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Steve Carlton and the cost of 20 losses

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Some years, even the highest salary in the league can’t buy you a winning record.

Baseball Stars And U.S. House Reps Mingle At Annual Hot Dog Lunch On Capitol Hill Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Maneuverability. The Phillies were all about it in ‘73. They wanted to do sexy, maneuverable things, like carrying three catchers in order to be more liberal with pinch hitting in key match-ups. They wanted to be flexible. Fluid. Relentless. Constantly maneuvering.

Wherever they were moving, they’d be orbiting two young fixtures on the roster. One was named Mike Schmidt. He’d play in 132 games and hit under .200. The other was Steve Carlton. The Phillies were about to pay him $165,000, which today is equal to “one Philadelphia city council person’s shady real estate payout.”

In 1973, it made Carlton the highest paid pitcher in the league.

The season before, 1972 had gone pretty well, considering the Phillies finished over ten games out of second to last place. Carlton was fresh on the Philly baseball scene, still adjusting, you might say, to the trade with the Cardinals for Rick Wise that had brought him here.

“That spring, Lefty threw a different fastball,” said Tim McCarver during a broadcast booth interview with Carlton in 2011. “There was vengeance in that fastball.”

“I don’t carry a grudge!” Carlton insisted.

“Yes you do,” McCarver replied emphatically.

[Listen to a special episode of The Dirty Inning covering Steve Carlton, Johnny Bench, and a rivalry that got “...personal. Very personal,” available to patrons here!]

The Phillies welcomed Lefty by surrounding him with some of the worst baseball being played at that time. Despite their nightly failings, there are at least two books written about this historic season, in which the Phillies lost 20 games by at least five runs—and Carlton is the reason: he was just too good to ignore, winning the NL Cy Young and leading the NL in wins, ERA, complete games, IP, and strikeouts. The Phillies made him look even better as he pitched against the backdrop of a 97-loss team defined by impotence and frailty.

So the Phillies “maneuvered” Carlton back into their rotation to start the 1973 season with a cool $165,000, and on opening day, the richest arm on the Senior Circuit went back to work. But by May, it was clear: Maybe the Phillies should have low-balled him. Because Carlton’s fastball was always a little better when it was thrown by a vengeful hand.

April 6: Mets 3, Phillies 0

It took the Phillies exactly part of one game for their shameful secrets to surface.

The Inquirer’s Frank Dolson asked, among a series of barbs skewering the Phillies’ new skipper, why Danny Ozark hadn’t pinch hit for weak-hitting catcher Mike Ryan in two separate key at-bats of their opening day loss to the Mets. Ryan had been no help, and struck out twice, once on three pitches, and then again on four. Why, when the Phillies had bothered to roster up three backstops in the name of maneuverability, had they not pinch hit for Ryan, Dolson asked, ending his query with a sarcastic, “Hmmmm,” as though already, on day one, his columnists’ ears were detecting a lie.

While fielding questions “between bites of fried chicken,” Ozark explained: the Phillies didn’t have three catchers. They had two, because of a roster kerfuffle following the acquisition of a pitcher from the Mets during the winter draft. Apparently, the Phillies had tried to return the pitcher, Mike Bruhert, to the Mets, but they’d run into a slight snag while navigating the complex world of player acquisitions.

“We were under the assumption we did not need waivers,” Ozark explained.

Ah, there it was: They had needed waivers. And they’d just... hadn’t thought they did.

Because they didn’t know that, back-up catcher Larry Cox had been left off the roster and the Phillies had started the year with 24 players, while Carlton started the year with his first of 20 losses when his offense couldn’t find a counter to the Mets’ Cleon Jones, who clubbed two home runs off Carlton.

“For Cleon Jones, you see, it was his best opening day ever,” wrote the Inquirer’s Bruce Keidan. “For the Phillies it was just a typical afternoon.” [1]

April 18: Expos 2, Phillies 1

This gleeful disdain for the Phillies by the press covering them would carry on all season, conveying a season-long theme that all of this was sort of a waste of time. But Carlton would win a pair of games following his opening day loss, and wouldn’t feel the hapless breeze of the Phillies offense again until his fourth start of the year.

