These stories pop up every spring training. The particulars change, but the basic storyline – the narrative as they call it in journalism these days – is the same.
A pitcher comes up, and he is brilliant early in his career. He caps a dream season with postseason heroics. Everyone predicts great things for the young man. Next stop: Cooperstown.
Then injuries hit. He goes years without approaching his former brilliance. Maybe he is sent down to the minors for a while.
Spring training rolls around. Optimism abounds. He really thinks he can be great again.
Rub some dirt in it
I recently came across one of these stories from 50 years ago that I thought was worth revisiting.
The pitcher in this story believed he could mount such a comeback.
Our pitcher had what we now call a rotator cuff tear, but then was just called a sore arm.
He later described his organization’s attitude toward sore arms “as rub dirt on it.” So the team sent our pitcher to Instructional League in the fall and then to pitch winter ball in Puerto Rico before the 1969 season.
No one would prescribe such a regime today, but after all his arm felt better. And he developed new skills to compensate for the lack of a great fastball.
He was confident enough to sit down before a spring training start for an interview with Milt Richman, the lead sports columnist for United Press International.
You might not have ever heard of United Press International if you are younger than 60. From 1958, when United Press merged with International News Service, until the mid-1980s, UPI was a force in American life. In fact, it was the second largest wire service, behind The Associated Press. UPI and AP provided most of the national and international news to newspapers, radio and TV stations.
“We have in this country,’’ President Lyndon Johnson was quoted as saying by David Halberstam in “The Powers That Be,” “two big networks, NBC and CBS. We have two news magazines, Newsweek and Time. We have two wire services, AP and UPI … They’re all so damned big they think they own the country.”
This interview was kind of a big deal.
“As far as I know, my arm is fine now,’’ our pitcher told Richman. “But I have to show them that. Why? Because I know what everybody is thinking. They think, ‘This guy is finished.’ ”
Our pitcher admitted the days of his success seemed like a distant memory.
“I felt I had it made,’’ he said.
Then he even admitted to the columnist that he was nervous about a spring training game.
Our pitcher went out that afternoon and threw three scoreless innings. Richman contained his enthusiasm.
“It’s hard to tell against the Senators,’’ he wrote. “They’re not rude to many pitchers.”
Yeah, there are a lot of stories like this one. Richman could have written a similar column about another pitcher that spring.
Jim Bouton – who coincidentally had given up a home run in our pitcher’s first at-bat in the majors – won 20 games and two World Series games for the New York Yankees before his arm betrayed him.
Bouton was out in Arizona developing new skills as well, becoming a knuckleballer and a writer. Without the knowledge of his teammates or the team, he was writing “Ball Four,’’ a tell-all diary of the 1969 season that became a bestseller. It was highly controversial at the time. The book seems tame now.
The on-the-field portion of Bouton’s story turned out like most of these tales, maybe even a little better. He made 72 relief appearances for the expansion Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros, compiling a 3.91 ERA (91 ERA plus).
The book came out in 1970, and Bouton retired midway through that season. He made a comeback in 1978 and pitched about as well as he had in 1970. He wrote another book.
Back on top
But the pitcher in our story had much more success than Bouton in 1969. Our pitcher went 16-4 with a 2.34 ERA.
He went 20-10 and pitched 305 innings in 1970. The seasons he lost to arm problems turned into just a blip in a brilliant career. Jim Palmer of the Baltimore Orioles really was headed to Cooperstown.
Wild hopes turn out to be justified occasionally, and players do return to glory once in a while.
That’s why these stories pop up every spring.