New York — If any one player is to dominate the 1981 World Series opening here this week , the most likely candidate is the New York Yankees' ace reliever Rich (Goose) Gossage.
''Awesome'' is the adjective used most frequently by teammates, coaches, and opposing players to describe the fireballing right-hander. And indeed, when the Goose raises up his imposing 6 ft. 3 in., 217-pound frame on the mound, goes into his warmup with arms and legs flying all over the place, and sends that fastball whistling toward the plate at 100 m.p.h. or so, you could hardly blame any batter for contemplating early retirement.
Like many great athletes, Gossage also has the quality of rising to the occasion in the big games - as he demonstrated in the Yankees' last world championship year of 1978 and as he has done again in the first two rounds of this year's playoffs.
''The tougher it is, the more I like it - and the better I am,'' he says. ''When the game is on the line, I get a lot more aggressive on the mound, and that's what it takes to get me going. I love the excitement. I thrive on it.''
As for the view of Gossage from the batter's box, Seattle's fine hitter Tom Paciorek probably put it best. ''He's the most intimidating pitcher I've ever seen,'' Paciorek told Sports Illustrated. ''When he comes out of the bullpen, that's just what he looks like - a bull. There's smoke coming out of his nose and his cap is down over his eyes, and he's so big and hulking. You need a cape to face Gossage, not a baseball bat.''
How does Gossage compare to some of the legendary fireballers of yore? ''How hard is hard?'' replies Yankee shortstop-turned-telecaster Tony Kubek, indicating that at this level you can't really tell the difference. And Yankee Manager Bob Lemon, holding up a thumb and forefinger only a hair apart, silently suggests the same thing.
''He reminds me of Dick Radatz,'' said former New York Giants outfield star Monte Irvin, recalling the Boston Red Sox relief ace of the early 1960s, and Kubek nodded assent. Indeed, the comparison is an apt one, for Radatz, nicknamed ''the Monster,'' was an even more imposing physical specimen at 6-6 and 230 pounds. And when somebody that size throws the ball as hard as these two, there isn't a batter anywhere who doesn't worry a little bit stepping into the box.
''The fear factor with guys like that is tremendous,'' said Kubek.
But Radatz had only four good years, and all for a mediocre team that never game him a chance to showcase his talents before a big national audience. Meanwhile the Goose, now in his 10th major league season, has already had plenty of moments in the limelight. Perhaps never before, though, has his very appearance on the mound so consistently deflated the opposition as it has this year.
In the strike-shortened regular season, which was cut even shorter for Gossage as injuries kept him out of action for most of the second half, he still racked up three wins and 20 saves along with an unbelievable 0.77 earned run average.
In the East Division playoffs against Milwaukee he saved all three Yankee victories, pitching 6 2/3 innings and allowing three hits and no runs while striking out eight batters.
In the American League championship series against Oakland, he closed out both the first and third games of New York's 3-0 sweep, giving up one hit and no runs.
Lemon's system in these post-season games, with some variations depending upon what the opposition does, is to get six innings or so from his starter, bring in Ron Davis, also a fastballer, for an inning or two, and then let Gossage finish up. And with four full days of rest since his last appearance, the Goose is poised and ready to do his thing as often as necessary in the Series.
Gossage came up with the Chicago White Sox in 1972 and made his first really big splash in 1975 with nine victories, a league-leading 26 saves, a 1.84 ERA, and his first All-Star team berth. After an unsuccessful one-year experiment as a starter in 1976 (he was 9-17 with a 3.94 ERA), the Goose was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, went back to the bullpen, and dazzled National League batters with 11 victories, 26 saves, and a dominating 151 strikeouts in only 133 innings.
That was a good year to have such statistics, too, for Gossage became a free agent at the end of the season, and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was ready with his checkbook. And no matter how high the price, the Goose earned his salary in 1978, capping off a great year by nailing down the team's three biggest victories.
First he saved a 5-4 decision in the historic one-game playoff with Boston, getting Carl Yastrzemski on a pop foul for the final out with the tying and winning runs on base. In the championship series against Kansas City he won one game and saved the pennant-winner. And in the World Series he shut out Los Angeles for six innings over three games, and once more closed out the final victory.
Gossage's value to the Yankees was shown in another way in 1979 when a hand injury sustained in a shower-room fight with teammate Cliff Johnson put Rich out of action for 12 weeks - and the team wound up fourth.
In fact, when Lemon returned as manager late this season and was asked if he planned to institute any clubhouse rules, he deadpanned: ''The only rule I have is that Goose Gossage must shower by himself!''
Even a pitcher like Gossage can be beaten, of course, as he was in 1980 when George Brett's three-run homer off him completed Kansas City's sweep of the Yankees in the league championship series. But such occurrences are few and far between for the Goose, and naturally they don't make him too happy.
''Getting beaten in three straight games by the Royals last year was a little humiliating,'' he said. ''I wanted to make up for it this year.''
So far, he certainly has achieved his goal.