Throwing footballs helped A's Ontiveros realize snap was back in arm

BASEBALL

July 24, 1994|By TOM KEEGAN

OAKLAND, Calif. -- You attend a Catholic school in South Bend, Ind., and football is in your blood. You have no choice. The sport runs through you like George Steinbrenner used to run through managers.

Christmas comes in September in South Bend. The year is built around the Notre Dame football season more than any city's year built around anything.

For most major-league baseball players, September calls to mind the pennant race.

Steve Ontiveros attended St. Joseph High School in South Bend, right there in the shadow of the Golden Dome.

Ontiveros was retired from baseball in 1992, driven out of the game by an elbow that wouldn't stop hurting. He and wife Cindy were working at their Christian church's youth program in Phoenix. Travis Turner, a quarterback for Nebraska in 1984 and 1985, worked in the same program.

"It was late September, you know how you get during college football season, and I was throwing a football around with Travis," Ontiveros said. "My arm felt pretty good so I decided to pick up a baseball and throw that."

His elbow didn't bite, didn't even bark, so he decided to begin throwing to his next-door neighbor, Brian Harper, then a catcher for the Minnesota Twins. Harper knows a big-league arm when he catches one.

"He said, 'Hey, you're throwing pretty good,' " Ontiveros recounted. "We called Andy MacPhail right there in the back yard."

MacPhail, the Twins' general manager, trusted Harper's word enough to arrange a tryout.

The Twins signed Ontiveros to a Triple-A contract and Ontiveros, who had last pitched for Double-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa., of the Eastern League in 1991, was back in baseball.

"No one else would have touched me because of my history," Ontiveros said. "They all thought my elbow would blow out again."

He went 7-6, 2.87 for Minnesota's Triple-A affiliate in Portland, Ore., which the Twins didn't deem good enough for a promotion to the big leagues. It was, however, good enough to draw the attention of the Seattle Mariners, who traded for Ontiveros in August and brought him to the major leagues, where he had not pitched since throwing 10 innings for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1990.

Despite posting a 1.00 ERA in 14 relief outings for Seattle, the Mariners did not attempt to re-sign him. Only the California Angels and his original team, the Oakland A's, were interested.

"It was an easy decision for me," said Ontiveros, reunited with his first major-league manager, Tony La Russa. "I had been here before and Tony knows how to use me."

Ontiveros, 33, pitched a two-hitter in his last start, a 1-0 loss to the Yankees. He is 5-3 with a 2.72 ERA in 86 innings and has allowed only 91 base runners to get on by hit or walk.

A 10-game winner for Oakland in 1987, Ontiveros last pitched for the A's in 1988. Elbow troubles forced him onto the disabled list eight times since he began his major-league career in 1985 and limited him to 113 1/3 major-league innings from 1988 through this season. He has been released by the A's, Phillies, Detroit Tigers and Mariners.

"It's holding up real well [now]," said Ontiveros. "Haven't had any problems at all."

Out of retirement II

Detroit Tigers designated hitter Kirk Gibson also retired in 1992 after being released by the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 5.

Gibson had a change of heart and signed with Detroit, his first organization, before the 1993 season.

Gibson, 37, who provided one of the most memorable moments in World Series history, has a chance to become the oldest

player in history to produce his first 100-RBI season.

Gibson drove in 97 runs for the Tigers in 1985 and 91 in 1984.

In 1988, the year Gibson homered off Dennis Eckersley to win Game 1 of the World Series, he earned National League Most Valuable Player honors. Even though he drove in only 76 runs that season, he scored 106 and changed the attitude of the team from soft to hard-nosed.

Brotherly love

Michael Strawberry, formerly a Los Angeles cop who retired from the police force, has a smaller territory to watch now, but has no less at stake.

Michael travels with Darryl, and it is his job to see that his younger brother keeps his nose out of trouble.

Michael has been called Darryl's baby sitter, a term he loathes.

"Some people might consider it that, but I'm not a baby sitter," Michael told the San Francisco Examiner. "It's a support thing. We enjoy each other's company. If he walks out of the room and says he's going downstairs, it's not like I put out a radar or have to go with him. We have full confidence in each other. I'm just here to deflect some of those temptations."

Darryl's troubles -- he twice has spent time in substance-abuse clinics -- have brought the brothers closer together.

"We're doing a lot of talking, a lot of communicating," Michael said.

"It's an adjustment period. As kids we were close, but when he was in professional baseball, he was off doing things. This is like a bonding phase for us. It's good, we talk about the bible. It's a blessing. He has a lot of serenity now."

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