High, up above, in the lights of Comiskey Park, the nighthawks glided, flapped rapidly, twisted, fluttered, swung to the left, feeding on the varied bugs attracted by the lights, glided but did not relax, ascended, dove down, refused to accept the ease of flight and fought the air, flapping, for every inch of motion, did so in a fashion, well, best described as, perhaps, arrhythmic, that is arrhythmically–without rhythm.
In the same manner, the White Sox’ starting pitcher last Friday evening, Jack McDowell, fought the Cleveland Indians–and himself–and lost.
This is perhaps our favorite time of the baseball year. The optimistic, fair-weather fans have been scattered by the dog days of August and have left baseball behind for barbecues and exhibition football. It is no longer so easy to get someone to join us at the game; we call around, but people are either busy or simply no longer interested in a sport that appears to be overstaying its welcome. Later this month, of course, these fans will return to the ballparks and savor those last days of the season for the long winter ahead, but for now we see a lot of baseball by ourselves–just us aficionados. Our skills are sharp after almost four months of practice–like the skills of the players in turning the double play or hitting the cutoff man–and we fall into the games from the first pitch, attuned to the shifts in strategy, to each player’s struggle, but especially to the struggle of the pitcher. It is, we remember, a difficult game. We chart pitches. We study the afternoon like a chess game in progress. We watch the pitcher’s windup, the strategy settled on between him and the catcher, and we are then, with them, setting the batters up for (what? a change-up, a curve, the fastball) the next pitch, and looking, sometimes, to the sky and asking, “Where did that rhythm go?”
Jack McDowell is a pitcher with checkpoints but no rhythm, like a dance student so intent on the steps that he forgets the music. He reminds us that complexities reside within even the simplest pitching motions. Batting is simple, at least in form; swinging is a natural act. Throwing may be natural to the human animal–harking back to prehistoric, rock-hurling days–but the overhand toss is not natural to the human body, thus the elbow problems and rotator-cuff tears that typically afflict the modern-day pitcher. And, of course, to add the little bit of speed, to add torque to the curve or slider, to provide that artifice necessary to craft, there is the pitching motion, a winding, leaping jumble of arms and legs unlike the cricket bowler’s run or the tennis player’s serve (while resembling both) and for that matter unlike anything else in sport. McDowell’s motion couldn’t be simpler. Tall and lean, he stands atop the mound cradling his gloved left hand against his upper chest in the manner of a young, new father who has remembered to burp the baby but has forgotten how. His hands join (checkpoint one), they rise and cross over the head (two), return as the left knee rises to meet them at chest level (three), then a stride–not a kick–down the mound (four), whereupon the arm rises and follows the body (five–release point), and the ball is delivered to home.
So if it’s so simple, why is it so complex? How does the magic of throwing strikes suddenly so utterly disappear?
A few years ago, in writing about Steve Trout, we said there was a major-league pitcher somewhere inside him but it would take a pitching coach’s equivalent of a jeweler’s eyeglass to see it. No such expertise is necessary to recognize McDowell’s talent; his ball moves. He has an active fastball, which sails in on right-handed hitters; a sharp-biting slider; and a nice, slow curve. He has, as they say, all the tools. Yet we should remind ourselves that he is even now only 15 months out of Stanford University. He had it written into his contract that he would be called up last September to pitch in the majors, and when he then won three of the four games he started he not only made the team for this year but convinced the Sox management that rebuilding was the way to go and that their older, less talented pitchers could be disposed of. But now, watching McDowell pitch, we see the hard work, the mastering of craft that usually goes on in the minors. He is “Nuke” LaLoosh from the movie Bull Durham sent straight to the majors. In a word, he struggles.
McDowell set a season high for the White Sox last Friday, walking seven men. He was replaced late in the game by the newly acquired and almost equally wild reliever Barry Jones, who added enough walks of his own to make a nice round ten for the game as a whole. Three of those men scored, three times the margin of victory in a 7-6 win for the Indians.
McDowell, as usual, had good stuff, but also as usual he had little command over it. The Indians threatened in almost every inning, yet he always struggled out of it, and if one felt that it wasn’t entirely chance that he was able to keep the Indians from that one big hit that would blow the game open, one didn’t quite feel that McDowell was allowing all these base runners just so he could work on his move to first. In the first inning, he threw a good pitch, a low fastball, to former Cub Joe Carter, who whipped it into the left-field seats. Tough; it could happen to anyone. McDowell reeled, walked Mel Hall, then got the number-five hitter to pop up on a curveball.
