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Three major league scouts were talking over lunch, in the cafeteria of the Orioles' spring training stadium in Sarasota, Fla., in early March. An old, fat guy with a drinker's blotchy complexion. A tall man as thin as a blade, with a hatchet face. A younger man with an unreal tanning-salon glow. I sat down across from them with my lunch. They lowered their voices now, in that conspiratorial way of men who assume that other, lesser people -- fans and sportswriters -- are just dying to be privy to their expertise.
I interrupted them with a question. "Hey, you guys should know," I said. "Why don't pitchers throw the big overhand curveball anymore?" All three looked at me in disbelief. He spoke to us! The nerve! I flapped my press badge at them and said, "I'm doing a story on the big overhand curveball."
The drinker dismissed me with a gruff, "Nobody throws it anymore." They went back to their muffled conversation.
I interrupted them again, with my disdain now. "I know that! That's why I'm writing this f---ing story."
Their conversation froze, their mouths still open. Finally the drinker grumbled, "Too hard to throw."
"Really?" I said. "I used to throw it in 1959, when I was at County Stadium with Warren Spahn." (I omitted the minor detail that I was only there for two days, to sign my contract with the Braves, after which they sent me packing to the flat prairie of McCook, Neb., to start my professional career at 18, in the Nebraska State League -- Class D Rookie, lowest of the low minor leagues.)
They perked up a bit now. Curious. Warren Spahn? The tanning-salon guy said, "Umpires don't like to call it."
The hatchet face said, "Teams discourage it."
The drinker said, "Too hard to throw for a strike."
I said, "I saw Herb Score throw it for a strike one day in 1956, when he struck out a ton of Yankees. He had the best curve I ever saw in person."
The drinker said, "No, Koufax's was better."
"The best ever?" I said.
The drinker thought for a bit and then said, "One of the best ever. Camilo Pascual had the best curveball ever."
The tanning-salon guy was grinning to himself, as if seeing an image in his mind's eye. He shook his head, still grinning, and said, "Man, hitters really hate -- I mean hate -- to face a pitcher with a big overhand curveball."
* * *
My manager in McCook, in 1959, was a profane, irascible, minor league lifer named Bill Steineke. Bald, like Don Rickles, with a body like a soiled beach ball. He chewed tobacco, the juice bubbling on his lips, dribbling down his chin, leaving little bird tracks all the way down his uniform shirt to his big belly. Before every game, when the young umpires walked to home plate, Old Bill would stand on the dugout top step and call out in a falsetto voice, "It's about time, girls. You're late. Putting on your makeup?" Steineke tormented everyone: umpires, opposing players, even his own players. One night, in the midst of a close game, he turned to us in the dugout and, apropos of nothing, began lecturing us on the finer points of a particular sexual act, reddening our faces in profound embarrassment. He ended the lecture with his dismissive barb, "And then maybe you'll be men instead of boys."
Steineke was most devastating of all, though, when opposing batters faced one of his young, hard-throwing pitchers, like Paul Chenger, Bruce Brubaker and me. Whenever we got two strikes on a batter, we heard Bill's gruff voice, no falsetto now, split the night air: "Give this girl the Unfair One, Patty. Send him back to the farm." So I threw the Unfair One. The ball approached the plate the size of a grapefruit. The batter's eyes opened wide, as he began his vicious swing; he could see the ball meeting the bat on the sweet spot, then rocketing deep into the night over the centerfield fence. But his bat never did meet the ball. His bat made a whooshing sound as it ruffled the night air, and he fell to one knee -- strike three -- as that ball dropped into hell.
The fans laughed at the batter as he slunk back to the dugout, where he was greeted with his own teammates' laughter and derision. Steineke shouted toward the opposing team's bench, "That's all right, Sonny. It ain't over for you yet. You still got time to call Daddy, tell him you'll be home in time for bailing hay, because, Goddamn, Daddy, I ain't never gonna be able to hit that f---ing pitch."
In those days, every hard-throwing pitcher in the Braves' organization had that big, overhand curveball -- the BOC -- and if they didn't have one when they signed, the first thing the coaches did was teach it to them. You only needed two pitches in those days: the high, hard one at a batter's letters, and the BOC, which started at those letters before dropping into hell. That's all you needed, but you needed them both. No matter how hard you threw that high fastball -- 98, 99, 100 -- by the seventh inning, batters would catch up to it. Eventually, even a 100-mph fastball was a hitter's pitch, if you didn't also have the Unfair One. Yet the Unfair One could exist and thrive without the high heater. The Unfair One needed only a decent fastball, 88 mph, thrown at eye level, to set up the BOC. Assuming of course, that your BOC was the Unfair One. A lot of them weren't.
