Nuts and screws, tens of thousands of nuts and screws, cram the bins at The Bolt Bin in Lexington, Ky. Binkeeper Joe Cowley surveys his stock like a shaman contemplating miraculous artifacts. He calls out his prize trophies: "Hex nuts. Square nuts. Locknuts. Jam nuts. Castle nuts. Carriage bolts. Phillips-head screws. Lag screws. Cap screws. Deck screws. Dowel pins. Fine-thread, sharp-point, dry-wall screws...."
Nuts and screws. "That's what it's all about," says Cowley. "At one time I was a little bit nutty and screwy. Now I'm selling them."
Cowley seems content with the life he lives. For a long time—perhaps even during his best years in the big leagues—he was not. His career in baseball took more turns than a wing nut. After floundering in the Atlanta Braves' farm system for eight years. Cowley hooked on with the New York Yankees in 1984. He was 21-8 in a season and a half. Dealt to the Chicago White Sox, he threw a no-hitter, led the team in victories (with an 11-11 record) and set an American League mark by striking out seven hitters to lead off a game. Then came 1987 and a swap to the Philadelphia Phillies. Twenty-eight years old and seemingly on top of his game, Cowley suddenly, inexplicably stopped throwing strikes. He scattered pitches all over South Philly—from Brocco's King of Hoagies to Olivieri's Prince of Steaks. Things got so ugly that in mid-season the Phils sent him home.
Five years later Cowley still doesn't know what went wrong. He doesn't like to talk about it. "I don't need the publicity, and I don't want publicity," he protests. "This is not going to do me any good. No good at all." Still, he submits.
Big and thick, he stands behind the register, wearing a dreamily crooked smile, swaying to some private melody wafting in his head. He tells you about the time in Yankee Stadium when he walked the leadoff batter in the top of the eighth. His manager, Billy Martin, met him at the mound and signaled for a reliever. "Good move, Billy," said Cowley, and patted Martin on the back.
Martin did a double take, then doubled over in laughter. "I've managed a lot of pitchers," he said later, "but that's the first time I've had one compliment me for taking him out."
Cowley had a cheerful, this-is-the-way-I-am approach to life. "He was as flaky as they come, but in a harmless way," says Yankee pitching coach Marc Connor. "He couldn't throw the ball straight—even his fastballs moved." Cowley's first big league manager, Joe Torre of the Braves, had no taste for this flake. Cowley didn't enhance his image when a Dodger Stadium scoreboard showed him in the bullpen, mimicking a teammate's pitching motion during a game between Atlanta and L.A. in 1982. Later that season, during a road series against the New York Mets, Cowley woke up late one morning in his hotel, took a shower and had breakfast, turned on the TV and heard the national anthem being sung at Shea Stadium, "I'd assumed we'd be playing a night game," he says. Torre assumed Cowley had been kidnapped. Within a week he was back in the bushes.
Though he pitched decently at Richmond in 1983, the Braves kept him down on the farm. " Torre didn't want to have anything to do with mc," Cowley says. "I'd already made my mark on him." Cowley turned free agent that fall and jumped to the Yankees. "I wanted to start off right," he says, and he did tossing a one-hit shutout in his Triple A debut. By the time the Yanks called him up in July, he was 10-3. " Billy Martin grew to like Joe," says Connor. "Initially, though, he just saw this man-child who was never serious about anything." In fact, the only thing serious about Cowley was his record: He was 9-2 in '84, 12-6 in '85.
Before the '86 campaign the righthanded Cowley was shipped to Chicago in a deal involving lefty Britt Burns. That spring he impressed the White Sox with his new gold-wheeled Mercedes but not with much else. He spent most of April and May with the Buffalo Bisons, the Sox's Triple A team. "It was an adventure every time Cowley went out there," says Dick Bosnian, the Bison pitching coach. "He'd embarrass two hitters, walk the next two, then give up a rocket."
Cowley had his most Cowleyesque outing a week after he was called up to the Sox. He made baseball history by fanning the first seven Texas Rangers he faced. Unfortunately, he never got out of the fifth inning; by the time he was pulled he had allowed six hits and six runs and made a throwing error and a wild pitch. "You have good days and bad days," says Cowley. "That's what you call a good day and a bad day."