Half a dozen wire hangers hung in the otherwise empty locker. There was a piece of masking tape stripped across the top, and someone had written the name and the new number in blue magic marker:

CARLTON, 37.

Back to work. He was coming back to work. Only a week had gone by since he
“retired” from the game, but in his mind he had never retired, he could not retire.

So he sat in Chicago hotel room for the better part of four days, while the White Sox and his representative tried to work something out. And when waivers officially cleared on him Tuesday afternoon, Steve Carlton, 41, was already on his way to the stadium. And he was going to pitch.

Back to work.

“Why are you back here?” someone would ask him later, as he sat outside the visitor’s dugout in the cool night air, only his second press conference in the last eight years.

“Because I want to be part of the game,” he said simply. “It’s a beautiful game. And it’s very hard to leave it. Very hard.”

How else would he answer? How else could he answer? Don’t all true athletes answer the same way? “I want to be part of the game”?

Carlton, a four time Cy Young winner, a certain Hall of Famer, a man who has struck out 4,004 batters in 22 major league years, is one of those true athletes, as in love with the process as he is with the results.

So what else could he do? Sometime Tuesday afternoon he reached agreement with the White Sox, and at 5:30 p.m. he got off the bus and marched into that visitor’s clubhouse, to that new locker with the new number and the empty hangers. And he took off his sports coat and hung it up.

Back to work. Barely time to say hello “Lefty, how ya doin’?”

“Lefty, glad to have ya.”

“Lefty, how are you?”

The voices were new, the uniforms were new. The league was new. Everything was new. He took off his watch and unbuttoned his shirt.

For seven seasons, Steve Carlton had pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals, and for the next 14 1/2 seasons, he had pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies. More than 20 years. Only two moves. And now he had moved that many times in the last five weeks. From Philly to San Francisco. From San Francisco to Chicago.

“Isn’t it hard adjusting after all those years?” someone would ask him, after he and his new team lost, 7-3, to the Tigers.

“A little bit,” he would say. “Yeah . . . yes . . . yes, it is.”

He barely had time to go over signals with his new catcher. Within an hour of his arrival in the American League, he was out throwing. It was a dramatic return, but the results were flat. He gave up six runs in three innings and was taken out.

When the game ended, he emerged from the dugout, dressed in a blue shirt and tan slacks, and met the microphones he has been avoiding since the late
’70s. He had spoken to the press for the first time since then in July, when the Giants acquired him. “The transition demanded it,” he had said.

Now he was speaking again — because the transition demanded it. He was back to work. He says he still has it The questions were fast and plentiful. His answers were short, his voice thin. He did not look reporters in the eye.

“How much do you have left?” someone asked.

“I have a lot left,” he said. “What could make you leave this game on your own?” he was asked.

“If I was losing the stuff that enabled me to win,” he said. “If I no longer had that. If I was out there embarrassing myself. But I think I still have what I need to pitch well. I do. I think I do.”

“Are you uncomfortable talking to us now?” a reporter asked him.

“No,” he said. “I’ve never been uncomfortable talking. It’s the results of talking that have been tedious in the past.”

He would not elaborate. He would not explain. Somewhere in this tall man’s personal attic is a bitter memory that he is not willing to share. Somewhere up there is also a driving need to stay with the game of baseball until it throws him.

He is in reality a familiar story. A once-great pitcher hanging on to the game, believing he is still in its warmest graces. How true the warmth, will be known only with time. But that is all Steve Carlton wants now. More time.
“Why?” the question was repeated.

“Because it’s a beautiful game,” he repeated.

And when he was finished, he said he probably would not talk to the press anymore. Then he headed back down the tunnel, to the new locker with the new name and the new number. Back to work.

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