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He is Pallid and Cadaverous, wears a goatee and has small-bore eyes, and he is called Black Jack—all of which suggests a subterranean personality. And, in fact, he does hole up in his basement a lot of the time. And he does closet himself in dark, clammy recording studios most off-seasons. If he didn't have to pitch for the Chicago White Sox—and he has just got to; they're paying him $4 million this year so that he will—he would never go outdoors.
So here's Jack McDowell, his 6'5" frame folded into the control room of one of the recording studios at Chicago Trax, enjoying himself on a rare open date on the White Sox schedule. He and a bandmate, fellow guitarist Michael Hamilton, cramped for six hours in a high-decibel cupboard with a sound engineer who A tends to lapse unaccountably into snatches of dialogue from This Is Spinal Tap ("I could work in a chapeau shop," the engineer says suddenly), have been adding track after track to a song—one song, all day—that McDowell has written and may or may not call Bed of Proses.
Hamilton, having laid in a track of power chords, is now inspired to do the guitar lead on track 21. "Let's flip tape," he tells the engineer. "I'm serious; we're going to do this backward. We've done 13 songs and haven't flipped the tape once." The engineer agrees and flips the huge tape reel. Then Hamilton plays a lead that, when played backward, sounds way too New Age for anyone in this little cupboard. McDowell, stuck in a corner playing a violent air guitar, hesitates in his approval. "It's cool," he says. "But... more stuff." He means notes. The tape is flipped once more; Hamilton fills it up, and the engineer ("Such a fine line between clever and stupid!" he says) plays it backward again. "Cool," says McDowell.
And so goes another day in the extremely cool life of Black Jack McDowell, a Cy Young runner-up and Axl Rose wannabe. He has one 20-win season and one album behind him, and it's impossible—thankfully, it's unnecessary—for him to decide which he savored more. Each career has its charms. Baseball pays pretty well, and he just loves to win, but... hey, take the rock 'n' roll life. As McDowell and Hamilton are packing up their guitars, Jack's wife, Meridith, shows up. She has met someone from the band Ministry, which is recording in a studio down the hall, and she has learned where the group gets the bones it uses in its shows. "Road kill," she says. "They've got a guy who collects road kill."
This is exciting information, to a certain kind of person. "Road kill?" says Jack, totally pleased to know this. And they leave the studio, squinting in the sunlight and perhaps examining the streets for road kill of their own.
More people know McDowell by his split-fingered fastball than by his 12-string Rickenbacker, but that's not all his fault. He got a late start in rock 'n' roll, is all. Growing up in Van Nuys, Calif., he played baseball (as well as football, basketball and soccer) but, except for some guitar lessons when he was 11 and 12, didn't really get into music until 1988. It was right after his up-and-down rookie season in Chicago, when he returned to Stanford to complete his degree in communications. To kill time he started messing around with the guitar, and almost before he knew it, he had formed a band.
Since then baseball has somewhat overshadowed his music career. At week's end he had won 66 games in the past three-plus seasons in Chicago. With a 20-10 record in '92 he placed second to Dennis Eckersley in the American League Cy Young vote. McDowell got off to a 7-1 start this year, then last Thursday became the first pitcher in the majors to win 15 games. After that 7-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, McDowell was 15-6 and the White Sox had a firm grip on first place in the American League West. So even now, after an LP, an EP and a concert tour as an opening act for The Smithereens, he still gets more ink in The Sporting News than in Rolling Stone.
On the field he's known as an intense competitor, a glowering presence whose reputation for pitching tight and looking grim has batters skeptical that any entertainment value could be associated with this guy. Broadcaster Ken Harrelson, the White Sox's unofficial bestower of nicknames, chose Black Jack for McDowell one night when McDowell stared down a home run hitter during the offending batter's entire trip around the bases. Reportedly it was a chilling sight. One Chicago baseball writer, who has seen that glare several times, calls it "that Texas Bell Tower look."
But just as McDowell is much friendlier than he looks, he is more armed than dangerous. In fact, through Sunday he had plunked only 30 batters in his career, and no more than seven in any season. Those aren't exactly psycho numbers. However, when he does stick a hitter, it's usually to great effect. After McDowell nailed Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire in the same game in 1990, Oakland A's manager Tony La Russa was sufficiently incensed to say, "He just rears back and pops people and then stands out there with a smirk on his face." At least once it was too much for the hitter. Mark Whiten, then with the Toronto Blue Jays, charged the mound after a pitch sailed behind him a couple of seasons ago. He blackened Black Jack's eye with a roundhouse right. McDowell, who had stood there smirking as Whiten advanced, was taken aback by the violence. "Aren't they supposed to just tackle you?" he said.
It may be the only time in his career that McDowell forgot to fight back. Every other thing—every pitch, every contract—has been a fierce competition. He's so intimidating on the mound that his own managers hesitate to huddle with him. After having been called up to Chicago at the end of the '87 season—his first contract guaranteed he would get a pitching turn in the majors his first year as a pro—he argued with manager Jim Fregosi in one game when Fregosi came out to pull him in the seventh inning, as they had agreed. "A rookie!" said Fregosi.