Sports Illustrated - November 3, 1980
He Kept Tugging Away at the Heartstrings
By Ron Fimrite
Police dogs were led along the foul lines to guard posts opposite the lower box seats. Helmeted riot-squad cops crouched taut and ready behind the dugouts. Stadium security police roamed the stands in search of incipient stampeders. And in the bullpens beyond the outfield fences, mounted patrolmen girded themselves to ride to the rescue of players and turf. Tug McGraw took in the unfolding spectacle from his vantage point atop the Veterans Stadium mound and said to himself, " This is a helluva show. I better not ruin it."
The forces of law and order in Philadelphia were preparing themselves for the riot that would signal the end of the 1980 World Series. It was a riot that, mostly because of their intimidating presence, never occurred. But McGraw faced real danger. There were two outs in the ninth inning and his team was leading the Kansas City Royals 4-1, but he had given up a walk and two hits and the bases were now loaded, with the potential winning run- in the person of Willie Wilson- at bat.
In crises such as these, McGraw looks beyond the playing field for solace and inspiration. "I look for a way to muster up some gusto," is the way he puts it. In a similarly critical juncture during the last series of the season with Montreal, he espied a man in the stands yawning. The incongruity of a fan fighting off sleep while his team was fighting for a pennant so amused and enraged McGraw that he quickly retired the side.
He needed something equally inspirational now as Wilson stepped in. This was McGraw's fourth appearance in the Series and his ninth in 11 postseason games, and he was exhausted. "My arm felt like it was going south on me," he said later. "It started to feel like you bump your elbow on a corner and your hand gets numb."
As he watched the German shepherds advance along the foul lines, McGraw found his theme. "What I am," he said to himself, chuckling, "is dog tired." He recalled the K-9 Corps of military history and laughed again. "I could really use a 'k' (the symbol for strikeout) right now," he thought. "This is no time to dog it." He was ready for Wilson.
McGraw is wrongly considered to be strictly a screwball pitcher. In fact, he has mastered the curve and the slider, and he has six different fastballs, each of which has its own name- the Bo Derek, for example, has "a nice little tail on it." "I'm a craftsman and an artist," McGraw says. "You have to be creative and crafty in pitching. I use all the tools."
He started Wilson off with a screwball, which was taken for a called strike. "I wanted to show Wilson I wasn't afraid to throw a breaking ball in that conditional." His next pitch was a hard slider that broke in on Wilson, a switch-hitter batting righthanded. "I was thinking he might be diving for the ball so I jammed him," McGraw explained. Wilson fouled the pitch back into the stands.
McGraw figured that Wilson would next expect him to waste a pitch. In the fifth game of the Series, McGraw has caught George Brett unawares in the same no-ball, two-strike situation and has struck him out look at a John Jameson ("straight, the way I like my Irish whiskey") fastball on the outside corner. Against Wilson, McGraw said, "I reached back for my best fastball, but my arm dropped too much and the pitch ended up high for ball one."
The count was not one and two, so McGraw and his catcher, Bob Boone, decided to wage a war of confusion on the hitter. Boone gave the sign for the screwball and McGraw shook him off. "In this situation, we'll go straight through the whole sequence of pitches," he said. "It's like a nickel slot machine- you watch it all roll by, then stop it. I stopped Boone on fastball. The chances were that Wilson would be looking for a breaking pitch, so I purposely slowed my motion in the beginning, then popped it at the finish. It all sounds so simple, and when it works, it almost is. Against (Willie) Aikens in the third game, it didn't work and he won the game for them (by hitting a tenth-inning single). The pitch just wasn't where I wanted it. The picture was almost complete, and then the artist spilled paint on it."
The last pitch of the 1980 baseball season was a "slightly up" Jameson fastball on the inside part of the plate. Wilson swung at it and missed, and 65,838 Philadelphia baseball zealots shattered the pleasant night air with shrieks of joy and relief. The Phillies had won their first World Series after 98 years of trying. The dogs, horses and cops paced nervously below, but the fans stayed put and cheered. McGraw, whose victory dances had become as much a part of the Series as his postgame quips, jumped dutifully up and down, but he was facing third base, not home plate. "I was looking for Schmitty (Third Baseman Mike Schmidt)," he explained. "He told me to watch out because he was going to spread himself all over that pileup. I had to be ready for him. If you're not ready, you go down. But this time everyone arrived together. It was beautiful."
