home in the Bay Area suburb of Foster City. Brenda, who works for a San Francisco department store, will commute south during Padre home stands.
Curtis simply didn't feel the Giants were all that keen on keeping him. "I was perfect trade bait," he says. "I became a free agent to escape that and to demonstrate to the Giants that I had a market value. You are asked what you are worth, and the only answer is what value other people put on you. I didn't become a free agent to get away from the Giants. I was only doing it to illustrate a point. The point must have been lost on them because they let me get away rather easily."
The Padres are getting a good return on their investment. Curtis beat New York 4-3 last Sunday, allowing all of his runs and three of his five hits in the first inning and lasting until two were out in the ninth. The victory evened his record at 2-2 and marked the third time in four starts he has thrown well. He pitched eight innings in a 4-2 defeat of the Giants, lasted into the ninth in a no-decision effort against Atlanta and into the seventh in a 3-1 loss to the Dodgers. And he is such a likable, intelligent, self-effacing person that his new teammates have fairly clasped him to their collective bosom. In baseball, it is called "class." "There are certain guys who have a little bit more of it than others," says Padre Pitcher John D'Acquisto. "John is one of those."
"John is dedicated, smart and a tough competitor in his own quiet way," says San Diego's new manager, Jerry Coleman. "He's such a bright man you can do all kinds of things with him. He reminds me a lot of Claude Osteen when he was with the Dodgers. He knows how to play."
Curtis is also learning how to write. He hopes that when he can no longer pitch, he will be able to earn a living practicing that treacherous craft. An English minor at Clemson, Curtis has dabbled in journalism throughout his baseball career. After joining the Giants in 1977, he composed two thoughtful essays for the op-ed page of the San Francisco Examiner that led to off-season work in the paper's sports department. At first he was employed as a special columnist, whose opinions could be surprisingly forthright: "From opening day to the final game, the Giants offered him [Pitcher Jim Barr] nothing but a cold shoulder." In the beginning his byline appeared with an explanatory note: "John Curtis, who pitches for the Giants, is an Examiner staff writer during the off-season." But last year, at Curtis' own request, he began to work as a reporter, covering such diverse subjects as pregame pranks at the Stanford-California football game and the soccer rivalry between the University of San Francisco and Santa Clara. His byline became the more professional "John Curtis, Staff Writer."
"This isn't a Dave Kingman case," says Examiner Sports Editor Charles Cooper, in reference to the whiney effusions of the Cub slugger that appear in the Chicago Tribune. "And we aren't asking him to play on the company Softball team. John is doing newspaper work, and he's found out it isn't easy to write."
Curtis has learned that lesson so well that he is reluctant to attempt the great American baseball novel. "I have a lot to learn about the craft of writing before I can devote myself to the art of writing," he says. "My overriding purpose is to acquire a writer's discipline. I don't think of myself as a natural artist. I'm not deluding myself. The newspaper is my classroom. I'm learning just by being in the company of writers. Eventually, I'd like to follow a political candidate during an election, cover city hall, do movie reviews. But I have to start in an area that I'm familiar with. I'm in a testing period. I'm not certain I'll become a writer. I'm not certain I'll ever get that novel written. All I can do is write and learn and share with other writers."
Curtis' journalistic aspirations placed him in curious juxtaposition last season with his Giant teammates, many of whom displayed as much affection for a free press as did the former Squire of San Clemente. Curtis opposed his team's vote—later reversed—to restrict reporters' access to the clubhouse. "There was an underlying animosity in that decision," Curtis says. "I told them that responding to the public through the press is part of our responsibility. That didn't go over too well. When I first came up in the early '70s, it was accepted that you had to talk to the press. But there's a new generation of ballplayers growing up. Sports have reached such a position in our society that it's almost intoxicating. You can inhale the fumes of celebrity. It totally disorients you to real values and to a sense of your own worth. There is a kind of inflation here, too. People are turning every game into an event, every play into a spectacle. There is a tendency to make giant personalities Out of very ordinary human beings."
Despite his unremarkable pitching record (67-72 entering this season), Curtis is no ordinary personality. As his new teammate, Outfielder Dave Winfield, perceptively observes, "Sometimes records don't indicate what a man's made of. I'm just pleased we've got someone like John Curtis."
When Curtis writes for his team, he is charting a fellow pitcher.