What could Ron Guidry do for an encore after his incredible 1978 season? Well, nothing really. That 25-3, nine-shutout, Cy Young Award-winning year complete with huge, roaring crowds every time he pitched was once-in-a-lifetime stuff.But without any fanfare the stylish New York Yankee left-hander has kept piling up the statistics to firmly establish himself as one of the top pitchers of his era. And this season he's been right up there again with a consistently solid performance that has helped hold an otherwise spotty mound staff together and keep his club in contention.
''Of course I never expected another year like 1978; you're just not likely to put it all together that way in any one season,'' Guidry said recently in the visitors' clubhouse at Boston's Fenway Park.
''I've had a good record since, with no bad years,'' he added. ''But I understand that what I did that year is always going to overshadow the rest of my career.''
Indeed it has - so much so that few people realize how good a pitcher Ron has been both before and after his big season. He won 16 games in 1977 plus one each in the playoffs and World Series; 18 in 1979; 17 in 1980; 11 in the strike-abbreviated 1981 campaign plus another World Series victory; and 14 last year.
All-told, his 101-42 record heading into this year figured out to a .706 winning percentage - second best in major league history among pitchers with 100 or more victories. Furthermore, his 85 wins in the last five seasons are tops in the American League for that period. And with a 10-5 record by mid-July this year, he appears en route to another fine set of statistics.
But does he really still throw as well as he did five years ago?
''As well, not as hard,'' he said. ''The difference between then and now is that in '78 I overpowered everybody all year long, while this year sometimes I have the overpowering stuff and sometimes I don't.
''When I don't, I just don't rely on it. I think more about pitching now, and I'm a more complete pitcher. I'm able to combine my experience with whatever stuff I have on a particular night.''
That's the secret of winning consistently in the major leagues over a period of time, of course, and watching Guidry these days is like watching any fine craftsman ply his trade. It's interesting in its own way, and often just as effective - but not, of course, in the same spectacular, electric way it was in 1978 when his fireballing feats earned the Lafayette, La., resident the nickname ''Louisiana Lightning.''
Ron struck out a club record 248 batters that year, and frequently had the crowds at Yankee Stadium - and even on the road - standing and cheering wildly through the final innings. His 18 strikeouts in one game established an American League record for a left-hander. The nine shutouts in one season tied the league standard for a southpaw set in 1916 by none other than Babe Ruth. His .893 winning percentage was the highest ever for a 20-game winner. His selection as the Cy Young Award winner was unanimous. He won three crucial games in September against Boston, including the dramatic playoff contest that decided the East Division race, then was 1-0 over Kansas City in the league championship series and again over Los Angeles in the Yankees' World Series triumph.
Just about the only honor that escaped Ron that year was the Most Valuable Player Award, where he finished second in the voting to Jim Rice of the Red Sox. Was he disappointed about that?
''No, I just picked a bad year going up against Jimmy,'' he said in reference to the Boston slugger's fabulous .315, 46-homer, 139-RBI season.
''If it had been anybody else, I would have been disappointed,'' Guidry added.''But the year he had, he pretty much had to get it. And I knew he had to be some kind of athlete and have some kind of year to beat me out.''
Guidry, too, is ''some kind of athlete,'' by the way. There was no baseball team at the high school he attended, so he competed in track and was named the school's Outstanding Track Man for two years. His speed has continued to help him with the Yankees, who occasionally use him as a pinch runner. He fields his position extremely well, and indeed won the Gold Glove last year as the best fielding pitcher in the American League. And finally, he can also handle the bat pretty well, though he seldom gets the chance to demonstrate that ability due to his league's designated hitter rule.
Ron eschews any thought of setting season or career goals (''I just want to do my job and keep the team in the game most of the time when I pitch. If I do that, everything else will be there''), and he has a very philosophical attitude about pitching statistics.
''I figure three out of five times I'll pitch pretty well and win, and one time I'll get hit hard and lose,'' he said. ''The other time I get hit is the one that can make the difference - depending upon whether I lose, or whether the club comes back and bails me out for no decision, or sometimes even for a cheap win.
''You have no control over that part,'' he added, ''so the only thing to do is let nature take its course.''
This has been an in-and-out year for the Yankees so far, but thanks partly to Guidry's efforts they're still in the thick of the American League East race - and Ron thinks they have a good shot.
''To be a champion, you've got to get consistency,'' he said. ''We've played well in spurts this year, but most of the time it's been too much of an up-and-down thing. We've been showing signs in the right direction lately, though - and I think we can do it.''