The outpouring of affection from his teammates moved McGraw to tears, which isn't surprising, because, like any respectable Irishman, he weeps copiously when he is happy. And this time he was happier than usual. He had been on a World Series winner with the Mets in 1969, but this one represented, as he put it, "the end of an incredible journey," one in which the Phillies came from behind in every playoff and World Series win except the last. McGraw was crying for the long-suffering fans of Philadelphia and for his teammates, who had built a reputation for themselves as the grumpiest bunch of guys this side of an Army chow line.
McGraw had been regarded as something of a character since the day he joined the Phils in 1975 from the Mets. His exuberance and theatrical mannerisms- the thigh-slapping, the jumps for joy, the breast-beating- had made him a natural favorite of fans grown weary of dour performances. And his open manner and very nearly professional wit endeared him to the media. McGraw was always good for a laugh. Asked during the Series if his arm had grown stiff from overwork, he replied snappily, "Yes. It's an ailment common to lefthanded relief pitchers who are Irish and drink a lot."
So the fans and the press loved him, and if there were any two sorts of people his teammates had not loved, they were the fans, who booed them, and the press, which criticized them. Tug had picked strange bedfellows.
McGraw was himself ill at ease in such downbeat company, and he was keenly aware that the other Phillies weren't buying the, as he calls it, "Tug McGraw Show." "Tug was brought here to loosen up the club," his wife, Phyllis, says. "But he felt intimidated. He felt he couldn't be himself."
"One of the things that made me most uncomfortable," says Tug, "was the cynical, negative humor in the clubhouse. It seemed to me a little more malicious than normal. I realize that the players' relations with the fans were taxing and frustrating. The fans are tough here, but the players were equally guilty in their attitude. The same was true of the press. Sure, a lot of the ripping they got was unjustified, but the players were unreasonable in their inability to accept criticism. But what surprised me most was that they were tougher on each other. They'd go around bitching about the press ripping them and the fans booing them and then, in the clubhouse, the one private place where you'd expect some harmony, they'd be ripping each other. The criticism used to bounce around that place like marbles in a bathtub."
All that changed this season, in McGraw's view, for three reasons- Pete Rose, Dallas Green and a natural erosion of hostility. Rose, who is as exuberant on the field and as congenial off it as McGraw, helped show that fun has a place in the game. And Green, the relatively new manager, transferred the clubhouse carping to his office. "He got them off each other's backs," says Tug. "It was as if he were saying, 'Stop hating each other. Use it all on me.'"
Green would threaten even established veterans with demotion. He angered McGraw when he advised the press that Tug had better get off to a good start in 1980 or face a long summer of inactivity. "I'd had a great spring," says McGraw. "I went to Dallas and said, 'What's all this? You told me I was your lefthanded reliever.' Dallas just looked at me and said, 'Don't take things so literally. If we're going to win, there's not a guy on this team who won't have to get off to a good start.' I left the office saying, 'I'm going to show that sum bitch.'"
McGraw had a brilliant year- 57 appearances, 20 saves, five wins, a 1.47 earned run average during the season; a win, a loss, two saves and a 1.17 ERA in the Series. And he finally achieved rapport with his teammates. "Take Boone (Larry Bowa). He and I are emotional types, but his theory is that I can't be goofing around on the field the way I do and still be playing hard. He thinks you have to go out there gritting your teeth. Now he'll call to me and make this stirring motion with his hand, telling me to stir things up a little. In the past he never acted like that. And look at how he and Bull (Greg Luzinski) tipped their caps when the fans booed them in the first game of the playoffs. Ron Reed even did a cartwheel off the mound this year. A cartwheel! It's a part of this team that finally came to the surface. We finally got to understand each other."
