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Back Home and In Control : After Two Seasons in Japan, Gullickson Is a Big Winner With Tigers

July 26, 1992|JEFF FLETCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Few people would say "Bill Gullickson," in response to: "Who is the winningest pitcher in the American League since the start of 1991?"

And Bill Gullickson doesn't care.

"It really makes no difference to me," said Gullickson, who is 31-15 for the Detroit Tigers during the past 1 1/2 seasons.

Image is not a priority for Gullickson, 33. His family is. It was for them that he took his career to Japan 4 1/2 years ago.

"I looked at it this way: My purpose in life is to feed my kids," said Gullickson, who made twice as much money in Japan as he would have made had he accepted the only offer he got in the major leagues in 1988.

After two years of filling his pockets in Japan, Gullickson returned to the majors and started filling up the win column.

In his first year back, 1990, he was 10-14 for a Houston Astro team that scored two runs or fewer in all of his losses. In 1991, his first year with the Tigers, Gullickson had his first 20-victory season. This year, he is 11-6.

But Gullickson doesn't get the attention he might deserve, he said, because he isn't a strikeout pitcher with a blazing fastball.

When he throws 90 m.p.h., he would rather be slower.

About 80 pitches in nine innings would be perfect, thanks.

"When you see Gullickson pitching, that's what he's doing--pitching," said Mickey Tettleton, the Tiger catcher. "He changes speeds, doesn't strike out a lot, doesn't walk a lot. He uses his defense."

At 6 foot 3, 225 pounds, Gullickson is a gentle-looking man with an innocent face and a warm smile. He intimidates no one. Especially not hitters.

"He doesn't overpower you," said Von Hayes, an Angel outfielder who faced him pre- and post-Japan. "He gives you just enough pitches during an at-bat to think you'll get something good to hit. But he keeps the balls on the corners."

Gullickson's excellent control (73 walks in the past 366 1/3 innings) has been a key to his success since his return to the majors. But it developed in Japan, he said.

"It's probably from throwing more," Gullickson said. "Over there, they throw on the side every day."

The decision to go to Japan was not one Gullickson made on his own. He was more or less forced to go.

The off-season of 1987-88 was the third in a row in which the owners colluded in bidding on free agents, an arbitrator ruled later.

After finishing the 1987 season with the New York Yankees (he was 4-2 with the Yankees after going 10-11 in Cincinnati), Gullickson reportedly was offered $800,000--a $100,000 pay cut--to remain in New York. "Their offer was embarrassing," said Doug Baldwin, Gullickson's agent. "But it was something they thought they could get away with."

When the Yomiuri Giants made an offer reported to be $1.6 million per year, Gullickson took his wife and two children (he has four now) across the Pacific.

Despite the financial rewards, Gullickson went with some hesitation.

"That was quite a different step from what I'd planned," he said. "I also thought, 'If I go to Japan for two years, will I be able to play again back here?' "

There were also the obvious problems: a new culture, a different language, another style of baseball.

"They're a lot more regimented," Gullickson said. "Their training is much more time consuming. It's tough to really find out what Japanese baseball is like, though, because you were never really included in anything. At least it felt that way."

Gullickson was fortunate because Warren Cromartie, who had become a close friend when the two played for Montreal from 1979-83, played for the Giants, too.

"I was glad I was there for Gully," said Cromartie, who is retired and living in Florida. "We both picked each other up."

But Cromartie was injured and came back to the United States for much of Gullickson's first year in Japan, so he was the only player on the team who didn't speak Japanese . . . for a while.

"Then they called up another guy," Gullickson said, "but he spoke Chinese."

The language barrier had a few benefits ("You couldn't read the newspapers, so you didn't know what people thought of you," Gullickson said), but it was mostly frustrating. There were times, he said, when he was ready to snap from lack of communication.

There is also added pressure playing in Japan because the fans expect Americans to always produce.

"When we (perform perfectly), it's like we should," Cromartie said, "and when we don't, we're not up to our capabilities."

Cromartie remembered when Gullickson was ready to get on a plane and come home.

"There was a time when I didn't think Gully was going to make it," he said. "He just got fed up with the whole system. I had to pull the reporters away from him, he was so upset."

He managed to stay for two years, which he said was the plan from the outset, compiling a 21-14 record with a 3.30 earned-run average.

He was ready to come home.

"I was fried," he said.

Gullickson brought back a new appreciation for America and a new son, whom he named Craig Kuwata, in honor of teammate Masumi Kuwata.

The task at that time was to prove himself all over again. The deal he signed with the Astros before the 1990 season reportedly was built on incentives that paid him, based first on whether he made the club out of spring train- ing, then on whether he made 30 starts.

He did both and reportedly made $1.8 million. A year later, the Tigers offered him a deal that paid him a reported $1.8 million for 1991 and $1.9 million for 1992.

At the end of this season, which could be his second in a row with 20 victories, he will be a free agent again.

With the second-worst ERA in the American League, the Tigers probably can't afford to lose Gullickson.

But he doesn't seem to have given it much thought. "I really don't even worry about it. If no one wants to sign me, I can live with that. If someone wants to pay me $8 million a year, I can live with that. I'm just concerned with going out and pitching and enjoying that. My goal is to win, but I want to go out and find pleasure in the game."

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