Skip to main content
Original Issue


In a career riddled by injuries, pitcher John Tudor has survived and thrived on guts and guile. But his fast start this year for St. Louis, he says, may be only an illusion

John Tudor sat in a chair near his locker in Busch Stadium, his head tilted slightly, his face expressionless as he observed the morning rush in the St. Louis Cardinals' clubhouse. It was the morning after his remarkable 1990 comeback had taken a troubling four-out, five-run beating at the hands of the San Diego Padres. Tudor, a 36-year-old lefthander, had started the season 4-0 and seemed fully recovered from surgery on his pitching shoulder, his elbow and his knee. But in 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings on May 9, Tudor was thrashed by the Padres for two singles, four doubles and a homer before St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog mercifully came to the mound and took the ball away. Arriving in the clubhouse, the frustrated Tudor had thrown his glove, shoes, socks, T-shirt and underwear into the trash ("Not my uniform—it doesn't belong to me").

The next morning the glove was back in Tudor's locker, retrieved by the clubhouse kids, but the sting of the beating had not subsided. "I don't know what to do," he said. "I can't remember the last time I was hit like that, and I don't want to go through that again. The crowd cheered when Whitey came to get me. I can't remember that happening before. If this were four years ago, it would be one thing. But it isn't. My mind is searching for answers, but it keeps coming back to that 78-mile-an-hour fastball. I always said the hitters would tell me when I'm done, and last night the hitters said something to me. I've got to figure out what that something is."

"You threw O.K., you felt O.K., you're 4-1, you'll be O.K.," Herzog said to Tudor when he arrived that morning. True enough, the numbers next to his name in the papers read 4-1, 3.12, not bad for a starter on an 11-16 team. Tudor was the National League's Pitcher of the Month for April, not bad for a guy who, before the season started, had pitched only 14‚Öì innings since blowing out his left elbow in the third game of the 1988 World Series and subsequently undergoing elbow, knee and shoulder surgery.

So it has been for most of Tudor's 12-year career. He has scratched out an impressive .612 lifetime winning percentage—not bad for a pitcher who has suffered through 15 years of intermittent arm ailments. He has earned enormous respect from his peers, who deem him among the game's craftiest pitchers—not bad for a player who has long carried a reputation as one of the game's most churlish personalities.

Not bad, but no comfort now. "Realistically and objectively, I only pitched well in one of those four wins," said Tudor from his clubhouse chair. "My velocity steadily dropped. I topped out at 73 in my previous start. My changeup is getting faster, which is a bad sign, because it means my shoulder isn't allowing the proper deceleration. It was as if I was getting by on reputation. I haven't been able to get the ball inside, so I don't have anything to keep hitters from diving on me. I haven't thrown a slider all season. I'm not getting the proper extension at the end of my delivery, so not only am I not getting the pop on my fastball, but I don't have my control.

"I had felt good, positive in the winter and in spring training. But I've never had to pitch like this before. I feel like Tommy John at the end—I have to be perfect. I don't have any of my old natural movement on the ball. People suggest scuffing balls, but I won't. I don't want anyone saying, 'Oh, that's how he did it.' Sure, my arm is bothering me, but it's hurt all these years, ever since I hurt it in college 15 years ago. I don't know what to do. Sure, I've thought about retiring. I'll talk to Whitey and [pitching coach] Mike Roarke, but they'll want me to keep going. I think I'm realistic, and I have all these doubts storming inside me, and they all revolve around that 78-mile-an-hour fastball."

Tudor calls himself a stoic. Others regard him as the prototypical New Englander, defined by writer Roger Angell as one who "lives in a Calvinistic cloud of self-doubt." Tudor's longtime teammate and friend Ricky Horton calls him "a living monument to cynicism." In other words: Can things really be as bad as Tudor says they are?

"He sure looked like he was pitching well to me," says Horton of Tudor's 4-0 start. Don Zimmer, Tudor's first major league manager, in Boston, who is now the skipper of the Chicago Cubs, watched parts of Tudor's win over Pittsburgh on April 23 and said, "Vintage Tudor. I love watching that man as much as any pitcher I've seen in all my years."

But there's no convincing Tudor that all is well. "I know myself, and I pitched well once," he says. "I made do with what I had, which wasn't much." Before he pitched on May 4, he consoled Bob Tewksbury, who had just been sent to the minors. "You might be back in a couple of days—replacing me," said Tudor.

Both Herzog and Roarke find it hard to know how seriously to take Tudor's concern. "I stopped listening to him worry years ago," says Herzog. "In spring training I was asked if I was worried about anything, and I replied, 'I'm concerned because Tudor says he feels good.' " Herzog laughs when he tells that one, but he is also realistic. He is aware that after Tudor's last round of operations, while Tudor was with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Dr. Frank Jobe told the pitcher that his shoulder was "held together by a string."

Still, Herzog remains hopeful and says, "Our doctors gave me a positive report on John, so I hope he's all right. He's been a great pitcher. There's never been a game that I managed and John Tudor started that I didn't think we were going to win. Not many managers have said that about many pitchers."