There were actually four versions of the BOC, and only three of them were Unfair. Bruce Brubaker, a big, slow-moving country boy from the woods of Pennsylvania, threw a curve that left his hand as straight as a string. Halfway to the plate, it suddenly rose up like a leaping dolphin in a placid sea. The batter, grinning, wide-eyed, began swinging at that fat pitch at the precise moment that it changed direction in mid-air and plunged back into the sea. We used to say that Brubaker's curveball had a hump in it, like a camel, a very rare pitch. Batters didn't just miss it, they missed it by feet.
Paul Chenger was a tightly muscled (and tightly strung) little bulldog of a pitcher. He threw everything hard. His high-90s fastball and low-90s curveball looked identical as they approached the plate, until the batter began his swing. It was then that Chenger's vicious curveball ripped straight down, slamming so hard into the catcher's glove that it sounded like a gunshot. It was a merciless, angry curveball, which today might be called a hard, down-breaking slider.
My BOC was an off-speed pitch. It had a dizzyingly deceptive, downward spin that the batter couldn't differentiate from a fastball's upward spin, which was the point. That illusory spin made it look like a half-assed fastball in the high 70s, a hitter's pitch. Even as the batter began his swing, he still thought it was a fastball, because the ball never discernibly broke down. It just vanished -- poof! -- like a magician's rabbit. It was there, and then it wasn't, until it soundlessly reappeared in the catcher's glove at his shoe tops. Batters blinked, slack-jawed, and shook their heads at this prestidigitation.
The fourth BOC was the most common, and it had its own magic. It was a lazy, psychedelic pitch, fit for the Woodstock generation. It approached the plate in a big arc, like a Peter Maxx rainbow, complete with blinking neon signs that read, "Hit me! Hit me! Oh, puh-leeze, hit me!" It had no definable break, as if too stoned to exert the effort to change direction. It just rolled toward the plate in a lazy arc and then descended to earth. That Peter Maxx curveball never sent farm boy hitters home to bail hay.
The Unfair One, on the other hand, required hard work, perseverance, dedication. You had to have a monumental will to throw it, an unshakable belief that you could make that white sphere bend to your will, goddamn it.
* * *
In early March, I drove down to Orlando, Fla., on an expedition to discover how, why and when the Unfair One became extinct. Who killed it? What killed it?
I went into the Braves clubhouse looking for Roger McDowell, the Braves' eccentric pitching coach. One of the coaches said, "He's pedaling his bicycle around the stadium." Of course. I walked down the runway toward the Rays' clubhouse, the Braves' opponent for this afternoon's game, and found Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey dressing at his locker. I asked if he had a few minutes to talk about the BOC.
"Why me?" he asked. "I haven't taught anyone up here the overhand curve."
"That's one of the reasons I'm here. It seems to be extinct."
"A few guys had it. Jamie Shields, Alex Cobb. You could hear the sizzle on Cobb's curve. It had bite."
When he finished dressing, we went out to the dugout in the morning sun. I sat, and he stood before me, pacing as he spoke. Hickey is an unsmiling, lean-muscled man, with the coiled intensity of someone who does not suffer fools. Why hasn't he taught the BOC? "Because it's easier to learn than to teach," he said. "It's a delivery-oriented pitch." I told Hickey the BOC was the toughest pitch to hit when thrown properly. He said, "Maybe, but the strike zone doesn't permit it anymore. You can't rely on it for a strike when you're behind in the count. Today, the smaller breaking balls are popular, because it's easier to throw them in a smaller strike zone."
He was referring to the three most popular breaking pitches of the last 25 years: slider, cutter and splitter. They're all "slip pitches" that are versions of a fastball, which is why they're so much easier to teach than a curve. They're basically two-step pitches: Grip the ball a certain way, and throw a fastball. A curveball, on the other hand, encompasses every aspect of a pitcher's delivery: grip on the ball, stance on the rubber, arm angle, shoulder level, arm action, wrist action, elbow action, stride, follow through.
