As Jerry Dipoto was revealing details of the forearm strain that put James Paxton on the disabled list Friday, the Mariners general manager stood a few feet away from a Gaylord Perry jersey display.
The symbolism was rich.
Invited to throw the ceremonial first pitch Saturday — the 35th anniversary of the Hall of Famer’s 300th victory — Perry, 78, has vivid memories of his astonishingly brief history with the disabled list.
He hurt his ankle sliding into second base in 1966. The injury forced Perry to miss two weeks, but soon he was back on the mound, resuming a career remarkable for its durability.
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Between 1962 and 1983, Perry made 690 starts, threw 303 complete games and faced 21,953 batters, yet never suffered the kind of arm problems plaguing Paxton and fellow starters Felix Hernandez and Drew Smyly.
An ability to avoid injuries requires some good luck, but as Branch Rickey liked to say, luck is the residue of design. Perry adhered to a self-taught winter workout routine that stressed conditioning before throwing.
“Every year, at my home in North Carolina, I’d run sprints and do resistance exercises to get my shoulder, elbow and legs strong,” Perry said Friday. “I’d do that for 30 days, beginning on Jan. 1. I did not pick up a baseball until Feb. 1, when I’d play catch with my dad or my son. When I’d get to spring training, I was ready to go six innings — nobody else was as ready as that.
“I think the arm problems pitchers have now could be corrected by the right exercises. I wanted my arm to be strong. I wanted to pitch a lot of innings and I didn’t want to get my arm to get tired. You had to do it religiously, though. You couldn’t just do it once a week. I did it at least five times a week.”
In March of 1982, Perry owned 297 lifetime victories and no job. But his workout-warrior discipline led to a spring-training tryout offer from Mariners general manager Dan O’Brien.
“I finally found someone who gave me a chance to pitch for a couple more years,” said Perry. “I played for Dan in Texas. He knew I was in good condition and said, ‘Come on in.’”
Perry arrived in camp on March 5, two weeks after pitchers and catchers reported. He was named the opening day starter at Oakland and went the distance.
In his Kingdome debut for the Mariners, against the Angels on April 20, Perry broke a team record by striking out 13. He was 43 years old.
Not since Early Wynn, in 1961, had a pitcher won 300 games. Perry beat the Yankees at New York for No. 299 on April 30 and then, six days later, beat them again for the milestone.
He gave up nine hits in the 7-3 victory, striking out four while walking one. Not a dominant performance, but a complete game with minimal late-inning drama.
In other words, by today’s standards, a gem.
“Nobody goes nine innings anymore,” said Perry. “I don’t think they’re taught to go nine innings. The manager and general manager and pitching coach won’t let starters go more than five or six innings.”
Perry is remembered for doctoring baseballs with a grease that created a sinking action. The illegal pitch maddened opponents and defined his legacy, and while there’s no doubt he dabbed the ball on occasion, the most tangible benefit of the greaseball was its potential to get inside the head of a hitter.
Perry knew that, and played the “is-he-cheating-or-not?” card as as a ruse. When a pitcher reputed to apply grease on a ball puts his fingers on the bill of his cap — once, twice, three times — it tends to distract a hitter from the task at hand.
Perry grew up working in the fields of the family tobacco farm. Casual fans heard his drawl and presumed he was an easy-going bumpkin.
Wrong. Perry had street smarts or, more accurately, rural highway smarts. A gifted 6-foot-4 athlete who declined a chance to pursue a Division I college basketball career, he combined his versatile pitching repertoire with the focus of a chess master.
If there was an edge to be had, the big lug took it.
“I always watched the opposing club hit during batting practice,” he said. “I’d see who was taking good cuts and who was working on something, either pulling the ball too much or getting the ball off the ground.”
Although Perry believes starting pitching has become a lost art — six serviceable innings are the new complete game — he has no doubt baseball players are better equipped to maximize their ability than they were in 1961, when he was a Triple-A star with the Tacoma Giants.
Take travel, for instance. Perry can recall flights from Cleveland to Detroit in a DC-6 plane spewing oily smoke from the engines.
“There was a lot of praying as we crossed over the lake,” he said. “It got so bad we had a team meeting and decided to take the bus.”
Swimming, Perry noted, was not a skill.
Then again, a pitcher who throws 303 complete games without any arm, shoulder or elbow issues doesn’t have to swim.
He just changes into his cape and resumes the flight alone.