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'LaLob' it in

Struggling pitchers might want to add 'eephus' to their repertoire

Posted: Thursday April 15, 2004 11:29AM; Updated: Friday April 16, 2004 9:41AM
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Bill Lee
It takes an oddball like Bill 'Spaceman' Lee to throw the eephus pitch.
AP

Big league pitchers constantly look for some kind of an edge. Roy Halladay, Mike Mussina, Kevin Millwood, Russ Ortiz -- good pitchers, all -- are lugging around two losses already and the season's not even two weeks old. Mike Hampton has an ERA over 16.00. Mussina's ERA is 8.22. Andy Pettitte is 0-1 with a 10.13 ERA and he's on the disabled list.

Let's face it. With all the biceps bulging out there and all those short fences, it's not easy being the guy who has to throw the ball over the plate for a living.

So here, as a professional service, is one word for some beat-up pitcher who might need a little something extra in his repertoire.

Eephus.

Now, now. Obviously, everybody can't start throwing the thing at once. It'll start looking like a slowpitch softball league out there. Or more like a slowpitch softball league, that is.

But a good eephus, thrown by one or two brave hurlers and placed just right at just the right time, can do wonders for a pitcher. It can do wonders for a career. It worked for Rip Sewell in the early 1940s. Bill Lee, known as the "Spaceman," slid a few into his arsenal in his time. And Dave LaRoche's version, dubbed "LaLob," was a classic in the early '80s.

Think about it. An eephus.

Really. What do some of these guys have to lose?

"Today," said LaRoche, speaking from his home in Omaha, Neb., where he's the pitching coach for the Kansas City Royals' Class AAA franchise, "anything you can come up with that works is worth trying."

Truth is, it's been too darn long since anyone threw the eephus with any kind of regularity. The New York Yankees' Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez toyed with the pitch back in 2002. But when Alex Rodriguez -- he was with the Texas Rangers then, remember? -- smacked one for home run No. 46, El Duque's eephus did a dodo and disappeared.

There's a great history of pitchers who have tried the high-arcing, deadly slow pitch, which travels along the path of a slow-pitched softball, only it travels slower and, if it's done right, higher. Sewell is thought to have come up with the first one. He once threw a famous eephus to Ted Williams in the 1946 All-Star Game. A determined Williams took a couple of steps up to catch it early, actually stepping out of the batter's box, and smacked it into the bullpen for a home run.

Steve Hamilton, who pitched for the Yankees in the mid-'60s, had what was called the "Folly Floater." Lee claims to have thrown 10 of his eephus pitches in a row when he played with the Boston Red Sox.

And then there was LaRoche, who appeared in almost 650 games in a career that began with the California Angels in 1970 and ended with the Yankees in 1983. LaRoche was just looking for something to keep the hitters from killing him. He first threw his version of the eephus in 1980. It was the only offspeed pitch he had.

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"One time, I think I had it gunned at 34 mph," LaRoche said. "If I threw a fastball, it had to look 100 mph."

The whole idea behind the eephus is pretty simple. It's designed to be something so slow that fast-twitch sluggers can't hold back on it and something with such a drastic arc, dropping as close to straight down as the pitcher can get it to drop, that hitters have to alter their swings to get good wood on it. There's an element of surprise there, too.

When El Duque threw A-Rod the eephus for the first time that day in 2002, A-Rod laughed at it. Throwing an eephus is no joke, though. Getting something that peaks at around 20 feet high to drop into a tiny strike zone isn't easy. It takes practice. There aren't a lot of pitchers who have the time to try to perfect that kind of a pitch. They're too busy trying to get their other pitches to behave.

"It takes a lot of nerve to throw it," LaRoche admitted. "And to practice it enough to be able to be able to throw strikes ... there's not too many pitching coaches that are going to work on it with you."

Atlanta's Leo Mazzone, one of the most successful pitching coaches in the big leagues, remembers Hamilton as the last great thrower of the pitch. (He remembers LaRoche, too, but maybe only because LaRoche's son is rookie Adam LaRoche, the starting first baseman for the Braves.) Mazzone is with the elder LaRoche on why no one throws it anymore.

"It takes guts," Mazzone said. "And I think it'd be harder than hell to control."

Ah, but when it works ...

Dave LaRoche remembers striking out Milwaukee's Gorman Thomas with a LaLob in 1981 -- one of four LaRoche threw Thomas in the at-bat -- and Thomas getting so perturbed he smashed his batting helmet to pieces. Dave LaRoche fooled umpires on the pitch, too.

"I threw it in Baltimore one time, and I can remember [umpire] Steve Palermo was there, and it should have been strike three -- it was perfect, right there -- but he didn't give it to me," Dave LaRoche said. "The next day, I come in and he's in the trainer's room, and before I could say a thing, he said, 'I know. I know. But I didn't want to have to throw [Baltimore manager Earl] Weaver for arguing it.'"

At one time, as a pitching coach in Syracuse, Dave LaRoche thought he had the next great thrower of the eephus-type pitch: a burly lefty with a wild side, young David Wells.

Boomer has done just fine without the pitch -- though he's 0-1 with a 6.55 ERA this season -- but Dave LaRoche still sees a use for it out there for someone. In spring training with the Royals in Surprise, Ariz., LaRoche is always asked about the pitch. Everyone wants to know about it. K.C. closer Mike MacDougal has asked about it. So has Royals starter Brian Anderson. K.C.'s Chris George has been asking to see it for two years.

"I tell them, first of all, wait 'til I'm gone," he said, "because if you throw it while I'm around, I'll probably get fired."

Still, LaRoche has an idea of a kid who could throw the pitch some day. The 20-year-old star of the Royals' farm system, righty Zack Greinke, who's playing now in Omaha but who almost certainly will make the jump to the big leagues sometime this year.

"Not that I will have anything to do with it," LaRoche said. "But he's as good as Ferguson Jenkins, Catfish Hunter, those kinds of guys, at changing speeds and keeping hitters off balance. He's got a little bit of mischief in him, too. I could see him throwing that later on his career. I could see him, some day before his career is over, doing it.

"You know, it takes something different once in a while to get somebody out."

That's what we're saying. A well-placed eephus. Once in a while.

All someone has to do is to be willing to give it a try.

John Donovan is a senior writer for SI.com.

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