McGraw likes that family feeling. He lives with Phyllis, their two children, Mark, eight, and Cari, seven, and his mother-in-law, Neva, in a 14-room, four-fireplace, mid-19th century farmhouse in the lovely borough of Media, Pa., about half an hour by train from downtown Philadelphia. For all his talk of being an "All-Star in the Neon League," McGraw is a fierce family man. During the Series, his father, Frank, called Big Mac, brother Hank, cousin Donna and uncle Ted all stayed in the house. The whole family sat up past five in the morning after Tug struck out Wilson, having a few John Jamesons, laughing and crying, hugging and kissing. "We are an emotional family," says Big Mac.
McGraw has been "Tug" almost since his birth 36 years ago in Martinez, Calif., a small city east of San Francisco that has the further distinction of being the birthplace of Joe DiMaggio. "Tug's mother nursed all three of the boys," Frank McGraw explains, "and Tug, well, he... you know, tugged."
Tug's parents were divorced when he was seven, and his father raised the three boys- brother Dennis is 34- in another Bay Area city, Vallejo. Hank, a year and a half Tug's senior, was the original star athlete of the family, and he was idolized by his younger brother. Hank was the McGraw selected to play on all the top junior baseball teams in the area, but at his and his father's insistence, Tug was always included. He was an outfielder who yearned to be a pitcher, principally because Hank was a catcher. He finally got his chance, in rather typical Tuggian fashion, as a member of the St. Vincent's High School junior varsity team. "We had a coach, Father Freehan, who was about 80 and could hardly see," Tug says. "We also had a lefthanded pitcher, Bob Hay, who was having arm problems and wanted to play in the outfield. So before one game we switched uniform tops and he went to centerfield and I pitched the whole game. Father Freehan never knew the difference until I got up real close to him after the game.
McGraw was only 5'9" and 150 pounds when he completed his second season with the Vallejo J. C. varsity, but Hank, then playing for the Mets farm team in Salinas, Calif., persuaded the parent organization to give Tug a tryout in 1964. The next season he was pitching for Casey Stengel in New York. Four years later and 35 pounds heavier, he was the star reliever for the 1969 World Champions. And four years after that he was the "You Gotta Believe" spokesman for the 1973 Mets pennant winners.
Successful though he has been in baseball, McGraw is perpetually in search of a career after his career. He has gone to barber college, enrolled in hotel-management courses, served in the Marine reserve, started a comic strip (Scroogie) and written a sports column for a chain of suburban newspapers in the Philadelphia area. After the 1979 season, however, he and Phyllis decided to take stock. His ERA that year had climbed to a career-high 5.14, so it seemed clear something was amiss.
"I was running myself ragged with all these outside interests," Tug says. "Phyllis and I were passing each other in the doorway." At his wife's urging, he systematically divested himself of his outside distractions and dedicated himself to getting into shape for the 1980 season and reacquainting himself with his family. "It worked like a son of a gun," he says. His team won the World Series, and he will spend most of the winter "cuddling" with his family and sipping Irish whiskey by the fireside in his fine old house as the snow festoons the oaks and Japanese maples outside.
All of the Phillies rejoiced in their great victory but few more demonstratively than McGraw, who, weeping and laughing, doused Philadelphia mayor William Green with champagne and embraced teammates, reporters, relatives, friends and even cops in the clubhouse celebration. He favored the assemblage with his Elvis Presley impersonation and liberally sprinkled the room with off-the-wall observations.
"W. C. Fields (who, on the whole, would rather be in Philadelphia than where he is) is probably down in his grave wishing he could celebrate with us, and I know Benjamin Franklin is turning over in his grave, and he's probably got a little flask down there and he's going to be sorry tomorrow because his gout's going to be acting up." It was about three in the morning before McGraw left the stadium, and he still had the family party ahead of him. But he was up in time for the parade and civic celebration the next day, advising Philadelphians at JFK Stadium that they no longer take a backseat to New Yorkers and that the Big Apple could, in fact, "stick it."
His energy hadn't appreciably waned two days later, when, in a New York restaurant, he tried to put the experience in perspective. "There's no way we could have started off a new decade of baseball any better than this," he said. "I don't think I've ever been more proud to be a baseball player. In September and October, when we had all those close finishes, the great playoffs and the Series, the players were showing why baseball is the American pastime. I can't tell you how happy I am to be a part of it."
But he has, you know.