Singles haunted Carlton in the first inning on April 18—an infield single, a ground ball single, and a Texas Leaguer—before he could reverse his luck and induce a double play off a man ironically named “Singleton.” They were the only runs he’d allow all day, but in the opposing dugout sat another “Steve,” this one named Renko—who Montreal manager Gene Mauch hadn’t brought north from spring training, and who had lost 10 games in a row the previous year—but who still, naturally, no-hit the Phillies for 5.2 innings and allowed only one run.

It was the Expos’ first win over the Phillies since 1970 [Editor’s note: No it wasn’t]. It took an hour and 38 minutes.

Once again, people wondered: Why not maneuver in a pinch hitter, Danny Ozark? Why not do it in the sixth, when the Phillies broke Renko’s no-hitter? Why not give the offense an extra out, rather than let Carlton hit?

“I think the question being raised is,” Ozark replied, “do I have the guts to take Steve Carlton out of the ******* game? And if that’s the question, the answer is yes.”

Hmmmm. [2]

May 1: Astros 3, Phillies 0

Carlton and Jim Wynn agreed on one thing: Wynn should never have been able to hit that curve ball.

In the fifth, it soared down and in on the Astros left fielder. “It wasn’t the kind of pitch you hit out,” Wynn explained, having hit it out. “Carlton never gives me anything good to hit.”

And yet, about 10,000 people at The Vet had watched Wynn hit it out, keying a 3-0 Astros victory, to the confusion of everyone watching and to the quiet rage of the man on the mound.

This would be an ongoing event throughout the season: Not just Carlton getting raked by hitters he used to dominate, but the genuine bewilderment of the hitters after they were able to make contact with his pitches. Carlton could only shake his head after the loss, during which Ozark did work up the nerve to pinch hit for his starter in the eighth. The move resulted in no offense. [3]

May 5: Braves 7, Phillies 0

Ozark didn’t literally say he was worried about Carlton, specifically, but rather that he would “worry about any pitcher that gets beat.” But the concern was palpable, during both the seven-run pounding issued by Hank Aaron, Dusty Baker, and the Braves offense, as well as the issuing of the $50 fine for “head-hunting” which Carlton received from a side-eyeing umpire after throwing the ball at Darrell Evans’ skull.

It was already 7-0 at that point, and Carlton was yanked for a relief pitcher for the first time all year. This was a move viewed more as an insult to the starting pitcher than a reflection of the manager’s match-up strategies at the time.

Carlton’s pitches were landing in the zone, just not where he wanted to put them, and they were within reach of just about everyone, not only the Aaron’s and Baker’s of the day. The untouchable had become touchable. Hittable. Crushable.

Worrying. [4]

May 13: Cubs 4, Phillies 2

Reporters could only stare at a closed set of doors after the Phillies’ fifth loss in a row, and their first loss of the day. They would eventually lose their sixth and second, respectively, dropping the second game of a doubleheader to the Cubs after this one. Carlton had watched his fastball get smacked around and his defense fail to jump on it, and so had the typically laid back Ozark, who had reached a level of frustration no pile of fried chicken could cure.

Suddenly, the starter the Phillies had relied on all season in 1972 for a whisper of happiness every five days was unable to get batters out when he needed to, while his defense goofed, fumbled, and yawned like cats; like when Phillies outfielder Willie Montanez stood there and gawked at a Ron Santo pop-up as it slowly drifted high in the air and landed in fair territory.

Carlton wasn’t feeling particularly chatty after this loss—another theme of the season—leaving it to his teammates to explain.

“He can’t get into a rhythm,” catcher Mike Ryan said. “Maybe he’ll come out of it. If he doesn’t, we’re in trouble.” [5]

May 17: Pirates 5, Phillies 2

What everyone could see, and what everyone was saying, was that the real Steve Carlton was in there. The velocity on his pitches was Carlton’s, but the pinpoint control that had made him so menacing was gone. He wasn’t losing big games, just two or three-run quibbles in which his fastball would be looking for the edge of the strike zone and instead find a barrel of wood.

