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No one thought to ask him, but it was possible that Walter Alston's stomach hurt. The game was close, as close as a game can get without being tied. Alston's team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, led 4-3. It was the eighth inning, the rival New York Giants had a man on base and Alston's pitcher had gone to a two-ball two-strike count on the batter, young Andre Rodgers. Alston was afraid that his pitcher might, in his desire to get the ball over the plate, give young Rodgers what the trade calls a fat pitch. Young Rodgers hits with power, if not with consistency. A fat pitch could mean a home run. A home run would put the Giants ahead.
Where another man might reach for an Alka-Seltzer, Alston reached for Clem Labine (see cover). Labine is a 30-year-old Rhode Islander of French-Canadian extraction and deceptive appearance. He has a youthful face, a crew cut, a wife, two small children, a warm, musical speaking voice and an outspoken enthusiasm for men's fashion design. When he is not on the ball field these things tend to obscure the fact that he also has arms and shoulders like a blacksmith, a competitive drive that borders on sheer meanness, and a very great proficiency in the art of throwing a baseball.
Labine is a relief pitcher. When Manager Alston beckoned, he walked briskly in from the bullpen and took charge of the game. He threw his warmup pitches, all fast balls, as young Rodgers, waiting, watched. The game resumed. Rodgers stepped up to bat and Labine threw him, not a fast ball, but a curve. It was strike three and that was that. Labine ran through the remainder of the Giant batters in the eighth and ninth innings without allowing anyone to reach base, and the Dodgers won.
Not too many days later the Dodgers were in Milwaukee playing the Braves. They had lost the night before and they wanted to win this game very, very much. In the eighth inning the score was tied 2-2. Alston sent Labine in to pitch. The Dodgers finally scored a run in the top of the 10th inning. The Braves? Nine of them faced Labine, three in the eighth, three in the ninth, three in the 10th. None of them reached first base. The Dodgers won.
In New York a writer talking idly of this and that with Bob Scheffing, manager of the Chicago Cubs, asked Scheffing, "If you had your choice of any one pitcher in the entire league, who would you pick?"
"Labine," Scheffing said, without hesitation.
What Scheffing wants, Alston has. And happily, Alston appreciates what he has. In discussing Labine and relief pitching recently, Alston said: "It used to be that your relief pitcher was a fellow who wasn't good enough to be a starter. But now, when you have someone like Labine or Hershell Freeman in the bullpen, you know the man you bring in is just as good a pitcher as your starter. Maybe better."
Relief pitching is not, of course, a new development in baseball. It traces back probably to the first psychosomatic twinge in the elbow of a nervous starting pitcher confronted by the meat of his opponents' batting order. ("I'd like to stay in the game, you understand, Charley. It's just I don't want to do nothing to hurt the team's chances. Maybe you better bring Lefty in.") Relief pitchers like Firpo Marberry, Johnny Murphy and Joe Page were important contributors to baseball's colorful history.
But if the relief pitcher as an individual is not new, relief pitching as it is practiced today is. In the old days a relief pitcher was a substitute, an indication of weakness in the original pitching plan. Today relief pitching in itself is part of the plan (relief pitchers were used in 70% of the games played in the major leagues last season) and the presence of a relief man in a game is, as often as not, an indication of strength, of fortified pitching. The Philadelphia Phillie pitching staff had the second highest total of complete games in the National League last year. This might seem to be a sign of team pitching strength, yet the Phillie staff gave up most hits, most runs, most home runs and had the worst earned run average in the league. They simply did not have enough relief pitching.
Relief pitching is strength. And a good relief pitcher is worth his weight in gold. Actually, at current market prices—gold is still listed at about $35 an ounce—Labine, who weighs 195, is worth probably three times his weight in gold. And in open bidding Bob Scheffing might go as high as four.