Some Celebrations of Steve Carlton

As a follow-up to the recent post of quotes from Steve Carlton, here are some thoughts and memories of the man from ex-teammates and others, written in the Philadelphia Inquirer as he was joining the Hall of Fame in 1994.

When Steve Carlton is inducted into the Hall of Fame today, there may not be a prouder person than Paul Owens, the mostly bald 70-year-old man who helped orchestrate the great lefthander’s controversial trade to the Phillies in 1972.

“It’ll be like seeing your son graduate,” said Owens, who served as farm director, general manager and, briefly, as manager during Carlton’s years with the Phillies from 1972 to 1986. “Lefty kids me: ‘Pope, don’t hug me.’ He’s standoffish and somewhat shy. I’m sentimental. I’m going to hug him. I don’t care what he says.”

“He had a way of elevating everyone’s game, even the year (1972) we were horrendous,” said former shortstop Larry Bowa, now the Phils’ third-base coach. “He was never indecisive on the mound. Before the game, he’d go over the hitters and say, ‘This is how I’m going to pitch and this is where I want you to play him.’

“He had a game plan of how to pitch to each hitter and he stuck to it. And he wanted you in a certain spot, and if they didn’t hit it there, it was his responsibility. That’s how he wanted it.”

Hall of Famer Willie Stargell used to say that hitting Carlton was “like trying to drink coffee with a fork.”

“I don’t know about that. I’m not a coffee drinker,” said Vada Pinson, a Florida Marlins coach. “All I can say is, it was much better playing behind him for one year in St. Louis than it was facing him.”

Tim McCarver, Carlton’s personal catcher for many years and now a Mets broadcaster, summed up the Miami native’s career better than anyone.

“In 1969, he struck out 19 Mets” – a game Carlton’s Cardinals lost, 4-3,because of two homers by Ron Swoboda – “and in 1982 I was doing a network game with Don Drysdale and he struck out 16 Cubs,” McCarver said. “And he did it the same way in ’82 as he did in ’69, with overpowering stuff. To maintain that power over that amount of time is what Lefty will be remembered for.”

That and his idiosyncrasies.

On the field, Carlton was focused on each pitch. Off the field, he was, well, unique. There was his routine of placing his arm in a trash can full of brown rice and rotating it for exercise; his fondness for yoga, the martial arts and Eastern theology; his refusal to talk to reporters for a long time; his passion for the finer things in life.

“Lefty was different,” said Doug Rader, a former third baseman and teammate for one season with the White Sox. “He liked caviar; most guys liked cheeseburgers. He liked wine; we liked beer. It worked out good – he left more for us.”

And then there was Carlton’s slider, his signature pitch.

“I had three choices when he threw it,” Rader said. “Hit it off my ankle, miss it or hit it foul.”

Said San Francisco coach Bob Brenly, a former Giants catcher: “It was like he had remote control on that pitch. He could put it wherever he wanted it. If you took it, it would stay in the strike zone. And if you swung, it would break down by your ankles or in the dirt.”

The pitch looked like a fastball until the last split-second – and by then, it was usually too late for the batter to adjust. That explains why there were so many check-swings from righthanded hitters, and appeals that were usually called strikes by the first-base umpire.

Carlton worked quickly – an “infielder’s delight,” Bowa called him – with fastballs crackling away from hitters, sliders diving low and inside. Occasionally, a nasty curve.

“When I think of Lefty,” said John Vukovich, the Phillies’ coach and former third baseman, “the first thing I think of is his presence on the mound and the way he carried himself. Lefty never had excuses. He would get a questionable call (from the umpire) and his reaction was no different than if it was a called strike. He just got the ball back and was ready to throw again.”

He was always focused, always in control. Well, almost always. There was the time a moth flew into his ear in the dugout, and Carlton – screaming “Get it out! Get it out!” – had to be helped to the clubhouse and propped on a table, where the trainer removed the insect with a pair of tweezers. . . .

Dusty Baker, who had a key hit for Atlanta that helped end Carlton ‘s 15- game winning streak in 1972, remembers more about The Franchise than his masterful pitching.

Said Baker: “He could hit, he could field, and he was one of the first guys with that delayed leg kick to hold runners on first base. He could do it all.”

He could even do a pretty fair John Travolta impersonation.

Baker, as a favor to Garry Maddox and Bowa, was attending a dance to benefit the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic in the late 1970s. On the dance floor was Silent Steve, doing a disco dance.

