It has been a vintage year for Steve Stone.
"I guess I'm like a Haut-Brion, a first-growth French wine," said the Orioles' connoisseur. "It never, ever gets the recognition of a Lafite Rothschild, or a Chateau Latour. But it can be very surprising."
Indeed. Stone holds the Amrican League lead in games won, has a 12-3 record, and has been named to the All-Star team for the first time by Manager Earl Weaver. He may even start. "How good is he pitching?" said Weaver. "As good as any pitcher in baseball can pitch."
Fine wine usually does not travel very well. But Stone, 32, in his second year with the Orioles after bounching around the majors for 11 years, is doing his best to peel away the journeyman label.
Stone, who was 67-72 before coming to the Orioles, is 23-10 with Baltimore. "We obtained someone who everyone said was a below-.500 pitcher and in a year and a half, he's well over .500 and leading the league," said pitching coach Ray Miller.
Not to mention leading the Orioles, whom many believe have the best pitching staff in baseball. Stone's ERA, 3.04, is lowest among Oriole straters. There's Cy Young (Mike Flanagan) and Cy Old (Jim Palmer). "I guess that makes me Cy Short," said Stone.
At 5-feet-10, 175 pounds, he will never be confused with the statuesque Palmer. "People always told me I would never be able to pitch in pro ball, that I was too small. That I wasn't durable enough, that I couldn't start on three days' rest," he said. "I have heard a lot of can't-do's. But I knew if I wanted it, I could do it." h
His grandfather, Edward Manheim, wanted to live long enough to see his only grandson bar mitzvahed. "He lived through a seies of four major heart attacks and 10 minor ones," Stone said. "The emergency squad would come and take him away and they'd call and say 'this is it.' But I hadn't been bar mitzvahed yet, so it wasn't it."
Stone was bar mitzvahed Sept. 3, 1960. His grandfather died two months later.
"He did something there was no way he should have been able to do," Stone said. And now his grandson is not terribly surprised to find out what he can do. Besides, Ruth the Psychic told him it would happen. "I saw her when we were in California last month to play the Angels," he said."She told me my season would turn around when we played tthe team in green."
Stone did not pitch against the green and gold Oakland A's on the road trip. "But I've won five straight with four complete games since then," he said.
She also told him he would make the All-Star team (he was 6-3 at the time, and had had three consecutive no-decisiions) and that the pennant race "is going to be between the Orioles and the Yankees. "The Yankees are going to be tough," Ruth says, but we can get 'em."
Stone has replaced Dennis Martinez in the rotation. Martinez has gone south with his fast ball and Palmer has gone in an out of the rotation with injuries.
"We wouldn't have gone and spent all that money (reportedly $760,000 for four years) if we didn't think he could be a winning pitcher," said Weaver. "He's insurance."
"That's paid off," said Stone.
But no one dreams of growing up to be an insurance man.
"I wanted to be Sammy Davis Jr.," Stone said. A star. But "after awhile, you realize for your own sanity that you have to accept the role you are thrust in," he said. "There's no point in being bitter. If you're a spot starter, okay, you're a spot starter. You contribute andd do the best you can. But I said, 'If I'm ever fortunate enough to get the ball, I'm going to make sure to take advantage of it.'"
Early last year, he and Weaver battled over how much he would pitch and for how long. He was used to being on losing teams, where the only goals were the personal ones.
"Once last May," he recalled, "Scott McGregor got a no-decision in a game where he was ahead and the bullpen let in a couple of runs and then we came back to win. I said, 'It's pretty tough to let it slip away.' He said, 'It's okay, we won.' What amazed me was he was serious. A lot of the people I had been around would have been angry. His attitude has really helped me."
Then, just before the All-Star game, he and Weaver had it out. "We called each other names and I said, "Trade me,' and he said, 'I will if I can but if I can't find someone to do your job you'll be back next year.' Finally we both realized we wanted to win. I didn't lose another game after that."
Like the gourmet he is, he once served up a variety of pitches: a forkball as an appetizer, a palm ball for dessert. The main course has been his curve ever since the chill winds at Candlestick Park and a 1976 torn rotator cuff made his 95-mile-per-hour fastball less than piquant.
This year, Miller says, Stone is sticking to meat and potatoes; fast balls and curves. The fast ball is up to 87 mph, two or three faster than last year.And it looks better than that when he is getting his curve over, as he has been doing all year.
He also started working faster after Mark Belanger and Doug DeCinces started complaining that they could take a snooze between pitches. "Now they can't daydream and get lost in their thoughts," he said. "They are playing excellent defense."
He says he gets loose faster now, too, a fact he attributes to getting rid of some of the bulky muscles he developed using weights after his 1976 injury.
In short, he's cooking.
"If you throw under 82 mph, your ball sinks enough for you to get away with a few mistakes. If you throw over 88, you throw hard enough to get away with a few," he said. "Between 82-88 you have to hit your spots. I'm throwing the ball where I want to."
Most mothers want their sons to be doctors or lawyers. Stone's mother said, "I wanted him to be a pitcher . . . "
The night before he was born, his mother went to a Cleveland Indians game and told her distraught husband not to worry because if she had the baby in the stands, Bill Veeck would ggive her a lifetime pass.
Later, Stone's father threatened notto take him to anymore games after he "set the American League record for throwing up 13 straight times," the pitcher said. "So I cut out the sno-cones and the cotton candy."
When Jim Bouton's "Ball Four" was published, he cut out a quote that he carries in his wallet, when he carries a wallet.
It says, "You spend your life gripping a baseball, until one day you find out it was the other way around."
Stone is a published poet who hasn't writtten anything lately. He is part-owner of eight restaurants and does "very well (cooking with shrimp and veal," not to mention his pork lo mein.
But he does not think it will be easy to find the same satisfaction he gets from baseball anywhere else.And that makes him a little bit afraid of retiring.
After he won his 10th game this season, he called his parents at home in Cleveland. "He was excited," said his mother, Dorothy, "but not that excited." The next morning he called back. "You know," he said, "I don't think I sounded as excited as I really am."