Symptoms of the dread affliction began to surface on May 18 at Shea Stadium. Rockies closer Bruce Ruffin entered the game against the Mets in the eighth inning with one out, runners on first and second and Colorado holding a 4-2 lead. Ruffin promptly walked Todd Hundley on five pitches. Then he walked the virtually unwalkable Rey Ordonez (six bases on balls this season) on five pitches. On his second delivery to the next batter, Manny Alexander, Ruffin threw a wild pitch some 20 feet wide of home plate. Ruffin wound up walking Alexander on four pitches and getting the hook. Fourteen pitches. Two strikes. The diagnosis was a pitcher's worst nightmare: Steve Blass disease.
Blass, a righthander who had a 103-76 record in 10 seasons with the Pirates, was the hero of the 1971 World Series and won a career-high 19 games the next year before he suddenly and inexplicably lost his control early in the '73 season. He simply could no longer throw strikes and finished that year with 84 walks and 12 hit batters in 88? innings. After another scattershot season in the minor leagues in '74, Blass retired the following spring. Since then several other pitchers, including Kevin Saucier, Joe Cowley, Steve Trout and Sam Militello, have fallen victim to the syndrome that now bears Blass's name.
This isn't the first time Ruffin has had trouble with his control, either. He was first stricken on July 9, 1988, while pitching for the Phillies; during a game in Cincinnati he threw three wild pitches in one inning. Later that season he was warming up in the bullpen at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh when he threw a pitch so wild that it flew over a 15-foot wall and struck a fan. Days later Ruffin was throwing in the bullpen at Shea when a wayward delivery hit a mounted-policeman's horse in the behind.
The unexplained wildness appeared on and off for the next three years. "I'd hold a baseball in my hand and it was like gripping a can or something," Ruffin has said of those days. "It was like a foreign object in my hand." One fan wrote to him suggesting that he remove the tin of chewing tobacco from his back pocket because it was pressing on a nerve in his leg. A desperate Ruffin removed the tin. Finally, at Triple A Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre in '91, Red Barons pitching coach Jim Wright helped Ruffin overcome his demons by breaking down his pitching motion and rebuilding it and also by putting Ruffin through drills to improve his concentration.
It seemed to work. Ruffin walked only 38 hitters in 119 innings with Philadelphia that year and eventually signed as a free agent with the expansion Rockies before the '93 season. He is currently Colorado's alltime saves leader, with 60 at week's end, including seven saves in eight opportunities in '97—the only blown save coming in his blowup against the Mets.
The day after that awful performance, Ruffin warmed up in the bullpen at Shea but was too wild even to enter the game. A week and a half later he went to Double A New Haven, where Wright is now the pitching coach. After two successful workouts with Wright, Ruffin attempted to throw in the Ravens' bullpen during a game. "He was Hinging baseballs all over the place," says New Haven general manager Charlie Dowd. "He nearly killed a couple of our fans."
Ruffin, who as of Sunday was on the disabled list with a "stiff back," also injured his left big toe last week when he kicked the ground in frustration. "I feel like I've figured out some things I need to work on," he says. "I just want to focus on those things and try to block everything else out." But encouraging workouts have been followed by stints of cluelessness, all of which leaves Ruffin in an agonizing state that only a few unfortunate pitchers can truly understand.
"It's a very lonely feeling because after a while, none of your teammates knows what to say to you anymore," says Blass, now a Pirates broadcaster. "But mostly it's horribly embarrassing because you're always afraid your next pitch might end up in the hot dog stand. It can be hell just standing on the mound."
An Enduring Rivalry
Legend has it that on May 27, 1984, during one of Mississippi State's NCAA regional tournament games against South Carolina in Starkville, Miss., a violent storm arrived just as the eighth inning began. With thunder grumbling and lightning crackling overhead, the Bulldogs' Rafael Palmeiro hit a double and Will Clark followed with a home run. The duo's nickname, Thunder and Lightning, was born.