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Like lots of pro athletes, former major league pitcher Ron Guidry says he can identify the day upon which he began to thrive in the preposterously competitive world of pro sports.
We’ll get to that point shortly.
I don’t know Ron Guidry well enough to be sure that he’s precisely as humble now as he was before he made the bigs. But I can say he’s remained true to his roots in Louisiana.
"You know, instead of just having people just call you 'Mister,' 'Ronald,' 'Ronny,' 'Ron' — just call me 'Gator,' " he says. "That’s what everybody generally calls me."
'Is There Anybody In This League That You Can Get Out?'
It’s unlikely that Guidry’s first manager in the major leagues called him anything that civil, at least in the early days of their association. The manager was the famously pugnacious Billy Martin. The year was 1976. The ballpark was in Florida. Guidry, the new kid trying to stay on the roster of the New York Yankees, wasn’t worried about stats in spring training games. He was just trying to find his rhythm and get sharp.
"But in Billy’s eyes, that’s not how it was supposed to work," Guidry says. "I was supposed to be striking out everybody that I faced, from Day 1. But it didn’t work. So that first year in '76, I think the first time I went out in a game, I gave up a couple of runs. And then the next time, another couple of runs. And then, finally, he just, he came out to the mound one day, and he says, 'Is there anybody in this league that you can get out? Because if you can, let me know. I’ll let you throw to that guy.' "
It’s tough for a youngster still trying to earn a job to stay positive when the manager says something like that. Under some circumstances, perhaps the rookie could count on support from somebody upstairs in the organization. Say, the owner. In 1976, that was a fellow at least as pugnacious as the manager. The owner was George Steinbrenner.
"Yeah. He didn’t like me either," Guidry says.
So Martin and Steinbrenner had that in common. And maybe as late as early April, 1977, they had reason to doubt Guidry. I mean, by then he’d been bouncing between Triple A and New York for two seasons and what had he done?
"Nothing. Not a thing," Guidry says.
'What More Can I Do?'
Three games into that ’77 campaign, Guidry thought that might change. The Yankees had started the season with a win and two losses. Anywhere else that might not have mattered much. In New York, it did.
"Mr. Steinbrenner thought that we should win every game," Guidry says. "We should be 162-0. And starting off 1-2, that’s, like, 'Oh, the season’s over with.' "
"That turned my career there, I think, around."Ron Guidry
In game four, the Yankees faced the Kansas City Royals, led by George Brett, perhaps the most accomplished hitter of his time. The game went into extra innings. Guidry and fellow reliever Dick Tidrow were throwing in the bullpen. And the call came for Tidrow, who held the Royals in check for an inning before allowing a double.
At that point, conventional baseball wisdom suggested that the lefthander, Guidry, should come in to face left-handed power hitter John Mayberry. But Martin stuck with Tidrow. Mayberry got a hit. The Yankees lost. And Guidry was confused.
"Well, you’re frustrated, because, why are you here?" Guidry says. "I’m here. I’m fresh. I’m ready. I’m throwing well. You haven’t used me yet. But it’s, like, what more do you want? What more can I do?"
The writers wondered about that, too. After the game, one of them asked Billy Martin why he hadn’t gone with the percentages and brought in Guidry. Martin said Guidry had no experience. The writer wondered out loud how the kid would get any experience if Martin never pitched him.
It was April. Still early. So no punches were thrown.
'I Knew I Was Going In'
Now the Yankees were 1-3. The next night’s game brought up a similar set of circumstances. Get 'em up in the bullpen.
"I knew I was going in," Guidry says. "The reason I knew I was going in was because the lefthander that I was gonna be facing was George Brett. OK? He’s gonna put me in there. It could have been any other lefthander other than George Brett. But, no. He’s gonna wait until I get the best hitter in baseball."
Remember, not so long before that day, Martin had sarcastically asked Guidry if he thought he could get anybody out. Was he putting Gator in against the game’s best hitter so he’d have an excuse to send him back to Triple A when he couldn’t retire George Brett?
Maybe that’s what Guidry was wondering when — with a man on second — Brett slammed one of his pitches back through the middle for a hit. It might have gone into the books as one more ignominious stint on the mound for the winless kid, but ...
"But Mickey Rivers was in center field. And for some reason, he had shortened up in center field," Guidry says. "He wasn’t playing as deep as he normally plays. Cut the ball off. Made a perfect throw to home plate, and we nailed the guy. Game stayed tied."
In their next at-bat, the Yankees scored.
"You know, Billy asked me, 'Well, how do you feel?' I said, 'I’m good.' So he says, 'OK, you get the next inning.' So that was the eighth inning," Guidry says. "I got three up, three down in the eighth inning. I didn’t throw very many pitches. And then he let me go back out in the ninth inning. And I finished."
'It Turned Around For Me'
Just like that, a day after Martin had passed over Guidry, Gator had his first major league win.
"The previous night, he had said, 'I’m not using Guidry because he doesn’t have the experience,' " I say. "And after you had 24 hours' more experience — not pitching, but sitting in the bullpen, watching the game and maybe getting a good night’s sleep in the hotel, as far as I know — then you were ready."
"Well, yeah. Then it all changed, right?" Guidry says with a laugh. "But, I mean, all I know is, it turned around — for me, that turned my career there, I think, around. Especially as far as in Billy’s eyes."
It was a career that would see Guidry converted from a spot reliever to a starter who would win 170 games. He picked up a Cy Young Award along the way, and made four All-Star teams. He played on two World Series winners. All of which not only won him the admiration of his manager, but must have endeared him to Mr. Steinbrenner as well, right?
"I’d always argue with Mr. Steinbrenner," Guidry says, "when he’d bring out, like, 'OK, you just lost two games in a row. You lost 1-0 to Nolan Ryan, and then in your next start you lost, 2-1, to Jack Morris.' OK? Both of those guys are Hall-of-Famers. And you’re going, like, 'OK, I gave up three runs, but I got two losses.' It’s not my fault. The team only scored one run. It’s hard to win with one run in two games. That’s half a run a game, OK? But in his estimation, I shouldn’t be doing that. Now, if I rip off five or six games, which I did often, he never came in the clubhouse and congratulated me. It was my job. So he just thought that we should win every game. But that’s who he was."
As Guidry sees it, George Steinbrenner would have to have been who he was in some other pitcher’s face if — when George Brett hammered that Guidry pitch into center — Mickey Rivers hadn’t been playing shallow enough to cut off the run, and Billy Martin hadn’t shrugged and left Guidry in.
One win in the books, 169 more to come.
Since his retirement, Gator has continued to join the Yankees in spring training. He’s the guy who sits down with discouraged pitchers to tell them how suddenly, how dramatically and how pleasantly things can sometimes change.
Read more about Ron Guidry in his book, "Gator: My Life In Pinstripes," written with Andrew Beaton.
This segment aired on May 19, 2018.
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