A small boy of about 10 was trying to bounce a bat off the rubber floor of the Cleveland Indians' dugout and catch it as it bounced back. He missed repeatedly. To his right, out on the playing field, the Indians were taking batting practice while the Oakland A's played pepper in front of their dugout.
"Hey, Moon," called Alvin Dark from behind the batting cage. "Weren't you supposed to pitch today?"
Oakland Pitcher Johnny (Blue Moon) Odom looked up from his pepper game and said to the Indians' manager, "Supposed to, Alvin. But I wasn't feelin" too good today." He grimaced and massaged his right shoulder.
"Jeez, that's too bad, Moon," said Dark with an evil little grin. "Sudden will be very disappointed. You know. I was saving Sudden just for you today."
August 16, 1970
"I appreciate that," said Odom, "but I guess I'd rather pitch tomorrow."
"But we ain't playing tomorrow."
"I'd still rather pitch tomorrow," said Odom, and players on both clubs broke into laughter.
"Sudden" is the nickname of the Cleveland Indians' 27-year-old left-handed pitcher, Sam McDowell. He was given the name by opposing batters who, when asked to describe how his fastball approached the plate, invariably replied, "All of a sudden, man, all of a sudden!" Ever since, McDowell has been signing autographs, shirts, photographs, gloves, baseballs and just about anything but checks "Sudden Sam."
Early this year McDowell fired his sudden pitch past 15 Chicago White Sox batters in eight innings. He lost the game 2-1. When Blue Moon Odom heard of McDowell's feat, he shook his head in disbelief and said, "Man, if I had Sudden's stuff I'd win 25 games every year."
In his six-plus years of major-league pitching, however, Sudden Sam McDowell has yet to win 25 games. Nor has he even won 20 games. Endowed with what many American League hitters call "the best stuff in baseball," McDowell has managed records like 17-11, 13-15 and 15-14. His most wins came in 1969, when he finished 18-14. His career record is 105-86 although, admittedly, he has never played with very good teams at Cleveland. But then again, neither did Robin Roberts when he was winning 20 games all those years for the Phillies—and Roberts never had "the best stuff in baseball."
It has been said that McDowell possesses a talent even greater than the best stuff—the talent to refuse his greatness. Like a character from an Ayn Rand novel, he has discovered that he has the kind of awesome impact that stills all motion in its wake—only McDowell does not know why all motion is stilled in his wake and, furthermore, he could not care less. He seems to be afraid that if he let his talent flower to fulfillment, he might cease to possess it and it, in turn, would possess him. So he treats it like some unruly growth he must periodically prune before it becomes too unmanageable. As a result of this attitude there is more bravado than confidence in Cleveland toward McDowell's present success, which finds him with a 16-6 record, 2.63 ERA and more strikeouts than anybody in the majors. This bravado seems to conceal beneath its surface two questions: "Lord, when will he screw up this time?" and "Why won't the son of a bitch just be great?"
Before a recent game against the A's, McDowell came down the darkened runway into the sun-drenched Cleveland dugout, where he emerged like some monstrous pinstriped polar bear awakening from a winters hibernation. He stands 6'5", weighs 220 pounds and has a natural snarl to his lips. On this day he also had a heavy sandy stubble growing over his large square jaw.
"I never shave on days I pitch," he said in a deep, understated growl. "I try to look extra mean on those days. It helps me get batters out." He also does not talk to fans, sign autographs or pose for pictures on those days.
When McDowell saw the young boy bouncing the bat off the dugout floor he walked up behind him, reached over his head and snatched the bat in midair. The boy whirled around, looking up and up and up into that unshaven shadowed face in terror.
"Watch this," said McDowell. He bounced the bat handle on the floor, caught it as it sprang back, flipped it over his shoulder, let it slide down his back, pulled it through his legs, bounced it once more off the floor and then executed a perfect pirouette before catching the bat on the rebound.
"Wow, Sudden, how d'ya ever learn that?" asked the boy.
"Easy," said McDowell, the corners of his eyes crinkling slightly. "I practice every time I hit a home run."
"Will ya teach me?" said the boy.
"I can't right now," said McDowell, and he navigated three steps in one leap. "I have to go practice The World's Greatest Drag Bunt." And he did.
