They parked the Blazer where the road ended and the trail began, and from there they set off on foot. It was mid-October in the Colorado Rockies. The two men were above the timberline and the chilly air sparkled. In the distance, mountain goats climbed the bare rocks, and elk prints crossed the trail. Rick Gossage had been here before, but on this fall day in 1978 he was returning with a guest, on a pilgrimage of sorts.
Gossage and Bruce Kison had been friends since early 1977, when they both pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and they had remained close even after Gossage had signed late that year to play for the New York Yankees. They had hunted elk the day before, but Gossage had told Kison of a secluded lake—a place quite like heaven—at the end of the trail. So Kison, eager to fish it, had made him promise to take him there. They hiked the mile and a half up the trail, to where it rose over a saddle of land, and then walked together to the lake, which is called Ptarmigan.
It sits at the bottom of a bowl of rock whose sides, except for the entrance over the saddle, wrap around and above it like immense mezzanines and upper decks. "If you put seats in there," Gossage says, "it would be a perfect stadium." They sat in silence on the shore. What Gossage felt then was something akin to a religious experience.
He had just been through three of the most tumultuous months in his life. For more than two of them the Yankees had clawed and scratched their way to the championship of the American League East, coming from 14 games behind to tie the Boston Red Sox at the wire. Then there was a playoff game, on a perfect autumn day in Fenway Park. New York led Boston 5–4 in the last of the ninth, two on and two out, when the roars of 32,925 spectators were cut off abruptly, as if by a switch. Carl Yastrzemski had popped up a Gossage fastball for the final out. The Goose, as Gossage is known, then beat the Kansas City Royals to clinch the American League pennant, and for six innings in the World Series, he blew rising peas past the Dodgers, giving up one hit in three games. His ERA was 0.00.
And now, just a few days after that final out in Chavez Ravine, he was on the shore of a lake about the size of a baseball field, with the stands inhabited only by goats, looking at the mountains reflected in the water and attempting vainly to remember what had occurred in those dramatic weeks. "Man, it's hard to picture 50,000 people in here," he finally said to Kison. "I just can't, no matter how hard I try." He endeavored to recall what had happened to him in Fenway Park, but it was as if a kind of amnesia had set in. He tried to picture Yankee Stadium, to impose his image of it on the lake, but he couldn't do it. In the surpassing solitude of this place he was transported from baseball.
"You're in a spot where there's no sound, hardly a wind, high up near a lake, and it's eerie, like a void in your life," he says. "You can hear your heart ticking. You can sense things are going on in your body that you didn't know were going on. It's so quiet that it's loud. It almost hurts. It becomes like a train going through your head. The solitude. It's like my dad used to say: 'Oh! This is it." I love the mountains. It's like there's nothing else going on, anywhere. I escape there. I love it there. I can breathe again."
Gossage is at home on summits—the mountains of his beloved Colorado, the mounds of all the parks where he plays the game of baseball. He thrives on the edge of precipices, whether figurative, as in the bottom of the ninth at Fenway Park, or literal, as at Pope's Bluff outside of Colorado Springs, where he's building a home.
He works in short relief, perhaps the ultimate specialist in an increasingly specialized game, and a 100-mph fastball is the mainspring of his craft. "Rollie Fingers was great," says Reggie Jackson, "but Gossage is the best I've ever seen. He's better than Fingers. He's not a Hall-of-Famer like Fingers yet, because he hasn't been doing it as long, but this guy has such a dominant pitch."
"He puts guys like me on his cereal for breakfast," says Seattle's Tom Paciorek, who was batting a lusty .331 at week's end. "He's the most intimidating pitcher I've ever seen. When he comes out of the bullpen, that's just what he looks like—a bull. There's smoke coming out of his nose and his cap is down over his eyes, and he's so big and hulking. You need a cape to face Gossage, not a baseball bat...."
