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Ron Fimrite
January 12, 1987
Just kidding. Mike Scott was so good in '86 that folks say he does something to the ball
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January 12, 1987

No Wonder He's Hot

Just kidding. Mike Scott was so good in '86 that folks say he does something to the ball

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Mike Scott is sipping his morning coffee in the kitchen of his brand-new house in the hills beyond Laguna Beach, wistfully peering out the window at the rutted ruin that will someday be his backyard. Workmen swarm about in Marx Brothers confusion, pounding artificial rocks into place alongside the abyss that will be a swimming pool, carting cement to the heap of rubble that will be a patio, dropping bricks into the furrows that will be walkways. "They start at 6:30 in the morning," says Scott sleepily. "It's like having a wake-up call. They work like hell. The contractor is John Cappelletti, the football player, the Heisman winner. He's out there, too, somewhere. Great guy. Still, with all that work, I bet they won't finish before I head off for spring training." He says this without rancor, for if there is anything Mike Scott has learned in eight turbulent seasons of pitching major league baseball, it is patience. "I've never gotten off to a good start in my whole life," he says truthfully. But if last season is any indication, he's proving at age 31 to be one strong finisher.

Scott, working his split-fingered fastball to near perfection, had the kind of season in 1986 that would constitute a brilliant career for most pitchers. It was a year big enough for a whole staff of brilliant pitchers. He led the major leagues in earned run average (2.22) and strikeouts (306), becoming only the fourth National League pitcher and second righthander to strike out 300 or more batters. He tied Houston teammate Bob Knepper for the NL lead with five shutouts. In fact, he allowed more than three earned runs in only four of his 37 starts and only once after May 4. He also saved his best for last, going 12-5 in his last 19 starts with an ERA of 1.97. He became the first pitcher in big league history to clinch a championship (of the National League West) with a no-hitter when he blanked the Giants on Sept. 25.

He had both of the Astros' wins in the League Championship Series with the Mets, closing down the eventual world champions on just one run and eight hits in two complete games while striking out a playoff-record 19. His 14 strikeouts in the opening-game 1-0 win tied another playoff record. The threat of facing Scott again in a seventh game imbued the Mets with a special sense of desperation in their dramatic 7-6 win in the 16-inning sixth game. He had the champs so unnerved, in fact, that they wasted much of the series complaining that he was doing more to the ball than merely split-fingering it. Scott was selected the playoffs" MVP. only the second member of a losing team in either league to win the award.

To top it all off, he was the winner of the NL Cy Young Award. About the only achievement that eluded him was winning 20 games, and he would have done that with wins to spare had it not been for a disheartening 11-start streak in May and June during which a 1.71 ERA earned him only three victories against three losses and five no-decisions. As satisfying as his final 18-10 record was, it was not indicative of the superlative season he actually had.

Scott was so good that it almost embarrasses him. "It might have been nicer to spread it out over a couple of seasons," he says. "But it all came at once—the strikeouts, the no-hitter, the Cy Young, the playoffs." He can only shake his head in awe of himself. A calamitous early career has taught this pitcher true humility. Here is a man who only two years ago seemed to be washed-up at 29, a one-pitch (fastball) thrower with a career record of 29-44 and an ERA of 4.45. Up to that point he had never had so much as 100 strikeouts in a season, and he was giving up better than a hit per inning. Until 1986, for that matter, Scott had never struck out more than eight men in a game. Last season he had nine or more K's in 19 games.

Scott wasn't even drafted by a major league team after he graduated from Hawthorne High in the Southern California community of the same name, where he was better known as a basketball player. The Mets finally picked him up in the second round of the June 1976 draft after his junior season at Pepperdine University in Malibu. But after he went 14-27 for them with only 151 strikeouts in 364 innings over four seasons, the Mets gave up, trading Scott off to Houston for Danny Heep in 1982. "He was a nice young man," Mets general manager Frank Cashen recalls. "and he always had a good arm, but he was just trying to be mediocre."

A lesser man would have tasted sweet revenge in his playoff humiliation of the team that had abandoned him, but Scott's career is too loaded with irony for him to savor such triumphs, no matter how delicious. Consider the further irony, bittersweet indeed, that his no-hitter was achieved against a team that was managed by the man who had saved his career and that was operated by the general manager who had refused to give up on him, even in his gloomiest period.

No, Scott is simply too nice a guy to gloat. He's just happy to be where he is, on top. "I guess you could say I've paid my dues," he says. Besides, "Last year is just a memory" that he can't afford to dwell on. Not that he ever had much time for self-indulgence. "I don't think there's been a day since the end of the playoffs that I haven't had something to do, someplace to be."

To begin with, there was the move from Chandler, Ariz.—where he and his wife, Vicki, had lived in the off-season the past four years with their daughters, Kimberlee, 7, and Kelsey, 2—to Laguna Niguel, just down the Pacific Coast from Hawthorne. Mike and Vicki grew up in Hawthorne and went to high school together.

And then there was the November trip to Japan, where Scott toured with a major league All-Star team managed by—more irony—Davey Johnson of the Mets. By his own abashed admission, Scott and his "magical pitch" were "sort of the main attraction over there." Coming up is a pleasure trip to the Bahamas. And there has also been an apparently endless series of golf tournaments, television commercials and charity benefits, the sort of public exposure expected of a full-fledged celebrity, which Scott at last has become. Far from feeling overburdened by the demands on his time, he is grateful. "It's exciting, really, and it beats looking back on a 5-20 season."

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