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Pat Jordan
May 08, 1972
John Sain is the best and most beloved pitching coach in baseball. This does not necessarily represent the opinion of the management
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May 08, 1972

In A World Of Windmills

John Sain is the best and most beloved pitching coach in baseball. This does not necessarily represent the opinion of the management

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He searches the hotel room for a round object. Finding none, he picks up an ashtray from the bedside table. "Imagine this is a baseball," he says. The ashtray is black and square. He grips it in his right hand, his first two lingers and thumb encircling three sides of its perimeter, his other two fingers knuckled under its base. "Now, to break off a real fine curveball," he says, "you have to turn your wrist like this." He holds the ashtray at eye level, his right arm not quite fully extended. He tilts it so that his first two fingers are on top, his thumb below, and looks intently into its scooped-out center. Now he begins to rotate his wrist very slowly. His top fingers move away from him and down and his thumb moves toward him and up until the ashtray has turned 180 degrees from its original position, and he is staring at its base. The original position of his fingers and thumb has been reversed, and now the thumb is on top and his first two fingers on the bottom.

"See." he says, "it's a very simple, natural motion." He repeats the procedure, only this time he rotates the ashtray in a more fluid, sweeping manner, and as his wrist turns he draws the ashtray in to his chest. He demonstrates the motion, slowly and very gracefully, almost with tenderness, as a man might draw a beautiful woman to himself.

"It is a natural motion," he says softly. "It's real easy and natural." He repeats it again and again and again, each time drawing that woman to his chest until it is apparent that the repetition is only in small part for his student's sake and more for his own. With each repetition he seems to be reaffirming the clarity and logic of that motion, and with each reaffirmation he takes great pleasure. As he repeats the lesson, he speaks in that soothing drawl of his, that opiate that softens resistance, that makes men open and receptive to his teaching. It is as if you slept while a foreign language recording played over and over and, on waking, you discovered you had learned a new language. Only it is not really learned, not consciously acquired, but rather absorbed—and absorbed so effortlessly that it seems not new after all. It becomes something natural that one has possessed all along, though it was buried, and this teacher deserves credit only for nudging it to the surface. Then this new possession, rather this old possession newly discovered, becomes in one's mind one's very own in a way nothing learned ever can be.

He stops, puts the ball in his left hand and says, "If you throw it correctly the ball should break something like this." He cups his now empty right hand and draws a backward S in the air. "See, it goes away from a batter and down at the same time." He draws another backward S, then another, and another, each one drawn gracefully, with care, the shape of that beautiful but elusive woman he has committed to memory. He takes the ball in his right hand and, standing beside his bed, he begins his motion. He is wearing a pale blue shirt, a dark blue tie and navy flared slacks. He pumps, reaches back, kicks, moves forward, and at the last possible second pulls that woman to his chest.

Johnny Sain, the 54-year-old pitching coach of the Chicago White Sox, is a big man, almost 6'3" tall and over 200 pounds. He has one of those slight men's builds that with age takes on weight through the chest and arms while the legs remain thin. His face is small-featured, leathery, creased, and his cheeks are lumpy from years of chewing tobacco. He would look to be a very gruff man, without tenderness, if it were not for his smile, which is faint, and his eyes, which are a clear, youthful blue. That smile (not a smile, really, just a show of teeth) and those eyes (wincing, vaguely distant) lend him the air of a man perpetually scanning the horizon for uncertain shapes and shadows, for, quite possibly, windmills, whose presence he is sure of but whose form escapes him.

When Johnny Sain became the Chicago White Sox pitching coach in the fall of 1970 he inherited a staff that during the previous season had recorded the highest earned-run average (4.54) in the major leagues, and in the American League had allowed the most hits (1,554), had given up the most home runs (164) and the most runs (822). The team's most successful pitcher was eight-year veteran Tommy John, who had won 12 games and lost 17.

After a season under Sain the White Sox finished fourth in their league in team pitching and fifth overall. They had reduced the staff ERA to 3.12; had placed three pitchers in the league's top 15; had produced a 22-game winner in journeyman Wilbur Wood, who in his nine previous years in the majors had won only 37 games: and had developed two young pitchers of promise—Tom Bradley, winner of 15, and Bart Johnson, winner of 12. As a team Chicago finished third in its division, and there was speculation that the club's rookie manager. Chuck Tanner, might be voted the American League's Manager of the Year.

Before Sain was hired by Chicago he was working in the minor leagues, having been dropped as pitching coach by a succession of major league clubs—the Athletics, Yankees, Twins and Tigers. It wasn't that Johnny Sain wasn't doing his job. It seemed, in fact, that he was doing it too well. In New York he had coached Jim Bouton, Ralph Terry and Whitey Ford to 20-game seasons, the only times in their careers they achieved such records. In Minnesota, Mudcat Grant and Jim Kaat became 20-game winners under Sain, also for the first and only times in their careers, and Dave Boswell and Jim Perry improved noticeably and became 20-game winners shortly after Sain departed. Finally, in Sain's years in Detroit, Denny McLain won 31 games and 24 games. Earl Wilson won 22. a mark he never approached before or after in his 11-year major league career. And Mickey Lolich, although only a 19-game winner under Sain, became a 25-game winner after the pitching coach left the Tigers. "Without Sain's help I never would have done it," Lolich says today.

Johnny Sain came from Havana, Ark., a village close by the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, and signed his first professional baseball contract—$50 per month—with Osceola of the Class D Northeast Arkansas League. In the next five years Sain was to play for three other minor league teams, all of which felt he did no have sufficient speed to become a major league pitcher. One major league scout watched Sain hurl a shutout and then wrote his front office saying he hadn't seen a ballplayer on the field. Sain himself did not believe he ever would become a major-leaguer. He regarded his summer ballplaying as just another job. He got better pay as an athlete than as a soda jerk. For a while he was an automobile mechanic like his father, and occasionally he worked as a waiter but usually just to earn enough money to pay his way to still another try-out camp.

Sain managed to put together two winning seasons in Class D ball and then moved on to the AA club in Nashville. But after posting a 6-12 record his manager told him to bring a first baseman's glove to spring training the following year. He had batted .315 as a part-time first baseman. However, that year (1942) so many young pitchers were drafted into the military that Sain was allowed to remain a pitcher. In fact, he was invited to try out with the Boston Braves and he so impressed the club's manager, Casey Stengel, that he was brought North to start the season. At the time Sain was 24; he had a good curveball and decent control but little speed. Used almost exclusively as a relief pitcher, he posted a 4-7 record before he, too, went into the military. He joined the Navy Air Corps along with Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky. However, Sain spent 22 months trying to earn his flight wings while some ballplayers earned theirs in less than a year. "I've always been a slow learner," says Sain. "That's helped me a lot, both as player and coach. I have to go over things again and again before they stick in my mind. But when they do, they stick better than if I had picked them up quick."

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