There have been occasions when not even an ironing board would've done the trick. At one time or another over the last 18 years, Tony Perez has faced the best pitchers in baseball: in the National League, for Cincinnati and Montreal; now, in the American League, for the Red Sox. He has hit against Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and J.R. Richard, so he knows how hot the fire can get. But the single nastiest pitch he ever saw came just last year in Fenway Park, on the night of June 30, when he faced Gossage in the bottom of the ninth.
It was the kind of moment for which the Goose was made. The Yankees were leading 6–3, with two out and the bases loaded. The first fastball cut the outside corner—strike one. The second arrow split the first, and Perez swung and missed. Then came the third, the one that Perez will always remember, again a fastball on the outside corner, only faster. Three feet in front of the plate, the ball suddenly jumped. Perez took a feeble half swing and was out.
"That pitch was unhittable," says Perez. "I have to say, the best I ever saw. I don't think anybody can hit that pitch, especially righthanded hitters. It was too hard and too on the black, and the way he threw it, there's no way I'm going to hit it. When he makes good pitches, you're dead."
Such tales about Gossage abound in the major leagues. There was the time he was playing for Pittsburgh and he struck out eight of the 11 Dodgers he faced, and the L.A. players got riled because they felt the Pirate catcher, Duffy Dyer, was trying to show them up by not even bothering to hide the sign calling for fastball after fastball. "They were taking, they were swinging, they weren't even fouling the ball off," Kison says. One night in 1978, with none out, the tying run on third and the lead run on second in the ninth inning. Gossage came in to get the Seattle Mariners out and save a Yankee win with exactly 11 pitches.
"I remember he threw three pitches to me and I was out," Paciorek says, "and he threw three pitches to Bob Robertson and he was out, and then Julio Cruz was up and he really had a good at bat against him. Julio took one pitch for a ball and fouled off another with two strikes, so that he actually took Gossage to five pitches. Eleven pitches and we were out, and that was the ball game. That was the most awesome display of relief pitching I've ever seen."
Gossage has been a relief pitcher for most of his 10 years in the big leagues, but it has been only since 1975, when he found his lost fastball and saved 26 games for the White Sox, that he began to approach the level he's playing at now. In every season since then, except 1979, when he had only 18 saves—that was the year he tore a ligament in his right thumb during a scuffle in the clubhouse with Cliff Johnson—and 1976, when he was a starter for the Sox, he has saved at least 26 games.
During that same period, his ERA as a reliever has never climbed to more than 2.64: 1975, 142 innings, 130 strikeouts, 1.84 ERA; 1977, 26 saves, 133 innings, 151 strikeouts, 1.62 ERA; 1978, 27 saves, 134 innings, 122 strikeouts, 2.01 ERA; 1979, 58 innings, 41 strikeouts, 2.64 ERA; 1980, 33 saves, 99 innings, 103 strikeouts, 2.27 ERA. This year, despite the strike, at week's end Gossage already had 20 saves in 23 chances—winning two of the three games in which he blew the saves. In the 42⅖ innings he had worked, he had 44 strikeouts. His ERA: 0.63. And when the American League East divisional playoff begins on Oct. 7, he could be the key to the Yankees' postseason hopes, just as he was in 1978.
The numbers are revealing, but in a sense they are beside the point. The point is that Richard Michael Gossage, 30, is one of the few athletes in American sport who can single-handedly dominate a game. When his manager summons Goose into a game in a late inning, with no outs and the lead run on, the move is as near as anything there is in baseball to the closing of the mating net in chess. It all begins in the bullpen, around the fifth inning:
"That's when the adrenaline begins to flow," Gossage says. "I start to keep my eyes open. Start to take deep breaths. I can feel it pumping. It's like a chain reaction. It's the sixth inning, and I look up and we're in the game. It's 2–1, 3–2, my type of ball game. All right! Seventh inning it's the same score. I start to get up. Maybe you see the starter's having a little trouble. Eighth inning, base hit! O.K. The phone rings. The pitching coach is calling from the dugout."
