Picking up The Pieces

Detroit's former bullpen ace Kevin Saucier realized this spring that he'd never pitch again—but he's not about to complain
August 28, 1983

The other day, while he was rummaging about the house, Kevin Saucier picked up a baseball and studied it with the quizzical detachment of a man who had chanced upon a moon rock. "It was like a foreign object, something I'd never seen before," he says. "Then I remembered, and the terrible feeling came over me again. It was scary."

Scary because this is the very same Kevin Saucier (pronounced so-shay) who, just a few hopping fastballs ago, was one of the premier relief pitchers in baseball—the one they all called Hot Sauce, a fiery-eyed lefthander who was at his roiling best for the Detroit Tigers. "Not only is Kevin very aggressive, taking no nonsense and going after everyone," said Tiger Manager Sparky Anderson during the 1981 season, "but I haven't seen many guys who flat-out love to pitch as much as he does."

Indeed, Saucier's credo—"Gimme the ball!"—was the kind they etch on bullpen walls. "I go out there with confidence," he declared, "and I just know there's no son of a gun alive who can hit me." A professed "loony" and the darling of Tiger fans, he laid claim to "the whole bit—pitching, limelight, notoriety, money." Knocking down $140,000 a year—and any batter foolhardy enough to try and dig in against him—Saucier once mused, "You know, I love this game so much that when I get close to the end, I reckon they're gonna have to rip this uniform right off me because I ain't gonna give it up that easy. I want to play, I reckon, until I'm 45."

That was last season, shortly before Saucier was stricken by "this strange, terrible feeling," an affliction that caused him to lose his control—and very nearly his wits. This spring, after making one last effort at "getting it all together again," no one had to rip off Saucier's uniform; wrenchingly, tearfully, he hung it up on his own at age 26 "while I still had some dignity left."

What happened? No one—not his therapist, his wife Karen, the many coaches and players who tried to help, and least of all Saucier himself—knows the answer to that question. "I wish I could explain it," he says. "If I could, I'd still be out there pitching." Instead, he is back home in Pensacola, Fla., out of work, short on cash and aware that the closest he will ever come to major league baseball again are the bats, bases, gloves and other sports equipment he is selling out of his garage to make some extra money.

Saucier is not the first hot property to experience a premature flameout, nor will he be the last, but few pitchers have lost their stuff so precipitously and so inexplicably.

Son of a government employee at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, Saucier was selected out of high school by the Philadelphia Phillies in the second round of the 1974 free-agent draft and, with a $24,000 bonus and $7,500 in incentives, dispatched to the club's Pulaski, Va. farm team. No phenom with an express ticket to the bigs, he progressed slowly, stopping at all the required way stations—Spartanburg, S.C.; Hampton, Va.; Reading, Pa.; Oklahoma City. "I never had what you would call natural ability," he says. "I had to work at it."

And work Saucier did, for 5½ years, in fact, trading on the kind of raw, unbridled desire that got him through a so-so minor league career—and into a lot of costly scraps. He had a serviceable curve and a fastball that rode in on lefthanded batters; how far inside depended on the state of his temper, which was usually steamy. Once, after a heated exchange with a hitter, he brushed him back again, touching off a free-for-all that was, he says, "maybe the biggest fight ever in baseball." Another time, when he was tagged for a triple and had to hustle to back up third base, he used the opportunity to run over an umpire who he felt had made some bad calls. "It seemed like every payday I was writing a check to the league," Karen Saucier says. "It was in our budget. You know, rent, food, utilities, fines."

Soon after he was called up by the Phillies in June 1979, Saucier became involved in a brushback duel with the Chicago Cubs' Mike Krukow. Saucier ultimately struck Krukow in the back with a fastball and they fought in another bench-clearing brawl. "I don't take any nonsense on the mound," he announced. "If I feel that other pitchers are throwing at my teammates, they are going to suffer the consequences."

In 1980, teaming with Tug McGraw in the bullpen for a potent one-two portside punch, Saucier was an important factor in the pennant drive that culminated in a World Series victory for the Phillies. He finished with a 7-3 record, a 3.42 ERA and enough votes to win an award as the Most Popular Phillie. That November, to complete a trade that brought veteran Reliever Sparky Lyle to Philadelphia, Saucier was dealt to the Texas Rangers, and they in turn shuffled him to the Tigers three weeks later for Shortstop Mark Wagner.

