"You're always one pitch away from the last pitch of your career . . . especially me. "
Tommy John, New York Yankees
In a dank Fenway Park, graveyard of southpaws, Tommy John pitched as masterful a game as any in his 16-year career today - a two-hit symphony of slop.
John, the $1.4 million free-agent left-hander who has kept the world champion New York Yankees afloat with his stunning 9-0 record, shut out the flailing Boston Red Sox, 2-0, facing only 28 men in a 96-pitch classic of brilliant boredom.
"What a masterpiece!" pronounced Yank Jim Kaat, the majors' leading career winner."Wish I could've stood behind the mound for a closer look.I don't think he threw one pitch that could have been hit with authority."
"I may never have seen a more perfectly pitched game," said third baseman Graig Nettles, who made New York's two superb fielding plays of the 1-hour 58-minute day's work and joined Reggie Jackson in hitting home runs. "Where would we be this year without him?"
Without question, John - with his 1.60 earned run average and six complete games - has been the biggest single figure in the 1979 American League East pennant race.
"I'm sure glad we didn't get him," said Boston's Fred Lynn, bitterly sarcastic at the new, penny-pinching Sox management.
"Obviously, he can't win here in Fenway - he's a lefty. And our front office knew he had a bad arm - that must be why we didn't even draft him (in the free-agent reentry)," Lynn needled.
"And he's a bad man to have on a ball club. He doesn't fit in - too nice. He's probably got the Yankees drinking milk."
Whatever John is drinking these days, that's what the Yankees order - by the gallon.
"Without him, we might be close to 10 games behind the Orioles already," said Yank vet Roy White.
John, who had one previous two-hitter in his life and had never pitched to as few as 28 batters over the route, had his devilish corner-nibbling sinkers and sweeping curves at their most hypnotically unhittable today.
If any worms were brought to the surface of the Fenway infield by these three days of rain, they are dead now. The Sox, shut out in both defeats in the three-game weekend series, pounded 16 tidy ground-ball outs.
"John's simply amazin'," said Boston's George Scott. "He works fast - that damn foot of his never leaves the rubber - and he's not afraid. It's like he's telling you that if he gets it where he wants it - low-and-away - you're out.
John made the mighty Sox look hopeless. Guarding a 1-0 lead in the eighth, for instance, he needed just four minutes to get three feeble Boston outs.
"I knew I was shafted as soon as the Yanks scored a run," moaned Boston's almost equally effective starter Dennis Eckersley.
"To pitch like I did all day long and lose, just jerks your chain somethin' awful," Eckersley said. "That's the best I've pitched all year. Total command of the yakker and the cheese," said Eckersley, using his terms for the curve and fast ball.
"But John was better. Man, he was nasty."
How nasty? Well, when Sox leadoff Jerry Remy beat out a bunt (inches past John's glove) in the first, John picked him off before throwing another pitch.
When Lynn sliced a double just a yard past Roy White's glove in left in the fourth, John got Jim Rice to end the inning with a first-pitch grounder to short.
That meant that until the last batter of the game, John had thrown only one pitch from a stretch.
With one out in the ninth, Nettles, who had made a stab of a Lynn liner and gunned out Rice on dribbler, made a throwing error on a grounder.
"I was almost certain that Tommy would throw a double-play ball," Nettles said. John did - to seal the victory that moved him within one of the Toronto Blue Jays' team total.
Few players are as appealing off the field as they are dull to watch.
"Tommy's one of the world's most cheerful people," remarked White. "He just talks incessantly. He's sort of an unknown flake, even for a left-hander. He's always talking to the hitters in that voice that sounds just like (actor) Jimmy Stewart.
"In the World Series the last two years (when John pitched against the Yankees for the Los Angeles Dodgers), he'd ask you, 'How'd you ever hit that pitch? You can't handle that pitch, can you?'"
This afternoon, it was Lynn, the only Sox hitter with the patience and savvy to hurt John consistently, who got the chatterbox treatment.
"I try to dictate to him, not the other way around," said Lynn, who hit three of Boston's hard shots in the game. "I move up-and-in in the box to take away his big curve, then he has to jam with sinkers down-and-in. But I have an inside-out-swing, so they don't bother me."
The net result of this inside lingo is that Lynn unsettles John, posing him an unpitchable problem. So, John talks.
"You wouldn't be faking a bunt if this was Dedeaux Field," needled John in the first inning, referring to the USC home field in Los Angeles where Lynn played and John has coached. "You'd be pulling the ball at that short fence.
"Have you gotten those 13 homers hitting to the opposite field?" John teased, trying to get Lynn's mind off the job.
"I didn't mind," Lynn said. "Tommy's my buddy. I knew what he was up to."
Not many other Red Sox did. "We just have a lot of guys who refuse to give in and hit to the opposite field like you have to against John," said Boston's Rick Burleson.
Baseball is full of such vain creatures, and John lives off them. Without big swingers, John would be extinct. He feeds off famous clubs, because they are built on power hitters. In his 87-42 Dodger career he was 12-3 against mighty Cincinnati.
"I threw a pitch 91 mph last year," John offered with his boyish grin. "I think I throw harder than the hitters think.
"But really, I live on the black (edge of the plate). I'm like a bowler who gets a mark where his front foot is supposed to come down. I don't think I missed that mark by more than three inches all day. When I'm missing that spot, my sinker comes in too high and I'm not around too long."
"A bowler?" Lynn exclaimed. "Is that because every pitch of his is so low that it looks like he's rolling it up there?"
John, with his homey good looks, barely controlled stammer, taped ankle and flat feet, his haircut that looks as if Uncle Joe did it with the lawn clippers, is baseball's totally unpretentious millionaire.
Eight (84-91) years as a Cleveland Indian and Chicago White Sox did that. So did the unprecedented 1974 elbow surgery to transplant a tendon when he was told his career was over.
"You can't get too carried away with the good times," John said. "Remember, I was 13-3 the year my elbow popped.
"You're always one pitch away from the last pitch of your career . . . especially me. And, you know, you're always just one heartbeat away from your last heartbeat away from your last heartbeat, too."
"Tommy John is an adult, a grown-up. He's been through the tough times," said Jackson. "He carries himself like a man who's made his peace with everything."
That peace, however, is matched by his enthusiasm. "He's so proud of his new arm," says Yank Manager Bob Lemon. "He's out there throwing every day. Like a kid with a new toy."
"I hate to think about what John did out there today," said Boston Manager Don Zimmer, echoing the fears of every Yankee-hater who thought relief ace Rich Gossage's injury had doomed the champs.
"A left-hander pitches in Fenway and we don't get one good home run swing the whole day. The worst thing is," groaned Zimmer, "I don't think that darn John has broken a sweat yet."