Jeff Torborg, the Yankee bullpen coach, picks up the phone. "I grab my glove, I already know it's for me. He don't even have to tell me. Jeff answers it and says, 'Goose!' That's it. Then there's another base hit. Two men on in the eighth. I start throwing faster. Soon as I get the ball back from the catcher I throw it again. Five or six pitches, I'm ready to really start cutting loose. The phone rings again. Jeff answers it. He says, 'Goose, you ready?' I say, 'Yeah.' He says, 'Yeah, he's ready.' Then I start really pumping. Boy! I throw six or seven pitches in the bullpen as hard as I can throw. Just air 'em out. Then I see the manager come out. He's walking to the mound. The umpire waves at me. I get my jacket and get into that car, and that's when it really starts kickin' in. I can feel the adrenaline. I'm teed off now. On the ride in, at Yankee Stadium, I'll tell the driver, Danny, the groundskeeper, 'Thanks for the ride, you——!' And then I'll slam the door."
For hitters, there's nothing quite like seeing him there on the mound, watching the last of his warmups, stepping in and getting set for the first pitch. There is a wonderful simplicity to it all, no sleight of hand, no artifice. Pittsburgh isn't the only place catchers haven't bothered to conceal their signals. After Gossage got to the Yankees, the late Thurman Munson used to crouch behind the plate, his mitt up on his left hand, and wave his right in front of his chest, beckoning for the fastball, as the hitter looked back watching him. When Gossage protested—"Let's at least try to fool 'em"—Munson just cocked his head and said with a grin, "Who are you trying to fool?"
So they know what's coming; the only question is where. When Gossage winds up, he turns and almost faces leftfield, hiding the ball, until the hitter sees only the number on his back: 54. "I know the hitter's saying, 'Damn! Does he know where this pitch is going?' " Gossage says. And then he spins forward, all arms and legs flying at once toward the plate, in a twisting three-quarter delivery that makes it appear to righthanders as if he is coming from behind them. "He looks like he's falling out of a tree," says Larry Sherry, one of Gossage's early minor league coaches who's now in the Dodger system. "All limbs are coming at you."
"When he turns that ball loose," says Cliff Johnson, who's now with Oakland, "he looks like the guy that Jack killed in the beanstalk."
There's no telling what the ball will do. "Knee-high it's liable to do anything," Yastrzemski says. "Sometimes it sinks a little; sometimes it comes at you a little. At that speed, it does enough." Some players say it rises, sailing up and in to a righthanded hitter—or is it up and away? Still others report that it does everything but call a cab: It "darts" and "drifts" and "jumps" and "rides." There are days, just half a dozen or so of them in a season, when Gossage works himself into such a fury that he feels himself falling into a kind of trance.
"Oh, I love it," he says. "The tougher it is, the more I love it. The better I am. I need that adrenaline. I don't get it unless the game is on the line. I love the excitement. I just love it. I thrive on it. I feed on it. Sometimes I feel like I'm going to blow up. One time, when I was with the White Sox, [Manager] Chuck Tanner took me out of a game. I had men on base and I was pumped up, and he came out to the mound. My eyes were weird. Real big. He called me into his office after the game, and he looked worried and he asked me, 'Do you take something?' I said, 'What do you mean?' And he said, 'Do you take something, like greenies?' I was 21 or 22 years old. I didn't even know what a greenie was. I just go crazy out there.
"I pitch that ball, and I can feel a shudder go through my body. At times I get so high I don't even know what happens. I feel like I'm almost on the end of the world. I feel I'm on the brink of going over. It's like a thousand hearts are beating all over my body. It's scary, weird. It's like I'm standing on the edge of a cliff."
