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Yankee pitcher Ron Guidry unwinds.

New York Yankees' pitcher Ron Guidry collects nicknames the way other people collect stamps and coins. Nicknames are a characteristic of his people, the Cajuns, those dark-complexioned, slightly mysterious folk descended from the Acadians, who fled present-day Nova Scotia to escape religious persecution in 1755 and settled in Louisiana's bayou country. Guidry's parents affectionately call him "B" (short for Baby), sportswriters call him the "Ragin' Cajun," his team-mates call him "Gator," fans call him "Louisiana Lightning"--and manager Yogi Berra will call on him to take the mound every five days in 1984, confident his 33-year-old ace will give him a win.

For there is one other thing Ron Guidry collects in abundance--victories. His eight-year record of 122 wins against only 51 losses gives him the highest winning percentage among active American League pitchers. Last year he led the league with 21 complete games while turning in a spectacular 21-9 season during the Yanks' disappointing 91-71 finish behind Baltimore--despite his losing three weeks to a back sprain. The season was his finest since his 1978 Cy Young Award-winning performance, when he notched a 25-3 won-lost record, highlighted by 248 strikeouts and a 1.74 earned run average.

But despite all his records, maintains Guidry when interviewed in his spacious, trophy-rich home in Lafayette, Louisiana, he looks at baseball in perspective, as only a game. "Baseball is the fourth thing that is most important to me," stresses the pitcher, whose other interests are his family, his friends and his passionate love of hunting. "If I lose a game, I can sleep at night. I don't let a loss interfere with my personal life at home. If I have to choose, I'm going to choose my personal life over baseball. It's just a job, and I can always go find another job."

In an age when athletes shed spouses nearly as often as they are traded, Ron Guidry is a throwback to an earlier era. Just as he has played for only one major-league club in his career, so too has his marriage to a hometown girl named Bonnie Rutledge lasted solidly, since 1972. And during the off-season, rejecting most endorsements and the banquet tour as unworthy of his time, Guidry spends the bulk of his nonhunting hours at play with seven-year-old Jamie and four-year-old Brandon. "He's a good father and a good husband, without a doubt," says Bobby Badeaux, Ron's former battery mate from Lafayette American Legion days and his best friend in or out of baseball today. "His strong family ties and his strong friendships stem from his Cajun heritage."

Guidry comes across in person as more polished than his hometown peers appear. His dark hair is precisely cut, and his informal apparel, from brown loafers to a snug-fitting, casual shirt, reflects his taste in quality clothes. A gold "NY" emblem garnishes his neck, and his watch and rings, except for his wedding band, are gold commemorations of past World Series appearances. (He's been in three fall classics.) There's a small roll of fat about his middle, but for all his love of good Cajun cooking, at 165 pounds he is only a few pounds heavier than he was in 1977, when his 16-7 mark in his first full season made him a Yankee to stay. He looks strong through the forearms and shoulders, but his overall whippet-thin apperance makes him look more like a Hollywood character actor than the best left-handed pitcher in the game.

"You don't have to be big to win," he says with a shrug. "You can be small. Size doesn't make any difference if you don't scare, if you're brave."

Although a bit of the smoke has vanished from his fastball, the pitcher's analytical mind and a memory that's an archive of opposing hitters' weaknesses make him even more imposing than he was in his 1978 glory year. When enemy teams burn him, he learns from defeat. Like a general, he refuses to worry about a single lost battle and prefers instead to concentrate on his career totals--in other words, winning the war.

"The more games I lose, the better pitcher I become," says Guidry. "Where I used to throw the ball down the middle of the plate, now I don't do that any more. Since now I know I can be hit, I'm more particular and careful about what I do around the plate. For every guy that hits me a lot, I have great success with somebody else. Rod Carew, for example, doesn't hit me well. Nor does George Brett."

