NEW YORK — The first time you see Mike Witt in a baseball uniform, the temptation is to tap him on the shoulder and inquire "Hey, Buddy, aren't you a little overdressed?"
You figure, "Boy, did this guy take a wrong turn on the freeway!" You want to tell him kindly: "The Inglewood Forum is thataway."
You see, Michael A. Witt is miscast as a baseball player. He doesn't belong in any sport that doesn't have a 24-second clock. He should be practicing fast breaks, not fastballs.
He's in the "How's the weather up there, snowing?" category of sports silhouettes--6 feet 7 inches and 190 pounds with long, limber legs, arms that he could scratch his ankles with, standing up. Ballplayers don't come that big. They have too much strike zone, for one thing. A guy 6-7 is all strike zone.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 27, 1986 Home Edition Sports Part 3 Page 6 Column 3 Sports Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Mike Witt pitched a perfect game for the Angels Sept. 30, 1984, not 1985, as reported in Tuesday's editions of The Times.
Fortunately, Mike Witt doesn't have to worry about his strike zone, just the umpire's. He's a pitcher in the American League, where pitchers only throw balls, not hit them.
The good news is that, as a pitcher, Witt can practically hand the ball to the catcher. On his good nights--and there have been a lot of them lately--he has to be careful not to get his knuckles in the way of the bat as he lets go of the ball.
Sixty feet six inches has been an adequate distance from home plate to pitcher's slab since 1893, but whoever came up with that figure apparently never envisioned the giant race of players who would populate the world in the second half of the 20th Century.
There is a law regulating the height of the mound in baseball but none regulating the height of the moundsman. One night in September of 1985, it was the opinion of the Texas Rangers' baseball team that there should be one put in the books forthwith.
On that night, the baseball was just a rumor to the Rangers. They not only didn't get any hits, they didn't get any walks or errors. Michael Atwater Witt pitched the first perfect game in the league in four years and only the 13th in history. The ball came at the Rangers like the laws of Moses--from the mountaintop.
The bad news is, if you're going to throw a no-hitter, Sept. 30 is not the time to do it. Baseball is on its way to mothballs then and nobody cares. The Angels were on their way to a .500 season and second place, and Witt's no-hitter was like the captain of the Titanic saying, "Well, at least we got ice."
It's the story of Witt's life. For several years now, he has been one of the best pitchers in baseball. But nobody knows he's even one of the best pitchers in his hometown--or even on his home team.
Almost everybody in Southern California can recognize Fernando Valenzuela on sight. Or Orel Hershiser by name. Try introducing Mike Witt and the general conversation turns into a lull. If Witt walked into a restaurant for jocks, somebody would be sure to ask him, "You think you guys can ever beat the Celtics again?"
And yet, if you check the stats, this is not Mike Whozit we're dealing with here. By definition, Mike Witt is one of the best pitchers in the league and the game. Take out Boston's Roger Clemens and you might be talking Cy Young Award. Mike Witt leads the league--actually he's tied with two others--in complete games, he's second to Clemens in earned-run average, he's first in innings pitched and fourth in strikeouts. He's third in wins.
Witt knows he's Mike What's-His-Name, the fellow with the basketball build. He's not Marvelous Mike or Wonderful Witt. He's as taken for granted as ice in Alaska.
Part of the problem is his personality. It's not that he doesn't have any, it's just that Mike Witt goes through life the way he pitches--as if he were mildly annoyed at the bother of it all. He doesn't play the game, so to speak. "A lot of guys get cranky after they lose. Mike gets cranky after he wins," a beat writer in the league once complained.
Witt acknowledges as much. But he doesn't see any reason to behave as if he were running for office. Sometimes, a guy with a pencil in his hand comes into focus to him the same as a guy with a bat on his shoulder.
The secrets of Witt's success are a whiplash curveball and a sinking fastball, but there's also the cold assurance that the great throwers have always had, that they are better than that guy in the batter's box whether he is Babe Ruth or Babe Phelps.
"Pitching is 90% mental and the majority of that 90% is confidence," Witt says. "If you don't think you can get that guy out, you sure can't."
Some years ago, pitcher Jim Lonborg was icing his right arm after a tight World Series duel and writer Harry Jupiter asked him if pitching was more cerebral than physical. "If it was," Lonborg said, "I'd be icing my head down."
Witt begs to disagree. In his book, preparation and confidence are as important as stuff. His fastball is more than 90 m.p.h. His curve could open wine bottles. But the thing that makes Mike Witt into Mike Winner is attitude.