Hooton and the thang had a 3?-inning fling with the Cubs in June 1971; then it was off to Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League for steady work. The knuckle curve fairly devoured hitters there. In one game Hooton tied a league record of 66 years by striking out 19 batters. Overall, in 102 innings, he struck out 135 and had an ERA of 1.68. He returned to the Cubs on September 6, and nine days later he struck out 15 Mets in winning a three-hitter. A week later he shut out the Mets again, this time on a two-hitter. In 21 big-league innings last year he had 22 strikeouts, two wins, no losses and an ERA of 2.14.
All this was merely preparation for his first start of this season, when he pitched a no-hitter against the Phillies—the first by a National League rookie in 60 years. It was Hooton's fourth major league start. In his next appearance he struck out nine Mets in seven innings before losing to Tom Seaver, who needed a shutout to beat him. Hooton has not quite approached those lofty standards in subsequent starts this year—who could?—but he has made a reputation for himself and his curious pitch.
Still, one pitch does not a pitcher make. And Hooton really does have another one, a "way above average fast-hall." according to Durocher, that prevents hitters from anticipating the knuckle curve. Durocher insists that Hooton throws harder than anyone on his staff, with the possible exception of Ferguson Jenkins on his good days. The problem, says Cub Catcher Randy Hundley, is convincing Hooton that he can get hitters out with his fastball. Hundley admits, however, that after the Cubs were safely in the lead during the no-hitter, he called for the knuckle curve 80% of the time.
What Hooton would seem to require more than confidence in his second pitch is a third one. He made a tentative effort in college to develop a slider, and Jansen worked with him on the pitch this spring until Hooton complained of arm pains. Hooton is not conditioned to throw conventional breaking pitches, which place greater strain on the arm than the knuckle curve. So the slider was abandoned for the time being. Instead, a changeup has been tried. It is Durocher's contention that this off-speed pitch could be doubly effective because Hooton puts so much zing into everything else he throws. But Hooton has been reluctant to throw the changeup, and Hundley has had to prod him. "It's hard to sell a kid on a new pitch," says Jansen philosophically.
Hooton is aware that his repertoire is not extensive and he is willing to add new numbers, but in the meantime he prefers his reliable standbys. "I ain't worried," he says calmly. "Yet."
One of Hooton's assets is his astonishing maturity. At 22 his manner, even with his elders, is almost avuncular. Talking to Hooton one half expects to be patted on the head or invited to climb aboard a knee. Durocher admires his coolness. As Leo has often said—and as he should surely know—"When you lose your head, you lose your behind."
Hooton is not likely to lose either one. When scrawny Bud Harrelson of the Mets beat him in Shea Stadium recently with a blooper to left field, Hooton's inner tranquillity was undisturbed. Hitters like Harrelson, he concluded, will do this because they merely punch out at the ball, like a child swatting a balloon. "Anybody can do that," he said. "If you hit the ball often enough, it will drop in."
Despite his college boy's face and curly blond locks, which are thinning a bit on top, Hooton thus seems much older than his tender years. At least he thinks older. Reading his fan mail in the clubhouse one day with an expression of tolerant amusement, he came upon a request for an autographed picture from an 18-year-old girl.
"Maybe," a visitor offered, "you should ask her for an autographed picture in return."
Hooton looked shocked. "You're kidding." he said, his tone suggesting that the visitor had taken him for someone else. "Why, she's only a kid."