Saucier responded by treating Detroit to his best season ever in 1981, registering 13 saves and a 1.65 ERA. In a rating system introduced by SI, Saucier was tied for fourth among all the relievers in the majors. In 49 innings he gave up only one home run and 21 walks, and was the most effective reliever in the majors when it came to retiring the first batter he faced. High-stepping off the mound like an ostrich in heat, hand-slapping and hugging every teammate within reach after a save, the "Flying Saucier" became the hottest attraction to land in town since Mark (The Bird) Fidrych flapped into view in 1976.

Hot Sauce was also an A-l mover and shaker in the dugout. On one occasion, when Detroit was trailing Baltimore 4-0, he banged his head on the bench a few times and shouted, "What's going on here? Let's get going!" Whereupon the Tigers rallied to win 5-4 with Saucier getting the save. "I'm a hyper person and I've always had a funny walk on me," he says of his prance-and-dance routines. "So when I did a good job or we needed to keep loose, I wasn't afraid to show a little emotion."

Or a lot of bewilderment when, during a relief stint in Oakland on May 28, 1982, he unaccountably and without warning "lost touch with things" for the first time. With Tony Armas at bat, Saucier recalls all too vividly, he released a fastball that missed the plate by a good five feet and sailed off in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Shrugging it off as "one that got away," he then threw a slider that, if anything, was more errant than the previous pitch. "I said to myself, 'What the hell's going on here?' "

Sparky Anderson was asking the same question when, in a stretch of 16 innings over the next few weeks, Saucier gave up 17 walks. Moved from short to middle relief, he had not worked in seven days when Anderson called on him to quell a Texas Ranger uprising. He walked the first batter he faced, and Captain Hook yanked him. Summoning Saucier to his office the next day, Anderson said, "I want to send you down to Evansville to get yourself in order." Saucier, incensed because he felt he had not been given enough work to stay sharp, snapped, "Stuff it!" and stomped out.

"I like Sparky as a person," Saucier says, "but I just don't think he knows how to handle pitchers."

Perhaps not so coincidentally, at the time Saucier was also attempting to resolve a serious strain in his marriage. He recalls, "I almost lost my wife and my daughter, Stephanie, and I said, 'Whoa.' There's nothing that's worth that. Thankfully, I saved my marriage before that happened."

In Evansville, "it was like I was starting all over again," says Saucier. Working on his mechanics with Pitching Coach Billy Muffett, he tried throwing from the right side of the rubber and then the left, speeding up his delivery and then slowing it down, taking one deep breath and then two. Nothing seemed to make a difference. He says, "It got to the point where I was so unsure of my touch I started asking guys how they gripped their fastball." And it showed: He was 0-4 with Evansville, had an earned run average of 7.36 and allowed 23 walks in 22 innings.

Discouraged but determined to "hang tough," Saucier elected to spend another month of search and rediscovery in the Florida Instructional League. This time his results—only three walks in 14 innings—were heartening enough to send him home for the winter with a firm belief that "I could pitch in the big leagues again," and a resolve to give up cigarettes and beer.

Though in prime physical shape when he reported to the Tigers' training camp in Lakeland, Fla. this February, Saucier was unprepared for the quirky mind games ahead. At first he threw well in batting practice, humming them in as of old. But then, in the second week, he says, "Whacko! That strange feeling hit me again, and it seemed like things were twice as bad as before. Understand, I wasn't just missing high or low. I was missing side to side. I was throwing pitches 20 feet behind hitters. I could have hurt somebody, but then again, I never got that close. I just didn't feel right. It was like I was under a spell. It was a feeling of being lost, like trying to type with no fingers. What do you do? You're lost. You can't help yourself. You try, you try to relax, and you just can't."

Convinced that he needed professional help, Saucier agreed to meet with Dr. Deborah Bright, author of the self-help book Creative Relaxation: Turning Your Stress into Positive Energy. Bright, a former competitive diver whose doctorate is in education, had worked with Tiger Pitcher Dan Petry, helping to relieve him of "the pressure of being afraid to make a mistake." Bright spent most of one season helping Petry work on his confidence, but Saucier's crisis was such that she had to compress her time with him and his wife into two all-day sessions.

"The stakes for Kevin were high; consequently, so was the pressure he was experiencing," Bright says. "Spring training was nearly half over and he had reached a point where he could barely go to the ball park. He had exhausted all his resources."

