It was the day after a painfully brief appearance on the mound by Alex Sanchez of the Syracuse (N.Y.) Chiefs. Sanchez had been sent to the showers in the fourth inning, after giving up eight runs—including three homers—to the visiting Richmond Braves. The Chiefs lost 13-2.
Sam McDowell, an ex-major league pitcher, greeted Sanchez in the locker room at the Chiefs' MacArthur Stadium home. McDowell, who was hired four years ago by the Toronto Blue Jay organization to counsel players in their system about performance problems and substance abuse, had lectured Sanchez and his teammates the previous day on how to erase negative images during a game. But McDowell's approach seemed unrelated to that. "Did you hear about the commotion over at the bus station last night during the game?" he asked, referring to the Greyhound bus terminal that's situated about 250 feet beyond the centerfield fence. Before Sanchez could venture a guess, McDowell grinned and said, "They heard all those home run balls hitting the roof and thought it was sniper fire."
The joke was McDowell's way of telling Sanchez not to let the loss get him down, and a subtle reinforcement of the previous day's lecture. "I try to get the players to remember the past and to learn from it but not dwell on it—and refocus on the task at hand," says McDowell, who explains that about 80% of his work is in the area of sports psychology.
As a substance-abuse counselor and confidant to players and other employees—from front-office personnel to grounds crews—of the Blue Jay and Texas Rangers organizations, McDowell is also getting a second whack at a career in baseball. In his first outing in the big leagues—in the 1960s and early '70s, as a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, the San Francisco Giants, New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates—he played in the fast lane and, eventually, he crashed, done in by his own alcohol and drug addiction.
September 9, 1990
During his 15 years in professional baseball, from 1961 to '75, McDowell threw hard and partied harder. In his 1961 debut with the Indians, he was trying hard to strike out a batter and reared back with such force that he broke three ribs in the process. He spent the rest of that season on the disabled list.
When he wasn't scheduled to be on the mound the following day, his nights usually ended at 3 a.m. or later, and sometimes he brought a lump on the head back to the hotel as a souvenir after an impromptu scuffle. "During my addiction I had very low self-esteem and I lived to impress people," McDowell says.
Now clean, sober, content and the driver of an alabaster Lincoln Town Car with K OUTS on the Pennsylvania vanity plate, McDowell steers clear of the fast lane. He works out of a first-floor office in a four-story brick building in Swissvale, Pa., a modest-sized suburb of Pittsburgh, in the hills overlooking the Monongahela River and Interstate 376. Big wooden letters stretched across the top of the office building's facade announce that TRIUMPHS UNLIMITED is the name of McDowell's enterprise. Painted on the front window, in small gold letters, is the rest of the message: "SUDDEN" SAM MCDOWELL & ASSOCIATES. COUNSELORS FOR PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES AND ATHLETIC TEAMS. Living the slow, quiet life in Swissvale suits McDowell just fine. "I'm not here to prove anything anymore," he says. "I'm very secure within myself now."
McDowell, now 47, has changed physically, as well. The sideburns that were his trademark in his playing days are less conspicuous. His 6'6" frame sports a bulging middle. He wears bifocals, and there are more than a few flecks of gray in his still-thick black hair.
On a cloudy Sunday afternoon, McDowell sits at his desk, reviewing plans for visits to various teams. He keeps a map of North America handy, with his destinations marked in bright colors. His schedule calls for him to be on the road about 40 weeks this year.
Since 1983 seven baseball organizations, as well as two NFL clubs and an NHL team, have sought McDowell's expertise for players with emotional, drug-abuse or alcohol-abuse problems. Triumphs Unlimited also counsels teenagers and retired athletes.
An autographed and framed cover shot from the May 23, 1966, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED hangs on the wall near the desk, a reminder of the road trips McDowell made more than 20 years ago, when he was an All-Star lefthander. The picture caught Sudden Sam in his Indians uniform, mouth agape, after he'd thrown one of his ferocious fastballs. During the 10 complete seasons he played in the majors, beginning in 1965, McDowell led the American League in strikeouts five times and was named to six All-Star teams. He finished his career with a 141-134 record, 2,453 strikeouts and a 3.17 ERA. He was tagged with his alliterative nickname after several bewildered hitters reported that those fastballs approached the plate "all of a sudden." Roughly translated, that's something on the order of 108 miles per hour—the speed registered by McDowell in his heyday.
