As Oakland Pitcher Matt Keough stepped out of the shower one day last week, Coach George Mitterwald yelled across the clubhouse, "Matt, you haven't quite got it yet. You shower after the game."
Indeed, there was the towel-wrapped Keough dripping wet before the game. And that speaks volumes about the way his season has been going—backward. His record is 0-12, which puts him within reach of the mark for consecutive losses in one season, 19. He also dropped his last four decisions in 1978 and thus his 16 straight defeats spanning two seasons keep him in contention for the all-time consecutive-loss record of 23, set in 1910-11 by Clifton Curtis of the old Boston Pilgrims.
Yet a year ago Keough was the A's representative in the All-Star Game, in which he bailed Baltimore ace Jim Palmer out of trouble and had an ERA of 2.16, second only to Ron Guidry. Since then, his record has been a no-star 2-23. His current ERA is 6.00. His last win was Sept. 1, 1978.
"I don't think all this is any reason to walk around being a brooding maniac," says Keough, an affable righthander with a curveball which, in its glorious prime, was known to buckle hitters' knees. "What I have in mind is pitching in a World Series game. Somehow, I'll get there. And even if I have to become a lefthanded screwball pitcher to get there, I will."
Obviously, a large part of Keough's problem is that he pitches for the worst team in baseball. All year Oakland has been last or close to it in team batting, fielding, home attendance, morale and the standings (a 28-76 record at week's end).
Of course, Keough has been less than awesome as well, and he admits it. He hasn't been throwing the curve as much this season, relying instead on his slider, which is his fourth-best pitch. When he hurt his knee last year (his season record was 8-15), he got out of the habit of throwing the curve and has been slow to return to the good old ways. Routinely he gets behind batters, then is forced to throw fastballs, with predictable damage. Says pitching coach Lee Stange, "All I know is that a person who didn't enjoy pitching as much as Keough does might have problems with a record like his." For his aggravation, Keough is paid about $40,000 a year.
Oakland Manager Jim Marshall says, "He's learning his trade at the major league level. If our system was stronger, maybe Matt would be pitching in AAA. It takes a lot of courage to go out and pitch when they flash 0-12 on the scoreboard. But I do think Matt is getting a good perspective on his profession."
And that view, no matter how distressing, is not going to depress Keough's towering spirit. On the contrary, he laughs as he says, "Being just 24 years old, I'm not supposed to be good for four more years yet." He takes delight in showing off a small plaque a fan sent him which says, "Losing is nature's way of keeping you from winning." It hangs in his locker. Marshall recently advised Keough, "When you're out there, pretend every batter hits like your father did." The old man, journeyman outfielder Marty Keough, who retired in 1966, after 11 seasons in the bigs, had a .242 career average. And, naturally, people everywhere ask Matt about The Streak.
Aren't you tired of this focus on failure?
"No, it shows people are paying attention."