The way Steve Stone, the Baltimore Oriole righthander, was poring over the wine list in a Milwaukee restaurant the other evening, one would have thought that he was examining an opponent's lineup card. Shaking off one entry as "frivolous" and a Pouilly-Fuissè as "so acidic that it sits on your tongue like an Alka-Seltzer," he opted for his own enological batting order.
"We'll lead off with a nice white, the 1975 Puligny-Montrachet," Stone told the sommelier, reeling off the French with just the right nasal intonations. "Then we'll have a 1974 BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve—all the Cabernet out of the Napa Valley was outstanding that year. And finally, please open a bottle of the 1970 Gevrey-Chambertin. A good Burgundy needs time to breathe, sort of like a reliever warming up in the bullpen."
Fresh from a seven-hit, 5-2 win over the Brewers, Stone was clearly no slouch when it came to savoring the victor's spoils. As is his wont, while the rest of the Orioles were pigging out on the deli spread in the visitors' clubhouse, he had slipped off with a lovely lady for a "dining adventure" at one of his favorite retreats, the English Room in the Pfister Hotel. And now, resplendent in a brown velvet jacket and discussing sauces with the ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d', he was one with the heady, rippling strains of the resident harpist. Eating, Stone allowed, ranks right up there with his two other great passions, pitching and wooing.
Though he eschews the major league heartburn circuit, Stone is no gastronomic snob. On road trips he rents a car and drives far afield to partake of the boiled lobster at Bishop's in Lawrence, Mass. and the rack of lamb at Le Francais in Wheeling, Ill. But he also delights in sampling the souvlaki at the sidewalk stands in Detroit's Greek Town, and back in Towson, Md., where he owns a town house, he has it his way at the local Burger King—double patty, hold the lettuce and tomato. "You have to be flexible," he says.
Stone, who is in his 10th season of wining and dining his way around both leagues, doesn't take his role as baseball's galloping gourmet lightly. For him, it is a livelihood and a way of life. "I've always loved to eat," he explained, offering a forkful of shrimp à l'ètouffèe to his lady friend, "but I didn't get serious about food until one day in 1973 when I was throwing in the bullpen for the White Sox. My ERA was 4.24 that season, and when I took a look at my stuff, I thought, 'Steve, old buddy, in the interest of your future well-being, you had better develop an alternate source of income.' "
Today, Stone is part owner of eight Chicago-area restaurants, including the elegant Pump Room in the Ambassador East Hotel. And with plans to open an exclusive eatery of his very own in Scotts-dale, Ariz. this fall, he views his culinary rambles as market research rather than mere indulgence. Once, upon encountering an "exquisite" shrimp sauce at Vito's Scampi in Scottsdale, he spooned a sample into a plastic bag and then rushed it in a jet's refrigerator back to Chicago, where the chefs at one of his restaurants, working over their stoves like chemists, broke the sauce down into its ingredients for inclusion on their menu.
In addition to his interest in food, Stone is also a published poet, a chess player, a pool hustler, a table-tennis whiz and an inveterate dabbler in the occult. Before a game against California in Anaheim three years ago, he was greatly concerned when Ruth the Psychic, a Los Angeles seer who advises him about his baseball fortunes, sought him out in a restaurant. "Ruth, how did you know where to find me?" he asked. "I had a feeling," she said. She also had a warning: "If you pitch tonight, you'll hurt your arm."
Pausing over his lobster bisque à l'armagnac, Stone recalled, "I couldn't get loose in the bullpen that night. But then, just as Ruth entered the ball park—boom!—a transformer short-circuited and knocked out the lights on the first-base side of the field. They had to call the game, and I was saved."
Though a strong believer in self-reliance, Stone is not one to ignore the influence of "outside forces." Indeed, as a pitcher who spent a decade struggling to boost his career won-loss record over the .500 mark, Stone suggests that it is only natural to ascribe mystical qualities to most anything that might relate to pitching, especially diet.
Last season, for example, when he defeated the Texas Rangers 4-3 after breakfasting at a Baltimore pancake house with Peter Pascarelli, a sportswriter for the News-American, Stone proposed that they repeat the flapjack ritual before every one of his starts. And so they did, generously laying on the maple syrup, although Stone soon found that the strategy was more effective at home than away. He won six straight in Memorial Stadium. Last month, before a start in Baltimore against the Minnesota Twins, Pascarelli couldn't make it for breakfast and, in a weak moment, Stone switched to steak and eggs—and got bombed out in the fifth inning to end his home victory streak at eight games.
