This has been a rough stretch for fans of baseball in the 1970s. First, we learned of the death of former big league right-hander Jim Bibby. Then came the news that ex-Dodger Willie Davis had been found dead in his southern California home. And now, on Friday, former Orioles left-hander Mike Cuellar lost his battle with stomach cancer, dying in an Orlando hospital at the age of 72.
Cuellar was one of my favorites. When I first started following baseball circa 1972, my friends and I pronounced his name as Mike “QUE-LLER.” We had no idea that it was actually pronounced “QUAY-AR.” (In the Spanish language, two consecutive L’s are pronounced like a Y.) We had fun with that name, but then we came to realize that he was a darned good pitcher, one of the best of his era.
Like a lot of left-handers, Cuellar was a late bloomer. Originally drafted by the Reds and then traded four times (to the Tigers, Indians, Cardinals and then the Astros), he didn’t have his first good season until he was 29. Cuellar pitched two more solid years with Houston, where he enjoyed the benefits of the Astrodome, before being traded to the Orioles, essentially for jack-of-all-trades Curt Blefary. It would prove to be one of the greatest trades in Baltimore franchise history. It was with the Orioles, where he worked under the tutelage of Earl Weaver and George Bamberger, that Cuellar truly blossomed. Mixing in a terrific screwball with a deceiving change-of-pace, Cuellar kept American League hitters off balance for most of the next eight seasons, a stretch that included a Cy Young Award and three 20-win campaigns. Cuellar didn’t have much velocity–as Billy Martin once said, “his fastball couldn’t blacken my eye”–but he became a master of the art of finesse pitching, changing speeds, mixing and matching his repertoire, and then putting hitters away with that vicious screwball.
A durable workhorse who regularly logged 250-plus innings, Cuellar also became part of the famed 1971 staff that featured four 20-game winners. During his run with Baltimore, he essentially emerged as the Birds’ No. 2 starter behind Hall of Famer Jim Palmer. If Cuellar had found success a little bit earlier, instead of struggling in those early days with the Cardinals, he might have built up a convincing case for Hall of Fame enshrinement himself.
Yet, there was much more to Cuellar than pitching. He was one of the game’s most colorful characters–of any era. Teammates called him “Crazy Horse” because of his many rituals and superstitions, and his tendency to act like a class clown in the clubhouse, where he became an active member of Baltimore‘s famed “Kangaroo Kourt.” I believe that Cuellar may have been the most superstitious player in baseball history. The night before he pitched, he always Chinese food. On days that he pitched, he always took a few puffs of a cigarette before picking up his glove and beginning to warm up. He insisted that backup catcher Clay Dalrymple catch his warm-up tosses before games. During games, he refused to step on the chalk lines, hopping over them if he had to. He also refused to accept a thrown ball from one of his teammates at the start of an inning; he insisted on picking up the game ball from the ground. On getaway days, he always wore a blue suit to travel by plane–never any other color.
In perhaps his most extreme superstition, Cuellar believed that his Orioles cap carried a spirit to it, one that would allow him to pitch well. On one occasion in Milwaukee, Cuellar forgot to bring his special cap on the road trip and demanded that the Orioles fly the cap from Baltimore before he would pitch in his next scheduled start. Upon its arrival ten minutes before game time, Cuellar exclaimed with horror, “This is my practice cap!” and refused to pitch.
Those kinds of beliefs made Mike Cuellar one of a kind. A wonderful pitcher and a delightfully quirky character, Cuellar lived a full life before succumbing to an awful illness on Friday. To say that Mike Cuellar will be missed, well, that’s like saying he was a little bit superstitious.