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He got his chance to really work in 1975 when Forster spent most of the year on the disabled list. Gossage became the stopper in the White Sox pen, putting in 142 innings and leading the league with those 26 saves. He may have felt the pen was purgatory in 1972, but no more. He relished the work. Tanner left the next year, and the new manager, Paul Richards, made him a starter in 1976. Gossage was 9-17, with a 3.94 ERA, and by year's end he longed for the pen again. "I don't know if I have the patience to be a starter," he says. "I almost went nuts waiting five days to pitch." Tanner went from Oakland to Pittsburgh after the 1976 season, and at the winter meetings that year, he got both Gossage and Forster in a trade for Richie Zisk and Silvio Martinez. Tanner called Gossage from the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. "You're back in the pen," Tanner told him.
"Great," Gossage said.
He had a superlative year with the Pirates, who even provided him with a bullpen companion—a real, live long-necked goose named Dr. K. It was a great year to have a great year, because the age of free agency had begun. "The timing was perfect," he says. "I'd have been crazy not to go on the free-agent market." Yankee owner George Steinbrenner signed him to a six-year contract that Gossage couldn't have dreamed of only two years before: $2,748,000 in all, with a $750,000 signing bonus and a $333,000 annual salary.
On the day he signed, he called his mother on Beacon Street from the Plaza Hotel in New York and said, "You should see this room I'm in! It's bigger than our whole house." One of the first things he did with his bonus was to buy her a larger place in Colorado Springs. Another thing he did was just as nice. He learned that the Maytag cabin, the one that was always off limits to him as a boy, was up for sale. So he bought that, too. "I never dreamed I'd own that place," he says. Finally, he bought a 30-acre piece of land on Pope's Bluff, the place he plans to build the house.
For Gossage, it wasn't easy being a Yankee in the first part of the 1978 season. Sparky Lyle had won the Cy Young Award in the American League the year before, and here came Gossage to share the pen with him. Gossage and Lyle got on well, but fans cursed Gossage and chanted, "We want Lyle! We want Lyle!" The pressures squeezed him. For the first five weeks of the season, he struggled. "I couldn't get anybody out," he says. "I mean, I was giving up ropes."
Gossage had shared the relief chores in Pittsburgh with Kent Tekulve, who says that he learned one important thing from Gossage: "It was mental. Be laid back. Go with the flow. You're going to get your brains knocked out once in a while, but you just have to come back and throw again. He's the kind of guy who could leave the park when the game was over and go out for a couple of beers, and sitting there at the bar, you couldn't tell whether he'd won or lost. It was like he was always on an even keel."
That saved Gossage in New York. But he had help from Munson, for one, and Centerfielder Mickey Rivers, for another. Gossage had known and liked Munson for years. When he had been with the White Sox, he had thrown against the Yankees in the first game of a double-header and accidentally hit Munson in the elbow with a pitch. Munson went to the hospital for X rays, which were negative. Before the second game began, a bat boy gave Gossage a handwritten note. It said, "I took your best——shot!" It was signed "The White Gorilla."
Gossage and Munson became close friends thereafter, and early in 1978, on one of those occasions when Gossage was getting shelled, Munson came to the mound. Gossage hates catchers coming to the mound, and he asked Munson what the hell he wanted. Says Gossage, "He looked at me goofy—you know the goofy look he had—and he said, 'Are you——trying?' I said, 'Yeah I'm——trying!' He said, 'You ain't——trying.' We're standing out there arguing."
But no one made Gossage laugh like Rivers. Hitters had been driving fastball after fastball to centerfield warning tracks during several of Gossage's most recent appearances, with Rivers chasing here and there to catch them, and one day Munson came to the mound and said, "Check out Rivers."
Gossage turned to centerfield, and there was Rivers crouched, facing the centerfield wall, in a running back's standard three-point stance, as if ready for the next rope. He was looking back over his shoulder at the pitcher. "I saw that and it took me about five minutes to get control of myself again," Gossage says.