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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 the 1993 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


Black Jack and his latest battery mate
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.

"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 logical follow-up.

"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 is right.

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 styles."

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 humorous.

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 hero."

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 gregory@baseballevolution.com.

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