Jim (Catfish) Hunter spent one of his last days on Earth with me—on the 20th anniversary of Thurman Munson's death, no less—and several times on that hot afternoon last month, in the presence of this dying man, I was powerless to contain my tears. He was that funny.
"The first time I pitched to Munson," Hunter said of his Yankees batterymate while sitting on a porch swing outside his house in Hertford, N.C., "I was windin' up when he was just startin' to give the sign. He called timeout and ran out to the mound and said, 'What are you on?' I said, 'Whaddya mean, what am I on? I'm not on anythang.' "
"But I haven't gave the sign yet, and you're windin' up."
"As long as you give the sign before my hand gets over the top of my head, I'm gonna throw whatever you call."
"How in the hell you gonna do that?"
"I throw every pitch the same way."
"You don't like to waste time, do you?"
"That's right—give me the damn ball and let me throw it."
Hunter, who died last Thursday of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—Lou Gehrig's disease-stuffed 20 pounds of life into a five-pound sack: He married his high school sweetheart, skipped the minors, went to the big leagues at 19, threw a perfect game at 22, won five World Series in seven years in the 1970s, retired at 33, was inducted into the Hall of Fame at 41 and died at 53. Waste time? He'd fly home to Hertford as soon as possible after the final out of every season. Teammates knew a World Series was clinched when they saw a plane ticket in Hunter's jacket as it hung in his locker.
I have no idea why the Cat agreed to have me in his home on Aug. 2, except that I asked, and he was always a ridiculously soft touch. As a member of the Oakland A's he would leave his car on the West Coast each off-season and let trainer Joe Romo drive it. Every year Romo billed Hunter for gas as well as his hotel bills on the drive to spring training. Hunter always paid up, always muttering with mock outrage, "Shouldn't I be chargin' you for the sonofabitch?"