SAN DIEGO — Pat Dobson in a Crisis, Part I:
The Padre season is four games old and already, four losses. They have just been beaten, 5-1, by the San Francisco Giants, the pitching staff has allowed a total of 22 runs in those four games and Manager Larry Bowa is blue in the face.
In a postgame meeting in his Candlestick Park office, Bowa accosts his pitching coach, Dobson.
"Dobber, Dobber, what are we going to do?" Bowa asked.
Dobson thought a second.
"I don't know about you," he said, "but I'm going out and suck down a few oils."
Pat Dobson in a Crisis, Part II:
A Friday night in New York, the Padres lead the Mets, 2-0, in the bottom of the seventh. But the Mets have a runner on first and Darryl Strawberry at the plate, and suddenly the 37,000 people in the stands are screaming at Padre pitcher Mark Grant. Out from the Padre dugout steps Dobson, slowly, distractedly, walking to the mound the way others walk down their driveway to pick up their morning paper.
When he finally reaches Grant, the conversation goes like this:
Dobson: "You know that guy up there with the bat? He's got one thing on this mind. He wants to yank one. He's dying to yank one way, way out of here. That's all he's looking to do. Yank one."
Grant: "Uh, yeah, I know."
Grant proceeded to make certain Strawberry didn't hit one out by hitting him first, on the foot. With runners on first and second, Mark Davis came in and retired Kevin McReynolds on a fly ball to end the inning, and the Padres became the first team this season to shut out the Mets, 2-0.
"Do what Dobber says," Grant said later, recalling the conversation, "and it all falls into place."
It has happened just that way this summer, not just for Grant but for the entire Padre staff. They have been captivated by a 46-year-old former big-league pitcher with a perpetual sneer who showed up this spring saying he had only two pitches left. One was humor. The other was honesty.
Pat Dobson walked funny. He talked funny, calling beer "oil" and curveballs "yellow hammers" and possessing so many names for a fastball, the pitchers would need a pocket thesaurus.
He poked fun of them in the dugouts before games. He sneaked cigarettes behind them in the stadium runways during games.
He worked so hard, salt from his sweat stained the bill of his cap white. He so wanted his pitchers not to worry about appearances or formalities that even when the Padres asked, he would not give up that cap.
The pitchers laughed, then they listened, and ultimately they have pitched their way to one of the biggest improvements in baseball. Even in a season in which the baseball is comatose again and average staff earned-run averages are nearly a point lower than last year, the Padres' numbers have been remarkable.
After 55 games last year, they had a staff ERA of 5.01 with 75 homers and 219 walks allowed. They eventually led the National League in homers allowed and were second in walks.
After 55 games this year, they had an ERA of 3.98 with 44 homers and 170 walks allowed and did not lead the league in either category.
Dobson, who already has done something like this as pitching coach for the pennant-winning 1982 Milwaukee Brewers, likes those numbers. But he doesn't necessarily see himself behind them. And as his players have discovered, Dobson won't call it if he doesn't see it.
"Part of the reason I took this job was that they were so bad last year, I figured they would listen to anybody. I didn't figure it could be too tough," said Dobson, who was hired away from his job as the Seattle Mariners' minor league instructor this winter to replace Galen Cisco, who was fired. "And think about it: How could they walk that many guys again? How could they give up that many homers again? It was a no-lose situation."
His players don't quite agree.
"I have learned more from him than anybody else," said Mark Grant, who, despite inconsistency, has matured in leaps.
"A great instructor, doesn't look at the outcome of a game but whether you pitched intelligently or not," said Mark Davis, whose career has spun around under Dobson and is headed for an All-Star game appearance.
And this from Eric Show, who has always been sort of his own pitching coach: "From the time I have known Pat Dobson, I have learned as much from him than from anybody else in that same period of time."
As you might have guessed, Dobson and the high-thinking Show have a special relationship.
Said Show: "I think some of the things he says are on such a primitive id level, I have trouble understanding them."
Said Dobson: "Ever noticed how Eric Show talks a lot and says nothing?"
Show gave his summation with a laugh, Dobson with a smirk. They can make fun of each other when few others can, because they can see each other as few others can. It's the same way with the other nine pitchers. They and Dobson relate not as player and coach but as player and mirror.