To his teammates on the San Francisco Giants, Relief Pitcher Greg Minton is Moon Man or Moonie. Minton, good-natured sort that he is, accepts their characterization with only one disclaimer: "I don't do things the same way other people do, but things come out the same anyway." Ah, yes. When Minton dives into a swimming pool, it may be from an apartment-house balcony. When he decides to skateboard, it could well be down the Great White Way. And when he goes courting.... But that's a story for later.
It is only fitting then, that a man such as this, who developed his strong right arm shying avocados at swallows, should be in hot pursuit of a record hardly anyone knows or cares about, or can keep track of. After pitching two scoreless relief innings against the Houston Astros last Saturday, Minton had gone 212 innings without allowing a home run. The last batter to take Moon Man to, well, the moon, was the last one he faced in the 1978 season, Joe Ferguson of the Dodgers. The record for consecutive homerless innings is believed to be held by Dale Murray of Montreal, who went 247? from Aug. 18, 1974 to Aug. 20, 1976, when Bobby Murcer, then of the Giants, hit one out. One must say "believed to be" because records of such accomplishments were loosely kept until after World War II, and then none too diligently. It is known, though, that Eppa Rixey of the Reds holds the alltime record for the best homers-to-innings ratio in a 200-plus inning season—one in 301 in 1921. Not bad, but homers weren't flying out of the ball parks 50 years ago the way they are today.
Minton has gone the equivalent of a starter's whole season without throwing a gopher ball. Consider that last year in the National League, Don Sutton, a pretty fair pitcher, allowed 20 homers in 212 innings while his teammate, Burt Hooton, gave up 22 in 207; that Bert Blyleven, then of Pittsburgh, surrendered 20 in 217; that Montreal's Scott Sanderson yielded 18 in 211; and that Lynn McGlothen of the Cubs gave up 24 in 182 and Larry McWilliams of Atlanta 27 in 164.
Batters do not hit homers off Minton because he throws a devastating hard sinker, a pitch that attains speeds up to 92 mph, then drops abruptly as it reaches the plate. "You're seeing only the top half of the ball," says Giants Pitching Coach Don McMahon. "It's hard to get under a pitch like that. No one I've seen can throw a sinker as hard as he can."
"If anyone in this league can get away with one pitch," says San Francisco Third Baseman Darrell Evans, "it's [Bruce] Sutter and Moonie. He's as good as anybody. You talk to guys on other teams and they don't want to face him. The only time he'll get beat is with a ground ball through the hole."
Accident has always played a big role in Minton's sometimes chaotic life, and so it was that a crippling injury in spring training of 1979 delivered unto him this extraordinary pitch. "Before, I had a high leg kick and a big stride," he says. "I threw a curve and a slider and a fastball that was straight as an arrow. But I tore cartilage in my knee that spring and was out five and a half weeks. When I came back, I cut down on the kick and shortened the stride to take pressure off my knee. I was just warming up one day with [Giant Catcher] Mike Sadek when he stopped me and said, 'Hey, what're you doing? The damn ball's sinking.' " Minton had no idea what he was doing, but he's been doing it ever since. He suspects that the shorter stride has caused him to hasten his arm's downward plunge, thus adding the sort of spin he used to get in his Southern California boyhood tossing avocados. But he isn't sure, and he doesn't really care. Right now, the sinker is virtually his only pitch. "I might go three weeks without throwing a breaking ball," he says. "By now most hitters know what's coming, but when I'm throwing 90 miles an hour or more, they have to commit their hands, and once that happens, they can't get under the ball. So, no homers."
Minton hasn't allowed a homer or much of anything else the last few seasons. He had 19 saves and a 2.47 ERA in 68 appearances last year, his first working exclusively in late-inning relief, and a 1.80 ERA in 46 appearances in 1979. When he took the Giants to salary arbitration before this season, they had little to use against Minton except his relatively low strikeout totals—42 in 91 innings last year. But that was enough, apparently, to give the team the win. Minton had to settle for a 130% salary increase, to $180,000 a season compared with the $265,000 he had sought. Jokes Minton, "I knew I was in trouble when the arbitrator asked what we meant by such symbols as IP, BB and ERA."
Infuriated by what he considered to be a bad strikeout rap, he went into spring training this year determined to show the Giants he was another Goose Gossage. The results were initially disastrous. He even allowed a home run—to the Dodgers' Steve Yeager. Minton returned to the sinker when the season began and by the end of last week was leading the league in appearances (25) and saves (nine) in addition to his 2-2 record and 3.60 ERA.
Minton is no overnight sensation. He spent nine years mostly in the minors, passing the time by riding inner tubes down rivers and, on one regrettable occasion, demonstrating his prowess at high diving. In 1972 he was partying with George Brett and some other San Jose teammates when he felt the urge to take a dip in the pool outside. Unfortunately, the party was being held on the second story of an apartment building. Undeterred, Minton set aside his drink, stepped onto the balcony and executed a perfect swan. He was in midflight, he recalls, when out of the corner of his eye he observed that he was headed for the shallow end of the pool. "I saw a three, not a six," he says. "I woke up the next day in the hospital with 12 stitches in my head."
These were not the escapades that won him his nickname, however. It was given him by Rocky Bridges, his manager in Phoenix, who, through some celestial confusion, decided that a youngster who looked as starry-eyed as Minton did in those days should be called Moon Man. "At first I tried getting rid of it," Minton says, "but it just fit too good."