Tudor's 109-69 lifetime record isn't Cooperstown material, but it's pretty good for a guy who showed so little talent in high school that he was once cut from the team. And it's no wonder that Herzog loves him. Check the Cardinals' media guide and at the top of the lists, ahead of Bob Gibson, Dizzy Dean and Grover Cleveland Alexander, you'll find that Tudor is St. Louis's alltime leader in winning percentage (.694 for St. Louis from 1985 to '88) and earned run average (2.54). His 20-1 finish in '85 and his gutsy Game 6 victory over the Giants in the '87 National League playoff's will be forever remembered by Cardinals fans.

When Tudor was with the Red Sox (1979-83), he threw close to 90 mph and was 23-13 in Fenway Park because he was willing to throw his fastball inside to right-handed hitters. Says Herzog, "He learned to pitch in Fenway, which is one reason he knows how to pitch so well. He uses both sides of the plate, and he's uncanny at knowing what a hitter wants to do." By the time he joined the Cardinals, Tudor's fastball was in the 85 mph range, but he had come up with what Herzog calls "one of the great changeups in the history of the game." Says Dodger scout Jerry Stephenson, "No modern pitcher has made good hitters look worse."

"What makes Tudor so tough is that first you see the ball in his hand, then you lose it in his uniform," the now-retired Mike Schmidt said two years ago when he was still with the Philadelphia Phillies. "And his delivery is exactly the same on every pitch. I don't know how he can have such a perfect fastball delivery and throw the ball 25 miles an hour slower. How many times a game do you see a batter swing at what he thinks is a fastball away, only to be halfway into the swing and realize that it's a changeup that's not due to arrive for a few more minutes?"

Boston catcher Tony Pena has caught Tudor and has hit against him. "Not only does he mess up your timing, but he has the greatest control of anyone I've ever seen," says Pena. "It's like he uses a paintbrush to tickle the outside corner, but the hitter can't lean out because he uses his fastball inside so well. Then, as the game goes along, hitters start to believe that every pitch away is a strike, so they swing. By the end of the game, they'll swing at pitches six or eight inches outside. Fastball away? He'll come in. In? He'll throw a changeup away. He just seems to know what a hitter's thinking. I'll tell you, he's the smartest pitcher I've ever seen."

But Tudor has never been the easiest personality to deal with. Says Pena, "John is a very demanding person, most of all on himself, but on others, too. Sometimes people can't understand that." Says Zimmer, "He's not the easiest person to know right away." ("That's an understatement," said Tudor's wife, Gail, when apprised of Zimmer's comment.) Tudor's close friend and former Red Sox teammate Glenn Hoffman, aware that Tudor played hockey at Peabody (Mass.) High, says, "John has a hockey mentality—come too close to him or challenge him, and instinctively the stick goes up."

During his time in Boston, Tudor would sometimes tilt his head in post-game interviews, look the interrogator in the eye and say, "That's a dumb question." Tudor's magnificent 1985 season in St. Louis ended in a series of ugly confrontations with the media. After pitching a shutout in Game 5 of that year's Series, Tudor called one writer "a schmo" and responded to another's query by saying, "That will go down as one of my alltime questions." When he was removed from Game 7 in the third inning, a number of press people stood and applauded.

But Tudor has shown another side in his media dealings. In 1983, when a female sportswriter was subjected to chauvinistic taunts in the Boston clubhouse, it was Tudor who stood up to some veteran stars and said, "Not only are you denying her the right to do her job, you're embarrassing us as a team." Then when Dodger second baseman Steve Sax yelled at a writer during the '88 Series, Tudor convinced Sax that his action had been unfair, and Sax immediately apologized to the writer.

Tudor's confrontations are less a reflection of any inherent antagonism than of his natural guardedness. "I don't enjoy talking about myself," he says. "I'm not a spotlight person, I'm not a me person." In that way, he takes after his father, Melton, who in 1985 declined local TV stations' requests for interviews and who has never been to Fenway Park, 16 miles from his house, even though his son pitched there. Says Tudor of his father, "It isn't that he's disinterested. He watches the games on television. But he isn't the type of parent who is living out his life through me. He is who he is, and he's happy being that person, as he should be."

When John was growing up it probably never occurred to Melton, an engineer, that his son would ever set foot on the mound at Fenway. After an unimpressive high school career, John made the college team at Georgia Southern, but barely—he was the Eagles' fifth starter. "I knew my time could be short," Tudor says. "Then I hurt my arm my last year there [1975]. Ever since, it's been 15 years of pain: sleeping, sitting in movies, driving long distances."

But as a lefthander, and one who could throw 90 mph, Tudor persevered, working his way up through the Boston organization after being drafted in the secondary phase of the 1976 free-agent draft. But the arm continued to hurt. After his third start for the Red Sox in '79, he says, "My shoulder was such a mess that when I went to warm up for my next start, I couldn't get loose."

