SI Vault
 
SAM, YOU MAKE THE BALL TOO SMALL
Jack Mann
May 23, 1966
So say the batters who have to face Sam McDowell's hummer. Oddly, the Cleveland southpaw would prefer to get them out with a changeup, but few things about Sudden Sam are predictable
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 23, 1966

Sam, You Make The Ball Too Small

So say the batters who have to face Sam McDowell's hummer. Oddly, the Cleveland southpaw would prefer to get them out with a changeup, but few things about Sudden Sam are predictable

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

It was Batbeam time. Sam's overhand curve drops like the six ball in the side pocket at the Jack & Jill Cue & Cushion in Pittsburgh. (Only regular customers and friends of the family know the billiard parlor is a McDowell enterprise, "because I refuse to capitalize on my name.") But he was not getting the curve over that night. "You think maybe Maris will see the fast ball?" one tactician in the press box asked rhetorically. "Got to be," another replied unnecessarily.

So the first pitch to Roger Maris was a slider on the hands for a swinging strike, and McDowell had what pitching coaches like to call command. Mel Parnell, who lived to be a broadcaster because he used the slider to survive in Fenway Park, says he has not seen a better slider than McDowell's.

There are highly divergent opinions on the merits of the slider. It is the best of pitches, it is the worst of pitches. Ted Williams has said that its currency from 1946 on materially changed the game because it gave pitchers a functional alternative to the cripple fast ball in the 3-1 situation. The slider also diminished the advantage hitters used to enjoy over opposite-handed pitchers. It presents itself as a nice, pullable, inside fast ball until it slides in—very little, but too late to do much about.

A slider is thrown with a firm wrist and a turn-of-the-screw rotation, as distinct from the snap of the wrist and flip of the first two fingers that impart top spin to the curve. Curves can be thrown at almost any speed and can break two feet. Except for the sliders thrown by the Fords and the Maglies, who can make anything work, there is no such thing as a slow slider, and the best of them seldom break more than a few inches.

" McDowell's breaks at least eight inches," Parnell says, "and coming off his fast ball that's a wicked pitch." The compliment did not disturb Sam's pattern of unconvincing self-deprecation. "That's nice," he said, "but I guess Parnell never saw me on a day when my slider got racked."

After the slider McDowell used three fast balls to strike Maris out. But Crandall's advice had not totally withered Sam's infinite quest for variety. Two of the fast balls were delivered with a three-quarter motion, a recent refinement that McDowell says makes them sinkers. "I'll take his word for it," Maris said the next morning. "He only got me once. That ain't too bad."

McDowell used nothing but fast balls to reach a 3-2 count on Tom Tresh, then wiggled his glove for a slider that struck Tresh out to end the inning. He resolved his final crisis in the eighth by bringing it to Howard, low and away. Too low and too far away, Howard suggested to the umpire, but the books will show only that he was Yankee strikeout No. 11 for the night.

To win a seven-hit, 3-1 victory, McDowell had used 163 pitches, "about par for me," he said. He was asked how many times he had thrown his change of pace, the slow pitch off the fast motion. "About 20," he said. "Would you believe 10?" About six was closer to the truth, and the elders of the Tribe believed even that was too many.

The Indians signed the unemployed Crandall last December because a good 36-year-old catcher nowadays is hard to find. And because last year, pitching to Joe Azcue and Camilo Carreon, McDowell persisted in calling his own game and his options did not always coincide with Tebbetts' theories on pitching. Crandall's did, generally. He had handled Spahn and Burdette at their best, worked briefly with Juan Marichal and had his hands warmed last year by the Pirates' very fast Bob Veale. But he found at Tucson this spring that McDowell's equipment, like almost everything else about Sam, is something else.

"Sam is a fine boy," Crandall said after their third collaboration of the season, "and he has a real good idea out there." So there is no area of disagreement? "Well, there is," Crandall said. "He has such a good changeup that he wants to use it—too much, in my opinion. I do not believe he is as impressed with his fast ball as the hitters have indicated that they are."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6