Poor Sports: Celebrating the Worst in Athletics
GUEST COLUMNIST: "I Faced Steve Dalkowski"
By Robert Fabbricatore
EDITOR'S NOTE: Robert Fabbricatore is a former ballplayer who had to bat against Steve Dalkowski, the pitcher featured in this column last month. Dalkowski reportedly threw over 110 MPH, was frighteningly wild, and was the inspiration for Tim Robbins' character in "Bull Durham." Enjoy…|
Subj: Steve Dalkowski
From: Robert Fabbricatore
I was a fearless (right-handed) hitter, with one exception - - - Steve Dalkowski.
I was with the Elmira Pioneers in 1964 on a "special arrangement." Just as there were players playing on option from other organizations, Earl Weaver allowed me to work out (in Elmira Pioneer uniform) on a daily basis. The only rule was to get me out of public sight by game time in order to protect my amateur status.
I had been playing for Cornell University, but had run into "academic probation." I asked Earl for a shot and he gave it to me. Cornell University is in Ithaca, New York and about 30 miles from Elmira. In those days, the legal age for signing a professional baseball contract was 21, so nothing was going to happen without my father's signature. (I only mention this as the lead-in to my "being" with Steve Dalkowski.)
You see, one day Earl wanted to see how Steve was progressing... and this meant Steve was going to pitch to ME in a batting cage with Earl outside the cage directly behind the catcher calling the pitches.
This is tough on the hitter because it is not a real at-bat, in that if the pitcher is not throwing strikes in a game, you are walked. Here, Earl gives the pitcher and the batter the impression that their future is at stake and a gladiator situation develops. My fearlessness, previously alluded to, was shaken when Paul Blair said to me, "Number 3, are you crazy???"
When I asked him what he was talking about, he told me "NOBODY, and I mean NOBODY else would get in that cage."
Dalkowski was very, very fast... and very, very wild.
Dalkowski's ball had a rise to it that was unbelievable. If the catcher wasn't careful, the pitch would sail above his mitt and hit him in the mask. The next pitch might bounce five feet in front of the batter and hit him in the legs like a skipping stone.
I remember when the Orioles came to Elmira for an exhibition game, they made it clear they would not bat off Dalkowski, and, in fact, that he would pitch for them. Then their pitchers would pitch for us against them.
Pitching in Pensacola, Florida, in 1959
Another scary prospect was warming him up in the bullpen. You made sure you were wearing your cup and then put all the gear on -- shin guards, chest protector, mask and three pads in the glove (or you would get a bruised hand). You know how there is usually a fielder facing the action to protect the bullpen catcher from foul balls? They used to station a player in the other direction -- to protect the first baseman from Dalkowski's errant throws.
He was left-handed and his ball had the most movement I ever saw. Even when his control was working, the batter was still shaky knowing he might uncork one at any time. I was In Buckhannon, WV in 1996 and ran into Bo Belinsky and Dean Chance, who were there for the town's Strawberry Festival. They remembered him well.
I thought Jim Maloney (Cincinnati Reds), who I only saw pitch, was about as nasty as they came for a right handed batter, because he possessed a live fastball and nasty curve.
But, unlike Dalkowski, you didn't worry about him splitting your batting helmet.
So now you're probably wondering how I did against Dalkowski. I never thought of it in any terms other than I got out of there without being "wounded." He didn't throw too many good pitches to hit, but since I was a high fastball hitter with a good eye, I usually managed to make contact -- even if just a foul tip. It is only with Dalkowski that a foul tip would be considered an accomplishment. I certainly didn't pull anything because his fastball (what else) would go up and away from a right handed batter. Some of the pitches I missed got by the catcher, too. Earl's main purpose was to work with Steve on his control, and his control was decent that day, relatively speaking. So, so I would say Steve "won" the match-up, and I did my job as cannon fodder.
Later, I was awarded a Bronze Star for my actions in Vietnam, but I should have gotten a Silver Star for spending 20 minutes in a batting cage with Steve Dalkowski.
I didn't know the character Nuke LaLoosh was based on Dalkowski until I read your column on the Internet. Steve was no ladies man. But, when "Nuke" hit the mascot, all I could think of was Steve. As I get older, there is less and less that I recall about games and individual players from so many years ago, but Dalkowski is unforgettable to anybody who played with or against him.
Robert L. Fabbricatore, a.k.a. Fab
PS: I graduated from Cornell -- which is what my father and Earl Weaver thought was the best thing for me. Earl said he would see that I was drafted... but the Selective Service draft won out.
Steve "White Lightning" Dalkowski
"He is revered by baseball aficionados as the fastest pitcher who ever lived. Most experts believe that he must have thrown at least 110 mph in his prime, which would be the fastest, deadliest, fastball in professional baseball history... yet he never played in the majors.
Steve Dalkowski's life has been as wild and unpredictable as his pitching. Everybody who saw Dalkowski play has a story about him -- and they all end badly..."