Burdened by injuries, he was labeled by some in the Red Sox organization as "gutless." Zimmer says that charge "is obviously the exact opposite of the truth." When Tudor went out to pitch the seventh game of the 1985 World Series, he had already thrown 303 innings. The day before the game he had said, "I know I'll pay the price forever. But I also may only be here once in my life. It's worth whatever price I have to pay." His shoulder didn't make it through the third inning. "He'd try to throw pitches right down the middle, and they'd be a foot out of the strike zone," recalls Roarke. "When that happens to a pitcher with perfect control, you know the arm just gave out."

In September 1986, Tudor's shoulder gave out again. In '87, he won two of his first three starts, but during a game on Easter Sunday, New York Mets catcher Barry Lyons fell into the St. Louis dugout in pursuit of a pop foul. Tudor tried to help break Lyons's fall and broke a bone below his right knee. In January of '88 he underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery. When one writer found out about the surgery, Tudor made him promise not to tell others in the media. "If I stink, I don't want some medical excuse," he said. "If I stink, it's my fault. When a team gives you a long-term deal [he signed a three-year, $3.3 million deal with the Cardinals in '86], it has a right to ask you to go out there and not complain. They took a chance. So should I."

In August 1988, when he was traded to the Dodgers, the shoulder was again causing him pain. In Game 3 of the World Series against the A's, Tudor pitched a 1-2-3 first inning and then went to the clubhouse and asked Dr. Jobe for a cortisone shot to kill the pain. Jobe refused. Tudor went back out, struck out Mark McGwire, kicked the dirt and walked off the field. "He got the strikeout, then walked off," marvels Horton. On Oct. 27, Jobe performed three operations on Tudor: He removed bone screws from his knee, cleaned out his shoulder and transferred a ligament from his right forearm to his left elbow. Says Tudor, "I knew the elbow wouldn't be any problem. But the shoulder always would be."

"The trouble with John Tudor is that he has learned to pitch with so much pain that he has too high a tolerance for it," says Dr. Arthur Pappas, who performed Tudor's 1988 shoulder surgery. "He complains about it, but that's a defense mechanism that lets him into a game with nothing psychologically to lose. But he goes in with a scary pain threshold."

One day last week Tudor talked with Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser, who recently had shoulder surgery and is out for the season. "I guess there's a camaraderie among us because of what we know we go through," says Tudor. "I just wish that new procedure that was used on Orel [one that is much less damaging to the musculature of the shoulder] was around three or four years ago. I wouldn't feel like this. Don't get me wrong. I don't want sympathy. A lot of people go through life with a lot more pain than I do. And I get reimbursed pretty handsomely to put up with what I put up with."

Tudor signed with the Cardinals as a free agent in December "because I thought I could still pitch." It wasn't for the money; Tudor has salted away most of his earnings, and when he signed his contract in 1986, he told his agent, Steve Freyer, "If I can't live the rest of my life on $3 million, I don't deserve a penny." This time around, the Cardinals gave him $100,000 to sign and a $250,000 base. He has earned an additional $100,000 for his starts thus far in 1990, and he could earn another $950,000 if he makes 30 starts and wins Comeback Player of the Year. But, says Tudor, "if I can't help this team, I'm not afraid of saying so and retiring."

The life Tudor would retire to in Massachusetts is a simple one. "John's life is the opposite of ostentatious," says Gail. Says Tudor, "With a few exceptions, my friends are the same ones I had in high school."

"He's the most respected local athletic hero I've ever seen," says Salem (Mass.) Evening News sports editor Bill Kipouras. "He'll do anything and go anywhere for the people in Peabody—Little League banquets, clinics, anything. He doesn't do big things, just little things for the people who knew him when he was coming up." Tudor took some of his 1988 World Series share and spread it among North Shore Community College, Georgia Southern and Peabody's Little League and Babe Ruth League. When Kipouras reported this generosity, Tudor was miffed. "That's private," Tudor said. Last year, John and Gail were married in Lynnfield, near Pea-body. "John's wedding was like This Is Your Life," says Kipouras. "There were a few players, but no celebrities. Most of the guests were former Little League teammates and coaches and high school friends. He never forgets anything, most of all where he comes from and who he is."

What Tudor does not know now is whether he is still an effective major league pitcher. If he is, he will add a few more hard-earned credits to his unlikely career. If he isn't, he will quickly leave it behind. "I am very happy in my own world," he says. "I am not happy being paid to take a beating. I'm not vain, but I am proud, and there's no amount of money that could get me to sell my pride."



With a left shoulder that has hurt for 15 years, Tudor wonders which start might be his last.



After a freak accident in the St. Louis dugout in '87, Tudor was laid up with a broken knee.



Tudor pitched well for the Red Sox, but he made few friends among the Boston media.



In the '88 World Series with the Dodgers, pain in his elbow forced Tudor to leave Game 3.



Tudor won his first four starts with the Cardinals this season...



...but last week's disaster has raised old worries anew.