VERO BEACH, Fla. — They never spoke to each other, but Ed Vande Berg knew Steve Howe.
"I played against him in Alaska," Vande Berg said. "It blew me away, what happened to him. He seemed like an All-American kid."
All-American kids, it seems, are scarce these days. So are left-handed relievers with the supreme arrogance and frightening fastball of Howe.
"How many left-handed pitchers are save men?" Vande Berg said. "There are not many Steve Howes."
Like Howe once was, Vande Berg is a left-handed reliever, but that's where the comparison ends. Vande Berg has neither Howe's verve nor velocity, nor his drug problem.
The only thing Vande Berg needs to rehabilitate is his slider, which hasn't been the same since he was voted the American League's top rookie pitcher in 1982.
"It seemed like my rookie year, my slider broke three feet, it was really dropping down," Vande Berg said. "People were swinging at it and it was in the dirt.
"But the last couple of years, it seemed to break about six inches. I don't know why. People told me I was opening up too soon, I was flying out, I wasn't getting on top. I threw a few times in Arizona over the winter, and it's starting to shape up."
If it does, then Vande Berg may find it a lot easier to shed a reputation from Seattle, that of a pitcher lacking toughness. Dodger Vice President Al Campanis said he already has instructed Manager Tom Lasorda to give Vande Berg another rendition of the speech he delivered to Orel Hershiser two years ago.
"We'll make a bulldog out of him," Campanis said.
Vande Berg offers no objections to the Dodgers' proposed mind games.
"This is the opportunity I've been waiting for, to pitch for a winning club with a winning tradition," he said. "I'm excited--I haven't been able to sleep since I got here.
"I think the winning rubs off. . . . I hope it does."
When Edward Gerald Vande Berg got out of the service after World War II and returned to Wisconsin, he took a look around the family farm, where he was raised with eight brothers and a sister, and decided it was time for him and his wife to move on, leaving their Dutch friends and relatives behind.
"He just said, 'I'm going to move to California and start a new life,' " said his son.
And when that son, Edward John Vande Berg, became a 13th-round draft choice of the Seattle Mariners in 1980, the pitcher took his $1,000 signing bonus, blew much of it on a new set of tires for his car, and headed with his wife, Carri, for the Mariners' Rookie League team in Bellingham, Wash., to embark on a new life of their own.
A short time later, they wrecked the car. But Vande Berg hasn't always been one for promising beginnings. He didn't even make the cut for his freshman team at Redlands (Calif.) High School, played first base the next two years but lost his job as a senior when they found someone bigger to play the position.
"I was a little guy, not very tall--about 5-6--and maybe 95 pounds when I went into high school," Vande Berg said. "I was a worm."
The worm turned--or at least grew. Vande Berg had always pitched, especially on the teams managed by his father, who coached from Little League through American Legion ball. But it wasn't until the coach at San Bernardino Valley College, Howard Ashlock, taught him how to throw a slider that anyone noticed Vande Berg might have a future in baseball.
"The slider was death on JC hitters," Vande Berg said with a laugh. "I was 18-1, pitching every other game. It was a perfect year. It's just too bad it didn't happen in the big leagues."
Leading the nation's junior colleges in wins is no ticket to the big leagues, but it did take Vande Berg to Arizona State, where he encountered problems with his arm (tendinitis) and his coach (Jim Brock).
"He (Brock) kept pushing me to come back too soon," Vande Berg said. "From what I've heard, not too many people who have gone there (ASU) have good things to say about him."
But while he struggled under Brock, he flourished summers playing in Alaska and in Italy, which he toured on a national amateur team coached by Ben Hines, now a Dodger hitting instructor. The U.S. team lost in the final to Cuba.
"We played the last game in Bologna," Hines recalled, "and when we came into the stadium, it was packed for batting practice, 20-to-25,000 people chanting "Ooz-a, Ooz-a.' I thought we had 'em.
"About a half-hour later, the Cubans arrived, and those same people started with, 'Cuba si, Yanqui no.' "
It was "Vande Berg, si" in Venezuela in 1982, when he helped pitch Caracas to the Caribbean Series title. "That's the closest I've come to a World Series," he said.
And that's what brought him, after just two seasons in the Mariners' system, to the big leagues, where he set a record for appearances by a rookie pitcher with 78, won nine games, did not give up a run in his final 17 appearances and held opposing batters to a .207 average.