Jason Isringhausen could make a baseball curve as hellaciously
as anybody in the game and he could intoxicate an entire
organization into comparing his pitches to those of Hall of
Famers, but at this moment on April 28 he could not even walk
across an examining room in his doctor's office without wobbling
nearly to the point of collapse. Weak, feverish, short of breath
and 15 pounds lighter than he had been only a week before,
Isringhausen also felt a searing pain behind his breastbone that
was so unbearable that Dr. John Olichney administered a shot of
a narcotic to dull the monster inside the New York Mets pitcher.
Isringhausen wanted only a prescription for something to make
him feel better so he could be on his way--on his way back to
the exuberance of a youthful, sometimes cartoonish life in which
he seemed to be falling off cliffs, taking anvils on the head
and always bouncing happily back for more. He once fell from a
balcony while trying to climb into a girlfriend's condominium.
In February he played softball for a topless bar, when he was
supposed to be recuperating from shoulder and elbow surgery on
his pitching arm. On April 11, after pitching poorly in a minor
league game, he angrily punched a trash can and broke the wrist
on his pitching arm.
He was a country kid who, from the time he was 18, had a gift
for making a baseball dance. The pitch, a knuckle curve, came to
him as easily as a laugh. His minor league pitching coach, Bob
Apodaca, would try teaching him about mechanics and the art of
pitching, often asking him in the bullpen, "Izzy, what do you
feel when you do that?" The kid had a pat answer: "I don't know."
Now he was 24, and having to be at Olichney's office seemed to
be just another annoyance, albeit a painful one, before he was
back on the mound. Olichney, the Mets' team internist, knew
better. He knew X-rays showed a spot on Isringhausen's left
lung, and he knew some symptoms suggested an ominously weakened
immune system. The patient, the doctor thought, doesn't
understand the severity of his illness. So Olichney needed to
deliver another shot, and no needle was necessary this time.
May 18, 1997
"Listen, Jason," he said. "We've got a serious problem. We could
be talking about cancer, and we're going to test you for HIV."
It was only last year, in the sparkle of Florida sunshine, that
the Mets turned their spring training camp into an extended
photo op. Isringhausen and fellow kid pitchers Bill Pulsipher
and Paul Wilson were not so much being allowed to establish
themselves as they were being put on display, like jewels in a
window of Tiffany's. An organization coming off five straight
losing seasons--and four consecutive years of failing to draw
two million fans, after seven straight seasons above that
mark--announced that it had found the players to lead the
franchise back to respectability and maybe even to the playoffs:
three pitchers, none older than 23, who had the combined
experience of 31 big league games.
The pitchers so impressed Dallas Green, the Mets' manager at the
time, that he seemingly forgot the wisdom of his 41 years in
baseball and gushed that he would be surprised if Isringhausen,
Pulsipher and Wilson didn't push 15 wins apiece in their first
full seasons in the majors. Never mind that the Mets had not had
any pitcher win 15 games since 1990, or that Atlanta Braves
pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz--to whom the
Mets' trio often was compared--didn't win 15 until their second,
fourth and fourth full seasons, respectively. Added New York
general manager Joe McIlvaine, "I don't know many teams who
wouldn't trade their five veteran pitchers for our guys."
The predictions bubbled like water from an aquifer, though not
among them were the unthinkable realities that have come to pass
only 14 months later: that Pulsipher would be struggling to
throw strikes in Class A ball; that Wilson, having blown out his
shoulder with poor mechanics while trying to justify the hype,
would be spending more time writing than pitching; and that
Isringhausen would be at his parents' Illinois home after the
anxiety of waiting for the results of a biopsy and three HIV
tests, all of which came back negative.
Olichney told Isringhausen on May 7 that, based on how well the
righthander was responding to four antibiotics, he was "99.9
percent sure" that Isringhausen is suffering from tuberculosis,
a treatable disease caused by a bacterium and contracted by an
estimated 22,000 Americans annually.
Clinically speaking, the franchise has become the New York Mess.
In the last 14 months the club has lost pitchers not only to
tuberculosis, elbow surgery (Pulsipher) and shoulder surgery
(Wilson), but also to depression (Pete Harnisch) and an aneurysm
(Derek Wallace). In February one of the organization's top
prospects (24-year-old outfielder Jay Payton) needed
season-ending elbow surgery for the second year in a row.
