When going gets tough, Milacki recalls worse


September 12, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

Bob Milacki didn't lose his wits on those many days in the past two years when his shoulder was sore and his control was rotten and he got hit hard and wound up sitting up in some hotel room wondering if his career were blowing up.

He didn't lose his wits because it wasn't new, because he wasn't a pampered draft pick who got chaperoned through the minors, because he got hit hard in Hagerstown and Charlotte and knew what it felt like to pitch knowing he'd be doing something else in a year if he didn't start getting people out.

"The only reason I made it through these last two years," Milacki said the other night at Memorial Stadium, "was I had such a tough time getting to the majors in the first place. A kid like Ben [McDonald] or [Mike] Mussina, who didn't experience that, might have had trouble making it through what I did."

Which was: The Pitcher's Hell. Milacki experienced every facet of it these past two years. Arm trouble. Lost confidence. Lost control. Bad outings. Boos. A trip back to the minors. It was frightening and depressing and certainly no fun, a challenge to every aspect of his sporting self.

He made it through because he once spent a summer as a very average Class A pitcher using two-thirds of his $800-a-month salary to rent some hole in Miami where you made sure you locked your doors. He had a .500 record, and his wife got mugged in her car one night coming to a game. They blocked her in the street, reached inside, hit her and took her money.

"She woke up in the middle of the night for months, screaming and hitting me," Milacki said. "You're almost ready to chuck it all after going through something like that."

He survived The Pitcher's Hell because he spent five years in the minors with little to recommend the first four, and that toughens you. He quit for a week once and the Orioles didn't even know. He almost got released in the spring of 1988. The Orioles had one opening in Double A. Milacki barely beat out someone named Joe Kucharski. Then his car got stolen.

"I found out what it felt like to have your job on the line every time you pitched," he said. "All those feelings came back to me these last two years. I felt really nervous before a lot of starts earlier this season. I was the same as everyone else. I knew my job here was on the line."

It all started when he suddenly lost velocity in the middle of last season, the result of shoulder tendinitis. He wrecked his mechanics trying to compensate, got hit and lost confidence. When he gave evidence of the same shortcomings this spring, he landed in Hagerstown to start the season.

"The day I got sent down was a total shock," he said. "I knew I wasn't doing that well, but I guess I didn't think it was that bad. TC didn't think I was on the line. It floored me. You learn that you shouldn't take anything for granted."

He was back in Baltimore within a month, but still struggled for weeks, nibbling, trying to be too fine, suffering for getting caught in too many long counts. After a first inning in Toronto in which he walked a couple of batters, he found John Oates waiting for him in the dugout.

The manager challenged him to have the guts to cut out the walks, to throw hittable pitches instead of ball four. He listened, did it and pitched into the seventh inning. It was a start. Not long after, he threw the first six innings of a no-hitter. And now: "No more free bases," Milacki said. "Now, I come at people. I found out that you mostly come out ahead when you let them hit the ball."

It is easy for him to talk about it now, because it appears his story has a happy ending. His shoulder is fine, and his control is back with a flourish. He has no fewer than five pitches working, two fastballs, a slider, curve and changeup.

"The way he's going now, he's the kind of pitcher I loved to catch," Oates said. "You get a guy with five pitches going, you just alternate them and sit back and watch it happen. Everyone talks about his changeup, but I'm not even sure it's his best pitch right now. I'm not worried about Bobby at all anymore. He looks great."

He has been the Orioles' best starter for a couple of months now, to the point that he might actually fashion a winning record in this mess of a season. The Orioles have always wanted him to be a tough-guy, 200-inning man, a dependable slot in the rotation, and it appears they may get that after all.

Call him one of the few finds in this lost season. It is a long way from Hagerstown in April.

"It's funny, but I think all that trouble ended up helping me in the long run," he said. "It made me hungry for the big leagues again. I don't think there's much question I'm a better pitcher than when I won 14 [games in 1989]. If anything, it should show I can come back from tough times."

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