Ask any pitcher who has taken the mound in Philadelphia about big games, and he'll tell you there is no such thing. Every game is big to the demanding, fickle and extremely loyal but impatient Phillies fans.
Pitching for the Phillies is unlike anything in baseball -- a mission that taxes a man's physical skills as well as his mental constitution. Many have withered and others have thrived, though none mastered the art quite like Lefty.
Steve Carlton thrived in Philadelphia because he was driven by an eccentric mentality that allowed him to focus hyper-intensely on throwing each pitch to the exact location in which he visualized.
Carlton eliminated all distractions -- the weather, the noise, the fans, the opponents, the umpire, the batter. He sought to turn the batter invisible, seeing only his catcher. Nothing mattered beyond throwing the baseball 60 feet and six inches.
Carlton compiled Hall of Fame numbers, but he would not let himself acknowledge personal goals or professional records even as they drew increasingly within his reach.
"I was going out to do a job," Carlton said. "I wanted to do it at the highest level. I wanted to represent myself in a dignified way."
For Lefty, the job required an almost supernatural level of concentration.
"Your will is your mission," Carlton said. "For me, it wasn't so much to strike guys out, but to win."
Citing a game in San Francisco on April 25, 1972, Carlton said, "I used just 112 or 113 pitches to strike out 14 batters. That was the economy of effort."
Giants shortstop Chris Speier led off with a single. It would be the first and last hit Carlton gave up on his way to throwing a one-hitter.
That year, his first with the Phillies, Carlton won 27 games for a last-place team that won just 59. He recorded eight shutouts, 30 complete games and won 15 straight decisions during a stretch.
"I didn't really care about numbers and records," Carlton said. "That was never important. I wanted personal excellence, and the results followed."
Carlton said that he often went to the mound having already won the game.
"Today, that's called quantum entanglement," Carlton said. "You are entangling a thought into the future. As you go through the linear concept of that reality, it has already unfolded for you."
His unique approach to his art was both mental and physical. At a time when pitchers obliged time-honored running and stretching routines, Carlton and the Phillies fitness guru Gus Hoefling devised a conditioning program that eschewed running and instead utilized martial arts. One drill had Carlton drive his arms and fists deep into a bucket of sand.
"After I pitched nine innings, I would work out with Gus," Carlton said, "and after the workout I was ready to pitch again. It was an extraordinary workout, but all the soreness was gone. Recovery time was minimal."
Phillies manager Dallas Green tried Carlton's program once.
"Dallas was wise enough to see if my program was worthy," Carlton said. "He was worried about me being in condition. Once Dallas did it and saw how difficult it was, he was OK."
Carlton's uncanny ability to eliminate distraction is what truly set him apart. Noise, he learned, distorts vision.
"When it is so loud, your eyes flutter. You have to move that noise back," Carlton said. "Your focus is better. That is a better position at which to perform."
To block out noise when he pitched, Carlton often wore earplugs (though he first took to wearing earplugs was because his hearing was damaged as a youth by rifle and pistol shooting with no ear protection).
"It wasn't because I'm left-handed and nuts," Carlton said. "I just found something that worked for me. It was a solution I needed to have."
The biggest and most bothersome distraction proved to be the media, so Carlton quit talking to reporters.
"It became an obstacle," Carlton said. "I had to make it go away. I was starting to think about things I shouldn't have been thinking of while I was pitching, like what was going to happen after the game. I wasn't doing my job. My intent was to perform for the people and the team."
Steve Carlton pitched 15 years with the Phillies, posted 241 victories, notched over 3,000 strikeouts, appeared in seven All-Star Games, collected four National League Cy Young Awards, earned a Gold Glove Award, and won a World Series. The achievements are astounding, but they do not even begin to tell the whole curious story.
* This story appears in Philadelphia Phillies: An Extraordinary Tradition; Insight Editions, publisher, currently available in book stores or online.