A pitcher grips a slider like a four-seam fastball, but instead of his first two fingers cutting through the center of the ball, they are moved slightly off-center. Then the pitcher locks his wrist and throws a fastball -- the same way a quarterback throws a football. The ball approaches the plate like a fastball, but it breaks hard and late from right to left (for a righty pitcher). The main advantage of a slider is that it's thrown hard enough to convince the batter that the pitch is a fastball, until it's too late, when the batter has committed his swing to a spot that the ball has just darted away from. The best sliders are those that break when they're closest to the plate, and they don't have to break much.
But the slider has its disadvantages, too, which was why in the 1950s it was called a "nickel curve" -- that's all it was worth compared to a real curve: five cents on the dollar. It required more pinpoint control than a curve. If it broke over the plate, it was a hitter's pitch; it had to be thrown down the middle, so that it broke off the plate. It had another problem, too. A slider had a particular spin so that the ball, spinning off-center, showed a white dot in the middle of it, which batters could see. Finally, a slider had the same disadvantage shared by all right-to-left breaking pitches: The batter's bat was 36 inches long, which gave him a lot of inches to make contact with the pitch. On the other hand, the batter's bat was only four inches wide, with less than an inch of that width in its sweet spot. An overhand curveball forces the batter to hit a ball that seems to break downward by more than a foot, using only one inch of his bat.
The cutter has become popular in the last 10 years or so, thanks to Mariano Rivera. But it's still only a "nickel slider," a rip-off of a pitch that itself was a rip-off of another pitch. Most so-called cutters these days are really just smaller sliders. They're easy to throw. The pitcher grips the ball and throws it just like his four-seam fastball, with one difference: Instead of positioning his thumb directly under his index finger, the pitcher moves his thumb an inch or so to his right, directly under his middle finger. Now, instead of his first two fingers putting equal amounts of pressure on the ball, he puts more pressure on his middle finger than on his index, which causes the ball to move right-to-left less visibly. It's meant to look like a fastball that moves just a little as it approaches the plate, without an appreciable break like the slider. It has the same disadvantages as a slider: If it's thrown too much over the plate, it's just a hittable, half-assed fastball.
A splitter is a much more effective pitch than the slider and cutter. It's basically a fastball that the pitcher grips with his first two fingers spread in a V, causing the ball to approach the plate and then sink. It can be devastating, as shown by the Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka, as long as the pitcher keeps it low and the batter swings. If the batter doesn't swing, the pitch is almost always called a ball.
Before I left, I asked Hickey who had the best overhand curveball he'd ever seen. Without hesitation he said, "Nolan Ryan." I asked him if he'd ever seen Sandy Koufax pitch. He said, "Koufax couldn't pitch today the way he did [50 years ago], because of the strike zone." He added, "There's hardly a fastball-curveball pitcher in the game today. Guys got away from the curve, because it's too hard to maintain a slider and a curve."
There's a longtime axiom in baseball that a slider ruins a pitcher's curveball. They are diametrically opposed pitches, a stiff-wrist slider and a loose-wrist curveball. When a curveball pitcher adds a slider to his repertoire, pretty soon he won't have either. He'll have a slurve. A slurve is a big, fat, right-to-left breaking pitch that loses the best qualities of both pitches. It's slower than a slider and begins to reveal itself too soon, and it has a less definable break than a curveball. The greatest breaking pitches are the ones that break late, sharp, down and a lot.
I went back to the Braves clubhouse and waited for McDowell to come back from his bike ride. Soon I saw him pedaling down the long runway. He said he'd meet me in the dugout after he'd shaved. (Fair enough; he did look like a homeless man even in his Braves uniform.) During his playing career, he had a reputation for being slightly unhinged. He once appeared in the dugout with his pants over his head and his shoes on his hands, the precursor of Kris Kross.
I waited for McDowell in the dugout but didn't expect him to show. Ten minutes passed. How long does it take a man to shave? (I really don't know, since I've had a beard since 1979.) But he finally did appear, all cologned up with his pink face. I asked him what happened to the BOC, expecting the same answer I got from Hickey and would get from other coaches during my Florida sojourn.
"The height of the mound was lowered in 1968," he said. "From 16 inches to 10. That hurt the overhand curveball. Pitchers like Spahn, Marichal and Feller couldn't throw with that stand-up-tall motion, high leg kick and straight-overhand arm motion."
