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A PITCH FOR GROVER

Pitching performance has always been the essence of the game. Roger Clemens is closing in on baseball immortality, his 300th major-league victory. Only 20 other pitchers since 1876 have reached that level of excellence, Nolan Ryan being the last in 1990. While Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine are in striking range, the "Rocket" may very well be the last to enter this elite group.

The balance has been skewed toward offense. Kevin Millwood's recent no-hitter was an anomaly. Pitching performance took a noteworthy turn for the worse when they lowered the mound by 5 inches in 1968. Only six major-leaguers hit over .300 that year. It ends with a baseball that now puts a dent in concrete. All for the sake of run production to compete for the "fan," i.e., the sports entertainment dollars.

Classic pitching confrontations such as Juan Marichal-Sandy Koufax of the '60s, with a 2-1 complete game decision, are a thing of the past. Pitching dominated the game, and it was riveting.

There have been many great pitchers over the years. Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Koufax and Satchel Paige are my top selections -- all dominant pitchers who left a permanent mark.

Alexander, "Ol' Pete," may have been the greatest. He was the last pitcher to win 30 games three consecutive years and averaged 27 wins his first eight seasons.

"Old low and away" was the only hurler better than Babe Ruth or Johnson in their peak years. He won 373 games (N.L. record), completed 438 and had a 2.56 ERA. His 90 shutouts are second only to the "Big Train." He led the N.L. five times in strikeouts, wins and complete games in his first seven years. He was 192-89 when he left for WWI in 1918.

Alexander's 1926 World Series performance is classic. At age 39, he beat the N.Y. Yankees in the second game, 6-2, allowing four singles. He then tied the series with his second complete game victory in Game Six.

The following day, with the Cardinals leading, 3-2, in the seventh inning, Rogers Hornsby brought "Ol' Pete" out of the bullpen. The bases were loaded with future Hall of Famers with another at the plate. The rumor promulgated over the years was that "Alex the Great" was drunk, or at least hung over. That's only part of the story.

When Alexander returned from Europe in 1919, he was a shadow of his former self. As a result of a near-death experience in a foxhole, he was deaf in one ear, shell-shocked and plagued by epilepsy for the rest of his life. Whiskey became his closest ally.

He was the subject of cruel humor and experienced many playing interruptions due to injuries and hospitalizations. Amazingly, his record from 1919 to 1930 was 181-119.

In the seventh inning of that World Series, "Ol' Pete" came in and struck out Tony Lazzeri to end the threat. He then proceeded to retire the next five Yankees in order. The last man was Ruth, who had three home runs in Game Four. Ruth always had trouble with Alex's deceptive curve. Ruth drew a walk after a full count on a questionable call. The Babe was then caught trying to steal second on the first pitch to end the Series. It has been called the greatest relief performance of all time.

For all intents and purposes, it was the apex of his career. The Grover Cleveland Alexander story ended tragically as he suffered a ravaged life of alcoholism and epilepsy.

Those who argue in his favor have said he had the best curveball, greatest control and speed when he needed it. Whenever Walter Johnson was asked, "Who was the greatest?" he would always respond, "Pete."

Congratulations, Rocket, you are entering an exclusive group, one of the best sports has to offer. With the changes in the game, Alexander's record of 16 shutouts in 1916 is golden, forever.
ED LAZARRO
Williamsville

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