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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The important thing right away is to ease up on all this slander about Kent Tekulve's looks. Scarecrow indeed. Bean pole. Stork. Ichabod Crane. It has been said he could hide behind a pencil, or that he occasionally misplaces his shadow. One sportswriter, no doubt reaching for a simile after a long day in the blazing sun, wrote that Tekulve looks like a poster child for an anti-scurvy campaign. Tekulve reads that last observation and looks wounded—which he does extremely well. "Aw, come on," he says. "Now that's going too far, you guys."

It sure is. Fun's fun, but the plain truth is that this man is streamlined. There are degrees of such things, and this doesn't mean that he's smooth like an old Airflow De Soto—he's more jagged than that—but he is streamlined just the same. Tekulve is 6'4" and weighs perhaps 170 pounds, although as the season wears on, even he will lose weight. When he stands on the mound contemplating a batter, the angles and planes and hollows of his body fall in a fine, logical sequence from his sloping shoulders. If Tekulve were to stand perfectly still in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art, strollers would pause to admire him and nod in approval.

This sort of body structure, early lanky, also tends to create an air of fragility and slight confusion, which is just dandy with Tekulve. As everybody in Pittsburgh now knows, it's all part of the plan. He comes out of the Pirate bullpen looking as if he had been lightly spot-welded at the joints, and from the bleachers there is an impression that he clinks and clanks when he walks. He peers nearsightedly toward home plate as if to say, "I can't quite see you, but I know somebody's there." He looks down at the ball cradled in his glove as if he had no idea what in the world it could be. He shakes his head to the catcher, agreeing on the signs. And then his right arm starts whipping around in this wide arc, and down go the hitters, either swinging wildly or scattering ground balls all over the infield. This, assuredly, ain't no scarecrow or Ichabod Crane, folks. There is not another pitcher in the major leagues—starter, reliever or what have you—with a move anything like Tekulve's.

It wasn't just Willie Stargell who emerged from last year's World Series as a world champion and a folk hero. Consider Kent Tekulve and his Magic Sidearm. His appearances were late-inning cameos, wonderful and improbable walk-ons by a guy who didn't look as if he could do it. He relieved in five of the seven Series games and he saved three of the four Pirate victories, allowing only one single from 16 batters in the last two games.

Says Pittsburgh Manager Chuck Tanner, "I keep reminding Tekulve that he's ugly. I mean ugly. But, I swear, when he comes ambling out there in the ninth inning, he looks just like Paul Newman to me."

The Series was postseason frosting on a cake Tekulve had been baking all year. The last game of that contest marked appearance No. 101 in '79. Before the playoffs and Series began, he had appeared in 94 games, more than any other major league pitcher, saving 31, matching a club record for the second season in a row. He also emerged with a 2.65 lifetime ERA and a new gunmetal-blue Datsun 280 ZX, a little present to himself for making it through the year. The roof line of the car catches him at about mid-thigh, and pleating his body in and out of it kept him in shape through the winter.

With all this, one would think that Tekulve might also have won the N.L.'s Fireman of the Year award. It was close, but that designation went to Chicago's Bruce Sutter. Still, Sutter didn't play left-field—leftfield?—as Tekulve also did in an emergency, and, golly, he made the final putout.

The triumphs of the last two seasons have brought fame and fans to Tekulve. Grown-ups besiege him and children follow him around when he leaves the ball park. People surround his table at Pittsburgh restaurants, happily approving the prime ribs and baked potatoes: Attaboy, eat, eat, it's going to be a long season. A few weeks ago he slipped into a department store to buy a box of diapers for his infant son Jonathan, and there was bedlam. "I stood there signing everything from pillowcases to sales receipts," he says, "and before I knew it, two hours had passed. My wife was waiting at home, wet child in her arms. Then it got to be three hours, and still people kept coming. I started getting this hopeless thought, 'By the time I get out of here my son will be toilet-trained.' "

Has success spoiled Kent Tekulve? No way. His just-swing-it-on-around pitching motion is relatively easy on the arm, and he has other survival secrets. Tekulve is wryly thoughtful, given to rummaging around in his psyche and nodding pleasantly at all the wonderful baseball things he has learned.

He understands the peculiarities of other pitchers, for example. "Some of the strong-arm regulars in this game are a bit strange," he says. "I mean the overhead, 100-mile-an-hour guys."

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