Philadelphia Daily News - October 10, 1980
Christenson on the Spot
By Bill Conlin
HOUSTON – Larry Christenson and British sports cars have something in common. Like my old Jaguar, Christenson spends a lot of time in the shop, but when he's running well, the Phillies' hard-luck righthander is a lot of fun.
Christenson will oppose Astros' ace Joe Niekro this afternoon in what suddenly looms as the pivotal game in the deadlocked National League playoffs.
A Phillies' loss would be catastrophic. Not only would they have their backs plastered against the Astrodome wall, but Dallas Green would be forced to pitch Steve Carlton with three days' rest tomorrow in an attempt to keep his club from elimination.
And should Carlton keep the Phillies alive, Green would be forced to put the entire load on the shoulders of rookie righthander Marty Bystrom Sunday afternoon. There are, however, reasons to like Christenson's chances.
Niekro is a lifetime 5-7 against the Phillies. His ERA is an unimpressive 4.58 in 26 appearances. Christenson not only has a habit of hitting three-run homers off the younger of the knuckleballing Niekros – two three-run homers the past two seasons – he feels like he's 10 feet tall in the Dome, a park where the power alleys are so distant they have a different zip code.
"ITS KIND OF a deceptive ballpark in a way," Larry said yesterday after the Phillies jetted here with the hangover left by a 7-4 loss, a loss so shabby 65.476 fans stormed out looking for a place to get a quick drunk. "In my case, when I'm out there pitching in the Astrodome, the illusion is that I'm much closer to the hitters than I am in some parks," Christenson said. "It's a pitcher's ballpark. Shea Stadium is not quite as close, but you feel like you're right on top of the hitter. Maybe the mound's higher or something."
Whatever, there are no easy home runs or any kind of runs in the Dome, so a pitcher can challenge hitters high in the strike zone with only small fear that somebody will hit a ball 400 feet or more through the heavy, still air of a building the Astros' pitching staff has turned into a house of horrors for most teams.
Christenson started only one game here this season and when he beat the Astros and Niekro, 4-2, on May 18, Larry had so many bone chips rattling around in his right elbow he sounded like a castanet when he walked.
The elbow forced him to leave after five innings, but not before he beat Joe Niekro with a three-run, tape-measure homer to center.
Christenson has made more comebacks than Harold Stassen. He's had so many X-rays the past three years he probably lights up Geiger counters more than the containment building at Three Mile Island.
AND IF YOU think he faces some pressure today, consider what he limped out to confront on Sept. 10 in New York. Christenson was coming back from his third groin injury of a season lowlighted by elbow surgery. A week before. Manager Dallas Green told the media that Christenson was probably through for the season.
The night before Larry pitched six blazing innings against the Mets, Marty Bystrom shut out the same team. It was painfully clear that unless he gave a reasonable impersonation of a healthy pitcher, Christenson would be on the ineligible list with Nino Espinosa or Randy Lerch.
"The last two years have been too much," Larry said. "I've gone through these three games that I've had to start, had to to pitch well, and I've kept us in them. I feel as if I've pitched well, especially in conditions where I was hurt. I've pitched with groin pulls two or three times. I've pitched with elbow pain going into the surgery and elbow pain coming off the surgery. After coming off the groin pull, in Montreal I went through soreness and stiffness almost like spring training."
So that's where the Phillies are today, with the ball in the hands of a pitcher who has yet to find a healthy physical groove, whose arm is probably still somewhere back in April waiting to be stretched out for the long season.
UNFORTUNATELY. THE LONG season is down to as few as two games for the Phillies.
But Christenson has been through so much he doesn’t figure to scare when the suddenly baseball-crazy Texans try to sound like an Oilers crowd in the middle of a scoring drive against the Steelers.
"I just haven't pitched enough this year," he said. "I still haven't pitched enough to be real sharp and that's a mental thing, I think. I can do it. I know I can throw strikes and I know I have good stuff on the ball."
Christenson feels he will have to do more than come at the Astros with a fastball and hard breaking ball, a successful formula during a 9-5 career advantage.
