Ferguson Jenkins usually finished what he started on mound

January 13, 1991|By Joe Gergen | Joe Gergen,Newsday

NEW YORK -- In the broiling heat of a July afternoon at Wrigley Field, several New York Mets stood around the batting cage discussing the starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. The man's name was Ferguson Jenkins, and he was the ace of the Chicago staff. The year was 1969.

"That Jenkins doesn't even sweat," Art Shamsky said. "He wears long sleeves on days like this."

Noting that the temperature and humidity both were straining to reach 100, Tommie Agee smiled. "I want to see if Fergie runs out to the mound today," he said.

An hour later, Agee had his answer. Jenkins sprinted to the pitcher's mound. He was wearing a long-sleeved sweatshirt under his Cubs uniform.

In his minor-league days with the Philadelphia organization, he recalled Wednesday, Jenkins played with Dick Allen at Macon, Ga. "When we got promoted," he said, "it was to Little Rock, another hot place. Dick and I wore long sleeves all the time. It was our trait."

Pitching, Jenkins decided, was "mind over matter" whoever the opponents, whatever the weather. "I just tried to pitch my kind of game," he said.

It so happened that particular afternoon in Chicago was atypical for Jenkins because he was knocked out of the game early. At the height of his 19-year major-league career, the man finished what he started more often than not. In 1969, for instance, he completed 23 of his 42 starting assignments and pitched 311 innings.

Nor were those personal highs. Two years later, he was credited with 30 complete games, and in 1974 -- at the age of 30 -- he worked 328 innings for the Rangers. In that same season, Gaylord Perry, approaching his 36th birthday, pitched 322 innings for the Indians.

Their selection to the Hall of Fame, in the company of batting wizard Rod Carew, was a salute to baseball past, when `f workhorse pitchers started every fourth day and were unfulfilled if they didn't go the distance. In 1990, by contrast, Ramon Martinez of the Los Angeles Dodgers led all major-leaguers with a dozen complete games and Frank Viola of the Mets was first in the National League in innings pitched with 249.

It didn't faze Jenkins that he qualified for immortality with one vote to spare. "After all," he explained, "I won and lost a lot of one-run games."

Indeed, in 1968, when he won 20 of 35 decisions, the Cubs were shut out in nine games Jenkins started. He lost five of those games by a 1-0 score. "I thought, with some luck, I could have won 26 or 27 games," he said. With some luck, Jenkins might also have appeared in a World Series, a distinction that eluded all three of the newest Hall of Famers.

But Jenkins wasn't about to curse his luck Wednesday, not even with his wife lying in intensive care in an Oklahoma hospital after an automobile accident last month. For a man who started with one strike against him -- growing up in Canada at a time when the country fielded no major-league franchise -- and added a second when he was charged with drug possession by Canadian authorities in 1980, it was a great day. "This is my world championship right here," he said.

Baseball wasn't even his first love. Like the vast majority of Canadian youths, he aspired to hockey.

But he also could throw a baseball, a sport that gained favor in his eyes after his exploits as a defenseman failed to earn him a college scholarship. If his fastball wasn't overpowering, at least he knew where it was headed. Back in Chatham, Ontario, he could throw rocks through the open doors of freight cars passing over the Chesapeake and Ohio tracks. "I always had control," he said.

That wasn't good enough for the Philadelphia Phillies, who decided on the basis of eight major-league appearances that his fastball wasn't sufficiently swift for the big leagues. He was dealt with Adolfo Phillips and John Herrnstein to Chicago for graybeards Larry Jackson and Bob Buhl early in the 1966 season. Manager Leo Durocher placed the man in the rotation before too long and Jenkins proceeded to win at least 20 games for six consecutive seasons, from 1967 through 1972. In none of those seasons did he pitch fewer than 289 innings.

But even the Cubs lost faith after a subpar 1973 season, trading him to Texas for Bill Madlock and Vic Harris. Jenkins responded with a brilliant 1974 season. His 25 victories tied him with Catfish Hunter of the Oakland A's for the major-league lead and the surprising Rangers almost derailed Oakland's march to a third consecutive World Series title. It was during his second tour with the Texas team, six years later, that Jenkins was arrested, an incident that stained his reputation and threatened to undermine everything he had accomplished.

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