Yogi Berra, a baseball Hall of Famer also famed for his impact on the language, is best known for such of his profundities as "It ain't over till it's over." That gem is now often appropriated by public figures eager to equate themselves with Yogi's simple doctrine of hope.
But there is another important if lesser-remembered Yogi aphorism that will serve as the theme of this text: "You ain't got a bullpen, you ain't got nothin'." This was delivered by Berra in 1973 after his reliever, Tug McGraw, wrapped up the game that got his Mets into the National League playoff.
It is now that time of year again when the ballots are being asked for in the new voting for canonization at Cooperstown. And there is a nominee, too long ignored, too readily rejected in the 10 years he has been eligible.
A rousing vote is being cast here for Mr. Bullpen Himself, for the Royal Nonesuch of the relief pitching art, for the most glowingly preposterous relief pitching record ever put into the books -- 22 consecutive victories. A vote here for the 5-foot-7, 153-pound shrimp who for 16 years faced down all the great ones. For ElRoy Face, of the Pirates, circa 1953-69.
Those writers who did the balloting gave him only 65 votes last year, far fewer than the 302 required for enshrinement, and that was a bloody shame considering Face's credentials, as well as an insult to the numbers.
But for this, Face could find forgiveness with his easy philosophy of "Well, I guess some of those writers now doing the voting never saw me pitch."
If they had, they'd have seen the master -- fork ball, curve ball, fast ball and slider, all coming out of that stubby little fist of the pitcher of whom Mickey Mantle once said, "He grabs that ball, roughs it up and then looks like he's feeling sorry for the hitter."
This was said during the 1960 World Series when Face saved three of the Pirates' four victories, and Mantle added, "He looks like he's trying to outsmart everybody. You look for his good fork ball and he gives you all that other stuff."
If they had seen ElRoy Face pitch, those baseball writers newly enfranchised with the vote, they'd have seen the fellow of whom Pittsburgh Manager Danny Murtaugh said, "Our game plan is always to get ahead and then bring in ElRoy."
The numbers that Face put into the books are most compelling. How about a relief pitcher who won his last five appearances in 1958, and then stretched it to 22 consecutive victories in 1959 with an 18-1 season and a forever-unmatched winning percentage of .947.
No relief man ever matched his 18 victories in a single season, and when he retired in 1969 he had major league records also for the most career games won by a reliever, for the longest winning streak by any kind of pitcher, and a tie with Walter Johnson for most games played with the same club, 802. And, oh yes, he was chosen for six National League All-Star teams.
These were not one-shot credentials like those of Perfect World Series Game hero Don Larsen, but powerful records compiled over 16 seasons that sadly have yet to be recognized as Face's authentic road to Cooperstown.
How did ElRoy react when his 22-game winning streak was broken with the help of a broken-bat hit by Charlie Neal of the Dodgers? He didn't fuss, saying, "Well, I guess I'll just have to start another streak." Was he embittered when he was cut successively by the Tigers and Montreal in 1968-69? He had then just entered his 40s. "I've still got my carpenter's union card and can always go back to pounding nails," he said.
Who was ElRoy Face off the pitching mound? To begin with, he was born in Stephenton, N.Y., in 1928, the son, brother and nephew of carpenters, whose trade he was to follow after 20 years of baseball. Along the way he learned how to pitch in high school, and how to strum his "guit-ar" and lead his teammates in sing-alongs of "You Are My Sunshine" and "Carolina in the Morn-ing" and "Somebody Stole My Gal."
As a boy, his health chart was unpromising. "They tell me I had rickets at 5, which made my bones soft, and then I had pneumonia five times growing up," said Face. "But things worked out after that."
Joe Page, the old Yankees reliever, is sometimes credited with teaching Face's fork ball, the pitch thrown by wrapping the index and middle fingers around the ball away from the stitches. It is thrown with a hard motion, usually by big guys like Page and Ernie Bonham, not scrawny ones like ElRoy. It doesn't rotate and, at best, drops off the table when it nears the batter.
"Page showed it to me in the minors at Fort Worth one day," said Face, "but he didn't teach it to me. I worked it out for myself."
Face originally was signed by Branch Rickey for the Dodgers, but when Rickey moved to Pittsburgh he drafted Face out of the Dodgers' farm system. He made it to the Pirates after four years in the minors when his fork ball was already devastating. His Pittsburgh teammates, startled by his size, called him "half a buc." But ElRoy was soon to be one of their big guys on teams that also boasted Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Dick Groat and Bill Virdon.
The single episode in Face's 16-year stint in the majors that must be ranked with baseball's all-time heroics was his feat against the Cincinnati Reds. Get the picture: ElRoy goes in with nobody out, Reds on first and second. One pitch later, everybody out, the side retired, the Reds kaput.
Triple play? Uh-uh. Then there had to be at least a double play in there? No. ElRoy simply picked the guy off first with his first throw. Then he picked the man off second with his next throw. Then he got the batter on a fly out with his first pitch of the inning. Three outs. Three throws, but only one pitch. Yea, ElRoy.
He is back to carpentering now. For years, Face was taking care of items like repairing knocked-out windows in Pittsburgh's Mayview Hospital for the Criminally Insane as foreman of the maintenance crew. He'd like to be in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, he has said. The sentiment here is that by all the reasoning that is decent and just, he should be. On the next ballot, due in January.