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Original Issue

They were playing his song

A lengthy anthem helped turn San Diego's Tim Lollar into an ace lefty

Tim Lollar, the San Diego Padres' 26-year-old smash hit of a lefthander, muddled through last season with a 2-8 record and an ERA that looked like a Richter scale reading on a bad day along the San Andreas Fault. This season he has become San Diego's stopper with, at week's end, two shutouts, a 4-0 record and a 2.57 ERA, not to mention a .348 batting average. Lollar credits his improvement on the mound to neither a new pitch nor a bullpen guru's ministrations, but to the tonic powers of a song that has been on the charts for almost 170 years. Gloria al Bravo Pueblo, the Venezuelan national anthem, is a long, martial-sounding tune Lollar got to know well—too well, for his taste—while pitching for Barquisimeto of the Venezuelan Winter League last year.

"I'd go out and warm up and then they'd play the anthem," he says. "It would last five minutes and I'd have to warm up again. So in effect I'd have pitched two innings before the game even started. One day I was in a bad mood—it was one of those days where you wake up at 5 a.m. and can't go back to sleep—and I'd had a couple of bad games in a row. Usually the whole team goes out onto the field for the anthem. Well, I told our pitching coach that I'd stay in the dugout."

That didn't sit well with Vern Benson, the St. Louis scout who was managing the club, and he ordered Lollar to the mound. Lollar protested that his arm would only stiffen up if he had to stand out there on the field without his jacket on and that he'd rather stay put. Benson said Lollar had star-spangled better be on the field for the anthem—or he wouldn't pitch. "I gave him my two cents' worth and went out and warmed up," Lollar says. "Then they played the anthem, and my arm stiffened. During the game I tried to squeeze the stuffing out of the ball with each pitch, I was so mad. Afterward I was still steaming."

But his anger over the anthem, the first two lines of which exalt those who throw off the yoke, had uncollared Lollar's hard stuff—and vindicated Benson's calculated goading. "I just went out there and threw strikes," Lollar says. "I took the ball and said to the hitters, 'Hit it or sit down.' I'm not a 'location' pitcher who uses a paintbrush."

Lollar kept pitching well in spring training and was voted the most improved player in the Padres' camp. "He's much more aggressive with his fastball and slider this year," says Catcher Terry Kennedy. "He's challenging the hitters, not nibbling and missing. He's giving them his best stuff."

He's also challenging pitchers. An All-America designated hitter at the University of Arkansas, Lollar hit two home runs in April and through Sunday had gone a robust eight-for-23. Says San Diego Shortstop Garry Templeton, "The man's an athlete, and a good athlete is going to be able to hit regardless." Adds Reliever Eric Show, who was a physics major at the University of California at Riverside, "It comes down to whether you can perceive a sphere coming through space at a certain velocity. Tim can."

Lollar's first major league hit, on April 28, 1981, struck the facing of the second deck in Riverfront Stadium for a home run. The pitch? A Tom Seaver fastball. And this year he has pulled a low-and-inside Phil Niekro knuckleball for a homer; hit a high-and-tight fastball past Steve Carlton into centerfield to knock in a run in a 6-0, four-hit shutout of the Phillies; and, in another complete-game win, a five-hit shutout of the Mets, he got an RBI on a groundout after New York Pitcher Charlie Puleo had walked the Padres' No. 8 hitter intentionally. As if he hadn't driven home a point with that RBI, Lollar homered off Puleo his next time up. "I just go up there and look for the Number One [the fastball]," Lollar says. "I swing hard and hope I hit it, and I swing early, before the pitcher has a chance to strike me out. When you only get up every five days, you can't cheat yourself on hacks."

Lollar was a good-sized, at his present 6'3" and 195 pounds, and successful pitcher by the end of his sophomore year at Mineral Area College, a juco near his home in Farmington, Mo. (He's no relation to Sherm Lollar, the former major league catcher who also lived in Missouri.) But it took a chance encounter for Arkansas Coach Norm DeBriyn to hear of him. DeBriyn complimented a pitcher who had just thrown a tight game for John Brown University against the Hogs. "If you think I'm good, there's someone at my old J.C. who's much better," the pitcher said. "His name is Tim Lollar." Lollar enrolled at Arkansas after DeBriyn pursued the tip, but he hit only .273 and threw just one complete game his junior year while pitching, playing first base and being a DH.