"They're probably swinging the bats better than at any time we've played them this year," he said. "Terry Puhl is really smoking. I've got to keep him off the bases, that's a real key. Joe Morgan is swinging well. So is Jose Cruz. I think I've probably got to change speeds on them a little more than in the past. They look like they're ripping the hard stuff real well."
The key to beating the Astros in the Dome is to keep their swift lineup from finding the gaps. Once a ball gets through here, it is almost an automatic triple, a $5 cab ride from the warning track to the plate.
The mood on the charter flight here yesterday was subdued but optimistic. The Phillies know they cannot possibly bottom the shambles they staged for a nationwide TV audience Wednesday night, when they stranded 10 runners in the last four innings of a 10-inning loss.
"WE WERE AWFUL," Christenson said. "Name anything a good team is supposed to do to win and we didn't do it – we left runners on third, played bad defense, walked the pitcher with two outs. We can't possibly play any worse, yet it took a communications breakdown between Lee Elia and Bake McBride to stop us from winning it in the bottom of the ninth."
If the Phillies lose two-out-of-three here, the Wednesday night loss will live in history as a speeded-up version of the '64 collapse.
Christenson, a superb control pitcher, was consistently behind in the count during a scuffling performance last Saturday in Montreal, a winning version of Wednesday night's slovenly defeat.
"It's no excuse but the balls really felt slippery, like they came out of a deep freeze," he said.
He will not have that problem today in the 1 controlled environment of the Astrodome, where it is always 76 degrees and the wind, stirred by the five-story air-conditioning unit, riffles along at a constant and sedate one MPH. Besides the determined, capable Astros, the Phillies are also battling the curse of history, a history littered with post-season blunders since 1976. Sometimes it is tough to hit or pitch with a King Kong-sized monkey perched on your back.
Fortunately, King Kong himself would have trouble driving the ball out of this building.
The Phillies were 4-2 here during the regular season, getting victories from Carlton, rookie Bob Walk, Dick Ruthven and Christenson. In the four losses, the Astros scored just five runs.
But in the Veterans Stadium split, the Astros scored eight runs, enough to make some mediocre pitching stand up Wednesday night.
"I've been going over their lineup and I've done very well against all of their hitters," Christenson said. "They're not going to lay down against me. But I'm not going to lay down, either."
PHILUPS: Greg Luzinski does not fare well against knuckleballers, so Dallas Green is probably wrestling with the possibility that Lonnie Smith will play left field. That would be the manager's only lineup change. Bob Boone must catch to keep the swift Astros honest on the bases... With 22 hits in the first two games, offense is hardly the Phillies' problem. Getting big hits with men in scoring position is another story, though... Astros pitcher tomorrow, righthander Vera Ruhle, says the cut on his right index fingertip is almost completely healed... Pennant fever is raging here and even local news anchormen are exhorting the fans to outholler the crowds the Astros faced in Dodger Stadium and the Vet.
Astros’ Virdon a Quiet Winner
By Tom Cushman
HOUSTON - Fulfilling g promise he had made before leaving Philadelphia in the early morning hours, William Charles Virdon walked out onto the floor of the Astrodome at a few minutes past 3:30 p.m. yesterday to meet the press. No heads turned, there was no scramble for position by the dozens of writers on location here, so Bill Virdon selected a spot near the batting cage and stood by quietly.
Dressed in street clothes, looking out over the vast acreage of the playing surface toward the empty seats beyond, Virdon was perhaps mistaken for a tourist from Kansas. Some silo, this one.
Meanwhile, in the Houston dugout nearby, Joe Niekro, who is to receive the ball from his manager for Game 3 of the National League playoffs this afternoon, was instructing a journalism class in the art of delivering the knuckleball. "I have no idea where it's going," Joe pointed out in his opening statement. "What I do is pick a spot from the shoulders to the knees, throw at it, and hope the ball falls in there somewhere."
SEVERAL YARDS AWAY, surrounded by an equally enchanted swarm of media people, Pete Rose was explaining how he attacks the knuckleball. According to Joe Niekro. Pete – with his efficient swing – handles the pitch better than most.
