When Pete Vuckovich was born, his umbilical cord was wrapped three times around his throat and he was a blue baby. They put him in an incubator for a month to see if, maybe, he would live.
"That's where they put me. They didn't give me any choice," says the Milwaukee Brewer pitcher, who considers this just his sort of bleak, oblique humor.
"The cord was around my neck thrice," he says, enjoying the sound of "thrice." "So, I've always thought the third time was a charm."
When Vuckovich was a teen-ager, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and came a little too close to an exposed 15,000-volt cord from a temporary reactor.
"I didn't quite step on it," says the fellow whose 18-6 record this season has helped his Brewers into the World Series, and who is a narrow favorite to be voted the Cy Young Award as the American League's outstanding pitcher.
Next, at age 21, perhaps to celebrate reaching adulthood in one piece, Vuckovich drove off a foggy road over an 80-foot embankment at 100 mph.
"Actually, 105 miles an hour," says Vuckovich, who thinks a brush-with-death tale is hardly worth telling if you can't concentrate on getting all the gory details exactly right. "Rolled over more times than I could count."
Having avoided death three times, Vuckovich now chooses other, slightly less dangerous threes.
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound right-hander called "Vuke" knows the rules allow him to throw three balls to a hitter without giving up a walk. So, almost as often as not, he does. He gets further behind, works deeper in counts, throws more pitches and generally contradicts more canons of pitching with more success than anybody else in baseball.
Also, Vuckovich realizes that, since there are three empty bases, you can permit a runner to get on each of them and still not allow a run. Vuckovich gets himself into more trouble than any other excellent pitcher in baseball; he's made a career of escaping jams. When the bases are loaded and the hitter's ahead in the count, it often seems Vuckovich is in control.
This season, Vuckovich allowed 341 runners on base in 223 innings, a ratio that would send 99 percent of pitchers back to the minors; factoring in his team's errors, Vuckovich averages 14 men on base per game, yet his ERA of 3.34 is one of the five best in the American League.
To call Vuckovich an enigma wrapped in a mystery would be to make the big fellow's day. There's nothing he likes better than to confuse and disorient folks.
Vuckovich likes to play dumb, saying, "Don't ask me any tough questions, 'cause I'm not too smart." In fact, he's been to college (Clarion State) and is known within the sport as one of the big leagues' preeminent students of the game.
If pressed, he says, "I watch everything and everybody . . . I've got a book on 'em all . . . I'm deep into pitchers against hitters.
"Every time a game is on TV, I watch. I want to see hitters every chance I can get. I want to see how they react to a pitch, what they're lookin' for, what they hit and where they hit it, in every kind of situation . . .
"Every pitch hinges off the first pitch (to that hitter). You take it from there . . . not some other game or some other at bat. You incorporate what you see on each pitch into what you're going to do on the next one. It's simple, but it's not easy . . .
"Nobody pays any attention to you until you have some success," adds Vuckovich, who, after the lucky third trade of his career (from Toronto to the Chicago White Sox to St. Louis to Milwaukee) has gone 32-10 over the past two seasons. "Then they all come around digging in your head. Then, you clam up. I'm not tellin' much . . .
"The dumber you act, the more they try to get a step ahead of you," says Vuckovich. "I like it when they try to get ahead of me."
If Vuckovich wore a crewcut, preppie clothes and always smiled and said, "Yes, ma'am," he'd probably still be a pretty scary dude. This guy wasn't supposed to look warm and friendly. As an occupational indulgence, Vuckovich has taken his considerable natural advantages in the intimidation line and worked on his appearance until, generally speaking, he looks like Ghengis Kahn's bodyguard.
Long curly hair. Fu Man Chu mustache. Stubble beard when he pitches. Reflector sunglasses in his program photo. Baggy uniform on his huge, hard but extremely unstreamlined body. Even his number -- 50 -- is defiantly unstylish.
The Brewers take pride in being the Dalton Gang, a group of rowdy-looking gamers. Vuckovich, Gorman Thomas, Mike Caldwell and Rollie Fingers set the tone.
Actually, to those who know him, Vuckovich is considered both very funny and very friendly. He'll laugh at himself much faster than most players, although it would be unwise for you to laugh at him.
His strongest loyalties are to the team. He judges others by their directness, their dependability. For instance, not to play hurt -- and many in baseball think that Vuckovich's shoulder has been killing him for weeks -- would be outside his code of baseball honor. "I get paid to take the ball (to pitch) when they give it to me, and I get paid to give it back when they ask for it," he says.
In commenting on General Manager Harry Dalton, Vuckovich shows some of his own values: "Harry's very bright, but he's down to earth, too. He's got brains, but he can get down here and feel what makes these guys tick . . . He hurts when you hurt. He wants to know everything that's going on."
Vuckovich's wit is usually edged, gauged as much to measure the listener's response as to get a laugh. Asked what pitch was working best in Sunday's fifth playoff game, Vuckovich answered, "Nothing." Queried about why he thought Cardinal Manager Whitey Herzog traded him, the lumbering Vuckovich responded, "Whitey wanted to build a team on speed and I never really ran that well."
As age 30 approaches in two weeks, Vuckovich is no longer the hell-raising devil he likes to appear. "I don't want to roll over any more cars, or anything like that," he says. "I've got a wonderful wife and two children."
When California's Don Baylor walked into the Brewers' clubhouse after Sunday's final game to offer the winners congratulations, Vuckovich shook his hand and said, "Thanks. That's very classy." Then, addressing Baylor's son, he said, "You be like your father. A gentleman."
However, for a few more days, Pete Vuckovich will have to be the menacing, mysterious Vuke, working out of jams, bamboozling hitters with his savvy, enduring on the mean mound despite the wear and tear of a long season.
As Cardinal coach Hub Kittle, who pitched in six decades, said when he first saw his old friend here this week, "Hello, Pete, baby. Let's go play hardball."