I shook hands with Gaylord Perry yesterday in the lobby of a downtown hotel, and no vaseline, lotion, mud, sandpaper or any other doctoring agent was evident. In his heyday, when the burning question of the day in the major leagues was “does he or doesn’t he” — throw a spitter, that is — Perry loved to put some sort of substance on his hand and watch the hilarity.
“It was part of my game to make them believe I was doing it,” he said. “A lot of times, I’d be pitching the next night, and someone would be in the batting cage. I’d shake their hands, and my hand would be full of vaseline. ‘Just getting ready for tomorrow night,’ I’d say. It was all done in fun. You could hear the hitters when they hit one out off me — ‘That one didn’t sink.’ It was great baseball.”
And Perry, for all his high jinx, was a great baseball pitcher. He’s a a Hall of Famer with not just 314 wins (the 300th of which occurred at the Kingdome on May 6, 1982, when Perry was pitching for the Mariners), but a stat of which he’s nearly as proud: 303 complete games.
“I fought with my manager to stay in the game,” he said. “When you have Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, Jim Ray Hart, Bobby Bonds coming up in the last three innings, you’re going to get some runs. I want to say in the game, man. I’d argue with the manager — I want to stay in. I feel great. I won a lot of games in the last three innings. It was very important.”
Now, of course, pitchers are lauded if they go seven innings before turning it over to relief specialists. That, and the advent of five-man rotations, is why Perry is convinced there won’t be any more 300 game winners. He was the first since Early Wynn in 1963.
Yes, it was a different era when Perry pitched, for eight different teams, from 1962-83. He still has a warm spot in his heart for the Mariners and the Puget Sound area, dating back to his time in Tacoma from 1960 to ’63 when it was a Giants’ farm team. Perry is in town to throw out the first pitch tonight at Safeco Field prior to the Mariners’ game with the Angels, part of the club’s ongoing 35th anniversary festivities.
“It’s a very special place,” he said. “Making the Hall of Fame, it would have been very hard without those extra few wins. I lacked three games from winning 300 in 1982. Dan O’Brien was the general manager here, and I played for him in Texas. I called him up and he said, ‘Come on down to Arizona for spring training.’ It was already two weeks into spring training. He said, ‘If you make the club, fine. I went down and made the club. I was the Opening Day pitcher. Had a good year for them.”
Perry, playing for a base salary of $50,000, went 10-12 for a Mariner team that was 76-86, so, yes, it was a good year. Two moments stand out Perry that season (he would return to the Mariners in 1983, but was released in June with a 3-10 record. He finished the ’83 season with Kansas City, then hung it up for good).
One, of course, was his 300th victory, a complete-game against the Yankees won by Seattle, 7-3. Perry remembers it vividly right down to the last out on a grounder to Julio Cruz by Willie Randolph.
“I had such a great infield. The two Cruzes (Julio and Todd) were up the middle, and (Dave) Henderson was in center. We were very strong up the middle. Bud Bulling caught me all spring, warmed me up. The other two catchers were hurt, and we worked together great. He was a great catcher for me. In fact, he got two hits and the winning RBI. Julio Cruz got the last ball hit to him, it was very special. It was kind of like the World Series for a lot of players who hadn’t been in many exciting games.”
Ferguson Jenkins, who would fall 16 games short of the 300-win club, sent Perry a telegram that said, “Congratulations, you old goat!”
Did we mention Perry, who had been released by Atlanta after the previous season, was 43 years old and eight months at the time, in his 20th year in the majors? By that time, the Perry narrative revolved around the innuendo surrounding his doctoring of pitches. I should throw in the word “alleged” but I don’t think there was much doubt about it, even if Perry, at age 73, remains coy when the question is posed. I wonder if it has detracted from Perry’s reputation as a pitcher, because long before he was going through all the spitball antics, he was a consistent winner for the Giants, Indians and other teams.
“I think if they look at the records, what I did, you can’t do it all on one pitch no matter how good you are,” he said. “The thing I was amazed at, I didn’t know it until I was out of baseball awhile, I completed 303 games. That’s very special. The reason I completed those games, I would argue with my manager, as I said. Rene Lachemann let me stay in that game to get 300, all nine innings. That was very special. Your manager can do things for you, but you have to let them know you can do it. As long as you don’t fail too much.”
The other memorable game for Perry with the Mariners? No, it wasn’t Funny Nose and Glasses Night, which occurred two games later at the Kingdome after Perry’s 300th win. It drew 36,716, compared to 27,369 for Perry’s milestone win. Don’t think that juxtaposition didn’t earn the Mariners some national derision.
I’m referring to the game of Aug. 23, 1982 against the Red Sox, when Perry was ejected by crew chief Dave Phillips, suspended 10 games and fined $250 for doctoring the baseball — the one and only such penalty in his career, though umpires and opponents were keen to nail Perry for years. Here’s how Gaylord tells the story:
“The umpire came out in the fifth inning and said he found something on the ball. I said, ‘I ain’t putting anything on the ball.’ The rule is if the ball does something funny, he’s going to look at it. I was throwing a lot of forkballs, curveballs, not many fastballs. We were playing the Red Sox, a great fastball hitting club, so why throw them fastballs? Rene Lachemann, a great guy, came out and said, ‘Jesus Christ, put something on the ball.’ I said, no problem. Next thing you know, I’m out of there.”
So guilty as charged? “I wasn’t guilty by the first account. I didn’t put anything on the ball. When I got thrown out, I said, ‘Thanks, Lach.’ He said, “I didn’t mean that.’ It was good baseball. I remember it was Fred Lynn hitting. We’ve talked several times since then. He said, ‘I’m glad I didn’t swing at any of those, I couldn’t hit it.’ ”
Perry, who brought his wife, Deborah, with him on this visit to Seattle, is retired now and living on a ranch in Spruce Pine, North Carolina (“up in the mountains, close to Ashville, about 400 miles from where I grew up”). His brother, Jim, who won 215 games himself, is living in Bradenton, Florida.
“I do a little fishing,” Gaylord said. “We had good fishing up here when I was in Tacoma and Seattle. We have a little ranch. My wife has horses, and I have to keep the pastures mowed down, get hay for winter. I’m always doing something.”
But Gaylord Perry is no longer messing with baseballs. Allegedly.