The Prime Of The Ancient Mariner - Sports Illustrated Vault |

Victory No. 300 was like so many others in his 20-year career: a mixture of guile and guts, the combination that will carry Gaylord Perry into the Hall of Fame. He gave up a home run, then got the next three outs on three pitches. He loaded the bases in the eighth, then got the cleanup hitter on an 0-2 fastball. He gave up nine hits, but breezed through a 1-2-3 ninth.

And when the game ended last Thursday night in the Seattle Kingdome—on Willie Randolph's grounder to second that produced the final out of a 7-3 Mariner victory over the Yankees—it didn't matter whether the historic pitch was loaded with perspiration, saliva, resin or K-Y jelly. It mattered only that Gaylord Jackson Perry had become one of just 15 pitchers in the 107-year history of major league baseball to get 300 wins. Seven of those pitchers did most of their winning before the turn of the century, about the time the infant Perry was caught with Vaseline on his rattle. Perry is the first pitcher since Early Wynn on July 13, 1963, to reach 300, and only Perry, Wynn and Warren Spahn have won 300 in the last 40 years.

At age 43 years and eight months, Perry is the oldest to win 300. Kid Nichols, 30, was the youngest, in 1900. It took Perry the most games—721, compared to three early pitchers who did it in fewer than 500 games. And having worn seven different uniforms, five since 1979, Perry is also the most traveled. But he didn't get to the summit of Three Hundred Mountain and quit. He has his eye on another peak. With 3,368 strikeouts, he's 140 behind Walter Johnson's record.

To best appreciate the grandeur of Three Hundred Mountain, one must consider who hasn't or likely won't climb it. Among current pitchers, only Steve Carlton, with 265 wins at week's end, and Tom Seaver, with 260, have good shots, and they're both 37. One who probably won't make it, Ferguson Jenkins, 266, sent Perry a telegram that said CONGRATULATIONS, YOU OLD GOAT.

While clearly it takes more than good stuff, good control and good teams behind you to climb Three Hundred Mountain, Perry offered only the standard explanations: He stays in shape, he's blessed with a strong arm, he thinks positively, etc. "Tenacity!" says his wife, Blanche. "That's what he has." His daughter, Amy, may have it figured out best. "He just wants to be king of the hill all the time," she says.

A mere 27,369 fans were in the 59,438-seat Kingdome to witness Perry's historic victory. Two games later the Mariners drew 36,716 for Funny Nose Glasses Night. But then Perry has never asked for the spotlight, and, obligingly, baseball has never turned it on him, unless it was to undress him on the mound or examine the baseball for foreign substances. He had to sell himself this season to get a chance to pitch, as he did last year with the Atlanta Braves. He's giving good value. At week's end Perry had a 3-2 record, three complete games (he was one out short of another), 32 strikeouts (tied for third in the American League) and a 3.59 ERA.

It was on Oct. 5, 1981 that Atlanta handed Perry his release. With an 8-9 record and a 3.93 ERA, he was a mediocre pitcher on a mediocre team, but, understandably. Perry believed he deserved a shot at the three victories he needed to reach 300. Atlanta thought otherwise, and Perry and his agent, Alan Hendricks of Houston, began making phone calls. Blanche began to worry. "We had been through this whole thing before," she says. "I'd think, 'Where's your pride?' " Perry's pride was in his arm, which was still strong, and his will, which is beyond strong.

But after 40, even players who take care of themselves, as Perry does, can go into a steep decline. Another strike against Perry was his reputation for being a needier of young players and a clubhouse lawyer.

One of the calls Perry made himself, in early February, was to Dan O'Brien, the Mariners' president and general manager, who was G.M. during Perry's first 2½ seasons with Texas. At first O'Brien kept the conversation to himself because Seattle was in the midst of a much-publicized "youth movement," and there was no room for an aging arm. Particularly on a pitcher who would probably say embarrassing things about the team's youthful defense.

"Let's not deny the fact that Perry would get us some attention," says O'Brien. "We're a long way from everywhere up here and, dammit, we need something. Plus, our biggest winner last year [Floyd Bannister] had only nine wins. I honestly thought Perry could help us."

After O'Brien and Hendricks reached a basic contract agreement in late February, O'Brien got the approval of owner George Argyros. Only then did O'Brien tell Manager Rene Lachemann. The reaction? "I'd say acceptance but not enthusiasm," says O'Brien.

Perry arrived at the Mariners' camp in Tempe, Ariz. on March 5, two full weeks after the other pitchers. Picking him up at the airport was Seattle's traveling secretary, Lee Pelekoudas, whose father, former National League Umpire Chris Pelekoudas, was the first to body-search Perry. "Now I can get even with his son," Perry told Lee.

