In his 12 seasons as a major league pitcher, Roger McDowell endured elbow and shoulder injuries, played in 723 games for five teams and was the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the 1986 World Series for the New York Mets.
I figured it was important to get that out of the way early because most recollections of McDowell’s playing days tend to focus on his deft ability to light an unsuspecting teammate’s shoelaces on fire, wear a goofy hat, wig or a pig’s mask, or dress his way into baseball yukster history by putting on his uniform upside down and then waddling onto the field. (It was as close as Flushing ever came to challenging Broadway for great theater.)
“I’ve seen some of his baseball cards where he’s wearing bandannas and joking around,” Braves closer Craig Kimbrel said. “I think I’ve got the one where he’s shooting a water hose into the stands.”
Which is not why the Braves hired Sideshow Roger.
They needed a pitching coach in 2005, not the last clown who could squeeze into the Volkswagen.
We probably haven’t heard enough about McDowell over these past eight seasons. It’s partly because he’s not real big on talking about himself. Or, really, anything. He had his share of public moments. He pitched in New York and Los Angeles. He was a staple of sports highlight shows. He had a cameo on a “Seinfeld” episode as the “Second Spitter,” which ranked pretty high on the series’ amusement scale from 1-to-Soup Nazi.
On and off the field, McDowell squeezed everything out of his career. But now he sees himself as off-stage and holding a minor but embraced role in the development of baseball’s best young pitching staff, even if all evidence to it being “minor” is to the contrary.
“Fortunate,” was how McDowell described himself as a pitcher, as he sat in the dugout before a workout at Braves’ spring training. “I didn’t have a lot of ability. I really had to work and strive to get 12 years in.
“I had my time as a player. Now it’s these guys. They’re the ones who are competing. I don’t like talking about what I did to get them to where they’re at because, to me, I’ve played a small part. I understand how hard this game is, particularly for a young player. It’s them.”
To some degree, he’s right. Games are about athletic achievement. Athletic achievement is about athletes. But McDowell’s role has been significant. It’s why he was heavily pursued by Philadelphia this offseason when his contract with the Braves expired, and potentially could be a managerial candidate at some point.
The Braves led the majors last season in staff ERA (3.18). The bullpen’s ERA (2.46) also was the majors’ best. The team’s overall ERA has dropped each of the past five seasons, since 2008 (when the presence of Mike Hampton, Charlie Morton and Jo-Jo Reyes made an ERA decrease a scientific impossibility).
McDowell has talent to work with. But he wasn’t handed Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, like his predecessor, Leo Mazzone was. He has needed to nurture young arms and young minds: Kimbrel, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Brandon Beachy, and on.
There is a satisfaction level that a coach gets from that that he doesn’t get from being handed a finished product.
“They’re like your kids,” McDowell said. “You understand the pitfalls they have. To be that comforting guidance that allows a player to maximize his ability, whatever level that is, it’s gratifying.”
Every pitcher has a story. Here’s Medlen’s: “I was 1-6 last season. My ERA was OK, but I kept losing games. One day during a conditioning (drill), Roger I were kind of looking at each other, and it was clear we needed to talk. He came over and said, ‘Control what you can control. If a guy puts a good swing on a good pitch, keep going.’ It leveled me out. I started going on some kind of roll.”
His next five starts: 4-1 with a 1.69 ERA.
McDowell will talk about his pitchers. He’ll talk about his mentors, like Dave Wallace, who was overseeing the Los Angeles’ Dodgers’ minor league system when he gave McDowell his first official coaching job in 2002 as pitching coach of the Single-A South Georgia Waves in Albany (later Columbus). He just isn’t comfortable talking about himself. When it happens, it’s almost incidental, as when he was describing his first pitching coach with the Mets, Mel Stottlemyre.
“Every time I had an outing that wasn’t deemed by me as successful, I thought I was getting sent out,” McDowell said. “Mel was always there for the comforting words, ‘Tomorrow’s a new day. We’re going to look at the whole body of work.’ It was understanding the ups and downs of the season, the mindset of a young pitcher.”
Is that how you coach?
“Pretty much spot on.”
Nobody likely envisioned McDowell as a coach the day he wore his pants on his arm, his shirt on his legs and his cleats on his hands. But neither did he. He didn’t want to travel.
Also, “I didn’t want to deal with a pissy pitcher.”
His pitching shoulder was laid to rest in the spring of 1998, after multiple surgeries. The Chicago White Sox offered him a taste of coaching in extended spring training with the Birmingham Barons. McDowell hated it. “Not what I wanted to do,” he said.
He took some time out of the game. He worked in community relations for the Dodgers. In 2002, they asked him again about coaching. McDowell convinced himself it was too soon before, but not now. But he told Wallace he wanted to start at the bottom and learn, just like a player. He was taking this seriously.
“That’s how he was as a player,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “He had fun, but on the mound it was all business.”
McDowell worked his way up to Triple A. His respect for the game and its history: immense. He would go to camp with the Dodgers and before games and introduce himself to opposing managers and coaches.
The first time he met then-Braves manager Bobby Cox, he said he felt “intimidated.”
“I just said, ‘Hello, Mr. Cox. I’m Roger McDowell.’ And I was off,” McDowell recalled. “I didn’t feel I had earned enough respect to sit there and have a conversation with Bobby Cox.”
Mr. Cox would later be among those who interviewed him for a job.
Being low profile works for McDowell. Being invisible would’ve been a welcome alternative in 2011, when he got into a verbal exchange with a fan in San Francisco, resulting in a two-week suspension. The incident morphed into a circus, with Gloria Allred on the lead elephant. Everything else in his coaching career has been well thought out.
Asked what he has learned the most along way, McDowell responded, “Patience.”
Sounds more like a sensei than a jester.