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The Goose is Loose 

Colorado Springs' own homegrown champion on his career in baseball, the wayward growth of the city and the power of passion

'When Captain Carl, Boston cleanup man, stood at the plate facing Gossage with the tying run dancing off third and the winning run on first, that moment should have been frozen. The 32,925 standing fans, the poised runners, Yaz's high-held bat, Gossage's baleful glare: For once baseball had achieved a moment of genuine dramatic art -- a situation that needed no resolution to be perfect. A game, a season, and an entire athletic heritage for two cities had been brought to razor's edge.'

-- Thomas Boswell, How Life Imitates

the World Series

They call it the greatest game ever played. It was 1978, a one-game play-off between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox to determine the winner of the American League East, the culminating moment of 75 years of the game's greatest rivalry. The Yankees had come back from 14 games behind to tie the Red Sox and force the play-off.

It wouldn't have been the greatest comeback in history if I hadn't buried us, Gossage told the Independent of his disastrous start of the season. "Every game that I came into, I lost it somehow. I would get to the mound and Munson would look at me with that silly grin of his and say 'How you gonna lose this one?' I'd say, 'I don't know, get your ass back there and we'll find out.'

Having relieved Yankees ace Ron Guidry in the seventh inning, Gossage took a precarious 5-4 lead into the bottom of the ninth. With two outs and runners on first and third, Carl Yastrzemski, "Boston's best clutch hitter and its best player, period, since Ted Williams" came to the plate. In his new autobiography, The Goose is Loose (Ballantine: New York), Gossage describes the legendary moment:

It was the poetic justice I'd been thinking about for the past twenty-four hours -- a confrontation between power pitcher and power hitter. The kind of one-on-one matchup that makes baseball so exciting.

I could say I felt calm and composed facing Yaz in that situation, with the A.L. East and a World Series shot riding on the line and so much electricity flying around in Fenway Park that it felt as if the whole city of Boston might combust.

I could, but I'd be lying.

My knees shook. My palms sweated. I couldn't get enough air in my lungs. As Yaz headed toward the batter's box, I stepped off the mound and gave myself a much-needed pep talk:

Relax, Rich. You've always played the game for fun, so enjoy the moment. This is why you play the game. You've been playing all your life for a moment like this.

I took a deep breath -- my very first of the day -- and amid all the noise and nervous energy in Fenway Park experienced a moment of total clarity. In that one instant, I asked: What's the worst thing that can happen? That Yaz beats me?

Even if he did, the sun would come up tomorrow. I'd be headed back home to Colorado to hunt elk. Life would go on.

That kind of security comes to Gossage from always knowing where home is, from a 27-year marriage to his high school sweetheart, Corna, and from an active, ongoing relationship with his community, his family and his natural surroundings.

Fusing that security with the adrenaline of the moment back in '78, Goose induced Yaz to pop up a foul to third. The Yanks won the game, and went on to victory in the World Series.

Five years after retiring from baseball, Goose has lost none of the intensity that made him one of the most dominant pitchers of his era. But you get the feeling he's trying. He's settled in his old hometown, living at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain. There are deer in the neighborhood, and a half dozen deer pause beside the road as I slowly drive to the interview.

It's a clear, warm day in February, and Goose kicks back, his feet on the table, indulging the stories that flow through his consciousness and make up his new book. His two dogs, Bretta the beagle and Doc the husky, drift in and out as he recalls oft-told tales. Doc moves to the sofa, using Goose's youngest son Todd's baseball glove as a pillow when Todd and Corna come home and the kitchen traffic increases.

"I wish I could tell all the stories," Goose laughs, "but you just can't. I want to remain friends with my teammates."

Goose is one of the last of a dying breed of free-spirited ballplayers that he claims had advanced degrees in horseplay while often boasting IQ's that never quite exceeded the top-end speed of a fastball. The Goose is Loose is unflinchingly honest, balancing the wealth of historical highlights with less glamourous outings -- like when he was shelled so hard in a minor league game that he expected the catcher to come out to "get the married guys off the infield," or the time when, during a hungover outing in the final game of his '72 rookie season, he gave up nine runs in three innings: I felt like the Ned Beatty character in Deliverance. They made me squeal like a pig.

Goose comes alive with intensity, his eyes catching fire as he heats up, his whole face clenched, gritting his teeth as he recalls his mindset as a closing relief pitcher, determined to bury every batter he faced.


