Fastest with a ball and bottle, Dalkowski threw away career

August 11, 1996|By John Steadman

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. -- Now it's a world that he sees as a nonstop blur, out of register, much the way a photo looks when the camera won't focus. Steve Dalkowski, the most phenomenal talent the Orioles ever had, stands there staring into space, unsure of what's going on around him and not offering a word of protest. Benign. Childlike.

He was never the complaining type, nor did he cause trouble for others -- only himself. Dalkowski was -- and is -- regarded by those who saw him as the fastest-throwing pitcher in baseball history, which covers the sacrosanct territory of Walter Johnson to Nolan Ryan and all the others in between, such as Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver and Bob Feller. Yet he never made the major leagues.

Dalkowski was a tragedy unto himself. In baseball and life. A paradox of pain and frustration. He never scratched the surface of the vast potential he brought with him. Though he failed to touch the stars, his reputation has endured. He had to be seen to be believed, the awesome force he could generate in throwing baseball with his modest physical build (5 feet 11, 170 pounds) and a somewhat unorthodox delivery.

Instead of his deeds being documented in the record books, they are now recounted only by former teammates, ex-managers and sportswriters who saw him. Cal Ripken Sr., who coached and managed the Orioles, said from the perspective of having caught him in the minor leagues, and comparisons with all the other pitchers he's seen, that Dalkowski stands alone.

"He threw harder than anyone," said Ripken, a man not given to exaggeration. "I saw Nolan Ryan from the coaching box and, I know you might think I'm stretching the point, but Ryan didn't compare with Steve. I believe if Steve had pitched in the big leagues, he was capable of striking out 21 batters a game."

Now Dalkowski is at an age, 57, where legendary status befits him, only there's not much that he remembers. The saturation of alcohol, from his early teen-age years and through adulthood, has damaged his brain. When he makes his way through the halls of the Walnut Hill Nursing Home, where he has been a resident for the past 15 months, he is passive from the medication that's administered daily, and seems at peace with himself.

The best thing he has going for him is a sister, Patti, who cares for his needs. They were separated for practically 25 years and she had no idea where he was -- except for an occasional story that told of him in the fields of California's San Joaquin Valley, where he picked grapes, oranges and lemons, dug potatoes and chopped cotton.

Then he'd take his pay, usually $15, and begin to drink it all up when the sun went down. The next morning he was on the flatbed truck with the migrant workers for another day under the scorching sun. He'd carry his wine bottles with him, place them in alternate rows so he'd have an incentive to pick faster. When he moved along, he'd reward himself with another drink of the grape.

The Association of Professional Baseball Players and the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT) have come to his aid in the past, paying for extensive counseling and rehabilitation in hospitals and clinics. "He'd often just walk away," said Patti, "and the organizations trying to help him would have no idea where he was.

"From Aug. 1, 1992, until Dec. 24, he was on the streets of Los Angeles. You wonder how he got along. I just believe the indigent look out for each other. He was found sitting in a laundromat in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve by a wonderful Spanish family, who took him home and eventually found out who he was."

Two of his former teammates, Ray Youngdahl and Frank Zuppo, extended themselves to the limit in efforts to help Dalkowski. "I guess we just hit if off," Dalkowski said. "Both would do anything for you. Tell Boog Powell, John Miller, Lou Sleater and Barry Shetrone I said hi. Also Earl [Weaver] and Pat Gillick."

His drinking is something Dalkowski, in his limited recall, doesn't blame on baseball. He said it started as a kid when he and other boys would go to a neighbor's wine cellar and drink until they got drunk. "I guess I was 12 or 13. It's hard to explain why I drank so much."

Patti remembers growing up in a family in which their father was a heavy drinker, usually inebriated from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon, when he knew he had to sober up for work on Monday. "But after all, we were ethnic, and drinking is almost a way of life," she said. Patti, five years younger than Steve, is everything he isn't -- articulate, smart, organized and a woman of style.

"It makes me content to be with my brother again. I'm so happy when he has a visitor. Often, old friends promise to come, but they forget and he feels let down. I have the peace of mind that he is getting good supervision and nutrition. The state of Connecticut takes cares of him because I don't know how else we could afford it."

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