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Worth The Wait? If former underachiever Darren Dreifort's midseason mound turnaround proves to be permanent, the Dodgers may have gotten a steal when they signed him for $55 million

March 26, 2001
March 26, 2001

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March 26, 2001

Baseball 2001 Preview

Worth The Wait? If former underachiever Darren Dreifort's midseason mound turnaround proves to be permanent, the Dodgers may have gotten a steal when they signed him for $55 million

It was all starting to slip away from him. The fabulous college
career at Wichita State, the $1.3 million rookie signing bonus
after a long holdout, the where'd-it-go sinkerball that had left
scouts gaping--none of that seemed relevant anymore. For years
people had been talking about righthander Darren Dreifort's
potential, but by last year the conversation had grown stale.
Dreifort was trudging through his sixth major league season
without a breakthrough. During his time in the big leagues he'd
lost more games than he'd won, and his career ERA needle was
stuck between four and five. The general manager of the Los
Angeles Dodgers, the only team Dreifort had played for, was
talking to other clubs about dealing him. In midseason. Not
glorious.

This is an article from the March 26, 2001 issue Original Layout

Then came a chance meeting with an old mentor, Roger McDowell, a
classic sinkerballer himself before he retired, in 1998, and the
man who had taught the rookie Dreifort how to eat on the road,
how to buy a suit, how to get a called third strike. In a single
magical conversation in mid-July, McDowell turned Dreifort
around. For the rest of the season Dreifort was a wizard,
pitching the way it had been expected he would.

When the 2000 season was over and Los Angeles would not meet
their asking price, Dreifort and his agent, the insatiable Scott
Boras, threw a line in the bountiful waters of free agency and
found a single large fish: the Colorado Rockies. When one team
wants you, you have an offer. When at least two teams want you,
you have a bidding war. Boras made certain the Dodgers paid for
their early inflexibility. In the end, L.A. met the original
price. Dreifort has a five-year contract worth $55 million,
having turned down a six-year, $60 million offer from the
Rockies.

Dreifort is no kid. He'll turn 29 in May. He has a history of arm
trouble, having missed all of the 1995 season because of
reconstructive surgery to repair a torn medial collateral
ligament in his right elbow. His career record is 39-45. His
career ERA is 4.28. He has pitched only 2/3 of an inning in the
postseason (in a 1996 Division Series against the Atlanta
Braves). Yes, last year Dreifort went 8-2 with a 3.14 ERA after
the All-Star break, and his opponents' batting average (.238) was
ninth lowest in the National League. But, please! Players used to
be paid on the basis of what they accomplished over a period of
years. In Dreifort's case, an experienced pitcher, a grown man
with known tendencies, was being paid on the basis of what he
showed over a period of months.

Kevin Malone, the Dodgers' general manager, thinks Colorado's
interest raised Dreifort's value by maybe as much as $10 million
over the life of his contract. Still, though he paid more for
Dreifort than he wanted to, he thinks that in a couple of years,
maybe even by next October, there's a good chance this contract
will look like a steal. Malone also thinks, given a rotation that
also includes righthanders Kevin Brown, Chan Ho Park and Andy
Ashby, that Los Angeles has some of the best starting pitching in
baseball, which it does--potentially.

"I could see Dreifort on the mound on a cold night in October,
pitching inside, breaking bats," says Malone, who on this day is
sprawled on a golf cart at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, basking in
the Florida sunshine. "He has the relaxed off-field manner and
on-the-mound toughness of Don Drysdale that make you think he'd
be a good big-game pitcher."

Malone takes a call on his cell phone from Dodgers managing
partner, chairman and CEO Bob Daly and continues, "You could say
that Darren's contract shows that pitching in baseball is at the
point where you don't need to show consistent performance to get
a big, long-term payout. That's not healthy. But you could also
say the contract shows we're an organization willing to take a
chance to give our fans a winner. That's healthy. If Darren does
what we believe he can do--give us 220 innings [he pitched 192 2/3
in 2000], start 32 or 33 games, win half of them--we're looking at
a bargain."

Dreifort is lavishly talented. He has a four-seam fastball that
hums along at 95 mph and darts around in ways batters, catchers
and umpires don't often foresee. This isn't always a good thing.
It can lead to walks (4.06 per nine innings, tied for eighth most
in the National League last year), wild pitches (17, third most),
stolen bases allowed (19, tied for eighth most) and an
unpredictable strike zone. He also has a slider that's only
slightly slower than his four-seamer and is particularly baffling
to righthanded batters. He has an improving changeup. Best of
all, when Dreifort's on, he has one of the most unhittable
pitches in baseball, a two-seam sinkerball that travels 90-plus
and takes a strange, twisting dive as it crosses the front edge
of the plate. When that pitch is working, it's the ultimate out
pitch. But Dreifort has struggled with it. His pitching mechanics
and his confidence have suffered, in part because of the
frequently changing cast of managers (five), pitching coaches
(six) and catchers (12) in Los Angeles since 1994, his rookie
season, and also because his job description--early on, closer,
then middle reliever, then starter--changed, too. Dreifort thrives
on constancy. He's a creature of habit.

