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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

McDowell's Arm Hangs On

April 01, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER

How many people still own a Jack McDowell action hero from his days with the Chicago White Sox?

I do--except mine has one of its arms broken off.

Luckily, the real Jack McDowell is far more durable than my action hero.

"I feel I have a handful of years left to be on the top of my game," he said last weekend wearing his new Anaheim Angels uniform.

I've known the 32-year-old McDowell since before he had a goatee.

As an 11-year-old Little League All-Star in Van Nuys, McDowell was already plotting his pitching debut for a national audience.

"He was sure he'd pitch in the TV game at Williamsport," his mother, Judy, recalled. "We had won one district game."

McDowell never made it to the Little League World Series, but he gained plenty of attention at Notre Dame High. He was the most confident, most defiant baseball player I've ever met.

There were umpires in the Valley who trembled at the thought of being behind home plate with McDowell on the mound. He might have been only a teenager, but he wasn't afraid to bark out an expletive if he didn't like a pitch call.

Coaches were targets of McDowell's tirades, too.

"There were times I squirmed a little, but we knew it meant so much to him," Judy said. "I think he's better when he's emotional."

McDowell acknowledged, "I'm sure I was a bundle to work with at that age."

McDowell was an honors student and three-sport athlete at Notre Dame. But he gave up playing football after his junior season and quit basketball in the middle of his senior season. He hated sitting on the bench. Even worse, he hated to lose.

"At the high school age, a lot of times you're not going to find kids as open as Jack was," said his brother, Jim, who was Jack's baseball coach for two years at Notre Dame. "He was real confident and real aggressive, and that's been his personality."

As a senior in 1984, McDowell was Southern Section Division I co-player of the year. He helped Notre Dame become the No. 1 team in the nation. The Knights were 27-0 before losing to Long Beach Millikan in the Division I semifinals.

He moved on to Stanford, pitched the Cardinal to an NCAA championship in 1987, then entered the professional ranks. In 1993, he won the American League Cy Young Award.

He's a two-time 20-game winner and has a 122-80 record in his career. He's the best pitcher from Van Nuys since Don Drysdale. He's also a trendsetter. He was one of the first pro athletes to grow a goatee. He went back to Stanford to earn his degree. He used his father and brother as agents. He discovered music as a second career. He flipped off the fans at Yankee Stadium in 1995 and survived.

As ornery as he is, there's no one who tries harder to inspire his teammates to succeed. That's why the Angels came up with the steal of the year when they signed McDowell as a free agent for $1 million. He has contract incentives that could push his salary past $5 million, but he'll be worth every cent because of his fiery attitude.

"I've always had high expectations," McDowell said. "On every team I ever played on, I thought we would be the one to win it all. That's the only thing you play for when it comes down to it."

Some thought McDowell might not pitch again after having arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow last May. The problem was he didn't get better.

"I was scared because no one knew what the heck was going on," he said. "I'm supposed to be back in three weeks and no one could tell me when I would be back. What ended up happening was I had to get out of the baseball loop and see a doctor outside of the athletic doctors."

He found an elbow specialist in Arizona who prescribed six weeks of rest. Slowly, McDowell began his comeback. In the off-season, he auditioned for more than a dozen scouts. The Angels took a chance and signed him. Now he's in their pitching rotation.

"It's about time we got him back on this coast," Judy said.

McDowell hasn't changed much through the years. He remains candid in his comments even if they provoke controversy.

"If I say something truthful, what's the problem?" he said. "But that is the problem. People reading that say, 'Oh, athletes and their cliches.' You can't have it both ways. What's it going to be? Do you want someone to be telling the truth? Then, in certain situations, do you want somebody to give bull answers? For most of my career, I've spoken my mind."

McDowell is no longer strictly a baseball player and musician. He's a husband and the father of two boys, ages 3 and 1, and a 2-month-old girl.

Judy thinks 1-year-old Emmett "would wear a goatee" just like his father.

McDowell enjoys talking to teammates from Notre Dame's 27-1 team.

"It was one of the greatest experiences of our lives," he said.

My contribution to McDowell this season will be to find his action hero in my cluttered closet, then reattach the broken arm. I'll need some glue--not Dr. Frank Jobe--to complete the task. Then he'll really be back at full strength.

Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422.

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