McDowell claims he is the second best hitter on the Cleveland club, so he sees no sense in practicing his hitting when he could be spending his time more valuably by practicing his drag bunt. In keeping with his character, McDowell says, "The only thing I get satisfaction from is accomplishing something I'm not supposed to be able to do. I live for challenges, and once I overcome them I have to go on to something new." But the possibility of achieving a goal and the actuality of doing it are one and the same thing to him. To his mind the possibility that he could be the greatest pitcher is the same thing as being the greatest pitcher. Therefore, why should he bother to prove it? This is precisely why McDowell never has had a won-lost record to match his ability. He knows he has shown time and again that at a given moment he can outpitch anybody else in baseball—aside from Sandy Koufax he is the only pitcher ever to average more than nine strikeouts per game—therefore he feels he is naturally the best pitcher in baseball. Right? Wrong. Wrong to most people maybe, but not wrong to McDowell. Like a genius, McDowell does not judge his accomplishments by conventional standards. His challenges—and their eventual resolution—are very private affairs.
When McDowell walked to the warm-up mound in the right-field corner before the Oakland game, fans came running from every part of Municipal Stadium to watch. He did not warm up like most pitchers, soft-tossing 40 feet from the catcher as if trying to prolong the inevitable trek back to 60 feet 6 inches, where one's deficiencies become glaringly evident. McDowell began throwing 80 feet from his catcher, and almost from his first pitch the ball was swallowed into the catcher's mitt with a reverberating crack. Even when McDowell throws his first curve-ball he does not cautiously spin it up to the plate in a lazy arc "just to get the spin right." Instead, he fires it with such force and snap that it collapses at the plate like a mallard shot on the wing. By the time McDowell finally works down to 60 feet 6 inches it sounds as if there is a small thunderstorm in the Cleveland bullpen.
It is obvious that McDowell takes great delight in watching his pitches behave, even when he is only warming up. In point of fact, he admits that often he concentrates so much on perfecting individual pitches that he loses sight of any larger picture—a victory, for instance. "I try to break things down to their simplest element," McDowell says, "and sometimes I guess I do it to an extreme. For instance, a game to me is just a series of individual challenges—me against Reggie Jackson or me against Don Mincher. If I find I can get a guy out with a fastball, it takes all the challenge away, so next time I throw him all curveballs. If I don't have a challenge I create one. It makes the game more interesting."
Reggie Jackson says of McDowell: "Now don't get me wrong, I like Sudden and I think he's got the greatest fastball, curveball, slider and changeup I ever saw. I call him "Instant Heat.' But still, I don't mind facing him—and that's not because I hit him so easy, either. Because I don't. It's just that Sudden simplifies things out there. He makes it like it used to be when we were kids. You know he's gonna challenge you, his strength against yours, and either you beat him or he beats you. And if you do beat him with a home run or something, hell, it don't bother him that much. He's not greedy. He lets you have a little, too. And he won't throw at you, either, because he's too nice a guy. He knows that with his fastball he could kill you if he ever hit you.
"You see, baseball's still a game to Sudden, the way it should be to all of us. That's why I love to watch him pitch—because I know he's enjoying himself so much. Do you know he's got 12 different moves to first base? That's a fact. When he was going for his 1,500th strikeout he was trying so hard he fell down on a pitch to me. I loved that. That's why I look forward to facing him, even if I don't hit him a hell of a lot. As a matter of fact, I think he'd be tougher if he had less ability. Sounds crazy, huh? But it's true. Sudden's just got too much stuff."
Alvin Dark agrees that it is possible, but he refuses to admit that it is specifically true of his ace lefthander. As a matter of fact, Dark refuses to admit much of anything about McDowell, handling all such questions with the same dread that little girls treat the offer of candy from strange old men.
"Some guys, you break them down pitch by pitch," says Dark, "and they should be 20-game winners. But when you add them all together again, the best they do is 15-18 wins. Something's missing. I don't know what. Just something. Now I'm not saying that's the case with Sudden. I'm just saying that's the way it is with some guys."
Most members of the Cleveland press and front office would not be so ambiguous as Dark. They definitely think there is something missing from McDowell that has prevented him from achieving the greatness they have been predicting for him for the past decade.
When McDowell was first brought to Cleveland in 1961 he was a scrawny 18-year-old rookie with a blazing fastball, a $65,000 bonus and a reputation for eccentricity. The fans, the press and the front office immediately billed him as "the new Bob Feller" and waited impatiently for him to fulfill his potential. He didn't. He either failed or refused to play the roles everyone else had defined for him. He was not sober and dignified like Feller. Nor did he win games like Feller or Early Wynn or Mike Garcia or Bob Lemon.
At first it was hard for fans to understand how a pitcher with McDowell's stuff never seemed to be as good as the sum of his parts. When it became apparent that this was the case, though, they reacted with a bitterness that culminated in the remarks of a Cleveland sportscaster who said that Sam McDowell would never be anything more than a second-rate pitcher because "he has a million-dollar arm and a 10¢ head."
