NEW YORK — In the photographs that Jim Deshaies stores in his mind there are the images of sitting on the bench of the Ft. Lauderdale Yankees. Next to him are Jose Rijo and Tim Birtsas and they don't dare dream to each other about pitching in Yankee Stadium. "I'd think I wanted to get to Double-A," Deshaies said. "When I got to Double-A, I thought, I can't wait to get to Triple-A. Of course, you always have your dreams."
And in the Yankees' organization the word was out for budding young pitchers. It was like a road map that says go 100 miles straight as a fastball and turn left at the big tree. He'd heard the directions at Oneonta the season before.
"A couple of guys told me your goal should be to get to Triple-A so you get a chance to go somewhere else," Deshaies said.
So it happens that the nifty five-hit shutout Deshaies threw at the Mets Sunday was in the uniform of the Houston Astros. And it cast aspersions on how the Yankees go about developing players, especially pitchers.
Rijo is throwing lightning for Cincinnati and Birtsas is in the Reds' bullpen. Doug Drabek is in the top handful of pitchers in the National League for the Pirates. Eric Plunk is a good fastballer in the Oakland bullpen. Al Leiter's 90-plus fastball is now gone to Toronto at age 23--and the Yankees don't have an arm the likes of his anymore.
Nor have they produced a 28-year-old pitcher who knows how to pitch the way Deshaies does, for that matter. Haven't for years.
"The problem there is one of immediacy," Deshaies said without a trace of rancor. "If you struggle early, you're under a microscope. That puts a lot of pressure on you. If they think you can pitch in the big leagues, they run you out there."
The other part of the equation is that once they run a young pitcher out there, they are ready to draw conclusions in a trice. The use of the plural in that case is a concession to what Steinbrenner calls his baseball people when the real policy-making comes in the singular form.
He doesn't have the patience for a young pitcher to learn his craft the way Deshaies did or for Rijo to find the plate. Deshaies went for aged Joe Niekro. Drabek for veteran Rick Rhoden. Rijo and Plunk went for Rickey Henderson. There are explanations, of course, but there's the pattern that says Steinbrenner and his people didn't have an accurate measure of what they were dealing with.
Leiter had all those pitching coaches Steinbrenner regards as so much Kleenex. How does a young pitcher learn when he's constantly dealing with a pitching coach who never saw him before?
Deshaies recalls the young Rijo: "He threw gas and a nasty slider." What's he throwing now for Cincinnati? "Gas and a nasty slider--and an off-speed pitch to go with it," Deshaies said.
Both had their chance with the Yankees and failed. Nobody can deny that. It depends on how success is measured.
In the summer of '84 Dwight Good-en burst upon the Mets as a 19-year-old revelation. Steinbrenner observed and declared he had one of those, too. So he rushed Rijo, barely 19, into a starting assignment. Then shuttled him back and forth to Columbus.
Deshaies wasn't quite the phenom, but he had been 11-3 in 1983 at Fort Lauderdale, and 10-5 with the best earned run average in the league at Columbus the next summer. And in September he was passed to Yogi Berra at the Stadium.
"I'm a fly-ball pitcher," Deshaies said after striking out seven Mets and getting 15 others on outfield flies. Left-handers who know how to make batters hit fly balls in Yankee Stadium have been known to have some success (See Ford, Whitey.) "Left-center field," Deshaies said. "I like to have guys hit out that way."
That September he was given the start at Yankee Stadium and he was already tired from 25 minor-league starts. "What do you do?" Deshaies reflected. "You can't tell them to call somebody else up instead. I felt good enough to pitch, but not 100%. They tell you to tell them the truth, but you don't say you're fatigued."
He pitched well enough against the White Sox the first three innings, there was a rain delay, he gave up a couple of hits, "and Harold Baines hit one in the upper deck," Deshaies said.
There was one more inconclusive start and, after seven innings of pitching, a conclusion was drawn. "You can't go to the front office and say, 'Don't judge me on that,"' Deshaies said.
Late the next season, Deshaies was swapped for Niekro. "I didn't trade him," said Berra, now an Astros' coach. Of course not. Berra was fired 16 games into that season, another example of Yankees impatience. But when John McMullen, Berra's New Jersey golfing buddy who owns the Astros, mentioned that Deshaies was available, Berra hinted: "Take him."