All the reading and counseling left little time for selling insurance, and McDowell's bills, including child-support payments, were mounting. But he liked his avocation, and with Twerski's backing, he began to study counseling full-time. In the next year he immersed himself in the finer points of addiction psychology, therapy and human behavior, and continued to apprentice with Twerski.
In 1982 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania awarded McDowell a counseling certificate. He began his second career at a newly built $3.5 million teen alcohol-and drug-rehabilitation center in Pittsburgh. In fact, the facility was built in 1983 at St. Francis as a direct result of the group meetings that Twerski and McDowell were holding. In 1984 McDowell formed Triumphs Unlimited and hired several counselors to work with him. He had met one of the counselors, Carol Eppihimer, during his internship; the two were married last January.
Because of McDowell's stormy past, the last place he expected to end up was in professional baseball. But the sport's grapevine started humming after his success in helping a hockey player and two football players, who had failed to beat their addictions by other means. In 1981, after an inquiry by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn, McDowell designed an addiction and counseling program for the major leagues and sent it to Kuhn. The plan wasn't implemented, but the Texas Rangers signed him up to advise their players. Thus began his seven-year association with the organization. Since then, other clubs have paid for his services, which can also be arranged for on a single-case basis. His sports-psychology clients currently include a professional golfer and two boxers.
McDowell says this baseball job is more rewarding than his previous one, and he takes great pride in his performance. So far his record is impressive. Among the 175 active ballplayers he has counseled over the past five years, 171 are recovering from addictions. Recovery is an ongoing process. Four have relapsed, he says, and two of those are back with McDowell, undergoing further treatment.
When pitcher Mike York met McDowell four years ago, at the Pirates' Florida training and tryout site near Bradenton, York was, in his own words, "a mess floating around the minor leagues." He was only 22, but he knew the camp at Pirate City might be his last stop in professional baseball. He already had been released in successive years by the Yankees, the White Sox and the Tigers because of his alcoholism. In 1986 Johnny Lipon, who was the manager of Detroit's Class A Gastonia ( N.C.) team, told York he reminded him of another troubled alcoholic he had coached decades earlier—Sam McDowell.
When Lipon made the observation, York didn't even know who McDowell was; but a few months later, early on an October evening, he was standing toe-to-toe with Sudden Sam in an office at the Pirate City complex, ready to duke it out. McDowell had tried to make York face up to his alcohol problem and had called him a drunk. Before York could throw the first punch, McDowell darted out of the room and made a call to Pirate general manager Syd Thrift, telling him to sign York because McDowell thought he could help the young ballplayer stop drinking.
York spent 30 days at a rehabilitation center in Coral Springs, Fla., calling McDowell every night for advice and moral support. He won a job with Pittsburgh's Macon (Ga.) Class A team during spring training in 1987 and posted a 17-6 record. York moved on a year later and for the past two years has been a starter with the Buffalo Bisons, the Pirates' Triple A team. Although the two men are friends, York says McDowell makes him toe the line.
"He doesn't hesitate to push the friendship aside if he sees me doing something that might hurt me or cause me to go back to my old habits," says York. "He's not the kind of guy who tells you what you want to hear."
The normally tight-lipped McDowell becomes effusive when talking about York's progress. With obvious pride he says, "By all accounts he shouldn't even be in baseball, and I bet he'll be in the big leagues next year."
From experience, McDowell knows that professional athletes can't afford to sit still for long, drawn-out therapy because the career clock ticks swiftly. So he has devised methods to produce fast but lasting results.