A Conversation with Jack McDowell
by Gregory Pratt, BaseballEvolution.com
July 11, 2008
Black Jack McDowell is watering the outfield grass and
killing weeds at the high school he coaches at when I
approach him for our interview, and I instantly recognize
Cy Young Award winner. He still has a tall, thin
frame befitting the "stickfigure" moniker of his band and
childhood, and though his hair is graying, he appears to be
in good shape as we start our conversation. I had worried
about whether or not meeting this living-legend would be a
disappointment, whether I would learn that a hero of mine is
a jerk or a shell of what he once was, but McDowell is
neither unpleasant nor living pitifully off of the past. We
are a couple of minutes into our meeting, just making
general small-talk, when he demonstrates this perfectly.
I had just finished asking a question about his relationship
with former teammates when he looked up at me and said, "I
just want you to know that I am paying attention, but I'm
taking care of these weeds at the same time. Don't think I'm
ignoring you." It was a small gesture, unnecessary insofar
as I had no doubt that he was listening, but those types of
gestures are often the easiest to appreciate. He did not
have to assure me of anything, yet went out of his way to,
and it should be noted that he never once made it difficult
to interview him. My friend Pat Jordan warned me to start
out with easy questions and then go into the controversial
ones so that the player won't feel as if he's under attack
or take a defensive tone from the outset, and near the end
of the interview I shared this advice with McDowell. He
replied that "nothing" I ask could piss him off because
questions are simply made to be answered.
Like numerous reporters before me, I found that Jack
McDowell is a journalist's dream. And after all these years,
he still knows how to throw strikes.
I did not have enough time with Jack McDowell to write a
formal profile of him, nor did I arrive with a template for
an article already written, so this piece is part interview,
part profile, and part transcript of the time I spent in
Encinitas, California with Black Jack McDowell. I have
titled it simply "A Conversation with Jack McDowell" because
I had and have zero interest in playing a "gotcha" game with
him or quoting the man out of context to create controversy.
My vision of the day was one of thoughts and ideas being
exchanged freely and for the record, and I will attempt to
stay true to that by simply sharing the encounter with only
minimal commentary. It will not be presented in a linear
manner as a direct transcript, but nothing will be taken out
of context. There were questions that I asked and dropped
only to follow up on them later, which for purposes of
clarity I am organizing according to relevance.
Confidence of a ballplayer
To start, McDowell tells me that the "weirdest thing about
having been a professional ballplayer is not playing. When
you retire, you're done. At every level. There are no pick-up
games. It's not like football, where you can play two-on-two
if you want. Baseball isn't that kind of sport. You need
eighteen guys." I think about his comment for a moment and
suggest that he could play in Independent League ball. I ask
what he thinks of this.
Black Jack and his latest battery mate
"I could go for a few games and that's it. Then they'd have
to call 9-1-1."
We both laughed at his response but I pressed on with a
"How hard do you throw today, Jack?"
"Oh, I don't know," he laughs, and I'm not sure if he's
reminiscing or simply being modest. "You'd have to ask the
kids I throw to." I think it's a fair answer, but I decide
to re-work the question anyway: What if you started working
out to get into major league shape. How hard do you think
you could get up to?
"Pretty close to my playing days' velocity," he says to me,
and whatever answer I might have expected, that wasn't it. I
did a visible double-take. "Really? You think you could get
back to ninety?"
"Sure, or close to it. Now sustaining it over thirty starts
is a different matter."
Nobody ever said that Jack McDowell lacks confidence. And
for what it's worth, I do not doubt for one moment that he
Black Jack teaching
Nowadays, Jack McDowell spends much of his time coaching,
both with his children and at his high school. I guess that
McDowell is a good coach, from our conversation and the
testimony of some of his ballplayers who testified to that
effect. "Would you still say that if he weren't standing
fifteen feet away?" I asked one of them who had called him a
good coach, and he replied, "Oh yeah. I think he's great." From
what I've seen and heard, I concur. McDowell is a purist,
intense and articulate in his belief that the game of
baseball needs to be played and coached flexibly but given
utmost respect. His answer to my question, "Were you easy to
coach?" indicates this perfectly.
