School never interested him much. It confined and bored him. He became a fine athlete, though, and found out in little league that he could throw. So did everyone who read the sports pages of the Colorado Springs Sun. In 1963, under the headline RICK GOSSAGE HURLS ANGELS TO YAL LIGHTWEIGHT CROWN, a story began: "Hard-throwing righthander Rick Gossage fired a sparkling no-hitter and struck out 14 batters to hurl the Padgett Realty Angels to the Young American League lightweight city championship.... The Angel fireballer struck out the last 13 Mets to face him."
Gossage spent hours throwing into a pitching net his parents had splurged for, but it didn't last long, and he threw against the one-step stoop outside the house. "He threw by the hour," Sue says. "Constantly, constantly, constantly." At times he'd miss the stoop and the ball would crash into the screen door. It ended up in splinters. "You're going to tear the place down," Sue would yell.
He's still throwing and throwing, and breaking things, too. Early last March, before one of the first games of spring training, Gossage took the mound to throw batting practice. A bucket of balls sat beside him on the mound, and soon he was throwing them as fast as he could pick them up, harder and harder. He began to look demonic, his eyes wide and flashing. Jackson watched from behind the cage. "I bet he breaks your bat," he told Rick Cerone as Cerone walked to the plate. The bat split on the next pitch. When the bucket was finally empty, Gossage stalked off to the clubhouse. It was as if he had just blown Perez away.
"When I see a bag of baseballs, I just seem to go crazy," he says. "I start throwing them, and I can't stop till I've thrown them all. I mean, they're just sitting there in the bag, and I want to throw each one harder than the last."
He had the same compulsion as a boy. "He threw all the time," says his older brother, Jack. "Rocks and stones and things. He'd go to the park at night and throw baseballs for as long as someone would catch him." Often he would pitch to brother Jack, who would drive the boy to tears. Rick always threw as hard as he could, but older brothers can be devilish. "Come on," Jack would say. "Put a little mustard on it." And: "You're not even throwing the damn ball." But Rick was, you know, he was. "I'd be grunting and groaning and throwing as hard as I could," Rick says. But Jack kept prodding and goading him, until: "Pretty soon I had tears in my eyes."
At Wasson High School, Gossage became a scrappy basketball forward with a jump shot from the corner and no fear of bumping elbows under the boards. He became very good at hoops, eventually becoming the captain of the Wasson basketball team. But by then there was no doubt where he was going. In 1968, when Gossage was a lanky 150-pound sophomore, Kent Hill was the Wasson baseball coach. One day, with the state high school baseball tournament not far off, Hill told Gossage that he had decided to keep the same three senior pitchers in the rotation.
They had been doing well, and Hill felt he owed it to them. But there was this intrasquad game coming up, Hill said to Gossage, and he wanted Gossage to work against the older players then. "Rick was a whale of a competitor, and he got so hyped up!" Hill says. "That grim determination. The same thing that you see now. It was six innings, at least, before anybody even touched the ball. The seniors were in awe."
The next year, Gossage's father died. "He was a very lonely kid," Hill says. "They were so close in such an interesting way—as buddy to buddy, in the wilds a lot." Rick was his father's friend, his companion, his joy. Jack and Sue went to all Rick's games, loved to watch him pitch. "He'll be something someday," the old man used to say.
Jack had failed as a gold miner and he was never very good when it came to providing for his wife and kids, but he did leave his son a hunting rifle, a case of arrowheads and the sweet memories of wandering the hills outside of town, of catching trout at Mt. Massive Lakes and of gathering flint on Pope's Bluff. When Jack died, Rick did what you would expect the younger son of his father to do. "He went to the mountains to cut wood," Hill says.
Gossage was a star baseball player at Wasson High his senior year, a 6'2" reed of a kid with an elastic arm and a fastball that went bump at the plate. The White Sox drafted him in the ninth round in June of 1970, when he was just out of high school, and sent him to their Gulf Coast League team at Sarasota, Fla. It was in these early years that Sherry first watched Gossage fall out of trees and took a liking to him right off—in part, for the same reason that Hill had liked Gossage as a sophomore. "Rick was a very, very keen listener," Hill says. "You know, on coaching tips and so forth." Sherry found the same quality in Gossage. "Very receptive," Sherry says. "And playful. You know, he'd come around behind you and grab you around the neck. A hundred and eighty pounds of Great Dane puppy."