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SUDDEN IS THE NICKNAME OF THE CLEVELAND INDIANS' 27-year-old lefthanded pitcher, Sam McDowell. He was given the name by opposing hitters who, when asked to describe how his fastball approached the plate, invariably replied, "All of a sudden, man, all of a sudden!" Ever since, McDowell has been signing autographs, shirts, photographs, gloves, baseballs and just about anything but checks "Sudden Sam."
Early this year McDowell fired his sudden pitch past 15 Chicago White Sox batters in eight innings. He lost the game 2-1. When Blue Moon Odom heard of McDowell's feat, he shook his head in disbelief and said, "Man, if I had Sudden's stuff, I'd win 25 games every year."
In his six-plus years of major league pitching, however, Sudden Sam McDowell has yet to win 25 games. Nor has he even won 20 games. Endowed with what many American League hitters call "the best stuff in baseball," McDowell has managed records like 17-11, 13-15 and 15-14. His most wins came in 1969, when he finished 18-14.
It has been said that McDowell possesses a talent even greater than "the best stuff in baseball"—the talent to refuse his greatness. He seems to be afraid that if he let his talent flower to fulfillment, he might cease to possess it and it, in turn, would possess him. So he treats it like some unruly growth he must periodically prune before it becomes unmanageable.
"The only thing I get satisfaction from is accomplishing something I'm not supposed to be able to do," McDowell says. "I live for challenges, and once I overcome them, I have to go on to something new."
Like a genius, McDowell does not judge his accomplishments by conventional standards. He admits that often he concentrates so much on perfecting pitches that he loses sight of any larger picture—a victory, for instance. "I try to break things down to their simplest element," he says, "and sometimes I guess I do it to an extreme. For instance, a game to me is just a series of individual challenges. If I can get a guy out with a fastball, it takes the challenge away, so next time I throw him all curveballs."
Says Reggie Jackson, "Sudden makes it like it used to be when we were kids. You know he's gonna challenge you, his strength against yours, and either you beat him or he beats you. As a matter of fact, I think he'd be tougher if he had less ability. Sudden's just got too much stuff."
From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, August 17, 1970