"Probably not, no," he said in response to my query. "I was
hard-headed. And a lot of coaches can only get something out
of certain types of players. A lot of people can't deal with
different mechanics and don't understand that there isn't
just one way to teach. I like to look at things and ask how
many ways we can get out of something or get something to
work. We live in an age of mechanics, statistics,
pitch-counts -- and nobody lets kids develop their own
Which does not mean that he takes a laissez-faire approach
to coaching. Like many former baseball players and analysts,
he talks about the Twins as a great organization of baseball
players. "Look at them. They've got grinders who play
correctly. They hang every year because they've got guys
playing correctly from the majors on down. That's why they
hang every year." And then he brings up a favorite example
of a bad baseball team: the 2006 Detroit Tigers. "Look at
that Tigers team that lost the
World Series. They can't field a bunt and throw it to
first base, so they can't win! The first thing I would change
if I were a pitching coach would be more pitcher's fielding
practice. You do it all through spring training and then you
never do it again, so that from August on, pitchers are
throwing balls away and don't know how to field."
Out of curiosity, I ask him what the first thing he taught
his players was after taking over at his high school. He
says it was how to run the bases, because "I didn't think
they knew how to play the game." I ask him if he ever brings
up his playing days with his ballplayers, and he says, "Not
really. Only sometimes, mostly if they ask, but I'll bring
something up to show when something worked and when
something didn't." He makes it clear that he is not trying
to compete through his children or anyone else's.
"There are a lot of guys out there with 'Little League Dad
Syndrome.' I'm not like that. Teaching is the most important
thing when you're coaching kids. Obviously, I want to win.
You play the game to win. It's in the Little League
rulebook, that the purpose of playing is to score more runs
than the other team."
From here, he started on a riff about how much "babying
there is [in baseball] today. Too much coddling." He
complains that ballplayers aren't what they used to be, that
you aren't allowed to make outs in T-Ball. I laughed out
loud and said, "That may be true, but you know that every
ballplayer says that of his succeeding generation, right?"
"Well, it's true about this one," he says. And when I
read about pitchers like
Erik Bedard refusing to pitch deep into ballgames, I
think he's right, and it starts to get a little less
The Scientific Method with Jack McDowell
I asked McDowell if he had heard about the Japanese pitcher
that gave up
sixty-six runs in two innings, using 250 pitches, and he could
not believe it. I said, "Isn't that crazy? I mean, if you
put a guy out there to pitch batting practice with a defense
behind him would he give up that many runs?" He said no.
"That's a big lesson I try to teach my kids. It's a big
lesson for hitters and pitchers. I try to get them to hit
doubles by throwing it down the middle and you'll see guys
pop balls up or ground them into the ground. Pitchers don't
have to be perfect every time." (I suppose that the converse
is also true: hitters often have to be perfect, and to start
an at-bat the pitcher has an upper-hand, although that is my
commentary and not explicitly his).
I used the Japanese pitcher's pitch count as a starting
point for a discussion of his own career. McDowell was known
as a workhorse starting pitcher who routinely threw complete
games in an age where that was becoming more and more rare,
so I asked him if he regrets throwing as many innings as he
did as young as he did, and I asked whether or not he wishes
he had pitched less innings to potentially save his career.
He is emphatic, and I have no doubt he means his answer:
"Absolutely not." He paused. "I wish they'd had a four-man
rotation when I was a pitcher." But McDowell didn't simply
want the ball each fourth game for his own satisfaction: he
wanted it so that his team could have a better chance to win
rather than having to rely on some AAAA pitcher for the
fifth starter as most every team has to do through a full
season. "You see that with every team nowadays."
From there we started to talk about complete games, about
pitchers who want to pitch deep into the ballgame. He starts
to talk about pitch counts, and says that they are the "most
overblown crock of crap, unbelievable and sickening."
Showing a knack for sound modern journalism, he admonishes me
to write that down word-for-word. "It's a good quote!" And
then he makes a passionate argument decrying the lack of
science in dealings with pitchers today.
"The pitch count is accepted as a science. But it's the
furthest thing from science. When you think of science, you
think of testing something against other things, of taking
variables and controlling them. There's no way you can
blanket '100' as a pitch count for everyone." We start to
talk about his own players, and I ask if he ever has parents
complain about pitch counts. He talks about how some parents
hover over him counting each throw, and how he always tells
them that the kid is eighteen years old and nothing will
happen to him if he goes an extra inning. "The hitters will
tell us when he's going to come out."
As always happens when discussion turns to workhorses and
starting pitchers in today's game, my mind turns to
Roy Halladay, and I say to McDowell, "Roy Halladay
must be your hero."
His answer is perfect: "Whoever is letting him pitch is my
Continue reading to Exploited, not appreciated.
Gregory Pratt is a political science and history double-major at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His political commentary can be found at the Office of the Independent Blogger, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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