The creation, preservation, care and feeding of a pitching staff is the preoccupation of every major league manager worth a plug nickel curve.
When the hurling's right, so's the world.
That's why Earl Weaver, skipper of the Baltimore Orioles who have won 12 straight, has his feet propped up on his desk on the eve of the June 15 trading deadline.
The other five contenders in the American League's two divisions are filling Ma Bell's coffers, burning up trunk lines to Minnesota to try to win Calvin Griffith's Rod Carew auction.
Desperation is not a characteristic of wisdom. And the wise Birds aren't desperate. Let the Yankees and Red Sox trade half a team, mortgage the future, hock the silverware for the 32-year-old Carew. Weaver'd rather talk tomatoes.
"How does your garden grow, Earl?" asked Frank Cashen, former Orioles general manager, this week. "Tomatoes comin' okay?"
"Fine, fine. Marianna kept 'em real good while we were on the coast," beamed Weaver. "Everything's fine."
Weaver and wife can grow vegetables because the manager already has the staff of life: his pitching staff.
"Nobody likes to hear it, 'cause it's dull," said Weaver in mock growl. "But the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same. . .pitching.
"You look invincible when you're winning because pitching complements everything else. you look horsefeathers when you're going bad, because bad pitching magnifies every weakness."
Weaver pauses, a high priest with a hyperbolic punch line: "Pitching is 100 percent of baseball."
Weaver has an enigmatic rule of thumb about pitching staffs: "Six is too many or 10 is not enough."
If four starting pitchers and one reliever are in the groove together, those five men can contend for a pennant if the 15 non-pitchers hit, field and run with modest competence.
When the rotation is in shambles, 10 pitchers aren't enough to stop the carnage. "When Milwaukee scored 40 runs on us the first three games of the year," said Weaver, "20 pitchers weren't enough."
The Orioles are on the verge of that five-man heaven.
"If Dennis Martinez comes around," says Ken Singleton, "we're long gone."
As the Orioles currently stand, or fly, after winning 13 of 14, they are a team consisting of Three Musketeers and one looney Bird reliever - Don (Penthouse) Stanhouse.
Oh, the Orioles talk about improved defense, timely hitting one-for-all spirit. But it's a semilie.
"We're winning for one reason only," says ace Jim Palmer. "pitching."
For current competence, overall youth, future potential, the O's would not trade their four-man rotation for any in baseball. The San Francisco quartet of Vida Blue, John (Count) Montefusco, Ed Halicki and Bill Knepper comes closest. And the ageing Boston gang of Luis Tiant, Bill Lee, Mike Torrez and Dennis Eckersley is hot.
But give Weaver his Palmer, Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor and Dennis Martinez.
The first three on that list are the reason the O's ERA for 216 innings is 2.25. Foes have hit the ball so gently in that span that the Birds have fielded .990 since May 19.
Palmer - with five straight wins and one run in his last 50 innings - is the known quantity. "Just everything is perfect with Jim right now," says Weaver, knowing well that alternate states between which Palmer fluctuates.
Palmer uses these exemplary days to instruct Flanagan and McGregor, two shrewd youngsters. "I learn every game I pitch," says Flanagan. "And I learn every time I see Palmer pitch."
All three can recall sequences of pitches two months ago. They discuss whether Palmer should have thrown an inside curve to California's Ken Landreaux a week ago.
"We had no book on him," said Flanagan. "If one of us had more info on him, Jim might have 50 straight scoreless innings now."
Flanagan, 21-6 since last June 27, ranks with Ron Guidry and Frank Tanana as one of the Al's top three southpaws.
Yet the New Hampshire lefty enjoys sidestepping fame. He affects a Sam Spade cigarette in the corner of the mouth, habitually watches rather than speaks, and wears his hair long, sweaty and ugly so that he looks Cro-Magnon and forbidding on the mound. This pitching persona contradicts his normal character - funny, perceptive and well-educated.
"I don't like the hitters to feel they know me," he says.
But Flangan knows them. "It's a constant war to outthink the best hitters, says Flangan. "I was in a used car lot (in Baltimore) one afternoon and Thurman Munson telephoned. I don't know how he found me. He said, "Tell (Ross) Grimsley if he throws me that changeup tonight I'll hit it out."
"Thurman sat on that one pitch all night, fouling off the fast balls. Ross threw one changeup and Munson hit it in the bleachers," said Flanagan.
"Hitters will give away meaningless at bats to mislead you," says Flanagan. "When the game is on the line, you better know a hitter's real weaknesses, not the sham ones."
McGregor, 23, is a couple of stages of development behind the 26-year-old Flanagan, so as Palmer leads Flanagan, Flanagan tutors McGregor.
"I haven't done anything yet," says McGregor, who thinks of himself as a 20-win pitcher. "If I stay in this pattern for three years, that will mean something."
Then he grins and adds, "But it's nice not to have people giving you the fisheye. Instead of pitchers thinking, 'Will he make it?' they're saying, 'How good will he become?'"
Palmer - fashion-magazine handsome, urbane, candid to the brink of tactlessness; Flanagan - camourflaged, sturdy, bulldog tough; and McGregor - sensitive, polite, the choir boy with the deceitful curves, are all different. But not so much as Martinez is in contrast to them.
Martinez, a 22-year-old Nicaraguan matador, is all flash and bravado on the mound, full of high spirits and energy. His sins - forgetting to cover first base, allowing too many walks by working for strikeouts, becoming flustered in jams, then leaving via an instant kayo - will probably be cured by distasteful experience.