Pope's Bluff is a sandstone finger of land that stands about 300 feet above the northwest end of Colorado Springs, at the foot of the Rockies. Gossage was born in the Springs on July 5, 1951 and still makes his home there. He grew up in the Roswell section of town, in a cramped one-bedroom house on Beacon Street, the fifth of the six children of Sue and Jack Gossage. Jack worked off and on as a coal miner and landscaper and nearly struck it rich mining for gold in Cripple Creek, on the other side of Pikes Peak.
"He had gold fever, he did," Sue says. "He leased a mine and hit a good strike, but instead of running in a vein, like it should have, it was only a pocket. When they dug deeper and it petered out, he couldn't bring himself to tell me for a month. So disappointing! But there are stories like that all over. When you strike it rich in Cripple Creek, you have it made. We missed the boat."
Jack preferred roaming the mountains to mining coal and tending lawns, and the family grew up poor on Beacon Street. "He liked the outdoors a lot more than he liked to work," Gossage says. "He was that kind of guy, a free spirit. He didn't give a damn about anything. But a heart of gold." Jack poached deer, hunted rabbits and took Rick to search for arrowheads on top of Pope's Bluff. "It was our favorite place," Gossage says. "When we first started going up there, we found them fairly regularly. It took years—10 or 15, I guess—to collect the 100 good ones that we have."
They also spent summer days together, fishing for trout in the mountains up around the old mining town of Leadville, about 80 miles west of Colorado Springs. Jack's brother, Bert, had a cabin there, at the Mt. Massive Lakes Trout Club, where members fished for rainbows in private lakes stocked and tended by the club. Rick and his father visited Mt. Massive frequently to help Bert wet his lines. Bert was a handyman for Freda Maytag, an heiress to the washing-machine fortune. In the 1930s, she had built one of the best cabins at the club.
Only one place was off limits to young Rick, as he was and is known to family and friends. (White Sox scout Bill Kimball was the one who signed Gossage and christened him Rich, a name that has stuck with the press and fans.) "Now don't you go near the Maytag cabin," Sue Gossage would say. Rick knew his place and never did. It didn't matter. The freedom to roam the hills was as boundless as the landscape itself. It was up there, in the rarefied heights 9,500 feet above sea level, that he came to love the mountains and lakes.
School never interested him much. It confined and bored him. He became a fine athlete, though, and found out in little league that he could throw. So did everyone who read the sports pages of the Colorado Springs Sun. In 1963, under the headline RICK GOSSAGE HURLS ANGELS TO YAL LIGHTWEIGHT CROWN, a story began: "Hard-throwing righthander Rick Gossage fired a sparkling no-hitter and struck out 14 batters to hurl the Padgett Realty Angels to the Young American League lightweight city championship.... The Angel fireballer struck out the last 13 Mets to face him."
Gossage spent hours throwing into a pitching net his parents had splurged for, but it didn't last long, and he threw against the one-step stoop outside the house. "He threw by the hour," Sue says. "Constantly, constantly, constantly." At times he'd miss the stoop and the ball would crash into the screen door. It ended up in splinters. "You're going to tear the place down," Sue would yell.
He's still throwing and throwing, and breaking things, too. Early last March, before one of the first games of spring training, Gossage took the mound to throw batting practice. A bucket of balls sat beside him on the mound, and soon he was throwing them as fast as he could pick them up, harder and harder. He began to look demonic, his eyes wide and flashing. Jackson watched from behind the cage. "I bet he breaks your bat," he told Rick Cerone as Cerone walked to the plate. The bat split on the next pitch. When the bucket was finally empty, Gossage stalked off to the clubhouse. It was as if he had just blown Perez away.
"When I see a bag of baseballs, I just seem to go crazy," he says. "I start throwing them, and I can't stop till I've thrown them all. I mean, they're just sitting there in the bag, and I want to throw each one harder than the last."
