The pieces of Steve Carlton are not much of a puzzle as a mosaic.
The person without a purpose, or a pattern is the true mystery, no matter how much he talks.
Silence is no barrier to understanding, if it is a silence, like Carlton's, that is surrounded by a lifetime of consistent and eloquent facts and acts.
To many, the Philadelphia Phillie pitcher seems to be baseball's richest enigma: the Southpaw Sphinx who, by his defiant silence and cultivated eccentricities, invites himself to be the subject of observation and deduction. e
Certainly, the behavior of the man who is the game's hottest pitcher of the moment is unique, and, at forst glance, inscrutable. Even Carlton's locker has no name or number above it, as though in the middle of a quasi-public plase his space could be invisible, inviolate and devoid of any traces of personality. A lair without scent.
"You have no right to look at my locker," Carlton said, his voice quivering with barely contorlled emotion, a bat on his shoulder, as he sought out a reporter in the Philadelphia dugout today. "I heard you looked at my locker."
And so, drawn up to full height as though looking down at a hitter, Carlton lectured for several minutes -- in the slightly off-center, out-of-focus manner of a man who is a bit daffty on one subject -- on the crime of looking at his possessions from a distance without his express permission.
"You've made a big mistake," he said, over and over, with ominous mystery.
To those who don't know Carlton, the scene might have seemed irrational, sad or comic. It actually was calculated, part of a deliberate pattern, and, from Carlton's perspective, totally justifiable.
The 35-year-old, 6-foot-5 pitcher with the 14-4 record and the 2.21 earned-run average is, and long has been, a student of force, mystique and intimidation. He is in search of a solitary, self-contained superiority, and he has discovered a nearly perfect place for it: the mound.
Carlton's energies -- sometimes even those that appear unrelated to baseball -- are dedicated to bringing more powerful tools of body and mind to his hilltop.
For the sake of longevity and trim waist in his baseball old age, the 219-pounder is a vegetarian.
For greater strength and leverage, better understanding of torque and the body's potential for building muscular tension, then releasing it in one explosion, Carlton is a disciple of the martial arts, kung fu in particular. He has, for four years, worked with a Phils trainer, Gus Hoefling, who love to talk about "positive and negative tension" and, generally, play the role of jock guru.
"Carlton does not pitch to the hitter, he pitches through him," explained former Phillie catcher Tim McCarver. "The batter hardly exists for Steve. He's playing an elevated game of catch."
Carlton is an introverted man of enormous intensity and pressure who is, while on the mound, seeking everything that is the opposite of his nature: peace, oblivious concentration, a trnace in which he can reach deep and use all of his resources.
So, he studies est and Eastern philosphies. He cultivates a private catcher with whom he has long discussions of every hitter so that their pitch-calling can be on the same wavelength with no distractions. Two minds as one, two ends of an exalted game of catch.
Because Carlton always has had a hair-trigger temper, a tendency as shortstop Larry Bowa puts it "to go crazy . . . but never in public, of course," the left-hander tries to categorically eliminate all factors that might disturb his work.
Unpires' bad calls are ignored. Fielding errors receive a slight, discusted shake of the head and then are forgotten. The cheers or boos of the crowd are not acknowledged. Eye contact with hitters, or even teammates, is avoided.
In everything, Carlton cultivates the impression that he is above the petty forces that influence others, a sort of baseball Zoroaster wrestling apart with the forces of evil.
In the Phils' yearbook, 17 players have homey portraits of themselves with their wives and children. Only Carlton and his bubbly wife Beverly ("she's the person I most admire") and his two sons are conspicuous by their absence.
In a survey of the tastes of the Phils, all 24 other players sought the regular guy image by listing favorite songs such as "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain."
Carlton took every opportunity to isolate himself. Favorite musicians: Jascha Heifetz, Jean-Pierre Rampal. People you'd most like to meet: Socrates, Einstein, Thomas Jefferson Napoleon, Jesus Christ, Ghandi.
There is no ideological common thread among these big names, except that most folks wouldn't know quite what to say to them over the soup and Carlton thinks he would.
One-upmanship, a fine knack for gaining a psycological advantage, is a strength of Carlton's pitching, but it also extends to hobbies such as his wine connoisseurship. Dine with Carlton and he's the guy who spent last summer touring the wineries in Burgundy. You may like the bouquet but he knew the grap personally.
Those who one-up Carlton merit his special attention. Johnny Bench is one of the few hitters who "owns" Carlton. "I can read him. I can almost tell what's coming," Bench has said. "It's like I'm thinking along with him."
Once, when Carlton was hunting with former teammate Joe Hoerner, Carlton missed a bird, then fired of a shot into the air.
"There," Carltton said, out of left field "That one's for Bench."
Few men have brought greater raw skills to pitching, or husbanded them more admirably. Carlton is pitching's rigorous, driven, art-for-art's sake master.
