Dan Quisenberry, at the Royals training camp in Fort Myers, Fla., is giving a guided tour of his locker: Here on the shelf is his fan mail. There on a hook is his jock. And tacked at the top, by his nameplate, are his baseball cards.
“The cards are a pitching-staff rite of spring,” explains the Royals’ splendid reliever. “Your friends put up the cards of guys who’ve stung you.” Quisenberry, 33, has a veritable hornets’ nest up there. “Alan Trammell, he hit a grand slam home run off me. Al Oliver…” Quiz shakes his head. “Oliver beat me twice in last year’s playoffs.”
When it’s pointed out that his hall of shame is bigger than any of the other pitchers’, Quisenberry just laughs. “A lot of guys get embarrassed and take the cards down,” he says. “I guess they don’t like to face the truth.”
But Quiz is willing to face it and, in fact, does so with finely honed humor. Teammate John Wathan calls him “baseball’s Woody Allen” (see box) and it’s not simply because, like Allen, his hair is red. Though a Presbyterian, Quiz says, “Confession is always good for me. I get it from the press. Why did I give up that 400-foot bullet? I get to confess for about an hour after the game.”
Last year Quiz was either a hero or a goat. His 1985 season was the best of times: 37 saves and a club record 84 appearances. He won his fifth (in six seasons) American League Fireman of the Year award. “If a lot of teams had Dan Quisenberry, they’d be in the World Series,” says Kansas City manager Dick Howser. The Royals were in the ’85 classic against the Cards, and took the series in seven games.
But for Quiz it was also the worst of times: He was down from his 44 and 45 saves of the previous two years. (During the past six years, he has had 212 saves, the best in the bigs.) Early in the season he had a horrendous five-week slump during which his ERA swelled to a bulbous 5.30. And throughout the year he had an unfortunate tendency to serve up gopher balls in critical situations. “My Superman cape went to the cleaners,” Quiz admits.
All of which left him, in a word, quizzical. “I had a good year,” he says. “But suddenly I had to be defensive about it.” What went wrong? During the slump, Quiz studied videotapes of himself. He dissected the strange, underhand “submarine” pitching motion that Kent Tekulve—then the relief ace for the Pittsburgh Pirates—had taught him six years earlier in spring training. Nope, nothing wrong there. On the mound, the lanky (6’2″) 180-pounder still looked like a flamingo having a convulsion. Nor had Quiz lost his stuff. His sliders and sinkers were still sliding and sinking at a velocity just past the national speed limit. “Most pitchers fear losing their fastball,” he once observed. “Since I don’t have one, I have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Quiz’s off-year was a puzzler, all right. But his longtime friend and catcher, John Wathan, came up with a theory. “They say the two most important things—in pitching as well as real estate—are location and location,” says Wathan. “I think he just had problems pinpointing the ball.” With his control slightly askew, ground balls that were usually caught and turned into inning-ending double plays went through the infield. Screaming line drives that used to be hit directly at Royal outfielders now fell in the gaps or bounced over the fence. Quisenberry, with his 80 mph “heat,” was never exactly unhittable (like Goose Gossage, with his 96 mph fastball). In fact, the ’83 Royals bullpen made up a song (to the tune of Secret Agent Man) called Secret Bullpen Man. It lampooned all their shortcomings, but Quisenberry’s verse was particularly trenchant. It went: “The Ace down here is Dan Quisenberry/ He likes to make the games kind of scary/ He’s got a bag of tricks/ But mostly takes his licks/ He makes the skipper head straight for the sherry.”
Even in good times, relief pitching can be a tough way to earn—as Quisenberry does—$1 million a year. The pressure of coming in from the bullpen with men on base and the game on the line can unhinge even the most rational mind. “It’s an emotional roller coaster and it can drive you nuts,” says Quiz. “You go out in front of 30,000 to 40,000 frantic people that are either going to love you or hate you. It’s a silly job.” Ergo, relievers themselves tend to become silly to relieve their own gutwrenching anxieties. In fact, some of baseball’s most inspired flakes have come out of the bullpen. Given the deeply stressful nature of the work, “relievers with small brains are better off,” insists Quiz. “The less you think the better you play…I think.”
Last year Quiz started talking to the baseball: “I promise not to throw it hard if it promises to go up to the plate and dance around.” When things got bleak, reports Wathan, “He’d come up to me and say, ‘Why is everybody booing me? I don’t understand.’ I’d remind him, ‘Because you stink.’ ”
A devoted family man, Quisenberry found great solace in Janie, his wife of almost 10 years, and their children, Alysia, 6, and David, 4. “Preschoolers have a way of grabbing your attention,” he says. “Mine help me not to be a baseball player at home.” In short, they help him step off the emotional roller coaster.
Temperamentally, Quisenberry has come a long way. As a kid growing up in Southern California, “I cried when I lost. Yes, I was one of those,” he has admitted. One of the clear turning points in his life came while he was playing for Orange Coast College. It was a shower scene right out of the athletic version of Psycho. “I lost a game,” he recalls, “and when it was over I stuck the nozzle of the shower in my mouth and turned on the water. I was so frustrated I drank water till I vomited.” Soon after, says Quisenberry, “I became a Christian.”
This spring, Quiz seems back to his old baffling ways. “He’s throwin’ the ball real good,” says Dick Howser. Indeed, his ERA is a sparkling 1.29. Which pleases Howser no end. “We don’t have a chance to win unless Quiz pitches good for us.”
Just outside the manager’s door, the Royals’ bullpen ace and designated wit is warming up, fielding questions from a knot of reporters: Does he use ice on his arm? “No need,” he grins. “I have no arm.” He puts on a Harvard hat a fan sent to him. Someone expresses surprise that he went to Harvard. “I majored in sinkology and aquatics,” the submarine sinkerballer replies. Will the Royals repeat? asks a radio guy. “Early to tell,” winks the Quiz. “There are miles to go, mountains to climb, tough teams to beat and many, many locker-room card games to be won.”
Yes, the Quiz is already in mid-season form.