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Lack of strong arms suspected in demise of the complete game

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DETROIT -- It was a stunning moment.

The Cincinnati Reds were two outs away from sweeping the 1990 World Series. Jose Rijo, guarding a 2-1 lead, had not allowed a runner since the second inning. When he struck out Oakland's Dave Henderson to start the ninth, he had retired 20 straight batters.

Rijo was about to do what Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Mickey Lolich and Orel Hershiser had done -- pitch a dominant complete game to clinch the World Series.

Then Reds manager Lou Piniella walked toward the mound. Randy Myers was warming up in the bullpen.

This looked like a pitching change.

But Piniella wouldn't -- not the way Rijo was pitching, not with two outs to go. Rijo had retired 20 straight.

Piniella didn't know Rijo had retired 20 straight, but he knew that his pitcher was making Oakland helpless.

He reached the mound and asked Rijo how he felt. Rijo told Piniella to do what he thought best.

"I know damn well," Piniella said, "that if Randy Myers would have given up a run or two, and we lost the ballgame, it would have been one of the most stupid moves in World Series annals."

Nonetheless, he called for Myers, "the closer," who closed it by getting the next two hitters.

Rijo's removal may not have been surprising; the 1990 Reds had baseball's best bullpen.

But in baseball history, the moment was defining. Piniella's move showed, as never before, that the bullpen can be the choice to finish any game.

Rijo's removal highlighted something else: Starting pitchers don't throw as hard or as long as they used to.

Until about 1970, most teams used a four-man starting rotation. Pitchers often went eight or nine innings. About 1970, teams started changing from four- to five-man rotations. The theory was that this would keep pitchers stronger and give them more rest.

The opposite has happened. Despite all the improvements in conditioning and diet awareness in the last 20 years, starting pitchers typically go six or seven innings, instead of eight or nine -- despite having another day of rest between starts. And there are not nearly as many throwing 90 mph as there were 20 or 30 years ago.

Part of this results from the emphasis on using more than one reliever per game. But is the bullpen the only reason? Is it possible that today's starting pitchers -- from childhood on -- don't throw enough to stay at full strength? Are relievers required earlier in games primarily because the starters aren't as strong as they should be?

Despite the coming of modern relief pitching in the mid-20th century, the workhorse starter still was expected to go nine innings. No manager would have lifted Gibson, Koufax, Drysdale or Lolich when they were two outs from winning the World Series. And Hershiser, with his two complete-game wins in the 1988 World Series, showed that the breed still existed.

But Hershiser is the recent exception. The Myers-for-Rijo switch completed a transition. In the last 20 years, the complete-game pitcher has virtually disappeared; the ideal staff is built around the bullpen.

"The game has really changed in that respect in the last 20 years," Piniella said. "You look at the teams that have won in recent years, and they all have a closer and a pretty good complement of pitchers in the bullpen."

The Reds have one of the few modern staffs on which several pitchers can summon the coveted 90-mph fastball. Hard throwers have become such a minority that reliever Rob Dibble, the hardest-throwing Red, said after the World Series, "Without a doubt, they [the Athletics] looked like a team not used to facing a staff that throws as hard as ours."

Amid the many explanations for the decrease in hard throwers, a primary one emerges: From ages 8 to 18, boys don't throw enough and thus don't fully develop their arms.

According to many in professional ball, a boy who wants to be a major-league pitcher should throw, throw, throw. And the pitcher is still the key job in baseball. For, although much has changed about pitching in the last 20 years, the importance of pitching has not.

Defense wins in all team sports. This is especially true in baseball, because the defense has the ball. The game is in the hands of the pitcher.

From the time Babe Ruth began pounding homers for the Yankees, hitting has been the game's glamour department. But the 1990 Detroit Tigers were a classic example of how pitching is significantly more important than hitting.

Led by the destructive Cecil Fielder, the Tigers scored more runs than any other American League team except Toronto and led the majors in homers. Yet the Tigers had a losing record all season and were never a serious contender because they led the majors in earned runs allowed per game.

Contrast these Tigers with the 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers. They were among the majors' lowest-scoring teams and had little power. Yet they won the World Series, thanks to their pitching staff, led by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale -- future Hall of Famers at their peaks.

During the offseason, the Tigers added power threats Rob Deer and Mickey Tettleton. But they lost their ace pitcher, Jack Morris.

Morris is an aging workhorse, but a workhorse nonetheless. So, although the Tigers might score more runs than they did last season, they also might give up more runs and lose more games.

Most World Series come down to a pitching staff shackling the other team's hitters, who usually have constituted one of baseball's best lineups during the season. That's how the Athletics have been upset twice in the last three Series.

Some might say that happens because World Series hitters and pitchers are unfamiliar with each other. The pitchers usually have the advantage when the hitters don't know them.

But consider the playoffs. Since their inception 22 years ago, the playoffs have perhaps become more intense than the World Series. The hitters and pitchers know each other because they're from the same league.

