It may be sport’s most exclusive club. Admission requires a reputation for nastiness--and the backbone to live up to it every day.
The membership includes hockey’s Dave Schultz, football’s Dick Butkus, basketball’s Maurice Lucas and baseball’s Goose Gossage. They are the intimidators, and they come along only about once a decade.
Of this foursome, only Gossage is still at the height of his powers, and never mind that a sneeze last week temporarily sidelined him with a minor back injury. “The Maniac,” as he is called by teammate Kurt Bevacqua, has a look that can petrify fans and hitters alike.
The cap pulled dangerously low over the forehead, the bushy walrus mustache curling menacingly back toward the ears, Gossage would test the creativity of the cartoonists who festoon editorial pages with bizarre caricatures.
“If there’s a batter who likes to face him, he’s gotta have rocks in his head,” Padre Manager Dick Williams said.
Looks aside, the real part of his act begins when Gossage coils his 230-pound body to deliver a baseball at speeds that once approached 100 m.p.h. and still come frighteningly near that limit.
“I never faced a reliever as intimidating as Goose,” San Diego first baseman Steve Garvey said. “Working on the psyche is as important as the physical aspect of this game.”
Pittsburgh Manager Chuck Tanner, who converted Gossage from a starting pitcher to a reliever 10 years ago, said that was the smartest move of his career.
“I think he is the greatest reliever ever,” Tanner said. “I’m not taking anything away from ElRoy Face, Bruce Sutter or Rollie Fingers. But the Goose is just so intimidating and so aggressive.
“The Yankees won the World Series after they got him, and the Padres got there, too. The Goose got ‘em there, not all those other guys with the big money. That’s why I call him the Golden Goose.”
Gossage, 33, combines the endurance of Nolan Ryan, who has thrown harder for longer than any other pitcher, with the barely controlled menace of Ryne Duren, the former Yankee and Angel reliever whose warm-up tosses often as not struck the backstop.
“It’s got to be pretty disquieting, especially to a right-handed hitter, that Goose doesn’t even look at the hitter when he throws,” Padre catcher Terry Kennedy said.
It looks as if Gossage is trying to throw the ball right through the catcher.
And that is precisely his intent, according to Craig Lefferts, another Padre reliever.
“You can talk about his looks and his style all you want, but the fastball is the most intimidating thing,” Lefferts said. “Everything else is secondary.”
The Gossage temperament is hardly secondary. In fact, it’s an integral part of his reputation as an intimidator .
Most athletes tend to mellow as they reach their mid-30s, but nobody talks about Gossage having mellowed. Especially not Gossage, who declined several requests for interviews for this story.
In a game at Cincinnati in early June, Gossage gave the Padres a fresh insight into his competitive streak. The Reds got a couple of cheap runs off Gossage in the last of the ninth inning. When he returned to the dugout, Gossage kicked a water cooler, showering half the bench.
“That was the maddest I’ve ever seen him,” Williams said. “But when we came back and won in extra innings, he was like a kitten.”
You don’t trifle with the Gossage temper unless you know him well. And even then, you tread carefully.
Terry Forster, who roomed with Gossage for six years in the 1970s, managed to stay on good terms even after playing a practical joke that might have decapitated a lesser mortal.
“When we were with the Pirates, there was a game at Wrigley Field,” Forster said, “and this huge black guy, must have been about 6-8, had me confused with Goose while I was warming up in the bullpen.
“He was ranting and raving and saying, ‘Gossage, you bleeper,’ so I told him to look for me by the bus after the game. Well, he must have asked somebody which one Gossage was, because here comes this gigantic black man charging Goose as he was boarding the bus. The guy had to be held back by several cops, and Goose didn’t think it was too funny even when I explained it to him.”
The Gossage sense of humor was further strained by his experience with the New York Yankees in 1978-1983. This is Gossage’s second year in San Diego after more than a decade spent with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago White Sox and Yankees.
He was ready for a change after five seasons of bickering in the Bronx Zoo.
“All of the fun was out of the game (in New York),” Gossage said after signing an $11-million contract with the Padres following the 1983 season. “I would watch the clock at home, and the closer it got to being time to leave for the park, I’d be saying, ‘Oh, no.’ I had a bad attitude about baseball and the atmosphere there (in New York). I needed a change . . . I feel like I’m back to being a little kid again.”
Tanner, however, doesn’t think the experience was damaging to Gossage.
“I don’t believe being in New York toughened him or hurt him,” Tanner said. “He was already plenty tough.”
He entered the 1985 season with 231 saves, third among active pitchers behind Fingers and Sutter. He has added 17 more, second in the league behind Jeff Reardon.
In his best year (1980), Gossage had 33 saves, a dozen shy of the record owned jointly by Sutter and Dan Quisenberry.
The relief pitcher is arguably the most important component on a pennant contender. And according to Cincinnati’s Pete Rose, the dominance of the reliever is the biggest reason no other hitter is likely to reach the 4,000-hit plateau after him.
