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The other day, while he was rummaging about the house, Kevin Saucier picked up a baseball and studied it with the quizzical detachment of a man who had chanced upon a moon rock. "It was like a foreign object, something I'd never seen before," he says. "Then I remembered, and the terrible feeling came over me again. It was scary."
Scary because this is the very same Kevin Saucier (pronounced so-shay) who, just a few hopping fastballs ago, was one of the premier relief pitchers in baseball—the one they all called Hot Sauce, a fiery-eyed lefthander who was at his roiling best for the Detroit Tigers. "Not only is Kevin very aggressive, taking no nonsense and going after everyone," said Tiger Manager Sparky Anderson during the 1981 season, "but I haven't seen many guys who flat-out love to pitch as much as he does."
Indeed, Saucier's credo—"Gimme the ball!"—was the kind they etch on bullpen walls. "I go out there with confidence," he declared, "and I just know there's no son of a gun alive who can hit me." A professed "loony" and the darling of Tiger fans, he laid claim to "the whole bit—pitching, limelight, notoriety, money." Knocking down $140,000 a year—and any batter foolhardy enough to try and dig in against him—Saucier once mused, "You know, I love this game so much that when I get close to the end, I reckon they're gonna have to rip this uniform right off me because I ain't gonna give it up that easy. I want to play, I reckon, until I'm 45."
That was last season, shortly before Saucier was stricken by "this strange, terrible feeling," an affliction that caused him to lose his control—and very nearly his wits. This spring, after making one last effort at "getting it all together again," no one had to rip off Saucier's uniform; wrenchingly, tearfully, he hung it up on his own at age 26 "while I still had some dignity left."
What happened? No one—not his therapist, his wife Karen, the many coaches and players who tried to help, and least of all Saucier himself—knows the answer to that question. "I wish I could explain it," he says. "If I could, I'd still be out there pitching." Instead, he is back home in Pensacola, Fla., out of work, short on cash and aware that the closest he will ever come to major league baseball again are the bats, bases, gloves and other sports equipment he is selling out of his garage to make some extra money.
Saucier is not the first hot property to experience a premature flameout, nor will he be the last, but few pitchers have lost their stuff so precipitously and so inexplicably.
Son of a government employee at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, Saucier was selected out of high school by the Philadelphia Phillies in the second round of the 1974 free-agent draft and, with a $24,000 bonus and $7,500 in incentives, dispatched to the club's Pulaski, Va. farm team. No phenom with an express ticket to the bigs, he progressed slowly, stopping at all the required way stations—Spartanburg, S.C.; Hampton, Va.; Reading, Pa.; Oklahoma City. "I never had what you would call natural ability," he says. "I had to work at it."
And work Saucier did, for 5½ years, in fact, trading on the kind of raw, unbridled desire that got him through a so-so minor league career—and into a lot of costly scraps. He had a serviceable curve and a fastball that rode in on lefthanded batters; how far inside depended on the state of his temper, which was usually steamy. Once, after a heated exchange with a hitter, he brushed him back again, touching off a free-for-all that was, he says, "maybe the biggest fight ever in baseball." Another time, when he was tagged for a triple and had to hustle to back up third base, he used the opportunity to run over an umpire who he felt had made some bad calls. "It seemed like every payday I was writing a check to the league," Karen Saucier says. "It was in our budget. You know, rent, food, utilities, fines."
Soon after he was called up by the Phillies in June 1979, Saucier became involved in a brushback duel with the Chicago Cubs' Mike Krukow. Saucier ultimately struck Krukow in the back with a fastball and they fought in another bench-clearing brawl. "I don't take any nonsense on the mound," he announced. "If I feel that other pitchers are throwing at my teammates, they are going to suffer the consequences."
In 1980, teaming with Tug McGraw in the bullpen for a potent one-two portside punch, Saucier was an important factor in the pennant drive that culminated in a World Series victory for the Phillies. He finished with a 7-3 record, a 3.42 ERA and enough votes to win an award as the Most Popular Phillie. That November, to complete a trade that brought veteran Reliever Sparky Lyle to Philadelphia, Saucier was dealt to the Texas Rangers, and they in turn shuffled him to the Tigers three weeks later for Shortstop Mark Wagner.