Los Angeles — Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies, currently the winningest (13-2) and maybe the best pitcher in baseball, numbers himself among a growing list of players who almost never talk to writers.
That's a little misleading, because when I threw some quick questions at Carlton recently in front of his locker in the visitor's clubhouse at Dodger STadium, I got the feeling that maybe he wanted to break his silence.
But it was still 30 minutes or so before game time and the problem. I think, is that there were still too many people around. If he got caught talking to a writer, word would get out and some of the Phillies' bench jockeys would have been all over him.
Anyway, I can testify that Steve doesn't bite, kick, or throw candy wrappers on the floor; that his reading material is far removed from comic books; and that he is deeply into psychology and philosophy.
When I asked Carlton if he'd take a baseball and jsut show me how he throws his slider (reportedly the best in the majors), he said "no." When I asked him if it broke differently than other pitchers' sliders, he muttered a kind of "yes ," adding that he threw his harder and with more wrist action.
Then I lost him to the trainer's room, which is off limits to reporters in almost all major league clubhouses.
But at this point I was able to get Herman Starrette, Teh Phillies' pitching coach, to pick up the thread of the Steve Carlton Story until I began to get a pattern of this Greta Garbo in double-knits.
"The reason Carlton is so successful with his slider is that the way he throws it the hitter can't tell whether it's a breaking pitch or a fast ball," Starrette explained. "I've watched him work for a long time now, and I don't wonder the hitters get fooled."
"When they see that slider, it's up there and in the strike zone, but by the time they swing it's almost in the dirt. People don't believe this when I tell 'em, but maybe 90 percent of the hitters who go down swinging against Steve miss on balls that aren't even remotely in the strike zone. The guy also has a beautiful curve."
What else could Starrette tell me about Carlton?
"Well, I doubt if there is any pitcher in the majors who works faster between pitches than Steve. He wants the catcher to return the ball to him immediately, and then, bang, he's set and throwing again. I often wonder sometimes why more hitters just don't step out against him.
"But that's the way he likes to work and most of the time his control is so good that you never have to say anything to him," he continued. "occasionally when I notice that maybe he's starting to have trouble with his rhythm, I go out to the mound and slow him down. But he is exceptionally strong, he seldom throws more than 126 pitches an outing, and most of the time his games are over in under two hours."
Unlike most pitchers, Carlton does not run every day or even every other day int he outfield -- the theory being that a pitcher should do this to keep his legs in shape.
Instead Steve is into a streching program that makes work for every part of his body. When he does go into the outfield, it is to play catch with other players at distances that force him to stretch the throwing muscles in his arm.
Carlton is a left-handed power pitcher who has thrown six one-hitters in his career; twice won the NL's Cy Young Award; and led the majors in victories with 27 in 1972 and 23 in 1977. Concentration is a big part of his game, and occasionally he has stuffed cotton in his ears to block out distracting noises in enemy ballparks.
Steve's problems with the press began after the 1972 season. Often asked about the art of positive thinking in interviews, he went to great length to explain his philosophy, then skidded to a 13-20 record in '73. A few reporters, not knowing that the reason for his slump was primarily a physical one, began ripping his philosophy.
Incidentally, the 1972 Phillies were a terrible team, winning only 59 of 162 games. Carlton's 27 victories amounted to 48 percent of Philadelphia wins, an amazing feat when you consider that the Phillies' infielders were treating all ground balls as though they were hooded cobras.
In fact, Steve actually won 15 consecutive games for that team before losing No. 16, 2-1, in 11 innings. Right now the Phillies' front office is not only congratulating itself for keeping Carlton, but for having signed him to a contract through 1983.