This continued at Three Rivers Stadium one Thursday, when Carlton issued three walks, two of which had helped load the bases before Pirates utility bench-sitter Gene Clines came up, enjoying only his fourth start of the season, and in the middle of an 0-for-4 performance at the plate. He chopped a grounder toward Schmidt at third and Carlton could probably feel the double play in his veins. What he felt when the ball wriggled from Schmidt’s glove and turned Clines’ weak out into a run-scoring play is undocumented, but I’m going to go with “seething.”

This evening in Pittsburgh was dictated by several key moments, such as Ozark disagreeing with the umpire about a swing on a potential strike three, and Carlton himself doubling to prime the offense and coming around to score on a double down the line that was incorrectly ruled fair. It seemed that in 1973, every one of Carlton’s starts would be carried by debates, disputes, and shouting matches, that no matter how loud, typically ended in an L. [6]

May 30: Dodgers 9, Phillies 4

Having started the season 1-6, the Dodgers were using the month of May to play their way back into the National League conversation. Instead of continuing the success of his first (and only) victory in the month of May against a weak line up scuffling to put two runs together, Carlton found himself battling the feel-good story out of the West, and the Dodgers used him and the Phillies to secure their sixth straight victory and second consecutive series sweep. [7]

June 22: Expos 4, Phillies 2

The Daily News submitted the theory that perhaps it was an impostor out there wearing Carlton’s number, publishing a photo caption of the deeply mustachioed ace reading, “Steve Carlton looks same, throws slower.

“That wasn’t Steve Carlton,” Gene Mauch concurred from the Expos’ dugout.

By now, the velocity was down, too, and Carlton was trying to rely on trickery and movement to fool hitters, a gambit in which he was not succeeding. Mauch, who believed Carlton was trapped in his own mind at this point, was more than happy to explain the phenomenon, blaming Carlton’s bad year on the contract that had started it:

“Johnny Callison hit 30 homers. Okay. Now, he hits 30 again. Then he negotiates his contract and they say, ‘Callison WILL do this.’ Now he HAS to do it. There’s a helluva difference doing something when nobody’s looking at you and when everybody’s looking at you.”

The Phillies’ current manager, Ozark, announced that his plan was to send Carlton back out to pitch after three day’s rest: “We’ll try that and see how that works.” [8]

June 30: Cardinals 9, Phillies 8

You get bored, hearing the same story every night.

The Cardinals bashed Carlton. The press wondered what had happened to the 27-game winning darling from 1972 who used to wear Carlton’s number. And columnists pondered just how much further Carlton was going to fall.

The diagnoses were in: With twenty more walks at this point (107) than he’d had in all of the previous year, it was the control. But also, his velocity was down some nights. Then there was run support; he couldn’t get any of that either. And now, the health concerns were surfacing, as his delivery fell into a sidearm motion with more frequency, as though he were trying to avoid straining certain muscles.

The Phillies battled back late from an 8-1 deficit, and appeared ready to complete the comeback, until a diving snare of a Bill Robinson liner ended the game.

“One more bit of proof,” wrote one beat, “that Steve Carlton has run out of miracles.” [9]

July 18: Reds 7, Phillies 3

Steve Carlton was back.

Following the beat down under the Arch, Carlton had been locked in for three straight starts in which he’d gone at least eight innings and the Phillies had won twice. In his last appearance, he’d thrown a three-hit, complete game shutout, earning back the “Super Steve” moniker from the year before.

Then, the sixth inning of this game happened. After Carlton had been firing heaters past the Reds all night, suddenly, he couldn’t keep them down, and Cincinnati started clanking them off the outfield wall.

Schmidt made a boneheaded error, Ozark did a lot of pacing in the clubhouse, and the Phillies sent Wayne Twitchell, and Wayne Twitchell only, to the All-Star Game in Kansas City. Carlton could only watch on TV as the battery of Rick Wise, the pitcher for whom he’d been traded to Philadelphia, and Johnny Bench, his arch nemesis who had torched him for three home runs in one game back in May, got the start for NL squad.

But he probably didn’t watch. [10]

[Hear more about the Johnny Bench/Steve Carlton rivalry that ended in a hotel room full of broken furniture in a special episode of The Dirty Inning, available here!]

