The Bandleader

When pitcher-guitarist Jack McDowell rocks, the White Sox roll
August 01, 1993

He is Pallid and Cadaverous, wears a goatee and has small-bore eyes, and he is called Black Jack—all of which suggests a subterranean personality. And, in fact, he does hole up in his basement a lot of the time. And he does closet himself in dark, clammy recording studios most off-seasons. If he didn't have to pitch for the Chicago White Sox—and he has just got to; they're paying him $4 million this year so that he will—he would never go outdoors.

So here's Jack McDowell, his 6'5" frame folded into the control room of one of the recording studios at Chicago Trax, enjoying himself on a rare open date on the White Sox schedule. He and a bandmate, fellow guitarist Michael Hamilton, cramped for six hours in a high-decibel cupboard with a sound engineer who A tends to lapse unaccountably into snatches of dialogue from This Is Spinal Tap ("I could work in a chapeau shop," the engineer says suddenly), have been adding track after track to a song—one song, all day—that McDowell has written and may or may not call Bed of Proses.

Hamilton, having laid in a track of power chords, is now inspired to do the guitar lead on track 21. "Let's flip tape," he tells the engineer. "I'm serious; we're going to do this backward. We've done 13 songs and haven't flipped the tape once." The engineer agrees and flips the huge tape reel. Then Hamilton plays a lead that, when played backward, sounds way too New Age for anyone in this little cupboard. McDowell, stuck in a corner playing a violent air guitar, hesitates in his approval. "It's cool," he says. "But... more stuff." He means notes. The tape is flipped once more; Hamilton fills it up, and the engineer ("Such a fine line between clever and stupid!" he says) plays it backward again. "Cool," says McDowell.

And so goes another day in the extremely cool life of Black Jack McDowell, a Cy Young runner-up and Axl Rose wannabe. He has one 20-win season and one album behind him, and it's impossible—thankfully, it's unnecessary—for him to decide which he savored more. Each career has its charms. Baseball pays pretty well, and he just loves to win, but... hey, take the rock 'n' roll life. As McDowell and Hamilton are packing up their guitars, Jack's wife, Meridith, shows up. She has met someone from the band Ministry, which is recording in a studio down the hall, and she has learned where the group gets the bones it uses in its shows. "Road kill," she says. "They've got a guy who collects road kill."

This is exciting information, to a certain kind of person. "Road kill?" says Jack, totally pleased to know this. And they leave the studio, squinting in the sunlight and perhaps examining the streets for road kill of their own.

More people know McDowell by his split-fingered fastball than by his 12-string Rickenbacker, but that's not all his fault. He got a late start in rock 'n' roll, is all. Growing up in Van Nuys, Calif., he played baseball (as well as football, basketball and soccer) but, except for some guitar lessons when he was 11 and 12, didn't really get into music until 1988. It was right after his up-and-down rookie season in Chicago, when he returned to Stanford to complete his degree in communications. To kill time he started messing around with the guitar, and almost before he knew it, he had formed a band.

Since then baseball has somewhat overshadowed his music career. At week's end he had won 66 games in the past three-plus seasons in Chicago. With a 20-10 record in '92 he placed second to Dennis Eckersley in the American League Cy Young vote. McDowell got off to a 7-1 start this year, then last Thursday became the first pitcher in the majors to win 15 games. After that 7-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, McDowell was 15-6 and the White Sox had a firm grip on first place in the American League West. So even now, after an LP, an EP and a concert tour as an opening act for The Smithereens, he still gets more ink in The Sporting News than in Rolling Stone.

On the field he's known as an intense competitor, a glowering presence whose reputation for pitching tight and looking grim has batters skeptical that any entertainment value could be associated with this guy. Broadcaster Ken Harrelson, the White Sox's unofficial bestower of nicknames, chose Black Jack for McDowell one night when McDowell stared down a home run hitter during the offending batter's entire trip around the bases. Reportedly it was a chilling sight. One Chicago baseball writer, who has seen that glare several times, calls it "that Texas Bell Tower look."

But just as McDowell is much friendlier than he looks, he is more armed than dangerous. In fact, through Sunday he had plunked only 30 batters in his career, and no more than seven in any season. Those aren't exactly psycho numbers. However, when he does stick a hitter, it's usually to great effect. After McDowell nailed Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire in the same game in 1990, Oakland A's manager Tony La Russa was sufficiently incensed to say, "He just rears back and pops people and then stands out there with a smirk on his face." At least once it was too much for the hitter. Mark Whiten, then with the Toronto Blue Jays, charged the mound after a pitch sailed behind him a couple of seasons ago. He blackened Black Jack's eye with a roundhouse right. McDowell, who had stood there smirking as Whiten advanced, was taken aback by the violence. "Aren't they supposed to just tackle you?" he said.

It may be the only time in his career that McDowell forgot to fight back. Every other thing—every pitch, every contract—has been a fierce competition. He's so intimidating on the mound that his own managers hesitate to huddle with him. After having been called up to Chicago at the end of the '87 season—his first contract guaranteed he would get a pitching turn in the majors his first year as a pro—he argued with manager Jim Fregosi in one game when Fregosi came out to pull him in the seventh inning, as they had agreed. "A rookie!" said Fregosi.

The present White Sox manager, Gene Lamont, says it's probably best just to leave McDowell in the game—but not only because that saves Lamont grief. "Jack's shown he can get a lot of big outs," he says. "There are guys you tend to leave in longer. Jack's one of them." Whether by force of personality or pitching grit, McDowell has led the American League in complete games the last two seasons (15 in 1991 and 13 in '92), and through Sunday he was tied for second this year, with six.

