Spend a few days around the Kansas City Athletics and their ball park, and you tend to suspect that the hand of Mack Sennett is behind it all. It seems after a while that every Kansas City player looks like Joe E. Brown performing in some marvelous farce on film. There is something wonderfully unreal about it all, beginning with Charlie Finley and the editorial campaign that he conducts against the Yankees—fences in left and right center carry messages comparing the foul-line distances in Yankee Stadium to those in his park. And then there is the rest of it: the yellow cab that transports bullpen pitchers to the mound, the flashing lights and foghorns—exact replicas of those on the Queen Mary—that blast off after each home run, the shepherd and his flock of sheep in right field, the young ground-keepers who flit about like toy soldiers controlled by a central button. Add to all of this Jimmie Dykes, daintily appointed in a gold-and-green uniform, a substitute first baseman who catches pop flies in the middle of his head, an announcer who seems genuinely startled after each victory, and it becomes quite evident that baseball is far from being a serious business in Kansas City. "Yes, I'd say this is a happy ball club," said Manager Ed Lopat (before he was fired last week), while Jim Gentile sang around the batting cage and Doc Edwards, the substitute first baseman, played catch wearing a mask and a batting helmet.
It follows then that John Wyatt, a relief pitcher who speaks a language all his own, should be a member of this team, but it does not follow that he should be so consistently effective on a ball club that has been challenged to a game by a group of vendors. "In Wyatt and the ground crew," says one critic, "you have the sum total of Kansas City's excellence." During one recent home stand, the only conspicuous performers on the field were the ground crew (it rained a lot), Ed Lopat walking to the mound and John Wyatt getting out of a cab and trudging to meet him like a big bear in the middle of the Big Top. "Without Wyatt," said Lopat, "we'd be in real trouble."
It is difficult to understand what other "real trouble" the Athletics could experience. After 52 games the Athletics were 17� games out of first place, mainly thanks to a pitching staff that is viewed as a magnificent example of imperfection and inexperience. "If I lost a starter in the early innings," said Lopat, "the game usually got out of hand. If we could stay close, or hold a slim lead around the seventh inning, we could pull Wyatt in and everybody knew that we at least had an even chance of winning."
With nine saves and three wins Wyatt had figured in 12 of Kansas City's 17 victories. Last season he pitched 92 innings and recorded 19 saves to rank third among the league's reliefers, impressive enough to interest Minnesota and Detroit, two clubs that could certainly use him right now. Since coming up to the majors in 1961 he has learned to throw a sidearm curve and a three-quarter curve and a "foke" ball, a pitch that seems to arouse the ire of everyone in the league. Players refer to it as one of the best spit balls around. "John, where'd you learn that pitch?" a manager asked him once. "Man, why I learnt that pitch in Puerto Rico during the winter," said Wyatt. "Yeah, swimmin' in the Caribbean," cracked the manager.
Wyatt's best pitch is his fast ball, which he finally has learned to use with intelligence. "But the big thing I gotta do, man, is get that curve ball over when I'm behind," says Wyatt, "else I might as well go out and buy me a lunch pail and, man, that ain't hittin' it."
Curiously, there has been little written about Wyatt in the daily press despite his success, his colorful patois, his sense of humor and easy nature but, as he says, "Ole John don't care. He just interested in those hogs." Says one K.C. official: " Wyatt probably doesn't get any publicity because nobody understands what he's saying. At first I thought I would need an interpreter."
In the extraordinary lexicon of John Wyatt, dollars are hogs, smoke is his fast ball, food is grease, and "that ain't hit-tin' it" is a negative reaction to something. Every conversation is strangled with unintelligible words that are spouted with varying degrees of inflection. And you never are sure who he is talking about. Here is a sampling of his comments.
On Al Kaline: "Man, the Line is the best hitter anywhere. Ya got to do some scufflin' with that guy. He just grin at me all the time like he know he gonna hang me out to dry. You know, like you come from the side, almost turn your back to 'em and send that smoke in from left field. Well, I'll tell ya, a lot of 'em give ya an inch or two. But, man, the Line, he just stay in there, and swoosh! Ya're leavin' the game with an L, and Ole John don't like them Ls, he just like them Ws and Ss."
On relief pitching: "Man, I like workin' with the fire hose. Everything's burnin' in there, and Ole John come in with the big hose and [whispering] put out tha' fire. But those big hitters, they gonna sting ya, too. Then John, he go home and turn on tha' lowdown stuff, like James Brown's Oh, Baby Don't You Weep. I don't get any Zs on those nights. The best? Man, Radatz! He definitely open my nose."
On Harmon Killebrew: "Man, that Minnesota club got enough wood over there to build a house. And the Brew, well, he like a big lumberjack comin' after me with a blade in his hand. He just stand up there and wave that stick like it's a big redwood. One time I give 'im a pitch that couldn't be better, just where I wanted it. He's fooled on it, and checks his swing. I look up, and that ball is done gone on a long trip, and he's standin' there with the nub of the bat in his hand. He's some strong. I fool him now and then, and he just shakes his head like he sayin', 'I'll get ya.' Man, every time I see him I say, 'Man, why ya pick on me like that?' "