Unlike Don Larsen, who closed the Copacabana while celebrating a similar accomplishment, California Angel righthander Mike Witt had to rush a rental car back to the airport after his perfect game against Texas on the final day of the 1984 season. Witt then hurried onto a team flight, drank champagne from a plastic cup and was home in bed by 10:30. That's p.m., not a.m.
Witt did appear the next day on Good Morning America and sometime later on The Jeffersons. When Louise Jefferson wandered into the Angels' dressing room, Witt, playing himself, coolly remarked. "What's the matter, lady? Haven't you ever seen a naked man before?"
But it seems Mrs. Jefferson may have been the only one who took notice of Witt in the off-season. His fabulous feat, only the 13th perfect game in major league history, was swallowed by the playoffs and World Series. Witt, who is 6'7", has carried anonymity to new heights, conducting one winter baseball clinic at which no fans showed up. He pitches in his hometown and still attracts no attention when he goes shopping. "I just don't have a recognizable face, which is fine with me," he says.
"To tell the truth," Witt admits, "I'm glad the perfect game happened on the last day of the season. I won't say I don't handle that type of thing well, I just don't like doing it."
" 'Hello' is a speech for him," Angel manager Gene Mauch once said, "but I think there's some deep water there. I say 'think' because I don't know for sure." Mauch now says, "He's not extroverted, but he's damn confident talking about baseball because he has an understanding of it he didn't have before."
Last season, Witt parlayed this understanding and his right arm into a 15-11 record, a 3.47 ERA and 196 strikeouts, just eight fewer than league leader Mark Langston of Seattle had. This winter the Angels rewarded Witt with a three-year contract worth a guaranteed $2.15 million. On Opening Day, coming off both his perfect game and that big new contract, he kept the Twins in check through seven innings, only to give up a three-run homer to his close friend Tom Brunansky in a 6-2 Angels loss. On Sunday he lost again, 8-1 in Oakland, pitching better than the score might indicate. The Fates were as cruel the first week of this season as they were kind the last day of '84.
Witt's talent belies his 38-42 career record. He can throw a fastball 93 mph, but it's his curve that gives baseball people pause. Witt's teammate Reggie Jackson, the noted automotive expert, calls it a Mercedes-Bends. "It's the top of the line," Jackson says.
Shortly before Witt began his Little League career at age 9, an older brother, Adrian, revealed the secrets of the curve on a neighborhood diamond in Buena Park, Calif. That first day Mike broke off some sizable curves but thought nothing of it. "It came so easily that I just thought that was the way it was supposed to go," he says.
Witt was picked by the Angels in the fourth round of the June 1978 draft. He was 14-0 and the state's Class 4A Player of the Year at Servite High, which Witt, using standard California units of distance, says is "15 minutes" from Anaheim Stadium.
The Angels were no doubt also impressed by Witt's toughness, a quality not often found in a 195-pound stick with a mop of curls on top. He has been known to throw close to hitters during batting practice. Brunansky remembers Witt as a bad hombre in high school when Servite met West Covina in the playoffs. Brunansky, who had homered off a different pitcher in his first at bat, came to the plate in the bottom of the seventh with Servite ahead 4-3. "He buzzed a fastball at my head," Brunansky says, still amazed. "You never see that stuff in high school." Brunansky, too, was drafted by the Angels, and he and Witt were minor league roommates.
Witt reached the majors in 1981 with fewer than 70 games of professional experience. He did well his first two seasons but fell apart in 1983, when he was 7-14 with a 4.91 ERA. "Witt just doesn't retain anything I teach him," said frustrated pitching coach Tom Morgan, who retired after the '83 season.
"That's partially true," Witt says of Morgan's statement. "He wanted me to do well but he wanted me to go about it in a different way than I could. It was his way or no way."
At the end of the '83 season, manager John McNamara and Marcel Lachemann, Morgan's successor as pitching coach, told Witt to go to winter ball and just throw strikes. Witt did so and won seven of eight decisions for La Guaira of the Venezuelan League. He also began seeing hypnotists Harvey Misel and Lee Fisher to aid his concentration. "My mind tended to wander in some games," he says. "I knew that's not a real good thing for pitching success."
Off the field Witt had made another important move, marrying Lisa Fenn in November 1983. Lisa worked in the Angels' marketing department, and the pair started dating in Milwaukee when California played the Brewers in the 1982 playoffs. The Witts are expecting their first child in August.
Witt isn't at all miffed that he received so little fanfare for his achievement. "I made a lot of mistakes in that game that they grounded out on or popped up," says the perfectionist. "I threw better games last year. From the sixth inning on, I made four or five, maybe even six mistakes."
Those mistakes don't show in the box scores or the record books. Lisa got excited one recent night when she found her husband's name in The World Almanac and Book of Facts.
But if Witt, like others, has trouble gauging the importance of his feat, Jackson doesn't. Nor should he, being the only living player to play for the winning side in two nine-inning perfect games—he was an A's teammate when Catfish Hunter pitched one in 1968. "A perfect game is the standard," Reggie says. "You grade them all from there."
Witt's curve may be a Mercedes-Bends, but friend Brunansky took it for a ride.