Before this World Series is over, or frozen stiff, whichever comes first, the Pirates' relief pitcher, Kent Tekulve, will take his place in the history of malnutrition alongside Ichabod Crane, who if just as skinny did not have a sinker to match Tekulve's.
How skinny is Tekulve?
His team's name is on his uniform this way . . . P I R A T E S
If Kent Tekulve had pine tar on his shins, Dave Parker could hit .320 with him. This guy is so skinny that when his eyes are bloodshot, cars stop in front of him waiting for the lights to change. "Somebody one time said I was so skinny I could be the poster child for scurvy," said Tekulve, who is a collector and goodhumored admirer of how-skinny lines.
The Pirates, who won a National League pennant because Tekulve was the best relief pitcher in the league, love their moving flagpole so much that pitcher Jim Rooker, a pillar of wisdom who once hid in a beer cooler to frighten his buddies, has anointed Tekulve "His Ugliness."
"Tekulve looks like Monzo Monzaniti," said the Dodgers' Don Sutton, drawing a picture of the 6-foot-4, 160-pound, sharp-faced guy in a double-breasted suit and big felt hat. "You know Monzo.He's the guy who goes up to somebody and says in a low growl, 'Come wid me. My boss-a, he wants-a to see you-a outside.'"
By putting down the Orioles in order in the ninth inning of the second game, Tekulve preserved the Pirates' 3-2 victory. He struck out the first two men he faced, inducing Rick Dempsey and Kiko Garcia into foolish swings at unhittable pitches.
In tonight's third game, an 8-4 Baltimore victory, Tekulve retired six more hitters in a row in the eight and ninth innings.
What Tekulve is, far more than a skeleton in spikes, is a time-proven master of one of baseball's most difficult jobs. He is a master who rose to a level of competence beyond even his imaginings. He is a relief pitcher who struggled 6 1/2 seasons in the minor leagues -- with big-shots telling him he'd never make it -- before he could convince anyone, even himself, that he had the control, guile and courage to work in the big leagues.
Now in his fifth full season with the Pirates, Tekulve worked in 94 games this year, a club record, winning 10 and saving 31 others on an earned run average of 2.82. He did it with what he has called a "onequarter" delivery, as opposed to the more normal three-quarter, which means Tekulve throws the ball below sidearm level, right next to submarine. His knuckles might scrape the mound someday.
"The funniest thing anybody ever said about it was from Doug Flynn a Mets' infielder)," Tekulve said, "I was warming up and Doug yelled at me, 'If God wanted you to throw like that, He'd have put your arm on your hip.' Well, that is where God put your arm, down by your side. He didn't make it over your head."
Whatever God's anatomical purpose, big-shot baseball people don't like sidearm pitchers and they recoil at the sight of submariners. The pirate farm system boss in 1969, Harding Peterson, now the team's general manager, told Tekulve he would never get major league hitters out with that heretical delivery. A right-handed sidearmer is said to be easy pickings for left-handed hitters.
"Every year, at contract time, I remind Pete that he isn't always right," Tekulve said. Satisfaction added 10 pounds to his bones at that moment.
Tekulve grew up in Cincinnati, a Reds' fan. In his second year of pro ball he realized that his fast ball moved more -- sinking, mainly -- if he brought his arm below the dead sidearm level. He immediately thought of an old Reds' pitcher, submariner Ted Abernathy.
"I had watched him throw and I tried to throw the way I remembered him doing it," Tekulve said.
Those 6 1/2 seasons in Geneva and Salem, Waterbury and Sherbrooke and Charleston earned Tekulve a spot with the Pirates in late 1974. He failed then because he tried to pitch differently in the bigs than in the bushes. In nine innings over eight games, he gave up six runs.
"I thought if you didn't throw every pitch knee-high on the corner, they would hit home runs," Tekulve said. "I didn't realize those guys foul off mistakes right down the middle, too. The next year, I realized that what's good enough to get you there is good enough to keep you there."
Every season since, Tekulve has worked an increasing number of games: from 34 to 64, 72 to 91 to 94. And now even he is amazed by Kent Tekulve.
"I always believed I could get big-league hitters out, but I don't know if I ever thought I could achieve the level I have, setting club records," he said.
As unusual a sight as Tekulve is on the mound -- the Stork from Ork -- and as rare as successful submariners are -- Gene Garber is the other working now -- Tekulve's preeminence is based on more solid stuff than mere unorthodoxy.
He comes with a sinker that describes a baffling arc as it first rises from Tekulve's submarining right hand and then plummets before it reaches the hitter. As Bruce Sutter does with his sinking fork ball and Tommy John with his sinking fast ball, a Tekulve with his submarine torpedo forces hitters into ground balls all night long.
Now 32, Tekulve says he might pitch another eight years. He is a simple man whose diet is fast-food hamburgers and six-packs of beer. If Mike Marshall knows with a kinesiologist's certainty why he can pitch 100 games, Tekulve couldn't care less. "I just do it," he said. "My idea is to fire until you fall and when you fall, you take a day off and then begin firing again. . . . I've never had any trouble with my arm -- maybe because there's no muscles in it." Unorthodox or not, simplistic or not, skinny for certain, Kent Tekulve is already a World Series star. That, more than anything in the 12 years of hard work, is what pleases him the most.
"Tonight," he said after Thursday's game when someone asked him to name his best moment. "Every player's dream is to play in a World Series. Secondly, he wants to do well and contribute to the the club winning. The first time out, to get to do all three of them . . ."
Someone then noticed Tekulve's thermal underwear and suggested he, like Joe Namath, might want to do a pantyhose commercial to cash in on his fame.
"They don't want my legs in commercials," Tekulve said. "Those guys might be proud of their wheels, but I'm not proud of this set. As long as they get me to the mound, is all I want."