The first time I ever saw Walt Terrell, he was sitting against his locker, sucking on a beer. He looked very content, and I did not disturb him.
The next time I saw Walt Terrell, he was in the same position. I did not disturb him.
The next 92 times I saw Walt Terrell he was in the same position — except sometimes the beer was a cigaret or a chicken wing — until finally, I came to believe that if the clubhouse suddenly exploded into a huge ball of fire, Walt Terrell would lean over and go, “Hey. Did you hear something?”
Take a pencil and draw a line and you have just charted Terrell’s emotional swings between starts. So no, I did not expect many jitters just because he pitches today opposite baseball’s hottest ace — Boston’s Roger Clemens — in the Tigers’ most important series yet this season.
I mean, come on. Give us something big.
“There are only three pitchers I ever got psyched up for,” Terrell said, when asked the question. “Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer. They were my idols.”
“And Clemens?” I said.
He leaned back in that familiar pose. “I don’t remember watching him when I grew up.”
Now before Clemens reads this and takes umbrage — What is umbrage anyhow? Is it like oxbrage? Where do you take it? — he should know what happens when Terrell faces his heroes.
The first time Terrell went moundo-a-moundo against Ryan, he was too shy to even say hello before the game. He was afraid Ryan would snub him. He was afraid Ryan would consider him too . . . forward.
So he took the mound and outpitched him.
Then, a few days later, he sent a message through a fellow player: “Nolan
— can I have an autographed picture, please?”
He asked the same thing of Seaver when they were teammates on the Mets — although it took him all season to get up the nerve. Yet when the two men finally squared off last year (Seaver for the White Sox, Terrell for the Tigers), Terrell won again.
“Yeah, he wished me luck before the game,” Terrell said. “Then I kicked his a–.”
He was smiling when he said that, Tom. OK?
Jim Palmer was in Jockey shorts before Terrell could catch him with his pants down. “But I hope to get him in a softball league somewhere,” Terrell said. “I haven’t given up.”
So Clemens might be thankful Terrell doesn’t gasp when he goes by. Not that Terrell is the gasping type. Or even the sighing type. He is pretty much the keep-breathing type.
Actually, if you were playing cards with the Tigers, and you decided to suddenly postulate on the long-term effects of the Japanese industrial boom, Terrell would be the type to say, “Hey. Shut up and deal.”
And you would.
His fellow Tigers like him for this. His manager, Sparky Anderson, likes him for it (although Sparky keeps calling him “Walter,” which seems more a name for butlers or news anchors.) He is steady and unflappable — the kind you will joke with but never dare cross. And while Jack Morris commands the big spotlight in Detroit, Terrell has been consistently good for two years — 15-10 last season, 10-8 so far this season — and virtually kept the Tigers afloat during their otherwise dismal spring this year.
So neatly does he fit here, as if air-brushed into his Tigers uniform, that many outsiders figure he was part of the 1984 team that won it all. He wasn’t. He arrived in 1985, and is still waiting for that first big league championship.
But until then, his Thrills Club of opposing pitchers stops at three — regardless of who Boston sends up there today, tomorrow, next week, or next month.
Unless they get hold of Palmer.
I mentioned that perhaps the former Orioles ace would read this, and send Terrell a photo to complete his collection.
“That would be nice,” he said, smiling. “Just make sure he’s not in his Jockeys.”
I said I’d do my best, and left to visit the Red Sox clubhouse. On my way out, I looked over my shoulder. And there was Walt Terrell, cigaret in his lips, sitting dead in front of his locker, like a rock.
So, Roger Clemens, with all due respect, you still have a ways to go before at least one Tiger spills his beer over you.
Unless, maybe, you show up in your underwear. CUTLINE: It takes more thanClemens to exciteCool Hand Walt