Sports

It was a very good year

Joe Flaherty October 9 1978
Sports

It was a very good year

Joe Flaherty October 9 1978

It was a very good year

Sports

Joe Flaherty

A pitcher’s mound is only a slight elevation above the rest of the field, but when Ronald Ames Guidry stands upon it he is shrouded in rarefied air. Besides the usual pitcher’s paraphernalia of the rubber and rosin, present are the legendary limbs that hurled the hieroglyphics that etched history. Baseball statistics, like tomb scratchings, are a guide to immortality.

Consider the 28-year-old southpaw’s year. He finished the season 24 and 3, the best win-loss percentage (.889) of any 20-game winner in the history of baseball. (The old mark, .886, was set by Lefty Grove when he was 31 and 4 with the ’31 Philadelphia Athletics.) Grove that year had 175 strikeouts and an earned run average of 2.06 while Guidry this year struck out 243 (four more than the Yankee record of Jack Chesbro in 1904) and had an ERA of 1.72 (the lowest by a lefty since Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants had 1.66 in 1933), which bespeaks more of an ideal blood pressure than an earned run average for 267 Vz innings pitched.

He has tied Babe Ruth’s 1916 record with Boston for the most shutouts thrown by a left-hander in the American League, at nine, and eclipsed the Yankee mark of eight held by Whitey Ford. He pitched back-to-back shutouts four times this year and started the season with the Yankee record of 13 straight wins. Adding in last year, he is 32 out of 36. He has won nine out of his last 10 games and in his last five games he threw three two-hit shutouts, two of them against the Yankees’ bombastic rivals, the Red Sox. In the two worst innings he pitched this year, he yielded a mere three runs. As impressive as the records he has broken are the names not mentioned—Koufax, Seaver, Gibson, Spahn—who by exclusion are mute monuments to the enormity of his season.

Guidry, belying his age and experience, has been the glue that has held the schizophrenic pinstripes straight. Fourteen times after Yankee losses he has pitched a win. He has been the stopper supreme, the dutiful son in a family of ingrates.

Guidry, drafted by the Yankees in 1971 from college in his native Louisiana, gave no indication of his high promise. In 5 V2 years in the minors, though he possessed strikeout power, the best record he achieved was 5 and 1 and that was as a relief pitcher. Indeed, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner wanted to unload him, and Guidry himself in 1976, when he was sent back to the minors, nearly quit only to be talked out of it by his wife, Bonnie.

It was then-Yankee GM Gabe Paul who held the faith. It was Paul who believed Guidry’s raw speed and athletic ability (he has been clocked at 9.7 for the 100) would eventually blossom and protected him from Steinbrenner’s moments of pique. Guidry himself had to be racked with doubts since his major sport was track, and when he took up baseball it was as an outfielder—he likes to make an allusion to his idol Sandy Koufax, who coveted a basketball career. But Guidry knew one thing: “With my fastball I knew I had one pitch better than most pitchers in the league.” It was a sound philosophy. To have a blazing fastball is akin to being born with blonde hair and straight teeth—regardless of whatever else the Lord left out, life will have its moments.

But again the analogy to Koufax crops up. Koufax became nonpareil when he added his rainbow curve, and Guidry became untouchable when ace reliever Sparky Lyle, in idle moments in the bullpen, taught him the slider. “I had a slider,” he says, “but it just moved laterally. The problem was it remained in the sweet zone. What Sparky taught me to do was to make it drop at the last moment. It’s about five miles an hour slower than my fastball.” By calculation, that is a 90-mile-an-hour slider, which means a laser beam that dives, so the hitter is faced with the dilemma of hitting something he can’t see in the first place that deviates from an imagined course.

Doubly disconcerting to hitters is that this velocity is coming from a 150pound frame. At first, hitters didn’t seem to believe it, but the night he struck out 18 California Angels he was paid the supreme compliment. Major league hitters began to choke up on their bats like outclassed little leaguers.

But all this is cold stats. What this skinny man-child does for the Yankees is fill a time-honored role. He is their unquestioning son, their stopper, their savior whose grace brings solace to their troubled world.