Many pitchers would sell their sister's soul for wall-to-wall heat. So Whitely Ford won a million games being cute, and Hoyt Wilhelm threw butterflies forever. So Don Sutton cuts the ball in little pieces and nobody hits any part of it. So what? If Mephistopholes could deliver smoke, a pitcher would trade his silk bikini shorts. It means that much.
"Heat" and "smoke" are baseballese ways of saying a pitcher throws the ball very, very fast. Americans love excess. Every kid wants to hit the ball eight miles, because it makes him feel big, and he wants a heater for an arm, because smoke is the best way to achieve the omniptence of strikeouts.
Nolan Ryan of the California Angels strikes out more major league hitters than anyone else today. In 11 seasons he has averaged more than a strikeout an inning, an astonishing feat of skill and edurance. Ryan's fast ball has been timed at 100.9 miles per hour. And considerable testimony has been given about Ryan's riflings, but mostly from twitching batsmen to whom the pitches were rumors, heard but unseen. How about Ryan's catcher? What's it like back there in Smokeland?
The catcher is Terry Humphrey, 28, a tall and lean Oklahoman with a mustache, a quick smile and a cowboy sound in his voice. No one has mistaken Humphrey for Berra, Campy, Bench or Fisk, mainly because he's hitting .212 with five home runs in 314 big-league games over seven seasons. Ryan likes him "because he throws well, he presents a good target and for a big man he's agile. He step the ball in the dirt real well."
About those balls in the dirt. At 100 miles per hour, a baseball that bounces in front of the catcher is cause for a sane man to evacuate the area. "I've hurt a lot of catchers," Ryan said, with perhaps the beginnings of a smile of pride. "With the Mets, I gave Duffy Dyer a concussion. Bounced and hit him right in the middle of the middle of the forehead. On a change-up." Ryan smiled sweetly.
The guy throws cannonballs. Sometimes they bounce at you. Ryan's catcher must be walking bruise.
Not really. "Nolan is easy to catch," Humphrey said, "because his fast ball always does the same thing. It always rises. And if I catch it like I'm supposed to, in the pocket of the mitt, it doesn't hurt at all. Sure, if I miss one and catch it on my hand, it's awful. I try not to do that, because this is supposed to be fun, not pain."
The pain comes most often when Ryan throws a curve ball into the dirt. "They can really eat you up," Humphrey said, meaning the ball comes off the ground and bounces up the catcher's body, perhaps nibbling away at three or four spots.
"What makes it particularly bad is that Ryan throws a hard curve - I mean, a hard curve," Humphrey said."He doesn't let up that much from the fast ball to the curve."
The enduring thrills in a catcher's life are those unforgettable moments when a pitcher throwing laser beams crosses him up. To "cross up" a catcher, a pitcher agrees to a signaled pitch - a curve ball, say - but then forgets about it and throws a fast ball, instead. The catcher, looking for the ol' breaking ball low and away, is surprised when the fast ball comes smoking in.
"Ryan has crossed me up a lot," Humphrey said, shaking his head in wonder at the things he does for a living. "One went right by my head on its way to the backstop. Another one, the guy hit it, thank goodness. It would have hit me right here."
Humphrey put his finger against his nose.
"Ryan would've laughed. He gets a big kick seeing me get beat up." Humphrey said.
Like a lot of catchers, Humphrey never dreamed he would be a catcher. He wasn't dumb. They made catchers out of kids who liked to get hit by foul tips and curve balls in the dirt. So in Chickashia, Okla, Humphrey played first base and pitched once - "I hit a couple of guys and that was the end of my pitching career" - but in time realized a conflict between his ambition and talent. His feet weren't ready for the big leagues. As runners go, Humphrey is a wonderful walker.
The coach at Los Angeles City College, Bob Zuber, was an old catcher who saw Humphrey could make it behind the plate. That strong arm was too good to waste at first. One year in college was enough, and the pros signed him up. Three years later he was with the Montreal Expos. But this is his first full season in the big leagues, and he's having fun catching two of baseball's best pitchers, Ryan and Frank Tanana.
"Ryan is a competitor through and through," Humphrey said. "If he gets a guy 2 and 0, he'll throw him that hard curve - just so the guy won't be on his heat. He just doesn't like anybody to hit it."
Tanana, 24, is a lefthander with command of his fast ball, curve and off-speed pitches. The other night he pitched his seventh shutout - "It's amazing for a young lefthander to have so much poise and knowledge," Humphrey said - and afterward took a brown sack out of his locker and gave it to his catcher.
"Belated happy birthday," Tanana said, and the catcher, who turned 28 the day before, unwrapped the sack.
"Vodka," Humphrey said, holding a bottle up.