Diamond knights

I suppose I've told a few tales in my time, but for the most part I'm a straight-shooting, no BS, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may kind of guy.

-- Richard Goose Gossage, The Goose is Loose

Before he ever glared down a batter or hurled a fast ball toward the plate, home for Goose was alongside Monument Creek. "You don't know how awesome it was," Goose said of the experience of growing up in Colorado Springs. "People come out of L.A. and it looks awesome now. But it's not. It's deteriorating, and at a rapid pace. We've got to do something about that. Because people will destroy, people will self-destruct. I'm a firm believer, we're not smart enough to think ahead."

Goose's own youth was a matter of living in the moment, a suitable preparation for the mindset of a late-inning relief pitcher. The influence of his father, Jack "Jick" Gossage, a miner and later a landscaper, permeates the book.

He belonged up in the mountains, hunting and fishing, not in the city . When the cupboard got bare, Dad and I would get out our rifles and go hunting -- a polite way of saying that we poached. We would bring back a deer, skin and section it, and our family would eat venison for three meals a day until it ran out.

Jick was also a Yankee fan, and Goose recalls watching the team on television in his youth, following them through the eyes of his father, who saw them as latter-day Knights of the Round Table, brave and heroic.


One man's junk

'He was this big, mean-looking guy straight out of those '50s wild West movies. He had the big mustache. He had a big, sweeping motion; the arms went this way, the legs went the other way. He was out there for one reason only: to throw the ball as hard as humanly possible. Once it left Goose's hand, well, his philosophy seemed to be,'It's somebody else's problem now.' "

-- Joe Miller

The Hall of Fame has been slow to recognize relief pitchers -- only Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm are enshrined -- but students of the game remember Fingers, Gossage, and Dennis Eckersley as the dominant craftsmen presiding from the bullpen as the nature of the job was refined in the '70s and '80s.

"When I joined the White Sox in 1972," said Goose, "the bullpen was like a junk pile down there. That was a place where the starters went who couldn't go nine any more. There was none of the micromanaging that yields specific roles for four different relievers in the last three innings.

"I used to do everybody's job. We were workhorses back then."

His first manager, Chuck Tanner, saw him not as an inferior starter but as a relief specialist, getting strikeouts with his 97-miles-per-hour fastball for two or three innings until the game was over. Yankees manager Dick Howser started using him almost exclusively in the ninth inning in 1980. "Howser reasoned that if he saved Goose for one-inning stints whenever possible," writes baseball great Joe Morgan in his book Long Balls, No Strikes, "he'd be able to use him more often. Gossage's cameo appearances also gave hitters less time to gauge his blinding fastball." Before Howser, Goose was accustomed to pitching two or three innings to earn a save.

"Kids now want to be a closer," said Gossage of a role that has moved from the junk pile to prime time. "It's become such an integral part of your team that you don't win a world championship without a strong bullpen, and without a top-notch closer."


Bulletproof in the Bronx

'From above, Gossage is a relief pitcher. From ground level, eye-to-eye in his own world, he's a dragon.'

-- Thomas Boswell

Gossage tarted his career with the White Sox at the tail end of the last semblance of the pure era of baseball, before the designated-hitter rule took the bat out of pitchers' hands, and before free-agency deconstructed the tradition of team loyalty and unity. Gossage was old-school all the way, and his volatile Yankee teams from '78 to '83 took the old schoolhouse team out in a blaze of glory.

"George [Steinbrenner] and Billy were always fighting. Reggie [Jackson] and Billy were -- Billy was always fighting with somebody. It was a very, very difficult situation," Goose said of the unique team chemistry that somehow transcended its own combustibility. "Thurman [Munson] and Reggie went at it all the time. Reggie came in saying 'I'm the straw that stirs the drink.' That rubbed some guys the wrong way. It was like a three-ring circus. But the chemistry on that ball club, when we went between the lines, it was war. And we took no prisoners."

Today, Goose sees baseball as a "weak sister with all the expansion, watered down." He calls the pitching "brutal," and observes that big contracts have made players arrogant. "Money has a strange way of taking the innocence out of the game. I think that's what's missing. We played the game with a real passion. Today the guys are prima donnas. They are so spoiled.

