After getting sent down to the Minors and nearly giving up baseball in 1976, Ron Guidry learned a second pitch. By May of the following year, it had given him a second life, cementing a spot in the Yankees' starting rotation that he would occupy for more than a decade.
During the '77 regular season, Guidry went 16-7 with a 2.82 ERA. From mid-August through the end of September, the left-hander posted a 7-1 record in nine starts, pitching eight or more innings in seven of those games.
That postseason, Guidry took the ball three times, defeating the Kansas City Royals in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series with a complete-game performance in which he allowed only two runs. Guidry again went the distance and allowed two runs in Game 4 of the Fall Classic at Dodger Stadium.
"Louisiana Lightning" went on to win 170 games in 14 seasons in pinstripes and have his No. 49 retired in 2003. He recently spoke with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III at Yankee Stadium.
How did All-Star closer Sparky Lyle teach you to throw that devastating slider in 1976?
I spent a lot of time in the bullpen in '76. The guys kept telling me that they knew I threw harder than most pitchers, but that I couldn't just throw the fastball. They told me that in order to get hitters out, I had to come up with another pitch. Sparky came up to me one afternoon and said, "I've been watching you throw, and you and I are a lot alike mechanically, even though you throw harder than me." He offered to show me how to throw the slider. I had been sent down to the Minors a few times, so I felt like I had nothing to lose. He showed me what he did with his wrist when he threw that pitch. He held the ball like he was throwing a fastball but he rotated his wrist, and that made the ball spin and have some great movement. We would go out to the outfield and work on it day in and day out. Then, one day, he said, "Throw it in the bullpen, and throw it as hard as you can."
How long did it take you to throw the slider effectively?
The first one I threw in the bullpen hit the bullpen catcher in the shin because it had so much movement.
How did learning that pitch impact what you were able to do in 1977 and in the seasons after that?
It set me apart. I only threw two pitches, but I did a pretty good job with them. Having the slider the next season really helped me, especially in the late innings. I could live on the fastball for the first few innings and then mix in the slider later in the games.
Take me through your transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation in the early part of the 1977 season.
The only reason I got into the rotation is because we traded Doc Ellis for Mike Torrez, and Torrez took a few extra days to report to the team. [Manager] Billy Martin didn't have enough starters. When I was walking out to the bullpen for a game late in April, Billy came up to me and told me that I had to make a start. He asked me to give him four or five good innings, but I pitched all the way into the ninth. A few weeks later, I got another start in Oakland, and I again pitched into the ninth inning. I did it again at Yankee Stadium a week after that. At that point, I think Billy and George [Steinbrenner] realized that they had a relief pitcher going eight or more innings pretty consistently. That's when they told me that I was going to stay in the rotation.
On June 16, you tossed a complete-game shutout against the Kansas City Royals. How did you feel after that game?
Well, that is when Billy really began to trust me. Every time I got into trouble in the first few starts, he would just take me out. He would make the decision before he left the dugout. But in the Kansas City game, he came out to the mound in the ninth and asked me what I thought. I think it was a test to see what I was going to say.
What did you say?
Well, Thurman [Munson] would usually get to the mound at the same time as the manager, but in that game, he got out there before Billy. When Thurman got out to me, he put his mitt over his mouth and said, "You need to tell him something, or else he is going to keep taking you out." So Billy walked up and asked me what I thought. I told him, "You better get your [butt] off my mound and let me finish this game." And Billy said, "You got it." From that point on, Billy never took me out of a game without asking me how I felt first.
How enjoyable were the next few months of that season for you?
It was an exciting time. All I wanted to do was pitch in the Big Leagues, and that's what I was doing. As I kept learning how to become a starter, I really enjoyed pitching to Thurman and learning from our other pitchers. And we were almost always in first or second place that season, so we were fighting for something important. Every team we played was trying to knock us off, and I was quickly establishing myself as the ace of the staff. I couldn't have done what I did without having guys like Catfish Hunter, Mike Torrez, Ed Figueroa and Sparky Lyle helping me. I was around so many great pitchers, and any time I needed advice, they gave it to me.
