Of course, sometimes extraordinary times bring out more evident passion, as when, two years ago, shortly after the war in Iraq began, Feller stormed into the Indians' spring-training pressroom, bellowing, "Some of the guys on this team aren't going to have a good year, but I'll tell you who's really not going to have a good year. [Pause for effect, louder] Saddam Hussein!"
More often, though, Feller's statements are cogent, spoken with poise and conviction in equal parts. For example, this assessment of the here and now: "It's the instant-gratification generation. The shameless generation. Nothing shames them. The last 30 years: all greed. All green greed. And everything has to be action. No dead air. Every half inning they have to have some damn thing to amuse them--like they're children. It's like the movies. All the movies today are made for 16-year-old nymphomaniacs."
But Feller will surprise you. He's not easily pigeonholed. He doesn't, for example, think that President Bush is much of a leader, certainly not in the mode of men--Democrats (!)--like FDR and Truman.
Likewise, Feller is totally unforgiving on the subject of Pete Rose and is so unrelenting on the matter of his sin, gambling, that he actually carries with him copies of baseball Rule 21(d), the injunction against betting on baseball--growing furious when he sees it is not posted, as it should be, in the Indians' clubhouse. "I'm going to tell them to put it up, or I'll put it up myself," he fulminates. But then, with definitude, he'll say, "The people who criticize Rose for what he did to Ray Fosse in that All-Star Game don't know what they're talking about."
If you will recall, in just a high-tone exhibition, Rose, giving no quarter, barreled into Fosse, who was trying to tag him out at home, so injuring the catcher that, effectively his career was ended. Says Feller, "I was right there and saw it. Whatever they say about Rose, he had no choice but to do what he did to Fosse. Fosse had come up the line, and there was no way Rose could get around him. He did what a base runner should do."
Neither does Feller profess any jealousy over the great salaries players make today, nor, like a lot of old-timers, does he rail on that the game of his youth was glorious but since he himself retired it's all gone to hell in a handbasket. The only thing he is sure was better back then were the baseball shoes. Spalding made them out of a special kangaroo hide, with individual casts for the major leaguers' feet. Then came the war, and Spalding went into making Army boots, and players have never since been shod so well. It's like the black and the blue seams: Who knew? "Now, the managing now," he goes on, "some of that is asinine, it's so overly scientific. A batter comes up, they sit there flipping through a Chinese phone directory to figure out how to pitch to him, and by the time they find the right page, the guy's got a hit and you've lost. But I don't know if it's better or worse. It's just different. Fans like hitting, so we have more balls moving around. The trouble is, now there's so many home runs, it's gotten to be ho-hum. The records have all been broken, so the fans don't care. They've ruined the game for now, but"--he pauses, and without doubt, adds--"it'll blow over."
Of course, however baseball has changed, pitching has changed the most. Starting pitchers are only that now: starters, like soups or shrimp cocktail. "Yeah, five and fly," Feller snorts. Give the team five innings and go to the shower. In his time he would start (and usually finish) every fourth day, and on the middle day between starts he would either pitch batting practice--"without a screen," he declares, "keeps you alert"--or throw a couple of innings in relief. Today only the rare, hardiest pitchers work so much as 225 innings in a season. In 1946 Feller threw 371 innings for the Indians, then went barnstorming, leading a team of white stars against Satchel Paige and the best Negro leaguers. He and Paige would go two, three innings against each other almost every game. Feller figures he started 26 games in a row, most of them without a day off. So he threw about 450 innings that year, and come the next season he was as fast as ever.
Now, in the Cleveland clubhouse, he chances upon a young pitcher with his money arm wrapped in ice. Feller shakes his head. "Put heat on it and save the ice for beer," he tells the kid.
Feller grabs some grub from the team buffet. "I know it's not the same," he says. "We paced ourselves. I got to the bottom of the order, unless somebody got on, I'd let up, save myself. Now they have to bear down against every batter. But I'll tell you this: What starting pitchers don't have to do today is face the pressure at the end of a close game."
It's an interesting point. Athletes are supposed to work in the cauldron. The best hitters, after all, periodically come up late in games in clutch situations. Quarterbacks make their bones off what they can do in the last two minutes. The most admired basketball players are the ones who call for the ball with the seconds ticking away and the game on the line. But starting pitchers? It isn't their fault, but we rarely find out how big their hearts are anymore. It's different when you don't know for sure if somebody can put on the finishing touches.