"I always knew I couldn't be Godzilla every season . . . I just figured this was my year to wear the human suit . . . I've been lost out there on the mound for the first time . . . Vicissitudes? I've been traversing the Himalayas."
-- Dan Quisenberry -- Another day, another punishment from God. It's always darkest just before it gets black.
Few men meet bad luck with good humor like Dan Quisenberry. Never rich, handsome, strong or gifted, he saw the hand of a smirking fate in his own sudden and belated rise to fame. One day, he threw sidearm and was nobody. The next, he was ordered to chuck it underarm and, in an instant, became the most effective relief pitcher ever.
One day, he was giving up ninth-inning home runs and "trying to find out if you can drown yourself with a shower nozzle." The next, he had a sinker so mean that he could make fun of Reggie Jackson, saying, "Reggie hit one off me that's still trying to burrow its way to Los Angeles."
"I've seen it from both sides," he now says with the bemusement of a thin man who was told he'd never make the big leagues, yet recently agreed to a lifetime contract that could be worth $49 million if all cylinders kick in.
These are overcast times for the sardonic Quisenberry, who once said, "I've seen the future and it's much like the present, only longer." Lately, the present hasn't looked much like the past to him, so who knows about the future?
The Reliever Who Fell To Earth has, as you may have gathered, endured a miserable season. He has, at times, tried to decide whether to "kick the wall, see the first psychologist who comes along or try outside stimulants.
"For five years, I had an agreement with the ball: 'I won't throw you too hard as long as you go exactly where I want and move like a scared alley cat when you get near the plate.' I told the balls, 'I like you. I want you back.' "
Suddenly, the fickle balls of the American League have amnesia.
The defending West Division champion Kansas City Royals are 7 1/2 games out of first and Quiz thinks he knows why. "Me," he says. "If I'd had a normal season, we'd be about even."
Quisenberry has been so atrocious, in fact, that he has 18 saves, four victories and a 2.90 ERA. That's a 40 victories-plus-saves pace. For reference, Goose Gossage never has had a 40 victories-plus-saves season. Sparky Lyle had one, Rollie Fingers two.
"My wife tells me that two-thirds of the pitchers would love to have my numbers, but I'm not used to that. I don't enjoy them at all," says Quisenberry, who'll be the first to tell you about the six games he's lost, the leads he's blown and the inherited runners he's let score.
He knows the answer to today's Quiz. Sooner or later, what happens to a relief pitcher who allows 83 hits in 69 innings? He becomes a TV announcer.
The Case of the Quisenberry would interest Sherlock Holmes. Consider, if you will, a man who doesn't turn pro until he's 21, then has five mediocre minor league seasons. One day, a crusty manager (Jim Frey) says, "Try throwin' submarine. Why? 'Cause I say so, damn it."
For five years, our thin man, who looks like a junior high school math teacher or a young Plains minister, becomes the most effective reliever in the history of baseball. After becoming the first to have 50 wins-plus-saves ('83), he does it again the next year.
In the first half of the '80s, only one pitcher comes within 60 (sixty) saves of his 175 total. His first four full seasons (excluding the strike year of '81) are better than the best four years in the career of any other reliever ever. In those four years, Quisenberry has 189 wins-plus-saves. In their four best seasons, Bruce Sutter had 176, Fingers 154, Gossage 148 and Lyle 145. Forget the rest.
Then, Sherlock, our man gets that aforementioned little contract.
And the magic leaves.
Young and healthy at 32, full of good humor and fellowship, a modest and responsible sort if ever there was one, the man looks the same. But something's wrong.
Watson, take notes. Let the poor fellow tell his own story.
"I was typically mediocre in spring training. It slid downhill from there. Somewhere along the line I got lost in my mechanics. For seven to 10 days, I went out there with nothing. No movement, no location and, of course, no speed. My best pitch was my changeup. That's sad. We worked on getting my left foot to land further to the left than I (instinctively) wanted it to go. I had to open up three to eight inches more so I could keep my body down, my arm down.
"Even after I corrected the flaws, I still couldn't get a guy out. I've pitched stupidly on occasion since discovering my mechanical disability."
In his first dozen games, he had a 5.60 ERA and allowed 30 hits in 18 innings. Shudder. Once apparently straightened out, Quisenberry went 21 stunning games with a 0.84 ERA and 13 saves. He was back.
