"This is it for Lefty, isn't it?" Philadelphia outfielder Jeff Stone was voicing everyone's thoughts as No. 32, Steve Carlton, took the mound for the Phillies against the St. Louis Cardinals last Friday afternoon in Clearwater, Fla. Though Lance Parrish was making his debut as the Phillies' catcher, attention was focused on Carlton, 42, the 10th-winningest pitcher in major league history, who was getting his fifth—and probably last—chance of the spring to defy time.
The Phillies had already said goodbye to Carlton once before, nine months ago. The Giants picked him up on July 4, but released him on Aug. 7. Then it was over to the American League, where he spent 54 days with the White Sox. Through it all, Carlton never got the message. He spent the winter calling around and telling teams, "I'm throwing better than I have since 1984." That year Carlton finished 13-7 with a 3.58 ERA, but since then his numbers read 10-22, 4.49, and he was generally thought to be washed up. But because the Phillies owe him so much and because their pitching isn't exactly set, they agreed to give Carlton an unpaid tryout this spring.
When Carlton arrived in Clearwater, manager John Felske made it clear that the tryout would consist of just five appearances. In the first, an intrasquad game, Carlton, pitching for both sides, was battered for six runs in one inning. "He didn't throw in the game the way he did on the side," said one Phillies official. "Sometimes it's hard getting up when you're pitching to your teammates."
Then came a two-inning Grapefruit League stint against the Blue Jays, which Carlton survived on guile. His fastball was clocked at no better than 84 miles per hour, but George Bell and Jesse Barfield couldn't get good swings against him.
In Carlton's next start, against the Reds, he gave up three runs in the first. "Lefty threw the ball good," said Reds manager Pete Rose. "Lefty threw the ball better after the first inning," said Felske. Facing the Pirates on March 15, Carlton gave up four runs in four innings, but two of them were unearned.
As usual, Carlton wasn't talking about anything, but he did indicate he would open up some if his comeback proved successful. One day last week he walked by two media people, smiled and said, "I'm trying everything now—screwball, forkball, changeups—but I'm throwing good. It's coming."
The problem was that Carlton's arm had lost its resiliency. He could throw on the side and approach 90 mph, but his next fastball would be below 80. The slider was still good, but as Lefty admitted years ago, 80% of his strikeouts came on pitches that ran out of the strike zone, and now hitters aren't so intimidated. They let the slider swerve out of the strike zone—and wait for a 42-year-old man's fastball.
Before Friday's game, Felske seemed to sound the pitcher's death knell when he said, "We have a great chance to win. We can't be waiting for promises."
Carlton looked like the same old Lefty—the rolling motion, the perfect rhythm—as he delivered his first pitch to Cardinal leadoff batter Vince Coleman. But the pitch almost hit him. Then Coleman ripped the second pitch to the base of the leftfield fence. Next, Carlton walked Ozzie Smith on four pitches. His first two pitches to Tommy Herr were balls.
"This isn't the way to prove that he can still pitch," said one Phillie veteran, shaking his head. Coleman and Smith pulled off a double steal. Herr hit a sacrifice fly to deep center. Jack Clark ripped a vicious one-hopper at shortstop Steve Jeltz to drive in Smith, and it was 2-0. The Cardinals—the team that had brought Carlton to the majors 22 years ago—were delivering the bad news.