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The Pitch This Year : With Hoyt Added, Padres Feed on Idea That Staff Is One of League’s Best

Times Staff Writer

His pitches were never fast, but LaMarr Hoyt always preferred fast food. And when some enterprising Yuppie invented drive-thru restaurants, it meant Hoyt’s food was even faster, which eventually meant his pants would rip faster, too.

This would have to stop, but the question was when. Hoyt had been winning games as a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, a team that thought it quite fashionable to be bearded and obese. They called this “Winning Ugly.”

Last season, Hoyt and his Sox began losing ugly, which meant Hoyt was just plain ugly, his belly hanging over his hips, his beard growing over his lips. Just weeks after he had begun an inevitable diet, he was dealt to the San Diego Padres, who immediately labeled him as a savior for their pitching staff.

But saviors aren’t fat, which naturally made people wonder if anybody (especially any fat body) could save the Padres’ pitchers, a staff that was thoroughly embarrassed in last year’s World Series.

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Still, here we are in April, just days before opening day, and LaMarr Hoyt is relatively skinny, his beard shaved into the sink, his face tanned and his collar up. He’s a Yuppie himself now, and suddenly there is hope that he can indeed save a pitching staff.

“But this staff doesn’t need saving,” Hoyt says.

Perhaps he’s right, for although this staff’s main people are a bunch of cartoon characters (more on this later) and there is only one true fastball pitcher, it may just be the best in the National League.

At age 18, LaMarr Hoyt weighed 160 pounds, and this is how Sylvia, his future wife, first perceived him. She said he was cute, although no one believed her until this season.

So this diet has done wonders for her man, opened many people’s eyes. And he says it was not very hard for him to do, as long as he filled himself with something.

Others, though, don’t believe this, since they knew him when, when he lived on steak and ale and Pepto Bismol. This blubber problem had begun when he reached the major leagues, where they feed the players well after every game. On nights he wouldn’t pitch, he’d eat dinner at home, sit for nine innings, eat a post-game meal and then have Sylvia fix a sandwich at home.

It was only last year they heard something negative about it, since Sylvia wasn’t complaining at home. Hoyt, after winning the Cy Young Award in 1983, fell to 13-18 in 1984, and the White Sox management, convinced that 265 pounds was not a good weight for Hoyt, called his agent, Ron Shapiro.

Shapiro, an avid dieter himself, became convinced that he could take the weight off of Hoyt and was sure that the White Sox had made a ridiculous suggestion when they said Hoyt should go on a rice diet. Shapiro called Hoyt and gave him a pep talk, and Hoyt ultimately agreed to begin dieting after the White Sox winter cruise from San Francisco to Acapulco

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So Acapulco was his last chance to pig out, which Hoyt did with much enjoyment. He sat on the deck (he says it was just like the “Love Boat” but without Isaac and Gopher) and sipped pina coladas. When it was over, he would sip water and an occasional light beer.

Suddenly, he was a slow-food junkie, a regular gourmet. He had to give up steak, but learned that teriyaki chicken wasn’t bad and that swordfish was almost like steak.

“If you do it (swordfish) on a grill right,” Hoyt says, “and then blindfold yourself and eat it, it’s just like steak. And it’s fish. It goes right through you. Whenever I go in restaurants now, I tend to order it.”

Since he’d rarely been seen in the National League, none of the Padres were surprised when they saw the new him, 30 pounds lighter, although Jack McKeon secretly couldn’t believe his eyes. As for Manager Dick Williams, Hoyt had always reminded him of a former A’s pitcher Catfish Hunter, in that he had good control of his pitches and also gave up a few too many home runs.

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Hunter, living now in Hertford, N.C., was alerted to this and said: “Oh, he (Williams) would get on me when I gave up home runs . . . Dick always made you feel . . . To get 100 percent out of his ballplayers, he’d make you think you couldn’t do the job. And you’d say: ‘I’ll show him.’ ”

Just so you know, Williams and Hunter are still friends today (the two families exchange Christmas cards), perhaps because Hunter was Williams’ type of pitcher, the type that wouldn’t beat himself.

Hoyt is the same way, and the people here are predicting that he’ll win 20 games, something no Padre pitcher did last year.

To borrow a cliche, you are only as good as your last pitch. And the Padre pitchers, in this sense, are not very good right now.

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In a World Series last year that never got serious, Padres starting pitchers had a 13.94 ERA, the worst in Series history. The other horrible statistics would get redundant.

In explanation, the Padres say their pitchers struggled at the wrong time of the year, that if the series had been held in July, it would have been different. The skeptics then ask: Why then did you fire pitching coach Norm Sherry?

And this is a legitimate question, because soon after the Series, Sherry was released, later to become the Padres’ director of minor league pitchers and catchers. McKeon’s answer is that a communication problem existed, and other sources said the Padres nearly had released Sherry before last season anyway.

Moreover, it appeared that Padre pitchers didn’t respect Sherry, partly because he was a former catcher and not a former pitcher. For whatever reasons, the Padres just seem much happier to have Galen Cisco as their new pitching coach.

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“I hope that relationship continues into the season,” Cisco said. “I’m perfectly happy with spring training. Everyday, I’m getting to know them better, and I feel as if I can talk to them.

“I need to have them believe in me, along with them knowing I believe in them. I need them to know I’m trying to help, not hurt. It’s something I’ve never had a problem with.”

Already, Gossage and Hoyt are big fans of Cisco. This is another reason why the Padres expect a big year.

“When I first joined the club, I had thoughts about how a guy of Gossage’s stature would take my coaching,” Cisco said. “But he’s like a guy in AAA or AA. He’s all ears.”