And then he wasn't. For a month now, Quisenberry has been back in the weeds, allowing 28 hits in 19 innings and torching both his own games and those of others.
Mused Quisenberry, "So many things have worked in the last five years, I was spoiled, like most successful pitchers. I thought that if you just throw it near where you want it, it will take care of itself.
"Now, I have to be much harder on myself. I never felt like an alien on the mound. I always thought I was just supposed to throw it on the corner, day in and day out . . .
"I know I was never supposed to get here (from the minors). But once I did, some kind of magic happened to me on that white slab. Hard-hit balls are supposed to find gloves or go foul. Rockets turn into double plays . . .
"If that changes," Quisenberry says, considering an athlete's worst nightmare, a basic change of luck, "I'm not going to sink."
But he's not going to like it, either. Quisenberry's the dutiful sort. Family man. Gets to the park four hours early. Team's union representative. Consensus captain of the all-Interview and all-Cordial team.
"When I'm pitching well, I'm part of the win, but I'm not the win. I finish what they've created over the course of two or three hours. I don't feel responsible for the victory, but I definitely feel responsible for the loss . . . I guess I have an alien attitude toward relief pitching."
Some in the Royals family feel that Quisenberry is too conscientious, that he feels too acutely the weight of his contract and/or his union duties in a strike year.
"I'm not a worrier about money because I never had a lot. I learned to live simply. Maybe my friends would know better whether I've changed much. It's never been a goal of mine to be megarich.
"If I fail, which I have, there are some who say it's the contract. They'd say that possibly I've laid down or that for some reason I'm not trying. I haven't read anything like that in the papers, but I get letters. I have to admit that I'm sensitive to that . . . In a sense (the contract) has made me bigger than I want to be . . . but I signed it. Whatever I do, whatever I sign, whatever I say, I have to live with it." Sensing that he's getting cliched and pretentious, Quisenberry says, "And add, 'Love means never having to say you're sorry.' "
From a narrow technical viewpoint, he knows his problems all too well. "I've got to start missing lower. That's my second-half goal. Or even miss low. Maybe I'll have to learn to walk some people," says Quisenberry, who has allowed the fewest walks per nine innings (1.19) of anyone since dead-ball days.
The results of his high strikes are obvious. Left-handers have a .331 average against him this year. Last season, that figure was .188. "I'm not walking many," he says, "but that's deceptive. I'm not making the two, three, four pitches on the corner (per at bat) that I need."
The past two seasons, Quisenberry's biggest worry was how in the world he could keep getting passed over for the Cy Young Award or most valuable player. Willie Hernandez of the Tigers won both last year, although Quisenberry, who had nine more wins-plus-saves, worked the whole season in a tight pennant race with an underdog team. Hernandez didn't even get the Tigers' top relief ob until they had a 10-game lead.
All Quisenberry says is that he thinks the MVP should go to day-to-day players, the Cy Young to starting pitchers and that he has a hard time visualizing a reliever deserving either.
But, he adds cryptically, "David Letterman's got a gap between his front teeth, so he can't be on prime time. Does that mean Johnny Carson is better? I have the same gap . . . But all I have to worry about is plaque."
Actually, Quisenberry wishes he could quit worrying. "I can't cry, complain, make excuses. I'm going to try to enjoy this season no matter what . . . That's easier mentally than emotionally . . . I'd be lying if I said I didn't worry about it. I've had some down times. Everybody has to face problems in their life. I figure, hang on when there's a storm. Sunshine, enjoy that . . .
"You know, in '83, people questioned whether Bruce Sutter's pitch would still get batters out. Then, last year, he came back to tie somebody's (all-time save) record. I don't know who it is," says the co-record holder.
Once upon a time, when Quisenberry was called The Royals Relief Flavor of the Month, the young phenom said that his big concern was whether he was stupid enough to be a relief pitcher. Since then, he's proved brains are no bullpen barrier and that it's possible to break just about all the records at your position and still be easy, regular, accomodating and funny.
Some things do change, however.
Of all Quiz's quips -- and he may be as proud of them as he is of his saves -- one is most famous. Asked what the best thing was about baseball, he said, "There's no homework."
There is now.