How did the turmoil between Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin affect you and your teammates?
It was there, and we couldn't hide from it. But it didn't really affect us. When I was asked about that stuff, I addressed it, but then I moved on. It wasn't something that I thought about.
What was your mindset when you took the mound each time during that great stretch you had from early August through the end of the season?
At that point, I felt like I was the best pitcher in baseball. That made things a little easier because hitters would come up to the plate without too much confidence. It just became a question as to whether I could throw my fastball past them and set up the slider. By the time we got to August, I didn't think that any team was good enough to beat me.
How important was Game 2 of the ALCS for you, after the Yankees lost the first game in that best-of-five series against Kansas City?
Well, Kansas City had a great team. We knew they were tough, but we just felt like, "OK, they beat us in the first game, but they still have to beat us two more times, and that's not going to be easy for them to do." But that being said, I knew the game I was pitching was important because we didn't want to go down 0-2. I just wanted to keep that game close - keep it within a run - no matter what. I felt like if I could keep the game within one run, we could win it. We scored a few runs early and another one late, and I was able to make those runs hold up.
Shortly before you were pulled from Game 5 of that series, a brawl unfolded at third base. What do you remember about what happened after George Brett slid into Graig Nettles?
It was something that took place on the spur of the moment. A quick throw came in from the outfield, and Graig made a quick tag - but it hit George in the face. George took offense to it, jumped up and went after Graig. George was right in front of me, so I just grabbed him and took him to the ground. I felt like when you get onto the ground, things usually end right there and players don't get injured. Guys aren't going to hit or kick each other when they are on the ground. I certainly didn't want anything bad to happen to Graig, and as much as George was the enemy when we played, I wouldn't want anything to happen to him either. I felt like the ground was the safest place for us to be.
What do you think of the job Mike Torrez did, pitching in relief for you during that deciding game?
He was phenomenal. We were down the whole game, but he gave us a chance to come back.
What are your memories of the late-game comeback your teammates made to win Game 5 and advance to the World Series?
I went to the locker room to ice my arm, and I looked down the hall and noticed that they were bringing Champagne into the Kansas City locker room in the eighth inning. I went back out to the dugout and told Billy what was going on. He asked me to tell the guys what I had seen. That fired up our guys, and we scored two runs. I can't tell you that we scored those runs because of what I said, but it did fire up our whole team.
What were your thoughts on how Lyle pitched in 1977 en route to the American League Cy Young Award?
Watching him do so well meant a lot to me. To this day, I tell Sparky that if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have been the pitcher I was. He made me into the pitcher I became. If he hadn't taken the time to work with me, I wouldn't have done any of the things I did with the Yankees. Ironically, I was supposed to be the Yankees' next closer and take his job, and he still gave me what I needed to fulfill my career. But I became someone else. I didn't take his job; I took someone else's job. But to watch him do what he did in 1977, knowing what a great guy he was and what he meant to me, was priceless.
Were you nervous when you took the mound in Los Angeles for your first World Series game?
Not at all. I never got nervous at any moment in my career. I pitched in games that were nerve-wracking, but personally, I never got nervous.
For a guy who nearly stopped playing baseball in 1976, what did winning the 1977 World Series mean to you?
That's what I dreamed of. Everything I had done before that was great, but since I was a kid, the dream I had was to win the World Series. For me to go from almost quitting the game when I got sent down to the Minors in 1976 to winning a World Series, it was incredible. If my career had ended after that World Series, I would have been happy. I had fulfilled my childhood dream. I had reached the pinnacle.
What was the best part of winning that World Series?
The Yankees hadn't won a championship in a long time before that, so it felt like we had lifted a weight off the fans of New York. For me, I earned a lot of praise here. I'm 67 years old, and the fans still hold me in high regard. Winning that World Series was a stepping-stone to all of the other good things that came after 1977.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the September 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.