As a senior at Wichita State in 1993, playing in his hometown, at
the school where his father, John, was and still is a professor
of history, Darren went 11-1 with a 2.48 ERA and, as the
Shockers' DH, batted .327 with 22 homers and 66 RBIs; his
accomplishments won him the Golden Spikes Award as baseball's top
amateur player. The Dodgers made him the second pick in the
draft, and the following year, after only a brief stint in the
Arizona Fall League, he made the major league club out of spring
training. Because his stuff was so lively and his manner so
modest and mellow, the veterans accepted him, despite his signing
bonus and his holdout to get it. Veteran righthander Orel
Hershiser liked the way Dreifort did everything methodically, not
in a kid's mad rush. He once said of him, "He stands slow."

McDowell, then 33 and a Dodgers reliever, became Dreifort's
mentor. "He was from Wichita, and now he was in Los Angeles, so
there were things he had to learn," McDowell says. "I showed him
the little things that make you a big leaguer."

Back then Dreifort was all potential. Last July, McDowell visited
the Dodgers' clubhouse and saw a different Dreifort. Much of his
potential had been spent. "He seemed a little lost," McDowell
says. "He started asking questions. We covered some basic
mechanical things. His sinker wasn't hitting the outside part of
the plate on righthanded hitters because his hips were pointed
the wrong way [angled too far to the first base side]. It was
very remedial. I think he was looking for something mechanical
that would let him clear a mental hurdle. The final thing I said
to him was, 'You're the best pitcher on this staff. You've got to
believe that.'" Dreifort nodded his head, long and slow.

Once in a while the right idea, presented with the right words
and in the right tone by the right person at the right time, can
change one's sense of himself. That's what happened here.
Dreifort's next start after that conversation with McDowell was
against the San Francisco Giants on July 23. It was a Sunday game
at Dodger Stadium, and the place was packed. Dreifort pitched
seven shutout innings, allowing two hits and walking one batter
while striking out nine. His stuff was working, particularly his
sinker. This was the Dreifort everybody had been waiting for.
"That was a defining moment for Darren," says Dodgers catcher
Chad Kreuter. "You could see his potential coming through. You
could see a frontline guy."

Dreifort agrees: "I could feel the difference immediately." He
looks like the Wichita lineman, from the old Jimmy Webb song, of
your imagination: thick-legged and wide-shouldered, with
close-cropped hair, wearing boots, dungarees and a T-shirt. When
he talks, it's because he has something to say. "Once I got my
hip pointed right, I got the sinker working again," he says. "I
felt like my left foot was landing a foot farther down the mound,
even though in reality it was probably an inch. I've had good
tips before. Sometimes they last for a start. Sometimes for an
inning. What Roger told me worked for the rest of the season."

At Wichita State, where Dreifort worked mostly as a long
reliever, he dominated virtually every situation he was
confronted with. "He had an air of confidence that he was taking
over the game," says Brad Kemnitz, the Shockers' pitching coach.
Kemnitz didn't see that in Dreifort as a Dodger until the final
months of last season. In December, Kemnitz told Dreifort, "You
should be an All-Star every year for the next five years. Kevin
Brown doesn't have anything on you." Dreifort nodded his head,
long and slow.

Darren grew up in a baseball household. John, who pitched at
Bowling Green in the mid-1960s, knows the game intimately. His
doctorate is in modern European history, but he's a professor of
baseball, too. One of the classes he teaches, History 350P, is
the history of baseball. He knows many pitchers didn't make their
mark until they were in the majors for a long while. In teaching
the game to his son, John took a slow approach. He didn't let
Darren throw curveballs in Little League. There were other things
to learn.

John and his wife, Carol, raised Darren, entrenched though he was
in Wichita and its sports culture, to have a view of the world.
He learned Spanish (his minor at Wichita State) and speaks it
with his Spanish-speaking teammates. When the Dodgers go to New
York City, Dreifort takes in a Broadway show. He's an expert on
the films of Fred Astaire and the music of George Strait. A few
years ago he made an off-season, 10-day trip to Florence with his
girlfriend and eagerly took in the churches and museums.

The woman Darren toured Florence with is now his wife, Ann
Hollingsworth Dreifort, a former Wichita State basketball star.
She knows that the big money won't change Darren in any essential
way. While driving to spring training in Florida from Wichita,
where they live, the Dreiforts spent the night at a Holiday Inn
Express, $65 for a double. Darren appreciates good value. One of
his few toys is a motorcycle, a 1990 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy.
Some of his happiest moments are on that bike, alone with his
thoughts, slicing through the wind at speeds that rival his
fastball.

When he's on the mound this season, he won't be thinking about
his contract. The money is nice--it gives him and his family
security, it allows him to do things for his church and other
charities--but it has almost nothing to do with why he is a
baseball player. He plays baseball to win. He feels he'll start
the new season right where the last season ended.

"I learned a lot from Roger as a rookie, about where to go and
how to act," Dreifort says of McDowell's influence. "I learned a
lot from Roger that day I saw him last season. You've always got
to learn in this game."

He's asked, Have you seen McDowell since that day?

Dreifort nodded his head, long and slow.

What did you say to him?

"Thank you."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON Rewarded and rested, righthander Dreifort arrived in Vero Beach determined to show that his sizzling second half in 2000 was no fluke.COLOR PHOTO: ELI REICHMAN History professor John (in Darren's boyhood room) has taken the long view of his son's career.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON By repositioning his hips to allow his left foot to land lower on the mound, Dreifort got command of his sinker.
"The final thing I said to him was, 'You're the best pitcher on
this staff,'" says McDowell. "'You've got to believe that.'"
Dreifort nodded his head.
"If Darren does what we believe he can do--give us 220 innings,
start 32 or 33 games, win half of them--we're looking at a
bargain," says Malone.