Back On The Right Track

May 06, 1985
May 06, 1985

Table of Contents
May 6, 1985

The Jazz
Dwight Evans
Robby Naish
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Back On The Right Track

Thanks to hard work and answered prayers, things are now looking up for Dwight Evans and his family

The aroma of pesto—a heady mixture of basil and garlic tamed (but barely) by olive oil, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese and a smidgen of cream cheese—swirls throughout the Evanses' kitchen in Lynnfield, Mass. The Red Sox' Dwight (Dewey) Evans, who at 33 is coming off the finest season of his 13-year career, could live on pesto. He very nearly did during spring training this year, when as often as four nights a week he dined at a Winter Haven, Fla. restaurant called Lombardo's Italian Cuisine, ordering various pastas smothered in pesto. But even Lombardo's pesto is no match for his wife's homemade, and one whiff of Susan Evans's sauce wafting through the house sets the salivary glands spouting like shower massagers. "We grow our own garlic and basil," Susan says, putting on the water for the linguine. "I made something like 87 cups last summer, and Dwight still complained if I gave any away. I believe you could hook my honey up to an IV filled with pesto and he'd never get enough."

This is an article from the May 6, 1985 issue Original Layout

After 14 years of marriage preceded by three years of dating back at Chatsworth (Calif.) High, Susan still refers to Dwight as "my honey." Not "Honey," which in most American families is nothing more than sugarcoating before the command, "Take out the garbage." My honey. She means it. "I'm his best friend, and he's my best friend," Susan, 33, says matter-of-factly. "It wasn't always that way. For a while we were both pretty difficult to live with. But everything that's important in life has turned around for us."

One glance into the backyard tells part of the story: 8-year-old Justin is tossing up a rubber ball and whacking it into the bushes, 9-year-old Kirstin is playing soccer in the driveway and 12-year-old Timmy is tossing a football with his father. The kids—particularly the two boys—are healthy and active after years of coping with hospitals, doctors and operations. "Answered prayer" is the way both Dwight and Susan Evans explain it.

There is a feeling around the Evans home that things have fallen into place, that the best days lie ahead for all of them. Maybe that's as it always is at the start of a baseball season, for it is the day after Opening Day, and Evans has started out 1985 in rousing fashion by hitting a homer and a double and scoring three runs in the Red Sox' 9-2 drubbing of the Yanks. Susan took the three kids out of school to see the game. "You know what Timmy said to Dwight afterward?" she says, stirring the pesto and smiling. "That was the first baseball game he ever enjoyed."

"Why?" Timmy is later asked.

"I don't know why. It just was."

Dwight Evans is finally out of the shadows. After years of playing second and third fiddle to such Red Sox stars as Carl Yastrzemski, Fred Lynn, Jim Rice and more recently Tony Armas and Wade Boggs, Evans is beginning to get the recognition that is due him as the finest rightfielder of his time. Not just the best defensive rightfielder—a mantle that has been Evans's for a while now. The best, period. Last season, in addition to winning his fourth straight Gold Glove and the seventh of his career, Evans put some numbers on the board with his bat that stood up to anyone's—including Rice's and Armas's. In fact Evans (104), Rice (122) and Armas (123) became the first outfield since that of the 1929 Cubs (Hack Wilson, Kiki Cuyler and Riggs Stephenson) to drive in more than 100 runs each. Further, Evans led the majors in runs scored (121), plate appearances (738), tied with Armas for most extra-base hits (77) and led the Red Sox in slugging percentage (.532) for the third time in the last four years. His 32 home runs tied his career high, and lest you think he was popping them over Fenway's Green Monster a la Rico Petrocelli, 17 of those dingers came on the road. Evans placed among the top eight in the American League in 13 offensive categories, including walks (third with 96), doubles (fourth with 37), total bases (second with 335) and on-base percentage (sixth with .388). Not bad for a guy who was hitting .209 as late as May 25—44 games into the season. The rest of the way—and Evans was one of only five major-leaguers last season to play all 162 games—he batted .325. This season, as of Sunday, Evans, traditionally a slow starter, was batting .239 with two home runs and 11 RBIs. "I never had the confidence in my hitting before that I had in my fielding," says Evans, who bats second in the Red Sox' current version of Murderers Row—after Boggs and before Rice, Mike Easier, Armas, Bill Buckner and Rich Gedman. "I can do almost anything I want to do with the ball right now."

In the last five years Evans has learned to be a hitter, but for the first 7½ seasons of his career it was his defense—and his arm—that kept him in the Sox lineup. Of all the positions in baseball, rightfield may have the most mystique. Youngsters who play there are traditionally the slowest or fattest or least interested players on the team, but by the time they reach the majors, a miraculous transition has taken place. The flabby kid picking daisies in right has turned into a Roberto Clemente or an Al Kaline, a guy who can throw out runners from here to the moon. You can talk all you want about those speedy colts in center who chase down every ball, but the most awesome sight in baseball, defensively anyway, is a strong throw to third or home from deep rightfield. Whooosh. It's as if the laws of physics have been temporarily suspended. And who can explain the mechanics of a great arm? "It's a gift," says the 6'3", 202-pound Evans. "You put me up next to Don Baylor, and he looks like Hercules and I look like Olive Oyl. So why is my arm better than his?"

