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REPRIEVE FOR A MADMAN
Pat Jordan
July 08, 1974
In which the author reports to the Milwaukee Braves' Class D farm team at Davenport, Iowa, suffers fits of fastball wildness—followed by fits of pique and rage—and then, come wintertime, finds in Florida a saintly manager, a hypnotic pitching coach and a glimmer of hope for his career
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July 08, 1974

Reprieve For A Madman

In which the author reports to the Milwaukee Braves' Class D farm team at Davenport, Iowa, suffers fits of fastball wildness—followed by fits of pique and rage—and then, come wintertime, finds in Florida a saintly manager, a hypnotic pitching coach and a glimmer of hope for his career

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Davenport was a gray industrial city not unlike Bridgeport, Conn., where I was born and raised. Maybe this explains why I don't recall much about it except that it was on the Mississippi River, had a population of about 90,000 and consisted mostly (in my memory, at least) of tall, soot-stained concrete buildings—banks, offices and department stores. I lived downtown in a bedroom on the second floor of an old two-family house. From there I had to walk through much of the city and then across some railroad tracks to get to the stadium where we played our games. Often I had to stop at those tracks and wait while a trainman guided a solitary boxcar past me and on up the tracks. The tracks were littered with dilapidated, unattached boxcars, all of which seemed no longer in use, except by that trainman, who moved them up and down the tracks to mysterious destinations only when he saw me approaching.

The stadium was built on the bank of the Mississippi. Its entrance was a few yards beyond the tracks and its outfield fence only a few feet from the river. Across the Mississippi was a U.S. Army arsenal and large contingent of federal troops. Nearby were the Illinois cities of Rock Island, Moline and East Moline, which, with Davenport, formed the Quad Cities.

That year at Davenport I threw a baseball with more speed than I ever had before or have since. One night as I stepped out of the dugout to start a game against the Clinton White Sox, I overheard my fellow pitchers talking about the Sox' awesome hitter, Jim Hicks, a 6'3" 205-pounder later to be an outfielder and first baseman for the White Sox, Cardinals and Angels. "You've gotta give him breaking stuff," they said. "He kills fastballs." I looked over my shoulder and said, "He kills your fastballs, maybe, but he won't kill my fastball." That night I struck out Jim Hicks three times. I threw him nothing but fastballs down the middle of the plate. He swung through them all. He swung with such force that he fell to one knee and had to right himself with his bat. There were times during that game when I knew he could be fooled by a curve. I had a sharp, erratic curveball that year, but J never threw him one. I just threw him fastball after fastball and he kept swinging as hard as he could, falling to one knee.

The sight of him on one knee was what I pitched for. I loved such moments more than I could ever love a satisfying career; I know that now. I had neither the patience nor the vision to develop a strip of moments into a successful season and, thus, a satisfying career. My career was no esthetically well-made movie, with rising action, climax, denouement. It was a box strewn with unnumbered slides, a box of pure and frozen moments through which I have been sorting, picking up a moment here, a moment there, holding it to the light, defining previously unseen details. Moments are fathomable in a way my career, my life, any life, can never be. Sitting here, I can see Jim Hicks fallen to one knee. He glares at me through time and space and this very paper before he begins to right himself, like an old man, with his bat.

Despite striking out Jim Hicks three times and Tom McCraw, today a first baseman for California, once, and the other Clinton players four times, I left the game after the sixth inning, leading 1-0. We lost 3-1. Errors? Walks? There memory fades. I remember only Hicks on one knee and, afterward, Hicks stopping me in the runway of the stadium. Smiling, he says, "Man, there oughtta be a law against you! Know what I mean? Make it eee-legal to throw a baseball that hard!" I float on his words. "But don't you worry," he adds. "Jim Hicks gonna get you yet."

"You keep trying, Jim," I say, and we both laugh.

I was able to sustain such moments for periods that seemed always less than nine innings. I would pitch four, five, six innings of beautiful baseball and then I would lose it all. Not all, really. I never lost the speed. But the control—that vanished without a trace. One night I pitched a no-hitter for six innings and then opened the seventh by walking four batters in succession. My shortstop yelled, "Throw strikes!" I glared at him. Boos ricocheted overhead like rifle shots. My manager, Travis Jackson, leaped off his chair and bounded out of the dugout as if he'd been burned with a hot poker. When he reached the mound, he found a madman. Travis tried to calm me down, to soothe me with soft words while he slipped the ball out of my hand before I noticed my relief pitcher walking in from the bullpen.

"Get outta here!" I yelled at Travis.

"Now, son...."

"And take him with you!"

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