It's taken many years, but Ron Guidry has made a believer not only of American League batsmen, but also the controversial George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yanks. From 1979 until the winter of 1981, when Guidry signed what was tantamount to a $5-million, long-term contract with the club, the pitcher was offered in trade more often than the Topps baseball cards his picture graces. Put off by the hurler's diminutive size and worried when radar guns detected a loss of velocity in Guidry's fastball, Steinbrenner repeatedly put the pitcher on the market. In fact, a 1980 trade involving Guidry for fellow Civil War buff Keith Hernandez (then with the St. Louis Cardinals) fell through by the slimmest of margins. "I underestimated him as an athlete," says Steinbrenner when asked about his eagerness to unload Guidry. "I'll admit I didn't think he was going to make it."

But his doubts have long since vanished, and if Steinbrenner has his druthers, Ron Guidry will get an oft professed wish to close out his career in a pin-striped uniform. "As far as I'm concerned, he'll always be a Yankee," says Steinbrenner, adding that if the pitcher is able to produce five more good years, the Hall of Fame is a dead certainty for the Cajun.

Guidry says that he is comfortable with New York and its demanding fans, although all things considered, he'd rather be in Lafayette. "If you can get by in the woods," says the avid hunter, "you can get by in the city. You're going from de jungle to de denser jungle." And while other players hasten their departure from the Big Apple by grousing against the Yankees' front office, Guidry has steadfastly refused to speak out against the owner's policies. "I keep my mouth shut in the locker room," admits Guidry, "but not because I'm scared to say something. You'll never see in the paper that he [Steinbrenner] blasted me and I blasted him [back]. If he blasts me in the paper, all I'm going to do is pitch better."

Guidry credits his parents and his late grandfather for alerting him to the ways of the world. From his grandfather, a robust outdoorsman named Gus, the pitcher inherited a droll sense of humor and a strong sense of responsibility. Gus, until his death last year, was patriarch of the Guidry clan.

The pitcher's parents have been equally important to his development. His father, Roland (Rags) Guidry, is a conductor on the Southern Pacific line. His job has long demanded that he learn to deal with the public, a knack he has passed on to his son. "You have to be forward with people in my job," says Roland, a wiry man with thinning, dark hair. "I want people to ride the train again, so I have to make their trip comfortable, exciting and interesting."

Roland bought young Ron his first glove: a $16 Spalding. He also convinced Grace, his wife, that playing ball was something her son should do. Grace had originally forbidden her offspring to play because her brother had once been hospitalized after being struck with a line drive.

Ron acquired his taciturnity from Grace. "He's like me," she says, "not a big talker." From Grace, too, he learned his love for the Yankees: One of the Guidrys' favorite players was Whitey Ford, who as New York's winningest pitcher (236 wins) is the man Ron hopes to surpass before his own career is through. To do so, Guidry must average 19 victories a year in the six years he hopes to play before retiring to Cajun country forever.

Although Guidry's birthday in August will make him 34, the pitcher's long-time agent, John Schneider, believes his client is getting not only older but better. "All the complete games he threw last year made his arm even stronger," maintains Schneider, a Lafayette attorney whose association with Guidry goes back to the American Legion ball field. "His feeling is that the more innings he pitches, the stronger he is." And with Goose Gossage's defection to the San Diego relief corps, the Yankees' brass believes that Guidry will once again be required to bail himself out of his own jams--something that suits the Louisianan just fine. "I have faith in my manager, my team and myself," says Guidry. "I believe that I'm good enough to pitch my way out of any trouble that I get into.

"I know I can't continue forever," says Guidry. "My career is something that's going to end. And when it ends I'll just accept that my time is over and that someone else is welcome to his chance. Besides, if I play five or six more years, I will have lived the best years of my life somewhere else other than my house. Because baseball's over, it doesn't mean my life is over."

A few months ago the pitcher purchased 50 acres near Lafayette he says is hopping with game and birds. "On that last day when I pack up everything for good, it's going to be 'Good-bye, New York!' and 'Hello, Lafayette!'" Still, he expects to visit the Empire State now and then perhaps five years after retirement, when Cooperstown casts a plaque in his honor.
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Author:Dant, Jack
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 1, 1984
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