Ace Reliever Randy Moffitt Earns His Biggest Save Against a Mysterious Disease

updated 09/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When relief pitcher Randy Moffitt smokes in his final pitch of the day to make a rival batter fan, pop up or ground out, thereby preserving another win for the Toronto Blue Jays, he makes the victory walk to the dugout in a now familiar style: a chaw of bubble gum bulging in his cheek and a smile—a huge smile—on his face. Small wonder. The Blue Jays, who have never finished above last place, are miraculously in the race for the American League East championship, and Moffitt, the 34-year-old kid brother of tennis star Billie Jean King, is one mighty reason. As a key stopper in the Jays' bull pen, he has a 6-1 record, with 9 saves and a 3.78 earned run average. "He's keeping us in the thick of it," pitching coach Al Widmar says flatly.

But there is a better reason for Randy Moffitt's huge smile. After four years he has also beaten a rare and often fatal disease that nearly destroyed his career. In 1979 Moffitt had been a top reliever for the San Francisco Giants for nine years, racking up 83 saves with an impressive 3.57 career ERA. But then he abruptly and mysteriously lost his stuff. His sinker stopped sinking; his slider stopped sliding. Worse still, the 6'3" right-hander constantly felt weak and nauseated.

The Giants sent Moffitt to a series of doctors, all of whom came to the same conclusion—the problem was mental. Moffitt, who by then had lost 25 lbs., felt at rock bottom. After being assured one more time that he was in terrific physical health, the usually serene, soft-spoken Randy finally exploded. "I grabbed the doctor by the necktie," he recalls. " 'You're full of shit,' I said, 'and if one more doctor tells me that I'll punch him out.' I was," admits Moffitt, shaking his head, "at the point of complete frustration."

It got worse. The nausea turned into frequent bouts of vomiting. After only one and a third innings of pitching, he says, "I'd be falling on my face." His wife, Pam, 31, remembers watching him in a televised game. "He looked gray-green," she says. She reached for the color knob—and then realized that "all the other players looked okay. He really was gray-green." At home, he "was in bed all the time," says Pam. "I'd crawl in to be with him—that's how I got pregnant with our second." Later it got to the point where "it seemed like he had morning sickness. I'd be in the bathroom gagging, and he'd come in right behind me and throw up."

By then the nicer rumors had it that Moffitt's arm was shot. Others were saying he was a head case, plain and simple. "Randy's personality did change," Pam says. "He was real grumpy and snappy at everything. I'd have to tiptoe around him."

"It was a rough time for him," says sister Billie Jean. "To be getting that kind of put-down after nine years of good service. I was pretty upset too." Although kept apart by their schedules, the two children of Betty and Bill Moffitt, a scout for the Milwaukee Brewers, still keep in touch. "She's the most ambitious person I've known," Randy says admiringly.

The break in Randy's nightmare came in 1980: He began bleeding internally, and the source was found to be an ulcer, which was cauterized. The doctors also discovered the primary cause of his miseries: Cryptosporidia enteritis, a parasite common to barnyard animals. Only 100 humans are known ever to have contracted this lethal disease. There is no known cure.

Moffitt was told that, if he lived, it might take him two years to recover and was advised to rest and return for periodic tests. The Giants put him on the disabled list, then, convinced he'd never come back, released him in 1981. He was picked up by the Astros for 1982 and pitched respectably, but in the midst of a youth movement, they let him go at the end of last season. By then, however, the parasite had vanished as mysteriously as it appeared. Moffitt, a horse lover, suspects he somehow picked up the bug while hot-walking a friend's horses at a race track in California.

Moffitt pitched his way onto the Blue Jays roster during spring training and today he has a new goal: to keep on pitching till he's 40. "Yeah," says Moffitt, spitting onto the dugout steps, "I'm pitching like the old me." Now that it's all over, Pam says, "I hold him sometimes and say, 'It's nice to have you back.' And he says, 'It's nice to be back.' "

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