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That same awareness is creating what some scouts call "velo whores" in this country. Showcase tournaments, in which high school prospects pay hundreds of dollars to be seen by college and pro scouts, often allow pitchers to face as few as four batters in a game setting. As a result, many young hurlers learn to throw as hard as they can in the hope of getting noticed and don't bother to cultivate well-rounded pitching skills.
"What we're doing now is taking hard throwers and pushing them quickly into the big leagues as relievers because they have velocity," Brewers G.M. Doug Melvin says. "We're probably missing out on some very good starting pitchers because we don't have the patience to develop a good arm."
Still, the landscape is littered with pitchers who failed even with premium velocity. In 2001, with the ninth pick, the Royals drafted righty Jonathan Colt Griffin from Marshall (Texas) High and gave him a $2.4 million bonus. He was purported to be the first high school pitcher clocked at 100 mph, though Allard Baird, the Royals' G.M. at the time, says, "We never had him at 100. He touched 97, 98, but we never had 100."
Griffin was out of professional ball five years later. He advanced no further than Double A, with a career record of 19--25, a 4.79 ERA and more walks than strikeouts. "After we signed him, we never saw the same velocity," Baird says. "It went down immediately."
Griffin was among the 13 hardest throwers listed in Baseball America's 2002 Prospect Handbook. Of those 13, five failed to make the majors or had little more than a cup of coffee in the Show. Only two are big league starters today: Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs and Aaron Cook of the Rockies, who now average 90 and 89 mph, respectively.
Radar gun technology has made finding fireballers something close to an exact science. It wasn't always so, and while the human eye made for a much less accurate gauge of speed, it also helped launch legends—like the one surrounding Dalkowski. "Steve Dalkowski," says Weaver, who is 80, "threw harder than anybody I have ever seen. He threw harder than Ryan. He was a lefthander, throwing directly overhand, and he had that rotation on the ball that would make it hop six to eight inches. The ball looked like a golf ball driven off a tee."
The 5'11" Dalkowski, who signed with the Orioles at age 18 in 1957 after graduating from New Britain (Conn.) High, pitched nine seasons without ever reaching the majors. Ted Williams reportedly once stepped in to hit against him during spring training, let one pitch go by and walked out, swearing he never saw the ball and vowing never to return.
The stories about Dalkowski are Bunyanesque. He threw a ball through a wooden fence—in four different ballparks. He broke the mask of umpire Doug Harvey in three places, sending him to the hospital. He tore off part of a batter's ear with high heat. He fired a ball through a backstop, causing the fearful crowd in Elmira, N.Y., not to sit behind the plate. While pitching for Class D Kingsport, Tenn., in 1957, Dalkowski had 24 strikeouts, 18 walks, six wild pitches and four hit batters—in one game.
"Right out of high school he had trouble getting it into the [batting] cage," Weaver says. "He had a great second half of a season for me in Elmira [in 1962]. I had him throwing at 90 percent to get the ball over, and he was still throwing 95 to 100 miles an hour. Sometimes coaches would have him throw 80 to 90 pitches in the bullpen, just to be a little tired. It wasn't easy for him to learn about pitching."
Dalkowski hurt his arm in 1963 and was out of baseball after the next two seasons. In '66 the Orioles signed an infielder who would hear stories about Dalkowski as he traveled through minor league outposts such as Bluefield, Stockton, and Rochester. That infielder, Ron Shelton, would use those Dalkowski stories to help shape the character of Nuke LaLoosh in his film Bull Durham.