Then came the long trial of McDowell, of the fans, and of manager, Jim Fregosi. McDowell walked the leadoff man in the second, allowed him a single in the third, walked him in the fourth, allowed him a single in the fifth, walked him in the sixth, and, ironically, got him to pop up in the seventh, after which he walked the second batter and was dispatched to the showers. Yet of these five straight leadoff men who reached base, only one scored (when a leadoff single in the fifth turned into a leadoff triple with the help of a two-base throwing error by overly aggressive center fielder Steve “Psycho” Lyons), and if McDowell had been given decent defensive support he might have won this game. That has been his story of the year. His outing last Friday nudged his earned-run average up to the 4.00 mark–not bad for a rookie pitcher, and certainly deserving of something better than his 5-10 record. It has seemed, all season, that when he pitches well the Sox can’t score, and when they score he can’t quite hold the other team.
McDowell is not a natural athlete. He is gangly; he reminds us that a smooth pitching motion is necessary precisely because, once mastered, it transforms the prospect into a star just as an ugly duckling is transformed into a swan. In the third inning, McDowell stooped on the run for an errant throw and, tripping, almost came up lame. In the fourth, with the bases loaded and one out, he got ahead of Julio Franco by starting him a curve, then throwing the fastball past him–both for strikes. Franco slapped the next pitch right back at McDowell, who confronted it the way an executive confronts a bee that has flown into his office, slapping at it and shooing it toward Carlton Fisk at the plate, who then threw to first for the double play.
He fell from the tightrope in the sixth. After giving up the unearned run in the fifth, he walked the first two men in this inning, then almost worked out of it when he made a fine play on a bunt and Steve Lyons made an incredible catch in center. He couldn’t get Franco twice, however; Julio hit a single to right for an earned run, and Kenny Williams made the Sox’ second outfield throwing error of the game for another, unearned run. In the seventh, McDowell’s seventh walk, as we said, led to his dismissal, but reliever Jones walked two men of his own and then allowed a hit, cementing the Sox’ loss.
Two, three dragonflies buzzed at the edge of the batting cage at Wrigley Field, and looking straight up we saw, suddenly, 15 or 20 dragonflies, hovering overhead. They’ve grown large and numerous this summer, we’ve been told, because they’ve been feasting on the biting flies down by the lakefront. They glided, almost moiling, in the air above, shifted position with the barest hint of movement in their doubled sets of wings, swung left out of sight, giving way to the breeze.
The Cubs’ Greg Maddux has also been struggling of late, but for Maddux it is a matter not of discovering how to pitch but of regaining what he discovered earher this year. Maddux is, unlike McDowell, a natural athlete and a natural pitcher; much smaller than McDowell, he nevertheless throws the ball just as hard and with almost as much movement, and he has a sweet little curve to go with it. He fields his position not like a cat but like a kitten coming into its first coordination; he pounces on bunts and meek ground balls hit back to the mound. After struggling through last year, this season he found–after training in the winter leagues–that he could throw the curve for strikes almost at will, and he was 15-3 at the All-Star break. He has struggled of late, however, for reasons relating either to arm fatigue or to that old lost rhythm; almost certainly the two are related. A week ago last Wednesday we saw him sharp against the Astros, but even so he wasn’t as sturdy as he had been early in the season; there were signs of weakness. He was coming off a miserable outing the previous Friday against the Braves. Maddux has an athletic pitching motion–he begins with his glove set at a jaunty angle to the body, so that his left arm juts out like the spinnaker of a sailboat–with good mechanics throughout and a solid kick to anchor the motion in the middle. Against the Braves, however, his rhythm was askew; even in this simple motion, the gears found a way to grind. His fastball was untamable, rising high and inside to right-handed hitters, and his curve kept falling short of the plate. He was knocked out of the box.
Against the Astros, dueling Nolan Ryan, he found his footing immediately, relying on the curveball to lead the way, to firm up his mechanics and to make throwing the fastball smooth and easy. Yet he always seemed just on the verge of losing it; it was like watching someone walk on a sheet of ice. The high, tight fastball got away from him again in the second and he hit Glenn Davis, but he got the next batter to hit into a double play. Three hits in the third produced a run but no more. Then he settled into a groove, requiring only 29 pitches over the next three innings. In the eighth, however, the rhythm departed, and Maddux followed close behind. He walked two men and was yanked. When reliever Jeff Pico allowed a hit, Maddux saw his 17th win of the season go once again out the window.
Still, watching Maddux pitch is one of the joys of the season. He gets a guy on a curve and keeps throwing it to him. A fellow slaps the fastball into center, and next time up he gets a steady diet of curves. His pitching makes sense. His motion is fluid and easy. Yet even here, even with Maddux, the mysterious ailments can come from nowhere, the fastball can lose its hop and go grinding up to home plate like an old jalopy, the curve can fall off the table before it gets to home plate, and the pitcher can look to the sky and wonder.
How does that rhythm go?