Movie stars will come and go. New songs are old by morning. But get lost at sea for 20 years, let them find you on a raft in the South Pacific, and when they revive you, and you mumble, “Uhhh . . . what did Tommy John do yesterday?” surely somebody will answer, “Two-hitter.”
Mister John rolls on and on. He beat the Tigers Saturday with a 7-0 shutout that, among other things: 1) snapped Detroit’s three-game winning streak, 2) put the Yankees back in first place, and 3) gave the New York press something to write about besides Georgie Steinbrenner’s latest case of diaper rash.
On and on. Mister John. So what if he’s 44 years old and looks as if
“Mulligan’s Saloon” should be across his uniform instead of pinstripes? Those slumping shoulders? The loosening midsection? So what? Did you count how many ground balls he got off Tigers bats? Did you see the score? Detroit grabbed 20 runs in two days off “youngsters” like Ron Guidry and Rick Rhoden. Give the old guy a try and . . . shutout.
On and on.
“Do you remember the first time you pitched in Tiger Stadium?” someone asked John, whose record improved to an eye- rubbing 11-4.
“I remember,” he said. “It was 1964. I lost, 3-2. Bubba Phillips beat me with a home run.”
Bubba Phillips? Low and lower Well. OK. Bubba Phillips. After all, John has been pitching longer than some of the reporters quizzing him have been living. “I used to stay at the Sheraton Cadillac here,” he said. The young reporters nodded blankly. “Used to eat at Danny’s Gin Mill.” More blank nods.
“I love to shop in Hudson’s basement.”
“Hudson’s isn’t here anymore,” he was told.
But John is. Tigers boosters cannot be happy with his shutout Saturday, but even the rabid fan can appreciate the effort. After all, here is a guy in his 24th major league season. Look at that body. Other guys flex. He sags. Forty-four? He pitched a two-hitter? Forty-four?
“It was a good day,” he understates. Why not? What can possibly still impress Tommy John? He has worn six big-league uniforms, been a free agent three times, been released once, retired once, endured a number of operations. He blew out his elbow in 1974. They patched it up with a tendon from his forearm. From his forearm? Yes. He borrowed spare parts from himself.
And he’s still throwing — 13 years later. Saturday he retired Kirk Gibson in a double play in the first inning. He retired Chet Lemon the same way in the fifth, with the bases loaded. So much for Tigers scoring threats. Eighteen of Detroit’s 27 outs were ground balls. Which is no surprise. When John is throwing well, he has two pitches: low and lower. Hitters are tempted to step up in the box. About 10 feet.
And when the game ended (on a grounder to short) John loped off the mound, looking like the front half at a father-son softball tandem. The pitcher he beat was nearly half his age: Eric King. Baby-faced Eric King. His weapon is a fastball.
“Do you enjoy beating the fireball pitchers like that?” John was asked.
“Anybody’s a fireballer compared to me,” he said, and then, remembering where he was, added, “except Frank Tanana. . . . ” A calming effect So, OK. If you’ve got to lose one, might as well be to Old Man Sinker. He has earned his place in the “I Love Lucy” room of baseball. He has pitched forever, it seems, through the Monkees, a man on the moon, disco, punk, yuppies, Iran, the Monkees again. That should count for something. He has passed the Monkees twice.
Because of this, John has a skewed concept of time. How big was this game?
“The biggest in 24 hours.” How much longer will he pitch? “Well, I’m on a multiday contract.”
But this, too, is vintage Tommy John: modesty. He was rarely good enough to become bigheaded. His personal setbacks — the operation, the near-fatal fall from a window by his infant son, Travis, in 1981 — have given him perspective.
He probably will never land in the Hall of Fame. But on a team that is racked with disturbances from the front office, a team that slips and slides from brilliance to ineptitude, you cannot overvalue a win like John gave the Yankees Saturday. A calming effect. That is what it is. That was what they needed.
No fun for Tigers fans — who endured the absence of Jack Morris, out with a groin pull. But Morris will recover. He’s young. He’s 32. Geez. Next to John, he’s a puppy.
So call this a defeat for a cause. To prove that old is not useless. That sagging is not a crime. As John talked, the other Yankees were getting dressed. Hard, lean bodies, like Dave Winfield and Claudell Washington.
“Do you ever get nostalgic looking at the physiques of your teammates?” someone asked John.
“Nah,” he said, “I never looked like that.”