Thursday, April 13, 2006

Now You See It, Now You Don't: The Big League Skill

It's happened in Detroit, where the Hot Sauce got diluted and became mostly vinegar. Where a frustrated third baseman heaved a ball out of Tiger Stadium. Where a phenom pitcher turned into a non-roster invitee whose fastball couldn't break a pane of glass.

But it's happened elsewhere, of course. In Pittsburgh, where a World Series pitching hero morphed into a wild, completely ineffective chucker almost overnight. In San Francisco, where a 24-game winner became a three-game winner the next season. In Washington -- old school days -- where a once-30+ game winner melted into a 22-game loser.

It has always fascinated me how humbling the game of baseball can be. Sparky Anderson used to have a sign in his office that said, "Everyday, the world turns upside down on someone sitting on top of it." Oh, how often that's true in the National Pastime.

It seems to happen with pitchers more than anyone else. Hot Sauce was reliever/closer Kevin Saucier, who did his thing for the Tigers in 1981-82. In '81, Saucier was the Sauce, to the tune of an era well under 2.00. He punctuated the ends of games that he closed by hopping around on the field, slapping his glove and whacking his teammates on their backs. The crowds at Tiger Stadium loved it.

But in 1982, Saucier -- his numbers actually quite respectable -- quit the game, suddenly fearing what he perceived to be a lack of control. "I'm afraid I'm going to kill somebody out there," Saucier said. The lefthander retired, then and there, the season droning on.

Darnell Coles, a Tigers third baseman in the mid-to-late 1980's, grew so discombobulated with his inadequacies that he reared back and flung a baseball over the roof on the third base side one evening between innings at the Stadium. He was once the third baseman of the future, a supposed steal from the Mariners who hit over 20 home runs in 1986. But a few years later, Coles threw a baseball and his Tigers career onto Kaline Drive.

Mark Fidrych was as "one-hit wonder" as the song "Kung Fu Fighting." He turned the baseball world on in 1976, and by 1980 he was a non-roster invitee who had no clue on the mound. Arm injuries, perhaps triggered somehow by a bad knee injury in spring training, 1977, turned The Bird into a carcass.

Steve Blass was a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who helped his team win the 1971 World Series. In 1972, Blass was 19-8 with a 2.49 ERA and 84 walks in 250 innings. Then, in '73, Blass sunk to 3-9 with a 9.85 ERA and 84 walks -- in just 89 IP. Who knows what robbed Steve Blass of his gift of pitching a baseball? But it happened.

Blass: Where did the talent go between 1972 and 1973?

Ron Bryant, a lefty, won 24 games in 1973, and then arm trouble hit. In '74, Bryant went 3-15. He reappeared with the Cardinals in 1975, but pitched just 8.2 innings, his ERA 16.62. He was out of baseball soon after.

Denny McLain, as you know, won 31 games in 1968, but with the Washington Senators in '71, Denny lost 22 times. He had one more year left in him , and then he went off to a life of conviction -- in the legal sense.

There are scores of others, of course. Here today, gone tomorrow. For some, their talents inexplicably leave them. Perhaps it's in their heads. For others, the injury bug strikes and it's a virus they can't shake -- ever. Regardless, they can be turned so instantly into baseball rubbish that it can make your head swim.

I was speaking to Tigers coach Andy Van Slyke yesterday for an upcoming MCS Magazine interview, and he told me he tries to convey to his outfielders that playing in the big leagues "is a privilege, not a right."

And how definitively and/or swiftly that privilege can be taken away -- one way or another.


Blogger Ozz said...

Didn't Aurelio Lopez actually quit for a season in the '80s? Seems to me that he sat out '82 after things fell apart for him. That might have been injury related too. I can't remember. I'd have to dig through some old yearbooks to find the answer.

4:11 AM  
Blogger Greg Eno said...

You might be right. Hello,!!

11:38 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home