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Peter Gammons
May 21, 1990
In a career riddled by injuries, pitcher John Tudor has survived and thrived on guts and guile. But his fast start this year for St. Louis, he says, may be only an illusion
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May 21, 1990

How Long Can It Last?

In a career riddled by injuries, pitcher John Tudor has survived and thrived on guts and guile. But his fast start this year for St. Louis, he says, may be only an illusion

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John Tudor sat in a chair near his locker in Busch Stadium, his head tilted slightly, his face expressionless as he observed the morning rush in the St. Louis Cardinals' clubhouse. It was the morning after his remarkable 1990 comeback had taken a troubling four-out, five-run beating at the hands of the San Diego Padres. Tudor, a 36-year-old lefthander, had started the season 4-0 and seemed fully recovered from surgery on his pitching shoulder, his elbow and his knee. But in 1? innings on May 9, Tudor was thrashed by the Padres for two singles, four doubles and a homer before St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog mercifully came to the mound and took the ball away. Arriving in the clubhouse, the frustrated Tudor had thrown his glove, shoes, socks, T-shirt and underwear into the trash ("Not my uniform—it doesn't belong to me").

The next morning the glove was back in Tudor's locker, retrieved by the clubhouse kids, but the sting of the beating had not subsided. "I don't know what to do," he said. "I can't remember the last time I was hit like that, and I don't want to go through that again. The crowd cheered when Whitey came to get me. I can't remember that happening before. If this were four years ago, it would be one thing. But it isn't. My mind is searching for answers, but it keeps coming back to that 78-mile-an-hour fastball. I always said the hitters would tell me when I'm done, and last night the hitters said something to me. I've got to figure out what that something is."

"You threw O.K., you felt O.K., you're 4-1, you'll be O.K.," Herzog said to Tudor when he arrived that morning. True enough, the numbers next to his name in the papers read 4-1, 3.12, not bad for a starter on an 11-16 team. Tudor was the National League's Pitcher of the Month for April, not bad for a guy who, before the season started, had pitched only 14? innings since blowing out his left elbow in the third game of the 1988 World Series and subsequently undergoing elbow, knee and shoulder surgery.

So it has been for most of Tudor's 12-year career. He has scratched out an impressive .612 lifetime winning percentage—not bad for a pitcher who has suffered through 15 years of intermittent arm ailments. He has earned enormous respect from his peers, who deem him among the game's craftiest pitchers—not bad for a player who has long carried a reputation as one of the game's most churlish personalities.

Not bad, but no comfort now. "Realistically and objectively, I only pitched well in one of those four wins," said Tudor from his clubhouse chair. "My velocity steadily dropped. I topped out at 73 in my previous start. My changeup is getting faster, which is a bad sign, because it means my shoulder isn't allowing the proper deceleration. It was as if I was getting by on reputation. I haven't been able to get the ball inside, so I don't have anything to keep hitters from diving on me. I haven't thrown a slider all season. I'm not getting the proper extension at the end of my delivery, so not only am I not getting the pop on my fastball, but I don't have my control.

"I had felt good, positive in the winter and in spring training. But I've never had to pitch like this before. I feel like Tommy John at the end—I have to be perfect. I don't have any of my old natural movement on the ball. People suggest scuffing balls, but I won't. I don't want anyone saying, 'Oh, that's how he did it.' Sure, my arm is bothering me, but it's hurt all these years, ever since I hurt it in college 15 years ago. I don't know what to do. Sure, I've thought about retiring. I'll talk to Whitey and [pitching coach] Mike Roarke, but they'll want me to keep going. I think I'm realistic, and I have all these doubts storming inside me, and they all revolve around that 78-mile-an-hour fastball."

Tudor calls himself a stoic. Others regard him as the prototypical New Englander, defined by writer Roger Angell as one who "lives in a Calvinistic cloud of self-doubt." Tudor's longtime teammate and friend Ricky Horton calls him "a living monument to cynicism." In other words: Can things really be as bad as Tudor says they are?

"He sure looked like he was pitching well to me," says Horton of Tudor's 4-0 start. Don Zimmer, Tudor's first major league manager, in Boston, who is now the skipper of the Chicago Cubs, watched parts of Tudor's win over Pittsburgh on April 23 and said, "Vintage Tudor. I love watching that man as much as any pitcher I've seen in all my years."

But there's no convincing Tudor that all is well. "I know myself, and I pitched well once," he says. "I made do with what I had, which wasn't much." Before he pitched on May 4, he consoled Bob Tewksbury, who had just been sent to the minors. "You might be back in a couple of days—replacing me," said Tudor.

Both Herzog and Roarke find it hard to know how seriously to take Tudor's concern. "I stopped listening to him worry years ago," says Herzog. "In spring training I was asked if I was worried about anything, and I replied, 'I'm concerned because Tudor says he feels good.' " Herzog laughs when he tells that one, but he is also realistic. He is aware that after Tudor's last round of operations, while Tudor was with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Dr. Frank Jobe told the pitcher that his shoulder was "held together by a string."

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