SI Vault
Bob Ottum
May 05, 1980
Batters dread facing Reliever Kent Tekulve, whose sidearm pitches arrive by way of third base, but in Pittsburgh he's earned the stamp of approval
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May 05, 1980

Here It Comes, Special Delivery

Batters dread facing Reliever Kent Tekulve, whose sidearm pitches arrive by way of third base, but in Pittsburgh he's earned the stamp of approval

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"No you don't, either," says Tanner. "Y're ugly is what you are. I mean really ugly."

They grin widely at each other. This is a doting father-and-favorite-son exchange with them. Tanner has an honest, open face, and for the briefest flicker of a moment he looks as if he might reach down, snatch Tekulve up off the stool and hug him.

Besides, they're both wrong. Tekulve looks much more like the young Jimmy Stewart of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with his head held forward earnestly, Adam's apple bobbing periodically. Well, to be perfectly accurate, a young Jimmy Stewart before orthodontics. Tekulve has a slight overbite, which gives him advantages not available to those with straight choppers and steady, open grins. Tekulve's smiles can range from aw, shucks to a positively wolf-like leer. And there are times when that lupine grin, aimed at home plate, has a chilling effect.

As for his delivery, Tekulve is candid about what it can and cannot do. "I only have three basic pitches," he says. "A fastball, a slider and a changeup. Mostly, the slider. It comes in at about, oh, 89 miles an hour; there's plenty of time for a hitter to look at it. But then, ideally, about eight or 10 feet away from the plate, it will suddenly break and drop, from maybe eight inches to a foot. The harder I throw it, the less it'll break; the slower I throw, the more it'll break—and sooner."

"It humps in the middle," says Tanner. "It leaves Teke's hand and rises a bit, then starts down. As if that's not bad enough, the way it's spinning, if a guy gets a bat on it he hits it into the ground. Teke here will murder you with ground balls."

They both make it sound easy enough, but virtually every top major league pitcher has a slider in his repertoire. The extra deception here lies in where the ball is coming from. There is no sight in baseball quite as nifty as Tekulve's long right arm swinging far around, slightly below waist level, and then the ball zinging in from somewhere halfway between second and third base.

A righthanded hitter hates this, hates every second of it. With Tekulve out there, he must take a godawful uncomfortable stance at the plate, with his head cocked crazily and his chin resting on his left shoulder in order to spot the ball coming in. Lefties, with a better view, don't feel quite so put-upon. That's why Tekulve gets shelled from time to time, as he was in losing Game 4 of the Series when Baltimore's Earl Weaver left-handed him to death. But from either side, when Tekulve's slider is darting and dipping, the batters could be standing on their heads for all the difference it would make.

Kenton Charles Tekulve began playing ball in Fairfield, Ohio when he was 9 years old. "Even in those days I was lanky," he says. "All elbows and kneecaps. I did all the usual, predictable childhood things. Played Little League and Babe Ruth ball and played in high school—Hamilton Catholic. Not a bad school then, but it's much improved now: they've let girls in. You know, I was even a hitter. No, really. I stopped being a hitter the day some kid finally learned how to throw a curve."

Tekulve started pitching at 11, throwing fastballs that seemed to lead a life of their own, often rattling off the concession stands, and it wasn't until his sophomore year at Ohio's Marietta College that the roundhouse sidearm was perfected. "All of a sudden, everything was in sync," he says. "Maybe the motion evolved from my pitiful body. I wasn't strong then, either; I've never been strong. I can't throw using my chest and shoulder muscles—what muscles?—so I drive my arm by using my legs and lower back. It's a pivot-like swing. And today, where typical fastball pitchers get sore arms, I will occasionally get an ache in the backs of my thighs, of all places."

So Tekulve got into sync, and you can guess the rest, right? The headlines: ACE COLLEGE HURLER DRAFTED, followed by LANKY ROOKIE STUNS SOX; and the autobiography, My Rise to Fame, or Sidearming to Glory.

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