"What distinguishes Carlton is his command of every pitch almost every time out," said Pittsburgh's Willie Stargell, who has faced him for 16 seasons.
"You can find a key to other pitchers: he can't get his curve ball over tonight or he goes to his slider in a jam," Stargell said. "You find some thought that simplifies your job of getting a good pitch to attack.
"But Carlton won't discard a pitch or limit himself. He's always got the full arsenal going for him.
"Pitching is the art of destroying a hitter's timing," Stargell said. "Carlton understands that. He can take a little off, or put a little extra on all of his pitches."
"Just when you finally feel like you're screwed in on that damn curve ball of his, along about your third or fourth at-bat against him, your eyes light up and you think, 'I've got you now, Lefty,'" Pittsburgh's Phil Garnner said.
"Then, all of a sudden, it's a different curve ball -- he's pulled the string and you're out in front and on your way back to the dugout again.
"Carlton's got great stuff, espceially that slider down and in to righthanded hitters. But he's not really uncomfortable to hit against. What makes his so great -- the best, I think -- is that he flat knows how to pitch. mHe's always got your mind messed up."
On Saturday night here, the Phils released 2,883 balloons befre the game -- each the symbol of a strikeout conquest for the man who has more whiffs than any left-hander in baseball history. Those balloons were Carlton's cloud of glory.
"Carlton makes it look so easy 'cause he's worked so hard," Strugell said. "You can always tell an athlete who's reached a point where he's at peace with himself. You want your energy to flow, not to feel knotted. You don't want to be too sharp. You don't want to be too flat. Your just want to be natural.
"When you look at Carlton, that's how he is right now."
If only Veterans Stadium could be emptied before each game Carlton pitches, his athletic life would be perfect. From his promontory, Carlton looks down at a world of smaller men, hitters who are brought to their knees as they flail at his slider breaking into the dirt.
Talent and knowledge, study and endless regimen, have come together once more for Carlton, just as they did in 1972 when his record was 27:10 with a 1.98 ERA and 310 strikeouts for a Phils team that played in an anonyhmity merited by its 97 defeats. That seasont he only Philadelphia games that mattered were the ones Carlton pitched.
Then, Carlton, who meditates for an hour before he pitches, and jams cotton in his ears as he heads to the mound, had no need to seek solutide. Being a Phil sufficed.
But, with the emergence of a Phillie powerhouse, with the doubling of attendance and the redoubling of media scrutiny, Carlton began to realize that, although he was standing on a mound, thousands of others were looking down at him, down from the cheap seats, down from the press box. The man who played for no one but himself and who accepted no judgment but his own found himself pilloried by nonathletes with beer bellies and cigars.
Why, in the playoffs of 1976-'77-'78, did Carlton win only one of four starts with an ERA of 5.79? In a town that loves to castigate, Carlton was lumped with the rest of the Pholding Phillies.
The Phils became a burned and gun-shy team, leery of their fans and press. Sometimes they ducked the limelight, hid from reporters in little anterooms. And sometimes, when things were rolling, they basked in the glory.
Such vulnerability to glib public judgment was intolerable to Carlton. As early as 1975, the year the Phils became contenders, Carlton began closing his shell. And the silence deepended each year, until now it is complete.
"Baseball is a public game," Bowa tells Carlton. "We owe them something."
"It's our game," answers Carlton. 'We only owe them our performance."
"Carlton is a thoroughbred," Stargell explained, "not one of the nags. He isn't bred for defeat or injury or anything that limits him. The horse lives to race and the tghoroughbred athlete lives to perform.
"People don't understnad when they talk to us, when they ask foolish little things, that a thoroughbred's mind is always on one thing: that game, that day, that ballpark, that set of conditions. Sometimes I can go a whole game without knowing there's anybody in the stands."
Carlton and Stargell both have tried to tap the source of that force that allows athletes to perform at their thoroughbred best. Both will waltz into the Hall of Fame. Carlton, showing no signs of age (and with an as yet unrevealed knuckleball, years in the perfecting), may end his days as a 300 game winner and baseball's all-time strikeout king.
Stargell, however, has been blessed with that not too sharp, not too flat, but just natural tone off the field. His geniality, his compulsive camaraderie, feeds his performance as much as Carlton's pursuit of an intimidating superiority is necessary to his.
Stargell has plugged into the bright side of his game's force, while Carlton willingly has opted to be baseball's haughty dark lord.
So, we see that there are no secrets, dark or otherwise, in Steve Carlton's locker. Neither money nor fame controls him. Neither victory nor defeat fazes him.
With cotton in his ears, he stares down from his mound at his catcher. The hitter has been removed. The crowd has been removed. Those who praise or blame him have been removed.
Carlton, in that moment of supreme intensity to which he subordinates all else, is a great thoroughbred -- blinders in place -- getting ready for a private game of catch.