It was all starting to slip away from him. The fabulous college career at Wichita State, the $1.3 million rookie signing bonus after a long holdout, the where'd-it-go sinkerball that had left scouts gaping—none of that seemed relevant anymore. For years people had been talking about righthander Darren Dreifort's potential, but by last year the conversation had grown stale. Dreifort was trudging through his sixth major league season without a breakthrough. During his time in the big leagues he'd lost more games than he'd won, and his career ERA needle was stuck between four and five. The general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the only team Dreifort had played for, was talking to other clubs about dealing him. In midseason. Not glorious.
Then came a chance meeting with an old mentor, Roger McDowell, a classic sinkerballer himself before he retired, in 1998, and the man who had taught the rookie Dreifort how to eat on the road, how to buy a suit, how to get a called third strike. In a single magical conversation in mid-July, McDowell turned Dreifort around. For the rest of the season Dreifort was a wizard, pitching the way it had been expected he would.
When the 2000 season was over and Los Angeles would not meet their asking price, Dreifort and his agent, the insatiable Scott Boras, threw a line in the bountiful waters of free agency and found a single large fish: the Colorado Rockies. When one team wants you, you have an offer. When at least two teams want you, you have a bidding war. Boras made certain the Dodgers paid for their early inflexibility. In the end, L.A. met the original price. Dreifort has a five-year contract worth $55 million, having turned down a six-year, $60 million offer from the Rockies.
Dreifort is no kid. He'll turn 29 in May. He has a history of arm trouble, having missed all of the 1995 season because of reconstructive surgery to repair a torn medial collateral ligament in his right elbow. His career record is 39-45. His career ERA is 4.28. He has pitched only? of an inning in the postseason (in a 1996 Division Series against the Atlanta Braves). Yes, last year Dreifort went 8-2 with a 3.14 ERA after the All-Star break, and his opponents' batting average (.238) was ninth lowest in the National League. But, please! Players used to be paid on the basis of what they accomplished over a period of years. In Dreifort's case, an experienced pitcher, a grown man with known tendencies, was being paid on the basis of what he showed over a period of months.
Kevin Malone, the Dodgers' general manager, thinks Colorado's interest raised Dreifort's value by maybe as much as $10 million over the life of his contract. Still, though he paid more for Dreifort than he wanted to, he thinks that in a couple of years, maybe even by next October, there's a good chance this contract will look like a steal. Malone also thinks, given a rotation that also includes righthanders Kevin Brown, Chan Ho Park and Andy Ashby, that Los Angeles has some of the best starting pitching in baseball, which it does—potentially.
"I could see Dreifort on the mound on a cold night in October, pitching inside, breaking bats," says Malone, who on this day is sprawled on a golf cart at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, basking in the Florida sunshine. "He has the relaxed off-field manner and on-the-mound toughness of Don Drysdale that make you think he'd be a good big-game pitcher."
Malone takes a call on his cell phone from Dodgers managing partner, chairman and CEO Bob Daly and continues, "You could say that Darren's contract shows that pitching in baseball is at the point where you don't need to show consistent performance to get a big, long-term payout. That's not healthy. But you could also say the contract shows we're an organization willing to take a chance to give our fans a winner. That's healthy. If Darren does what we believe he can do—give us 220 innings [he pitched 192? in 2000], start 32 or 33 games, win half of them—we're looking at a bargain."
Dreifort is lavishly talented. He has a four-seam fastball that hums along at 95 mph and darts around in ways batters, catchers and umpires don't often foresee. This isn't always a good thing. It can lead to walks (4.06 per nine innings, tied for eighth most in the National League last year), wild pitches (17, third most), stolen bases allowed (19, tied for eighth most) and an unpredictable strike zone. He also has a slider that's only slightly slower than his four-seamer and is particularly baffling to righthanded batters. He has an improving changeup. Best of all, when Dreifort's on, he has one of the most unhittable pitches in baseball, a two-seam sinkerball that travels 90-plus and takes a strange, twisting dive as it crosses the front edge of the plate. When that pitch is working, it's the ultimate out pitch. But Dreifort has struggled with it. His pitching mechanics and his confidence have suffered, in part because of the frequently changing cast of managers (five), pitching coaches (six) and catchers (12) in Los Angeles since 1994, his rookie season, and also because his job description—early on, closer, then middle reliever, then starter—changed, too. Dreifort thrives on constancy. He's a creature of habit.
As a senior at Wichita State in 1993, playing in his hometown, at the school where his father, John, was and still is a professor of history, Darren went 11-1 with a 2.48 ERA and, as the Shockers' DH, batted .327 with 22 homers and 66 RBIs; his accomplishments won him the Golden Spikes Award as baseball's top amateur player. The Dodgers made him the second pick in the draft, and the following year, after only a brief stint in the Arizona Fall League, he made the major league club out of spring training. Because his stuff was so lively and his manner so modest and mellow, the veterans accepted him, despite his signing bonus and his holdout to get it. Veteran righthander Orel Hershiser liked the way Dreifort did everything methodically, not in a kid's mad rush. He once said of him, "He stands slow."
McDowell, then 33 and a Dodgers reliever, became Dreifort's mentor. "He was from Wichita, and now he was in Los Angeles, so there were things he had to learn," McDowell says. "I showed him the little things that make you a big leaguer."