Ed Whitson is the only athlete in America for whom total silence is the loudest possible ovation. That's because Whitson is the only athlete, perhaps ever, who is so hated, reviled and threatened in his home city that he can only show his face on the road.
On Monday night in Kansas City, the New York Yankees pitcher finally heard that delicious sound of silence. In the first inning, as the Royals scored two runs, the crowd was festive, but once Whitson got his sinker working, retiring 13 of 14 batters at one point before leaving in the seventh inning, the park grew beautifully quiet.
For the first time since he kicked and punched Billy Martin last September; for the first time since he was booed so viciously in this season's second game in Yankee Stadium that he said he could no longer pitch there, Whitson won a ball game.
That's a far cry from a happy ending to one of baseball's ugliest and most symbolic stories. But it's a start.
"Finally I've proven what I can do when I'm not thinking about nails under my car and who's waiting for me in the parking lot," said Whitson, who has found three-inch nails behind his car wheels at his New Jersey home and who was once followed across the George Washington Bridge by a car full of drunks who lay in wait for him in the Yankees' parking lot long after midnight.
"I know it's a long season and a lot can happen, but I feel so happy. I'm tickled pink. I'm going to sit back for a couple of days on this one and really enjoy it. It's been some time since I could go to the hotel room and sit back and relax . . . . I want to marinate in this for a couple of days."
It might be all he has to enjoy. It was only a fortnight ago that the Yankees agreed to let Whitson out of what his agent calls "a living nightmare" and allow him to be the first road-only starting pitcher. Now, after one slim win, Manager Lou Piniella already says he has to "sleep on" the decision whether to start Whitson this Saturday in Yankee Stadium. Most assume Piniella is waiting for a phone call from upstairs.
All Whitson can say is, "I'll do whatever they want. Put it that way."
In baseball, folks believe in a lot of macho cliches. Tough it out. Don't rub. Get back in the box as soon as you can after you've been beaned. Thurman Munson once wrote to Goose Gossage, saying, "I took your best shot right on the elbow, you big donkey, and I'm still playing."
For regular folks, playing in New York can be tougher than that. As Mike Flanagan put it, "I could never play in New York. The first time I came into a game there, I got in the bullpen car and they told me to lock the doors."
That's funny. But what happens to new, rich free-agent Yankees, who must pass the city's initiation by torture, is a growing horror story. "It's a fickle town, a tough town. They getcha, boy," said Reggie Jackson in his last Yankees season. "They don't let you escape with minor scratches and bruises. They put scars on you here."
Jackson, perhaps the strongest ego in baseball, survived the atmosphere, even fed off it at times, saying, "They don't boo nobodies." But there are a thousand Whitsons for every Jackson. What's happening in New York is just an exaggeration of a phenomenon throughout baseball -- throughout sports, really.
The Hero/Bum syndrome.
Perhaps the singing group Dire Straits hit the problem on the head with its bitter lyric about how working people feel about skinny guitar-plucking rock stars who make millions for making noise: "That ain't workin'. That's the way to do it. Play the guitar on the MTV. Maybe get a blister on your little finger . . . Money for nothin' and your chicks for free . . . But who's gonna move these refrigerators. We gotta install these color TVs."
While fans feel as if they are lifting refrigerators all day, the man on the mound -- the man like Whitson who has a $4.4 million, five-year ironclad contract despite a career record of 64-65 -- looks as if he's getting money for nothing and all the perks for free.
Yup, money changes everything.
What, in this life, is more galling than paying the freight for high-priced mediocrity? The sight of the Ed Whitsons in sports lights a lot of fuses among fans.
Every conceivable factor is against the 32-year-old native of Johnson City, Tenn., who lives in Columbus, Ohio, loved playing in mellow San Diego and can't comprehend a town where so many people are wired so tight that they have to open their jaws with a crowbar.
First, it's hard-boiled New York. Second, Steinbrenner has, for a decade, approved the view that a player who does not produce up to his salary is somehow morally, as well as athletically, culpable. Maybe that's why Steinbrenner hasn't gotten his money's worth out of his buys. Finally, Whitson is paying for the mistake of touching Billy Martin.
Because Whitson was just 10-8 last season, nobody wants to trade for him -- not with $3.5 million of that contract still adhering to him. The same pact that has caused his New York misery is the reason he can't blow town.
Few emotions are more dangerous than envy. We tend either to worship, or to despise, those who have the talent, wealth, fame or beauty that we seek. And our envy tends to swing us from one overreaction to the other.
That's Whitson's predicament, one he may not escape. Isn't the middle ground of 10-8 almost denied to him now? Whether his situation is that bleak or not, Whitson still deserves the equivalent of a blindfold and cigarette. He should be granted the dispensation of a few starts on the road -- to gain confidence as much as form.
But is that possible? Of the next 31 Yankees games, 22 are at home.
At the moment, Whitson is the only Yankee in history who doesn't really wear pinstripes. That's the home uniform. Sooner than he wishes, sooner than would probably be best, Whitson will labor in those pinstripes again.
On him, they've begun to look too much like prison bars.