Most great overhand curveball pitchers threw with what's called a "tall and fall" motion. They stand straight up on the rubber and begin their motion, trying to get the ball as high over the head as possible. Then, as they fall down off a high mound, their arm is accelerating at such a high angle that it greatly contributes to the curve's straight-down break.
Some great pitchers, like Tom Seaver, had a "drop and drive" motion. Seaver dropped his body low to the ground, his right knee scraping the dirt, so that he could keep his 98-mph fastball low, but that motion was counterproductive for an overhand curve. Seaver once told me that he never really had a good curveball, because he "never understood the concept of it." When I was warming up one day in the minors on a flat bullpen mound, I felt like I was throwing the curve uphill, the ball spinning up into a batter's eyes without breaking down much at all.
"But the lowering of the mound," McDowell said, "didn't affect breaking pitches that went right-to-left. That's when sliders started to become popular. Besides, an overhand curve that doesn't go straight down, but goes down and away from a batter, is an easier pitch for a batter to recognize." When an overhand curve approaches the plate at the batter's letters and then begins going down, the batter essentially is looking down at the ball. He can't judge how far down it will drop from his eye level. But if it also moves right to left, a batter can see that break and adjust his swing.
Umpires hate the BOC for the same reason batters do. Looking down on it as it drops, they can't tell how far it will break. Umpires don't like to be embarrassed in front of 30,000 fans. The perfect overhand curve approaches the plate at the batter's letters and then begins to drop, crossing the plate at the batter's knees -- a strike -- but once it's caught by the catcher at his shoe tops, it looks like a ball to everyone in the stadium. It should be almost in the dirt by the time it gets to the catcher, which is the reason why a lot of catchers, too, hate to call for the BOC with runners on base. They don't want to be embarrassed either, when the batter swings and misses a curve that eventually bounces in the dirt and scoots past the catcher, who then has to chase it to the backstop.
I asked McDowell if he ever had that BOC. He said no, he didn't have that overhand arm motion. "Besides, I didn't start throwing it early enough," he said. "A guy either has a curve or doesn't, like a fastball. It's too hard to teach. You need a complex thought process with a curve, more than you do with other breaking balls. A curve requires many more things to do when throwing it."
* * *
A BOC pitcher stands straight up on the rubber before a pitch. He grips the ball in his glove at the widest distance between the stitches. He puts his second finger against the stitches and his forefinger tight against his second finger. He puts his thumb underneath his two fingers, close against the bottom stitches. Unlike a fastball, which he holds more loosely, the curveball pitcher presses the ball into his hand more firmly, so that there is no space between the ball and the web of his palm. Now he begins his motion, still standing tall. He raises his left leg high and pushes off the rubber with his right leg. When the ball in his hand reaches the side of his head, his arm should be held high over his head, aiming at the sky, while at the same time his left shoulder is pulled down, almost perpendicular to the dirt.
At this point, the pitcher's wrist can be in one of two positions. It can be turned, his top two fingers on the ball aimed at his head, or not turned, his two top fingers aimed straight at the plate (as if throwing a fastball). The "turned" position would allow him to throw a slower, bigger-breaking curve, less sharp, like Jim Palmer's. If his fingers are still aimed at the plate, in "not turned" position, he can throw a much sharper breaking curve, with that camel's hump in it.
If he's throwing the big, slow, breaking curve, the pitcher's arm would continue toward the plate with his wrist turned, so that his first two fingers are pointing toward first base. At the precise moment when the ball is visible to his eyes, to the right of his head, the pitcher yanks the ball down with a twist of his wrist, the downward pressure of his two fingers on top of the stitches and the upward pressure of his thumb on the bottom stitches. At the same time, the pitcher yanks his arm down from his elbow to his wrist, all of which imparts a fierce, downward spin on the ball. When the pitcher follows through with that downward-yanking motion, his arm pulls back from the plate toward his left hip. Thus, unlike any other pitch in baseball, the pitcher has thrown the ball with two distinct arm motions -- one with his arm flinging towards the plate, and the other pulling away from the plate -- in one pitch.