"Oh! I wouldn't trade the era that I played -- we had more fun," he said of his 22-year career. "I don't know if we had $100 million more fun. I don't know how you equate that. But we did, we had so much fun. Oh, man!

"We played the game hard. But we ran hard too. We were free spirits. You know, you're bulletproof, you're invincible, you're young, you're on top of the world, you're in the big leagues. Moderation was out the door. Out the window. That was with the game too. We didn't play the game half-stepping, man."


You can't teach a big dog new tricks

I considered pitching a kind of warfare; batters were the enemy, and my job was to blow them away. I took no prisoners.

-- Goose Gossage,

Goose on the Loose

Several teams have been after Gossage's services as a coach, including the Cubs and Padres, managed by his former teammates Don Baylor and Bruce Bochey. He's currently helping out in the Yankees Spring Training camp, but he's content to come home when the season starts.

"I'm enjoying being out of the game," he said. "I'm enjoying Colorado, doing some fishing in the summer. I'm enjoying my summers. Summers that I haven't had for 25 years."

There was a time when Goose entertained the idea of finishing his career in a Colorado Rockies uniform. He might have lent the team something they have been in dire need of since their inception: confidence and attitude on the mound.

"I don't think they have ever instilled an attitude in a pitching staff up there. These guys have always tiptoed around the mound up there, scared to death, worried about all the negative things, all the bad things that could go wrong," he observed. "You can't do anything scared. Your body won't allow you to do it."

It's easy to imagine the impact his presence could have on the beleaguered Rockies pitching staff. "When you're tiptoeing around the mound like, who's the kid that they got from Houston? Kile. Here's a guy that used to piss me off. I used to watch him pitch and he used to just make me sick. He needed a good kick in the ass. He's nibbling out there, getting behind, and then boom! Walks a couple guys and then all hell breaks lose. You cannot half-step out there. You can't do it half-assed."

"I never held anything back. I was always busting a gut to throw as hard as I could," he said. "If you've ever been chased by a big dog and you're a little kid and you've got to get over this fence. Your feet are moving faster than you ever thought possible. The amount of adrenaline that goes through your body out there with 50,000 people on your ass -- I always correlated the fans and that big dog. The fans are that big dog that creates that adrenaline. That's what makes you good. You learn to focus that adrenaline and channel it to home plate and to that hitter -- wow! Man, if we could bottle that shit, we'd be fucking zillionaires."

You can feel the surge as Goose talks of the heightened electricity in those final innings that were his domain. "Oh, yeah!" he exclaimed, "There's no comparison. I was off the charts. Nobody, my teammates wouldn't talk to me. They wouldn't dare come to the mound. I'd bite their head off."


Safe at home

'There is a tendency for relief pitchers to seem mad -- mad meaning angry (Goose Gossage), mad meaning crazed (Sparky Lyle) or both angry and mad (Al Hrabowsky).

-- George Will

Although it has always been his sanctuary, Gossage is not beyond slinging venom at the direction of events in Colorado Springs, taking on everything from development run wild to dysfunction in the city's recreation leagues.

"I think our baseball program in Colorado Springs stinks out loud," he said. "We used to have a great program here when I left to play professional baseball. We had a lot of pride in this program. Now they call it a 'non-competitive' league? I've never heard of anything like this. That's why sports is so important to the kids. It teaches them so many things. It teaches them every lesson there is to learn in life. Success and failure. The fear of failure. Competing. To have a non-competitive program, you're doing the kids a disservice."

Gossage has always stressed that athletes should play for love first, but always to play with passion. "Sure, I tell kids, hey, play for fun first. But learn everything else, be the best that you can be. Not everybody's going to make it to the big leagues, but who's to say you're not going to?"

Currently, Goose is raising money for a new youth sports complex with nine baseball fields and eight soccer fields. "I think fields and parks for kids to play in, you can't put a price tag on that," he said.

"This isn't the answer," he said of his project, "I believe the developers should be responsible for building parks. I don't mean just green belts, I'm talking about fields, where kids can play. They should make these developers take part of that land and put up backstops, build a couple soccer fields."

The complex will open in late spring, but Goose is still about a million-and-a-half dollars short of raising all the funds needed for the project.

