Jason Isringhausen could make a baseball curve as fallaciously as anybody in the game and he could intoxicate an entire organization into comparing his pitches to those of Hall of Famers, but at this moment on April 28 he could not even walk across an examining room in his doctor's office without wobbling nearly to the point of collapse. Weak, feverish, short of breath and 15 pounds lighter than he had been only a week before, Isringhausen also felt a searing pain behind his breastbone that was so unbearable that Dr. John Olichney administered a shot of a narcotic to dull the monster inside the New York Mets pitcher.
Isringhausen wanted only a prescription for something to make him feel better so he could be on his way—on his way back to the exuberance of a youthful, sometimes cartoonish life in which he seemed to be falling off cliffs, taking anvils on the head and always bouncing happily back for more. He once fell from a balcony while trying to climb into a girlfriend's condominium. In February he played softball for a topless bar, when he was supposed to be recuperating from shoulder and elbow surgery on his pitching arm. On April 11, after pitching poorly in a minor league game, he angrily punched a trash can and broke the wrist on his pitching arm.
He was a country kid who, from the time he was 18, had a gift for making a baseball dance. The pitch, a knuckle curve, came to him as easily as a laugh. His minor league pitching coach, Bob Apodaca, would try teaching him about mechanics and the art of pitching, often asking him in the bullpen, "Izzy, what do you feel when you do that?" The kid had a pat answer: "I don't know."
Now he was 24, and having to be at Olichney's office seemed to be just another annoyance, albeit a painful one, before he was back on the mound. Olichney, the Mets' team internist, knew better. He knew X-rays showed a spot on Isringhausen's left lung, and he knew some symptoms suggested an ominously weakened immune system. The patient, the doctor thought, doesn't understand the severity of his illness. So Olichney needed to deliver another shot, and no needle was necessary this time.
"Listen, Jason," he said. "We've got a serious problem. We could be talking about cancer, and we're going to test you for HIV."
It was only last year, in the sparkle of Florida sunshine, that the Mets turned their spring training camp into an extended photo op. Isringhausen and fellow kid pitchers Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson were not so much being allowed to establish themselves as they were being put on display, like jewels in a window of Tiffany's. An organization coming off five straight losing seasons—and four consecutive years of failing to draw two million fans, after seven straight seasons above that mark—announced that it had found the players to lead the franchise back to respectability and maybe even to the playoffs: three pitchers, none older than 23, who had the combined experience of 31 big league games.
The pitchers so impressed Dallas Green, the Mets' manager at the time, that he seemingly forgot the wisdom of his 41 years in baseball and gushed that he would be surprised if Isringhausen, Pulsipher and Wilson didn't push 15 wins apiece in their first full seasons in the majors. Never mind that the Mets had not had any pitcher win 15 games since 1990, or that Atlanta Braves pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz—to whom the Mets' trio often was compared—didn't win 15 until their second, fourth and fourth full seasons, respectively. Added New York general manager Joe McIlvaine. "I don't know many teams who wouldn't trade their five veteran pitchers for our guys."
The predictions bubbled like water from an aquifer, though not among them were the unthinkable realities that have come to pass only 14 months later: that Pulsipher would be struggling to throw strikes in Class A ball; that Wilson, having blown out his shoulder with poor mechanics while trying to justify the hype, would be spending more time writing than pitching; and that Isringhausen would be at his parents' Illinois home after the anxiety of waiting for the results of a biopsy and three HIV tests, all of which came back negative.
Olichney told Isringhausen on May 7 that, based on how well the righthander was responding to four antibiotics, he was "99.9 percent sure" that Isringhausen is suffering from tuberculosis, a treatable disease caused by a bacterium and contracted by an estimated 22,000 Americans annually.
Clinically speaking, the franchise has become the New York Mess. In the last 14 months the club has lost pitchers not only to tuberculosis, elbow surgery (Pulsipher) and shoulder surgery (Wilson), but also to depression (Pete Harnisch) and an aneurysm (Derek Wallace). In February one of the organization's top prospects (24-year-old outfielder Jay Payton) needed season-ending elbow surgery for the second year in a row. However, nothing has undermined the franchise like the loss of the three young pitchers. Once as indelibly if not lyrically linked as Spahn, Sain and rain, Isringhausen, Pulsipher and Wilson have not spent a day together on the Mets' active roster. Last year they combined for more surgeries (four) than complete games (three). All of them have losing career records, and though their ceilings may remain high, they now inspire a healthy dose of restraint. "I just say they could have been and will be solid major league pitchers," says Apodaca, now the Mets' pitching coach.