If the pitcher is throwing a camel's-hump curveball, he must perform a much more precise and difficult twist of his wrist. Again, when the ball is alongside his head, his first two fingers should be facing the batter as if throwing a fastball. Then, as the ball moves toward the batter, when it is first visible to the pitcher above and to the right of his head, he has to know that precise point above and in front of his eyes where he turns that fastball into a curve. How does he know where that point is? That's the mystery, the reason this pitch is so difficult to throw. The big, slower curve is always a curve, from the moment it passes the pitcher's head. But the camel's-hump curve does not begin to be a curve until it appears at a precise point in front of his eyes. At that point, with his fingers still facing the plate, the pitcher rotates his first two fingers up and over the top of the ball, while at the same time twisting his wrist down and yanking down his elbow. It's a vicious arm motion, which is why so many coaches tell young pitchers not to throw a curve until they're in their late teens. (This is an old baseball fallacy. The entire arm motion of either curveball is a natural motion.)
Once released properly, either curveball will spin downward so furiously that the batter will not be able to differentiate it from an upward-spinning, four-seam fastball, until it's too late. Unless of course, that batter is Ted Williams.
Williams came to the Braves' training camp in 1960, when I was there as a pitching prospect. I wandered over to home plate, where he was talking to our minor league hitters, to see what he had to say. All the hitters surrounded him as he stood at bat, facing the mound. I heard him say, "Now when the ball leaves the pitcher's hand, and you pick up the downward spin on it, you'll know it's a curve, so stay back on it until it begins its break." All the hitters nodded at this advice, as if it couldn't be clearer. Then, when Williams left, I heard the hitters mumbling, "Who the f--- can see the spin on a curveball?" Well, Ted Williams, a former jet fighter pilot with 20/10 vision, could. He could read the label on a spinning 78-rpm record.
* * *
The next morning, I went back to the Braves complex to talk to Derek Lilliquist, the pitching coach of the Cardinals, who were playing Atlanta that afternoon. The Cards' clubhouse was closed to the press, so I waited in the runway as the players drifted out one by one. I didn't know what Lilliquist looked like. I knew he'd been a No. 1 draft choice of the Braves in 1987, and unlike most of the coaches I talked to -- career minor leaguers -- he'd spent significant time in the majors. He pitched for five teams over eight seasons, mostly as a reliever, finishing with a 4.13 career ERA.
A fat, disheveled grump with a Van Dyke beard emerged from the Cardinals clubhouse. "Do you know if Lilliquist is in the clubhouse?" I asked. He continued walking toward the dugout. "Who wants to know?" he grumbled. I told him my name. He did not salute. "What do ya want him for?" he asked. I told him. He said, "Awright, follow me." We walked through the narrow runway until we saw sunlight and came out into the dugout. He sat on the dugout bench and said, "What do ya wanna know?"
I asked him why no one threw the BOC anymore. He said, "It's the hardest pitch for young pitchers to trust, because of its slow speed. They feel safer with sliders or cutters, because they're only a few miles slower than a fastball. With the curve, they have to make the decision that they're gonna throw a pitch that's 15 or more mph slower than a fastball." (That was my curveball and Brubaker's, but not Chengers'.)
Lilliquist went on to say that when young pitchers worry about the curve's slow speed, it's more of a problem in their heads than in reality. Even a slow curve will have such excessive spin that it will appear to be a fastball. "If a pitcher throws a hard fastball," said Lilliquist, "then a batter has to be prepared to swing at anything that comes out of his hand. When it's a curve with excessive spin, the pitch looks like a mistake fastball that disappears at the end."
In order for pitchers to disguise their curve, which comes out of their hands into the batter's eyes, Lilliquist said, "They have to disguise it like Wainwright does." Adam Wainwright, the Cards' ace, has one of the best BOCs in the game today. "Wainwright throws his fastball in their eyes, then the curve. He has three of them. Hard, slower, then a big, loopy one. Oh, he's fun to watch. I've seen him throw one at a batter's head and watched the batter's knees buckle and head pull away, as the pitch breaks right over the plate at his knees."
I asked Lilliquist if catchers shy away from calling for the curve with runners on base. He said, "Not our catcher. He'll call for it in any situation." Of course, his catcher happens to be Yadier Molina, one of the best in the game.
Before I left, I asked Lilliquist which pitcher had the best curveball he ever saw. Without hesitation he said, "Rick Ankiel," the young Cardinals pitcher who later forgot how to pitch and switched to the outfield. "Ankiel's curve had so much torque and revolutions that I could hear it snap out of his fingers."
