SAN DIEGO — It may be sport's most exclusive club. Admission requires a reputation for nastiness--and the backbone to live up to it every day.
The membership includes hockey's Dave Schultz, football's Dick Butkus, basketball's Maurice Lucas and baseball's Goose Gossage. They are the intimidators, and they come along only about once a decade.
Of this foursome, only Gossage is still at the height of his powers, and never mind that a sneeze last week temporarily sidelined him with a minor back injury. "The Maniac," as he is called by teammate Kurt Bevacqua, has a look that can petrify fans and hitters alike.
The cap pulled dangerously low over the forehead, the bushy walrus mustache curling menacingly back toward the ears, Gossage would test the creativity of the cartoonists who festoon editorial pages with bizarre caricatures.
"If there's a batter who likes to face him, he's gotta have rocks in his head," Padre Manager Dick Williams said.
Looks aside, the real part of his act begins when Gossage coils his 230-pound body to deliver a baseball at speeds that once approached 100 m.p.h. and still come frighteningly near that limit.
"I never faced a reliever as intimidating as Goose," San Diego first baseman Steve Garvey said. "Working on the psyche is as important as the physical aspect of this game."
Pittsburgh Manager Chuck Tanner, who converted Gossage from a starting pitcher to a reliever 10 years ago, said that was the smartest move of his career.
"I think he is the greatest reliever ever," Tanner said. "I'm not taking anything away from ElRoy Face, Bruce Sutter or Rollie Fingers. But the Goose is just so intimidating and so aggressive.
"The Yankees won the World Series after they got him, and the Padres got there, too. The Goose got 'em there, not all those other guys with the big money. That's why I call him the Golden Goose."
Gossage, 33, combines the endurance of Nolan Ryan, who has thrown harder for longer than any other pitcher, with the barely controlled menace of Ryne Duren, the former Yankee and Angel reliever whose warm-up tosses often as not struck the backstop.
"It's got to be pretty disquieting, especially to a right-handed hitter, that Goose doesn't even look at the hitter when he throws," Padre catcher Terry Kennedy said.
It looks as if Gossage is trying to throw the ball right through the catcher.
And that is precisely his intent, according to Craig Lefferts, another Padre reliever.
"You can talk about his looks and his style all you want, but the fastball is the most intimidating thing," Lefferts said. "Everything else is secondary."
The Gossage temperament is hardly secondary. In fact, it's an integral part of his reputation as an intimidator .
Most athletes tend to mellow as they reach their mid-30s, but nobody talks about Gossage having mellowed. Especially not Gossage, who declined several requests for interviews for this story.
In a game at Cincinnati in early June, Gossage gave the Padres a fresh insight into his competitive streak. The Reds got a couple of cheap runs off Gossage in the last of the ninth inning. When he returned to the dugout, Gossage kicked a water cooler, showering half the bench.
"That was the maddest I've ever seen him," Williams said. "But when we came back and won in extra innings, he was like a kitten."
You don't trifle with the Gossage temper unless you know him well. And even then, you tread carefully.
Terry Forster, who roomed with Gossage for six years in the 1970s, managed to stay on good terms even after playing a practical joke that might have decapitated a lesser mortal.
"When we were with the Pirates, there was a game at Wrigley Field," Forster said, "and this huge black guy, must have been about 6-8, had me confused with Goose while I was warming up in the bullpen.
"He was ranting and raving and saying, 'Gossage, you bleeper,' so I told him to look for me by the bus after the game. Well, he must have asked somebody which one Gossage was, because here comes this gigantic black man charging Goose as he was boarding the bus. The guy had to be held back by several cops, and Goose didn't think it was too funny even when I explained it to him."
The Gossage sense of humor was further strained by his experience with the New York Yankees in 1978-1983. This is Gossage's second year in San Diego after more than a decade spent with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago White Sox and Yankees.
He was ready for a change after five seasons of bickering in the Bronx Zoo.
"All of the fun was out of the game (in New York)," Gossage said after signing an $11-million contract with the Padres following the 1983 season. "I would watch the clock at home, and the closer it got to being time to leave for the park, I'd be saying, 'Oh, no.' I had a bad attitude about baseball and the atmosphere there (in New York). I needed a change . . . I feel like I'm back to being a little kid again."
Tanner, however, doesn't think the experience was damaging to Gossage.