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Carlton with a K

Carlton, the enigma of MLB
By Mike Puma
Special to

"Sometimes they say the world rotates a little different for lefthanders. And Lefty was a good example of that. From time to time we still sit down and have dinner - and I still don't understand what he talks about," says Joe Torre on ESPN Classic's Sports Century series.

Steve Carlton let his pitching do his interviews for him. On the mound he was "Lefty," a lean southpaw with a nearly untouchable slider. To baseball fans and the media, he was Garbo in spikes, a mysterious figure who seldom offered words for public consumption.

Carlton's silence extended for most of his 24 seasons, during which time he compiled a 329-244 record with a 3.22 ERA and 4,136 strikeouts. Only Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson have struck out more batters.

Trying to hit Carlton was "like trying to drink coffee with a fork," Hall of Famer Willie Stargell said.

Carlton spent most of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies, making the Hall of Fame in 1994 on his first time on the ballot. He finished with the second-highest win total among lefthanders, behind only Warren Spahn, and as the first four-time Cy Young Award winner.

The 6-foot-5, 210-pound Carlton was selected to 10 All-Star teams and ranks as the Phillies' all-time leader in victories, starts and strikeouts. The first pitcher to strike out 19 in nine innings, Carlton had his best seasons in Philadelphia, from 1972-86, after being traded from the Cardinals. Five of his six 20-win seasons came with the Phillies.

Carlton's 1972 season, when he went 27-10 for a Phillies team that won only 59 games, ranks as one of the best by a pitcher in history. He pitched 30 complete games and recorded eight shutouts.

After the Phillies released him in 1986, Carlton bounced around, pitching for four teams before finally retiring in 1988. He was as much a mystery to the public then as he was 15 years earlier, when he stopped doing interviews.

"One thing I regret is that Philadelphia fans didn't see the same Steve Carlton we saw in our clubhouse," former Phillies shortstop Larry Bowa said. "He put up a mask when the writers came in. He was very consistent with the writers. He didn't talk to any of them."

The only son among Joe and Anne Carlton's three children, he was born on Dec. 22, 1944 in Miami. Joe was an airline maintenance employee who struggled to make ends meet; the five family members shared a bedroom in their home.

Steve started playing baseball at 12. At North Miami High School he pitched for the baseball team and played basketball, quitting the latter to focus on baseball as a senior in 1963.

That October, the Cardinals signed Carlton for $5,000. After a year in the minors, he made the big club in 1965, appearing in 15 games (13 in relief) and had no record. Carlton returned to the minor leagues for most of the 1966 season before joining the Cardinals' rotation the following year. He went 14-9 with a 2.98 ERA. St. Louis won the World Series and Carlton pitched well in his only start, although he lost 1-0 in Game 5 on an unearned run.

After going 13-11 in 1968, a season in which he made his first All-Star Game ppearance, Carlton relieved twice in the Cardinals' World Series defeat to the Detroit Tigers. He then accompanied his team to Japan and began tinkering with a slider. Carlton's real arrival came in 1969 as he made the slider his dominant pitch.

Carlton established a major league record on Sept. 15, 1969 by fanning 19 Mets, including three in the ninth inning. "It was the best stuff I ever had," said Carlton, back in the days he was talking to the media. "When I had nine strikeouts I decided to go all the way. But it cost me the game because I started to challenge every batter."

The batter who won the challenge was Ron Swoboda, who belted a pair of two-run homers to saddle Carlton with a 4-3 defeat.

Carlton finished the season 17-11 with a 2.17 ERA, second lowest in the NL, and 210 strikeouts.

A contract dispute with the Cardinals made Carlton a no-show at spring training in 1970. He proceeded to go 10-19 with a 3.73 ERA, leading the NL in losses. He rebounded in 1971 by becoming a 20-game winner for the first time, going 20-9 with a 3.56 ERA.

As the 1972 season approached, Carlton was again embroiled in a contract dispute. Deciding not to budge from their offer of $55,000 (Carlton sought an additional $10,000), the Cardinals traded Carlton to the Phillies on Feb. 25, 1972 for pitcher Rick Wise.

Carlton thanked the Cardinals by having his greatest season. In capturing his first Cy Young Award, Carlton won the pitching Triple Crown by leading the NL in victories (27), ERA (1.98) and strikeouts (310) for the last-place Phillies. He set a record by winning 45.8 percent of his team's games.

After going 44-47 over the next three seasons (including a 20-loss campaign in 1973), Carlton went 20-7 with a 3.13 ERA in 1976, helping the Phillies win the NL East. They were beaten by the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS, with Carlton losing his only start.

In 1977, he earned his second Cy Young Award by going 23-10 with a 2.64 ERA, but struggled in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, posting a 6.94 ERA in two starts. The Phillies were again denied a trip to the World Series.

In 1978, Carlton surrendered a league-leading 30 homers and finished only 16-13 although he had a 2.84 ERA. Still, the Phillies won their third straight division title, giving Carlton a shot at redemption in the postseason. He won his only start, thanks in part to hitting a grand slam, but the Dodgers won the NLCS for the second straight year.

After going 18-11 with a 3.62 ERA in 1979, Carlton helped the Phillies reach the 1980 World Series by going 24-9 with 2.34 ERA and a league-leading 286 strikeouts for his third Cy Young Award. In the Series, Carlton beat the Kansas City Royals in both his starts, including the Game 6 clincher when he allowed one run in seven innings.

Carlton's 3,000th career strikeout came on April 29, 1981, with Montreal's Tim Wallach the victim. In a strike-shortened season, he finished 13-4 with a 2.42 ERA. His fourth Cy Young Award came the following year, when he went 23-11 with a 3.10 ERA. Besides leading the NL in victories, he also was tops in complete games (19), innings (295 2/3) and strikeouts (286).

Carlton became the 16th pitcher to win 300 games when he struck out 12 and beat the Cardinals 6-2 at Busch Stadium on Sept. 23, 1983. He finished 15-16 with a 3.11 ERA, but at 38 was still overpowering batters (his 275 strikeouts gave him his fifth NL strikeout crown).

Carlton was 13-7 with a 3.58 ERA the following year, but a 1-8 record in 1985 marked the beginning of the end for Lefty in Philly. After starting the 1986 season 4-8, he was released.

He was signed by the San Francisco Giants, going 1-3, before finishing the season as a Chicago White Sox (4-3). In August 1986, he became the first lefthander to reach 4,000 career strikeouts. His cumulative record for the season was 9-14 with a 5.10 ERA.

Carlton pitched for the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins in 1987 and went 6-14 with a 5.74 ERA. In April 1988, after appearing in four games for the Twins, he was released and then he soon retired.

Having lost $10 million because of bad investments by an advisor during his playing career, Carlton had little financial security. He broke his silence in the 1990s to hawk his autograph for cash.

In 1989, Carlton and his wife Beverly settled into a 400-acre ranch in remote Durango, Col., because he wanted to get away from society. The couple, who had two sons, divorced in 1998 after almost 33 years of marriage.

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