BOSTON -- Virtually every major-leaguer can look back at his career and say, What if? For Jimmy Key, the question is especially meaningful, even if it's one he avoids asking.
What if he hadn't undergone four operations on his left shoulder? What if he hadn't missed approximately 60 starts -- almost two seasons' worth -- because of injuries?
The answers provide further evidence that the Orioles' left-hander is the most underrated pitcher of his generation.
Indeed, if not for all his arm trouble, Key, 36, might have an outside shot at the Hall of Fame.
As it stands, his career record (174-105) is virtually identical to the career record of the future Hall of Famer he will face tonight -- Greg Maddux (172-106).
Key isn't Maddux -- he's five years older, and his career ERA is more than half a run higher. But the comparison isn't as outrageous as it might seem.
Which pitcher has four Cy Young Awards? Maddux.
Which pitcher has better postseason numbers? Key.
Key is one of only two pitchers in major-league history to win World Series clinchers for two different teams, the other being Catfish Hunter.
And if he had stayed reasonably healthy, he likely would be closing in on 200 victories, a total reached only by Roger Clemens among active pitchers.
Those might not be Hall of Fame credentials.
But they're not far off.
Key has never won a Cy Young, never won 20 games, never had a 200-strikeout season -- achievements that reflect a pitcher's dominance of his era.
On the other hand, Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller believes there will never be another 300-game winner. The new standard for Cooperstown might be 225 or 250 victories.
Key could approach those totals if he pitches three or four more years. His friend and former Toronto teammate, Mike Flanagan, said he's a pitching version of Eddie Murray -- a steady if not always spectacular performer.
So, what if he had stayed healthy?
"Everyone who plays a long period of time gets hurt," Key said yesterday, shrugging off the question. "It's just the nature of the business.
"I've never really looked back and seen what it cost me. It's something you might look back at when you're done playing. But I'm not one who dwells on personal things, anyway."
Still, 60 starts is a lot to miss, and Key was physically limited in countless others. Two of his surgeries took place right after the end of seasons. Key had to fight through shoulder trouble just to finish those campaigns.
Then there was last year, when he was coming off rotator-cuff surgery the previous summer. Not only did Key sit out the 1995 postseason, but he also spent the first half of '96 in a state of "semi-rehab," trying to regain his arm strength.
All pitchers get hurt, and many pitch in frequent discomfort. It's a reflection of Key's resilience and work ethic that he always seems to return to his previous form.
He's 10-1 this season, and he said his arm is as strong as it was in '93 and '94, when he went 35-10 for the Yankees. The Orioles signed him after he baffled them in Game 3 of the AL Championship Series -- and after he beat Maddux in Game 6 of the World Series.
The two also faced each other in Game 2 -- "We got beat 4-0. It felt like 10-0 the way he was pitching," Key said. The score in Game 6 was 3-2. No one should expect a slugfest tonight.
"You know the margin of error is a little bit less when you're going against a guy like that, or with any of their starters," Key said. "You know going in you aren't going to win that particular ballgame by giving up five or six runs. You try to take that mind-set, concentrate a little extra early on, don't let the game get crazy."
Key never gets crazy -- that's one of the secrets to his success, and one of the reasons the Orioles wanted him so badly. He has been a steadying influence on the entire staff, which leads the AL with a 3.67 ERA.
What if, you ask?
Key prefers to avoid the hypothetical, and discuss his actual accomplishments -- his '92 World Series triumph with the Blue Jays, his '96 triumph with the Yankees.
Both came against the Braves.
"Being part of two world championship teams, that's what makes my career complete," he said. "I'm playing with icing on the cake now. I've already got two rings.
"Don't get me wrong, the third ring will mean just as much" -- yes, Key said will. "But everyone plays for the opportunity to win a championship. Those are the things that stand out the most."
He doesn't know if he'll pitch after his current two-year deal expires in 1998. But he said if he was close to 200 victories, "that might be the one time I'd be a little selfish, try to pitch another year."
Tonight, he faces Maddux.
The best pitcher of his generation against the most underrated.
Jimmy Key vs. Greg Maddux
A statistical comparison of the Orioles' Jimmy Key and the Braves' Greg Maddux, who face each other tonight:
....... GS .. IP ..... Hits ... BB .... SO ... W-L .... ERA ... Pct.
Key... 357 ..2,384 1/3 ..2,315 .. 581 .. 1,390 .174-105 .. 3.46 .. .624
Maddux 345 ..2,455 1/3 ..2,176 .. 602 .. 1,715 .172-106 .. 2.83 .. .619
.......... G .. IP .. Hits .. BB .. SO .. W-L .. ERA ... Pct.
Key .... *12 .. 57 .... 58 .. 14 .. 24 .. 5-2 .. 3.16 .. .714
Maddux .. 14 .. 95 .... 91 .. 22 .. 57 .. 7-5 .. 3.51 .. .583
*Two of Key's appearances were in relief.
Pub Date: 6/13/97