Although most people did not agree with the tone of that remark, they did agree with its substance, and Cleveland fans began to resign themselves to the fact that McDowell would never equal his potential. At least this made life easier for everyone involved. The fans grew to love him (they voted him Man of the Decade recently), the writers no longer badgered him and the front office treated him like some likable mischievous child who finds it impossible to take much of anything in life too seriously. Even McDowell seems to do his best to foster this view of himself, although it is not quite clear whether he does it by accident or on purpose.
The day after the Oakland game McDowell stood in his underwear in front of his locker, dressing slowly. "Hoot, did I ever tell you the one about the Kamikaze pilot?" he said. Hoot Evers, then a Tribe coach and the man who helped sign McDowell out of high school, looked up from his newspaper.
"No, Sudden, you never did."
"Well, this Kamikaze pilot was the ace of the squad because he made 12 successful missions." said McDowell.
"I see," said Evers, shaking his head, and he went back to reading his paper.
"Sudden, did you see this in the paper?" Dean Chance walked over to McDowell and handed him a newspaper which he began to read as Chance talked.
"What the hell am I gonna do?" said Chance in mock panic. "My financial adviser, Denny McLain, is $400,000 in debt."
Sam finished the paper and handed it back to Chance. "Why don't you call him in Detroit and ask him the odds on tonight's game?" said McDowell very seriously.
"Maybe I will," said Chance with a grin, "maybe I will."
"Call him collect," added McDowell. "Tell Denny I said he wouldn't mind."
McDowell finished dressing and was about to go out on the field, where he plays second base during batting practice. (Dark used him at second one game this year. "I could be a great second baseman," McDowell has said.) Cy Buynak, the Tribe's stubby little clubhouse man, came over and demanded to know why McDowell hadn't listed his telephone number on a form Cy needed. McDowell told him he didn't know his telephone number.
"What do you mean you don't know your telephone number?" said Cy, hands on hips, indignant. "How could you not know your own number?"
"I just don't know it," said McDowell sheepishly.
"That's impossible. Everybody knows their telephone number. How you gonna call your wife in case of an emergency?"
"I never thought of that," said McDowell. Cy slapped his forehead and walked away muttering to himself. There was a thin smile on McDowell's lips, and it wasn't until much later that he told Cy he had just moved and his phone hadn't been installed yet.
When I first interviewed Sam one day in spring training some years ago," says John Fitzgerald of WJW-TV, "he told me Birdie Tebbetts [the manager] wasn't pitching him because he didn't like him. I figured I had a scoop until Tebbetts told me the reason he wasn't pitching Sam was because he had a sore arm. After that I never knew how to take Sam. Then, recently, I met his father. He had that same devilish twinkle in his eyes Sam has, and finally it dawned on me that all these years Sam's been putting us all on and we never knew it."
At various times in his career McDowell has told interviewers that strikeouts mean nothing to him and that his biggest thrill was his 1,500th strikeout; that he never loses his temper and that he got so angry at an umpire once that he threw the ball into the upper deck at Baltimore; that records mean nothing to him and that the reason he signed with Cleveland was to break all of Feller's strikeout records; that he takes pitching too casually and that he worries too much about pitching; that he could never throw at a batter and that he would throw at his mother if she ever dug in against him; and, finally, that baseball means nothing to him and that baseball means everything to him.
"I like to give everybody what they want," says McDowell with a grin. "I used to worry about what the writers wrote. I would be real cooperative with them—take them to my house for dinner and everything. Then I realized that they wrote what they wanted to no matter what I said or did. They had their stories already fixed in their minds before they even talked to me. So I decided to make it easier for them by saying whatever they wanted."
Fitzgerald, who admits that he has affection for McDowell, doesn't think this is the only reason he is so ready with a quip. "I think Sam was hurt by the bad publicity he got early in his career. People expected too much from him. So he decided to hide behind all those contradictory statements so no one would be able to discover who he was and hurt him again. He's just a big kid, really, who's afraid of being hurt—that's all."
As further proof that McDowell is just a big kid in the guise of a talented giant, Fitzgerald cites his numerous hobbies. In his spare time The World's Greatest Drag Bunter manages to collect and build guns, construct model boats inside bottles, train German shepherds, shoot pocket billiards and paint still lifes. At first glance these interests seem to be haphazard, the interests of a man without direction, but they do have two things in common. Each one can be worked at in solitude and McDowell can view each one as a personal challenge isolated from the approval of anyone but himself.
