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Even as a child he was reclusive. "When he was little, if other kids came around that he didn't know, he'd take off," recalls his mother, Jean. "My husband's a lot like that."
Melton Tudor, John's father, is an engineer for General Electric who, by most accounts, is the prototypical New Engender. Industrious and taciturn, he shares his eldest son's distaste for the limelight. When local television camera crews made plans to visit the Tudor home during the World Series, Melton Tudor put the kibosh on the scheme. Call it Yankee cantankerousness or whatever you like, but there is a rigorous respect for privacy throughout most of New England. "I played four years here [in Boston] and never got recognized," says John, who is approached in public all the time in St. Louis. "Those sorts of things can get out of hand." Of course, Tudor was never a star with the Red Sox, for whom he played on and off in 1979 and '80 and full-time the next three seasons, when he had a 39-32 record.
It was during his years with the Sox that Tudor formed his opinions of the press. Somehow or other—Tudor attributes the remark to Johnny Podres, later the Red Sox pitching coach—Tudor was labeled "gutless." Afraid to come inside. Always whining about a sore arm. Not a competitor. Tudor's stoicism served to damn him in Beantown. He doesn't care! The gutless so-and-so doesn't care! Home run? Give me the ball. Strikeout? Give me the ball. Error? Give me the ball. Ralph Houk would march out, signaling to the bullpen. Tudor would give him the ball and head for a shower, no fuss, no muss, no histrionics. Obviously, he didn't care. And the papers wrote it up just that way, always dancing back to that single label—gutless.
"It just couldn't have been further from the truth," says the Red Sox' Dave Stapleton, who roomed with Tudor during his years in Boston. "But it happens all the time in the big leagues: Once you're labeled, it's tough to shake it."
"That's when he got that chip on his shoulder," says Bettencourt. "The papers were saying that he had ice water running through his veins, that he felt no emotion. Some of his teammates insinuated that he was not a competitor, that he was aloof. The more they wrote those things, the more it all snowballed. John knew people he cared about were reading that stuff, and that's what did it."
Not a competitor? Anyone who had grown up with Tudor knew about his competitiveness on the hockey rink and the basketball court, where he would be the first kid to stand up to an elbow or dive into the stands after a loose ball. "The kid empties his bucket for you," says Bettencourt. And gutless? Are you kidding? A guy who has spent New Year's Eve scuba diving for lobsters and scallops in frigid Gloucester Harbor, 75 feet beneath the surface?
The Red Sox traded Tudor to the Pirates after the 1983 season. In 1984 he was 12-11 (3.27 ERA) with a last-place Pittsburgh team. In nine of his 11 losses the Bucs scored two runs or fewer; in 11 of Tudor's starts he allowed one or no earned runs. Still, the offense-starved Pirates traded Tudor to the Cardinals after the season in a deal that brought outfielder George Hendrick to Pittsburgh.
Tudor got off to a rocky start in St. Louis and was 1-7 after losing to Atlanta on May 29. "Great trade, Tutes," Bettencourt told him sarcastically two days later. "He told me that he was going to a most eligible bachelors function in St. Louis later that week, and that the only way he would get in was if he wore a Joaquin Andujar mask."
Andujar was going great guns at the time. Tudor reportedly was one game away from being traded back to the Red Sox for starter Bruce Hurst, although he had heard no rumors to that effect. He credits something else Bettencourt said that night with turning his season around. While watching the Atlanta game on television, Bettencourt had noticed that when Tudor reached the balance point in his delivery, when his right leg was at its highest point, he wasn't hesitating as he had with the Red Sox and Pirates. That hesitation had had the double effect of throwing the batter's rhythm off by a fraction and allowing Tudor's arm to catch up with his body.
Tudor worked on that and, evidently, a lot more. He won 20 of his next 21 decisions, 10 by shutouts, and that does not even include a pennant-race duel with the Mets' Ron Darling in which Tudor was lifted after the 10th with the score 0-0. In fact, Tudor was so dominating against the Mets—he also pitched a 10-inning whitewash in September against Dwight Gooden—that the Mets' front office sent a memo to all their minor league southpaws telling them to watch John Tudor in the postseason: That is the way to pitch.