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McDowell: 'I Was Biggest, Most Hopeless. . .Drunk' in Baseball

March 24, 1985|SHIRLEY POVICH | Washington Post

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. — In the mid 1960s and early '70s, he was coming in overhand with the American League's most recognized strikeout pitch, and he was in many ways a valid counterpart to the National League's pride, Sandy Koufax.

The watchword among American League hitters was "stay loose" against this rack-slim left-hander with definite tendencies on the wild side. He was using all of the leverage of his uncommon 6 feet 5 inches to generate the hard stuff that whooshed and whistled out of his pitching fist.

If, in the batter's view, the man was not quite a sinister presence out there, taking that big stretch a mere 60 feet 6 inches away, neither was he inspiring any happy thoughts for a batsman.

Sam McDowell was the name, and Sudden Sam was what they called him. His strikeout totals led the league five times while pitching for Cleveland, as did his bases on balls. He's in the record books, too, for his pair of one-hitters back-to-back, also as the youngest pitcher to strike out 300 or more in a single season, and there are other honors.

Sam McDowell now is 42, his still-handsome face betraying no trace that, in his own words, "I was the biggest, most hopeless and most violent drunk in baseball during my 15 years in the majors. That is a fair statement, I think, until some other lush comes out of the closet with his own story to tell."

His story is being told now because he has a new, proud career. This reformed drunk, who will recite how he demolished bar rooms, battled police, lied to his managers and cheated at every turn to maintain his drinking schedule, has re-emerged--in the unlikeliest of callings.

Now, he's the highly certified professional counselor-consultant on the roster full time with the Texas Rangers, watching over players who are victims of or threatened with alcohol or drug addiction. Or those bugged by financial or emotional problems. He's looked up to, this ex-wreck of an alcoholic. He's their confessor.

He's been Sober Sam since 1979 when, still a problem drinker, he was working, ironically, with problem kids in Pittsburgh and shepherding them to the Gateway Rehabilitation Clinic for treatment. In a sudden resolve, he joined his own little proteges in seeking help.

"I knew I had this habit," he said, "but I didn't know it was an illness. I didn't know I had been lying to myself all those years and that I had one of the worst diseases known to mankind. All I knew was that I was sick and tired of being tired and sick."

McDowell talks easily about leaving baseball. "I didn't leave the game. I was kicked out finally, after bouncing around from the Cleveland Indians, to the San Francisco Giants, to the Yankees, and finally, to the Pirates.

"Everywhere I pitched, it was a con game I was playing--my drinking against their innocence of how really big a boozer I was. I was in a continual alcoholic state, semicontrolled, by a little ritual I had.

"Two days before I was to pitch, I stopped drinking. I could control it for that long. I ran the outfield and sweated out and only my close buddies were the wiser. After taking my pitching turn, I was into the booze day and night for the next two, three days."

For his defeats, he said, he blamed everything but his drinking. "I believed my own excuses. This, I later learned, is 'psychic numbing,' or 'psychic blockage.'

"That's what I teach problem players now--that alcohol creates a distortion in your thinking, and lets you rationalize anything as you like it."

The Rangers permit McDowell to take other clients. In recent years, he said, eight teams have called him. He has ministered to more than 20 players from other baseball clubs, four from National Football League teams and one hockey player.

"I am aware that, as an old ballplayer, I have a plus in dealing with the athletes," he said, "particularly among baseball players. Whether they admit it or not, ballplayers operate in the most closed society. Any stranger who walks into their clubhouse stays a stranger and suspect. But they will put a trust in an old ballplayer who knows what it was like to be one of them."

He treats his clients both in seminars and the individual sessions that he prefers. "The one-on-one things are all private. No manager, no coach knows which players are coming to me voluntarily. Any visitors to my room are told to call before coming in for an appointment. I don't want any client walking into another player's privacy.

"You have to be careful about the approach to baseball players. It has to come from them. You go in there and try to preach to ballplayers and they'll laugh your ass right out of the clubhouse. It's got to be confidential, one on one, and then it can work."

He puts his client-ballplayers at ease by reciting the long list of problems he had with drinking in his many years in the game.

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