Los Angeles — Right-hander Gaylord Perry of the Atlanta Braves is a kind of marvelous put-on whose plowman's gait, baggy pants, and North Carolina drawl suggest that the only uniform he should ever be required to wear would be the bib overalls of a sharecropper.
Perry, at age 42, is now within a handful of 300 lifetime major league wins, a figure will probably reach by the end of July, or maybe early August.
It will be Gaylord's ticket to baseball's Hall of Fame and a place alongside pitchers like Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, and Early Wynn. In fact, of the thousands of pitchers who have made it to the major leagues, only 14 have won 300 or more games.
The only blemish on this master craftsman is the fact that for most of his career Perry has been accused of throwing a spitball, an illegal pitch that causes the ball to sink just as the batter is about to make contact. Gaylord even wrote a book about it when he was with Cleveland Indians and called it "Me and the Spitter."
When I interviewed Perry two years ago, just before he became the first pitcher ever to win the Cy Young Award in both leagues, he claimed that he no longer threw the spitter, even occasionally. He was still getting batters out, he said, because he had perfected a forkball that would sink in much the same way.
The popular theory among rival hitters then and now is that Gaylord has seven places on his body where he rubs in Vaseline that he can spot on the ball during a game to make it act like a spitter. But when umpires are asked by the opposition during a game to go out and check him for foreign substances, they find nothing.
If you've ever watched Perry pitch, you already know that he makes a ritual of running the fingers on his throwing hand back and forth across the bill of his cap before he delivers the ball to home plate. But hitters claim this is just an act, that he actually gets whatever he uses to doctor the ball from another source.
When I ran into Hall of Fame shortstop Luke Appling, who is a special batting instructor for the Braves, in the visitors dugout at Dodger Stadium recently, I decided to ask Luke point blank if Perry still threw the spitter.
"'Course he does, only he picks his spots more careful than he used to," Appling replied. "It ain't nothing for anybody to get upset about because I could stop right now and give you the names of 50 major league pitchers who also like to throw a spitter once in a while. You get away with what you can in this game and it ain't no different than when a hitter drills a hole in the top of his bat and puts cork in it to get more distance."
This story isn't meant to judge Perry or the shortstop who gets rid of the ball on the double play before he touches the bag to avoid getting hit by a sliding runner -- or the umpire who permits this situation to exist. And more than one manager, with a rival team of speedy runners coming into his ballpark, has ordered his ground crew to water-soak the area around first to discourage the stolen base.
The point is, Perry didn't get where he is with just one pitch. He still had to throw the ball over the plate; work in the spring cold of Minnesota and the burning summer heat of Texas; and discourage enemy hitters from bunting against a man 20 years their senior by continually throwing them out at first base.
"Since this is the first year Gaylord has pitched for Atlanta, I still don't know him that well," said Braves Manager Bobby Cox. "But he's a fox the way he changes speeds on the ball. He also knows everything about every hitter in both leagues, and the amount of innings he can work without getting tired is phenomenal.
"Probably a lot of people thought he'd finally got it last year when, after being traded to the Yankees late in the season, he won only four games and his earned-run average got kind of high," Cox continued. "What happened was that the Yankees never seemed to realize that here was a man who has always needed a lot of work to be effective, and they sometimes weren't even pitching him once a week."
Asked what he thinks Perry might do after he gets his 300th victory, Cox replied:
"Well, from what other people tell me, Gaylord has always had a great fondness for money, and today there is a lot of that stuff around in baseball.
"The other thing is that the man loves the game and looks as though he could probably go right on pitching for as long as he wants. I know one thing: the Braves won't discourage him if he wants to come back."