However, nothing has undermined the franchise like the loss of
the three young pitchers. Once as indelibly if not lyrically
linked as Spahn, Sain and rain, Isringhausen, Pulsipher and
Wilson have not spent a day together on the Mets' active roster.
Last year they combined for more surgeries (four) than complete
games (three). All of them have losing career records, and
though their ceilings may remain high, they now inspire a
healthy dose of restraint. "I just say they could have been and
will be solid major league pitchers," says Apodaca, now the
Mets' pitching coach.
Says Wilson, "We were all kind of tired of being linked. We were
young, talented and brought up together, but we're three
different types of pitchers. Now we're traveling different
roads, all battling something. We're on our own, trying to get
back to where people thought we'd be."
Last week the roads of recovery brought them to Brighton, Ill.;
St. Louis; and Port St. Lucie, Fla. In Brighton, Isringhausen's
throat was so sore from having cultures repeatedly taken from
his esophagus that he could speak only hoarsely and eat solid
foods rarely and, even then, with difficulty. According to his
agent, Craig Fenech, Isringhausen "just wants to be home with
his mother and father, getting a whole lot of nurturing.
Tuberculosis was the diagnosis of choice. He felt like he dodged
a bullet. These kinds of vicissitudes in life make us mature."
"Knock on wood, it can't get much worse than this," Isringhausen
said on Sunday, during a brief conference call with baseball
writers. "Hopefully, we can just put this behind us and start
succeeding a little better."
Isringhausen grew up playing more in the outfield than on the
mound. The Mets selected him in the 44th round of the 1991
free-agent draft because their regional scout, in the course of
evaluating another player, discovered that Isringhausen dabbled
with a funky breaking ball. "We took a flier on him," says Gerry
Hunsicker, the Mets' former assistant general manager and now
the G.M. of the Houston Astros. "Izzy never had the maturity
that Pulse did, and I don't think he had the mental toughness
Pulse had. One thing about Izzy is he always had that great
breaking ball. He sailed through the minor leagues because he
had that hammer."
In '95 Green and his staff lobbied McIlvaine to put Isringhausen
on the Opening Day roster. The general manager resisted, and
then Isringhausen opened the season in Double A by striking out
51 batters in his first four starts. He was in Triple A by May
and in New York by July. In 14 starts with the Mets he went 9-2
with a 2.81 ERA.
Last season, however, National League hitters adjusted to his
knuckle curve. Isringhausen had neither the command of his
fastball nor the grasp of pitching to prosper on the nights when
his curve was not at its best. He went 6-14 with a 4.77 ERA and,
by his own admission, drank too much beer and gained too much
weight. "I talked to him about it from time to time as a
friend," Pulsipher says of Isringhausen's poor habits. "A lot of
people were telling him what to do. Izzy's the kind of guy,
though, that the more people tell him something, the more he'll
do the opposite."
Isringhausen reached another conclusion in September. "I have to
learn about baseball," he said. "I have to learn how to pitch. I
just always reared back and threw, and everything fell into
He did lose 19 pounds over the winter but infuriated management
when he moonlighted with the softball team in spring training.
(Manager Bobby Valentine, acting on a tip, confirmed it by
attending one of the team's games, though Isringhausen did not
show that night.) In the minors Isringhausen was throwing 95 mph
and nearing a return to the big leagues when he took on the
trash can. "Now," Apodaca says, "there is no timetable. Mother
Nature has her own timetable."
Only 25 miles from the Isringhausens' house, another righthander
sat in the Mets' dugout at Busch Stadium in St. Louis last
Friday with one of his four spiral-bound notebooks. While on the
disabled list Wilson fills the books with observations on
National League hitters. "Last year," he said, "I didn't give
this kind of stuff any thought."
Before the game last season in which Wilson threw his first
major league pitch, the Mets' television crew showed a
split-screen picture likening him to Tom Seaver. The
expectations overwhelmed Wilson. In his eagerness to live up to
the billing, he overthrew his two-seam fastball and slider. His
left shoulder flew open--toward the first base dugout rather
than the plate--causing him to fling the ball across his body
and straining his pitching shoulder. By the end of the season he
had a 5-12 record, a 5.38 ERA and torn cartilage in the shoulder.