July 26: Expos 4, Phillies 0

Whatever enthusiasm the Veterans Stadium regulars had channeled into their Steve Carlton fandom was now being used to stir up pockets of violence and mayhem. Somebody leaped out of the stands and tried to hijack the bullpen cart. A primal fist fight went on in the left field seats for what Daily News columnist Stan Hochman casually referred to as “a while.”

Infielder Cesar Tovar had traveled back to Venezuela and was set to return for this game, but just never showed up, and since it was 1973, all anybody could do was shrug about it until the news reported something. “Maybe there were storms,” Ozark suggested.

And on the mound in game one of a twin bill, the all-star break appeared to have provided no answers for Carlton, who, wrote Hochman, “fielded his position dismally. He didn’t pitch too good either.” [11]

August 3: Pirates 3, Phillies 1

The Pirates had planned to rely on their vaunted pitching staff to run through the National League, but by August, they were tapping into their farm system. Enter elementary school teacher John Morlan, who was promoted from Triple-A to make a start against the Phillies and quickly surpassed Carlton’s failures as the story of the day, granting sports writers a reprieve from penning yet another eulogy disguised as a recap.

Veterans Stadium attendance pushed past the one million mark, but for what? To see Carlton lose his 12th game by giving up home runs to Willie Stargell and Manny Sanguillen? To watch the anonymous Morlan be a “heck of a pitcher?”

In the seventh, Morlan told his manager he was tired and ready to come out of the game, which, it was my understanding, was a crime on the level of draft dodging in the seventies. He, I assume, received a warm nod from his manager before being left in Allegheny National Forest on their bus ride home. [12]

August 8: Padres 3, Phillies 0

Once more, Carlton finished a game in which a small amount of offense had been his, and the Phillies’, undoing.

One three-run home run did the trick this time, and the rest of the game was held pretty much in creepy silence, with only about 1,000 people in attendance and eight total moments of solid contact between the two lineups. Carlton did throw a pitch so wonky that Cito Gaston swung at it and pulled muscles in both his shoulder and neck, but this was not an extremely audible event. The Phillies equaled their hit total for the night with their error total (2), and Carlton disappeared down the tunnel with another loss in his pocket. [13]

August 12: Dodgers 2, Phillies 1

Steve Carlton was back. Again.

This game was played amid a string of six straight complete games thrown by the Phillies ace. The problem was everything in the sub-hed above: Not just that the Dodgers scored two runs to the Phillies’ one, but that it was August 12. The stretch was encouraging, as Carlton’s fastball began to scream toward the corners of the plate instead of yawning high into the zone. But it was quickly becoming too late in the year for his return to be impactful.

The previous year, Larry Bowa had called the days in which Carlton had started “Win Day,” for obvious reasons: Carlton possessed the supernatural juju to carry the team to victory when he pitched, regardless of all other factors: the team they were facing, where the Phillies were in the standings, the little offense produced by their lineup, or the current state of the weather, serene or calamitous. In 1973, however, Carlton had become something no one had desired to see: Human.

So when a Dodgers home run tied the game at one in the eighth and Carlton returned to the mound in the ninth, only to surrender three straight singles and witness the Dodgers’ 29th comeback win of the year, it followed an unsettling trend: Carlton, even when everything was working, was beatable. And he wasn’t done getting beat. [14]

August 22: Padres 8, Phillies 3

Hands on his hips, eyes on the ground, the footsteps of Danny Ozark getting louder from the dugout. It was all too familiar a pose for Carlton, whose hot streak had come to a close, and with it, any sane person’s hopes for a post season berth.

Carlton had met Padres catcher Fred Kendall earlier this month, when Kendall had authored the 3-0 win over him with a three-run home run in front of a legion of empty seats in San Diego. Somehow, the backstop with the .234 lifetime BA had found a way to become Carlton’s second half nemesis.

“When he keeps the ball down, he’s the toughest pitcher in the league against me,” Kendall said.

Carlton didn’t keep the ball down. Kendall finished the night with a pair of triples.

