It was the kind of moment for which the Goose was made. The Yankees were leading 6-3, with two out and the bases loaded. The first fastball cut the outside corner—strike one. The second arrow split the first, and Perez swung and missed. Then came the third, the one that Perez will always remember, again a fastball on the outside corner, only faster. Three feet in front of the plate, the ball suddenly jumped. Perez took a feeble half swing and was out.
"That pitch was unhittable," says Perez. "I have to say, the best I ever saw. I don't think anybody can hit that pitch, especially righthanded hitters. It was too hard and too on the black, and the way he threw it, there's no way I'm going to hit it. When he makes good pitches, you're dead."
Such tales about Gossage abound in the major leagues. There was the time he was playing for Pittsburgh and he struck out eight of the 11 Dodgers he faced, and the L.A. players got riled because they felt the Pirate catcher, Duffy Dyer, was trying to show them up by not even bothering to hide the sign calling for fastball after fastball. "They were taking, they were swinging, they weren't even fouling the ball off," Kison says. One night in 1978, with none out, the tying run on third and the lead run on second in the ninth inning. Gossage came in to get the Seattle Mariners out and save a Yankee win with exactly 11 pitches.
"I remember he threw three pitches to me and I was out," Paciorek says, "and he threw three pitches to Bob Robertson and he was out, and then Julio Cruz was up and he really had a good at bat against him. Julio took one pitch for a ball and fouled off another with two strikes, so that he actually took Gossage to five pitches. Eleven pitches and we were out, and that was the ball game. That was the most awesome display of relief pitching I've ever seen."
Gossage has been a relief pitcher for most of his 10 years in the big leagues, but it has been only since 1975, when he found his lost fastball and saved 26 games for the White Sox, that he began to approach the level he's playing at now. In every season since then, except 1979, when he had only 18 saves—that was the year he tore a ligament in his right thumb during a scuffle in the clubhouse with Cliff Johnson—and 1976, when he was a starter for the Sox, he has saved at least 26 games.
During that same period, his ERA as a reliever has never climbed to more than 2.64: 1975, 142 innings, 130 strikeouts, 1.84 ERA; 1977, 26 saves, 133 innings, 151 strikeouts, 1.62 ERA; 1978, 27 saves, 134 innings, 122 strikeouts, 2.01 ERA; 1979, 58 innings, 41 strikeouts, 2.64 ERA; 1980, 33 saves, 99 innings, 103 strikeouts, 2.27 ERA. This year, despite the strike, at week's end Gossage already had 20 saves in 23 chances—winning two of the three games in which he blew the saves. In the 42⅔ innings he had worked, he had 44 strikeouts. His ERA: 0.63. And when the American League East divisional playoff begins on Oct. 7, he could be the key to the Yankees' postseason hopes, just as he was in 1978.
The numbers are revealing, but in a sense they are beside the point. The point is that Richard Michael Gossage, 30, is one of the few athletes in American sport who can single-handedly dominate a game. When his manager summons Goose into a game in a late inning, with no outs and the lead run on, the move is as near as anything there is in baseball to the closing of the mating net in chess. It all begins in the bullpen, around the fifth inning:
"That's when the adrenaline begins to flow," Gossage says. "I start to keep my eyes open. Start to take deep breaths. I can feel it pumping. It's like a chain reaction. It's the sixth inning, and I look up and we're in the game. It's 2-1, 3-2, my type of ball game. All right! Seventh inning it's the same score. I start to get up. Maybe you see the starter's having a little trouble. Eighth inning, base hit! O.K. The phone rings. The pitching coach is calling from the dugout."
Jeff Torborg, the Yankee bullpen coach, picks up the phone. "I grab my glove, I already know it's for me. He don't even have to tell me. Jeff answers it and says, 'Goose!' That's it. Then there's another base hit. Two men on in the eighth. I start throwing faster. Soon as I get the ball back from the catcher I throw it again. Five or six pitches, I'm ready to really start cutting loose. The phone rings again. Jeff answers it. He says, 'Goose, you ready?' I say, 'Yeah.' He says, 'Yeah, he's ready.' Then I start really pumping. Boy! I throw six or seven pitches in the bullpen as hard as I can throw. Just air 'em out. Then I see the manager come out. He's walking to the mound. The umpire waves at me. I get my jacket and get into that car, and that's when it really starts kickin' in. I can feel the adrenaline. I'm teed off now. On the ride in, at Yankee Stadium, I'll tell the driver, Danny, the groundskeeper, 'Thanks for the ride, you——!' And then I'll slam the door."
For hitters, there's nothing quite like seeing him there on the mound, watching the last of his warmups, stepping in and getting set for the first pitch. There is a wonderful simplicity to it all, no sleight of hand, no artifice. Pittsburgh isn't the only place catchers haven't bothered to conceal their signals. After Gossage got to the Yankees, the late Thurman Munson used to crouch behind the plate, his mitt up on his left hand, and wave his right in front of his chest, beckoning for the fastball, as the hitter looked back watching him. When Gossage protested—"Let's at least try to fool 'em"—Munson just cocked his head and said with a grin, "Who are you trying to fool?"