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An autographed and framed cover shot from the May 23, 1966, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED hangs on the wall near the desk, a reminder of the road trips McDowell made more than 20 years ago, when he was an All-Star lefthander. The picture caught Sudden Sam in his Indians uniform, mouth agape, after he'd thrown one of his ferocious fastballs. During the 10 complete seasons he played in the majors, beginning in 1965, McDowell led the American League in strikeouts five times and was named to six All-Star teams. He finished his career with a 141-134 record, 2,453 strikeouts and a 3.17 ERA. He was tagged with his alliterative nickname after several bewildered hitters reported that those fastballs approached the plate "all of a sudden." Roughly translated, that's something on the order of 108 miles per hour—the speed registered by McDowell in his heyday.
Those feats notwithstanding, many people in baseball believe that McDowell never achieved his potential. He also walked 1,312 batters and had only one 20-victory season, in 1970. Some blamed McDowell's know-it-all attitude and eccentric nature. A Cleveland sportscaster once quipped that McDowell had "a million-dollar arm and a 10-cent head."
But others knew that McDowell's biggest problem was his after-hours carousing. Because of his addiction to alcohol, amphetamines and tranquilizers, and the wildness on the mound that inevitably followed, he was booted from Cleveland, San Francisco and New York.
McDowell waved off haranguing relatives who called him a drunk, and he continued to deny that he had a problem and refused treatment. In 1975 the Yankees sent him to the Pirates, where he was relegated to the bullpen. McDowell had left the Steel City in 1960, fresh out of Central Catholic High School, when he signed with the Indians. Now, 15 years later, he was back, trying to salvage a sinking career. Before the season was over, however, McDowell broke his vow to quit drinking and taking drugs, and the Pirates released him. He never pitched in the majors again.
He got a job as a salesman for Colonial Life & Accident Insurance Co. in Pittsburgh, but he continued to drink and pop pills. The old habits soon began to destroy his new life. He got into barroom brawls. His 18-year marriage crumbled, and his wife, Carol, got custody of their teenage children: Timmy, now 25 and a minor league pitcher for the Pirates, and Deborah, 28, a housewife and mother of a seven-year-old son.
In 1979 McDowell agreed to one session with a psychiatrist, but he didn't return; by 1980 his life was in a shambles. He had lost his home, his family and a once-sparkling major league career. Early one April morning of that year, a week after his most recent binge, McDowell sat in the living room of his parents' home, gulping down coffee and muttering incoherently. He was sure he was losing his mind.
"I kept saying over and over again, 'You beat me, you beat me,' " McDowell recalls. "It was my surrender." He checked into Pittsburgh's Gateway Rehabilitation Center later that day, and has been off alcohol and pills ever since.
McDowell jokes that he was coerced into becoming an addiction counselor by Dr. Abraham Twerski, an Orthodox rabbi and director of the psychiatry department at Pittsburgh's St. Francis Medical Center, who helped him conquer alcohol and drugs.
But baseball played a role, too. After sobering up, McDowell coached in a community league in the suburb of Monroeville, where he was living. The teenagers on the team readily confided in their coach, who spoke so candidly about his addiction and recovery. McDowell encouraged the teens to call on him when they had problems and needed a pal. The only time he was out past midnight in those days was when he was summoned by a teenager who wanted to talk about drug abuse, alcoholism or an unhappy family life. "I'd get calls in the middle of the night," he says. "We would sit on a street curb because there weren't any restaurants open at those hours."
McDowell provided a sympathetic ear but no advice, because he didn't think his reformed-alcoholic status gave him license to advise others. For expert guidance, he took the youngsters to Twerski's office at St. Francis. McDowell read dozens of books recommended by Twerski, who also encouraged him to participate in the sessions, which were attracting more and more students.