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Career Change

Eye Injury Dramatically Shortens Pole's Time as a Player but He Is Able to Return to Majors as a Pitching Coach

April 13, 1999|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dick Pole was one out away from pitching a shutout against Baltimore on that fateful summer day in 1975, when, in the blink of an eye, one career took a sharp turn for the worse and another inadvertently rose from the wreckage.

The right-hander was a rising star in the Boston Red Sox organization because of his power sinker and an aggressive, fear-none style, and he had solidified his rotation spot on a team that would reach the 1975 World Series with six solid starts in May and June.

Then came that two-out pitch to Tony Muser with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth in the first game of a June 30 twi-night doubleheader in Fenway Park.

Visibility was not good--the early evening sun had slipped behind the grandstand and the field was covered with shadows--and Pole's vision was never the same because of it.

The left-handed hitting Muser ripped a line drive off Pole's right eye, the ball smashing Pole with so much force it caromed all the way over third baseman Rico Petrocelli's head and into foul territory.

Petrocelli's reaction revealed the gravity of the situation: The third baseman didn't retrieve the ball, as two runs scored, cutting Boston's lead to 5-2. He raced right to the mound.

"It was a horror," Petrocelli recalled. "I was shocked. All I could envision was Dick losing his eye. There was a lot of blood. I knew he was seriously hurt."

Pole suffered a broken jaw and shattered retina, and 24 years later, as he begins his first season as the Angels' pitching coach, he has only 10% vision in his right eye. When he looks straight ahead, he sees a black spot.

Remarkably, Pole returned to the mound late in 1975 and made one appearance in the World Series against Cincinnati, but as Pole admits, "I was never the same."

Pole was picked up by the expansion Seattle Mariners in 1977, and two years later he was out of the big leagues, finishing with a 25-37 record and 5.05 earned-run average.

"It wasn't because he was afraid--I never remember him flinching," Petrocelli said. "He just didn't have the control he had before because his vision was affected."

Pole spent the 1981 and '82 seasons pitching in Mexico City, and by 1983, at an age (32) when many pitchers are still in their prime, Pole landed his first job as a pitching coach for the Chicago Cubs' Class-A team at Quad City.

He was back in the big leagues by 1988, serving four seasons as the Cubs' pitching coach. He spent five years (1993-97) as the San Francisco Giants' pitching coach, and after a season as Boston's bullpen coach, Pole is replacing highly regarded Marcel Lachemann in Anaheim.

"His career may have been cut short by injury, but he more than made up for it as a coach," Petrocelli said. "It's funny how things work out."

Indeed, had Pole's playing career not fizzled, he wouldn't have gone to Mexico and learned Spanish, which has helped him communicate with Latin American pitchers, and he may not have "learned a lot about the art of pitching," Pole said.

"They change speeds and mix up pitches so well in Mexico. . . . Luis Tiant always said I should throw changeups, but I was young and hard-headed and relied too much on my fastball. It didn't help then, but it helped me in my coaching life."

Had Pole continued pitching, he wouldn't have gained so much experience working with a young right-hander in the Cubs' farm system named Greg Maddux, modifying his delivery and building a coaching reputation that would eventually get him back to the big leagues.

And had Pole not been struck in the eye, a relationship that culminated with his marriage to Carol Scott on Sept. 14, 1975, may not have blossomed.

After the accident, Pole returned home to Trout Creek, Mich.--where else would a guy named Dick Pole be from?--and spent two months with his wife-to-be.

"I wasn't real pretty to look at, with one eye closed, my jaw wired shut and a black and blue head," Pole said. "Carol had a 7-year-old niece who wouldn't even come near me. But I didn't scare Carol away.

"We got to know each other real well that summer, and 23 years later, she still has me around. I don't know if she's happy with it, but I am."

Like most long marriages, Pole's career as a pitching coach has been filled with much happiness . . . and a few rough spots.

The Cubs, with Pole guiding the pitchers, won the National League East in 1989, and Pole helped John Burkett and Bill Swift develop into 20-game winners in San Francisco. Rod Beck also blossomed as a closer after Pole discovered he was tipping pitches.

But despite helping the Giants win the National League West in 1997, Pole was fired by General Manager Brian Sabean.

"They just wanted to make a change," Pole said. "That's their prerogative. They write the checks. It wasn't Dusty [Baker, Giant manager]. But that's the way the game goes. Things worked out in a roundabout way. I got to go back to Boston, stay in the major leagues, and now I'm here."

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