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The Wild One He became a legend throughout baseball by throwing the fastest fastball ever--and rarely getting it over the plate. Then he flamed out, on and off the field

June 30, 2003
June 30, 2003

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June 30, 2003

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The Wild One He became a legend throughout baseball by throwing the fastest fastball ever--and rarely getting it over the plate. Then he flamed out, on and off the field

Steve Dalkowski sits in an easy chair in the office of Stan
Cliburn, the manager of the Double A New Britain (Conn.) Rock
Cats. It's mid-June. Cliburn and his twin brother, Stu, the
team's pitching coach, are introducing the Rock Cats' players to
their guest. Dalkowski, a New Britain native, will be throwing
out the first pitch at that night's game. Stu Cliburn tells his
charges that Dalkowski is judged by many who would know to be
"the hardest-throwing pitcher ever." Gazing at the bearded
64-year-old man with the round face and comfortable paunch
sitting before them, the strapping young players probably find
that difficult to believe. But this is baseball, so there are
always the numbers. ¶ Stu ticks off Dalkowski's career record. In
most respects it is less than impressive. Pitching exclusively in
the minors, from 1957 to '65, Dalkowski went 46-80 with a 5.59
ERA. But then Cliburn drops another statistic: In 995 innings the
lefthanded Dalkowski struck out 1,396 batters. The players gasp
and chuckle at a number that belongs more to the video games they
play than to real baseball. Of course, Dalkowski walked 1,354,
and that, too, is part of his legend. Cliburn asks Dalkowski if
he might give his pitchers some advice. "Try to throw strikes,"
he says quietly.

This is an article from the June 30, 2003 issue Original Layout

That is something at which Dalkowski rarely succeeded--maybe
because his wildness on the field was compounded by long nights
in bars. The drinking persisted long after his mighty fastball
skipped town. The day he learned he was finally going to pitch in
the big leagues, he blew out his elbow, and the magic was gone,
forever. A few years later he dropped out of sight, even to his
family and friends.

Now he's back home. As he steps onto the mound at New Britain
Stadium, he waves to the crowd of 4,162, and the P.A. announcer
introduces him as a "New Britain legend." His pitch will be
caught by Andy Baylock, his former catcher at New Britain High,
who retired in May after 24 years as baseball coach at the
University of Connecticut. Just before they leave the dugout,
Baylock kids Dalkowski, saying, "Don't throw the gas."

Dalkowski smiles. "No gas today," he says. The pitch bounces
halfway to Baylock, who stands about 15 feet in front of the
plate.

To those who saw him in his prime, there will never be another
Steve Dalkowski. He was not a big man, just 5'11" and about 170
pounds. He peered in to the catcher through thick glasses to
correct his weak vision. Yet when his left hand released a pitch,
the ball took off with stunning speed, rising like the jet stream
until the catcher might have to stand to corral it--if he could.
Dalkowski had the fastest fastball ever, in the opinion of
lifetime baseball men who saw him, such as Pat Gillick and Bobby
Cox and Earl Weaver. "As 40 years go by, a lot of stories get
embellished," says Gillick, now the Seattle Mariners' general
manager and once a minor league teammate of Dalkowski's. "But
this guy was legit. He had one of those arms that come once in a
lifetime."

Dalkowski showcased that arm in two sports. As a quarterback he
led New Britain High to division championships in 1955 and '56.
Yet baseball was his passion. Steve Sr., a tool-and-die maker at
the Stanley Works factory, hoped his son would become an
outfielder. By the time he was 15, though, Steve noticed he could
throw the ball harder than anyone else in town. He's still not
sure where the velocity came from. His only theory is that his
unusually strong wrists enabled him to put extra snap on the
ball.

All 16 major league teams had representatives watching when
Dalkowski, then a senior, set a state record that still stands by
striking out 24 batters in a 1957 game against New London High.
No scout was more persistent than Frank McGowan of the Baltimore
Orioles. Upon Dalkowski's graduation the Orioles signed him,
giving him a $4,000 bonus (then the maximum) plus, Dalkowski
says, $12,000 under the table and a new car. The sparkling
Pontiac, blue with a white racing stripe, appeared in front of
the family's door in the housing project on Governor Street.
McGowan escorted Dalkowski on the train to Kingsport, Tenn., for
his first game in the rookie Appalachian League.