Yet, more often than not in the playoffs, first-place pitching staffs have stopped first-place lineups. In the 44 playoff series to date, the losing teams have hit a collective .228 and averaged 3.1 runs per game. Even the worst clubs do better than that for the full regular season.

Detroit might never again have a pitcher like Jack Morris. Fewer and fewer teams have a workhorse ace who is capable of 250 innings and 20 wins.

Perhaps more pitchers should follow Don Drysdale's example.

Drysdale didn't begin pitching until he was a senior in high school. But he had done plenty by then to develop his arm.

He was an infielder, and he remembers throwing the ball over and and over while growing up. He became stronger through his part-time jobs: loading squash, sacking onions, loading hay.

"That was my weight training," Drysdale said. Farm and manual labor were more common for teen-agers then.

Drysdale's shoulder was tender after his first full professional season in the Dodgers' system, and no doctor was there to caution him. He figured his arm was just getting stronger and that soreness was natural. Meanwhile, he kept the manual-labor jobs for the first few off-seasons of his professional career.

In spring training, Drysdale practiced control using the pitching strings. The strings outline a choice part of the strike zone, and the pitcher tries to throw the ball between them. Drysdale thus learned control to go with his tremendous velocity, a rare combination that would make him a Hall of Famer.

"You'd be surprised how many people in the game of baseball don't know what pitching strings are," Drysdale said recently. "I'm talking about major-league managers, pitching coaches, pitchers, executives.

"They wonder where the Dodgers, through all the years, get all that pitching. They don't realize that pitching strings are the greatest teacher of pitching."

Drysdale joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956. Soon, he was a full-time starter. He pitched every fourth day, and he expected to go nine innings. He never thought about being tired. Multiyear contracts didn't exist, and his salary was often based on how many innings he pitched the previous season.

In his seven-year zenith, 1959-65, Drysdale averaged an average of 292 innings a season. No pitcher throws that many innings now.

In 1990, the number of complete games averaged by each major-league club was 17. From 1959 through 1966, Drysdale averaged 17 complete games a season himself.

Kansas City's Mark Gubicza could have been the modern Drysdale. He is a 6-foot-5 right-hander who quickly became a major-league starter (he was 21) and who threw his fastball about three out of every four pitches. (No National League starter now throws the fastball that often, says Drysdale, a Dodgers broadcaster.)

Gubicza also has Drysdale's competitiveness. George Brett, an 18-year veteran of the Royals infield, said he had never played with a more intense pitcher. He said Gubicza slept little in the 24 hours before and after a start, and that he gave a vicious look to any infielder who made an error behind him.

Gubicza wanted to be one of those workhorses who throws hard his entire career. He grew up in Philadelphia watching his favorite pitcher, Steve Carlton, overpower hitters into his mid-30s.

In 1988, his fifth year in the majors, Gubicza reached the Drysdale-Carlton plane. He won 20 games and pitched 269 2/3 innings. He was 26.

But shoulder pain affected his pitching in 1989, and he underwent surgery in 1990. As 1991 begins, he is on the disabled list, and his future -- at least the future of his once-tremendous fastball -- is a big unknown.

Gubicza suffered a career-threatening injury despite all the innovations designed to protect a pitcher's health -- an extra day of rest between starts provided by the shift from the four- to the five-man rotation; improved medical understanding of the arm and its components; and expensive weight-training facilities.

"The way I worked out religiously -- all the time during the off-season and the season -- I felt I could pitch forever and be the same kind of pitcher," Gubicza said.

His experience suggests that a pitcher's durability is set before he reaches the majors. Gubicza, like many of his generation, didn't have to perform the manual labor Drysdale did. Gubicza entered the pros out of high school; only then did he begin weight training.

He started throwing breaking pitches when he was 10 and thinks that by falling into this common trap, he may not have thrown enough fastballs to fully build his arm.

More significantly, he developed a delivery that placed too much strain on his shoulder (the baseball term is "bad mechanics"). But Gubicza was always successful, and no one ordered him to change his delivery.

"If I could do it over, the biggest thing I would change is that I would have better mechanics earlier in my career," Gubicza said. "I also shouldn't have thrown breaking balls so soon. They might have hurt my shoulder somewhat, or started my mechanics being the way they are, because I was moving my arm around, trying to get the feel for the breaking ball."

Don Drysdale sometimes wonders as he watches today's major-league pitchers what they are thinking.

They are reluctant to use the fastball as their "out" pitch. They are more interested in fooling hitters with slower or fancier pitches -- especially the split-fingered fastball.

Getting ahead in the count is the key to pitching, but some pitchers frequently fall behind the hitter. They take more time than necessary between pitches -- perhaps because without an overpowering fastball, they can't decide what to throw.

George Brett and Carlton Fisk don't know whether pitching quality has declined since they broke into the American League in the early 1970s. They do know the typical pitcher goes about things differently now.

In Fisk's early years, pitchers often arrived in the majors with two exceptional pitches, one a fastball. Now they're more apt to arrive with four average pitches.