Bright ran Saucier through a kind of basic stress-survival course. She taught him the value of "personal quiet time," provided him with specific exercises for "unwinding effectively," for isolating and developing the elements that enhanced his performance and expunging those that did not. "Too often," says Bright, "athletes with natural ability are not aware of what it is they do that makes them play well, and when they get off track, they don't know what to look for. Also, few realize how much their private lives can affect their public performance. Kevin? I suggest that there were probably several factors that contributed to his decline. Stress at home. The two trades. The shock of that first wild pitch. The demotion to the minor leagues. And then, of course, the everyday pressure that baseball, or any sport, triggers."

The therapy helped, Saucier says, "but deep down inside I knew something was still very wrong." His first three exhibition outings, in which he gave up a total of two hits and one run in three innings, were largely stress-free. The next time out, however, he was scheduled to work the sixth inning against Minnesota but at the last minute was moved up to the fifth instead, and, as a result, had to cut his customary 25 warmup pitches to seven. Whacko! He gave up five runs and as many hits, including a grand slam home run to Gary Ward.

The next day, Saucier was told that Anderson wanted to see him. "I told Karen that it was either one of two things: One, he was going to apologize for bringing me in with only seven warmup pitches, or two, he was going to release me. But I wasn't kidding myself; I knew I was gone."

Gone he was. "I guess that was just Sparky," Saucier says of his release. "We had our fights. I think he was dead set against me making it. Maybe it was just baseball's way of telling me I didn't belong anymore." Anderson says, "Pitching the way he can, Kevin could've helped us. Pitching the way he was, he couldn't. So we had no choice. Who knows what went wrong? I don't, and I doubt if he does. It's just a damn shame."

Nevertheless, one more team was willing to give Saucier another chance. After what Karen tearfully called "the worst week of our lives," the Atlanta Braves offered him $30,000 to pitch for their Richmond, Va. Triple A team and said they'd give him $100,000 if he moved up to the parent club. Saucier, clinging to the hope that "a change of scenery might help," accepted.

When Saucier joined Richmond at their spring training camp in West Palm Beach, he threw well on the sideline and in intrasquad games. But when called on to pitch in an exhibition game against Columbus, the New York Yankees' Triple A team, he fell apart. It's all a nightmarish blur now, but Saucier remembers giving up maybe five runs, four or five walks and, most terrifyingly, making a horrendous—and, no doubt, record-setting—seven wild pitches.

"It was unbelievable," he says. "I could hear the guys on the Columbus bench laughing, saying how I'd freaked out. They had no idea what I was going through." Finally, a badly shaken Saucier called Richmond Manager Eddie Haas to the mound and said, "Eddie, you got to get me out of here. I just can't handle it anymore." Then Saucier trudged off, and sat down and wept.

"It's funny, but when I was coming up, control was my main thing," says Saucier. "I mean I could really pump that ball in there. I used to get mad when I wasn't out there pitching. And then all of a sudden I didn't want to go out there anymore. I was afraid I was going to kill somebody. I had thrown at hitters before, sure, but I never threw at their heads. The difference was I had my control then, and I knew where I was going to hit them. But now, well, I just had no idea where that ball was going to go, and it scared me so bad I thought I'd crack up."

When the team broke training camp the day after his worst mound disaster ever, Saucier traveled north with it to Richmond, where he met Karen. Ever hopeful, she had driven a U-Haul trailer from Pensacola to Richmond and rented an apartment. "All along," she says, "I wanted Kevin to keep playing. I'd say, 'C'mon, you can do it.' But when I got to Richmond and saw how mentally exhausted and torn up he was, I realized how selfish I'd been. He looked like a basket case. So I told him, 'Kevin, go ahead and do what you want to do and not what others want you to do. I'd much rather have you happy than see you drive yourself crazy trying to throw a little white ball.' "

That same day Saucier tried to put through a call to Steve Blass, the former All-Star pitcher and World Series hero for the Pittsburgh Pirates whose similar inexplicable loss of control forced him to quit the game in 1974. No matter that Saucier was unable to reach him. Blass still lives in the Pittsburgh area, doing promotional work for a beer distributor and working as a broadcaster, and now as then, having tried everything from psychoanalysis and hypnotism to an ophthalmologist, he has no answers for himself or anyone else. A decade after his first attack of wildness, Blass reports, "I still can't pitch—not even batting practice at my own baseball camp."

The next evening Saucier reported to the Richmond clubhouse for a scheduled workout, but left his equipment in the car. He walked out onto the deserted field. Standing on the mound for several long solitary moments, he scanned the stands, and then told himself, "This is it, the end. There will be no more baseball for Kevin Saucier." He walked off the mound and never looked back.