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Eric Show and Mark Thurmond hear the most racket these days about the World Series, something they’d prefer to forget. Show lasted just 2.2 innings in two series starts and his ERA was 10.13. Thurmond lasted just 5.1 innings, and also had a 10.13 ERA.

Fortunately, these men are deep thinkers and have sorted through this mess. Show, especially, has a positive attitude, now that he has an 0.0 ERA this spring. The Padres say he can realistically win 20 games as well.

“It (the World Series) does cross my mind,” Show says, “but everything crosses my mind.”

And that’s one of his problems. He is so much the intellectual that he finds he has critics.

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An amazing Show quote follows:

“The fundamental problem with people’s misunderstanding of me stems from, in my opinion, the problem of human nature in general. Whether you’re an athlete or a dentist, we all have similar motivations. All people have the right to think or not to think, but, to think, it requires effort and patience, and the answers you achieve are sometimes painful.

“So, generally, people would rather entertain themselves with stupid sitcoms, ludicrous sitcoms. And so when somebody either advocates or outspokenly talks about subjects that are either unusual or require thought or insight or knowledge, the people either are repulsed, find it fascinating or find it weird.”

That, he says, is his problem.

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One more problem: Everyone remembers last post-season.

“If they look at my record, they have no case against me,” Show said. “Why did it happen? I don’t know. I wasn’t nervous. I’ve seen Mr. (Mike) Schmidt have a bad World Series, and so did that guy from the Yankees, uh, Dave Winfield. Were they choking? No. They just weren’t seeing the ball and were in a rut. I’d love to try it (a World Series) again.”

As for Thurmond, he probably will be the team’s fifth starter after Hoyt, Show, Andy Hawkins and Dave Dravecky. He has no comment on this. He was the No. 2 starter last year.

As for his poor playoff series and World Series, Thurmond says: “162 games are more than 10.”

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He, too, is somewhat of an intellectual.

Baseball people notoriously despise football people, mainly because they think the other game is grotesque. For that reason, Padres trainer Dick Dent is careful about where he keeps his footballs.

But they’re there. Right where Dent keeps some extra bats, he keeps his footballs, footballs that ultimately help the pitching staff.

As part of his off-season conditioning program, Dent asks the players to throw long, looping passes to each other, to stretch and strengthen their shoulders. Gossage apparently was throwing the ball 60 yards in the air. Then, they’d run pass patterns, which helped their lateral movement. And then, they’d play pick up games, which helped them find out who the best quarterback and receiver was.

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Best QB: Gossage, hands down.

Best receiver: Hawkins, good hands.

Actually, all this made the workouts more interesting for some of the people there, including starters Hawkins and Dravecky and short reliever Craig Lefferts.

And it’s significant that those three worked together this winter, for these were the three Padres pitchers that were successful in post-season play. Each one impressed their teammates, their coaches and the folks back home.

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Hawkins--who lives in Bruceville, Texas, a small town near a small college town named Waco--had to change his phone number when he came home after the World Series, knowing he would see no peace.

“They mentioned Bruceville on television during the Series,” Hawkins said. “That really fires the people up down there. But, really, it’s great down there. There aren’t many people there. When I’d been through the Series, I’d been through the mill, so it was nice to relax.”

Dravecky’s hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, was more subdued, only because it has been through this before with boxer Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini. Besides, Dravecky is a quiet family man, who would rather spend time with God. Dent calls him “The Jimmy Olson of the pitching staff.”

But Dravecky says it was God who saved his career just three years ago. Dravecky says he’d been going nowhere then, had no direction in life. Then he said he found strength through religion, strength to accept wins and losses in the proper perspective.

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“As far as my priorities are concerned, God is first in my life, and then my responsibility to family comes next,” Dravecky says. “My job comes somewhat later. I glorify God with my performance, and that’s where the pleasure comes. I love this game with all my heart.

”. . . It (religion) doesn’t just encompass me as an athlete. My whole life is better. The ultimate goal is where am I going when I die? Heaven or hell? Now, I’m assured of eternal life . . . God is not the key to my winning or losing, but to my being able to concentrate.”

And then there’s Lefferts, who had asthma as a child and couldn’t play organized sports until he was 12, a late start that turned out profitably.

“I’ve got a good arm now,” said Lefferts, a left-handed reliever. “I didn’t burn out like some kids.”

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It’s Lefferts’ herky-jerky motion that throws batters off, and he has added a screwball now. It is he and Dravecky and Hawkins that were unknowns last year, and it is they who now are perhaps the most important people on the staff. If the post-season was for real, this team is for real again.

The final piece is Goose Gossage, who really is a piece of work. He’s eccentric, really, in that he can pitch a horrendous inning of baseball and forget it minutes later. It astounds his pitching teammates who sit up all night after bad games.

But it is merely Gossage’s personality to be this way. Dent is certain that relief pitchers are “borderline crazy” because they are involved in such touchy situations, and Gossage handles this lifestyle quite well.

He also is the perfect ending to a LaMarr Hoyt beginning. For instance, Hoyt, like all of the Padres starters, is a control pitchers who is smart enough not to try things he can’t do. He is a relatively slow pitcher, which is the perfect contrast to Gossage, a fastball pitcher.

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“We complement each other,” Hoyt says.

Gossage, though, has lost some of the speed from his fastball, which is entirely expected after all these years. Yet, he has not lout his feel for the game. He stays in the bullpen and manages to keep people thinking clearly. Often, a young pitcher will know he’s about to enter a game and sit alone, chewing the leather on his glove.

Gossage: “It’s no big deal, kid. It’s nothing to worry about. No use worrying.”

The kid smiles.

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And this is the theme of this year’s Padre staff in many ways. They are nervous to a degree because of what happened in the World Series. They are not worried, though, because they know there’s no use in worrying about it.

“What we have is better pitchers,” McKeon says.

What we have is apparent recovery.


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