Evans has 118 career assists, but just as important are all the times that runners haven't tried to run on him, pulling up at second rather than trying to go from first to third on a single. "Evans intimidates runners," says Milwaukee outfielder Rick Manning. "And he intimidates third-base coaches even more."

"Evans's arm isn't as strong as it was several years ago," says Dave Garcia, Milwaukee's third-base coach last year, "but it's still the best."

Evans's most memorable defensive play came in the sixth game of the 1975 World Series when, in the top. of the 11th, he made a running catch to rob Cincinnati's Joe Morgan of a two-run homer, then doubled Ken Griffey off first to end the inning. That set the stage for Carlton Fisk's dramatic 12th-inning game-winning homer off the leftfield foul pole, a blast that has been replayed eight million times over the past decade. Evans's catch? Well, it has been shown maybe four times on ESPN at two in the morning, shortly after the Irish hurling championships. "The catch was nice," says Evans. "But the thing I was proudest of in that Series was in Game 3 when I hit a two-run homer off Rawly Eastwick that tied the game in the ninth. No one remembers it. What people remember about that game was that we lost when Ed Armbrister interfered with Fisk in the 10th." Evans smiles at the whimsical and fickle nature of fame. "That's pretty much the way my career's gone," he says.

Nineteen seventy-five. That was also the year in which it was discovered that Evans's 2-year-old son, Timmy, had neurofibromatosis—NF—a genetic disorder often characterized by benign soft tumor formations on or under the skin and, occasionally, bone defect. In the next three years Timmy had 10 operations. Each time, the tumors would grow back. "We kept asking, 'Why us? Why us?' " Evans recalls. "It was tough, being a young and healthy couple and not knowing how to cope with something like that. I wasn't playing the way I was capable of playing. I used to come from the hospital and get booed at the park. It made me a very cold person inside. And because I didn't talk about it, everything stayed inside."

Evans's best friend on the Red Sox was Yastrzemski. They shared common interests in fishing and cuisine, and Evans unabashedly looked up to Yaz. "We talked some about his kids," Yastrzemski remembers, "but there was nothing you could do. He used to tell me that he knew that to play this game you had to be 100 percent mentally at the ball park. But how do you do that when your kid is in the hospital?"

In 1977 Timmy's condition suddenly stabilized—sometimes NF is progressive and sometimes it ceases abruptly. But there were related problems. His left eye was nearly swollen shut, for one—the result of a tumor—and while his eyesight has gradually improved over the years, it has been a long struggle for him to catch up in school. In fact, finding a school that was equipped and willing to handle his special needs was a trial. A fifth-grader now, Timmy attended eight different ones—some private, some public, some Christian—before the Evanses finally found one that seemed right. In each new place, he was the new kid who was just different enough to tempt cruelty.

In the midst of all this, in February of 1982, it was discovered that Justin—the youngest child—had a silver-dollar-sized tumor at the base of his brain. "At the time I was kind of numb," recalls Susan. "So much had happened to Timmy. Then Kirstin was fine. When we found out about Justin, there was not much more I could take. We really didn't talk about it much. Dwight was trying to function in baseball, and there really wasn't anything we could do. We were both just very confused and not happy."

That summer Justin, who was five, underwent six weeks of radiation treatment in an attempt to put the tumor in remission. It was growing against his optic nerve, giving him headaches, affecting his eyesight and balance, Dwight was away with the Red Sox, so every day Susan put the two oldest kids in camp, then drove an hour or so to Boston, sat around for two hours while Justin underwent treatment, and drove home. "Justin is just a very unusual child." Susan says now. "He'd bounce into that hospital like sunshine. He never complained. He thought it was funny when his hair fell out. He got very thin, but he never was resentful. Halfway through the treatment, long before the doctors said anything, we knew he was cured. And look at him now," she laughs, poking him in his ample belly. "He's a tuna."

"It was a miracle," says Evans, who, like Susan, has become a devout Christian as a result of the experience. "Even the doctors doing the radiation said there was no way to dissolve the tumor completely. But when they did another CAT scan, it was gone. Our God heals. He is good. I'm talking about a subject that is very dear to me. This is what makes me tick. It's the only way I could have gotten through what I did."

Asked if there is a connection between his religious faith and his baseball career, specifically his recent improvement at the plate, Evans smiles and says, "God helps those who help themselves."

"He worked his butt off," translates Walter Hriniak, the Red Sox batting instructor who helped turn Evans's career around in July, 1980. "Still does. He was a fantastic pupil because he was ready to listen."