For instance, as a painter of still lifes, McDowell admits he has one small problem. "I try to make my painting more perfect than the thing itself. As a result, people often don't recognize what my painting is supposed to represent."
Besides his hobbies McDowell also owns a pizza parlor and a pool hall. "I don't allow any gambling or swearing in my pool hall," he says very seriously. "There's usually lots of families there." Both are located near his present off-season home in Monroeville, Pa., which he describes as "a small exclusive suburb of Pittsburgh." He is also a salesman for Holiday Magic, "the organic cosmetics." "I took a correspondence course in salesmanship," he says. "It taught me how to sell myself. That's very important, you know. Now, whenever I speak at a high school, I always tell the kids they can be whatever they want. No one can stop them."
When McDowell goes on road trips with his team he carries so much baggage (adding machines, paints, gunsmith tools, etc.) that he has to room alone. "There wouldn't be room for anyone else," he says. "I always bring my stuff with me because I don't like to go out of my hotel when we're in town. For instance, New York scares me to death. I just eat downstairs in the hotel and then go back to my room to fool with my hobbies or watch television."
Many people who predicted greater success for him than McDowell has achieved are bothered by his numerous hobbies and interests. It is not the hobbies so much that annoy them but the fact that McDowell treats the hobbies with the same interest he does his baseball ability. It annoys people that he refuses to treat his pitching skills with any more reverence than he does his ability to shoot pool or build guns. This is the kind of annoyance that uncomprehending, untalented people often feel toward a talented person who they think treats a natural gift carelessly.
The reason McDowell takes as much interest in his hobbies as he does in pitching is that he views life as nothing more than a series of isolated challenges, none of which is any greater or any less than the others. Baseball is a part of his life, just as guns and pool are, and McDowell refuses to make it all of his life as some people demand. But few people ever achieve greatness in one field until they are able to divorce themselves from everything else but their profession.
"To be a great pitcher or anything," says Herb Score, "you have to give up a lot. Some guys just don't want to make the sacrifice. They'd rather do great now and then than be great permanently."
Writers and managers have been particularly annoyed with McDowell's refusal to devote his life entirely to baseball. Writers tried to pressure him into greatness with bitter articles, while managers have tried different tactics.
"When I caught Sam a few years ago," says Duke Sims, now an outfielder with the Indians, "Joe Adcock decided to call all of his pitches from the bench. In Anaheim one night Sam had super stuff, but Adcock kept getting him in trouble. Finally, Adcock loaded the bases in the sixth inning, and when I turned to the dugout for the next sign he turned his back on me. He made Sam get out of it himself. I think Sam eventually lost that game."
"Managers are mostly ex-hitters." says McDowell, "and they seldom have any respect for pitchers. They don't understand that all pitchers are unique and have to be handled differently. Most managers think pitchers are dumb because we like to do our own thing. Yet we couldn't be too dumb because every year they're changing the rules of baseball to make life easier for the hitters." The reason McDowell is critical of managers is because they have tried to tailor him to their dimensions. "They want to prostitute me for their own benefit," McDowell says matter-of-factly.
When McDowell was a young boy his father, Thomas McDowell, a steel-mill inspector and former Pitt quarterback who rarely played, decided his son should be a baseball player. At the time Sam was equally proficient in baseball, basketball and football and didn't want to confine his energies to one sport. "I would have liked to go to college to become a quarterback," McDowell says, but his father was adamant. When one day Sam skipped baseball practice to play a little football his father was furious. "I never skipped practice again," says Sam. "But still, I never really wanted to be a baseball player like most kids. I'd just as easily have been a teacher or some other 9 to 5 job. There's no certainty to baseball. I'd like the certainty of a 9 to 5 job. But my father saw I had the talent, so he forced me into it. But I never thought I was that good at it, anyway. When I was ready to sign, all the clubs were promising to send me right to the majors. I was terrified of that so I signed with the Indians on the promise they'd send me as low as possible, to Class D ball. Even when I made the majors I never thought I was that good. I used to start every game with the hope I just wouldn't embarrass myself out there. I've always felt that I was forced into the majors before I was ready. Even now, no matter how great people say I am, I'll never believe it.
"What's bothered me most about people all these years is how much they've demanded of me. No matter what I do, they want more. It's never enough. They seem to be envious of my talent, although I never thought I was so gifted like everybody says. Once in a while I work with crippled children, and I think they're the ones who are really lucky. They've got a gift I'll never hope to have.... You know, someday I'll write my autobiography. When I do, I'm going to title it one of two things. Either Mediocrity Can Be Great or Yon CAN Fool All the People All the Time."