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They Said Zahn Didn't Pitch Fast Enough, but He Was Slow to Retire

February 13, 1986|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

Geoff Zahn was originally signed by the Dodgers, who quickly began to question his velocity and ultimately traded him to the Chicago Cubs for Burt Hooton.

He was released by the Cubs in 1977, told that he would never pitch higher than Double-A.

"You put the (radar) gun on Geoff Zahn's fastball and it doesn't register," Angel Manager Gene Mauch was saying Wednesday. "Put the gun on his heart and it will blow the lid off it."

The heart and spirit are still willing, but a shoulder injury that restricted the 39-year-old left-hander to seven appearances last season has caused him to retire.

Accompanied by wife Peggy and daughter Matiana, Zahn announced the decision at an Anaheim Stadium press conference Wednesday.

The Angels, who invited Zahn to spring training on a conditional basis, have offered him the part-time position of minor league pitching consultant.

Zahn said he doesn't know yet if he will accept it and couldn't be certain what the future holds except that he intends to help in the development of an athletic program at The Masters College, a Christian school in Newhall.

He is retiring with a 111-109 career record after 12 seasons in the major leagues, far longer than the Dodgers and Cubs anticipated.

In fact, he was out of baseball and unemployed after the Cubs released him, which was when Mauch, then managing the Minnesota Twins, gave him a second chance. Mauch sent his pitching coach, Don McMahon, to watch Zahn in a workout at Cal State Northridge and the Twins signed him.

Responding to Mauch's insistance that he had to shelve the suspect fastball in favor of cunning, control and changes of speed, Zahn won 12 or more games in each of four seasons with the Twins, then signed with the Angels as a free agent.

His five-year record in Ahaheim was 52-42, including a career best 18-8 in 1982, helping the Angels and Mauch win the American League West.

The depth of the relationship between Zahn and the manager who helped perpetuate his career was evident again Wednesday.

A low-caliber pitcher and high-caliber person, Zahn made special mention of it while listing the people to whom he owed thanks. Mauch, his voice cracking and ultimately unable to continue, alluded to the seven years they had been together since Zahn's release by the Cubs and said:

"Being involved in Geoff's second career has been one of the highlights of my own career.

"Being involved in his personal life has been an even bigger highlight.

"I was told a long time ago not to fall in love with any of my players. Most will tell you that I've handled that pretty well.

"This is different. I'm going to miss him."

Coming off a 13-10 record in 1984, Zahn began to experience shoulder irritation late in spring training, improved his career record for April to 25-5 by winning his first two starts, went on the disabled list in late April, made three more starts after finally coming off Aug. 3, then returned to the disabled list to await arthroscopic surgery for significant cartilage damage in his left shoulder.

The operation was performed in September. Zahn said he received permission to throw again 2 1/2 weeks ago, tested it five times, and found the pain to be even more severe than after resting it for two months last summer.

"Right now, I can't throw 50 feet," he said. "It even bothers me to wash the car. I don't want to just hang on. If I felt there was a chance it would improve, I'd go to spring training and fight it for another year, but I think it's pretty obvious that this is a progressive injury.

"I've finally realized that I just can't pitch to the competitive level that's required."

Asked if he was ruling out another attempt in a few months, the pitcher who overcame six knee operations and elbow surgery said: "I don't rule out miracles because the last nine years have been a miracle, but it would take a change in the structure of the shoulder and that's a thousand to one. What I'm saying is that I won't actively pursue it other than to maintain my current (physical) shape."

Of his emotions, Zahn said there will be an immediate void, particularly when the team reports to spring training, but that his career was one of great satisfaction and fulfillment.

Mauch went further, saying he knows of no other pitcher who did more with his ability.

He conceded, however, that the Angels are left with a pitching staff that could be the best he has ever had, adding:

"By a wide margin."

The set rotation includes John Candelaria, who has shed more than 20 pounds since the end of last season, Don Sutton, Mike Witt, Kirk McCaskill and Ron Romanick. The equally set bullpen includes Donnie Moore, Stewart Cliburn, Gary Lucas, Jim Slaton and Carl Willis, a right-handed middle man drafted from Denver during the winter meetings.

Zahn would have faced a formidable challenge, particularly since the Angels may join an industry-wide economy move, reducing the 25-man roster to 24 by carrying 9 pitchers instead of 10.

"If we're limited to 24 it's (the nine-man staff) the first thing that comes to mind," Mauch said. "I think we're deep enough to handle it. I mean, I wouldn't have any trouble getting down to nine pitchers I trust, though I'd never close the door on someone knocking my eyes out in spring training."

Angel center fielder Gary Pettis, the winner of a Gold Glove for fielding excellence, lost his bid for a 1986 salary of $425,000 Wednesday when an arbitrator ruled in favor of the club's offer of $300,000.

Pettis made $110,000 last season, when his spectacular fielding was complemented by 56 stolen bases and a .257 batting average, up 30 points from his rookie season.

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