Pitcher Mike Scott sits hunched forward in the Houston Astros dugout, turning a baseball over and over in his big hands, as if examining a mysterious object that has dropped from the heavens. “It’s all in the feel,” he says. “It’s easy. So easy. Not complicated at all. It’s certainly no big secret. You just split your fingers like this, see, and throw a fastball. It approaches the plate like a fastball, and then what it does is…it…it….” He looks up, wincing through thick eyeglasses. “It saves my career.”
Three years ago Scott almost didn’t have a career, at least not a major league one. In 1984 his record was a dismal 5-11, and, as he puts it, “I didn’t know if my career was over, but I did know it wasn’t moving very fast.” He still had a good 95-mph fastball that was as straight as a draftsman’s ruler, and control that was adequate, but his curveball and slider appeared only in his dreams. “Batters,” he says, “just sat back on my fastball and ripped it.”
Thanks to his mastery of a pitch known as the split-fingered fastball—and don’t believe him for a second when he tells you how easy it is—Scott has been, for the past two years, the dominant pitcher in the game. Last fall he almost led his team into the World Series by throwing two nearly flawless games in a series against the New York Mets. The stunning season earned him the coveted Cy Young Award. His record was 18-10, but that was only part of the story: He had the league-leading earned run average of 2.22 and led the league with 306 strikeouts in 275 innings. He fanned nine or more batters 19 times that year; prior to that he had never struck out more than eight players in a game.
Numbers aside Scott, 32, has pitched some of the most overpowering, clutch baseball games in recent memory. Last September he clinched the Western Division pennant for the Astros with a dazzling 13-strikeout no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants. Ironically it was Giants manager Roger Craig who had taught Scott the pitch. “It was the most overpowering no-hitter I’ve ever seen,” said Craig after the game, and he has seen a lot.
This year Scott’s touch has not deserted him. For the first time in his career, he started a new season as powerfully as he had ended the old one. As of last week, he had a 9-3 record, a 2.10 ERA and led the National League in strikeouts with 125. On June 15, in a game against Cincinnati, he struck out 14 batters, adding to an impressive spurt of 34 strikeouts in three consecutive games. “When he throws that pitch right it’s the toughest pitch to hit in baseball,” says Darryl Strawberry of the Mets, who defeated the Astros for the NL championship. “Awesome.” Scott isn’t the first pitcher to throw the splitter. In 1959 Pittsburgh Pirates ace Elroy Face won 18 consecutive games with the pitch, which he called a “fork-ball.” More recently Bruce Sutter, now a sore-armed reliever with the Atlanta Braves, used the pitch successfully. But neither threw the pitch hard, and both used it 95 percent of the time. “With Sutter you always knew it was coming,” says Strawberry. “But with Mike, if you look for it, he’ll blow the fastball by you.”
Scott’s dramatic turnaround began in the winter of 1984 in San Diego, when the Astros arranged for him to work with split-fingered fastball guru Craig, who was then unemployed in baseball. Craig spent eight days teaching the pitch to Scott, who proved a quick study.
In simple terms the pitch is just a fastball thrown with a different grip. Instead of gripping a ball with his first two fingers close together, as with a conventional fastball, Scott spreads his first two fingers apart, so that they form a over the ball. Then he throws it as hard as he can. The wider Scott splits his fingers over the ball, the slower the pitch and the bigger the break. The closer he splits his fingers, the faster the pitch and the shorter the break. Sometimes the ball approaches the batter with a wobbly spin, and sometimes with a fastball spin, but in almost every instance it behaves the same way before it crosses the plate: It darts straight down at the last instant.
Scott has been able to elevate the pitch to an art form for several reasons: His oversize hands allow him to get a comfortable grip on the ball for better control, and he can throw it with consistently high speed (usually in the mid-80s). More important, perhaps, was the realization that he had to surrender his career to the pitch or be out of baseball for good. “I was just looking for a decent second pitch,” says Scott. “I never thought it would become the pitch it has.”