* * *
Jim Palmer, the Orioles' Hall of Fame righty, told me, "I figured out the curveball in my backyard when I was a kid." Similarly, Baltimore's present-day ace, Chris Tillman, told me, "I dabbled with a curve when I was 10, but my coach told me not to throw it until I was 15, 'cause it would hurt my arm." (Again, this is a misconception. A curveball's arm motion is the most stress-free and natural arm motion of any pitch. It's the fastball and slider that hurt a pitcher's arm, because they are thrown with a vicious, traumatic, forward extension, which exerts a great strain on his shoulder and arm.)
Palmer had one of the last high-kicking, straight-overhand pitching motions that was perfect for the BOC. His curve was slow and had one of the biggest breaks ever seen, seemingly two feet downward, and he had the arrogance to go with it. He'd throw his 95-mph fastball at a batter's letters, then follow it with a 68-mph curve that looked like it dropped two feet. He said that a lot of pitchers had difficulty throwing that curve for a strike, "but I never did. I threw it for a strike whenever I wanted to."
The only recent pitcher who has resembled Palmer is lefty Barry Zito. When he won the Cy Young Award with Oakland in 2002, he had the same high kick and huge breaking curve as Palmer. But somewhere between Oakland and San Francisco, Zito lost his confidence in the BOC. With the Giants, he'd either bounce it in the dirt, five feet in front of the plate, or fling it into a batter's eyes. Soon he abandoned his best pitch and tried to re-invent himself as a changeup-cutter pitcher. By then, he had the slowest fastball of any starting pitcher in the game, 84.6 mph. With no heater to set up his off-speed pitch, his numbers tanked.
Bert Blyleven, another Hall of Fame pitcher from Palmer's era, had the same attitude as Palmer toward his BOC. He started throwing it as a kid in his backyard. "I would just throw it and throw it until I developed it, and it became my curveball. And I could throw it over at any time, any count." One spring training in the '70s, I stood behind Blyleven and watched him throw off a warm-up mound. It was only the second time in my life I had ever seen, in person, a BOC with that camel's hump in it, like Bruce Brubaker's. I was amazed at how Blyleven's curve seemed to change direction not once, but twice on its way to the plate.
As Hickey said, the greatest BOC of the last 50 years belonged to Nolan Ryan. It was a frightening pitch. A mean, hard, down-breaking curve that broke as much as Palmer's big, slow curveball. That curve, coupled with his 100-mph fastball, made Nolan Ryan one of the most feared pitchers in baseball for more than 25 years. One day, after his retirement from the game, Carlton Fisk, hardnosed catcher for the Red Sox and White Sox, told me why. We were seated at a Hooters restaurant outside of Chicago, in the dead of winter. The waitress fluttered around us, recognizing the ruggedly handsome Fisk, but he had no interest in her. He was lost in a moment from his memory, when he faced Ryan.
"I never got even a loud foul ball off him for years," Fisk said. "My knees used to shake when I faced Nolan." Why? "Put yourself in my shoes at bat," he said. Fisk stood up from his seat and assumed his hitting stance, with an imaginary bat. The other diners looked up from their chicken wings. Fisk said, "So you're me, and Ryan throws a pitch at your head. What do you do?" I shrugged. He said, "If it's a curve, and you dive away from it and it breaks over the plate, you look like a coward." He stood at bat, at Hooters, waiting for Ryan's pitch, his knees shaking. "But if you don't pull away from it, and it's a fastball, you're a dead man. And you've only got a split second to make that decision."
He shook his head. "Well, this time, I finally did get a hit off Ryan. A single. I'm standing at first base, thrilled with myself, when Ryan starts firing the ball to the first baseman to pick me off." I asked Fisk, why would Ryan do that? "You're a catcher, you're not gonna steal." Fisk smiled at me and said, "He knew that. He was trying to hit me, he was so pissed off." Ryan, who may have had the greatest fastball-curveball combination in the history of the game, was a freak of nature.
