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Getting Carried Away Over the Wrong Pitcher

May 19, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

A guy who once did so much cocaine his children feared him was carried off a baseball field on the shoulders of teammates last week.

A guy who repaid wondrous gifts of size and strength with a decade of alcohol and drugs was sober enough to pitch a no-hitter.

It happened in New York, with a nation's lonely eyes believing they were witnessing a miracle.

The guy's name is Dwight Gooden, and we awoke Wednesday to read he was a hero.

At the same time, on the other side of the country, a guy was walking across the USC campus, wondering.

What would he do if he were 6 feet 3, 200 pounds, with an arm that could throw 90 mph before breakfast? What if he had been as blessed as that guy in New York?

Then Randy Flores stopped himself, as he has done frequently during a three-year college career that was not supposed to happen.

"Into my head, something pops and says, 'You know, God gave me this body and it's a good body,' " he said. "You know, maybe I should just be thankful."

He's 6 feet, 175 pounds, with baseball pants that hang like two kitchen garbage bags. A childhood condition causes his eyes to sometimes point in different directions. His fastball has but one speed, the same one found at those machines next to miniature golf courses.

He went to college without a scholarship. He might have to walk away next year without his dreams.

Yet Flores, a junior, will lead USC's second-ranked baseball team into the NCAA tournament this week,

He is 8-1 with a 3.46 earned-run average. He had two victories in last year's College World Series, where the Trojans are expected to advance again for a chance at their first national title in 18 years.

He is a left-hander who outsmarts hitters instead of overpowering them.

Not that we'll ever awake on a Wednesday morning to read that Randy Flores is a hero.

Which is where everything is mixed up.

This country is too quick to applaud the actions of a Dwight Gooden while ignoring the many other athletes who can never experience such a stirring comeback, because they will never abuse drugs or alcohol in the first place.

The national media were falling all over their adjectives this week to commend Gooden for his courage.

You want courage? Try being a senior at El Rancho High in Pico Rivera and turning down an appointment at the Air Force Academy to fulfill your goal of playing baseball at USC.

Even though USC won't give you a penny for it.

"It didn't sink in what I had done until my first fall practice, when I was working in the bullpen and Coach [Frank] Sanchez says, 'Well, you've got good batting practice speed,' " Flores recalled. "I'm thinking, 'Oh no.' "

You want perseverance? Trying pitching for two years without a baseball scholarship, visiting banks for loans, worrying that each bad outing was your last.

"Sometimes I dream like I'm getting shelled," Flores said. "I'll dream that balls are coming right at my head."

You want a comeback? Flores stages one almost every day in his off-campus apartment, when he turns up the rock music and stands in the middle of the living room trying to improve his curveball.

"I'll stand there with a ball and pretend like I'm throwing it, stand there and use all kinds of grips," Flores said.

You want drugs and alcohol?

You won't find any here. Flores doesn't smoke or drink, though there have been many times when taunts about his appearance from opposing players have made him seek escape.

"Sometimes I just need to walk away, to be alone," he says. "That usually works."

That is too bad, in a way, because he will never be celebrated as much as if he drove straight from a loss to a crack house, then to a bar, then into somebody's trunk.

Then returned to action a year later claiming he is cured.

We love those stories. Drug addiction is so common among athletes that we view it like cancer. As if athletes don't have a choice.

Dwight Gooden is a good baseball player and should be commended for his new life and its extraordinary accomplishment. But to think that his no-hitter was special is backward.

What would have been special is if he had thrown it before he had hurt his loved ones.

The sports world this week was abuzz about Gooden's eyes, about how he once again has the stare of a champion.

They will never say that about Randy Flores. When he's pitching, he looks at the hitter cross-eyed.

Small, skinny, funny-looking. And without a choice about any of that.

About him, USC Coach Mike Gillespie said: "There is no better guy for us to build our pitching staff around."

Almost makes you think, Randy Flores is getting carried off a field one day if you have to do it yourself.

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