Those feats notwithstanding, many people in baseball believe that McDowell never achieved his potential. He also walked 1,312 batters and had only one 20-victory season, in 1970. Some blamed McDowell's know-it-all attitude and eccentric nature. A Cleveland sportscaster once quipped that McDowell had "a million-dollar arm and a 10-cent head."
But others knew that McDowell's biggest problem was his after-hours carousing. Because of his addiction to alcohol, amphetamines and tranquilizers, and the wildness on the mound that inevitably followed, he was booted from Cleveland, San Francisco and New York.
McDowell waved off haranguing relatives who called him a drunk, and he continued to deny that he had a problem and refused treatment. In 1975 the Yankees sent him to the Pirates, where he was relegated to the bullpen. McDowell had left the Steel City in 1960, fresh out of Central Catholic High School, when he signed with the Indians. Now, 15 years later, he was back, trying to salvage a sinking career. Before the season was over, however, McDowell broke his vow to quit drinking and taking drugs, and the Pirates released him. He never pitched in the majors again.
He got a job as a salesman for Colonial Life & Accident Insurance Co. in Pittsburgh, but he continued to drink and pop pills. The old habits soon began to destroy his new life. He got into barroom brawls. His 18-year marriage crumbled, and his wife, Carol, got custody of their teenage children: Timmy, now 25 and a minor league pitcher for the Pirates, and Deborah, 28, a housewife and mother of a seven-year-old son.
In 1979 McDowell agreed to one session with a psychiatrist, but he didn't return; by 1980 his life was in a shambles. He had lost his home, his family and a once-sparkling major league career. Early one April morning of that year, a week after his most recent binge, McDowell sat in the living room of his parents' home, gulping down coffee and muttering incoherently. He was sure he was losing his mind.
"I kept saying over and over again, 'You beat me, you beat me,' " McDowell recalls. "It was my surrender." He checked into Pittsburgh's Gateway Rehabilitation Center later that day, and has been off alcohol and pills ever since.
McDowell jokes that he was coerced into becoming an addiction counselor by Dr. Abraham Twerski, an Orthodox rabbi and director of the psychiatry department at Pittsburgh's St. Francis Medical Center, who helped him conquer alcohol and drugs.
But baseball played a role, too. After sobering up, McDowell coached in a community league in the suburb of Monroeville, where he was living. The teenagers on the team readily confided in their coach, who spoke so candidly about his addiction and recovery. McDowell encouraged the teens to call on him when they had problems and needed a pal. The only time he was out past midnight in those days was when he was summoned by a teenager who wanted to talk about drug abuse, alcoholism or an unhappy family life. "I'd get calls in the middle of the night," he says. "We would sit on a street curb because there weren't any restaurants open at those hours."
McDowell provided a sympathetic ear but no advice, because he didn't think his reformed-alcoholic status gave him license to advise others. For expert guidance, he took the youngsters to Twerski's office at St. Francis. McDowell read dozens of books recommended by Twerski, who also encouraged him to participate in the sessions, which were attracting more and more students.
All the reading and counseling left little time for selling insurance, and McDowell's bills, including child-support payments, were mounting. But he liked his avocation, and with Twerski's backing, he began to study counseling full-time. In the next year he immersed himself in the finer points of addiction psychology, therapy and human behavior, and continued to apprentice with Twerski.
In 1982 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania awarded McDowell a counseling certificate. He began his second career at a newly built $3.5 million teen alcohol-and drug-rehabilitation center in Pittsburgh. In fact, the facility was built in 1983 at St. Francis as a direct result of the group meetings that Twerski and McDowell were holding. In 1984 McDowell formed Triumphs Unlimited and hired several counselors to work with him. He had met one of the counselors, Carol Eppihimer, during his internship; the two were married last January.
Because of McDowell's stormy past, the last place he expected to end up was in professional baseball. But the sport's grapevine started humming after his success in helping a hockey player and two football players, who had failed to beat their addictions by other means. In 1981, after an inquiry by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn, McDowell designed an addiction and counseling program for the major leagues and sent it to Kuhn. The plan wasn't implemented, but the Texas Rangers signed him up to advise their players. Thus began his seven-year association with the organization. Since then, other clubs have paid for his services, which can also be arranged for on a single-case basis. His sports-psychology clients currently include a professional golfer and two boxers.