Rose, who said he’s never been intimidated by any pitcher, thinks Gossage has probably lost a little speed.
“I can get around on his fastball now,” he said. “I was ahead of a letter-high fastball and fouled it off the last time I faced him. A few years ago, I probably couldn’t have touched that pitch. I’m not confident I’ll hit him, but I have a mental thing that I can hit him now.
“But, I’ll tell you this. I’d love to have Goose on my team. If I had him, my approach to using (Mario) Soto would be different. I could get six or seven innings from him and know there would be a pretty damn good case Goose would save it. Hell, if I had him, I’d probably want to use him every day.”
Tanner had much the same thought when he made Gossage a reliever in 1975.
“I moved him because I thought he had the mental makeup to be a reliever,” Tanner said. “At first, I tried to baby him, but I also figured he would get stronger, and if he didn’t rip something, he could last a long time.
“He was only throwing one pitch--the fastball--so he didn’t have to twist his arm, or use different muscles on a curve or a slider. His arm got stronger and stronger. He really grew into the job.
“His approach from the start has been: Here it comes, baby. Let’s see who is better, you or me.”
Gossage can’t quite match contemporaries like Fingers and Sutter in sheer quantity of saves, but he has undeniably created a new standard for bullpen effectiveness.
Among the power relievers, none has matched the consistency of the Goose. Dick Radatz flared for a few years in the early 1960s. More recently, Lee Smith and Reardon have supplanted him in pure horsepower.
But no other reliever whose forte was the fastball has enjoyed a decade of success comparable to Gossage.
“The only other pitcher I ever saw who was so intimidating was Bob Gibson,” Bevacqua said. “It’s often said of a hitter, ‘His heart was in it, but his (behind) wasn’t,’ and I think that’s the ultimate description of how most hitters feel about Goose.
“Al Hrabosky had the same look and style. He tried to create the image of a madman. With Goose, it’s not a matter of trying. He just goes out there, and that’s him.”
The Padres don’t mince words when asked about Gossage’s contribution to their 1984 World Series appearance, or their comfortable lead in the National League West this year.
“He was one of the primary reasons we won,” Garvey said. “Along with Graig Nettles, he was one of the final ingredients we needed. They positioned us to win.” Right fielder Tony Gwynn elaborated on the intimidation factor.
“Other teams know when we go into the seventh inning with a lead that he’s down there, and that’s intimidating by itself,” Gwynn said. “I know I’d be intimidated.
“Goose is as big a reason as I can think of why we’ve played so well. He can still blow people away.”
The Gossage delivery could hardly be called classic. There appears to be lots of wasted motion and wasted energy, as opposed to the economy of other hard throwers such as Ryan and Dwight Gooden.
“Yeah, his mechanics are all wrong,” Kennedy said. “He’s flying all over the place. But his back and his legs are so strong, he gets away with it.”
Forster thinks Gossage’s delivery is perfect for him.
“All you have to do is look at the kind of success he is having. Who am I to question his ways? I mean, I taught him everything he knows,” Forster said jokingly.
Gossage has surrendered a bit of speed, but like most pitchers over 30, he compensates with knowledge of the craft.
“He’s foxy when he needs to be,” Williams said. “His strikeouts may be down a little, but he still gets his share. His breaking pitch makes his fastball look a little quicker.
“I think he can stay at this level for another few years. Heck, he could go on indefinitely.”
“He had so much raw power 10 years ago,” Bevacqua said. “He’s more of a pitcher now instead of a thrower. He works the ball around and uses his slider. “
He works rapidly, too.
“Goose gets the ball and goes right at you,” Kennedy said. “He doesn’t give the hitter--or the catcher--time to think.”
The absence of a second accomplished reliever alongside Gossage in the San Diego bullpen gave Rose pause for reflection.
“I’ve never seen a great reliever who didn’t have a guy that would set him up,” Rose said. “I doubt Lee Smith of the Cubs will be as strong this year because he doesn’t have Tim Stoddard to set him up.
“Two years ago in Philadelphia, we got to the World Series, and Al Holland got all the glory. But he had a set-up man who pitched just as well (in 1983) as he did in 1984, when he was the Most Valuable Player in the American League. I’m talking about Willie Hernandez.”
Williams has no Hernandez to call on before turning to Gossage. As of midweek, Gossage had 17 of the team’s 22 saves, which indicates his overwhelming importance to San Diego.
Although someone like Gossage is basically the enemy, Rose provided a witty perspective on the bullpen specialists.
“You got guys making $500,000 pitching an inning, then giving the ball to a guy making $700,000, who then hands it to the stopper making $1 million,” Rose said.
“The bullpen--and the maturity of young pitchers--is the reason I don’t see how anybody can get 4,000 hits after me. Every class of baseball, from Little League up, has a pitching coach now, and they’re teaching kids to throw 2-and-0 change-ups and 3-and-0 screwballs. When I was young, they just found a kid who could throw hard and gave the ball to him.”
Which is precisely what Tanner did with Gossage 10 years ago. Sometimes an educated guess can turn out to be a stroke of genius.