A wild pitcher, a perfect game
For his first two years in the American League, about the only things pitcher Len Barker had going for him were a rock-hard 6 ft., 5 in. body and a fast ball that had been clocked at 96 m.p.h. Anybody who watched Barker struggling to throw strikes could have learned more about pitching reading a book.
"One of the first things we noticed after getting Len in a trade with the Texas Rangers was how unskilled he was in the area of fundamentals," said pitching coach Dave Duncan of the Cleveland Indians. "He needed so much help it was almost like he'd never pitched in the big leagues before, although you couldn't help getting excited about how hard he threw the ball."
"So for a lot of the 1979 season we kept him in the bullpen, where he could throw every day and where we could monitor his progress," Duncan continued. "Basically what we did to improve him was change his delivery, make him take more time between pitches, and teach him how to set up the hitters so that he could make better use of his fast ball."
What Cleveland had apparently traded for was a pitcher with great natural talent who couldn't seem to stop fighting himself. In fact, it wasn't until manager Dave Garcia told Barker he was going to stay in the Indians' starting rotation, no matter what, that Len seemed to find himself.
After that Barker settled down, twice came close to no-hitters en route to a 19-12 season, and wound up as the 1980 American League strikeout king with a total of 187. This year he did get his no-hitter (in mid-May), when he pitched a perfect game against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Barker's masterpiece was baseball's first no-hit, no-run, no-walk, no-reach-base game in the majors since Catfish Hunter of the Oakland A's defeated the Minnesota Twins on May 8, 1968, and only one of 11 such classics in baseball history.
"Actually I think I had the ability to do that when I was with Texas, only I never had the control," Barker told me in the visitors' clubhouse at Anaheim Stadium. "Generally when I threw the ball hard, I had no idea where it was going. Another problem I had was a lack of concentration.
"But with the patience I got from Garcia and the help I got from Duncan, I was able to change all that. While I'm not afraid to challenge to hitters with my fast ball, I've also got pretty good breaking stuff. A lot of good pitching is simply location -- you know, keeping the ball down and away from the hitters, and I feel like I do that now as well as anybody."
Duncan says a lot of Barker's problems stemmed from an inability to make adjustments in his style during a game. If he got into a bad groove, he somehow stayed in it.
"Even if you noticed some mechanical flaw in Len's delivery during a game, and came out and told him about it, he still couldn't make the correction," Dave explained. "It was like he had a mental block. We had a lot of practice sessions together before he finally eliminated that. But now you can suggest almost anything during a game and he'll pick it up right away.
"One of the reasons we slowed him down was that he had this habit of letting his body get too far ahead of his legs when he threw," Duncan added. "The result was that he kept getting behind on the count: that a lot of his best pitches stayed up instead of sinking; and that the good hitters would wait on him because they knew that eventually they would get what they wanted."
Barker, whose mustache and rugged Western looks could probably get him a supporting role in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," was not the type early in his career who went to bed right after the 11 p.m. news or refused seconds at the dinner table. But that changed in late December of 1977 when he married, took off some excess weight, and reportedly bought himself a watch.
"I think maybe the thing that helped me most was learning not to throw the same hitter the same pitch in the same location twice in a row," Barker said. "You can't get away with that against big league hitters because they are too smart.
"But if you can stay around the strike zone, mix up your pitches, and keep the ball down, the percentage is in your favor. Even though I throw my fast ball the same way all the time, I never know whether it's going to break up or down. And if I don't know, then I figure the batter can't tell either."
The only person Barker hasn't been able to please so far is his grandmother, whose country-style West Virginia values would put pressure on anyone. Said Grandma after Len pitched his perfect game: "That's wonderful. Maybe he can do better next time!"