Submariner Frohwirth pops up to surface

JOHN EISENBERG

June 09, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

He is a ghost in spikes, an apparition raised from a glorious piece of the Orioles' past. Yes, right here in the middle of this grim season, this frown-a-thon of firings and defeats and for-sale signs, a ghost from 1989 has appeared in the clubhouse.

His name is Todd Frohwirth and he pitches relief and he isn't a familiar face yet, having been an Oriole for exactly 13 days, but his story should be as familiar as a "Why Not?" banner. A career mostly spent in the minors. A heartbreak or two. Then, suddenly, he is in the bigs and -- until last night -- no one could touch him and maybe there wasn't an explanation, but you know better than to ask for one.

The Orioles had a roomful of similar stories in 1989. Hickey. Weston. Milligan. Ballard. The Middle River kid. It was the true beauty of that miraculous season. Guys up from nowhere were (( pulling it off. Players who had spent their careers being beaten, abused and sent down. Now, it was their turn.

That it might now be Frohwirth's turn is getting lost, perhaps, in this lost season. But the story is the same. Frohwirth is a 28-year-old submarine-style pitcher who has made 82 percent of his 444 pro appearances in the minors, a right-hander who made his mark with the Phillies in 1989, but was forgotten by the organization within months.

Now, it is his turn. And he had been tremendous. Before giving up two walks (including one with the bases loaded), a two-run double and a two-run single last night, he had faced 26 batters since the Orioles brought him up from Rochester and only two had reached base. One walked. The other reached on a dropped third strike. He hadn't allowed a hit. Seven appearances, 8 1/3 innings and not one hit. It was longest hitless streak by an Orioles reliever in 11 years.

"It's the best I've thrown, ever," Frohwirth said last week. "Things are going great. I've learned not to get up or down, though. I'm just going to try to keep doing what I'm doing."

What he was doing, mostly, was throwing a mean, mean pitch for strikes. He changed his delivery, dropping his underhand motion as far down as it has been since he turned pro, and the result is a humpbacked pitch that drops sharply through the strike zone. To call it a trick pitch is wrong, for there have been other submariners. But it is unusual.

"I'm sure his success has had something to do with the fact that the batters aren't used to that kind of delivery," Orioles manager John Oates said last week. "But it isn't that delivery that's getting people out. It's good pitching. He's throwing strikes, and he's got it going where he wants it. That's what it takes."

Frohwirth is utterly impassive about the entire business, moving quietly through the clubhouse and bullpen. He isn't an excitable boy. But you know there must be a tingle inside him somewhere. How could there not be? He was just beginning to wonder if he'd lost his chance to make a mark in the majors.

A 13th-round draft pick, he moved through the Phillies system in four years, getting a late-season call-up to Philly in 1987. Two years later, he made 45 appearances there in middle relief, with a 2.70 ERA after the All-Star break. He thought he'd made it. But the Phillies chose to go with power pitchers the next year, and he was gone. Just like that.

"I knew it was over when I wasn't getting my innings in the spring," said Frohwirth, who signed with the Orioles last off-season. "I started out [the season] with a bad appearance or two, and that was that. It was a very tough thing. I spend six years learning that I can get big-league hitters out, and then I'm done? I didn't know what to do."

He certainly couldn't change his pitching style. Throwing underhanded was his natural throwing motion. He threw that way when he was a .220-hitting high school second baseman -- "not a very good player" -- and he just kept doing it when he decided to become a pitcher in college.

"It's not like I told myself to try throwing this way," he said. "I didn't even know I was doing anything differently from anyone else, really. To me, it just seemed like the right way to throw. Always did."

He became a free agent in May 1990 after the Phillies gave up on him, but no other team wanted him, so he re-signed with the Phillies and went back to Class AAA. He had a solid year there, with nine wins and 21 saves, and the Orioles asked him to camp this spring. He barely registered a blip, but now he's back and the manager can't get enough of him.

"The real danger is that you use him too much," Oates said, "He's throwing strikes, keeping his pitch count down. It's tempting. We thought he'd pitch well or we wouldn't have called him up, but we didn't think he'd do this well. I won't overuse him, though. I know he can't pitch every day."

Frohwirth just shrugs. There wasn't a place for him in the blueprint, but he's just gone out and made himself a place. It had to end one of these nights, of course -- he knew it, everyone did. But Frohwirth wasn't looking for just a few magic moments anyway. He wants a job. Why not?

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