When he arrived in Milwaukee for his next start, Stone's thoughts were of another magical combination of meal and mound. "The Brewers had just swept the Yankees to move into third place, and we were on national TV," he said, sniffing the bouquet of the Cabernet. "Before the game I had liver dumpling soup, oven-browned potatoes and sauerbraten at Karl Ratzsch's, a great German restaurant right around the corner. Then I went out and threw a one-hitter and retired 19 in a row to win 2-1."
Does Stone really believe that the margin of victory was the liver dumpling soup? "Who knows the limits of man's powers?" he said, looking mysterious in the flickering glow of a chafing dish. "But I'll only give you two guesses as to where and what I ate before last night's win."
In deference to holding firm at 175 pounds, Stone limits himself to one big caloric splurge per city. In Detroit, for example, he favors the London Chop House: "Old World elegance at pre-re-cession prices." In Minneapolis it's the Normandy Inn: "The popovers and the beer-cheese soup with popcorn are a must." In Anaheim it's Charley Brown's: "Average food, average atmosphere, but, oh, what women!" In Kansas City it's Stephenson's: "From the apple daiquiris to the hickory-smoked meats, a treat not to be missed." And in Cleveland it's Dorothy's: "Veal paprika and the best matzoh-ball soup this side of Tel Aviv." In this case, Dorothy also happens to be Steve's mother. "The cuisine at Dorothy's may not be exactly haute" he says, "but I love the prices."
Thanks to his mother, Stone was all but born to play baseball. One hot July night in 1947 she insisted on accompanying her husband to an Indians game, even though she was due to deliver her first child at any moment. "She figured that if I was born in the stands, Bill Veeck, who owned the Indians then, would give her a lifetime pass," says Stone, who held out for a more antiseptic hospital delivery three days later.
Fueled by Dorothy's home cooking, Steven Michael grew skilled enough at tennis to win several local junior titles and at golf to score a hole-in-one at the age of 11. At Kent State, where he got a teaching degree in history and government, he starred on the volleyball and bowling teams and took on all comers at table tennis and pool—for a price. Thurman Munson, the late Yankee catcher, was his collegiate battery mate and prize pigeon. "Thurman fancied himself a pool shark," says Stone, "and I was careful never to disillusion him, especially when I was in the process of beating him 25 matches in a row."
Signed by the San Francisco Giants in 1969, Stone was sent to their Fresno farm club, where he quite literally labored in the vineyards. He recalls, "All the wineries in the area had tasting rooms, and on the days we weren't pitching, another pitcher, Bill Frost, and I would sip our way across the Napa Valley, taking notes and learning all we could about wine making."
In 1971 Stone left Frost behind with the promise that they would one day run their own restaurant, and joined the Giants in spring training. His first assignment was to pitch batting practice, and his first major league hitter was Willie Mays. A 95-mph fireballer who had averaged one strikeout an inning in the minors, Stone reasoned that "with 22 other pitchers around, I had to impress the organization right away. So I started blowing the ball in. Mays missed a few. fouled some off and then said to the catcher, 'Who is this guy? Tell him to just throw the ball in.' " The catcher complied, but Stone didn't. "Willie stayed in for one more pitch, thrown right under his chin, then threw down his bat and never took batting practice against me again that spring."
But say hey! When the Giants broke camp, Stone was in the starting rotation. "They billed me as 'another Sandy Koufax,' " he says, "primarily because I was Jewish. I can say honestly and unequivocally that I'm the best righthanded Jewish pitcher to come into the majors in the past 20 years, mainly because I don't know of any others."
Troubled by a sore arm, Stone was traded to the White Sox in 1972 and then uptown to the Cubs the following season. Along the way he lost some of his smoke and realized that "the only way I was going to fool anybody throwing 85 miles per hour was to learn how to pitch more intelligently." Reading Koufax' autobiography five times convinced him "just how mental this game really is. Why, you can actually will yourself to win"—or, as a hedge, develop an outside interest. In 1974, Stone hedged by joining up with Richard Melman, a Chicago restaurateur who was expanding his operation. "He offered me a choice of being a silent partner or a working partner," says Stone. "I told him with the way I had been pitching, I'd better be a working partner."
