Ron Guidry, the unanimous winner of the 1978 American League Cy Young Award and the man I the New York Yankees couldn't have won the world championship without, was born and raised in Acadiana, as the southwestern part of Louisiana is known. He is a Cajun, a man of French heritage. There is a Cajun word, canaille, the definition of which has evolved in a roundabout way from the original French meaning of riffraff to the contemporary Cajun one of composed, crafty, street smart. When a Cajun says that Guidry is canaille, he also means that Guidry has faith in himself.
It is a wonder Guidry has been able to keep the faith, considering the rockiness of his road to stardom. It took him six years to make the majors permanently, and when he did so in 1977 at age 26, he brought with him an undistinguished minor league record of 24-22. He had been blasted off the mound by the archrival Red Sox; he had been accused by the Yankee owner of lacking guts; he had been ignored and left to agonize in the bullpen for 46 straight games without throwing a single pitch to an opposing batter; and then he had been sent back down to the minors. When he rejoined the Yankees for good in spring training the next year, he had an exhibition-season ERA of 10.24; was saved from being traded by a man who was intractable in his certainty that Guidry possessed extraordinary gifts; and finally was given a chance to start only when the Yankees found themselves without a starter and had to scrape the bottom of the barrel.
It takes an awful lot of faith to survive all that. It also took heart to walk onto the mound under such circumstances and calmly pitch 8⅓ shutout innings, which is what Guidry did. In fact, through all his trials—and now through all his triumphs—Guidry has been so calm as to appear blasé, a demeanor that has become his trademark. "People show emotion in different ways," he says. "Even though I do some spectacular things, I just shrug my shoulders and say to myself, 'Well, I guess I got away with something.' "
If Guidry were to write a book about the things he has gotten away with as a Yankee, it might be titled Two Close Calls. The first close call came on the night the Red Sox shelled him; in one-third of an inning of relief he gave up four hits and four earned runs, two of them scoring on a home run by Carl Yastrzemski. Guidry would like to forget the evening entirely—to be sure, he plays it down today—but it was a memorable, if miserable, one. It was May 20, 1976, a night on which the Yankees and Red Sox emptied their benches and brawled in Yankee Stadium. Shortly after Guidry's hapless performance, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who for some time had been harboring grave doubts about Guidry's fortitude, told associates that Guidry's pitching that night showed that he "didn't have any guts" and that he needed to get some, presumably outside of Yankee Stadium. "After Yastrzemski hit that homer, they treated me as if I had done something wrong," says Guidry. After he served his 46-game penance in the bullpen, Manager Billy Martin told him the Yankees were sending him back to Syracuse because he wasn't pitching enough.
Guidry wasn't overjoyed at going down to Triple A, having already spent half a season there. "I'm getting too old to be shuffled around like that," he said to himself. "I can't keep on being yanked up and down like a yo-yo. If this is what the Yankees think I'm worth, I might as well go back home and get a job. I'm 25. Life is flying by. I can't afford to wait until I'm 30 to begin making a living for my family," which at the time consisted of a wife and a child on the way.
Guidry packed his car and, with his wife Bonnie, set out for Louisiana. They were about 100 miles west of New York, just into Pennsylvania, when Bonnie said. "Are you sure you want to give up on everything you've been working toward for the last 10 years? You've never quit at anything you thought you could do in your life. Don't quit on your own. Let the Yankees tell you you're no good before you think of quitting."
Guidry never really wanted to hang it up—"I was frustrated, but I wasn't fed up with baseball," he says—and it was easy for Bonnie to persuade him to reverse course on Interstate 80. Guidry reported to Syracuse on time; the Yankees didn't find out for two years how close he had come to quitting.
In his first appearance with Syracuse, Guidry came in with one out in the eighth inning, the bases loaded and the tying run on third. He struck out the next two batters and then struck out the side in the ninth. "Not bad for a kid with no guts." someone said to Steinbrenner the next morning.
After finishing the 1976 season at Syracuse with a 5-1 record and an astounding 0.68 earned-run average—he had allowed only 16 hits while striking out 50 in 40 innings—Guidry was invited to spring training in 1977, in the hope that he would develop into a reliable backup for relief ace Sparky Lyle. In six exhibition appearances, Guidry had a horrendous 10.24 ERA, which occasioned the second close call. Steinbrenner, Martin and Gabe Paul, then the Yankee general manager, were making plans for the upcoming season. Steinbrenner strongly suggested they trade Guidry. Martin said nothing. "Over my dead body," said Paul. "You're about to make a very big mistake." Then he got specific.
"O.K., George," Paul said. "If you want to trade Guidry, I'll agree to it under one condition: that you issue a press release saying that I, Gabe Paul, unalterably oppose the trade and that you, George Steinbrenner, insist on it, and that when—not if, but when—Ron Guidry becomes an outstanding major league pitcher for another team, you take the blame." The point was made, and the subject of a trade was dropped.