Lost phenom finds his way

February 16, 2003|By JOHN EISENBERG | JOHN EISENBERG,SUN STAFF

NEW BRITIAN, Conn. -- People kept expecting Steve Dalkowski to die. When he was a heat-throwing, hell-raising pitcher in the Orioles' minor-league system in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he made a bet with Earl Weaver, one of the many managers who tried to harness his awesome potential. "You won't live to see 33," said Weaver, believing Dalkowski's nightime habits eventually would do him in. When Dalkowski turned 33 in the early 1970s, he called Weaver and said, "Ha, I made it."

In 1994, his head clouded with dementia after years of alcoholic wanderings in California, he came back to live in this factory town where he had been a schoolboy star.

"The word given to me was he wasn't going to last much longer," said his sister, Patti Cain.

As she spoke, Cain stood outside the door of a hotel room. Inside, an ESPN camera crew was interviewing Dalkowski, whose legend as one of the fastest pitchers in history endures.

"Stevie couldn't have done this two years ago, couldn't have gotten his thoughts together and conversed," Cain said.

Dalkowski, 64 and sober since 1994, lives in a double room at the Walnut Hill Care Center, a nursing home just down the hill from the fence-less, grass-less diamond where he began to attract attention in high school.

Dave McNally, Cal Ripken Sr., Bo Belinsky and others from his generation in Orioles history have died, but Dalkowski, the one everyone thought would go first, is safe at home.

"Things are good," he said recently.

His life careened through a succession of extremes before reaching this gentle autumn; he was a 100-mph phenom in the 1950s, a living legend in the 1960s and then a lost cause for more than a quarter century, drifting in and out of trouble. Unable to make a living from his gifted pitching arm, he was reduced to picking fruit.

Yet many who crossed paths with him - from no-nonsense baseball lifers to the friends of his youth - to this day call Dalkowski the most unforgettable character they have known.

"I've been around a long time, and I know baseball stories tend to get embellished over time, but no one was more unbelievable than this guy," said Seattle Mariners general manager Pat Gillick. The former Orioles GM played with Dalkowski on Weaver's Eastern League team in Elmira, N.Y., in the early 1960s.

He had the talent "to string together years like [Sandy] Koufax," Weaver said, but his greatest claim to fame is as screenwriter Ron Shelton's inspiration for Nuke LaLoosh, the hard-living, hard-throwing minor-leaguer in Bull Durham.

But unlike the movie's LaLoosh, who gets called up to the majors, Dalkowski never pitched in "The Show."

He came close in 1963. Heartbreakingly, after he had finally earned a place on the Orioles' staff at the age of 25 and after years in the minor leagues, he injured his arm in the last inning of his last exhibition game that spring.

Forty hard years later, Dalkowski, who had never felt a twinge of pain in his arm, remembered what he felt leaving the mound that day in Miami.

"I thought, `Why me?' " he recalled.

His life today, supported by a Connecticut program for those who can't provide for themselves, is surprisingly normal. He experiences depression, a common side effect of dementia, and is overweight, but his health and outlook are vastly improved.

Dalkowski goes to minor-league baseball games and high school football games with his sister and childhood friends. He spends holidays with family, playing cards and watching TV with his nephews, who can't quite believe their uncle was once the hardest thrower of them all.

"It's like a miracle - his life is pretty good," said Tom Chiappetta, director of media relations for Fox Sports Net, who has spent the past eight years working on a still-in-progress documentary on Dalkowski.

He was supposed to be dead.

But he got up and gave a speech to a packed ballroom two years ago when he was inducted into the New Britain High School Sports Hall of Fame.

And last year, when University of Connecticut baseball coach Andy Baylock asked him to address the squad, he stilled the young players with an emotional plea. "Stevie said, `Please don't be like me. Listen to your coach. Do what he says,' " Baylock said.

In other words, don't drink your life away.

"He's back in his hometown, sober and stable and around people who really care about him," said Baylock, a former teammate. "I saw him recently and he was rattling off the names of people and games even I didn't remember from the 1950s. His baseball memory is amazing."

That's fitting, because no one had a more amazing - or frustrating - baseball life.

Dalkowski was born with the game in his veins in New Britain, a working-class suburb of Hartford, filled with ethnic families and known as the "Hardware City" because of what its factories produced. Steve Dalkowski Sr. worked on a tool-and-die line and played shortstop in an industrial baseball league. His wife also had a factory job. They moved with Steve and Patti into a housing project when Steve was in sixth grade.

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