Little did the Seattle Mariners know the trouble they were in the night of Sept. 3, 1980. They shoulda stood in bed, for all the good it would do to hit against Steve Stone. At 3 o'clock that day, Stone said, he began a meditative trance so deep that at its end he wiggled his right shoulder and thought, "Hmmm, a complete game and my arm feels great."
Stone then noticed a clock.
It said 5:32.
Stone's arm felt great because he hadn't thrown a pitch yet, except in his mind, where he shut out the helpless Mariners, and that, for sure, was Seattle's big problem, because they would face a pitcher who believed he could get out anybody anytime anywhere.
"For 50 games from the middle of '79 to the end of 1980," Stone said of his pitching, "there was just a certain amount of enchantment."
Stone's out-of-trance four-hitter against Seattle that September was his last piece of sensational work. A mediocrity with arm trouble before joining the Orioles in 1979, Stone was his league's best pitcher in '80 with a 25-7 record. But the flight toward the sun, however enchanted a romantic might see it, soon melted his wing, or, as the dugout realists say so coldly, Stone came to the party late and left early.
It hurt Stone to say goodbye at a retirement press conference today, just as it hurt the last two seasons every time he threw. He stopped reading a statement, his voice breaking, at the part about his friends here. He hasn't pitched since spring, his elbow in pain even after two sets of cortisone shots. In April he knew his time was up, and he ruled out surgery with its 1 1/2-year rest that might, maybe, fix the tendinitis.
At 34, poetic and handsome, Stone hopes to work in broadcasting while running a restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz. He's also writing a book on "my psychic experiences, with baseball as a backdrop . . . I believe I'm Everyman in every way, an average performer who achieved an extraordinary goal by the refinement of the mental processes."
"We thought Steve was on the threshold of greatness," said Hank Peters, the Orioles' general manager. "No one thought that 1980 was the end of that career . . . I guess the good Lord only gives a fella so many pitches."
So wonderful was the enchantment, so precious the passing moment which Steve Stone stretched into 15 months of Everyman's dream, that he freely paid the dearest price asked of a pitcher. He gave away his arm.
With the Cubs in 1976, he couldn't hold a pound weight with his right arm extended. The team doctor, Stone said, didn't know what was wrong but suggested, anyway, giving Stone four cortisone shots across the back of his shoulder and one in the front.
"The guy can't make a diagnosis, but he wants to shoot me up," Stone said today. "So I told him, 'I don't know what's right, but I know that's wrong.' "
The problem turned out to be a torn rotator cuff, which Stone repaired on his own (with his new team, the White Sox), and two seasons later came to Baltimore. He argued the first half of '79 with Earl Weaver, asking to start regularly, and didn't lose in 13 starts the last half (going 5-0).
"That set up '80," Stone said.
What follows is a long speech, but it tells everything about Stone's brief, shining moment . . .
"It wasn't terrible pain as far as walking around, but I could feel it whenever I extended myself. And I do so much with my wrist as far as turning over on the fast ball, throwing the curve ball, throwing the slider. That, the last part of the delivery, snapping the ball, that's the inhibiting factor.
"There's not a pitcher over 25 who doesn't hurt in one spot or another. That's the nature of the game . . . You do whatever you have to do to overcome that pain. And there are days when it hurts a little bit more than others, and those are days perhaps when you don't do very well.
"But this particular pain was inhibiting to my performance. It wasn't something that you can live with because I could go out on the mound and not be able to do the things I know I have to do to be successful. More than a lot of the other guys, it was maybe emotion and desire that was able to get me through. I don't think I had the overwhelming physical talent, and never being a great pitcher I yet experienced a great year and a half.
". . . And it certainly had to do with the ability to throw 60 and 70 curve balls a game. When that was taken away from me physically, it really spelled the end . . .
"When you throw that many curve balls a game, you are borrowing tomorrow's pitches . . . but I was in a pennant race--we were looking the Yankees in the eye the last six weeks--and I was also pitching for the Cy Young Award.
"That, combined with the fact I made 37 starts, pitched 251 innings--far more than I'd ever done before--led to an eventual weakening of the elbow that caused me a chronic case of tendinitis that eventually ended my career."
Someone asked if it was worth it.
"Every bit of it," Stone said quickly, firmly.