Carlton, Steven Norman

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CARLTON, Steven Norman

(b. 22 December 1944 in Miami, Florida), baseball pitcher who won four Cy Young Awards and achieved a reputation as one of the greatest left-handers in the history of the game.

As a youngster Carlton shied away from organized sports. He was twelve years old when his father signed him up for Little League in Miami, Florida, but he quit after one practice, saying that the game was "no fun." When he finally did start playing baseball at North Miami High School, he excelled at pitching.

After graduating from North Miami, Carlton entered Miami Dade South Community College. He attracted the interest of the St. Louis Cardinals, who signed him in 1964 and promoted him to the majors the following season. Over the next five years the six-foot, five-inch left-hander won seventy-four games for the Cardinals, helping them to two National League pennants and a world championship. In 1969, he set a modern major league record for a nine-inning game by striking out nineteen New York Mets batters.

After the 1971 season Carlton got into a contract dispute with the Cardinals. Unwilling to meet his demands, St. Louis traded him to Philadelphia for Rick Wise, who was embroiled in a similar battle with the Phillies' front office. Wise, who had posted seventeen wins, including a no-hitter the previous season, had been popular with Phillies fans, who were highly critical of the deal. But Carlton quickly won over the Philly faithful in 1972, when he put together one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. Posting a 27–10 record, "Super Steve" was responsible for nearly half of the Phillies' fifty-nine victories that year, the highest ratio in baseball history. He won fifteen consecutive decisions that season and pitched thirty complete games, tops in the majors. Carlton's 1.97 earned run average (ERA) and 310 strikeouts in a staggering 346.5 innings earned him the first of his four Cy Young Awards.

The following season Carlton was hampered by arm trouble and a lingering case of bronchitis, and his record fell to 13–20. When the Philadelphia sportswriters criticized his performance, Carlton, an intensely private individual, gave them the silent treatment, refusing to talk with reporters for the remainder of his Phillies' career. "I found that talking to the press took my focus away," he explained. "I thought about it for more than a year and finally decided I was cheating the fans and myself by allowing myself to be diverted mentally. It was one less obstacle for me, like the hitter."

Carlton also broke with the traditional training routine and became a disciple of Gus Hoefling, a martial arts instructor who taught the young pitcher how to keep his mind and pitching sharp through a Zen-like personal conditioning program. Reunited with his close friend Tim McCarver, who had been his catcher in St. Louis, Carlton recaptured his winning form. He went 20–7 in 1976 and 23–10 with a 2.64 ERA and 198 strikeouts in 1977, when he captured his second Cy Young Award. He and McCarver, who became his personal catcher, were inseparable. "When Steve and I die we're going to be buried sixty feet six inches apart," joked the veteran catcher.

Three times in the 1970s Carlton led the Phillies to the postseason only to lose in the playoffs. In four National League Championship Series (NLCS) starts he was 1–2 with a 5.79 ERA, his regular season brilliance failing him in the postseason. Some began to question whether Carlton had what it took to win the World Series. He removed all doubts in 1980. During the regular season Carlton compiled a 24–9 record, 286 strikeouts, and a 2.34 ERA and earned his third Cy Young Award. He was just as outstanding in the postseason, making two strong starts in the NLCS against Houston (1–0, 2.19 ERA) and winning the second game and the sixth, the deciding game, of the World Series against Kansas City.

Other highlights followed, including a fourth Cy Young Award in 1982, career win number 300 in 1983, and the all-time strikeout lead at 3,522 (later relinquished to Nolan Ryan). His success was due to a pitching repertoire that consisted of an overpowering fastball and a sweeping curve. But Carlton's signature pitch was the slider, which exploded sideways and downward as it crossed the plate. Together with his pinpoint control, this devastating arsenal confounded hitters and made "Lefty" one of the premier pitchers in the game from 1971 to 1983. "Hitting him," according to the Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, "was like trying to drink coffee with a fork."

At the same time Carlton's perfectionism led him to an almost singular preoccupation with the mental aspect of the game. "My job was my performance on the field," he insisted. "I found ways to eliminate any outside influence.… Then I go out there and I know I'm going to win." He stuffed cotton in his ears to block out the sound of the crowd. On days he was scheduled to pitch, the tall left-hander rarely spoke with teammates, and of course he never talked to the press. Together with his exceptional intelligence, Carlton's emphasis on the mental part of the game as well as his unorthodox conditioning techniques earned him the reputation of an "eccentric."

A rotator-cuff injury in 1985 limited Carlton to sixteen games that season as his record fell to 1–8. He never returned to the dominant form of his earlier years. The Phillies released their former ace on 25 June 1986. Refusing to admit that his career was over, Carlton, the classic power pitcher, tried to reinvent himself as a junk baller, first with the San Francisco Giants and later with the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, and Minnesota Twins. By the spring of 1988 even his strong-willed mentality was forced to yield to the reality that his career was over, and he retired with 329 major league victories and 4,136 strike outs. He also withdrew from public life, retreating to a mountain home in Durango, Colorado, to ski, ride horses, and enjoy his privacy.

Carlton did manage to come down from that mountain on at least two occasions. On 29 July 1989 he traveled to Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium to see his number 32 retired by the Phillies, and on 31 July 1994 he attended his Hall of Fame induction at Cooperstown, New York.

Carlton's career is discussed in Hal Bodley, Philadelphia Phillies: The Team That Wouldn't Die (1981). See also Steve Wulf, "Mastery and Mystery: Steve Carlton of the Phillies," Sports Illustrated (21 July 1980); and Jim Stephano, ed., "Steve Carlton: Hall of Famer," Philadelphia Daily News, Keepsake Edition (1 Aug. 1994).

William C. Kashatus