So they know what's coming; the only question is where. When Gossage winds up, he turns and almost faces leftfield, hiding the ball, until the hitter sees only the number on his back: 54. "I know the hitter's saying, 'Damn! Does he know where this pitch is going?' " Gossage says. And then he spins forward, all arms and legs flying at once toward the plate, in a twisting three-quarter delivery that makes it appear to righthanders as if he is coming from behind them. "He looks like he's falling out of a tree," says Larry Sherry, one of Gossage's early minor league coaches who's now in the Dodger system. "All limbs are coming at you."
"When he turns that ball loose," says Cliff Johnson, who's now with Oakland, "he looks like the guy that Jack killed in the beanstalk."
There's no telling what the ball will do. "Knee-high it's liable to do anything," Yastrzemski says. "Sometimes it sinks a little; sometimes it comes at you a little. At that speed, it does enough." Some players say it rises, sailing up and in to a righthanded hitter—or is it up and away? Still others report that it does everything but call a cab: It "darts" and "drifts" and "jumps" and "rides." There are days, just half a dozen or so of them in a season, when Gossage works himself into such a fury that he feels himself falling into a kind of trance.
"Oh, I love it," he says. "The tougher it is, the more I love it. The better I am. I need that adrenaline. I don't get it unless the game is on the line. I love the excitement. I just love it. I thrive on it. I feed on it. Sometimes I feel like I'm going to blow up. One time, when I was with the White Sox, [Manager] Chuck Tanner took me out of a game. I had men on base and I was pumped up, and he came out to the mound. My eyes were weird. Real big. He called me into his office after the game, and he looked worried and he asked me, 'Do you take something?' I said, 'What do you mean?' And he said, 'Do you take something, like greenies?' I was 21 or 22 years old. I didn't even know what a greenie was. I just go crazy out there.
"I pitch that ball, and I can feel a shudder go through my body. At times I get so high I don't even know what happens. I feel like I'm almost on the end of the world. I feel I'm on the brink of going over. It's like a thousand hearts are beating all over my body. It's scary, weird. It's like I'm standing on the edge of a cliff."
Pope's Bluff is a sandstone finger of land that stands about 300 feet above the northwest end of Colorado Springs, at the foot of the Rockies. Gossage was born in the Springs on July 5, 1951 and still makes his home there. He grew up in the Roswell section of town, in a cramped one-bedroom house on Beacon Street, the fifth of the six children of Sue and Jack Gossage. Jack worked off and on as a coal miner and landscaper and nearly struck it rich mining for gold in Cripple Creek, on the other side of Pikes Peak.
"He had gold fever, he did," Sue says. "He leased a mine and hit a good strike, but instead of running in a vein, like it should have, it was only a pocket. When they dug deeper and it petered out, he couldn't bring himself to tell me for a month. So disappointing! But there are stories like that all over. When you strike it rich in Cripple Creek, you have it made. We missed the boat."
Jack preferred roaming the mountains to mining coal and tending lawns, and the family grew up poor on Beacon Street. "He liked the outdoors a lot more than he liked to work," Gossage says. "He was that kind of guy, a free spirit. He didn't give a damn about anything. But a heart of gold." Jack poached deer, hunted rabbits and took Rick to search for arrowheads on top of Pope's Bluff. "It was our favorite place," Gossage says. "When we first started going up there, we found them fairly regularly. It took years—10 or 15, I guess—to collect the 100 good ones that we have."
They also spent summer days together, fishing for trout in the mountains up around the old mining town of Leadville, about 80 miles west of Colorado Springs. Jack's brother, Bert, had a cabin there, at the Mt. Massive Lakes Trout Club, where members fished for rainbows in private lakes stocked and tended by the club. Rick and his father visited Mt. Massive frequently to help Bert wet his lines. Bert was a handyman for Freda Maytag, an heiress to the washing-machine fortune. In the 1930s, she had built one of the best cabins at the club.
Only one place was off limits to young Rick, as he was and is known to family and friends. (White Sox scout Bill Kimball was the one who signed Gossage and christened him Rich, a name that has stuck with the press and fans.) "Now don't you go near the Maytag cabin," Sue Gossage would say. Rick knew his place and never did. It didn't matter. The freedom to roam the hills was as boundless as the landscape itself. It was up there, in the rarefied heights 9,500 feet above sea level, that he came to love the mountains and lakes.