Great Scott, He Throws a ‘Splitter’
Charles Atlas lives!
The man himself is dead, actually. He swaggered off to the big beach in the sky in 1972.
But the spirit that Charles Atlas tried to infuse in American youth, the notion that, with a little work and proper instruction, you can escape the shackles of wimpdom and kick some bully’s butt, is alive in the form of Mike Scott.
Maybe the name isn’t familiar to you. Learn it. Mike Scott is the best pitcher in baseball right now. Pitches for the Astros. Leads the major leagues, by a mile, in earned-run average and strikeouts.
He had a rare rocky outing Wednesday night as the Dodgers got to him for four runs in the first in a 5-3 Houston loss.
Scott is that rarity, a veteran phenom, a guy who became a sports star overnight at the ridiculous age of 30. It’s an amazing story, really.
Two seasons ago, Mike Scott was a 215-pound weakling. He was a journeyman pitcher who’d had a 5-11 season with the Astros, bringing his career record to 29-44. He threw hard, and that’s about it. He had lost his slider somewhere, just flat out lost it, and the National League hitters were sitting back on Scott’s fastball and kicking it around the ballyard something terrible.
“There was no guessing,” Scott said. “Well, they were guessing, but they’d guess fastball and they’d get one. If you get behind 2-1 or 3-1 and they know the fastball is coming, even if you throw 95 miles an hour, they’re gonna hit it harder than you throw it.”
Then, last season, Mike Scott had an 18-8 record with dramatically improved stats across the board. This season, he is a monster. He has 223 strikeouts, 48 more than Fernando Valenzuela, 49 more than Roger Clemens. He’s looking like Cy Young. He has the lowest earned-run average in the major leagues--2.32.
Scott didn’t accomplish his immediate and stunning turnaround by sending away for a mail-order Charles Atlas-type course, but it was almost that easy.
He went to San Diego in the off-season two years ago and spent 10 days with Roger Craig, who had just retired from baseball. Craig taught Scott how to throw a split-fingered fastball, which is generally acknowledged to be the miracle pitch of the ‘80s.
Craig is the Charles Atlas and Billy Graham of the split-finger. He has even printed a booklet explaining how to throw it.
If Craig were to place a mail-order ad in a magazine, the clip-out coupon would probably read: “Yes, I’m sick and tired of having hitters slobber all over my fastball and make me look like a chump in front of my girlfriend/wife and millions of fans! I’m enclosing $5. Please rush me your simple, easy-to-follow course, in a plain brown wrapper, before the front office decides to ship me and my scroungy chicken wing to Altoona.”
How bad was Mike Scott’s situation when he went to see Professor Craig?
“It was a desperate time,” Scott says.
But learning the pitch was a snap. Simply spread your first two fingers a little wider than normal on the ball, move the thumb up the side of the ball a little, and throw it exactly as you throw your fastball. Very easy on the arm, no snap or twist required. It helps if you already throw hard, have long fingers and a full, overhand delivery. Then . . .
“You just aim it right down the middle of the plate and let it go,” Scott said.
To the hitter, the split-finger looks like a fastball, but a few feet in front of the plate it drops out of the sky like a duck flying into a window pane.
Scott was surprised how quickly his new pitch worked. Maybe even astonished.
“Right away, people were swinging at pitches that were bouncing in the dirt,” he said.
He said that matter-of-factly, but I figure Scott has to be chuckling inside, savoring the sweet revenge. Imagine the sudden feeling of absolute power!
“I’ve never been a strikeout pitcher, but all of a sudden I’m getting ahead of the hitters with the split-finger, setting them up, and striking them out with the fastball,” he said.
Scott gives due credit to Craig, who also straightened out a few kinks in Mike’s delivery. When they parted, Craig warned Scott that opposing teams would be skeptical of this miracle and might accuse Scott of illegally tampering with the baseball.
Sure enough. The first manager to make such an accusation was Roger Craig, who was hired out of retirement in San Diego to lead the San Francisco Giants.
“As much as I admire and respect Mike Scott, I think he’s doing something to scuff the ball,” Craig said Wednesday afternoon. “We found evidence of the ball being scuffed and showed it to the umpire, but it was between innings, and he said we had to catch him in the act, between pitches.
“A lot of guys like to use sandpaper. They glue it to their glove hand with Super Glue.”
The day after Craig had hassled Scott about nicking up the ball, the Astros staged a pregame father-son game, and Scott’s young son Kelsey was pitching. Looking on, Giant catcher Bob Brenly turned to Craig and said, “Better go check the kid, Skip.”
When the Astros played Chicago, Jim Frey, then the Cub manager, repeatedly asked the umpires to check the balls that Scott was throwing.
Scott enjoys the attention. Why not? It used to be the hitters who were scuffing up the balls. Besides, Mike Scott has a new-found confidence. You might call it a split-fingered personality. He also has a new contract for real big money, allowing him to move his family back to Southern California, where they’re from.
As I said, it’s an amazing story, inspiring even.
Makes you wonder if maybe even someone like, say, a sportswriter who’s been snubbed for interviews by some great baseball hitters, a sportswriter who is over 30, with a decent arm that never got used much, might send away for Roger Craig’s simple instruction book, develop a decent split-fingered fastball in the privacy of his own home, get himself a tryout. . . .
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