Job security is a left-handed pitcher Shortage enables some to hang on

June 16, 1991|By Ray Parrillo | Ray Parrillo,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

A recent survey concluded that left-handers don't live as long as right-handers, that heaven opens its pearly gates to lefties nine years sooner than righties on the average.

Obviously, the survey ignored major-league baseball.

In baseball, left-handed pitchers never die. They just are reincarnated in different uniforms.

No matter how old they are, no matter how many miles an hour they've lost from their fastballs, no matter how many times they've been discarded or battered around, left-handed pitchers keep getting recycled like aluminum cans.

Or, as left-hander Steve Howe of the New York Yankees, back this season after six suspensions for alcoholism and drug abuse, put it: "The prerequisite for left-handers these days is, 'Can you breathe?' If you can, they'll give you a shot."

Added Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Miller: "If you can put a little spin on the ball and throw it for a strike, as well as breathe, there's probably a job for a lefty in this league."

How desperate is baseball for left-handers, specifically left-handed relievers?

Well, Dave LaPoint, he of the 16.20 ERA with the Philadelphia Phillies earlier this year, a guy even the pitching-poor Yankees no longer wanted, was recently signed by the Milwaukee Brewers to a minor-league contract. LaPoint became the laughingstock of a suspect Phillies staff when fans began measuring the speed of his pitches with a sundial.

That's desperate.

How's this for desperate?

Dan Schatzeder is pitching for the Kansas City Royals. Schatzeder, the game's version of Lazarus, has been recycled from Montreal to Detroit, to San Francisco, back to Montreal, to Philadelphia, to Minnesota, to Cleveland, back to Minnesota, to Houston, to the New York Mets, and, now, to the Royals. So what if he's 36 and his ERA was a swollen 10.50? Schatzeder is left-handed.

That's desperate.

How's this for desperate? Fans may soon be treated to the

spectacle of watching Joe Price try to get hitters out. Be advised to wear a helmet if you're sitting in the bleachers. Price, 34, rejected by Cincinnati, San Francisco and Boston, was sitting around his house when the San Diego Padres came calling recently. Since he still has a pulse rate, San Diego signed him to a minor-league contract.

The Padres had found 35-year-old Derek Lilliquist and his 11.42 ERA a little hard to take. For now. And they had to put Pat Clements, who pitched for California, Pittsburgh and the Yankees, on the disabled list.

Joe Price? That's desperate.

And remember Ray Searage? We didn't think so. Searage, 36, had no job all winter after he was released by Los Angeles. But in mid-March, the Phillies held open tryouts for left-handers and signed Searage to pitch in three spring-training games. He was beaten out by LaPoint. As was Guillermo Hernandez, 36, who was good when his name was Willie. Hernandez is still twitching in Toronto's minor-league system, pitching for Syracuse.

In fact, there are a slew of left-handers who keep hanging on, guys such as Joe Hesketh of Boston, Jesse Orosco of Cleveland, Mike Flanagan of Baltimore and Don Carman of Cincinnati.

In the minors, Jeff Musselman, Stan Clarke, Dennis Powell and Dave Leiper may be just a couple of ground-ball outs away from resurfacing in The Show.

For these guys, the stay in the unemployment line is brief.

"There's always been a shortage of quality left-handers," said a former left-handed standout, Claude Osteen, the former Phillies pitching coach now with the Dodgers' Class AAA team in Albuquerque. "But in the last four or five years, that shortage has been more noticeable."

"I have two sons who are pitchers," Osteen said. "One of them, Gavin, is a lefty in the Oakland system. He just threw a two-hitter for Huntsville in Double A. I told him if he pitches another two-hitter, they'll probably move him right up to Triple A."

Left-handed relievers, even those with earned run averages of the Dow Jones type, are in demand for two reasons: because of the increasingly specialized nature of the game, and because of the long-held theory that lefties are more effective against left-handed hitters.

If Will Clark or Darryl Strawberry goes to bat with men on base late in a game, the opposing manager wants the option of bringing in a left-hander, even if the guy is so old he needs assistance getting to the mound.

"Some people are so hung up on the lefty-against-lefty thing that they forget about quality," said Miller, the Pirates' pitching coach. "It's gotten to the point where teams are taking mediocre lefties over quality righties, and I think that's stupid. A lot of times, you're bringing in a mediocre lefty to face one batter when a quality right-hander can probably do the job just as well."

Montreal's general manager, Dave Dombrowski, said the need for left-handed pitching depends on the number of tough left-handed hitters in your division.

"Against some clubs, like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, it's extremely important to have the option of bringing in a left-hander," he said.

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