Don't stop me if you've heard this, but did you hear about the Yankee pitcher, Henry Johnson, back in the '30s, who was in the bullpen in Yankee Stadium and had just bought a hot dog when the phone rang. It was the manager, Bob Shawkey.
"Johnson," he said, "go in and relieve Pipgras."
Johnson's eyes narrowed. "Who's coming up?" he wanted to know.
"Cochrane, Simmons and Foxx," said the manager.
Johnson hung up, turned to the other pitchers in the pen and said, "Don't touch that hot dog, I'll be right back!"
Todd Worrell of the Dodgers would know right where Johnson was coming from. Worrell is a relief pitcher. It is the athletic equivalent of capping oil-well fires, defusing ticking bombs.
Worrell doesn't look the part. He goes 6 feet 5, 227 pounds without an ounce of fat on him. He looks more like your basic cleanup hitter. But he makes his living one inning at a time. Sometimes he works only an inning a night, sometimes two, and more often none.
But when he gets to the mound, Cochrane, Simmons and Foxx are coming up, so to speak. It's panic time. He holds the game in his hands. One mistake and it's all over.
A starting pitcher can go out there and create his own trouble, so to say. He can nibble the corners, he can risk walking a guy or two, he can settle into his game.
The relief pitcher gets no such luxury. He is like a SWAT team. His job is to restore order. The bases are, like as not, loaded. And these are not people he put there. His job is to see that they stay there.
The guy facing him may be the league's leading home run hitter--or hitter, period. It may be Tony Gwynn. Barry Bonds.
One night, it was Andre Dawson. And the count was 3-0 when Manager Whitey Herzog gave Worrell the ball.
"Just don't walk him," Whitey instructed.
Worrell didn't. He threw a strike. Dawson did what he usually did with strikes. He hit it out of the lot. Home run.
Worrell looked up at Whitey.
"That's what I like--a guy who carries out orders," drawled Whitey.
That's a relief pitcher's lot. The situation is not merely desperate when he comes in, it's dire. It's like a general being handed a routed army. He's got to clean up a mess he didn't make.
And usually the manager doesn't just say, "Don't walk him." He says, "Don't walk him. But don't give him anything good to hit."
No one really sets out to be a relief pitcher. It's kind of a position that didn't really exist in the incubation of the game. Starters were expected to go nine. When one of them cracked, custom was to bring in a mop-up pitcher. His job was to keep it from getting embarrassing and get everybody home for dinner.
A pitcher named Firpo Marberry of the old Washington Senators changed all that. Before Firpo, the relief pitcher, if any, was a kind of washed-up old party who couldn't go nine anymore but could perform in short spurts.
In 1926, Firpo appeared in a league-leading 64 games--and started only five of them. Relief pitching became part of the arsenal.
It had not always been so. The great Cy Young started 818 games. And completed 751. Walter Johnson had 531 complete games out of 666 starts.
The only modern pitcher who makes the top 50 in complete games is Warren Spahn. The San Francisco Giants had a total of two complete games last year. The 1904 Giants had 127. A whole 14-team league doesn't get many more than that nowadays.
The relief pitcher has become so important to the game that, in the '60s, baseball invented a new scoring category to account for his contribution--the "save." Otherwise, you might look at his stats--no games started, no games finished and only a few innings pitched--and conclude they kept him around to pick up the towels. Or, at most, throw batting practice.
The relief pitcher today is almost more important than the starter. The pitcher with the best record in the American League last year, Jimmy Key, had one complete game.
A relief pitcher needs one overpowering pitch, usually a fastball.
But it wasn't his fastball that motivated the game to put Todd Worrell in the bullpen, it was his temperament, his attitude.
What a relief pitcher really needs, Todd feels, is not in the arm, it's in the head. He needs the mental approach of a contemplative monk. He has to be philosophic, patient, slow to anger, quick to forgive--forgive himself, that is. He has to be as unemotional as a border guard, as stoic as a statue. And it doesn't hurt if he's religious, which Worrell was.
"Jim Fregosi and Lee Thomas came to me when I was in the Phils' organization," Todd says. "What they noticed about me was not my sinker or my slider but my temperament. I'm not high-strung, I don't rattle, I'm not hot-headed. They told me I was perfect for a relief pitcher."