He had the same compulsion as a boy. "He threw all the time," says his older brother, Jack. "Rocks and stones and things. He'd go to the park at night and throw baseballs for as long as someone would catch him." Often he would pitch to brother Jack, who would drive the boy to tears. Rick always threw as hard as he could, but older brothers can be devilish. "Come on," Jack would say. "Put a little mustard on it." And: "You're not even throwing the damn ball." But Rick was, you know, he was. "I'd be grunting and groaning and throwing as hard as I could," Rick says. But Jack kept prodding and goading him, until: "Pretty soon I had tears in my eyes."
At Wasson High School, Gossage became a scrappy basketball forward with a jump shot from the corner and no fear of bumping elbows under the boards. He became very good at hoops, eventually becoming the captain of the Wasson basketball team. But by then there was no doubt where he was going. In 1968, when Gossage was a lanky 150-pound sophomore, Kent Hill was the Wasson baseball coach. One day, with the state high school baseball tournament not far off, Hill told Gossage that he had decided to keep the same three senior pitchers in the rotation.
They had been doing well, and Hill felt he owed it to them. But there was this intrasquad game coming up, Hill said to Gossage, and he wanted Gossage to work against the older players then. "Rick was a whale of a competitor, and he got so hyped up!" Hill says. "That grim determination. The same thing that you see now. It was six innings, at least, before anybody even touched the ball. The seniors were in awe."
The next year, Gossage's father died. "He was a very lonely kid," Hill says. "They were so close in such an interesting way—as buddy to buddy, in the wilds a lot." Rick was his father's friend, his companion, his joy. Jack and Sue went to all Rick's games, loved to watch him pitch. "He'll be something someday," the old man used to say.
Jack had failed as a gold miner and he was never very good when it came to providing for his wife and kids, but he did leave his son a hunting rifle, a case of arrowheads and the sweet memories of wandering the hills outside of town, of catching trout at Mt. Massive Lakes and of gathering flint on Pope's Bluff. When Jack died, Rick did what you would expect the younger son of his father to do. "He went to the mountains to cut wood," Hill says.
Gossage was a star baseball player at Wasson High his senior year, a 6'2" reed of a kid with an elastic arm and a fastball that went bump at the plate. The White Sox drafted him in the ninth round in June of 1970, when he was just out of high school, and sent him to their Gulf Coast League team at Sarasota, Fla. It was in these early years that Sherry first watched Gossage fall out of trees and took a liking to him right off—in part, for the same reason that Hill had liked Gossage as a sophomore. "Rick was a very, very keen listener," Hill says. "You know, on coaching tips and so forth." Sherry found the same quality in Gossage. "Very receptive," Sherry says. "And playful. You know, he'd come around behind you and grab you around the neck. A hundred and eighty pounds of Great Dane puppy."
The White Sox sent him from Sarasota to Appleton. Wis. and in 1971 he became a phenom in A ball. He roomed with Bucky Dent, now the Yankee shortstop, and another big puppy named Terry Forster. Forster also threw darts. "Appleton was a treat," Forster says now. They had one room and one bed, from which they had removed the mattress. Dent slept on the box spring, and Forster and Gossage shared the mattress on the floor. They bought pots and pans at a Goodwill store. Forster bought a beat-up Chevy for $150, and they traveled in dubious style to all the beer halls of Appleton.
Forster and Gossage wrestled all the time, big puppies that they were. And they threw pillows at each other at 60 per. They also threw each other. One night, in Clinton, Iowa, a raging pillow fight ended when Forster threw Gossage over a bed and Gossage struck a lamp on the night table and dislocated a big toe. "Tear rooms up," Gossage says. "Tip over tables and dressers. Tear the hell out of everything. We'd end up laying there laughing: 'Look at this room.' "
They pitched, too. Oh, how they pitched! The first pitch that Forster ever saw Gossage throw at Appleton was in relief of him. Forster had allowed a man to reach third when Gossage came in. He was nervous as hell. He wound up and let fly his very first offering in Appleton, a hanging curve.
"He missed the on-deck hitter by an inch," Forster says. The other team's third base coach couldn't resist. He walked into the dugout and moments later reappeared wearing a catcher's mask. The fans howled. "I thought to myself," Forster says, "Who's this guy?" He was becoming the Goose.
