Jeff Torborg, the New York Yankee bullpen coach, knows fast balls the way Col. Sanders knew drumsticks.
Torborg was behind the plate the day Sandy Koufax pitched his perfect game in 1965. When Don Drysdale spun his fifth consecutive shutout in '68, Torborg was the Dodger catcher. And when the Nolan Ryan Express got a no-hitter in '73, it was Torborg in Angel gear.
Now, it's Rich Gossage and Ron Davis -- the Goose and Gander of baseball's best bullpen -- who have been directly under Torborg's charge for going on three years.
When Gossage and Davis take off their warmups, the man standing just behind them, critiquing their mechanics, stoking their adrenaline, is Torborg, the clean-cut, 39-year-old Rutgers graduate and former Cleveland manager who will be head coach at Princeton University next year.
Yes, Torborg is the keeper of the flames.
"Sometimes the fans behind the bullpen are just a few feet away from you," he says. "As soon as Goose and Davis get up, you can feel their faces pressing against the screen to see. At first, it's nothing. But then, gradually, the velocity builds and builds and the glove starts cracking louder. I'll glance over at them, and their eyes are bugged out and their mouths are wide open like they're at the climax of an Alfred Hitchcock horror movie.
"You can see them thinking, 'My God, what would it be like to catch that?' "
Or, as the Milwaukee Brewers have discovered in the American League East playoff, it's awfully hard to hit it.
"I've never seen such sheer heat come out of a bullpen," says Brewer Manager Buck Rodgers. "I doubt if anybody ever has."
"I've caught 'em all," Torborg says. "Koufax, Drysdale, Ryan, Gossage and Davis are all at that last level where you just can't believe that a ball can be thrown any harder by a human being. But their fast balls are all different.
"Davis has a Drysdale (sidearm) delivery and Drysdale velocity, though Don maybe threw a little harder. But Ronnie's still a thrower where Drysdale was a complete pitcher with a slider and control and an idea. Davis throws the ball at the center of the plate and it just explodes in all directions, depending on how he grips it.
"When I first came here (on Aug. 1, 1979, a week after being fired following three years as the Indians' manager), I thought that senility had set in. I went down to the bullpen to warm up Davis and I couldn't catch the ball. I was dropping and bobbling everything. I thought, 'My Lord, I've lost my good hands. My body's died.'
"Then Davis started teasing me, asking how old I was. They really had me going. Then Davis said, 'Coach, it's not you. It's me. Nobody can catch me the first time. My ball just moves around too much.' "
While Torborg, quite justly, is not about to put young Davis in the same breath with probable Hall of Famer Drysdale, he is not as cautious in praise of Gossage.
"With other pitchers, you stand behind them to study mechanics, but you actually have to catch them to see the rotation on the ball and how it's moving," says Torborg. "Except with Gossage. You can see the action on his rockets from all over the park.
"Goose is like Koufax and Ryan. He throws closer to over the top and has to stay on top of his delivery. At times, when he's really sharp, Goose is right there with Sandy and Nolan on the fast ball. Of course, Koufax had the best curve ball in baseball, and Ryan had one of the biggest breaking curves.
"I guess I couldn't think of a bullpen with two throwers as hard as Gossage and Davis are right now."
Torborg adds, as all the Yankees do, that Dave LaRoche (4-1, 2.49 ERA in 47 innings) and George Frazier (1.63 ERA in 28 innings) might be considered a pretty decent bullpen by themselves. LaRoche, a Torborg special project for years, is eighth in history in career saves. And Rudy May has seen intermittent, but excellent, duty in the Yankee pen the last three years.
"There are some fairly crazy people down in that pen," says May. "Nobody's quite got a full deck."
LaRoche, who now throws a 20-foot-high pitch that he calls "le lob," introduced himself to Torborg years ago in Cleveland by setting the bullpen on fire. All of it. "It just started with the wood floor and some papers," recalls Torborg, "but when the bench caught fire, you could see a trail of smoke going up from anywhere in the park."
Torborg informed the culprits, led by LaRoche, that, "You guys better enjoy this."
"Why?" asked LaRoche.
"Because," answered Torborg, "it may cost more than you think to buy this town a new bullpen."
Now, the Yankee bullpen is a dull place. Oh, sure, LaRoche took a hose and wet down everybody in midgame this season, but, as May says, "We were kind of expecting it. LaRoche has always tended to be what you'd call a source of problems and he'd been looking funny at that hose all year. I mean, what's a fireman without a hose."
And, of course, the bullpen derelicts, led by Gossage, trade autographed balls for the hottest nachos they can barter from bleacher vendors. "Let's get some heat in this bullpen," they say.
Standards are so high in the Yankee pen that perceptions often are warped. As bullpen catcher Dom Scala says, "What they throw to me looks like little black aspirin tablets."
Once this summer, Torborg and Scala agreed that Davis didn't have much stuff warming up. They called the dugout to say, "Be careful with Davis. Better keep somebody warmed up."
Naturally, Davis popped up the first batter, then struck out a relief record eight men in a row.
"Well," says Torborg, shamefaced, "it's not an exact science. Maybe we get spoiled."
Recalls Scala, "The guys in the dugout told us, 'The next time you geniuses got somethin' to tell us, do us a favor, don't.' "