Ron Guidry- Bumps Along the Road
When most people think of Ron Guidry (AKA “Gator” and “Louisiana Lightning”), the first thing they think of is his incredible 1978 season. How can you not? That year he went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA and 248 strike outs.
In one particular game that summer, on June 17, he struck out 18 California Angels in 9 innings to improve his record to 11-0. That is the game where the traditional clapping with two strikes all began at Yankee Stadium.
However, when I look back at Guidry’s career, I always start with 1977. That was one of my favorite Yankee teams of all time and was actually Guidry’s coming out party.
But, to understand Guidry’s 1977, you need first to go back a year to 1976 and see the struggles that led to the eventual turning point in his career.
For Guidry, there were a lot of bumps along the road to the Major Leagues.
Working his way to the Major Leagues, Guidry spent four seasons in the minor leagues, and some time briefly in the major leagues in the 1975 and 1976 seasons. He threw harder than most pitchers, but really only had one pitch he could rely on, his fastball.
Guidry’s 1976 season was not successful, but this period provided a pivotal moment in his career, and if it hadn’t been for his wife Bonnie, he may never have played another game.
Following a relief appearance on May 20, 1976, Guidry was essentially put on hold in the Yankee bullpen for 47 consecutive games. On July 6, 1976, he was sent back to the Syracuse Chiefs of the AAA International League.
Feeling aggravated with the thought of spending another season in the minors, he was prepared to quit the game in which he had dedicated his life. He balked at being sent back down to the minors, loaded all his gear and personal items into his car, and instead of heading to Syracuse, he started heading home to Louisiana with his wife. During that drive home, she asked him, “Are you sure you want to give up on everything you’ve been working toward for the last 10 years? You’ve never quit on anything you thought you could do in your life. Don’t quit on your own. Let the Yankees tell you you’re no good before you think of quitting.”
Guidry changed his mind and reported to the Syracuse Chiefs and then returned to the Bronx in early August, but pitched in only six games.
The Yankees won the American League East in 1976 after 12 years of failing to make the postseason. Guidry made the Yankees roster for the ALCS against the Kansas City Royals. He did not pitch. Instead, he was used as a pinch-runner in Game Four.
Then, during the 1976 World Series against the Reds, he did not pitch.
His bullpen mate in 1976 was Sparky Lyle, known for his incredible slider. On one afternoon that season, Lyle told him that mechanically, they were a lot alike, and offered to teach Guidry the slider.
Having been sent down to the minor leagues a few times in his young career, Guidry was open to anything.
Lyle then began teaching Guidry the grip and proper wrist rotation for the slider. They worked on the pitch constantly, and by May of the 1977, he had it nearly perfected, and earned a spot in Billy Martin’s five-man rotation. He was finally there to stay. Ron Guidry held that spot for over 10 years.
During the 1977 regular season as a starting pitcher, Guidry went 16-7 with a 2.82 ERA after starting the year in the bullpen. In a spot start on April 29, 1977 Guidry threw 8 1/3 shutout innings against the Mariners for the win in his first big-league start of the year.
It was then during the last six weeks of the 1977 season, that he really found the pitch that would propel him to the 1978 dominance. The slider began to really work.
Beginning on August 10, 1977 things began to change. The Oakland A’s were in town, and Guidry got the start. He went 7 innings giving up one run, while striking out eight. His slider that night was described as unhittable.
From that point on in 1977, he went 8-1 with a 2.62 ERA.
In the postseason things were quite a bit different than his demoralizing 1976 postseason experience. Guidry had three post season starts. First, he beat the Kansas City Royals in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series by throwing a complete-game while giving up only two runs. He then had a no decision in Game 5 of the ALCS. He followed that up by throwing a complete game four hitter in Game 4 of the World Series at Dodger Stadium, and “Louisiana Lighting” was born.
The Yankees won the 1977 World Series in dramatic fashion, highlighted by Reggie Jackson’s three home runs at Yankee Stadium in the clinching Game 6.
By the time spring training rolled around in 1978, things were very much different for Guidry. Fueled by confidence, two post season wins and his new secret weapon pitch, he went into 1978 as a completely different pitcher than he was when he began 1977.
Ron Guidry would spend the next six months, plus the postseason, dominating baseball and leading the Yankees to one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history.
The 1978 Ron Guidry dominance began back in the bullpen in 1976 with Sparky Lyle. Guidry’s time spent with Lyle helped to make him the pitcher who was armed with the best slider in the league which he used as a compliment to his already overpowering fastball.
The low point of Ron Guidry’s career came in 1976 and the path he took could be summed up by that famous Yogi Berra quote; “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”.