Knepper's problems actually started late in the 1978 season. After one particularly galling loss he was quoted in the San Francisco Examiner. "I can't get aggressive anymore." Since Knepper had just undergone a religious experience, some people interpreted the quote to mean that born-again Christianity was sapping his pitching skills. In subsequent seasons the Bay Area press was critical of a group of Giants called "the God Squad," players who supposedly shrugged off losses as "God's will." That led to some dissension among the San Francisco players. "I've seen guys who used to be intense and are now very placid," Evans said at one point. "You wonder if guys think things are predetermined."
Knepper claims he was misunderstood. "What I think I actually said was that my faith had given me the strength to handle bad days without throwing things. That came out 'passive' in the papers. Christians aren't passive people. I don't think you'll find anywhere in the Bible that Christ gave less than 100%. You don't give any glory to God by giving 25%. I'm a firm believer in free will. It's just that if you lose, you can accept it without being crushed. We have a large group of practicing Christians on the Astros, and they've had a positive effect. Everything is not too high, not too low. That's the basic concept of the Christian life-style."
Knepper wasted no time making an impression on his new teammates. After blowing a three-run, eighth-inning lead and dropping the final game of the 1980 National League playoffs to the Phillies, the Astros won only four of their first 16 games in 1981—two of them on Knepper shutouts. The Houston pitching was spotty, the hitting worse, and the first-and second-base positions revolving doors. Cesar Cedeno was moved from center to first, then just before the strike got under way Tony Scott was acquired from St. Louis to play centerfield. On the last day of August, Phil Garner was obtained from Pittsburgh to play second base. In the second season the Astros have been born again.
The team's most pleasant surprise, other than Knepper, is righthander Nolan Ryan, who has an 8-4 record and a league-leading 1.63 ERA. "I'd forgotten how important it is to know the hitters," says Ryan, an 11-10 pitcher in 1980 after returning to the National League from California. "I'd be in trouble and wouldn't know what to throw a guy. Dr. Gene Coleman, our director of physical conditioning, studied my performance charts and discovered that the key was my performance on 2-2 counts. I'd try to be too fine and miss, and 60% of the time batters got to 3-2, they reached base."
"Batters would foul off his 3-2 fast-balls," says Coleman, "and keep doing it until they got on. He doesn't have that problem this year because he's getting his curve over on 2-2."
At 34, Ryan is still throwing a 95-mph fastball ( Steve Carlton, Vida Blue and Tom Seaver are at about 90, according to Coleman). He also remains as phlegmatic as ever. Knepper, on the other hand, comes at you in a variety of ways, like his curve. He's spontaneous enough to have proposed to his wife, Terri, 10 days after their first date, meticulous enough to have mapped out a post-baseball career as an Oregon rancher, and concerned enough to speak of the problems ballplayers have finding a "middle ground" with which to relate to old friends who have been less successful.
"One of the most important things in life," he says, "is when you have a dream, to follow it through." By the time he was four, growing up in Akron, Ohio, Knepper was sure he'd be a ballplayer and later, when his family moved to tiny Calistoga, Calif., he knew he'd be a rancher. "I got a lot of support from my parents. My mother always said I would pitch for the Giants. My father took a lot of heat for letting me pass up college to play ball."
"Knepper is a cross between Tommy John and Vida Blue," Sparky Anderson, then the Cincinnati manager, said in 1978. Today, that seems an apt description both of his pitching and personality: not too high, not too low, not too fast, not too slow.