Call them flakes, misfits or screwballs. They are athletes whose offbeat antics mystify teammates and fascinate fans and, over three centuries, Baltimore has been blessed with its share. The Baltimore Sun is counting down The Daffy Dozen, the 12 most memorable characters in the city’s sports lore. Today’s oddball, No. 9, is former Orioles left-handed pitcher Mike Cuellar, who pitched for the team from 1969 to 1976.
Teammates called him "Crazy Horse" but marveled at the tireless left-hander who, four times, won 20 or more games. Never mind that Mike Cuellar always took the same number of steps to both the mound and the dugout. Or that he had to eat Chinese food every night before he pitched, and always arrived at the ballpark dressed in blue.
Cuellar's superstitions went further. Before games, he'd spray water on trainer Ralph Salvon's legs for good luck. To start an inning, only the catcher could throw Cuellar the ball, and only the third baseman could return it after a putout. And Cuellar always sat in the same spot on the bench.
"If anybody was sitting in Mike's place, including [manager] Earl Weaver, he'd tell them about it," catcher Elrod Hendricks told The Sun in 1982. "He started off every game with a curveball, regardless of who was the hitter, and unless [Cuellar] was the leadoff hitter in an inning, he'd go into the runway and smoke a cigarette while the first hitter was up."
It's no surprise that Cuellar's money pitch was the screwball.
"Mike had a lot of things that he had to do," outfielder Paul Blair once said. "But whatever he did, it worked."
On days he pitched, the Cuban-born left-hander declined to give autographs before the game or to set foot from the dugout each inning until his catcher had put on his shinguards.
The Orioles shrugged off Cuellar's quirks; after all, he won a Cy Young Award (1969) and the decisive Game 5 of the 1970 World Series. Three times, Cuellar made the American League All-Star team, and he sometimes pitched with just two days' rest. But Weaver once said that Cuellar could really try the team's patience, like the time he misplaced his lucky cap before a road trip to Milwaukee:
"We had to call the clubhouse man back in Baltimore to airmail that [bleeping] hat to us."