Triples are often the most hideous members of the hit parade; rare, awkward, and requiring luck or speed. Kendall, his knees almost five baseball seasons old, didn’t have the speed. But he was clipping Carlton’s pitches onto AstroTurf in front of center fielder Del Unser, who had to decide if he wanted to race toward the ball in no man’s land and let it careen off the basically concrete surface and over his head like a tennis ball, or make a lunge for it and watch it roll enthusiastically to the base of the wall behind him. Unser made a pair of incorrect choices, and Carlton had his hands on his hips before the end of the fifth. [15]

August 26: Dodgers 7, Phillies 3

Ozark walked out to the mound to get his starter. It had been a mess again: home runs, walks, errors, a triple, bunts, stolen bases, and the Phillies were already down 5-1 in the fifth. Ozark was ready to swap out Carlton for a 26-year-old rookie reliever who would end his career with just over 20 IP.

But when Ozark got there, he saw a bunch of faces looking back at him, and he hated them all: The distant stares. The lifeless eyes. The restless shuffling. Ozark called them “over-anxious” and told them to “relax” (Schmidt, who’d committed an error that had allowed a run, rebuffed this accusation and just said that the ball he’d whiffed on had just been too hard to see).

Carlton, meanwhile, was still leaving his pitches up, where hitters could find them—and they found them. With no backing from his defense, it had become clear that nobody was going to help anybody on this team, and the typically cool Ozark was ready to eat his own cleat. [16]

September 3: Mets 5, Phillies 0

I wonder how many motivational speeches a manager can give in one season. When a team is bumbling through games and sinking in the standings, there’s only a couple of moves they can make, and you have to imagine that doing the same thing every time causes something like a big, loud speech to lose its impact.

Managers may wield that speech until just the right time, and Danny Ozark decided that between games of a doubleheader against the Mets was his best chance to turn his frustrations into a one-sided, high-pitched discussion of everyone’s feelings.

Having found his groove for a couple of weeks, Carlton had to pack a lot of losing into August to get to 20 losses in one season. His team had been happy to oblige in game one, refusing to leave the dugout (in spirit) while Carlton went out there and pitched through a 5-0 loss. Before game two, Ozark locked the doors and shared his thoughts with his team. In doing so, he spurred them on to win their next game, breaking a four-game losing streak, and fixing the Phillies forever.

Late in game two, when reliever Mac Scarce was getting in and out trouble, Steve Carlton began quietly warming up in the bullpen. Ozark said that if he had needed another left-handed pitcher, he would have activated his game one starter to come on in relief:

“That’s the kind of confidence I have in Steve Carlton.” [17]

September 8: Pirates 5, Phillies 3

Danny Ozark was called into a meeting in the owner’s office with GM Paul Owens.

Carlton was central to the Phillies’ success. That was clear to everyone in that room, other rooms, and most rooms in and around Philadelphia. With his head full of cobwebs and Johnny Bench home run flashbacks, Carlton wasn’t getting the job done. And neither was Ozark, because he couldn’t tunnel into the labyrinth of Carlton’s mind and find the ace that had been lost for most of a calendar year.

Carpenter and Owens needed someone to rally their team to finish out the stretch, maybe catch a miracle, or at least keep people excited for next year. Putting their meeting on the books with Ozark started a ticking clock, counting down on Ozark’s Phillies managing career.

Owens, who said he hadn’t expected a pennant, but did think he’d built a .500 team, offered some advice: “This year, I say something’s wrong with Steve Carlton. If I’m managing the ball club I’m going to find out what it is. I don’t mean being a detective. I mean reaching him on his level.” [18]

September 14: Expos 3, Phillies 2

A fuse had been lit in 1973. It sparked in April among the early frustrations, followed Carlton through Johnny Bench’s triduum of terror in May, slowed when Carlton recaptured his success, and burned harder with every early hook ordered by Danny Ozark.

An explosion was imminent. And when the Expos’ Balor Moore hit Greg Luzinski in the head, sending the big slugger to the floor, Carlton went off.

It was clear, from the vengeful beanings issued by Phillies pitchers like Carlton and Wayne Twitchell, that the Phillies subscribed to the notion of “protecting their hitters” by “hurting other hitters.” And while Moore had an absolute meltdown following his beanball to Luzinski (who was not seriously injured), it all, apparently, required the same response from the Phillies: Revenge.