For McDowell, challenging hitters is only half the fun of baseball. From his first contract negotiations, after he was selected in the top round of the 1987 draft (in '84 he turned down an offer from the Boston Red Sox in favor of a Stanford scholarship for a number of reasons, among them: Stanford buses were nicer than minor league buses), McDowell has been a testy employee. He held out for a proper bonus ($175,000), refused to buy into Chicago's pay-per-performance contract schedule and went to arbitration the two times he was eligible. Last year he complained about the result—even though he won.

McDowell suspected from the get-go that he would come out ahead if he opted for one-year contracts instead of signing one of Chicago's seemingly more generous multiyear offers, which guarantee increases based on performance if the player agrees to give away his first year of free agency. His reasoning: "Anytime an organization is so adamant about something like that, you know it can't be in the players' best interests."

After having meager raises imposed on him his first three seasons, when baseball's rules do not permit a player to go to arbitration, he jumped from $175,000 in 1991 to $1.6 million in '92 (despite losing his arbitration hearing) to $4 million this year. The White Sox are glad for him to have the money. As general manager Ron Schueler says, "The way he's pitched, he deserves the money he's gotten." But McDowell, who is not called Black Jack for nothing, sees the windfall as a strain on Chicago's budget, a harbinger of the end of his White Sox career, especially with free agency coming his way after the '94 season. "I'm pretty sure I'll be traded in the next two years," he says.

Too bad. Because McDowell likes Chicago. And more than that, he actually likes baseball, although his best memories are of playing the game before he had to sign a contract. (Stanford made two trips to the College World Series in McDowell's three years there, with Jack pitching and winning the championship game the second time, in '87.) "I know I'd miss it," he says, "but it's just not the same as it was."

His bitter relationship with the White Sox goes back to '89, when he spent the entire season in the minors. The year before, McDowell had gone 5-10 with a 3.97 ERA in his first full season in the majors. "And I'm thinking I had a spot on the ['89] team—especially on that team," he says of a club that eventually finished 69-92. "I mean, who was there?" But a poor spring training and injuries doomed McDowell to a season at Triple A Vancouver, where he did some soul-searching and penned some of his more poisonous lyrics after Chicago reneged on an August call-up.

Since then McDowell has never missed an opportunity to raise doubts about management's intentions. "If there's something controversial to say," Schueler says with a sigh, "Jack will say it." McDowell has voiced disappointment over Chicago's decision to spend money on a health risk like Bo Jackson while seemingly not being willing to spend it on anybody else. Last winter, when he should have been reveling in his new contract, McDowell blasted the White Sox for not spending the money necessary to land an additional established pitcher.

But this season, at least for the moment, McDowell has decided to get out of the blasting-management business. "It's not my job anymore," he says. "There's stuff going on, like with this new major league TV contract, stuff that should be written about. Things that aren't fair. And nobody else is saying anything. Am I the only idiot out there?"

Just think what McDowell would be like if he had time to brood. As it is, every waking hour away from the ballpark is spent either in his basement, where he has installed recording equipment, or in a studio. For much of the off-season he was buried in recording studios in Chicago and Los Angeles except for a quick Hawaiian honeymoon with Meridith. As of now, he's more likely to win that Cy Young than a Grammy. But each pastime gets equal commitment.

"Am I happier doing one or the other? I'm happiest doing both," he says. "There's no reason the careers can't coexist. The stuff I do, the style I write in, my talent level—I'm not going to have any monster huge audience in music and have to make a decision: Am I going to pitch for the White Sox or am I going to sell 10 million albums and do an arena tour? I don't think so."

His style of straight-ahead rock—it's not as influenced by REM as everybody used to say—would suit small clubs, which is fine with him. His big problem is with studio people who believe he should shoot higher, capitalize on his name. That didn't really work with his first album, Extendagenda, which he produced and distributed at his expense in 1991. The novelty appeal, with performances on ESPN shows and a ballplayer or two for sidekicks, did nothing for it. "It wasn't a band, to people in the music industry," he says. "It was just me screwing around, trying to do something half the people probably thought I shouldn't be doing."

Even so, this music thing is expensive and getting more so. McDowell, who has broken off from his original group, V.I.E.W., and aligned himself with more-professional musicians for his new album, has footed the entire bill, from buying studio time at $75 an hour to paying the band (which will probably be called Magenta, a favorite word of his). He can afford it, of course, but he doesn't mean for this to be a hobby. All he wants is a label to step forward with a recording contract that would meet expenses and make it possible for him and his buddies to continue playing.

That would be a perfect world, wouldn't it? Earlier this season he held the California Angels to two runs in a complete game but was shut out. No big deal. He and Hamilton returned to his basement that night and worked out a few licks for Bed of Proses, a dashed-off tune in which he found the opportunity to rhyme dementia and magenta. And the next day he was recording it in a studio. Is there a word for this life? There is. "Cool," says Black Jack McDowell.

PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONAt week's end McDowell led the majors with 15 wins and the White Sox led the American League West. PHOTOAPTesty as a major leaguer, McDowell had the best of both his worlds in a 1991 concert tour and in pitching Stanford to the '87 College World Series title. PHOTOROD SEARCEY[See caption above.] PHOTOBILL SMITHIn dealings with the White Sox, Black Jack makes few concessions.

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)