Pitching Magic: Just A Phone Call Away

Alice Steinbach

April 08, 1991|By Alice Steinbach

I should tell you right up front that if my phone rings, I'm going to stop writing this column and answer it.

And if the voice on the other end of the phone is Orioles manager Frank Robinson or pitching coach Al Jackson asking me for my help in the Birds' opening game today, forget the column. If they need me, I'm out the door and headed for Birdland on 33rd Street.

It could happen.

See, like Jim Palmer, I'm convinced that I can still pitch.

And, believe you me, if Frank hands me that ball I'm not going to hold back -- rotator cuff injury or no rotator cuff injury. I'm going to go out there and give 110 percent. Blow out my arm if I have to. Because that's the way I play baseball: One game at a time. With all the heart . . .

Excuse me.

Is that the phone ringing? No? Oh. Just Fluffy's cat bell. OK. Thanks.

I'm well aware it may come as a bit of a shock to those who know me only as a woman of letters, but the fact is, I was once rather well known as a star pitcher for a now-defunct baseball team known as the Mocking Birds.

You want stats? It is a matter of record that in my first year with the team I won 10 out of the 85 games I pitched, a statistic which caused me to consider seriously a career in baseball, ignoring completely my mother's suggestion that a girl of 10 ought to keep her career options open.

What I had going for me, as I recall, was an unusual underhand slow ball. Although poorly executed (it earned me the nickname The Tortoise) and entirely dependent on dumb luck (my strike zone was somewhere between heaven and earth) the pitch was responsible for a remarkable number of strikeouts, chiefly because the batter was usually doubled over with a severe case of laughter.

Excuse me again. The phone's ringing.

If that's Roland Hemond or Larry Lucchino calling, tell them I've been worried sick about Ben McDonald's elbow and I'm on my way. What? Oh. Say I gave at the office.

Well, anyway, that halcyon period in my baseball career (a 10-75 record, remember?) lasted long enough for my reputation to spread throughout a 12-block area. But, as is so often true of halcyon periods, the end of it came about rather abruptly.

It all began to unravel late in the season when my older brother, who managed the Mocking Birds, traded me down to the Gnats.

And although I can't prove this, I'll go to my grave thinking he based his decision to trade me not on the quality of my pitching but on the fact that, in a moment of anger over who had to mow the lawn one night, I trashed his Boy Scouts knot-tying project.

Well, anyway, to give you an idea of the quality of the Gnats, I will simply point out that Reds, a hyperactive Golden Retriever who belonged to old Mr. Huey, was often pressed into service as catcher for the team.

But, look, I was a professional. So I tried. I took it one game at a time. I told myself over and over the credo of the pitcher: I've got a right to knock down anybody holding a bat. But I'd be lying if I told you that my spirit wasn't broken. Quite simply, pitching to a Golden Retreiver takes it out of you.

Still, there was one thing I loved about spring training with the Gnats that year. That was the spring when the lilacs bloomed for two full months. I remember people went around that spring saying it was like no other lilac season they could remember. "Must have been caused by some strange shift in the weather," they said to one another that spring.

Whatever caused it, I still remember standing on the pitcher's mound with the purple and whiteness and perfume of the lilacs all mingling together in the warm evening air, blowing in from somewhere off right field. Probably from Mrs. Cox's garden.

I finished out the year but never pitched again. Publicly, that is. But the truth is, like Jim Palmer I've been keeping up the old fitness thing and feel in better shape than I have for years. Pitched a few balls to a neighbor's 5-year-old son recently and he missed a couple of them -- which indicates to me that I can still pitch.

Oops. Gotta run. Mailman's at the door. Maybe with a cable from Eli Jacobs. I hope nothing bad's happened to Jeff Ballard.

But if it has -- and I hope it hasn't -- I'm ready to take life 90 feet at a time. With or without the lilacs.

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