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He's the golden Goose

As his 30 saves, 6-1 record and 1.79 ERA suggest, Relief Pitcher Rich Gossage almost never lays an egg, which is a big reason the Yankees are leading their division

Every time Relief Pitcher Rich (Goose) Gossage steps out of the Yankees' pinstriped bullpen car, the New York fans greet him with a fence-rattling ovation. Cranked up by the noise of the crowd and the pressure of the situation, Gossage goes right to work, winning through intimidation. At 6'3", 217 pounds, he takes a slump-shouldered Incredible Hulk stance on the mound and scowls at the hitter. Then he uncorks a 95-100-mph fastball that baffles the batters, even though they're fully expecting it. After fanning on three of Gossage's hard ones last week, the Blue Jays' Doug Ault swore the first had dropped, the second had broken to the outside and the third had risen.

Gossage is having an outstanding year—a 6-1 record with a 1.79 earned run average and 30 saves attest to that—but his work down the stretch has been even better. If the first-place Yankees hold off Baltimore and win their fourth American League East title in the last five years, Gossage will be the main reason.

In his 10 outings this month, through last Sunday, Gossage had carried an exhausted and ailing team from a 1½-game lead on Sept. 3 to a more comfortable four-game margin. He did it by finishing one victory that wasn't close enough for him to get a save, winning one game himself and saving eight others. In his finest performance, Gossage entered the eighth inning of a Sept. 6 game against California with nobody out, Rod Carew dancing off third and the Yankees leading 5-4. Gossage struck out Carney Lansford and retired Dan Ford and Jason Thompson on weak flies. Pumped up now, Goose struck out the side in the ninth.

Gossage seems indefatigable when he pitches, throwing up one blazer after another, but even he has his limits. He woke up so tired on Sept. 13 after working six times in eight days that he couldn't lift his right arm. But he's fine now; witness his performances last week when he threw 2⅖ innings of one-hit ball to preserve a 5-4 win against Toronto and completed the last two innings of both Luis Tiant's 2-1 and Ron Guidry's 3-0 triumphs over Boston. Explaining why he hadn't ordered a sacrifice bunt in the ninth inning of the Tiant game, Red Sox Manager Don Zimmer said, "I ain't bunting off a guy throwing at 100 mph."

And that is hardly Gossage's most impressive number. Get a load of these stats: At the conclusion of last weekend, Gossage hadn't given up a run in his last 18 games, allowing just nine hits and retiring 83 of 99 batters. He had an 0.83 ERA over his last 40 games. Between Aug. 29 and Sept. 10 he retired 28 consecutive batters, in effect, a perfect game plus one. He had more strikeouts (94) than innings pitched (90⅖). He had gotten a save in 30 of 32 possible save situations.

"But his most impressive statistic," said New York Manager Dick Howser last week, "is that he's walked only six batters in his last 31⅖ innings. That's amazing for a fastball pitcher and important for anyone. He's always ahead on the count. If you fall behind a batter, you have to start thinking about strikes and you pitch too carefully."

"The hitters might as well be 0-2 before they get in the batter's box," admits Gossage, a modest fellow, speaking more in wonderment than conceit. Adds Yankee Catcher Rick Cerone, "I just set up behind the middle of the plate, put down the numbers and let him throw. We don't start thinking until we get ahead. Then maybe we'll go up and in, or outside, or throw a slider."

Or, just as likely, call for another down-the-middle fastball, which almost never stays down the middle. "It starts at the buckle and winds up letter-high or higher," says Gossage. "It happens too fast for the hitter. There isn't time for the brain to tell the body to lay off. I tell you," he says, smiling, "I don't give myself enough credit."

No, he doesn't. "I've only seen two lefthanded hitters pull homers off him this year," says teammate Bob Watson. "And Goose is even tougher on righthanders, because he hides the ball and comes from a three-quarters motion. It's scary." All the more so because, as the old Yankee shortstop, broadcaster Tony Kubek, points out, Gossage has enough "premeditated wildness" in him to keep hitters on their toes.

His extraordinary personal record and the championship the Yankees are likely to clinch next week are both vindication of sorts for Gossage. Last year he missed 12 weeks with a thumb injury suffered in an April 19 fight with teammate Cliff Johnson. By the time he returned, the Yankees had fallen out of the race, and Gossage holds himself solely responsible for his team's failure to catch the Orioles. "If I'd been there, we'd have been knocking on Baltimore's door," he says. "I had a winter to think about that. I wanted 1980 to be the best year I'd ever had."

It has been, largely thanks to Gossage's ability to psych himself up for big games. "I'm like Reggie," he says, gritting his teeth. "I get a rush, a natural high. The last time we were in Kansas City [July 25-27], I said to myself, 'They've been beating us; now it's time somebody made them pay.' " Gossage was that somebody, going 4⅖ innings to defeat the Royals 5-4. "The night in Baltimore when we felt we had to win because we'd lost four straight to them, I pitched like, hey, this was it." He struck out five men in 2‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings, saving Tommy John's 4-3 win.

Lest we forget, Gossage has always been at his best in close races. In 1978 he saved the playoff game with Boston, the league-championship clincher over the Royals and the Series finale against the Dodgers. The Red Sox game was a watershed, Gossage says, because it was the one in which he began to relish pitching under supreme pressure. "I was facing Carl Yastrzemski for the final out when it occurred to me that the worst thing that could happen was that I'd be in the Colorado mountains the next day. A real calm came over me."

Gossage has reached baseball's heights despite a boyhood that resembled a Rocky Mountain low. His father, Jack, a Colorado coal miner and landscaper, died when Gossage was in high school, and his mother was disabled by a hip injury. "But I was always taken care of," Gossage says. "Even if my family didn't have enough money for food, they'd buy me baseball spikes." The investment began to pay off when the White Sox signed him in 1970. In addition to giving him an $8,000 bonus, scout Bill Kimball decided Gossage's name then, Rick, wasn't "major league" enough and renamed him Rich. His other nickname came about when White Sox teammate Tom Bradley shortened Gossage to Goss and then extended Goss to Goose.

Yankee Shortstop Bucky Dent, who roomed with Gossage when they played Class-A ball together in Appleton, Wis. in 1970, says Gossage has remained much the same as he was then: round-faced, friendly, beer-drinking. "The two of us and Terry Foster, who's now with the Dodgers, roomed together," says Dent. "We had one car, a '63 Chevy, I think, one blanket and one sheet. We'd sleep huddled together in front of an air-conditioner. We were young kids then, so there wasn't much to do except play ball and drink beer. Rich didn't mind a bit." Nor has he been changed by a distinguished nine-year major league career: he is put off when old friends, intimidated by his celebrity and six-year, $2.75 million contract, are afraid to approach him. "He's the same guy," says Dent, "except looser." That's good news for the Yankee faithful. They all go home happy when the Goose is loose.