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It was the day after a painfully brief appearance on the mound by Alex Sanchez of the Syracuse ( N.Y.) Chiefs. Sanchez had been sent to the showers in the fourth inning, after giving up eight runs—including three homers—to the visiting Richmond Braves. The Chiefs lost 13-2.
Sam McDowell, an ex-major league pitcher, greeted Sanchez in the locker room at the Chiefs' MacArthur Stadium home. McDowell, who was hired four years ago by the Toronto Blue Jay organization to counsel players in their system about performance problems and substance abuse, had lectured Sanchez and his teammates the previous day on how to erase negative images during a game. But McDowell's approach seemed unrelated to that. "Did you hear about the commotion over at the bus station last night during the game?" he asked, referring to the Greyhound bus terminal that's situated about 250 feet beyond the centerfield fence. Before Sanchez could venture a guess, McDowell grinned and said, "They heard all those home run balls hitting the roof and thought it was sniper fire."
The joke was McDowell's way of telling Sanchez not to let the loss get him down, and a subtle reinforcement of the previous day's lecture. "I try to get the players to remember the past and to learn from it but not dwell on it—and refocus on the task at hand," says McDowell, who explains that about 80% of his work is in the area of sports psychology.
As a substance-abuse counselor and confidant to players and other employees—from front-office personnel to grounds crews—of the Blue Jay and Texas Rangers organizations, McDowell is also getting a second whack at a career in baseball. In his first outing in the big leagues—in the 1960s and early '70s, as a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, the San Francisco Giants, New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates—he played in the fast lane and, eventually, he crashed, done in by his own alcohol and drug addiction.
During his 15 years in professional baseball, from 1961 to '75, McDowell threw hard and partied harder. In his 1961 debut with the Indians, he was trying hard to strike out a batter and reared back with such force that he broke three ribs in the process. He spent the rest of that season on the disabled list.
When he wasn't scheduled to be on the mound the following day, his nights usually ended at 3 a.m. or later, and sometimes he brought a lump on the head back to the hotel as a souvenir after an impromptu scuffle. "During my addiction I had very low self-esteem and I lived to impress people," McDowell says.
Now clean, sober, content and the driver of an alabaster Lincoln Town Car with K OUTS on the Pennsylvania vanity plate, McDowell steers clear of the fast lane. He works out of a first-floor office in a four-story brick building in Swissvale, Pa., a modest-sized suburb of Pittsburgh, in the hills overlooking the Monongahela River and Interstate 376. Big wooden letters stretched across the top of the office building's facade announce that TRIUMPHS UNLIMITED is the name of McDowell's enterprise. Painted on the front window, in small gold letters, is the rest of the message: "SUDDEN" SAM MCDOWELL & ASSOCIATES. COUNSELORS FOR PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES AND ATHLETIC TEAMS. Living the slow, quiet life in Swissvale suits McDowell just fine. "I'm not here to prove anything anymore," he says. "I'm very secure within myself now."
McDowell, now 47, has changed physically, as well. The sideburns that were his trademark in his playing days are less conspicuous. His 6'6" frame sports a bulging middle. He wears bifocals, and there are more than a few flecks of gray in his still-thick black hair.
On a cloudy Sunday afternoon, McDowell sits at his desk, reviewing plans for visits to various teams. He keeps a map of North America handy, with his destinations marked in bright colors. His schedule calls for him to be on the road about 40 weeks this year.
Since 1983 seven baseball organizations, as well as two NFL clubs and an NHL team, have sought McDowell's expertise for players with emotional, drug-abuse or alcohol-abuse problems. Triumphs Unlimited also counsels teenagers and retired athletes.