Legend Of The Fall

O's Prospect Steve Dalkowski, Who Partially Inspired 'Bull Durham' Threw Hard, Sank Fast

July 21, 2009|By Ron Shelton | Ron Shelton,Special to Tribune Newspapers

Writer-director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump, Tin Cup) spent five years playing infield in the Orioles' minor league system.

He was a little guy, which was shocking at first, with short arms, thick glasses and an easy smile. They called him "Dalko" and guys liked to hang with him and women wanted to take care of him and if he walked into a room in those days he was probably drunk.

He had a record 14 feet long inside the Bakersfield, Calif., police station, all barroom brawls, nothing serious, the cops said. He rode the trucks out at dawn to pick grapes with the migrant farm workers of Kern County - and finally couldn't even hold that job.

This was the legend; this was Steve Dalkowski, the hardest thrower who ever lived.

Many years ago, playing professional baseball in the bush leagues for the Orioles, in the wake of the great players who preceded me - Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Jim Palmer and the rest - the stories passed on by bus drivers and groundskeepers and minor league players and managers were not about the exploits of those Hall of Famers; they were about an obscure pitcher named Dalkowski.

Orioles manager Earl Weaver saw Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax and "Sudden" Sam McDowell and Dick Radatz and said, "Dalko threw harder than all of 'em."

Ted Williams stepped in for one pitch during a spring training game and walked away. "Fastest I ever saw," he said. Teddy Ballgame, who regularly faced Bob Feller and Herb Score and Ryne Duren, wanted no part of Dalko.

In Wilson, N.C., Dalkowski threw a pitch so high and hard that it broke through the narrow welded wire backstop, 50 feet behind home plate and 30 feet up. On a $5 bet he threw a baseball through a wooden fence. On a $10 bet he threw a baseball from the center-field fence toward home plate, over the 40-foot-high backstop screen.

He threw high and tight, and ripped off a guy's ear in Elmira, N.Y. Or was it Appleton, Wis.? Or Stockton, Calif.? When the legend becomes fact, print the legend, it is said in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But with Dalkowski, the mythology and the inarguable facts of baseball statistics are inseparable.

Look at the numbers and weep. In his first two seasons of pro baseball, in the Appalachian and South Atlantic leagues, he averaged 19 strikeouts and 18 walks per nine innings. Playing for the Aberdeen Pheasants in a low Single-A league in South Dakota in 1959, he averaged 20 walks and 15 strikeouts per nine innings. In the Eastern League, he struck out 27, walked 16 and threw an astounding 283 pitches in a game.

Then there was the time at Elmira when he was pulled from the game after throwing 120 pitches - it was still the second inning.

He finished the 1962 season with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings and the following spring made the Orioles' roster, his nearly decade-long journey in the wilderness finally over, it seemed. That's where the retired Williams stepped into - and out of - the box against him. That's where scouts and reporters gathered to buzz about the phenomenon, only to see this explosive arm die in a whimper, fielding a bunt by New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton of all people - the same Bouton who would later write the classic Ball Four.

Dalko picked up the bunt, flipped the toss to first ... and his arm went dead.

From his earliest days as a baseball and football star in New Britain, Conn., Dalkowski's real problem wasn't controlling a baseball, but controlling the bottle.

An awesome story

Playing baseball in Stockton and Bakersfield several years behind Dalko, but increasingly aware of the legend, I would see a figure standing in the dark down the right-field line at old Sam Lynn Park in Oildale, a paper bag in hand. Sometimes he would come to the clubhouse to beg for money.

Our manager, Joe Altobelli, would talk to him, give him some change, then come back and report, "That was Steve Dalkowski." And a clubhouse full of cocky, young testosterone-driven baseball players sat in awe - of the unimaginable gift, the legend, the fall.

Altobelli, a career minor leaguer with some big league experience, was finishing a career in Rochester when Dalko finally made it to Triple A. Dalko was assigned to him as a roommate with the mandate to "help mature the kid."

Joe said he loved Dalko but he never saw him except at the park - he was out drinking all night all the time. But come game time, somehow, Dalko showed up and threw his 100 mph heaters.

This relationship - the veteran who loved a game more than the game loved him, and the God-gifted rookie who was otherwise a lost soul - was the inspiration for Bull Durham, though nothing specific in Altobelli or Dalkowski's character is applicable.

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