It was Carlton’s former teammate, Bob Gibson, from whom he had learned his intensity. In a 2011 interview, Carlton told Cardinals broadcasters, “[Gibson] was a teacher by his presentation on the field. When I saw his attitude, I couldn’t have that attitude. That’s why I teach myself to be angry... I had to teach myself to be that intense.”

But Ozark had just sat Carlton down and talked abut this issue, specifically. Please, he’d requested, do not put baseballs inside of people’s brains. Carlton had agreed, but after Luzinski went down, Carlton channeled all the intensity he would have normally put into beaning Expos into cheerleading.

Carlton repeatedly yelled that the Phillies had to win the game for Bull, which they did not, and ironically it was Ozark who wound up going the most bananas after one of his players went back to the locker room before the game had ended. It was exactly the sort of meaningless fury that had concluded evenings at Veterans Stadium all summer long. [19]

September 29: Cardinals 7, Phillies 1

Bob Gibson spent eight weeks of the 1973 season hurt, using pulsating waves of rage from his brain to heal a knee injury to his 37-year-old body. He squared off against Carlton on the third to last day of the season: Gibson testing his creaking bones, Carlton teetering on the verge of his 20th loss.

It was a meaningless number, but one far rounder and aesthetically pleasing than “19,” and therefore much more usable in the narratives to be drawn from the season. A pitcher who loses 19 games had some bad luck. A pitcher who loses 20 games is a broken man.

Well, Carlton lost number 20. Gibson’s knee won out and the Cardinals slapped Carlton around for the last time in 1973. And yet, Carlton’s final loss was an afterthought, with Ozark and the press choosing to focus more on Gibson’s success as the season drew to a close. Carlton, having walled himself off from reporters by this point, wasn’t saying anything.

We all know what became of Steve Carlton: A World Series champion, an ace among aces, a legend in a city known for losing. His number will be on the foundations of Citizens Bank Park and any structure the Phillies will call home forever. He earned every dollar of his unprecedented $165,000 payday, and would go on to be worth far more. But in one horrid, back-breaking slog through the 1973 season, Philadelphia learned a lesson that resonates to today: It’s not the money that’s stupid. Sometimes, it’s just the game. [20]

[Sarcasm detector explodes]

Notes

  1. Cleon Has Best Day—Phils Front Office Doesn’t, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 7, 1973
  2. Renko Hurls 4-hitter to Beat Phils, Inquirer April 19, 1973
  3. Carlton Loses, 3-0, Inquirer, May 2, 1973
  4. Another Carlton Loss Worries Ozark, May 6, 1973
  5. Ozark Fumes at Phils’ ‘Complete Letdown,’ Inquirer, May 14, 1973
  6. Bucs Deal Carlton 4th Straight Loss, Inquirer, May 18, 1973
  7. Pitching OK, Phillies Manager Insists, June 1, 1973
  8. Mauch Says Carlton has Head Problems, Philadelphia Daily News, June 23, 1973
  9. Cards Shell Carlton, Nudge Phils, Inquirer, July 1, 1973
  10. Reds Shell Carlton for 5 in 6th, Beat Phils, 7-3; Robinson HRs, Inquirer, July 19, 1973
  11. Thomas Makes a Speedy Exit, Daily News, July 27, 1973
  12. Pirates’ Rookie Beats Phillies, 3-1, Inquirer, August 4, 1973
  13. Phils Overwhelmed by Greif As Homer Beats Carlton, 3-0, August 9, 1973
  14. Carlton Loses 14th as Dodgers Trip Phils in 9th, 2-1; Luzinski Homers, Inquirer, August 13, 1973
  15. Phils, Carlton Lose 8-3, As Kendall Kindles Padres, Inquirer, August 23, 1973
  16. ‘Tense’ Phils Bow to Dodgers Again, Inquirer, August 27, 1973
  17. Fired up by Ozark After 5-0 Defeat, Phils Bounce Back, Beat Mets, 6-3, Inquirer, September 4, 1973
  18. Ozark’s Time Is Running Out, Inquirer, September 9, 1973
  19. Luzinski Beaned, Carlton Loses 19th, Inquirer, September 15, 1973
  20. Gibson Deals Carlton 20th Defeat, Inquirer, September 30, 1973