After his rocky beginning in 1970, Gossage was sensational at Appleton in 1971. A starter, he finished the year as the leading pitcher in the league, with an 18-2 record, 149 strikeouts and an ERA of 1.83. He wished only that his dad could see him now.
Tanner called him up the next year, and until 1978 it remained the most vivid of his career. After a strike delayed Opening Day for two weeks, the Sox began the season in Kansas City. One of Gossage's idols at the time was Dick Allen, who was about to have the best season of his life, an MVP year with the Sox. Before the opener in Royals Stadium, Gossage was warming up on the sidelines, throwing hard but not his hardest, when he glanced up and saw Allen leaning on his bat and watching him throw. Rick's blood surged; the master was in judgment. So he threw harder. And harder.
All of a sudden, Allen strolled to the plate to which Rick was throwing and stood alongside it with his bat cocked as if he were about to hit. No words were spoken. Gossage felt a rush. "Psyched me out," he says. "He just stood in there. You want to show him what you have." So Gossage threw harder. "And harder," he says. "After each pitch Dick just kind if nodded his head. Like, 'Yeah. Nice pitch. Nice fastball.' I was throwing good, real hard and good." He'd just thrown his hardest when Allen left the plate and came up to him and said, "I want to tell you just one thing. For as long as you're in baseball, always keep a shirt on that arm. Always keep it covered."
That was all Allen said. He turned and walked away. This was almost 10 years ago, and many players have said many things to Gossage since then, but he remembers that as clearly as the smell of rain. Gossage was only a rookie—just an elementary student of the game, really—and for him that season was like a piano recital with Chopin on the stool. By watching Allen in that one season, he learned how beautifully his game could be played.
"Dick Allen is the greatest player I've ever seen," Gossage says. "He's in another league. He's up there by himself, and everyone else is down here. He did everything when it counted. I'll never see it duplicated."
Gossage watched Allen, fascinated, and learned from him in the process. "What Allen was best at was setting up pitchers," Gossage says. "If I didn't see him set up pitchers a hundred times, I didn't see him set them up once. He'd strike out two times in a game and look awful. Early in the game? On a slider? With nobody on? Looked terrible. He'd be setting a pitcher up for later in the game—when it counted. He was saying, 'Throw me that same slider you struck me out on twice.' Heh! Next time up, bases loaded late in a game, he'd hit a pea somewhere. Unbelievable. You talk about the word awesome—and that word is overused—he was awesome. He's the only guy I'd ever be afraid to face. Yeah, I have no fear of anyone else."
Tanner loved those two guys in the pen—Rick long and Terry short. They threw BBs. "Two of the hardest young throwers I ever saw in baseball," Tanner says. "You know what I liked about Gossage? I liked his face. People laugh when I tell them that. But it's true. I can't describe what I mean. You don't recognize it till you see it, but he has got a winning face."
Successful or not, Gossage thought that '72 was a long season. "I always believed being in the bullpen was a demotion," he says. "It was a hellhole. You didn't get any recognition there. The bullpen was always where the starter who could no longer start was sent. It seemed like your old starters all ended up in the bullpen. That's where you were sent when you were finished. Now, if you can't start anymore, you're not sent to the pen. You're through."
The game has changed. Today you win it with a stopper in the pen. Tanner put Gossage there not because he thought Gossage couldn't start—he never really tried Gossage at that—but because he sensed that relieving suited Gossage. He could keep the ball down, throw strikes, warm up quickly, pitch without rest and throw extremely hard. Finesse pitchers can make it in the pen, of course, coaxing ground balls to short, but the ones most prized are those who can strike hitters out.
Gossage loved Chicago. Both he and Forster got married early in their careers there, Gossage to Coma Lukaszewicz, a hometown sweetheart, and Forster to Pam Sherley. The four became close. The Gossages have two boys now—Jeff, 3, and Keith, 2—but there were no such responsibilities back then. They drank a lot of beer—"We used to drink ourselves into oblivion," Corna says—and they dined together frequently.
