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Picking up The Pieces
Ray Kennedy
August 29, 1983
Detroit's former bullpen ace Kevin Saucier realized this spring that he'd never pitch again—but he's not about to complain
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August 29, 1983

Picking Up The Pieces

Detroit's former bullpen ace Kevin Saucier realized this spring that he'd never pitch again—but he's not about to complain

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Saucier responded by treating Detroit to his best season ever in 1981, registering 13 saves and a 1.65 ERA. In a rating system introduced by SI, Saucier was tied for fourth among all the relievers in the majors. In 49 innings he gave up only one home run and 21 walks, and was the most effective reliever in the majors when it came to retiring the first batter he faced. High-stepping off the mound like an ostrich in heat, hand-slapping and hugging every teammate within reach after a save, the "Flying Saucier" became the hottest attraction to land in town since Mark (The Bird) Fidrych flapped into view in 1976.

Hot Sauce was also an A-l mover and shaker in the dugout. On one occasion, when Detroit was trailing Baltimore 4-0, he banged his head on the bench a few times and shouted, "What's going on here? Let's get going!" Whereupon the Tigers rallied to win 5-4 with Saucier getting the save. "I'm a hyper person and I've always had a funny walk on me," he says of his prance-and-dance routines. "So when I did a good job or we needed to keep loose, I wasn't afraid to show a little emotion."

Or a lot of bewilderment when, during a relief stint in Oakland on May 28, 1982, he unaccountably and without warning "lost touch with things" for the first time. With Tony Armas at bat, Saucier recalls all too vividly, he released a fastball that missed the plate by a good five feet and sailed off in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Shrugging it off as "one that got away," he then threw a slider that, if anything, was more errant than the previous pitch. "I said to myself, 'What the hell's going on here?' "

Sparky Anderson was asking the same question when, in a stretch of 16 innings over the next few weeks, Saucier gave up 17 walks. Moved from short to middle relief, he had not worked in seven days when Anderson called on him to quell a Texas Ranger uprising. He walked the first batter he faced, and Captain Hook yanked him. Summoning Saucier to his office the next day, Anderson said, "I want to send you down to Evansville to get yourself in order." Saucier, incensed because he felt he had not been given enough work to stay sharp, snapped, "Stuff it!" and stomped out.

"I like Sparky as a person," Saucier says, "but I just don't think he knows how to handle pitchers."

Perhaps not so coincidentally, at the time Saucier was also attempting to resolve a serious strain in his marriage. He recalls, "I almost lost my wife and my daughter, Stephanie, and I said, 'Whoa.' There's nothing that's worth that. Thankfully, I saved my marriage before that happened."

In Evansville, "it was like I was starting all over again," says Saucier. Working on his mechanics with Pitching Coach Billy Muffett, he tried throwing from the right side of the rubber and then the left, speeding up his delivery and then slowing it down, taking one deep breath and then two. Nothing seemed to make a difference. He says, "It got to the point where I was so unsure of my touch I started asking guys how they gripped their fastball." And it showed: He was 0-4 with Evansville, had an earned run average of 7.36 and allowed 23 walks in 22 innings.

Discouraged but determined to "hang tough," Saucier elected to spend another month of search and rediscovery in the Florida Instructional League. This time his results—only three walks in 14 innings—were heartening enough to send him home for the winter with a firm belief that "I could pitch in the big leagues again," and a resolve to give up cigarettes and beer.

Though in prime physical shape when he reported to the Tigers' training camp in Lakeland, Fla. this February, Saucier was unprepared for the quirky mind games ahead. At first he threw well in batting practice, humming them in as of old. But then, in the second week, he says, "Whacko! That strange feeling hit me again, and it seemed like things were twice as bad as before. Understand, I wasn't just missing high or low. I was missing side to side. I was throwing pitches 20 feet behind hitters. I could have hurt somebody, but then again, I never got that close. I just didn't feel right. It was like I was under a spell. It was a feeling of being lost, like trying to type with no fingers. What do you do? You're lost. You can't help yourself. You try, you try to relax, and you just can't."

Convinced that he needed professional help, Saucier agreed to meet with Dr. Deborah Bright, author of the self-help book Creative Relaxation: Turning Your Stress into Positive Energy. Bright, a former competitive diver whose doctorate is in education, had worked with Tiger Pitcher Dan Petry, helping to relieve him of "the pressure of being afraid to make a mistake." Bright spent most of one season helping Petry work on his confidence, but Saucier's crisis was such that she had to compress her time with him and his wife into two all-day sessions.

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