Brett said: "Everybody has a gimmick pitch now. You don't see fastballs on a 2-0 count any more. When I broke in, it was automatic. Automatic.

"Now you see sliders and change-ups on 2-0. The fastball is like a commercial pitch. The pitcher is saying, 'I'll show it to you, but I won't throw it for a strike. You're going to have to hit one of my others.' "

The prevailing theory on why pitchers don't throw as hard as they used to: Youths don't build up their arms enough before they graduate from high school.

By the time they're 10 years old, today's youths are participating in organized leagues. Much of their playing and practice time is regulated. Manual labor and farm work are less common, so they don't get the natural bodybuilding that Drysdale did before he turned pro.

Little League programs are not, in themselves, harmful to arm development. But pro baseball people say anyone who aspires to pitch professionally should do plenty of throwing outside of games and practices.

"Just play catch," said Montreal Expos manager Buck Rodgers. "That's what builds up your arm. And when you pitch, throw mainly fastballs. We can teach you the other pitches in pro ball, but we can't teach you a fastball.

"Your arm is a series of muscles. And the only way you're going to stretch out the muscles is to use them. That's the way you're going to build it up. "

"The best thing is long toss, up to 200 feet," said San Diego Padres general manager Joe McIlvaine, a former pitcher. "Hand-in-hand with that is using proper mechanics. Use your arm to full extension, and don't throw across your body. Step toward the target and get full extension."

Mark Gubicza said that if a pitcher's follow-through leaves him in a good fielding position -- basically facing home plate -- his mechanics are good.

Several people in pro ball say that a teen-ager shouldn't be concerned if his arm is a bit sore from time to time. That's probably a sign of development, not injury.

"What's burnout, and what's buildup?" asks Chris Smith, baseball coach at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "Worrying about burnout too much is a societal problem. Maybe it's better to throw through certain injuries.

"We've had a lot of advances in science, medicine, weightlifting -- and still we're asking, 'Where are the arms?' "

McIlvaine said that in a typical year, only about 20 high school pitchers in the country can throw 85 mph -- the speed of an average major-league fastball.

College coaches often get blamed for the shortage of power pitchers because they teach breaking balls and allegedly overwork pitchers. But these are overrated accusations, because most of the hard throwers now go right from high school to the pros -- often for lucrative offers.

The fastball's demise also owes something to aluminum bats. Colleges and high schools have been using the more economical metal bats for years. A player's first game with a wooden bat may be his first game in the pros.

Because aluminum has a harder surface than wood, it's a better weapon against the fastball. When the pitcher throws an inside fastball to a hitter with a wooden bat, it can break the bat. But if the hitter takes that same swing at the same pitch with an aluminum bat, he can bloop a single over the infield.

"I can't tell how many times you see a great pitch in high school get turned into a base hit," said Rob Wigod, associate coach at Lakewood (Calif.) High School. "Because of the aluminum bat, a pitcher can go all through amateur ball and not realize what the fastball can do for him.

"A kid is afraid to throw the fastball, and he has to be re-educated about it when he gets to the minors. He learns he can challenge hitters with it."

When hard throwers enter pro ball now, they end up in the bullpen. Rob Dibble, the hardest thrower on the Reds, isn't pitching 250 innings annually as a starter; he's relieving Jose Rijo.

One season after another verifies the old saw, "Pitching is 75 percent of baseball." That truth has even dawned on the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

For years, those clubs emphasized powerful lineups to take advantage of their smaller parks, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. But largely because of inferior pitching, neither team has won the World Series since Babe Ruth (the pitching hero of the Red Sox's last successful World Series) made the home run a standard offensive feature in 1920.

During the offseason, the Cubs and Red Sox each spent millions on free-agent pitchers. The Cubs signed Danny Jackson and Dave Smith; the Red Sox acquired Danny Darwin and Matt Young. Boston felt special urgency after letting right-hander Mike Boddicker escape to Kansas City amid the rapidly escalating market.

Pitchers, not hitters, received most of the large free-agent contracts this offseason. Many of these pitchers have never been stars. But it's not as if aces were available.

It was the oldest economic story of all, supply and demand. Pitching is so important that a team has to take the best it can get.

The Red Sox capped their offseason spending by making Roger Clemens the first $5-million-a-year player in baseball history. Boston couldn't afford to let Clemens become a free agent after the season. He is that rarest of modern luxuries, the workhorse ace -- and because clubs and many young pitchers don't even see eight or nine innings per game as a goal, Clemens is even more valuable.

Jose Rijo became the World Series MVP without throwing a complete game. Rijo said the final game would have meant twice much to him if he could have finished it. But generally he doesn't care if he goes nine innings.

"Complete games used to be important to me, but now I think they're overrated," he said. "The bullpen we have changed my mind."

Lou Piniella -- the manager who took out his pitcher who had retired 20 in a row -- was a hitter in his major-league career. As a manager, he has found that he'd better know everything he can about the game's most important department -- pitching.

"You learn something new about it every day," Piniella said.

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