“I was amazed at how graceful he was on his feet,” Baker said. “I was shocked. It was like, ‘This dude can dance.’ It was the disco time and he had lots of rhythm.” . . .

Carlton, who grows his own food on his 400 acres in Durango, Colo., was 81-45 with Tim McCarver as his Phillies catcher.

“We communicated well – and not a lot of people could do that (with Carlton),” McCarver said.
McCarver also caught Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in St. Louis. Which pitcher was better?

“If you had to win one game, I think Gibson, in his heyday, was the guy you’d go to,” McCarver said. “But Lefty would be the guy to go to over the long haul.”

And some excerpts from this article by the Inquirer’s Jayson Stark when Carlton was voted into the Hall:

If there is a certain aura that surrounds men who make it to the Hall of Fame, it is hard to name a modern pitcher who exuded that aura any more than the remarkable lefthander who was elected to the Hall last night with 95.8 percent of the vote, the fifth-highest in history – the invincible, inimitable Steven Norman Carlton.

“There was no better feeling than thinking about how important the game was going to be tomorrow and knowing, ‘Lefty’s pitching,’ ” said Carlton ‘s old Phillies teammate Jim Kaat. “When you knew that, you knew, ‘The bullpen’s going to get a night off.’ And you knew, ‘We’ve got a win in the bag.’

“When this team played behind Lefty, everybody thought, ‘We’re gonna win,’ every night. And that epitomizes what a No. 1, Hall of Fame pitcher is all about.”

“I hear that word focus now, and I laugh,” said Phillies coach John Vukovich. “Lefty didn’t just focus. He was in a zone all his own.”

Ex-teammate Tommy Hutton remembers a spring-training game in West Palm Beach in which an Expos hitter fouled off a pitch against Carlton. And Carlton, whose style was never to watch where the baseball landed, turned immediately toward the plate to await a new ball.

“Except the third baseman (Kiko Garcia) picked the ball up,” Hutton said, ”and fired it back to the mound. And Lefty wasn’t looking, so it hit him right in the side of the head – and he never even flinched. It was like a fly ticked him.”

Larry Bowa, who played with Carlton for 10 years, can top that story.

“I saw Billy Williams hit a line drive at Wrigley Field that hit him right in the neck,” Bowa said, still incredulous two decades later. “And this was not a broken-bat job. This was a line drive.

“Most guys would have crumbled. I mean, you could see the laces from the ball on his neck. But Lefty just picked the ball up, threw it to first and got the out. Then everybody started running out, and he just waved his glove, like: ‘Get out of here.’ ”

“He had that mystique about him,” Vukovich said, “even among us. On days he pitched, about the only conversation you’d ever have with him was, ‘Hi, Lefty.’ We left him alone.”

He threw six one-hitters. Six. That’s still more than any other NL pitcher in history. Yet Carlton never threw that elusive no-hitter – despite what seemed to be 50 incredible evenings in which he took that no- hit quest into the sixth or seventh inning.

There was Oct. 1, 1980, when Carlton-killer Mike Vail broke one up in the eighth inning. There was May 14, 1982, when Giants rookie Bob Brenly stopped another bid with two outs in the eighth. And then there was the one that hurts the most – 7 2/3 peerless innings on May 5, 1980, spoiled by the fabled Bill Nahorodny.

“I remember thinking that was gonna be the night,” Wheeler said, “because the Braves weren’t a very good team, and you just kept thinking, sooner or later this guy had to pitch a no-hitter. He was so overpowering that night. It’s the eighth inning. The bottom of the lineup is up. You thought, ‘If he’s ever gonna do it.’ But nope. Bill Nahorodny. I still can’t believe he never threw one.”

On Oct. 21, 1980, the Phillies were one game away from winning their first World Series in history. Carlton was the starting pitcher. Was there any better feeling than that?

“I’ll always remember driving to the park, going down the North-South Freeway, knowing we were going to win the World Series that night – because of him,” Vukovich said.

“I’ve often wondered what the psychological effect would have been if we hadn’t won that game. But there was no way we were gonna lose – because Lefty wouldn’t let us.”

So, naturally, Carlton threw seven shutout innings. Then he turned it over to Tug McGraw and the attack dogs. And the rest was history.

“I know one thing,” John Vukovich said of the great Steve Carlton. “We won’t see his likes again.”

Published in: Uncategorized on February 5, 2013 at 6:40 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Great stuff on Leftie. It seems as if he’s sort of become forgotten as the years have passed by. The first four-time Cy Young award winner. Very nice stuff.

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