"I loved baseball; it was my whole life," says Saucier. "But in the end I feared for my own sanity. If I stayed in, I would have driven myself crazy."

Two hours after he arrived home in Pensacola, Saucier donned the uniform of Franco's Lounge and drove himself to Exchange Park to play a slo-pitch softball game. When someone tentatively asked if he would like to pitch, Saucier laughed for the first time in a long while. "Not unless you want somebody to end up with a softball in their ear. Hell, no. I want to go in the outfield and have some fun for a change."

The Sauciers have also had to change their life-style. Unable to meet the payments on their new Buick Regal, they recently sold it for $10,500 and then bought a '68 Mercedes for $5,000. And they have put their ranch home, which they bought two years ago for $95,900, on the market for $116,000. When they find a buyer, they plan to move in with Karen's parents until they can reestablish themselves.

"Welcome to the real world," says Saucier. "Hey, we're scufflin' a little bit. But so what? Everybody keeps asking, 'But what about the money?' Sure, the money was good in baseball, but I'd rather be broke and be happy." He laughs. "They're not going to back that Brink's truck up to my grave."

That's the power of creative relaxation for you. Indeed, the Sauciers have been turning so much stress inside out lately they are fairly crackling with positive energy. Hear Karen: "No doubt about it, Kevin's leaving baseball has been a blessing. We were having problems in our marriage, it's true, and now we're closer than we've ever been. Kevin's definitely a different person. He's calmer and I like him a lot better that way. I'm proud of him, I really am—not only for his career, but for standing up for his own life. In baseball you don't have your own life; they literally own you.

"You know, I always told Kevin, 'When there's no more baseball, that's when you're going to need me the most.' Well, it's happened sooner than I ever expected and I couldn't feel better about us now. We don't want sympathy. We're still young. We've got a lot to look forward to. This isn't the end of anything; it's a new beginning."

And Kevin: "Everybody wants to know what happened, but I guess it will always be a mystery. I do know I made the right decision and there are certainly no regrets. This is not a sad story. I got a look at both sides of the game. I was on the top and I was on the bottom. I feel as if I've gotten out while I was on top. It was me who made the decision; it wasn't somebody else telling me I couldn't do the job anymore. I'll admit it hurt when I quit. I even cried a couple of times about it. But now it's time for me to go on and do something else."

Stephanie, age four, has just the thing. When Karen first told her that "Daddy can't play baseball anymore," she said, "Now Daddy can play football."

Actually, Hot Sauce will be cooking as never before. This November he and partner David Del Gallo, a local contractor, plan to open a new pizza restaurant called Saucier's Dugout. "I love pizza," says Saucier. "I used to work in a pizza joint, and I know all the secrets about making a good pie. Like knowing the precise moment to take it out of the oven. I'm an expert at that."

The Dugout will also offer beer, wine and sandwiches. The barstools will be made out of bases, with bats for legs. There will be a game room and trophy cases, featuring such items as Saucier's Tiger uniform. The autographed balls, batting helmets and photos of Kevin's former teammates have been rolling in, including an 8 X 10 glossy of Lance Parrish, his Detroit batterymate, with the message: "Keep the dough soft and chewy."

"Free and breezy" is how Saucier is playing it these days. "I feel like a tremendous burden has been lifted from my shoulders," he says. "Baseball? Naw, it's not for me anymore. To tell you the truth, I have no intention of ever trying to come back." Still, there are times....

Not too long ago, while Kevin was watching Philadelphia play Atlanta on TV, Karen noticed a faraway look in his eyes. "Kevin," she said softly, "are you all right?" "Sure," he said, recovering. "Why do you ask?"

Because everyone wants to know if there's any hurt left, any longings. "No," Saucier says. "When I think about baseball now, I remember all the good times. And there were a lot of them. Like, hey, I've still got my World Series ring, right? They can't take that away from me."

Or the fun of playing for Franco's Lounge. Recently, when an opposing runner tried to score from second on a single to left center, Saucier says, "I cut that sucker down at the plate with a perfect throw."

It was, in fact, the first good strike Kevin Saucier had thrown in a long, long time.

TWO PHOTOSTONY TOMSICSaucier's Pensacola house is up for sale, but he's far from being down in the dumps. PHOTOTONY TOMSICThough his pitching days are gone forever, Saucier is still a hit on the softball field. PHOTOTONY TOMSICWith his wife, Karen, and daughter Stephanie, 4, Saucier swings into a new life-style. PHOTOTONY TOMSICHard times have forced Saucier to trade his new Regal for a 1968 Mercedes.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)