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Original Issue

Florida's Aflutter

Old knuckleballer Charlie Hough showed the new Marlins and their boisterous fans how to win on the first Opening Day in the Sunshine State

In the early 1960s, a young Baseball fanatic grows up in Hialeah, Fla., without a local major league team to root for. He realizes a dream when he's drafted out of high school as a third baseman by the Los Angeles Dodgers in '66. But once he's in the minors, it soon becomes apparent that he's not a good enough prospect at third, so he's converted to a pitcher. In '69, at the age of 21, he hurts his arm so severely that his only hope of continuing his career is to learn to throw a knuckleball. He finally sticks with the big league club in '73, and for the next 20 years he throws the knuckler for the Dodgers, the Texas Rangers and the Chicago White Sox.

Now, at 45, with 202 lifetime wins, 61 saves and a sagging body that aches every day, he returns to Florida. Not to retire, mind you, but to pitch in the first game for Florida's first major league team—in a stadium eight miles from where he grew up. And he's pitching against, of all teams, the Dodgers, who are managed by Tommy Lasorda, the first manager he had in professional ball.

What are the odds of this happening? Charlie Hough shakes his head. It's preposterous. "It can't happen," he says. "It can't happen."

It happened on Monday. Before a sellout crowd of 42,334, on a spectacular sunny day at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, the remarkable Hough threw the first pitch—a knuckleball, of course—in the history of the expansion Florida Marlins. Hough says he was the most excited person in the ballpark. He should have been.

His enthusiasm was shared by a sea of boisterous fans, all of whom seemingly were wearing teal-colored Marlin caps. Some novelty stands inside the park sold out of inaugural-game souvenirs "as soon as they let people in," said one vendor. "Man, they were like a bunch of sharks." The crowd greeted Marlin owner Wayne Huizenga with a standing ovation, and then a U.S. mail carrier delivered the first ball, which came from the Hall of Fame, to Joe DiMaggio, who made the ceremonial first pitch. When Hough delivered that first knuckler to Dodger shortstop Jose Offerman at 2:11 p.m., a fan behind the first base dugout held up a sign that read, simply, HISTORY.

With 40 members of his extended family in the stands, Hough struck out Offerman on three pitches and fanned the second hitter, Brett Butler, on four pitches. In the second inning, a two-run triple by Walt Weiss helped the Marlins to a 3-0 lead, and Florida was still on top, 4-3, when Hough left after six innings. "I ran out of gas," Hough said after the game. "I am old." But he got the "W" as the Marlins, who banged out 14 hits, pulled away to win 6-3, giving the franchise a 1-0 record. The Dodgers fell to 7,506-6,849.

When the Marlins signed Hough to a one-year contract, it was not so much with the expectation that he would win a lot of games as it was with the hope that he could work a ton of innings and bring a veteran's presence, including clubhouse humor and on-field professionalism, to a fledgling team. After 27 years in pro ball, Hough has seen most everything and always has an amusing tale to tell. "Some things strike me as funny, as strange," he says. "I'm one of those things."

He laughs in disbelief, and says, "I'm still playing because I hurt my arm once and couldn't play." Hough doesn't know how he injured his wing at Double A Albuquerque in '69, but he remembers the pain was so bad one night that he couldn't start his car with his right hand. "I couldn't throw a ball 30 feet," he says. "I took a [cortisone] shot. I took a few more shots. But I never stopped pitching. I'd rather pitch hurt than let someone else pitch."

He considered a switch to first base, but he couldn't play that position, either. Friends told him to quit. "I can't imagine what else I would have done—probably work at the racetrack," he says. "I was 21, no college, all I ever wanted to do was play baseball. I don't think IBM would have been after me."

So in '69, Hough started throwing that knuckleball. Dodger scout Goldie Holt taught him the pitch, and veteran knuckleballers Hoyt Wilhelm and Jim Brewer helped him refine it. The motion came easily to him; it was as effortless then as it is today. (Marlin hitting coach Doug Rader says Hough burns more calories reading than pitching.) "After 10 minutes, I knew I had it," Hough says. "I told Tommy Lasorda, 'I can do this.' Tommy said, 'You better do something.' "

Twenty-four years later, Hough can't explain why he has had success throwing the pitch while others haven't, and he is still surprised when a knuckler inexplicably darts in a ridiculous direction. "You're not in charge of what it does," he says, "you're only in charge of letting it go." So he has survived from hitter to hitter, always with the same theory: If a guy hits one knuckler 500 feet, throw the next one the same way; it will do something different, and the guy might swing and miss.

Even now, for an inning, a game, even a month of starts, he can be the most unhittable pitcher in baseball; but he can also be the most hittable. Paradoxically, he has been remarkably consistent despite the inconsistency of his goofy pitch. From 1982 to '89 only Jack Morris won more games, and no pitcher had a higher percentage of his team's wins. Through '92, Hough won 101 games before the All-Star break and 101 after it. He's one of 12 pitchers ever to have pitched in at least 20 games for 20 straight years. He's the only pitcher in history to work at least 375 games as a starter and 375 in relief.

Still, it has been hard for most managers to believe in him and his pitch. "They think of knuckleball pitchers," Hough says, "and they see the catcher running back to the screen." It took Dodger manager Walter Alston 3½ seasons before he trusted Hough enough to make him the bullpen closer in 1976. The next year Hough had 19 saves at the All-Star break, but he was booed unmercifully at Dodger Stadium—even when he warmed up in the bullpen. Twice Hough went into a game and pitched without warming up.