At Kingsport, Dalkowski established his career pattern. In 62
innings he allowed just 22 hits and struck out 121, but he also
walked 129, threw 39 wild pitches and finished 1-8 with an 8.13
ERA. Yet the Orioles were intrigued with his potential,
especially after he struck out 24 batters (walking 18) in his
only victory.

In 1958 Dalkowski was invited to the Orioles' camp in Miami. One
day that spring Ted Williams was lurking around the batting cage
and decided to see this Dalkowski kid for himself. The Splendid
Splinter stepped into the batter's box, watched one pitch fly by
and stepped out of the cage, muttering to reporters that he'd be
damned if he would face Dalkowski until he had to. Williams told
Dalkowski he hadn't even seen the ball--he'd just heard the pop
of the catcher's glove. In an exhibition game that spring against
the Cincinnati Reds in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, with his
parents watching, Dalkowski fanned the side in the ninth on just
12 pitches. He would never again pitch in a big league ballpark.

No one is certain just how fast Dalkowski threw in those days
before the use of the radar gun. Dalkowski believes he threw 110
mph at his peak. Gillick, Cox (the Atlanta Braves' manager, who
batted against Dalkowski) and others say it was definitely over
100, perhaps 105. In 1958 the Orioles took Dalkowski to the
Aberdeen (Md.) Proving Grounds to measure his heater. The
experiment did not go well. Dalkowski had pitched the night
before and was throwing from a flat surface rather than a mound.
Worse, he spent a maddening 40 minutes trying to throw the ball
through a laser beam emanating from a metal box about the width
of the plate. When he finally got the ball through the laser, the
pitch clocked in at 93.5 mph, and everyone went home.

For the next three years Dalkowski careened from dominance to
ineptitude. The Orioles tried everything to harness his gift. One
manager constructed a plywood target with a hole for Dalkowski to
throw through, but a few fastballs turned that to splinters.
Another manager had him pitch for 11 straight days to tire him
out, or throw from 15 feet to get a feel for the strike zone, or
warm up with batters standing on both sides of the plate. Through
it all Dalkowski kept putting up exotic numbers. He threw a
no-hitter while striking out 21 and a one-hitter with 15
strikeouts that he lost 9-8 because of his 17 walks. In Stockton,
Calif., in 1960 he tied the California League single-game record
by fanning 19, but he walked nine and lost 8-3 when Cox, then a
young Reno second baseman, hit a grand slam in the ninth after
whiffing his first four times up. "He had me down 0-2, and he hit
my bat," says Cox.

As the numbers multiplied, so did the stories. Dalkowski once
tore a batter's ear lobe off with a pitch. When he plunked
another hitter in the batting helmet, the ball landed just in
front of second base. (After that he was almost exclusively wild
up and down, not in and out.) There was the time in Pensacola in
1959 when catcher Cal Ripken Sr. called for a curveball but
Dalkowski thought he saw the fastball sign. The pitch smacked the
umpire flush in the mask, breaking it in three places and sending
the ump to the hospital with a concussion. On a dare Dalkowski
once threw a ball over the stands behind home plate from a
centerfield wall 440 feet away. To win a $5 bet, he fired a ball
through a wooden outfield fence.

Dalkowski's contemporaries say he was mostly business on the
field, but off the diamond was another matter. He had started
drinking beer as a ninth-grader. In the minors, with bars and
girls in every town and all day to sleep off a bender--not to
mention hell-raiser Bo Belinsky as a onetime roommate--his
drinking got worse. In 1963, when Dalkowski reached Triple A
Rochester, the Orioles assigned him to room on the road with
31-year-old Joe Altobelli, in hopes that Altobelli could be his
mentor. (Film director and writer Ron Shelton, who played for
Altobelli at two stops in the minors, later cast the arrangement
as Bull Durham's Nuke LaLoosh and Crash Davis.) One teammate, Ray
Youngdahl, would commandeer Dalkowski's paycheck and give him an
allowance so he wouldn't squander it all.

