The Expos pitcher who never needed time

In baseball, time has never mattered. You play until somebody wins, in two hours or six. Umpires call “Time!” only at a player’s request, if a bug gets in his eye or a pitcher gets under his skin.

Well, “time” has changed.

The clock will be ticking when major-league pitchers toe the rubber to kick off the regular season next week. Pitchers will have 15 seconds to throw a pitch, batters will have seven seconds to get ready (or 20 and 12 if anybody’s on base). Should either fail, umpires will instead call the penalty — “ball” for pitchers, “strike” for batters.

It’s a good idea to speed up a game whose very nature is slow, yet how unnecessary it all would be if baseball had more Woodie Frymans. His philosophy was to throw “as hard as I can as long as I can” and always as quickly as he can.

If they’d thrown a pitch clock at Woodrow Thompson Fryman, he would have won every time. He pitched for eight Montreal Expos teams, his tenure interrupted by two half-seasons in Cincinnati and Chicago. In 1976, the crafty lefty was an All-Star and the Expos’ Player-of-the-Year after winning 13 games, 23.6 per cent of the team’s total. Three years later, at that pace, he’d have won 22.

Fryman once told me a pitching duel between him and the great Bob Gibson of St. Louis was so fast that an hour and a half after the national anthem, it was over. We were talking about times of games, I suppose, and Woodie neglected to mention he was the winning pitcher that night.

Since I didn’t remember the game, I checked it out. On May 17, 1968 in Philadelphia, the Phillies’ starter matched Gibson pitch for pitch and after nine innings, it was 0-0. Fryman batted in the bottom of the 10th and singled, off Gibson. No starting pitcher today would still be in the game in the 10th inning, let alone hitting for himself.

The story gets better. Phillies’ Manager Gene Mauch didn’t even pinch-run for Fryman, who advanced on a sacrifice bunt and scored the game’s only run on a single! This was an extra-inning game that lasted TWO and a half hours, which means ol’ Woodie was a better pitcher than he was a timekeeper.

When I first met Fryman, he had been around for nine seasons. Every Expos pitch he threw was with an arthritic left elbow, punctuated by a painful grunt that was audible even in the upper deck. Three of the first five games I saw him pitch were complete-game shutouts. He would do whatever was asked of him. As a starter, Fryman won 51 games. As a reliever, he saved 52. Other Expos won more. Others saved more. Nobody had as many of both. His best contract ($200,000) was his last one, when the Expos gave the 43-year-old “Kentucky farm boy” as much as he requested.

“If I could get the same money for milking cows, I wouldn’t be here,” he told me after winning an annual milking-contest promotion. “There aren’t 40,000 people around to boo you if you hang udders instead of curve balls.”

He was one of a kind. If there was a nicer, more humble baseball player than Woodie Fryman, I never met him.