He was supposedly there on a make-the-team-or-say-goodby basis, but there's every reason to believe O'Brien was determined to take him north, barring a complete collapse. "If it came down to him or somebody else," says O'Brien, "Gaylord would get the benefit of the doubt." Despite a nightmarish spring debut—Perry walked six in three innings in a 12-3 loss to the Cubs—there was no doubt. He threw superbly against the Angels and in a B game against Oakland, and he signed a Mariner contract. "Even if he was an unknown pitcher he would've made the club based on his performance," says O'Brien.

Perry's contract is unusual and certainly piddling for a player of his magnitude. His base salary is $50,000, with monthly increments that could earn him $200,000 if he pitches the entire season. But he's still on a month-to-month arrangement and living with the threat of release if he goes into a slump. "You've just got to wonder about the judgment of some baseball people, who literally shovel money at some guys and not at a proven performer like Gaylord," says Hendricks.

"He's been more than a model citizen," says Lachemann, who's six years Perry's junior. That first became evident to the manager when Perry uncomplainingly joined the Mariners' aerobics exercise program in spring training. "Gaylord's not a bad dancer, either," says Lachemann.

Nor was he a bad pitcher in his first two regular-season starts. Although he lost 5-3 to Oakland and 3-2 to California, he went the route in both games. Victory No. 298 and No. 1 as a Mariner came on April 20 when he fanned a club-record 13 in a 6-4 defeat of the Angels, with relief help from Mike Stanton. After a no-decision in his next start, Perry nailed No. 299 with a 6-3 win over the Yankees in New York, Reliever Bill Caudill getting the final out.

If Perry was tight in the days before last week's game, he didn't show it. On Wednesday afternoon he exchanged pleasantries with President Reagan, who telephoned during a press conference at the Dome. The two were old friends, Perry having done some gubernatorial campaigning for Reagan in 1970. (Richard Nixon also called the clubhouse with good wishes before the game.) Perry spent the early part of Thursday afternoon with Blanche and Amy at the Bellevue, Wash, hotel where he's been living, and they were at the ball park by 4 o'clock. "For some reason, my mother loves watching him warm up," said Amy. He did give them a show, though, by hitting a batting-practice home run. "Anybody can hit one out of here," said Perry. "That just shows what a tough place it is to pitch." Perry did his best to avoid interviews, but he was congenial enough when cornered at his locker stall, in which hangs a T shirt bearing the inscription 300 WINS IS NOTHING TO SPIT AT.

"He was so nice the entire day, my mother and I figured he'd get bombed," said Amy. But Perry's teammates were thinking positively. "This opportunity doesn't exactly come along once a season," said DH Richie Zisk before the game. "We'll be ready."

They were. The Mariners got Perry five runs in the third and two more in the seventh. Perry was in real trouble only in the eighth, when the Yanks loaded the bases with one away. Out came cleanup hitter John Mayberry, and down he went on three pitches, the last one a fastball. Catcher Bud Bulling hadn't called for that pitch, but Perry routinely shakes off 60 to 80 pitches a game. Two infield singles scored a pair of runs before Perry induced Roy Smalley to fly to left.

Once he got out of the eighth, Perry had clearly scaled the mountain. The fans chanted "Gay-lord! Gay-lord!" as he took the mound in the ninth, and even the old stoic admitted, "I got the chills." In the bullpen, Caudill considered leading his crew into the dugout to show Perry they had confidence in him. Up in the stands, Jim Perry—the other half of the combination that has won more games (515) than any other baseball brother act—proclaimed it was all over. Blanche was smiling confidently. On the mound, Gaylord Perry thought about the things Gaylord Perry always thinks about. "I just wanted to stay ahead of the hitters and not walk anybody. I didn't want their power to get up."

Rick Cerone lined softly back to the mound. Larry Milbourne popped out to second base. Randolph grounded to second. And that was it. Perry had his 300th win, and the 5-year-old Mariners had their 303rd. Perry raised a fist and punched the air. His teammates, some of whom hadn't been born when Perry signed his first pro contract, with the Giants' organization in 1958, mobbed him and led him toward the clubhouse and the Mariners' first official champagne squirt. Pitcher Larry Andersen, at most times a cutup, respectfully asked Perry to autograph a baseball for him. And then Perry reflected on his next goal. "Three-oh-one," he said.


After Perry doused New York 7-3 in the Kingdome last Thursday night, he was awash in celebratory champagne.


In No. 300, Perry was toughest when he had to be.


Blanche sent her hubby off with a wave.


After the game, Perry was surrounded by his teammates and engulfed by the cheers.