That Dalkowski ever ascended to Rochester was due largely to
Weaver, then a young manager. In 1962, at Class A Elmira, Weaver,
who knew instructors had been confusing Dalkowski with a surfeit
of advice, told him as little as possible--except that he
believed in him. Dalkowski finally consented to take a little
steam off his fastball and began to consistently throw his biting
slider for strikes to get ahead in the count. When Dalkowski got
two strikes on a batter, Weaver would whistle, signaling
Dalkowski to fire away. That was music to Dalkowski's ears. "With
two strikes," he says, "I really let it all hang out." Dalkowski
finished 7-10 but with a solid 3.04 ERA. He had 192 strikeouts
and, for the first time, fewer walks (114) than innings pitched
(160). He threw 37 straight scoreless innings, emerging as a
shutdown reliever.

Dalkowski was the talk of Orioles spring training in Miami in
1963. After he threw six scoreless, hitless innings over several
relief outings, manager Billy Hitchcock told him he had made the
club. On the morning of March 22, 1963, Dalkowski was fitted for
a major league uniform. That afternoon he pitched against the New
York Yankees. He struck out four in two innings, but while
throwing a slider to Phil Linz something popped in his elbow.
Dalkowski had injured a nerve, and his arm never recovered. Soon
he was back in the minors.

At midseason in 1964, Baltimore released Dalkowski. He hung on
for two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates' and the Los Angeles
Angels' organizations. In Bakersfield in 1965 he married a
schoolteacher named Linda Moore, but they divorced two years
later. Soon he was in the California fields, picking cotton and
sugar beets, beans and carrots. Dalkowski's drink of choice was
cheap wine, which he would buy when the bus stopped on the way to
the crop field. Often he would place a bottle in the next row as
motivation.

Dalkowski doesn't remember much of the next 30 years. He suffers
from alcohol-related dementia, but the gaps in his memory don't
start until about 1964. "I keep trying and trying to remember,"
he says. "But I don't." His sister, Pat Cain, can't fill in the
blanks for him, because he stopped talking to his family around
that same time. At some point he was married again, to a motel
clerk named Virginia, though today he struggles even to recall
her name. He never had children. ("Thank God," he says soberly.)

Dalkowski moved to Oklahoma City with Virginia in 1993, but when
she died of a brain aneurysm in 1994, it was time for him to come
home. His parents had passed away, but Cain was living in New
Britain. She arranged for Dalkowski to move into the Walnut Hill
Care Center, just down the hill from Dalkowski's old high school
baseball field. Initially, Cain was told that Dalkowski likely
wouldn't live more than a year. Yet Dalkowski has rallied. Given
his decades of drinking, he is remarkably healthy, and he has
begun to display the easy manner his old friends remember.

Sitting with his family and friends in the stands after throwing
the first pitch at the Rock Cats game, he mugs good-naturedly
with his three-year-old grandniece, Samantha. He sings along with
God Bless America during the seventh-inning stretch. Yet it's the
game that interests him most. When a New Britain pitcher gets two
strikes on a batter, Dalkowski says, "Let it all hang out."
Dalkowski can no longer let it all hang out, yet he finally seems
to be keeping it together.

B/W PHOTO: FORREST JACKSON/TIME MAGAZINE (FAR LEFT) BLINDING SPEED While with the Class C Stockton Ports in 1960, the 21-year-old Dalkowski posed without his usual thick spectacles.COLOR PHOTO: STAN GODLEWSKI [See caption above]B/W PHOTO HEAT WAVES As Dalkowski terrified minor league batters, his mind-boggling strikeout and walk numbers made major news.COLOR PHOTO: STAN GODLEWSKI IT'S A SNAP Dalkowski credits his velocity to his extraordinarily powerful wrists.
The Splendid Splinter told Dalkowski he hadn't even seen the
ball--he'd just heard THE POP OF THE CATCHER'S GLOVE.