Red Smith liked to remind sanctimonious press-box colleagues that
sports are games played by kids. Smith's dictum has come true
with a vengeance in the case of Steve Kline. Twenty-eight going
on 14, the durable Cardinals reliever pitches with the
pile-driving passion of a pro wrestler.
"When I was little," says the 6'1", 215-pound lefthander, "my
hero was George." Not George Brett, but that bullet-headed bad
guy George (the Animal) Steele. Kline loved to watch Steele
incite crowds by biting open a turnbuckle, chewing the foam
padding and spitting it out. "I want to be the guy that fans
throw drinks and popcorn at," says Kline. "To be booed and hated,
that's the ultimate."
He gets plenty of opportunities. At week's end Kline was in an
accustomed spot: first among National League pitchers in
appearances (59), after leading the league in that category the
past two seasons, which were spent with the Expos. "On the road,"
says Kline, who through Sunday was 2-3 with five saves and a 2.01
ERA, "fans near the bullpen scream about your face, your butt,
what they've been doing to your mother."
An alarmingly vacant look, Kline insists--not his signature
slider--is the keenest dart in his arsenal of intimidation. "I
try to look dumb," he says. The routine seems to work best with
lefthanded hitters--they're batting .116 against him this
season. "Basically, I throw sliders at hitters' heads and hope
they break," he says, meaning (we hope) the sliders, not the
heads. "If hitters think I'm wild or that I don't know what I'm
doing, I get a little edge."
The youngest of five brothers, Kline needed all the edge he could
get. "We tortured him," says Kevin, who, along with Steve's other
siblings, pushed him into the electrified fences, hurled tires at
him from rooftops and affectionately called him Afterbirth.
Drafted out of West Virginia in the eighth round by the Indians
in 1993, Kline was struggling three years later with his weight
(240 pounds) and on the mound as a starter at Double A
Canton-Akron (8-12, 5.46 ERA). The next year he mutated into a
setup man for the Oriente Caribbrans in the Venezuelan Winter
League. He made it to the majors in '97, but midway through the
season he was dealt to Montreal, where he dropped 40 pounds and
developed into a reliable middle reliever. He hasn't had an ERA
higher than 3.75 in his three full seasons. Last December, Kline
was traded along with righthander Dustin Hermanson to the
Cardinals for third baseman Fernando Tatis and righthander Britt
"If I let him," says St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, "he'd pitch
in all 162 games." In the past three seasons Kline made 78, 82
and 83 appearances. A situational southpaw, his outings are
usually brief. In his 59 games this year, he had amassed only
49 1/3 innings.
Despite making all those appearances over the last three seasons,
Kline has shown no signs of injury or arm weariness. "Around the
sixth inning Steve starts pacing like a caged predator," says St.
Louis bullpen coach Marty Mason. "If he doesn't pitch for three
days, it's probably worse for him than if he pitches three days
in a row."
Adds La Russa, "He's not a 'get yours' player who's distracted by
stats and money and attention. He's there for competition."
The Animal would approve.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE