"Me and pedestals just don't get along." -- Ron Guidry, pitcher, New York Yankees
Three years ago, they were ready to bronze him.
"Three years ago, he was God," said Dave Revering of the Oakland A's. "Now he's just one of the disciples. How fast was he? How fast is God?"
Guidry, who pitches tonight against Oakland, is 3-2, with a 4.19 earned run average. He knows what they are saying about Louisiana Lightning: that the storm has spent its fury, the worst (or best) is past. Guidry, who is too understated to thunder, says, "So what if people say, 'He's lost this, he's lost that, he's not the same.' Let 'em say it after 10 years, after I've accumulated the record I'm going to come out with."
His lifetime record is 79-31, a winning percentage of .718. He has won 63 games since 1978, more than any pitcher in the American League, and one fewer than Tommy John, who has the most in baseball. Guidry won only 17 last season (3.56 ERA) and 18 (2.78 ERA) the season before, despite spending a month or more each year minding the bullpen instead of his stats.
But rarely has he seemed as overpowering as he was in 1978, when he struck out 18 Angels one night with a slider that seemed to implode and a fast ball that did the opposite. His record was 25-3. He won the Cy Young award, a wiry little guy with bow legs and curly hair who did a little hop as he hurled off the mound.
"In, out, up, down, I didn't care," Guidry said. "It was 'No experience needed.'"
Few figures in sports are as romantic as a strikeout pitcher, particularly a 160-pound one. But Guidry (now sixth in the league in strikeouts) does not consider himself a strikeout pitcher. And he does not seem to feel the need to be that overpowering again.
In the spring of 1979, Guidry says, he decided that he wasn't going to throw as hard as he could on every pitch. His arm needed a month to recover from 1978 and that had something to do with it. "When it's tired, it just hangs like dead weight," he said. "When I was walking around, I felt like I was hanging on one side."
So, he reasoned, "Why should I go out and abuse myself? I could throw hard on every pitch like I used to but I don't have to."
He sighed. "It's a shame to say. I used to throw 93-94 (as in miles per hour). Now I average 91. So, I'm losing something. I've gone down drastically. . . People don't come up to Tommy John and say that. If he can win like that, why can't I? Why can't I save my arm and win?"
Stan Williams, the Yankee pitching coach, said, "Ronnie has seen TJ have the same type of success without busting his rear end on every pitch. Others seem so relaxed, getting people out with that slow sinker. So he says, 'Maybe I can do that and conserve myself'. . . But he's just not that type of pitcher."
Williams does not believe the theory that says an arm has only x number of pitches. "I believe if you use it properly, you strengthen the muscles and increase the chances of lasting longer."
Reggie Jackson says Guidry is not as dominating with his fast ball as he once was. "I think he's changing his style as a pitcher."
Guidry put his thumbs together and measured the space between his index fingers. "Who can say for sure, if I've lost anything. That much can't make that much of a difference. That's the difference between fouling a ball off and missing it."
Revering said, "He's lost about a foot."
Others say the real difference in Guidry is his slider, which used to lbreak down and in quite viciously on right-handed hitters. "He used to be able to get a lot of guys to chase it down low," said Ken Singleton of the Orioles. "He got a lot of strikeouts out of the strike zone. Now, he gets it up higher sometimes. You can see it coming. But he's still no picnic."
Last season, Guidry says, the slider took a summer vacation. The problem was mechanical, having to do with opening his shoulder instead of closing it. Clyde King, the Yankee superscout who put on a uniform and tutored Guidry on his delivery, says Guidry had the best slider and the best stuff he's had since 1978 two weeks ago in Detroit, when he pitched eight innings, giving up five hits and striking out seven. But in his next start in Oakland, he packed it in after 2 2/3 innings and two home runs.
There are those who believe that Guidry must develop another pitch. "I think all pitchers need a third pitch," said King. "If ever there was a pitcher who doesn't need one, it's Ron Guidry."
"He (Yankee owner George Steinbrenner) feels if I don't have a third pitch, I can't last another five, six years," Guidry said.
Guidry doesn't agree. He says he is working on a changeup, but "by the time I master it, I'll be gone, retired. . . If I throw it twice a game, will it add a year to my longevity? What would constitute longevity, throwing a changeup four times a game or not throwing the fast ball as hard?
"I sit down here and I think about Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver," Guidry said. "Were they asked those questions at age 30? Now, at 34, Ryan is throwing as hard as ever. Were they wondering whether he burned out?"
Longevity is a sensitive issue in the era of long-term contracts. Guidry's contract with the Yankees expires at the end of the year. Originally, Guidry was asking for something close to $6 million for five years. But, he says, "The dollar figure has been wiped off the board. The big question is the years."
The contract negotiations, he says, may be why his loss of velocity is being discussed.
You mean it's a negotiating ploy to bring down the asking price?
"That's probably what it is," he said.
Steinbrenner could not be reached for comment.
Guidry, who exudes the pride of the Yankees that their owner likes to talk about, does not seem terribly concerned about payoffs. After the 1978 season, he turned down a car commercial, a cologne commercial "and a spot on Fantasy Island," he says. "I would not have cashed in if I had 10 years like that."
Guidry finds it much harder to ask for an autograph than give one, but he does it anyway. After the 1980 winter Olympics, he met a couple of the members of the U.S. hockey team. "They said, 'What do you want our autograph for, we want yours.' I understand how they feel.
"Everyone says, 'I wish I could have a season like Ron Guidry had in '78, he said. "I had it early in my career. Everything else is overshadowed. But I don't want to be known for one great season. I want to be known as a consistent pitcher."
Perhaps, Williams said, "he's trying to bail out of the limelight and be one of the masses instead of being on the pedestal."
Guidry wonders. "Do people honestly want one or two years like 1978 or an average of 18-19 wins for the next six?"
The question is, which does he want? Certainly, anyone with an ego that demanded recessed lighting would not have been able to make the choice Guidry says he has made: to choose not to be spectacular.
Guidry smiled. "That's me," he said.