With additional investors, he and Melman expanded a company called Lettuce Entertain You, so that it now includes a chain of eight restaurants with similarly cutesy names, e.g., Lawrence of Oregano and Jonathan Livingston Seafood. Stone's job titles were much more mundane; he worked as a waiter, bartender, bookkeeper and ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d'. "Lots of ballplayers have invested money in restaurants and lost their shirts because they didn't learn the business," he explains, "and I was determined that wasn't going to happen to me."
Meanwhile, back at the ball park, Stone suffered a shoulder injury in 1976 that greatly reduced his market value when he became eligible for that year's reentry draft. Only Veeck, rebuilding the White Sox from scratch, had faith that Stone wouldn't miss a second chance to be born anew in his ball park. The Sox' vice-president of player personnel, Roland Hemond, consummated the one-year, $60,000 deal over lunch at the Pump Room, where Stone was filling in as manager. Hemond says it was the first time he ever signed a player in a tuxedo, and he picked up the tab as "a sort of bonus to Steve."
Stone reciprocated by leading the Sox' pitching staff, otherwise known as "Veeck's bargain basement," with 15 wins in 1977 and, at double the salary, added 12 more victories the next season. Then, by special arrangement with Veeck, Stone became the only player to go through the reentry draft twice. And this time six teams were interested, most notably the Orioles, who signed him to a four-year, $760,000 contract.
Stone started slowly last season, struggling to a 6-7 record at the midway point. Desperate, he installed a lucky stuffed sheepdog in his locker, shaved off his mustache, switched gloves, threw out his old spikes and changed his number from 21 to 32, Koufax' old number. In the habit of reading three books on a road trip, he tried applying the precepts he learned from such volumes as Telepsychics, Winning Through Intimidation and The Power of Your Subconscious Mind. From Harvey the Hypnotist he learned to meditate on opposing lineups, envisioning precisely how he would retire each hitter in a kind of transcendental perfect game. And for help with an ailing elbow, he consulted Pat the Faith Healer. "I'll concentrate on it," she said.
Something clicked. Stone had 14 straight starts without a loss and picked up five wins in the second half of the season to help propel the Orioles into the playoffs and on to the American League pennant. This season, mindful that he will turn 33 in July—and "It doesn't look like I'm going to make the Hall of Fame"—he feels he must rely on his powers of positive thinking more than ever. "For some inexplicable reason," he confided over his sea bass bonne femme, "my curveball will disappear for two weeks at a time. And without the curve, I'd be serving you this fish instead of eating it.
"Concentration is the answer, of course. In fact, no one who has played this game has ever said it was anything less than 80% mental. Yet while every team has a trainer to care for the body, none has a specialist to administer to the mind. I saw Annie Hall 11 times because I admire the way Woody Allen vents his neuroses on the screen. I identify with that. I try to reprogram my subconscious, sweep out all the negative feelings before every game. It's a self-psych that can come across as cocky, but it works."
Sometimes. In Today's Hero, one of his poems, which have appeared in such diverse journals as the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the National Jewish Monthly, Stone observes:
Your supreme effort of yesterday may fall short of winning tomorrow—then what?...
You have to go out tomorrow and win again because the people like their heroes a day at a time.
The top of the world and the bottom aren't really that far apart—now are they?
For the moment, Stone is hovering somewhere near the top. Last month, primed with pancakes, he started a new win streak at home with a 4-2 victory over Texas. Two no-decision starts last week against Milwaukee and California left his season record at 6-3 and his career mark at 84-82. All that, plus delivery of a new Porsche and the finalizing of his plans to buy the Scottsdale restaurant with his friend Bill Frost, has convinced Stone that the itch for positive thinking might be catching.
"I think—no, I know—we can win the pennant again," he keeps saying. And to further motivate the Orioles, Stone promises that there will be a repeat of the beef Wellington celebration that he staged for the team in the Pump Room last season. "Provided we win," he says. "If we don't, I told them that it's going to be tacos hollandaise and Twinkies flambè."
Stone has a lobster on his plate and Bobbie Bender on his arm.
Flapjacks fuel the arm that Stone cocks.