Left-handers' career path long, with strange turns

May 12, 1991|By Tracy Ringolsby | Tracy Ringolsby,Dallas Morning News

Jerry Don Gleaton came out of the University of Texas in June 1979, the Texas Rangers' No. 1 draft pick. He made his major-league debut that September.

The quick trip to the big leagues has been followed by a slow odyssey of survival. Gleaton didn't spend a full season in the big leagues for the first time until 1990, his 12th year in professional ball.

With a career that has taken him from the Rangers to Seattle to the Chicago White Sox to Kansas City and now Detroit, Gleaton is testimony to the mystique of the left-hander.

"At times I wonder if it's going to be my last chance, but I've always felt if you are a left-hander, someone is going to want you," said Gleaton. "Last year, I went from being on the verge of being out of baseball to being traded to Detroit and having the year of my life."

Traded to Detroit in a minor-league deal that kept him from being released by Kansas City, Gleaton became the 1990 left-handed savior of the Tigers' bullpen. He had 13 saves, a 2.94 ERA and appeared in 57 games.

Left-handers don't often overpower hitters. They aren't often high on a team's winter shopping list. And they don't often stay anywhere long enough to buy a house. But left-handers have a seemingly magical ability to survive.

It's a combination of the rarity of their species and the adaptability of the individual that allows them to keep pushing past disappointments, adapting to new environments.

"Everything is made for right-handers," said Gleaton. "Look at golf courses. Look at top-line athletic equipment. When you start school, if you write with your left hand, you arm hangs off the desk. It's a right-handed world. If you are left-handed and want to be part of it, you learn to adjust."

So, when it comes to bouncing from organization to organization, meeting new teammates and learning new roles, "it's no problem," said Gleaton. "We've been fitting in and adapting all our lives."

Ken Brett pitched for a record 10 big-league teams. He's left-handed. This year, Dave LaPoint, with Philadelphia, and Don Schatzeder, with Kansas City, both wore the uniforms of their ninth major-league teams. They are left-handed.

"Left-handers seem to get more mileage at the later part of their careers because they usually have a good track record at getting left-handed hitters out," said New York Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. "It's probably more a numbers game than anything else. There seems to be more of a need for left-left situations than right-right. Right-handed hitters are more accustomed to seeing right-handed pitchers from Little League on up because there are more right-handed people."

That's where perseverance comes in. A lefty might not make it with his original organization, but if he goes through the demands of moving and making an impression on somebody else, there's a chance for him to survive.

There were 54 left-handed relievers on rosters or the disabled list Opening Day. Only 10 of them (18.5 percent) had spent their entire careers with the same organization. Of the 645 other players on rosters, 253 (39.2 percent) were with their original organizations.

"Left-handers are different with a capital 'D' " said Texas pitching coach Tom House, a left-hander who pitched for three teams in eight seasons. "It is a left-hander's game.

"If a left-hander can throw strikes, he can win, even with marginal stuff. Hitting is a perceptual skill, and I think hitters have a harder time perceiving left-handers. A ball thrown by a left-hander may not move that much, but it is perceived as moving differently.

"I was a perfect example. How many 5-foot-9 right-handers who never threw the ball above 82 mph in more than six years in the big leagues?" House said. "And lefthanders fit in chemistry-wise. They have had to adapt since day one. It's a right-handers' world from scissors to desks to appliances. So the left-hander's adaptive skills are a notch more functional."

Keith Comstock signed his first professional contract in 1976. He has pitched in the California, Oakland, Detroit, Minnesota, San Francisco, San Diego and Seattle organizations. He even spent two years in Japan. This spring was the first time in a decade he had gone to camp with the same team two years in a row. Last year was the first time in his 15-year career that he spent a full year in the big leagues.

He had a 2.89 ERA for the Mariners in 60 games in 1990. Just the same, he was went back to AAA Calgary the final week of spring training. At the age of 35, he keeps plugging away.

"You have to keep the attitude that everything is going to be OK," said Comstock. "If you let negative thoughts creep in, you are done. The biggest thing, though, is you have to be able to role with the punches and not take anything personal. It helps if you have your pride stripped from you. Then you accept what happens without doubting yourself."

But for all the opportunity that exists, left-handers do face the same bottom line as everybody else -- the need for success.

"Being left-handed, you get more opportunity to prove you can still do the job, but you still have to get people out," Schatzeder said. "If you are a middle reliever, left-handed or right-handed, you are always on the bubble. The stopper is going to get another chance, maybe even moved into middle relief to get things straightened out. But if a middle reliever struggles, when it is time to make the move you're the one who is going to get moved."

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