When Cleveland didn't get around to choosing him until the fifth round of the June 1977 draft, Lollar returned to Fayetteville for his senior year. Sticking to pitching and DH-ing, he led the Southwest Conference in hitting, with a .409 average, and went 9-3 with a 1.95 ERA. "He's one of the few people who could win in this conference on just one pitch," DeBriyn says. "That's the kind of fastball he has."

The Yankees made him a fourth-round pick in '78 and sent him to their Double-A farm in West Haven, Conn., telling him he could choose between pitching and first base whenever he felt ready. Midway through the 1979 season, again at West Haven, Lollar made up his mind. "It was obvious to me that he was a pitcher, even if he didn't know it," says Padre lefthander Chris Welsh, who, like Lollar and LaMarr Hoyt (page 26) came up through the Yankee system. "He threw the stink out of the ball. He was a pitcher who could hit, not a hitter who could pitch."

Lollar says, "It's hard enough to make the big leagues as one or the other, and you reach a point where ability can take you only so far. I'd looked at the organization and seen there weren't many left-handed relievers. Then, after the '79 season, they got Tom Underwood and Rudy May, both lefties, and I thought, 'What a dope I am for trying to backdoor my way into the big leagues.' "

The Yankees may already have made their decision on Lollar before he had made his to concentrate on pitching. Toward the end of spring training in 1979, with New York's play sour and George Steinbrenner's demeanor dour, the Yankees hit Florida's Gulf Coast—Steinbrenner's backyard—for several exhibition games. Goose Gossage and Thurman Munson took Lollar and two other greenhorns out for a night on the town. On their return, they figured the security guards on each floor of the Steinbrenner-owned Bay Harbor Inn were there to protect Yankees from adoring fans. In fact, the rent-a-cops were taking down times and room numbers. Two days later, Manager Bob Lemon fined all five and shipped the three rookies to the minors. "I guess I was going to be sent down anyway," Lollar says. "But I asked Bob if our staying out was the real reason. He said yes."

Though he got a big-league start on the last day of the 1980 season, beating the Tigers 2-1 on two hits over six innings, matters took another unfortunate turn that winter. "It was strange," he says. "The year before George didn't let any of his pitchers play winter ball unless they'd been hurt. But from October '80 to January '81 [Pitching Coach] Stan Williams managed a club in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Of the six of us that went, none is with the Yankees."

Lollar believes the winter league team was just a showcase where marketable Yankee prospects could run up stats that would increase their trade value. Indeed, the following spring, Lollar hardly pitched at all. "They couldn't use me," he says. "If I did well for them, how could they justify trading me? And if I did poorly, my value on the market would decrease. Williams told me he'd pencil my name in for the 'A' games and would get overruled from upstairs." Before camp had ended, Lollar was gone to San Diego with Welsh, Joe Lefebvre and Ruppert Jones for Jerry Mumphrey and John Pacella.

Last season's Padres seemed less a team than a collection of individuals. But Dick Williams, San Diego's Padrefamilias, has changed all that. He benched starters Sixto Lezcano and Broderick Perkins in spring training when they dogged it on groundouts, and pulled rookie Outfielder Alan Wiggins during a game earlier this month when he missed a take sign. A comprehensive plus-and-minus point system, kept on charts posted in the clubhouse, notes how often each player does such things as advancing a runner from second to third with less than two out or failing to sacrifice when called upon. On this year's Padres, Lollar's 4-0 record isn't as significant as the team's 8-1 mark in games he has started. "Obviously I want to have a good record," Lollar said last week after leaving with a 3-1 lead in the sixth inning of a 5-4, 10-inning defeat of St. Louis that ran San Diego's record to 19-16, good for a surprising second in the National League West. "But it means just as much for the team to get to win. The team concept is what they're trying to instill here."

Until he started moving into a new condominium last Friday, Lollar seemed to be living in his locker, sharing it with, among other things, a few tins of Skoal, a Padre-yellow spittoon, a Lou Holtz doll, a bottle of red wine and a cartoon depicting a shotgun-wielding fireman addressing a middle-aged woman at her front door. The caption: "We got your cat out of the tree, lady." Actually, Welsh and his new wife, Deborah, had been keeping a bedroom for Lollar at their condo. Lollar plans to hold an open condo soon, tapping a keg of beer for everyone who drops by. As they say to pitchers who hit: Help yourself.