Evans should have been. At the 1980 All-Star break, he was hitting .194 and was being platooned in rightfield with Jim Dwyer. "I was the easiest out in the league," says Evans, who, on top of everything else, had been seriously beaned by Seattle's Mike Parrott in 1978. He'd been stepping in the bucket ever since. "Guys would tell me, 'You're coming off the ball,' " remembers Evans. " 'Hey, great. How do I stop?' They called me the man of many stances. I had about 300 of them. I used to change not only from game to game and at bat to at bat, but sometimes from pitch to pitch. That's how confused I was."

Hriniak, considered by many to be the finest hitting instructor in the game today, is a disciple of the late Charlie Lau, having played under him in Shreveport, La. in 1968. "The first thing we did was get him into a stance he would stay with through thick and thin," Hriniak recalls. "His weight had to be back, his balance on the balls of his feet, his head down and his shoulders square."

The result, arrived at by trial and error, makes Evans resemble a man with a vicious itch. His left heel is raised, his feet are widely spread, his toes are pointed inward and his bat is cocked sharply back at a 45-degree angle. "It's the old Mel Ott or Sadaharu Oh theory of keeping all your weight back, and then shifting it forward as you meet the ball," says Evans. "Plus, I try to hit everything up the middle."

Evans had spent his first 7½ seasons in Boston trying to pull the ball. It's one of the pitfalls of being a righthanded hitter in Fenway. But by thinking about driving the ball up the middle, Evans began keeping his head down. "It also allowed him to be more patient," says Hriniak. "In order to pull the ball, you have to start your swing early. Hitting to the middle of the field gives you a longer look at the ball, which means more walks."

In the final 80 games of 1980, applying Hriniak's principles, Evans hit .316. When Ralph Houk was hired as the Red Sox manager in 1981, one of the first things he did was talk to Evans about batting second in the order. "I told him I thought we were wasting him baiting him seventh or eighth," recalls Houk, who retired after the 1984 season. "I think he was kind of amazed I felt that way, but once I explained my reasons to him he took right to it. He had good speed; his on-base percentage was excellent; he hit the ball well to right and center, so he could move runners from first to third with less than two outs. Plus, it gave him an extra time at bat in the late innings, which, with his power, would win us a few games."

Evans was amazed. "He told me I was a better player than people thought I was," Evans says. "No one had ever talked to me like that before."

Houk's faith was well founded. In the strike-shortened 1981 season Evans became the fifth player in AL history—the first four were Ruth, Foxx, Williams and Mantle—to lead the league both in walks and total bases. All told, in the past five years Evans has led the prepotent Sox in extra base hits and walks four times; in runs, doubles, triples and slugging percentage three times; and in homers and RBIs twice. He batted .331 last season with men in scoring position, and drove in 38 runs from the seventh inning on. With the game on the line, the man can hit.

One of the features of the Evans house in Lynnfield is a recreation room for Dwight complete with Jacuzzi, steam room, weight machines and a batting cage, of sorts. The cage consists of a net suspended in the corner, and a Quic Hands batting machine that Evans has equipped with a drain pipe so that he can load it with as many as 25 baseballs. It's quite a simple device. The balls roll down an incline, fall off the end, and Evans whacks them. It is the closest technological substitute Evans can find for Hriniak, who during the season spends 15 minutes every day crouching behind two screens and tossing Evans balls underhand from a distance of about 10 feet. Evans whacks them. It looks like a drill designed for a third-grader, but Evans swears by it, enforcing as it does the fundamental of keeping your eye on the ball. "It's probably the most important drill I do," he says. "In a game you can't actually see the bat hit the ball, but your head should be in position to."

Evans enjoys talking baseball, talking hitting. "I came up with the last of the old school," he says, a little nostalgically. "Yaz was always talking hitting. Hitting and fishing. Young guys today don't talk about hitting anymore." Evans has a bat that Yastrzemski used during the last week of his career. "I like the way Yaz went about the game," he says. "Not just playing in pain. Producing in pain."

From the kitchen, you can't hear the baseballs as Evans whacks them into the net. All you can hear is the churning of stomach juices as Susan Evans stirs her pesto. She is a woman who knows all about playing in pain, and it is fair to say that Dwight Evans would be something less than the man he is without her. She turns for a moment to remove a framed bit of scripture from the kitchen wall. It is good advice for the baseball player, and for the man. It is dated Sept. 12, 1982 and reads, in part:

Besides, what is the use of worrying? What good does it do? Will it add a single day to your life? Of course not. And if worry cannot do such things as that, what is the use of worrying over bigger things?...

Luke 12:22-31
To Dwight, Love, Susan

PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONEvans, who has no equals in his field, has also made tremendous strides as a hitterPHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONThe consummate ballplayer in all respects, Evans tries to take out K.C.'s Frank White.TWO PHOTOSCHUCK SOLOMONSusan took Justin, Kirstin and Timmy out to the ball game Opening Day; below, Dwight goes up to the plate.PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONEvans and his basement batting setup will keep the Bosox a long way from the cellar.