"This was a grassroots thing from Colorado Springs Youth Baseball Association," he said, his passion stirred again as he talks about the project. "We got the first $100,000 from the kids, the participants in that league, which is a neat thing. But we have not gotten one penny from the soccer people in this town, and it's a shame. I don't know what their problem is. They have an arrogance and an attitude about them that really stinks. It's about time that they stepped up, because they're going to utilize those fields."

Another recent high-profile project that Gossage supports is the successful TOPS campaign, dedicating a one-tenth of 1 percent of city sales tax to the preservation of trails, parks, and open space over a 12-year period, ultimately an approximately $75 million fund.

"The amount of growth that we have experienced here in this city is just scary. The developers don't think about why we're here. We're here because of the quality of living. I was born and raised here and I have seen firsthand what development has done to this city. We're not doing enough to guard against that, and that's why I'm a proponent of TOPS."

Even with TOPS in effect, Goose decries the continued threat to the natural beauty of the region, taking on "these houses four stories high that hide the mountain. There's no development that has been tastefully done in this city. It's bullshit. I'm not very happy with the way the development has gone in this city. I think it's the almighty dollar, it's how much they can maximize out of the development, and they don't care what they do to the environment along the way.

"I was brought up in nature, with my dad, you know he was born a hundred years too late, he should have been a mountain man. I'm glad I had that upbringing. That I had the appreciation for the beauty and for the environment."


Hall of who?

Gossage's blunt criticism goes hand in hand with the unconditional love reserved for a community that has always been home, an extended family. He was honored to have the Richard M. "Goose" Gossage Youth Sports Complex -- five baseball diamonds and nine soccer fields on 24 acres -- dedicated to him on July 8, 1995, three months after his retirement from baseball.

"I can't think of a nicer tribute than to be recognized by your own hometown," Goose writes in The Goose is Loose. "The only thing that would have made that day better was if my dad had been around to see it. It would have touched him deeply as it did me."

There is at least one tribute that could give the complex dedication a run for its money. But while sportswriters around the country debated Goose's credentials as a candidate for the Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility this winter, he was halfway around the world, visiting the troops in Kosovo as part of a USO trip with former Yankees and Padres teammate Graig Nettles. He walked through the streets of Gilani and Pristina, a half mile from the Serbian tanks. "People are happy," he said, "but they're not happy you're there. They know that you're saving lives, their lives. But it's like, you're still intruding."

Gossage's tone is different as he flips through photographs from his eye-opening trip. The intensity that distinguishes him when battling on the mound and in the community is replaced by a less familiar humility, an awe at something that can't be stared down.

"We see hatred over here, but it's nothing like the scale over there," he said. "The destruction and the mass graves. I didn't actually look into the grave[s], but we drove by them. I didn't want to look in the grave, but there's 30 people there, 30 people here, dead, buried, that were just murdered."

"I don't know what the answer is," Goose mused. "I talked to generals over there, and there is no quick solution, because this hatred has gone for hundreds of years. If we're going to stay over there it's going to be for a long, long time. That's the distressing part of it. I've got boys of military age, and I'm signing autographs for these kids and meeting them and most of them didn't even know who the hell I was. We had some laughs with them, but they're in some very, very tough brutal conditions over there. Two or three people are being killed a week over there of just hate. If you're caught in the wrong place in the wrong time they're going to kill you."

Goose returned to Colorado Springs from Kosovo the day the Hall of Fame balloting was released, but he forgot to even ask about the results. When Corna finally told him he didn't get voted in, he was still so consumed with Kosovo that he could barely register a reaction.

"It puts life into perspective real quick," he said.


Goose bumps

"I was eight," Gossage recalls of his first experience of being excited by baseball. "Buddy and Larry Reynolds came over to my house and said, 'hey, we're going to get a team up together,' you know, neighborhood kids. They said 'we're gonna try out, do you want to try out?' I said 'sure.' So we tried out and they said 'you're going to be our pitcher.' I could throw. I had a great arm. I had never played on a team. That was my first team. They said 'you're our pitcher.' I loved the game."

The team drove around in The Binder, Goose's dad's International pick-up truck. The parents of the other kids had nicer cars, "but all the kids wanted to pile into that old beat-up truck." When he was 12 years old, Goose led the Padgett Realty Angels to win the youth baseball championship.

"I had a blast," Goose concluded, thinking back on the ultimate joy of walking out between the white lines of a ball field. "It was like getting on the best ride at Disneyland and not getting off for 25 years. It was awesome."

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