"Early in my career I was instructed not to poke at it, but to take a natural swing and hope for the best," Rose said. "I mean, how are you gonna teach someone to hit the thing when they can't even catch it?"
Joe Niekro was asked how he deals with a knuckleball when he is the batter instead of the pitcher. "I close my eyes and swing," he replied.
"But, remember, the knuckleball can be dangerous for a pitcher to throw," Pete Rose was pointing out across the way. "If the ball doesn't knuckle, he's got trouble. I don't care if they're playing in Yellowstone, it's going out of the park."
These separate exchanges were still in progress when Bill Virdon finally was recognized and surrounded by a group of three. Bursts of laughter continued to explode occasionally from the Niekro and Rose audiences. Those with Virdon looked like they were taking notes for an obituary.
It probably should be pointed out here that all Houston has taken notice of the Astros. Find a business establishment, and you'll find a 'Go Astros' sign on the marquee, the roof, or hanging from the latticework.
THERE WAS A PEP RALLY at the Hyatt Regency yesterday and it had nothing to do with the Texas-Oklahoma game which will take place tomorrow. This one was for a professional baseball team.
The city schools will dismiss at 1 p.m. today, so that the sons and daughters of Texas can can study the stroke of Pete Rose and the scientific oddities of the knuckler on their television screens.
As for Bill Virdon, if he gets any more emotional over the playoffs, they might find a pulse. "This is not an everyday occurrence, and I enjoy it," he assured us. "But there's no use getting excited until we win three games."
Virdon went on to say that he considers the series with the Dodgers last weekend one of the most exciting events he has witnessed, a comment which will no doubt come as a surprise his TV fans. Every time the cameras panned on him in L.A. it looked like Bill was having gas pains.
"I have emotions like everyone else," Virdon insists. "It's just that I don't get excited too often. I'll tell you, I wasn't very calm in the bottom of the 10th inning in Philly last night... when we've got the nice lead, and we're busy loading up the bases for (Mike) Schmidt."
Much like his team, which now has the Phillies in some difficulty, Bill Virdon is not your standard baseball article. The Astros, hardly a savage-looking group on paper, specialize sneaking up and mugging a guy from behind.
"I WISH I HAD FIVE players who hit 50 home runs apiece,” says Virdon, "but we don't, so to win we have to do a lot of maneuvering.
"There are ways to make it easier to win in this game, some that are not quite a obvious as a ball in the upper deck. I think everyone strives to play good defense, but it's easier to talk than to get it done.
"I think a lot of players never practice in close-to-game situations. Any professional can make throws, cutoffs, all the right plays when there's no baserunner, but it's the aggressive factor which creates the problems in the games. We try to practice often as we can with the pressure there."
What this "suggests, of course, is additional work on a team basis, an unpopular theme with the millionaires of today. Not were Virdon's routines popular with the employees when he came down to Houston. There is less grumbling now. "I think some of them feel it's easier these days, because they're used it," he says.
They also are two victories away from the World Series, which is a rather impressive statistic when you realize that the year before Virdon arrived (1975) the Astros finished 43½ games behind the division champion.
Bill Virdon's first job as manager was with Pittsburgh in 1972. The Pirates won the division, but when they finished third a year later he was fired. He was then taken on by the Yankees and led them to their best finish (second) in 10 years in 1974. The following summer, with the team struggling, George Steinbrenner summoned Billy Martin in early August and Virdon moved to Houston.
HIS TEAMS HERE NEVER have had a Ruth-like swagger, but neither does their leader. Stern, slender, erect, peering from behind glasses almost smaller than his eyeballs. Bill Virdon was not exactly created in the Texas tradition. He looks more like a cover boy for Farmer's Almanac.
He can't compete with the Roses, the Joe Niekros, or the Lasordas, the Greens and the Tanners in the attention derby, but he has his team 1-1 in playoffs and the home-court advantage beginning today.
"The way we won in Philly is the way we win a lot of the time," he was saying yesterday. "I think it's the sign of a good cub, one that's probably a little better than most people think.