* * *
The next morning, I drove across the state to the Orioles' spring training facility in Sarasota. The stadium was a replica of Camden Yards, only in miniature. I went into the clubhouse and found Scotty McGregor, one of the Orioles' three pitching coaches. I first met McGregor 38 years ago, when he was a skinny, sandy-haired, pink-faced rookie with the Yankees, at spring training in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. A smooth, stylish southpaw, he had been the Yankees' first-round, 14th-overall pick in the 1972 draft. They thought he'd be the next Whitey Ford, but then they traded him to the O's when he was 22. He spent his entire career in Baltimore, winning 138 games in 10 seasons -- a nice career, but not indicative of the kind of crafty, hardnosed pitcher he was. To quote the movie True Confessions, he looked like a choirboy, but he had the guts of a burglar.
This day, at 60, with his sandy-colored hair flecked with silver and his skin still Irish pink, McGregor didn't look much older than when I first met him. He said he started experimenting with the BOC when he was eight and began throwing it in Little League. "Nobody taught me it," he said, just as the others had. "It's a God-given pitch. It's hard to teach if a guy doesn't have a feel for it. Everything has to go right for it. You can't throw it too hard or too soft. It's tough to throw in the early innings, before the ball gets scuffed up." He shook his head in wonder. "It's such a feel pitch."
I once asked Justin Verlander about his BOC, on a golf course in Orlando in the winter. Verlander has Paul Chenger's BOC, a violent, angry, down-breaking pitch that's a borderline slider. I asked Verlander to explain the thought process behind his curve. "I don't think about it," he said. "I just throw it." What if his curve deserted him -- did he think about it then? "No. I go to the bullpen and throw it and throw it until I get the feel back." It seems that all the great BOC pitchers are something like French Impressionists, with an eye for color and a feel for brush stroke. Other artists paint by numbers. They paint by instinct.
McGregor said, "It's such a lost pitch today. But it's the real deal. When I first came up with the O's, I threw a 91-92 mph fastball and a 78-mph curve. Earl Weaver told me it wasn't slow enough. It took me a while to get it down to the high 60s. But it's always fickle if you can't throw it for a strike. Umps don't like it, and today, they don't see it much. A pitcher has to convince an ump right away that he can throw it for a strike. Maybe not your nasty one, but your strike curve. Once the ump starts calling it a strike, the batters are thinking, Oh, man. He can throw it over. Now we've got to think about it."
McGregor said that it didn't matter how slow his BOC was, as long as it spun fast, so that it looked faster to batters than it really was. The one drawback to a fast-spinning curve, he said, was that "with all its downspin, if a batter hits it, that sonuvabitch flies out of the park. If he hits a fastball's backspin, he'll pound the ball into the ground."
I produced a baseball, and McGregor showed me how he used to grip it. "When you throw it," he said, "it's like you're wrapping your arm around a barrel."
The Orioles' other two pitching coaches, Dom Chiti and Dave Wallace, came over and joined in. Both had been career minor leaguers, like most pitching coaches. (Wallace actually had a few sips of coffee in the bigs, 14 innings.) Chiti is a big, sandy-haired, soft-spoken man. Wallace is smaller, with big eyeglasses. He looks like the manager of a small-town hardware store.
"I heard guys here used to throw the curve," Chiti said, "but the team took it away from them. It's an old-school pitch that's coming back. Hitters see a big curve like Wainwright's and say, Damn, he's got a curve."
"Kids today prefer a slider," said Wallace. "It's easier to pick up. But if they don't throw it to the right spot, it's just a bad fastball. Even if a pitcher makes a mistake with a curve, he has a better chance of getting away with it, because it's 20 mph slower than a fastball." Essentially, a curveball is two pitches in one: a breaking ball and a changeup.
"If a young pitcher's gonna throw a curveball, he has to really commit to it," said Chiti. It's like getting married to a particularly demanding spouse, I suggested. They smiled.
"Youngsters who throw the big overhand curve have a certain mentality," said Wallace. "Most curveballers have been throwing the pitch all their lives, but if you ask them, they'll say they don't know how or why. Most of them go to college, where their coach takes the curve away from them. By the time they reach the big leagues, they're throwing sliders. Few of them can ever get their curve back by that time."
The ones who don't abandon the curveball are a rarity today, Wallace said -- almost as if curveball pitchers belong "to a different generation." Curveballs are quaint, nostalgic, like rotary phones and big, old, mahogany radios that the family gathered around to listen to baseball games. "Today's kids want instant gratification, results now. They don't want to spend a lot of time learning a curve when they can pick up a slider in a few hours."