McDowell says this baseball job is more rewarding than his previous one, and he takes great pride in his performance. So far his record is impressive. Among the 175 active ballplayers he has counseled over the past five years, 171 are recovering from addictions. Recovery is an ongoing process. Four have relapsed, he says, and two of those are back with McDowell, undergoing further treatment.
When pitcher Mike York met McDowell four years ago, at the Pirates' Florida training and tryout site near Bradenton, York was, in his own words, "a mess floating around the minor leagues." He was only 22, but he knew the camp at Pirate City might be his last stop in professional baseball. He already had been released in successive years by the Yankees, the White Sox and the Tigers because of his alcoholism. In 1986 Johnny Lipon, who was the manager of Detroit's Class A Gastonia (N.C.) team, told York he reminded him of another troubled alcoholic he had coached decades earlier—Sam McDowell.
When Lipon made the observation, York didn't even know who McDowell was; but a few months later, early on an October evening, he was standing toe-to-toe with Sudden Sam in an office at the Pirate City complex, ready to duke it out. McDowell had tried to make York face up to his alcohol problem and had called him a drunk. Before York could throw the first punch, McDowell darted out of the room and made a call to Pirate general manager Syd Thrift, telling him to sign York because McDowell thought he could help the young ballplayer stop drinking.
York spent 30 days at a rehabilitation center in Coral Springs, Fla., calling McDowell every night for advice and moral support. He won a job with Pittsburgh's Macon (Ga.) Class A team during spring training in 1987 and posted a 17-6 record. York moved on a year later and for the past two years has been a starter with the Buffalo Bisons, the Pirates' Triple A team. Although the two men are friends, York says McDowell makes him toe the line.
"He doesn't hesitate to push the friendship aside if he sees me doing something that might hurt me or cause me to go back to my old habits," says York. "He's not the kind of guy who tells you what you want to hear."
The normally tight-lipped McDowell becomes effusive when talking about York's progress. With obvious pride he says, "By all accounts he shouldn't even be in baseball, and I bet he'll be in the big leagues next year."
From experience, McDowell knows that professional athletes can't afford to sit still for long, drawn-out therapy because the career clock ticks swiftly. So he has devised methods to produce fast but lasting results.
To help athletes deal with self-doubt, he teaches them to use a technique he calls "keying in, locking, loading and firing." When a negative thought occurs, he tells a player to clear his mind by focusing on something pleasant that's unrelated to baseball—"like your wife or girlfriend in a bikini." Then, he says, come up with a positive idea about how to handle the next pitch.
Perhaps McDowell is an eternal optimist. But that doesn't mean he's a pushover. A player who shows up on his doorstep just before being cut from the team, in hopes of winning a quick reprieve, is sent back to the gallows. And McDowell is not one of those Mr. Fixit types determined to find problems even if none exists. "I'm not out here to be a crutch for anybody and I'm not here to solve the world's problems," he declares.
But counseling does consume him. Sometimes a little too much, according to his wife, Carol. McDowell says he has an obsessive-compulsive nature, and is trying to control it. Every year, for instance, he acquires many more counseling course credits than are required to maintain his certification. In his spare time, Sam eschews the murder mysteries and romance novels Carol prefers in favor of medical thrillers like The 5-Pound Brain, or the self-help manual Think & Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill. He reckons he has read that book 30 times and can recite passages from it. The extra reading might come in handy, though, if he follows through on plans to kick his pack-and-a-half-a-day cigarette habit, down from three packs a day.
McDowell does have other interests. When he's on the road, he occasionally relaxes by playing golf with Sonny Jackson, a minor league coach in the Atlanta Braves' organization, and other friends. At home, he dabbles in art, painting mostly forest scenes, landscapes and seascapes. And when Sam and Carol need a break from their office chores, they head to Veltres, a family-style restaurant across the street from the office.
Back at Triumphs Unlimited, a visitor notes that 1990 marks the 10th year of McDowell's sobriety. He used to track the anniversaries closely, but now, McDowell says, he has other things to concentrate on. There are all those books to read and reread, players to talk to, and that cigarette habit to lick. "I don't think about the past very much," McDowell says. "Today is all I care about."