"They showed me in Los Angeles last week that they can't I intimidated. Everybody has been saying that we can't beat a team as good as the Phillies, but we've already proven them wrong. I'm reasonably certain this team will play to its capabilities, and that's important. I think these guys trust each other."
Someone mentioned that the players say the trust flows from the top and is thus returned. Bill Virdon is given high marks for honesty, if not for his wardrobe, his smile, or his style.
"It's true that I'm not a bullbleeper, with players or anyone else," Virdon admitted. "It's Ozarkian logic (the reference here being to an area of the country, not the Dodgers' third base coach).
"If you don't ever tell a lie, or exaggerate, " Bill Virdon explained, "then you never have to worry about remembering what you say."
Gnarled Knuckles Catching for Ashby
By Ray Didinger
HOUSTON – It's one thing for Joe Niekro to throw a baseball with his knuckles. I mean, it's unorthodox and people laugh at the way the ball wobbles up to the plate, but at least it's not hazardous to his health.
But catching the ball with the knuckles – now that's a different story. Alan Ashby caught one of Niekro's pitches on his right hand last season and his index finger has looked like a fish hook ever since.
Ashby's finger starts out OK but, halfway up, it bends sharply to the left, wrapping around a knuckle that is now neld together by two safetypins.
If Ashby ever gives the "We're No. 1" sign, it will look like he's signaling for a left turn.
There are many ways for guys to mess up their hands. They can work with a drill press or awer saw. They can be an orthodontist at Lion Country Safari.
BUT, TAKE IT from Ashby, catching the knuckleball is the most treacherous job of all.
Before he met Joe Niekro,' Alan Ashby had nice hands. They would have not looked out of place poised over the keyboard of a grand piano or wrapped around the neck of a stradivarius.
Today, Ashby has the hands of a Cockney charwoman, all twisted and knotted with pain.
"This happened last August," Ashby said, holding his misshapen finger aloft. "We were playing Montreal and Joe threw a knuckler. It came in around here (eye-level), then dropped very sharply.
"I went down for it and it caught me right on the fingertip. It shattered both knuckles in the finger. Put me out for the season. The doctor said I couldn't play, ball for six months."
Ashby smiled. "I told Joe, 'Now I know why they call it a knuckleball,'" he said.
Alan Ashby, 28, came back from his injury and caught 116 games for Houston this season. He will be behind the plate today when the Astros try to make it two in a row over the Phillies in this wild-and-crazy National League Championship Series.
THE HOUSTON pitcher will be Joe Niekro, which means Ashby will once again go into the game with – you should pardon the expression – his fingers crossed.
"You know what it's like to catch a good knuckleball?" Ashby said. "It's like somebody dropped a piece of paper from the upper deck and yoir have to catch it. It weaves, it wobbles and darts all over the place.
"It isn’t the soft, fluttery movement most people associate with . the knuckleball, either. The ball makes extremely quick movements. It drops and sails. No two pitches move alike.
"They let me use the big mitt whet Joe's pitching but it doesn't help that much. I'd need a mitt the size of that batting cage to handle his knuckler. I get the jitters just thinking about it.
"You can't imagine what it's like, trying to catch a knuckleball in a big game, with a runner on third. Pressure? Yeah, you might call it that."
Ashby had to catch Joe Niekro in the most pressure-filled game of the season, Monday's Western Division playoff against the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
The Astros had lost three straight to the Dodgers and appeared on the verge of blowing an insurmountable lead. In the end, it came down to Niekro flicking his butterflies at the Dodgers and Ashby waiting nervously with the net.
NIEKRO BEAT the Dodgers, 7-1, allowing just six hits. Ashby put forth another gutsy effort, rolling around in the dirt, swatting at the ball. He looked like a guy being attacked by red ants.
Ashby let one ball get through him a third strike which rolled to the backstop and allowed the batter to reach first. The worst part about was Ashby had to wheel around and run straight into all those smirkin faces, all those wisecracks.
"You can't let the fans get to you,' said Ashby, who was Garry Maddox’ teammate at San Pedro (Calif.) High. "They laugh and shout a lot of stuff but you've gotta block it out.
