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San Francisco Giants manager Roger Craig had never before seen Dwight Gooden pitch in the regular season, and though Dr. K had an off day, getting shelled by the Giants for seven runs in only four innings on a Thursday afternoon in Candlestick Park last month, Craig, as an old pitching coach, could see what all the fuss was about. "He's got a great arm," the manager said in his office after his team's 10-2 win. "A great arm. I can see why he's such a good pitcher. Of course," and he paused, smiling conspiratorially at the expectant audience of newsmen, "of course, he'd really be a good pitcher if he had the split-finger."
There was laughter all around. Craig was surely kidding. He knows how good Gooden is. Why, only the day before, he had introduced himself to the Mets' star during batting practice. "Hi, I'm Roger Craig," he had said. "How're you doing, son?" "Pretty good, sir," replied Gooden, looking shy and embarrassed. "Pretty good? Why, young man, you're doing about as well as anybody I've ever seen or heard of, and I've been around some pretty fair pitchers, like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson. You just keep it up, son."
He knows how good Gooden is, but maybe he wasn't kidding after all, because in Craig's opinion, the pitcher has never existed who couldn't have been a better one if he had used the split-fingered fastball. " Jack Morris was a good pitcher," Craig will say of the Detroit ace. "With the split-finger, he's a great one." To hear Craig talk, Cy Young might have won 611 games, not just 511, if he had used the split-finger; Matty might have had four shutouts, instead of only three in the 1905 Series; and who can say how many strikeouts Walter Johnson would have had if he had had the split-finger to go with his famous hummer? Craig believes in the split-fingered fastball the way Cap Weinberger believes in Star Wars—as the ultimate defensive weapon. It may not be quite that, but it is, beyond dispute, the hottest pitch in baseball, the newest bane of the hitter's existence.
In truth, split-finger practitioners may well be on their way to dominating the pitching game. Bruce Sutter, the split-finger pioneer, had been the premier relief pitcher of his time until injuries felled him a year ago. At his peak Sutter threw the split-finger about 90% of the time, and 90% of the time it was unhittable. Morris, with 102 wins in the 1980s entering this season, is the winningest pitcher of the decade. Donnie Moore, who won 8 and saved 31 and had a 1.92 ERA for the Angels last year, is a split-finger man. The leading strikeout pitcher in the NL, Mike Scott of Houston and the second-best in the AL, Bruce Hurst of Boston, are split-finger pitchers. So is the Mets' Ron Darling, who is 6-1 so far this season. Ron Guidry has a split-finger. So have Bob Welch and Orel Hershiser of the Dodgers. Virtually every member of Craig's own revived Giants pitching staff throws it, including Mike LaCoss (5-1), Mike Krukow (7-3) and the relief aces, Jeff Robinson and Mark Davis, both of whom have more strikeouts than innings pitched.
Consider also how the pitch has transformed failing careers into successful ones. Sutter was about to be released by the Cubs in 1973 when he learned the pitch from Fred Martin, then a minor league pitching instructor in the Chicago organization. Martin, who has since died, felt that Sutter's exceptionally long fingers made him a natural for the pitch. He took him on as his first pupil. "It [the split-finger] did everything for my career," Sutter says now. "If it wasn't for that pitch, I'd be back in Pennsylvania working in a printer's shop." Instead he's earning $1.66 million a year throwing split-fingers for the Braves.
Scott had just completed a dreadful 5-11, 4.68 ERA 1984 season with Houston when Bob Lillis, then the Astros' manager and now a Giants coach, suggested he seek out Craig for some split-finger therapy. The Tigers, with Craig as their pitching coach, had led the American League in staff ERA that year on their way to winning the World Series. Craig, ever the evangelist, had no objection to tutoring a pitcher in the other league—little realizing at the time that this pitcher, at least, would come back to haunt him—so he invited Scott to join him at his home in San Diego for some private lessons. Scott spent eight days with the maestro and proved a quick study. In 1985, with the split-finger in his arsenal, Scott improved his record to 18-8 and his ERA to 3.29. He had career highs for starts, complete games, innings pitched and strikeouts. The banner season earned him a new three-year contract worth $2 million. This season he is averaging better than a strikeout per inning. The pitch not only saved a flagging career and made him a wealthy man, it also converted him into an iron man. Because the split-finger imposes relatively little strain on his arm, Scott says, "I can throw as well with three days' rest now as I could with five days' rest before I started throwing it."
Hurst didn't start using the pitch until the Red Sox demoted him to the bullpen in June of '85 after he had gotten off to a 2-5 start. Restored to the rotation and armed with his new weapon by late June, he allowed only one run in his next three starts and was 9-6 for the rest of the season. Never a strikeout pitcher before the split-finger, he has averaged nearly a strikeout per inning since he started using the pitch consistently, and this year, like Scott, he's whiffing opponents at better than a strikeout per inning.
Moore is also convinced it is the split-finger that separates him from the masses. He, like Sutter, learned it from Martin, Craig's predecessor as the split-finger guru. Moore, now 32, had spent most of his career trying to get out of the minor leagues until he saved 16 games for the Braves in 1984. The split-finger began to take form two years earlier, he estimates, or seven years after he first tried it. "It took me a long time to control it and gain confidence in it," he says. But when he had full command of it last year, "It made a big difference; I was like another pitcher. It made my slider and fastball better. I became a better pitcher."
If the slider was "the pitch that changed the game" in the '60s, the split-fingered fastball is, as Steve Garvey, Keith Hernandez and Wade Boggs have proclaimed, "the Pitch of the '80s." When Tony Gwynn, San Diego's marvelous hitter, was first told that Craig would be managing the Giants, he heaved a mournful sigh. "That means all those guys in San Francisco will be throwing the split-finger," he said. "I saw enough of that in the '84 Series with Jack Morris." Morris had two complete-game wins in that Series, pitching, as Craig himself says, "at the highest level of supreme confidence." Afterward, an exuberant Morris told reporters he wondered if Babe Ruth could have hit the split-finger and, furthermore, "I have seen Ty Cobb swing on film, and I know he couldn't have."
No doubt about it, the pitch is catching on. Craig figures that half of the pitchers on every major league staff are at least flirting with it. Some traditionalists question this, but, as Mets announcer and former major league catcher Tim McCarver says, "I think a lot of pitchers are experimenting with it but not admitting it. They don't want to call it a split-fingered fastball until they've perfected it. It's getting more popular. It's almost epidemic since the Tigers." According to White Sox outfielder Harold Baines, "There's probably not a pitcher who doesn't practice it. I get the feeling they're all getting ready to try it in a game."