During spring training in 1978 Ron Guidry was at a crossroads in his career. In baseball terms he was a late bloomer, having finally broken into the Yankees pitching rotation the season before at age 26. That year he established himself as the ace of a deep pitching staff despite having the physique of a horse jockey with disco boots on. Ron knew that he may have caught batters off-guard with his lack of physical presence and needed to up the ante going into '78 just to keep pace with the batters that would surely pay more attention to him.
All spring Ron spent morning, noon and night trying to find what he needed to keep him ahead of the curve. His pitching coach was there with him every step of the way, working on his mechanics
"Remember, your body's a whip. Hell, it's skinny enough to be one," Art would say. "Keep the hands and right leg back and explode off the rubber with that toothpick you call a left leg."
All the work did nothing for Ron, though. His pitches were accurate as always but there was no extra life or movement on them. By the end of March he was suffering a crisis of confidence, sure that AL batters would feast on the meatballs he was serving up.
After his last spring start, in which he got roughed up pretty badly, a dejected Guidry sat in his locker with his head in his hands. Just then the short, charismatic bench coach they called Yogi sauntered over to Ron.
"Hey Ron, I hope you're not thinkin'," he said, "it messes your head up." Ron laughed grudgingly.
"I just don't think I have it this year, they got me figured out," he said.
"You should go home, ya know, for vacation," said Yogi.
"Huh?" asked Ron.
"Yeah," said Yogi, "you're done pitching down here, so go over there."
"Louisiana?" Ron asked.
"Sure," Yogi said, "it's hot over there too, and you'll be half way to Texas where we start the season. You know, sometimes you can do your best work on vacation."
After mulling the idea over while getting dressed, Ron felt a hearty slap on his back.
"GAAAAATORR!!" said the smiling, bespectacled superstar trying to acclimate himself to his new teammates, "hurry up, the boys are waiting for us."
He then tweaked the whiskers of Ron's kempt mustache before heading out the clubhouse door. Ron always secretly hated that nickname, Gator, even if it was well deserved due to his leathery, sun-baked skin. But now, it reminded him of home and he decided to heed Yogi's advice.
After a couple days in the sun, Guidry decided to start throwing against the same wooden shed he used to hone his craft on as a youngster. He kept throwing through a steady rain that rolled through Lafayette, LA and as the rain picked up, so did the velocity and bite on his pitches, building his confidence with each strike. With sheets of water making it difficult to even make out the shed, he decided to throw one last pitch. As he wound up, thunder boomed in the background and lightning crashed down on his left arm as it fired the ball with unparalleled force and shattered the wooden wall along with any apprehensions he had about the upcoming season. Amazed by what had just happened, he looked down at his arm and didn't find a scratch. "I'll be damned," he muttered to himself with a grin, "Yogi knew what he was talking about."
Powered by the lightning down in Louisiana, Guidry tore up the American League in 1978 from start to finish. In what was one of the greatest seasons ever for a starting pitcher, no game was greater than the night of June 17, 1978. As bolts of lightning struck all over the Pelican State, Ron struck out California Angels at a pace never seen before in Yankee Stadium. The display of dominance caused the great Phil Rizzuto, as if he knew what was happening all along, to christen him "The Louisiana Lightning Man" during the live broadcast. With that, a new Yankee legend and, more importantly for Ron Guidry, a new nickname was born. Although much to his dismay, Reggie still called him Gator.