"Sure, there are times when I feel like turning around and saying, 'You think it's so easy? You come down here and catch this guy.' But I’ve learned you can't let your emotions get the better of you.
"It's hard to stay cool when the ball's hitting you in the shin guard and the face mask and you know the other players are snickering at you and the fans are all thinking their grandmothers can do a better job... but you've gotta do it ."
A CATCHER who toils on a tear with a knuckleballer cannot be hung up on personal glory or individual honors. He has to be realistic enough, and selfless enough, to accept the fact that his defensive statistics will suffer.
He knows, for example, he has no chance to win the Gold Glove because his passed-ball figure will inevitably be among the worst in the league. He knows his percentage of throwing out base stealers will drop because he has to dig so many off-speed pitches out of the dirt.
He will be overlooked on his good days and vilified on his bad days but that, like his gnarled fingers, is part of the job. He can only be concerned with one thing and that's the bottom line – winning.
"Joe Niekro is our best pitcher, he has been for the past few years,' Ashby said. "He won 21 games for us last season, he won 20 this year. We need him to win and it's up to me to do my part every time he goes to the mound.
"Joe has a few pitches. He throws a fastball and slider, too. He throws his knuckleball at different speeds, too. He has a hard knuckler, much harder than the one (brother) Phil throws."
"Which Niekro is tougher to catch?" someone asked.
"I DONT KNOW how to answer that," Ashby said. "Neither one is easy. I mean, is it easier to catch bigger, slower butterfly or a smaller, faster butterfly? They're both all over the place.
"What's really hard is adjusting to the smaller mitt after I catch Joe. The next day, I put on the mitt and it feel like a gardening glove with a few strings in it. I have sliders tipping off the end.
"This isn't the easiest team to catch," said Ashby, who hit a career-high .256 this season. "You have Joe with the knuckler, then there is Dave Smith throwing that forkball. "Then there's J.R. (Richard) and Nolan (Ran) getting that fastball up there around 100 MPH. Their fast balls move pretty good. When Nolan's sharp, his ball jumps a foot."
The result of all this is poor Alan left hand that has turned red and numb from the constant pounding "Catcher's hand," Manager Bill Virdon calls it.
"There's really no cure for it," Ashby said. "Just a few months off."
A World Series ring might go a long way toward easing the pain.
‘Astrodome-itis’ Afflicts Even the Most Powerful
HOUSTON (UPI) – The Phillies have no confirmed cases of what outfielder Greg Gross calls "Astro-dome-itis." that unexplained malady which strikes some of the National League's most powerful sluggers in the hours before game time.
"Dave Kingman." said Gross, a former member of the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros, "never wanted to play here. He'd always have something hurt the day before we'd open a series here."
Gross spent more than three years with the Astros and therefore had a first-hand view of the pre-game sick list, which he said, at times, also included Los Angeles' Rick Monday and Atlanta's Jeff Burroughs. They disliked the ballpark, he said, which was tailored five years ago to fit the style of the singles-hitting Astros.
THE PHILLIES No. 3 and No. 4 hitters yesterday said they never give a thought to the 340-foot foul lines and 390-foot power alleys when at the plate.
"I've never felt any different in here, although I've not hit that many home runs in here either," said Mike Schmidt, the major league leader with 48 home runs.
And Greg Luzinski said much the same thing.
But some of the Phillies talked about the change in environment as they took batting practice in preparation for today's third game of the National League Championship Series.
"It takes me a day to get used to the rotation of the ball in here," first baseman Pete Rose said. "I can see the ball in here all right. I'd rather be playing in here than playing a twilight game in an outdoor park."
Gross said the present Astros "have the best club for their stadium in the National League. They have a lot of control pitchers and a good defensive club."
"I LIKE IT in here, but maybe that's because I played in here. I know of a lot of cases of Astrodome-itis. Some home run hitters try to do things differently in here with their swing. Some try to hit the ball on the ground."
The Phillies won four of six games they played in the Astrodome this year but hit only one home run. Larry Christenson, today's starting pitcher, hit a two-run homer off Joe Niekro, who will start for the Astros today.