"When I was growing up, a baseball player was something special; you looked at him with awe. And most people aren't fortunate enough physically to find out what it's like to play."
It could be that Messersmith is so interested in his pitching because he put it together for himself. He had always been a good, hard-throwing athlete during his school days in Long Beach and Anaheim, Calif., but it was only in college that he began to feel that he could play professionally. After making second-team All-America and turning down the Tigers when they wouldn't come up with a $50,000 bonus, he signed with the Angels for $30,000 in 1966. In 1968, after two mediocre years in the minors, he spent the spring in the Angels' training camp, but as then-Manager Bill Rigney recalled it later, "He showed us almost nothing. Honestly, I just didn't think he had the stuff to pitch in the majors. I never hesitated to send him down to the Seattle club. And I thought that might be the end of him."
But down there in the Pacific Coast League, Messersmith showed more promise and was encouraged by Manager Joe Adcock, who recommended that Rigney bring him back up in July.
By the end of 1968 Messersmith was in the regular starting rotation, but in 1969 he lost his first five decisions and moaned to roommate Tom Murphy. "Murf, I think I'm in the wrong profession." Marv Grissom (then the Angels' pitching coach, now with the Twins) convinced him that he was suitably employed and taught him a screwball, and Messersmith blossomed into the Angels' ace. He was 16 and 6 the rest of the way, finishing fourth in the league in ERAs with 2.52 and third in strikeouts with 211.
Messersmith's surfacing as a whole pitcher is reminiscent of his approach to his hobbies. Says his close friend Murphy: "He just took a car completely apart and then started figuring out how to put it back together." Messersmith has been as thorough about constructing a workable game of golf. In a recent tournament he shot 68.
In a contest conducted by the Angels' radio announcers, the winning fan nicknamed Messersmith "The Baron," a name that appeals more to the media than it does to Messersmith, but one which, with its connotation of a World War I German ace, seems unwittingly apt when tested against the movie's theme—the Baron's thing. As he says, "It's the emotional feeling—the highs and lows—that you don't get out of anything else. It's conflict, a war, a battle; a very complex feeling. I'd have a tough time in a regular job—I have so much in me that I want to put forth. Maybe I could do it in writing. But what I have found to do it in is pitching."
An outsider might think, then, that Messersmith is concerned with style, with expressing his sense of the fitness of things in the way he delivers the ball, with what exactly the Great Scorer will write about how he played the game. But Messersmith says, "Winning is everything. Winning 7-5 is better than any way of losing. Actually, what I want to do is not to lose. It's like fighting a war—you're not fighting to kill, you're fighting to stay alive. I've lost, and I know how terrible it feels. There's no excuse for losing more than you can help. There couldn't be anything uglier than to be sitting around in your slippers when you're 40 and looking back and saying, 'Jeez, Messersmith, if you hadn't messed around you could've been good.' "
Winning means knowing the hitters' weaknesses, guessing what they are guessing, keeping them always off balance and maintaining "that little bit of fear in their minds when they know you may knock them down. But I'm not thinking about what's going on in the hitter's mind. I'm thinking about what's going on in my mind, about my concentration and my attitude toward myself. About how I will hate it if I lose, about never saying, 'Oh, screw it' and giving up when I get in trouble."
What we have here, then, is a pitcher whose be-all and end-all is winning, even if by a score of 7-5, on a team that was recently compared by a nightclub comedian to facial tissues: "They are soft and absorbent, and they pop up one at a time." Granted, such derision is not entirely just, as the Angels have demonstrated this year by acquiring solid hitters in Alex Johnson and Ken McMullen and staying near the top of the Western Division. But the Angels are still not widely identified with winning or even contending. Unlike the other clubs in the first expansion crop—the Mets, Astros and Senators—the Angels began early to produce stars and to show promise; but the stars all more or less faded, and the team got lost in the vast desert reaches of the American League middle. Consequently, they have acquired an image of stagnation, which doesn't fit Messersmith.
"Andy sees himself as a pitcher like Tom Seaver," says Murphy. "Not that he would consciously emulate Seaver, but he wants to be that kind of winner, that kind of leader. And, let's face it, unless Andy wins we don't go anywhere."