Why the fans hated him, he doesn't know for sure. Maybe it was that his unpredictable pitch made them so nervous; maybe it was that his many three-ball counts were so torturous. Whatever, he was sold to the Rangers during the 1980 season but rarely pitched for Texas that year or the next. Toward the end of the '81 season, Hough finally told Ranger manager Don Zimmer, "I'll cut my throat if I can't win 15 games for this team."

The next year he won 16 games, and then he won at least 14 in each of the ensuing six years. Nevertheless, there was always speculation that the next season would be the one when Hough's lumpy body would give out or his knuckler would stop knuckling. The Rangers let him go after the 1990 season, but he made 56 starts and won 16 games over the next two years while pitching for the White Sox, who did not re-sign him after last season.

One person who stuck by him was Rader, who was Hough's manager in Texas from 1983 to May 1985. "Even back then I thought one day he would go into his windup and...vapor lock" Rader says, laughing. "I thought we'd have to carry him off. That would be the end of Charlie." But Rader recognized a competitiveness in Hough and an athleticism that belies that lumpy body.

These days Hough is pitching with a bad right knee and a bone spur on his left heel that hurts every time he lands on it. His body is perpetually sore. "But I've felt this way for the last 20 years," he says. Hough hardly ever runs, but he does ride the exercise bike. "Not every day; I'm no sicko," he says. "And when I do ride, it's not impressive." Ranger pitcher Nolan Ryan, 46, is a sicko on the exercise bike, and his workouts are grueling. Yet Hough and his funky 65-mph pitch might outlast Ryan, the greatest power pitcher of his era, who is retiring at the end of the year.

"To me, it's funny," Hough says. "Nolan was supposed to be good. Not me. He came out of high school throwing bullets. I don't want to call him a great athlete—Nolan is kind of a clod—but Nolan is a lot like me because he loves being on the mound. We do whatever we have to do to get on the mound."

But it is off the mound where Hough may prove to be most valuable to the Marlins; his self-deprecating humor will keep them laughing even in bad times, and there will be many of those this year. Hough hadn't batted in a major league game since 1980, but this spring he hit a double and even slid into second. "You should have seen that," he says. "It was like a one-car crash in slow motion. I had to think about how to slide."

Hough is a comfortable fit on a team that's filled with nutty characters. Weak-hitting Chuck Carr, who claims he can steal 100 bases this season and play centerfield as well as Pittsburgh Pirate Gold Glove winner Andy Van Slyke, does back-flips and is an accomplished break dancer. Pitcher Bob McClure, 39, wrote a book in 1991 called Rotting: The Craze of the '90s (64 pages, Vantage Press). "It's about doing nothing," McClure explains, "looking like you're doing nothing, but not feeling guilty about it." Reserve shortstop Alex Arias rubs a red-haired "voodoo" Troll Doll because he thinks it will help him get a hit. Leftfielder Jeff Conine says he wants to be dropped into the Great Barrier Reef during a shark feeding frenzy.

Then there's infielder Rich Renteria, who's in his 14th pro season but has only one year of major league service. He was hit in the face by a line drive at the start of the 1990 season, and now three screws and a wire hold his cheekbones together, and his jaw has been rebuilt. He can't chew gum because it makes the joints in his face sore. After missing all of the '90 season, Renteria almost retired the following year because he was flinching whenever he heard the crack of a bat. He wound up playing most of the last two years in Mexico, and though he was signed to a minor league contract by the Marlins this spring, he earned a spot on the Opening Day roster. "It's a miracle," he says. "I prayed a lot."

The Marlins may be loaded with personalities, but they're not blessed with an abundance of talented players—and they may need a few more miracles before the season's over. Hough, Luis Aquino and Cris Carpenter are the only pitchers with career winning records. Jack Armstrong, the No. 2 starter, was 11-3 in the first half of 1990, and 14-34 since. Ryan Bowen, the No. 4 starter, was 0-7 with a 10.96 ERA last year with Houston. The lineup won't score many runs. (However, the defense and the bullpen are decent.)

Having sold 20,000 season tickets, the Marlins can expect their fans to be tolerant at the outset. "Everywhere we went in spring training," says general manager Dave Dombrowski, "people were wearing Marlin caps." In part to lure the large Latin population of South Florida, the Marlins signed Cuban-born first baseman Orestes Destrade, a former New York Yankee prospect who hit 154 home runs in Japan the last four years, and free-agent catcher Benito Santiago, a native of Puerto Rico who was an All-Star catcher with the San Diego Padres. The radio voice of the Marlins, Joe Angel, who was born in Bogotà, Colombia, has two home run calls: "Wave it bye-bye" and "Hasta la vista, baby." Destrade is doing promotional ads on TV in both English and Spanish.

Even with a fan base of approximately 4.2 million in South Florida, the Marlins will have to show signs of rapid improvement on the field over the next few seasons if they're going to sustain their attendance. Fans will be tempted by the many other diversions in the region once the novelty of the team has worn off.

For its part, the Marlin management is not interested in taking a long time to develop a winner. With Huizenga's ample financial backing, Dombrowski has pursued players aggressively since the expansion draft in November, adding established veterans such as Hough, Santiago, McClure and third baseman Dave Magadan, as well as Aquino and pitcher Chris Hammond.

Sadly, though, by the time the Marlins become National League East contenders, Hough will probably be playing golf somewhere. After all, for many people—perhaps even for Hough, eventually—Florida means retirement. "It depends how the season goes," he says with a smile. "There always comes a time when enough of a good thing is enough."



The first pitch in Marlin history was—what else?—a knuckler.



With four of Florida's 14 hits, Conine was batting 1.000 after one game as a Marlin.



Jody Reed got a piece of the plate—and L.A.'s second run—as he took a slide on the wild side.



Hough passes on tricks of the knuckleball trade to his son, Aaron.