Perhaps the ultimate compliment came one year ago when Craig, who was by then managing the Giants, stopped a game to complain to the umpires that Scott was illegally scuffing the ball to make it sink, a charge Craig is not alone in voicing. Scott’s feelings were hurt. “Roger knows what I’m throwing,” he says. “He taught me!”
Then the Mets took up the battle cry during last fall’s thrilling six-game league championship series. In the two games he won, Scott struck out 19 and threw 16 scoreless innings. He was voted the Series’ MVP, the second time that award was given to a member of the losing team. But the Met batters, in their consternation, accused him of doctoring the ball and repeatedly asked the home plate umpire to check it.
Soon the umps were examining the ball on their own. “I never saw an umpire call for the ball without a batter asking for it first,” Scott recalls. “I was just rubbing up the ball on the mound like I always do. They didn’t throw one of them out of the game.” Veteran ump Doug Harvey said later, “I’ve checked Mike 65 times, and in my heart all I know is the man is clean. It [the split-fingered fastball] is as close to being an unhittable pitch as I’ve ever seen, but believe me, he’s doing it legally.”
The point is that Scott is not the kind of man who cheats, not in golf—even when club pros deliberately look the other way in order to give him a chance to kick his ball out of the rough, as he says they do—or in baseball, the game to which he owes so much. “I can’t have it much better,” he says. “Why should I get in trouble by scuffing a ball or taking drugs or anything?”
Scott, a Hawthorne, Calif. native, is a big (6’3″, 215 lbs.), slow-moving man with thinning blond hair and a plowman’s walk. He is one of those ordinary people whose personality seems marked by a weary resignation. He is resigned to being the butt of wife Vicki’s jokes about being a lousy shot in high school basketball, a “terrible nuisance” in the kitchen and having bad taste in movies. “Ah, she doesn’t really mean it,” he says, pained.
For years, too, Scott seemed resigned to a mediocre career. Better known as a basketball player in college, he wasn’t even drafted by a pro team. But his fastball caught the attention of the Mets, who signed him out of Pepperdine University as a second-round draft pick in 1976. The Mets spent six frustrating years trying to teach him a second pitch. But in 1982, with a 14-27 record and fat 4.65 ERA, they gave up. “He was a nice young man,” said Mets general manager Frank Cashen. But nice only counts in charm school, and Cashen traded Scott to Houston. Observed Cashen: “He always had a good arm. But he was just trying to be mediocre.”
Scott doesn’t deny the charge. “I’ve never gotten off to a good start in my life,” he says. “All my life I just wanted to play baseball. I just wanted to get drafted, and then I just wanted to fit in the big leagues. Be a little better than the 10th man on a staff. Maybe pull my load a bit. Win a few games.”
Win he did, after his crash course with Craig. Scott’s success story is so improbable that sometimes even he has trouble believing it. Only two years ago, the journeyman pitcher was living with his wife and two daughters, Kimberlee, 7, and Kelsey, 3, in Chandler, Ariz. because he couldn’t afford housing in his home state. “We looked at houses around Hawthorne, and they were all over $120,000,” he says. “We couldn’t afford the down payment.” But after the 1985 season, he signed a three-year, $2 million contract that now seems like a bargain for the Astros. Scott was able to buy a spacious new house, complete with pool, in the hills above sun-kissed Laguna Beach.
He also joined an exclusive golf club up the street, the kind of club that screens its members unless they happen to be millionaire athletes. Before the place was even open, the club pro offered to let Scott play its course whenever he wanted.
Then there was the call Scott received from a famous athlete who wanted to perform several favors for him. “He got me free concert tickets and things,” says Scott. “He offered to help me out in any way he could. It bothered me, though. I wondered if I was still a 5-11 pitcher if he would have called.” Probably not, and Scott doesn’t kid himself by thinking otherwise. “When I leave the game people will look at me differently,” he says. “I don’t respect any players who don’t realize that.”
Until he leaves, however, he’ll remain bemused by the attention being heaped his way. “Do you know, I get asked to speak at a lot of business meetings?” he has said. “All these IBM execs wanting to hear what I have to say about success. That makes me uncomfortable. Now, what can I tell them?” Maybe nothing. All he has to do is let his fingers do the talking.