"I don't blame anybody but myself," he says. "I was trying to do
Wilson, 24, is progressing slowly. He started throwing off a
mound two weeks ago and could be back on the Mets' active roster
in July. Although he has all the attributes of a No. 1
starter--four pitches, including a changeup, good velocity and
an understanding of how to work hitters--he admits, "I can't
guarantee I'll be the same pitcher, with a hard fastball in the
mid-90s for seven, eight innings. But if I have to throw in the
mid-80s, I'll make the adjustment. I'm realistic. I'll do
whatever it takes."
He is, as his expanding notebooks attest, a student of the game.
"Of the three of them, he's the most polished," says Mets closer
John Franco. "He'll be the best."
Last Friday night came gently to Port St. Lucie, a light breeze
whispering through palms and the last bits of sunlight streaking
through a blue-black sky. Only 883 people were at Thomas J.
White Stadium to watch a Class A game between the St. Lucie Mets
and the Fort Myers Miracle, including a handful of Little
Leaguers who stood on the mound next to Pulsipher for the
national anthem. They were part of Slider's Knothole Gang, the
fan club of St. Lucie's mascot, a guy in a dog costume. This is
where Pulsipher has come to learn how to throw a baseball again.
Pulsipher is what Fenech, who also represents the 23-year-old
lefthander, calls "a baseball lifer." Pulsipher was four when he
told his dad, "I'm going to be a major league baseball player."
As an eighth-grader he once refused to fill out a guidance
counselor's questionnaire because the boxes for career goals did
not include one for major league ballplayer. "It's all I ever
wanted to be," he says. "I love to watch it and talk about it."
Pulsipher made it to the big leagues on June 14, 1995 (one month
before Isringhausen), with four-seam and two-seam fastballs that
changed directions quicker than politicians in an election year.
Wiry and athletic, he pitched as if he were spring-loaded,
delivering the ball from high over his shoulder with a quick,
violent motion that catapulted his body toward third base. The
odd delivery deceived hitters and imparted uncanny movement on
his pitches but did so at the cost of his health. After pitching
well as a rookie (5-7, 3.98 ERA), he tore a ligament in his
elbow during spring training in '96. He missed all of last
season after reconstructive surgery.
This year, in an attempt to preserve his arm, the Mets have
overhauled his delivery--changing his release point so that he
lets go of his pitches in front of his body and altering his
follow-through so that he finishes more square to the plate.
"The dilemma," Hunsicker says, "is that he might lose the
natural movement he had." He has been so inconsistent that if
his left arm were the minute hand on a clock, the ball might be
released at any point from five to 13 minutes past the hour.
"It's more of a mental thing than a physical thing," says
Pulsipher. "When you're struggling, your mind starts going a
mile a minute. I'd never been hurt before, never been through
anything like this. I'm not the exact pitcher I was two years
ago, but I will be at some point."
Pulsipher and the Mets agreed he would pitch in Class A after he
struggled during a recent 30-day rehabilitation assignment at
Triple A Norfolk. The idea was that he would prosper in a
less-pressurized environment. Last Friday, in his first inning
of work since the move, Pulsipher missed the plate with so many
pitches--nine straight at one point--that even Slider's Knothole
Gang gave a mock cheer when he got a called strike. In 5 1/3
innings Pulsipher gave up six hits, walked six, hit a batter and
threw four wild pitches.
Behind the safety of the wire backstop, a small, grandfatherly
man in a rumpled cap, seersucker shirt and twill shorts peered
through his glasses. Frank Cashen, the former Mets general
manager who serves the club as a senior vice president and
consultant, said, "You know, I used to get criticized for being
too conservative when it came to young players. I always thought
once you promote a young player to the big leagues, he should be
ready to stay."
Bored Little Leaguers chased each other through the rows of
empty seats. Slider danced on the dugout with a senior citizen
who was wearing blue shorts and black mid-calf socks. From
here--and from Brighton, Ill., and from a dugout in St.
Louis--New York seemed far, far away.
"Listen, Jason. We've got a serious problem. We could be talking
about cancer, and we're testing you for HIV."
In his first major league start, Wilson drew comparisons to
former Mets great Tom Seaver
As a youngster, Pulsipher refused to fill out a questionnaire
because it didn't list "major league ballplayer" as a career goal