They parked the Blazer where the road ended and the trail began, and from there they set off on foot. It was mid-October in the Colorado Rockies. The two men were above the timberline and the chilly air sparkled. In the distance, mountain goats climbed the bare rocks, and elk prints crossed the trail. Rick Gossage had been here before, but on this fall day in 1978 he was returning with a guest, on a pilgrimage of sorts.
Gossage and Bruce Kison had been friends since early 1977, when they both pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and they had remained close even after Gossage had signed late that year to play for the New York Yankees. They had hunted elk the day before, but Gossage had told Kison of a secluded lake—a place quite like heaven—at the end of the trail. So Kison, eager to fish it, had made him promise to take him there. They hiked the mile and a half up the trail, to where it rose over a saddle of land, and then walked together to the lake, which is called Ptarmigan.
It sits at the bottom of a bowl of rock whose sides, except for the entrance over the saddle, wrap around and above it like immense mezzanines and upper decks. "If you put seats in there," Gossage says, "it would be a perfect stadium." They sat in silence on the shore. What Gossage felt then was something akin to a religious experience.
He had just been through three of the most tumultuous months in his life. For more than two of them the Yankees had clawed and scratched their way to the championship of the American League East, coming from 14 games behind to tie the Boston Red Sox at the wire. Then there was a playoff game, on a perfect autumn day in Fenway Park. New York led Boston 5-4 in the last of the ninth, two on and two out, when the roars of 32,925 spectators were cut off abruptly, as if by a switch. Carl Yastrzemski had popped up a Gossage fastball for the final out. The Goose, as Gossage is known, then beat the Kansas City Royals to clinch the American League pennant, and for six innings in the World Series, he blew rising peas past the Dodgers, giving up one hit in three games. His ERA was 0.00.
And now, just a few days after that final out in Chavez Ravine, he was on the shore of a lake about the size of a baseball field, with the stands inhabited only by goats, looking at the mountains reflected in the water and attempting vainly to remember what had occurred in those dramatic weeks. "Man, it's hard to picture 50,000 people in here," he finally said to Kison. "I just can't, no matter how hard I try." He endeavored to recall what had happened to him in Fenway Park, but it was as if a kind of amnesia had set in. He tried to picture Yankee Stadium, to impose his image of it on the lake, but he couldn't do it. In the surpassing solitude of this place he was transported from baseball.
"You're in a spot where there's no sound, hardly a wind, high up near a lake, and it's eerie, like a void in your life," he says. "You can hear your heart ticking. You can sense things are going on in your body that you didn't know were going on. It's so quiet that it's loud. It almost hurts. It becomes like a train going through your head. The solitude. It's like my dad used to say: 'Oh! This is it." I love the mountains. It's like there's nothing else going on, anywhere. I escape there. I love it there. I can breathe again."
Gossage is at home on summits—the mountains of his beloved Colorado, the mounds of all the parks where he plays the game of baseball. He thrives on the edge of precipices, whether figurative, as in the bottom of the ninth at Fenway Park, or literal, as at Pope's Bluff outside of Colorado Springs, where he's building a home.
He works in short relief, perhaps the ultimate specialist in an increasingly specialized game, and a 100-mph fastball is the mainspring of his craft. "Rollie Fingers was great," says Reggie Jackson, "but Gossage is the best I've ever seen. He's better than Fingers. He's not a Hall-of-Famer like Fingers yet, because he hasn't been doing it as long, but this guy has such a dominant pitch."
"He puts guys like me on his cereal for breakfast," says Seattle's Tom Paciorek, who was batting a lusty .331 at week's end. "He's the most intimidating pitcher I've ever seen. When he comes out of the bullpen, that's just what he looks like—a bull. There's smoke coming out of his nose and his cap is down over his eyes, and he's so big and hulking. You need a cape to face Gossage, not a baseball bat...."
There have been occasions when not even an ironing board would've done the trick. At one time or another over the last 18 years, Tony Perez has faced the best pitchers in baseball: in the National League, for Cincinnati and Montreal; now, in the American League, for the Red Sox. He has hit against Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and J.R. Richard, so he knows how hot the fire can get. But the single nastiest pitch he ever saw came just last year in Fenway Park, on the night of June 30, when he faced Gossage in the bottom of the ninth.