Those were fun years in Chicago, the best. The Gossages were a stitch, playing it very loose. One evening the two couples were in an Italian restaurant in Chicago when the waitress, bearing plates of salad, leaned over Corna to set one in front of Rick. The salad in the waitress' other hand slipped off the plate and settled, like a lettuce bonnet, on Corna's head. Italian dressing dripped down her cheeks. "Rick and Corna rolled on the floor laughing," Pam says.
They didn't have much money back in those days, but that didn't matter. They spent what they didn't have anyway. "Once, when I was making about $20,000, Corna and I took out a $300 loan and spent most of it on a big dinner," Gossage says. "We always had a good time. We never worried about money."
But it did trouble him when, in 1973, he lost his fastball. It was a consequence of two things: too little work and too much breaking ball. All his life he had been a thrower. "I had no clue about a breaking ball," he says. When Gossage got to Chicago, though, pitching Coach Johnny Sain urged him to develop an effective slider. Gossage recalls Sain's telling him, "You can't throw the ball by hitters. You have to come up with some kind of breaking ball."
"How did I know any different?" Gossage says. "I was just happy to be in the big leagues. He had me believing it, too. Sain held to the theory that you can't throw the ball by a guy, because he never did. A great instructor on the breaking ball, but that's as far as it went. He had no knowledge of fastballs."
Gossage worked on the breaking ball constantly. And he found himself getting shelled when he got into games and tried to throw hard. "I'd lost my fastball," he says. "It was scary. I never got to the point where I didn't think I could regain it. I just couldn't figure out where it went to. It was the first time in my life I'd ever been without it. At that point, I didn't know anything about pitching. I'd always worked hard at throwing. Real hard. What people don't realize is that you have to work on your fastball as much as you work on your breaking ball. I know because I lost it. You lose movement and velocity. You lose everything."
These days Gossage throws what he calls a "slurve," a combination slider-curve. Set off against the fastball, his slurve is a nasty pitch. Sain taught it to him. If he lost his fastball developing it, Gossage says, it almost seems worth it now. Yet he often struggled during those first three years in Chicago: 1972, 7–1, 4.28 ERA, 80 innings; 1973, 0–4, 7.38 ERA, 50 innings, with a stretch in the minor leagues; 1974, 4–6, 4.15 ERA, 89 innings, with a spell in Appleton. Gossage needs steady work. In fact, says Cerone, Gossage is at his best when he's slightly tired, because then he tends to throw less with his arm and more with his whole body. He didn't get the work he needed in Chicago. "Not enough innings," he says. "Only 80! I was a long man."
He got his chance to really work in 1975 when Forster spent most of the year on the disabled list. Gossage became the stopper in the White Sox pen, putting in 142 innings and leading the league with those 26 saves. He may have felt the pen was purgatory in 1972, but no more. He relished the work. Tanner left the next year, and the new manager, Paul Richards, made him a starter in 1976. Gossage was 9–17, with a 3.94 ERA, and by year's end he longed for the pen again. "I don't know if I have the patience to be a starter," he says. "I almost went nuts waiting five days to pitch." Tanner went from Oakland to Pittsburgh after the 1976 season, and at the winter meetings that year, he got both Gossage and Forster in a trade for Richie Zisk and Silvio Martinez. Tanner called Gossage from the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. "You're back in the pen," Tanner told him.
"Great," Gossage said.
He had a superlative year with the Pirates, who even provided him with a bullpen companion—a real, live long-necked goose named Dr. K. It was a great year to have a great year, because the age of free agency had begun. "The timing was perfect," he says. "I'd have been crazy not to go on the free-agent market." Yankee owner George Steinbrenner signed him to a six-year contract that Gossage couldn't have dreamed of only two years before: $2,748,000 in all, with a $750,000 signing bonus and a $333,000 annual salary.