A few young pitchers today have decided to go with the BOC as their compliment to the fastball: Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals, Matt Harvey of the Mets, Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, Corey Kluber of the Indians, Wainright and Verlander. Harvey and Verlander have that hard, mean, down-breaking slider/curve. Kershaw and Wainwright have the camel's-hump curve. Strasburg has a nice ripple to his curve, but it moves too much right-to-left rather than straight down. The absolute best BOC in baseball today belongs to Kluber. His curveball starts off level with the batter's bellybutton, maintaining a straight-line trajectory until just before it reaches the plate. Then it drops straight down, with no lateral movement, like a Mallard shot on the wing. Kluber's is the ultimate, classic BOC. I can just hear my old manager Steineke, if he was alive now, sitting on the bench watching Kluber pitch, cackling with demonic glee: "Oh, Lordy, Lordy, boy -- ain't that the f---ing Unfair One."
The following morning, I drove back east to the Tigers' spring camp, in Lakeland, and found my way into the coaches' dressing room. I called out, "I'm looking for Jeff Jones." A big, smiling man with a moustache came over to me. "I'm Jeff Jones," he said, the Tigers pitching coach. I told him what I was doing and asked if I could have some of his time. He said, "Sure, in a few minutes. I'll meet you outside." I went outside and watched the visiting Miami Marlins doing their calisthenics.
Jones appeared a few minutes later, with his amiable smile, and said, "What do you need?" I told him I was doing a story on the extinction of the BOC. He said, "It's coming back with some younger kids. Most of them have it by the time they get here. Guys who don't [already have it] and try to pick it up in the big leagues get frustrated, so they go back to the slider. It's easier to throw for a strike." He grinned. "Hitters like that. They'd rather see a slider than a curve any day. They realize it's the hardest pitch to hit."
Who had the best curve he ever saw? "Nolan Ryan," he said. What about Score and Koufax? "I never saw them throw. But you know who has? Al Kaline. He's in the clubhouse."
I grew up watching Kaline roam right field for the Tigers on TV. He was a graceful fielder with a cannon for an arm and a quick bat, one of those all-around players who could field flawlessly and hit .300 with 20 home runs every year. I found him sitting at a card table in the clubhouse. He had short, gray hair in his 80s, but he still looked as trim as in his playing days, as if he could pick up a bat at any moment and go 3 for-4 off one of these young pitchers. I introduced myself, told him what I was doing and asked if he could talk to me outside.
"Sure," he said, and followed me out. We stood along the rightfield fence and talked about the curveball pitchers he'd faced. Koufax, Score, Pascual. He said that since he'd played in the American League, he'd only seen Koufax's curve a few times, but he remembered it as one of the best he ever saw. (When Koufax struck out 15 Yankees in the 1963 World Series, Yogi Berra said, "I can see how he won 25 games [that year]. What I don't understand is how he lost five.")
"Score had a great curveball, but I could see it better, because he was a lefty, and I was a righty hitter," said Kaline. "Now, Camilo Pascual, he had the best curveball I ever saw. You could hear it." It sounded like ripping silk. Ted Williams said that Pascual "had the most feared curveball in the American League for 18 years," but he played out his career with some of the worst teams in baseball. He could have been a Hall of Famer if he had pitched for merely decent teams.
"Pascual's curveball was big, sharp and fast," said Kaline. "Most players couldn't hit it. But I had some success with him, because I was a wrist hitter. I could stay back longer on his curve, until I could see it breaking." Kaline said Pascual's curveball had a hump in it. "It went up before it went down. But if you really concentrated on it, you could see it go up first, before it came down, and you knew what it was."
Kaline said that the BOC went out of favor as the strike zone got smaller. "Today, a pitch above the waist is a ball," he said. "In my day, a pitch at the armpits was a strike." This allowed pitchers to set up their BOC with a high-fastball strike and then throw the BOC at the same eye level. Now, if a pitcher wants to throw the high heater to set up his BOC, he probably will end up throwing the BOC behind in the count, which is tricky, because the umpires don't like to call the BOC as a strike anymore, either. "That curveball used to be a strike, but now it's caught as a ball," said Kaline.
Then Kaline smiled. Not at me, but at something he saw in his mind's eye, from years ago. "Hitters have it easier today," he said. "If I was a player today … it would be a good time to hit."