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They're The Talks Of Their Towns
Ron Fimrite
July 14, 1986
Steve Carlton, no longer mute, and Tom Seaver began their last hurrahs in, of all places, San Francisco and Boston
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July 14, 1986

They're The Talks Of Their Towns

Steve Carlton, no longer mute, and Tom Seaver began their last hurrahs in, of all places, San Francisco and Boston

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There is something nice and reassuring about picking up the sports section and seeing the names Carlton and Seaver listed among the day's "Probable Pitchers." Except that in Sunday's paper, quite improbably, Steve Carlton was slated to start for the San Francisco Giants, while Tom Seaver was going for the Boston Red Sox. The two certain Hall of Famers, the best pitchers of their generation, found themselves in new surroundings as their clubs prepared for their respective second-half pennant races, and it was strange to see their names tied to different places.

Actually, Carlton was the bigger surprise of the two, not only because the Giants signed him, but also because he, the human clam, chose to commemorate the occasion with—now get a grip on yourselves—a press conference. Is it finally true of Carlton, as it was once said of Bob Meusel, a distant star of another time, that "he finally learned to say hello when it was time to say goodbye?"

Not even Carlton could remember accurately the last time he talked to the press. He told the stunned reporters in the Candlestick Park clubhouse last Friday that "I've had it good for 10 years," meaning he hadn't obliged an inquiring newsman for that long. But a historian in the assemblage vaguely recalled Carlton addressing the press during the 1978 National League playoffs, and that would make it a mere eight years of holding his tongue. But there he was on Friday, fielding questions as if he were some hired spokesperson. He even went so far as to say, "You can't make a move like this without talking to the media." You can't?

The move he had in mind was the one from somewhere near oblivion to the shores of San Francisco Bay. The Phillies, Carlton's employers for the past 14 years, dropped him like a sack of old laundry on June 25, concluding with considerable evidence on their side that the 318-game winner was washed up. Carlton thought otherwise, and so he shopped himself around, conferring, as he admitted in his historic media confrontation, with the Yankees, the Braves, the Reds and the Angels. But the Giants were the most eager to sign him and, in his view, they had the most to offer. "I love the city," he said. "...a helluva town, great dining... Napa Valley's close. I'm sort of a wine buff." He is also, at least in his opinion, still a pitcher, and the Giants not only have a winning team but, in Roger Craig, one of the game's keenest pitching scholars as their manager.

Carlton may have been further influenced by a conversation he had in late May with Mike Krukow, a former Phillies teammate who is currently the ace of Craig's staff. "I told Lefty this is the happiest I've been in four years," Krukow said of playing under Craig. "I told him my pitching mechanics had never been better and that Roger had had a lot to do with that. I told him Roger had also instilled confidence in all of us pitchers. Lefty seemed intrigued and impressed."

The Giants got Carlton for a song. The Phillies are obliged to pay his $1.1 million salary for the season; the Giants will chip in little more than the equivalent of the minimum player wage for half a season—about $30,000. But Carlton hadn't been worth even that piddling sum in his 16 starts for Philadelphia, of which he'd won four and lost eight. His earned run average when he went to the Giants was a messy 6.18, and it was a horrendous 12.56 for his last four starts. Since 1984 he has had only one complete game, and since the start of the '85 season he has had only five wins. He's also 41 years old. But Craig, who has already steered Krukow (10-4) and Mike LaCoss (8-3) toward their best seasons, is convinced the old lefthander can help the Giants in their second-half drive for a division championship. To prove his faith, he immediately transferred Scott Garrelts, a bullpen star last year and an erratic starter this year, to short relief and replaced him in the rotation with Carlton. And he gave Carlton his first San Francisco start just two days after he signed.

Sunday was Willie McCovey Hall of Fame Day at Candlestick, as well as Carlton's debut day, and 40,473 fans paid to see the grand old hero honored for his recent election to the baseball Hall of Fame and to find out what, if anything, the Giants' brand-new pitcher had left. McCovey, as gracious an athlete as ever pulled on a sock, did not let Carlton's arrival go unrecognized. In a speech in which he thanked everyone from Willie Mays—"it was an honor to wear the same uniform you wore"—to old boss and retiring NL President Chub Feeney, McCovey did not skip the southpaw oenophile. "And Steve Carlton," said Stretch, "welcome to San Francisco. You couldn't be at a better place."

Carlton must have thought the same thing as he took the mound to resounding cheers. But the first batter he faced, the Cardinals' Vince Coleman, doubled to left, and though he didn't score, there were indications—25 pitches in the inning—that Lefty was struggling. In the third, he gave up three hits and two runs. With another run in, one out and runners on first and third in the fourth, Craig came out to get him. Carlton had thrown 77 pitches in just 3? innings, given up eight hits, walked two and allowed three runs. His reliever, Mark Davis, saved him even more trouble by getting Willie McGee to ground into an inning-ending double play. Carlton left the game with the Giants trailing 3-0. No problem this year. Pinch hitter extraordinaire Candy Maldonado (12 for 27,4 homers, 16 RBIs in that role) drove in two runs with a bases-loaded single in the seventh and the Giants got six more in a crazy eighth inning on only three hits, two sacrifice flies, the team's 12th successful suicide squeeze and three Cardinal errors. Davis, Greg Minton and Garrelts shut down the Cardinals from the time of Lefty's departure. The Giants, who finished the week leading the NL West, have been doing that sort of thing all season. They've got an enthusiastic bunch of kids (10 rookies have played), whom, as their slogan implores, "you gotta like" and a manager so relentlessly cheerful and optimistic he has a HUMM BABY sign affixed to the wall above his office door.

Craig, needless to say, was not discouraged by his new pitcher's unimpressive start. On the contrary, "I was impressed," he said. "We clocked his pitches at about 88, 89 [miles an hour], but it will take him two or three more starts to get real pop on the ball. He hadn't pitched in 10 days [15 days, actually] and he was a little rusty. He's still rushing the ball a little, but we'll have him 100 percent after the All-Star Game."

Carlton's catcher, Bob Melvin, was equally taken with the new man. "He threw the ball where he wanted to throw it," Melvin said. "I think he'll be one of our best starters. He's like a robot out there. He just shuts out all emotion. I was the one who was excited...just by the idea of catching him." And Melvin, whose locker in the Giants' clubhouse is in between those of part-time coaches Mays and McCovey, is now not so easily impressed by greatness.

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