SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
April 09, 1973
When Steve Carlton concentrates, things happen: 27 wins for last-place Philadelphia, the richest contract in baseball history for a pitcher and commercials at thousands a throw
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April 09, 1973

Eliminator Of The Variables

When Steve Carlton concentrates, things happen: 27 wins for last-place Philadelphia, the richest contract in baseball history for a pitcher and commercials at thousands a throw

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The tall young athlete in the checkered sport coat walked quickly past the swimming pool as old men in flowered bathing trunks scuttled in his wake, their wrinkled limbs pumping below protruding bellies. "Hey, Steve," one of them trumpeted, "gonna win 30 this year?" Steve Carlton, baseball's best pitcher, smiled gamely, but his small darting dark eyes betrayed the uneasiness he experiences when trapped in a crowd. "Sure," he said without looking back. The old man guffawed, shaking his head as if that were the most preposterous boast he had heard in a lifetime of suffering braggadocios. Wasn't that Steve a caution....

Carlton had come to the improbably named Waikiki Resort Motel in Miami Beach to revive old times, not oldtimers. Ten years ago he had been a pool boy there, a youth so tall and gaunt he seemed an Ichabod Crane to the septuagenarian clientele. But he had been good at his job, just as he had been good at almost everything then that did not involve books or classrooms.

Young Steve Carlton was a Dade County Paul Bunyan. Why, he could knock a line of birds off the telephone wires with nothing more than a handful of rocks. Once, while walking in the woods, he came upon a quail and scared it into the branches of an oak. He took an ax in his big left hand and flung it hard. The blade cut that little bird's head off as neatly as a surgeon's knife. The ax, stained red, just hummed in the trunk of the tree until Steve fetched it.

He could throw a football 75 yards in the air, and though he was only a forward, he could outjump almost any basketball center in the county. At the Waikiki, he could stack mats higher than any pool boy and he was the champion comic diver. One day he dived off the roof of the pool shack to rescue a little girl from drowning. He was something.

He was something else now, suddenly, after adult years of mostly humdrum competence. He was a national celebrity, and as he sat sipping beer and reminiscing with the help in the motel coffee shop, the old people outside began clambering out of the pool to approach him. There was only a trickle at first. Then they came in a geriatric torrent, and Carlton retreated to the parking lot in full, if controlled, flight, a Gulliver pursued by Lilliputians. Menus, cocktail napkins, claim checks were thrust at him as he made his way to his rented car. He signed them swiftly, courteously. He was smiling as he started the car engine, but his eyes were dead ahead, away from the faces pressed against the windows.

As he drove off, he turned to his companions and said levelly, "I suppose they have to identify with someone. That's what it's all about, isn't it?" His marketing consultant, David Land-field, answered. "The day they stop identifying," he said, "is the day your salary stops."

Carlton's salary for pitching with what has been one of baseball's worst teams, the Philadelphia Phillies, will be $165,000 this year, or more than any pitcher has ever earned. In an erratic career with the St. Louis Cardinals—he lost 19 games one season, won 20 the next—he had had a background of salary disputes, the last of which led to the now infamous trade that sent him to Philadelphia just before spring training last year, a consignment, it was believed at the time, to purgatory. Instead, the trade was heaven-blessed for Carlton. Grimly determined and with complete mastery of both his emotions and his formidable pitching arsenal, he compiled in 1972 perhaps the most extraordinary record of any pitcher in history.

He set major league marks by winning 27 games for a last-place team and by accounting for 45.8% of all his team's victories. He led the National League in wins, games started (41), complete games (30), innings pitched (346), strikeouts (310) and earned run average (1.98). Only Sandy Koufax among National League lefthanders had won as many games in a single season, and Koufax in 1966 was pitching for a pennant winner, not a last-place team.

Astonishingly, the Phillies did not play like Phillies when Carlton was pitching. Balls that ordinarily filtered through their infield sieve were somehow stopped; outfielders, conditioned to watching the play as spectators, caromed off fences in pursuit of certain two-base hits; and batters who regarded a trip to the plate as a journey into the unknown manfully took their cuts in his behalf.

"It is hard to explain," said Paul Owens, who was Carlton's manager for part of last season and is the club's director of player personnel this year, "but you could feel that everything was different when he was pitching. The players would perform differently and I'd even manage differently. He had charisma. You had to be there to sense it. It was like when a beautiful woman walks into a room. No one says anything, but you know something is happening."

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