Red Smith liked to remind sanctimonious press-box colleagues that sports are games played by kids. Smith's dictum has come true with a vengeance in the case of Steve Kline. Twenty-eight going on 14, the durable Cardinals reliever pitches with the pile-driving passion of a pro wrestler.
"When I was little," says the 6'1", 215-pound lefthander, "my hero was George." Not George Brett, but that bullet-headed bad guy George (the Animal) Steele. Kline loved to watch Steele incite crowds by biting open a turnbuckle, chewing the foam padding and spitting it out. "I want to be the guy that fans throw drinks and popcorn at," says Kline. "To be booed and hated, that's the ultimate."
He gets plenty of opportunities. At week's end Kline was in an accustomed spot: first among National League pitchers in appearances (59), after leading the league in that category the past two seasons, which were spent with the Expos. "On the road," says Kline, who through Sunday was 2-3 with five saves and a 2.01 ERA, "fans near the bullpen scream about your face, your butt, what they've been doing to your mother."
An alarmingly vacant look, Kline insists—not his signature slider—is the keenest dart in his arsenal of intimidation. "I try to look dumb," he says. The routine seems to work best with left-handed hitters—they're batting .116 against him this season. "Basically, I throw sliders at hitters' heads and hope they break," he says, meaning (we hope) the sliders, not the heads. "If hitters think I'm wild or that I don't know what I'm doing, I get a little edge."
The youngest of five brothers, Kline needed all the edge he could get. "We tortured him," says Kevin, who, along with Steve's other siblings, pushed him into the electrified fences, hurled tires at him from rooftops and affectionately called him Afterbirth.
Drafted out of West Virginia in the eighth round by the Indians in 1993, Kline was struggling three years later with his weight (240 pounds) and on the mound as a starter at Double A Canton- Akron (8-12,5.46 ERA). The next year he mutated into a setup man for the Oriente Caribbrans in the Venezuelan Winter League. He made it to the majors in '97, but midway through the season he was dealt to Montreal, where he dropped 40 pounds and developed into a reliable middle reliever. He hasn't had an ERA higher than 3.75 in his three full seasons. Last December, Kline was traded along with righthander Dustin Hermanson to the Cardinals for third baseman Fernando Tatis and righthander Britt Reames.
"If I let him," says St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, "he'd pitch in all 162 games." In the past three seasons Kline made 78, 82 and 83 appearances. A situational southpaw, his outings are usually brief. In his 59 games this year, he had amassed only 49? innings.
Despite making all those appearances over the last three seasons, Kline has shown no signs of injury or arm weariness. "Around the sixth inning Steve starts pacing like a caged predator," says St. Louis bullpen coach Marty Mason. "If he doesn't pitch for three days, it's probably worse for him than if he pitches three days in a row."
Adds La Russa, "He's not a 'get yours' player who's distracted by stats and money and attention. He's there for competition."
The Animal would approve.