Before each game early in the 1997 season the bearer of the opposing team's lineup card would also deliver condolences to Terry Francona, the Philadelphia Phillies' rookie manager. "Hang in there" or "It'll get better," the rival would say in a solemn bedside manner, as if stumbling toward a 30-72 start was some sort of illness. But once every five days Francona could fix his counterpart with a devilish look, like a schoolboy with a laser pointer in his pocket, and say, "Don't feel sorry for me tonight."
Then, as now, every fifth day the Phillies were as good as any team in baseball. Every fifth day they wielded one of the rarest and most potent weapons in the sport. Every fifth day they featured an honest-to-goodness, certified-No. 1 starting pitcher. They had righthander Curt Schilling. The real deal.
"One night we could be losing 6-0 and look just terrible," Francona says. "Then the next night maybe we still hadn't scored—it's 0-0 or 1-0 in the seventh inning—but we've got Schill out there, and we look sharp. Every fifth day, it doesn't matter who we play or who he's matched up against, we feel like we're going to win. So can you imagine how the Braves feel? They get that feeling almost every night of the week."
With the possible exception of a hot goaltender in hockey, no position in team sports controls the tempo, tenor and outcome of a game as thoroughly as a premier starting pitcher. He is the sun of the baseball universe; the game revolves around him.
Come Opening Day, every team will have a so-called No. 1 starter. After all, somebody has to take the ball first—and increasingly, that's all he is: somebody. But we speak here not of the Scott Karls of the world. Rather, we pay tribute to the few virtuosos who can make opposing hitters rest uneasy the night before a game they pitch; the ones who eliminate the need for middle relievers, the weakest link in just about any staff; the ones who take pressure off their rotation mates. Like jazz to Miles Davis or pornography to Justice Potter, true No. l's are so obvious as to defy definition.
"To me, naming the Number 1's is like naming the days of the week," Schilling says. "Everybody knows who they are. If you have to stop and think if somebody is a Number 1, he's not."
Here is the A list: Schilling; Kevin Brown of the Los Angeles Dodgers (page 64); Roger Clemens of the New York Yankees; Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves; Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks; Pedro Martinez of the Boston Red Sox; and Mike Mussina of the Baltimore Orioles. That's it. Our Starting Nine. End of discussion. That means 23 of the 30 teams in baseball, by our reckoning, don't have a No. 1 pitcher.
David Wells of the Toronto Blue Jays, 18-4 in '98, including a perfect game? Three words: Do it again. The Yankees' David Cone? These days the 36-year-old righthander frightens HMOs as much as he does hitters. Even Mussina's inclusion in the club is an indication of how elite pitching standards have declined in this age of powerball and bullpen specialists. Mussina has never won 20 games or pitched 250 innings, the latter being a plateau even journeymen such as Rick Mahler used to reach as recently as the '80s. Over the past two seasons the Orioles righthander has won four fewer games and thrown only eight more innings than peripatetic Seattle Mariners lefty Jamie Moyer. Mussina, though, gets the nod here because his ordinary 13-10 season last year was marred by freak injuries (a wart on his pitching hand and a line drive off his face), because he has consistently proved that he can dominate a game (especially in the postseason) and because he has the best winning percentage (.667, 118-59) of any active pitcher with at least 25 victories.
Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz also deserve the smallest of asterisks because each has the insulation of the other two. Each would be a No. 1 on virtually any team in baseball. With Atlanta, though, the pressure to stop losing streaks is both rare and shared. Simple arithmetic tells you that two of them miss the other team's best pitcher. For example, Maddux had a loss and a no-decision against Schilling in the first 11 days of last season. The Philadelphia pitcher Glavine drew was Garrett Stephenson, who finished the season 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA.
"There are two things that make a pitcher a Number 1," St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa says. "When it's his turn to pitch, you can see guys on the team get excited because they know they have a real good chance to win. The other thing is, he takes the ball knowing his day to pitch affects the other four days. That guy knows that if we lose tonight, the club is not going to be as confident the next four nights. He allows the bullpen to rest, and he allows all the other starters to fit in slots behind him. They know they don't have to win 18 to 20 games."