The Angels and Messersmith went together fine in his first start this season, a 12-0 Opening Day four-hitter over the Brewers. Late that night he woke up in bed with a start and wrenched his arm. The resultant stiffness hampered him in his next two turns—a 6-3 win over the Royals and a surprising 8-2 loss to the Twins after a near-perfect five innings. Then came an incident that makes you understand why winning can be as important to a pitcher as it is to a politician.
"I go into every game," says Messersmith, "thinking about a no-hitter. I'm not hell-bent for one, but I'm thinking about it until the first hit." The first hit off him on the day the movie cameras were rolling was a Kansas City line drive that Shortstop Jim Fregosi would have speared, except that he couldn't get around the umpire. The other hit was a limp little plop to right that Bill Voss lost in the sun. Aside from an intentional walk, Messersmith went to three balls on a hitter only once in eight innings, and he struck out eight men.
Later, Phillips told the press, "Ed Runge, who has umpired a lot of games, said that Messersmith's first five innings against Minnesota the other night were the best five innings he's ever seen a fellow pitch. The eight innings today must have been the best eight he ever saw, because they were even better. But it looked like the Man Upstairs didn't want us to win."
Possibly. In the bottom of the eighth Messersmith took the Angels' offense into his own hands. "He helps himself a lot, and keeps himself in the game, by being a complete athlete," says Phillips. "He can bunt, and I can trust him to get his bat on the ball on a hit and run." Leading off the eighth, Messersmith slapped an apparent single over the third baseman's head and then, going on his own initiative, stretched the hit into a double by sliding on his right side and arm, somehow flipping over and throwing himself beyond the second baseman's tagging range, reaching back with his left hand to grab the base as he went by—and finally shooting his right hand out to the bag when his momentum pulled the left off. He scored on a single by Fregosi, and that should have been the ball game for him, 1-0.
But when he went to the mound in the ninth he couldn't get the ball over. He had strained his shoulder at some point in the sensational slide and, after walking a man, he had to be relieved. The runner went to second on what was nearly a double-play ball, scored on an error and the game was tied 1-1. Eight magnificent innings and Messersmith was no longer the pitcher of record. Four starts into the season and only two wins. Messersmith threw a towel over his head, sagged and then got up from the bench and went to the clubhouse. At the close of one of those grindingly prolonged anticlimaxes that only baseball can generate, the Angels lost it in the 13th on a hit batsman, a passed ball and like that.
Afterward Messersmith appeared at his locker, his shoulder bright pink from being iced down, and a visitor could have heard a sanitary sock drop. To murmuring reporters he murmured back the only appropriate sentiment: "A tough one to lose."
Five days later his arm hurt too much to break off his hard curve, and he was hit hard and beaten by Frank Howard and the Senators. He flew to New York, where Dr. Kerlan was attending the Los Angeles Lakers during the NBA playoffs. Kerlan pronounced the tendon strain "curable." "Maybe the slide could have ruined my arm," said Messersmith, unrepentent, "but maybe it wins the game for us."
And that probably tells more about Andy Messersmith, pitcher, than any movie ever will.