On the day he signed, he called his mother on Beacon Street from the Plaza Hotel in New York and said, "You should see this room I'm in! It's bigger than our whole house." One of the first things he did with his bonus was to buy her a larger place in Colorado Springs. Another thing he did was just as nice. He learned that the Maytag cabin, the one that was always off limits to him as a boy, was up for sale. So he bought that, too. "I never dreamed I'd own that place," he says. Finally, he bought a 30-acre piece of land on Pope's Bluff, the place he plans to build the house.
For Gossage, it wasn't easy being a Yankee in the first part of the 1978 season. Sparky Lyle had won the Cy Young Award in the American League the year before, and here came Gossage to share the pen with him. Gossage and Lyle got on well, but fans cursed Gossage and chanted, "We want Lyle! We want Lyle!" The pressures squeezed him. For the first five weeks of the season, he struggled. "I couldn't get anybody out," he says. "I mean, I was giving up ropes."
Gossage had shared the relief chores in Pittsburgh with Kent Tekulve, who says that he learned one important thing from Gossage: "It was mental. Be laid back. Go with the flow. You're going to get your brains knocked out once in a while, but you just have to come back and throw again. He's the kind of guy who could leave the park when the game was over and go out for a couple of beers, and sitting there at the bar, you couldn't tell whether he'd won or lost. It was like he was always on an even keel."
That saved Gossage in New York. But he had help from Munson, for one, and Centerfielder Mickey Rivers, for another. Gossage had known and liked Munson for years. When he had been with the White Sox, he had thrown against the Yankees in the first game of a double-header and accidentally hit Munson in the elbow with a pitch. Munson went to the hospital for X rays, which were negative. Before the second game began, a bat boy gave Gossage a handwritten note. It said, "I took your best——shot!" It was signed "The White Gorilla."
Gossage and Munson became close friends thereafter, and early in 1978, on one of those occasions when Gossage was getting shelled, Munson came to the mound. Gossage hates catchers coming to the mound, and he asked Munson what the hell he wanted. Says Gossage, "He looked at me goofy—you know the goofy look he had—and he said, 'Are you——trying?' I said, 'Yeah I'm——trying!' He said, 'You ain't——trying.' We're standing out there arguing."
But no one made Gossage laugh like Rivers. Hitters had been driving fastball after fastball to centerfield warning tracks during several of Gossage's most recent appearances, with Rivers chasing here and there to catch them, and one day Munson came to the mound and said, "Check out Rivers."
Gossage turned to centerfield, and there was Rivers crouched, facing the centerfield wall, in a running back's standard three-point stance, as if ready for the next rope. He was looking back over his shoulder at the pitcher. "I saw that and it took me about five minutes to get control of myself again," Gossage says.
And then there was the day, in the midst of all this, when Gossage got the call to come in during a close game against Boston at Yankee Stadium. He got into the car in the Yankee bullpen in left centerfield. When the bullpen door opened, Gossage heard a splat. Rivers was sprawled on the hood of the car, feigning anguish and tears.
"No! No!" Rivers cried. "Please don't bring him in! Please! We wanna win! We don't wanna lose!" Gossage howled at him, "Get your ass off of there!" Rivers said, "No! We don't wanna lose!" Gossage promised to send a line drive Rivers' way. "Just get ready to chase the mother down!" Gossage said. Sure enough, on the first pitch the hitter crushed a drive to center. Gossage spun around. "Get on your horse, Mick!" he yelled. Rivers caught it on the run at the track. "I was laughing out loud," Gossage says.
Gossage came around, of course, in time to help the Yankees catch Boston in the frantic race through September. Then he popped up Yaz and beat the Royals and drove the Dodgers to despair. Soon after, he was sitting by Ptarmigan Lake with Kison, trying to picture and hear it again. All he could see was the reflection of the mountains in the lake, and all he could hear was the wind.