TORONTO -- The silver snakeskin cowboy boots, the old blue jeans and the soft, weathered brown leather jacket sit in his locker like a gunslinger's holster hooked nonchalantly to the peg above a hallway door. Comfortably used, but threatening. Independent, fascinating, insolent.
Extend your hand to shake Doyle Alexander's pitching paw and you can wait for a while. Slowly, he turns his head, pretending not to see you. When he turns back, he still ignores your hand and looks you hard in the eye, instead. Then, the instant you pull your hand back, he puts his forward and you have to shake on his terms. He's just changed speeds on another hitter and won again. If you're insulted or defensive, then he's happy. Because he's in control.
"Ask a couple of questions?"
"You can ask."
Answer? We'll see about that later.
People ask Alexander questions these days. He's the hottest pitcher in baseball. In nine starts as a Detroit Tiger, he's 8-0 (1.40 ERA). Toss in three shutouts and a 28-inning scoreless streak. On Tuesday in Boston he threw 89 pitches in a two-hit shutout; he threw 72 warmup pitches between innings. If he beats Toronto Sunday on national TV, then does the deed again in Detroit on Friday to finish 10-0, he might somehow steal a Cy Young Award.
Yes, people want to know Alexander better. That's to say, they want to know him at all. He's a mystery man. Tall, lanky, put together wrong with big hips and narrow shoulders. A mustache, narrow eyes and low brow add to the look. He's a mystery pitcher, too. "Goofy windup, all those pitches from all those angles," said four-time batting champion Bill Madlock. He gives the old guys a headache and the kids a nervous breakdown. "He entices hitters with their own pitch," said catcher Mike Heath. Nobody's got Alexander figured. "That's the way I like it," he said.
Instead of No. 19 above his cubicle, there might as well be a lyric from an old TV show: " 'Have Gun, Will Travel' reads the card of a man, a knight without honor in a savage land."
Since 1971, Alexander has been a Dodger, Oriole, Yankee, Ranger, Brave, Giant, Yankee (again), Blue Jay, Brave (again) and now a Tiger. That's 10 teams. He's pitched decently, sometimes very well, for all of them. Yet he has been traded seven times. Twice, teams released him. Twice, he went free agent. Not everyone likes him. But the feeling is mutual.
Years ago, Baltimore General Manager Hank Peters called him "one of the most disagreeable individuals I've ever known." But then Peters is management. Alexander never has had an agent. In fact, he loves to trade left hooks with the boss over millions of bucks. Result: he's a very rich 173-145 pitcher.
If you want a hired gun, especially in September, you can't do better. Do not ask Alexander to sign autographs or charm the press or attend functions. He will not do it. Or apologize. He lives in Texas, not where he works. He's paid to pitch.
On the mound, Alexander feels no "pressure" because he could not care less whether the Tigers or the Blue Jays -- or for that matter, the Giants -- win the World Series. He's played for them all. He's a student of baseball, not a fan of it. Like a sniper inspecting a scope, he watches for lethal details -- a changed batting stance -- not for excitement.
Nobody tells the 37-year-old what to do. Or what to throw. He calls his own game. Every pitch. The catcher puts down a sign. Then, Alexander brushes his glove against his chest to add or on his thigh to subtract. On most pitches, he's shaking off his own catcher, telling the crowd that, basically, his battery mate hasn't got the foggiest idea.
What does Sparky Anderson think of the system? He rolls his eyes. You need Alexander the Great badly enough, you let him do it his way. You can always hire the catcher a good therapist.
Doyle and his managers give each other a wide berth. Billy Martin traded him twice, called him "gutless." He loathed the detachment, the absence of loyalty. Most of all, he hated the way Alexander saw him without adolescent romance -- no respect for the No. 1 on his back, no need to call him "Skipper" or seek approval. Martin assumed the pitcher mocked him behind his back. And he probably was right.
In their last chapter, Martin did a slow burn as Alexander returned to beat the Yankees in big games. The final loss is important to Alexander.
That's why these days are doubly sweet to his dour nature. He has points to prove. Last year, he wanted to leave the Blue Jays so badly he made up a handwritten list of "Reasons for Leaving Toronto" and gave it to a columnist. Surprise. He got traded to Atlanta.
Last winter, he decided to go free agent and leave Atlanta, too. He even turned down a two-year $2.3 million contract. Then, every team in baseball turned him down. "Monopolistic owners," he said. This May, he returned to Atlanta for a paltry $400,000, with $200,000 in incentive clauses. Perhaps by coincidence, he pitched like $400,000, not $2.3 million. His record: 5-10. You get what you pay for? As soon as Atlanta traded him for John Smoltz, eureka, nothing but zeros.
With Alexander, the money may be important, but so's the principle of the thing. Once, he punched a dugout wall and disabled himself; he sent the club a check for his month's pay.
These are the days when baseball is a joy, a child's game once more for the grown men who play it. They get carried away by crowds and glory. In many cases, they care so much they fail. Maybe that's why Alexander has long been almost unbeatable in pennant races. He avoids the spotlight, even when it seeks him. He barely knows what city he pitches for. After all the trades and, he says, "all the lies" that surround that long list of leavings, baseball is now 99 percent business to him.
Sunday, in a game his team desperately needs to win after its demoralizing 10-9 defeat to the Blue Jays Saturday, the crowd will roar and the batter will try to swallow the lump in his throat. As Alexander gives his own sign -- some weird slider, slop curve or even knuckleball -- then goes into that goofy windup which looks like a ladder collapsing, it will be High Noon in the baseball season.
Alexander will be a man with a big, if bitter, edge. For better or for worse, he will care less than anyone.