Job security is a left-handed pitcher Shortage enables some to hang on

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A recent survey concluded that left-handers don't live as long as right-handers, that heaven opens its pearly gates to lefties nine years sooner than righties on the average.

Obviously, the survey ignored major-league baseball.

In baseball, left-handed pitchers never die. They just are reincarnated in different uniforms.

No matter how old they are, no matter how many miles an hour they've lost from their fastballs, no matter how many times they've been discarded or battered around, left-handed pitchers keep getting recycled like aluminum cans.

Or, as left-hander Steve Howe of the New York Yankees, back this season after six suspensions for alcoholism and drug abuse, put it: "The prerequisite for left-handers these days is, 'Can you breathe?' If you can, they'll give you a shot."

Added Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Miller: "If you can put a little spin on the ball and throw it for a strike, as well as breathe, there's probably a job for a lefty in this league."

How desperate is baseball for left-handers, specifically left-handed relievers?

Well, Dave LaPoint, he of the 16.20 ERA with the Philadelphia Phillies earlier this year, a guy even the pitching-poor Yankees no longer wanted, was recently signed by the Milwaukee Brewers to a minor-league contract. LaPoint became the laughingstock of a suspect Phillies staff when fans began measuring the speed of his pitches with a sundial.

That's desperate.

How's this for desperate?

Dan Schatzeder is pitching for the Kansas City Royals. Schatzeder, the game's version of Lazarus, has been recycled from Montreal to Detroit, to San Francisco, back to Montreal, to Philadelphia, to Minnesota, to Cleveland, back to Minnesota, to Houston, to the New York Mets, and, now, to the Royals. So what if he's 36 and his ERA was a swollen 10.50? Schatzeder is left-handed.

That's desperate.

How's this for desperate? Fans may soon be treated to the

spectacle of watching Joe Price try to get hitters out. Be advised to wear a helmet if you're sitting in the bleachers. Price, 34, rejected by Cincinnati, San Francisco and Boston, was sitting around his house when the San Diego Padres came calling recently. Since he still has a pulse rate, San Diego signed him to a minor-league contract.

The Padres had found 35-year-old Derek Lilliquist and his 11.42 ERA a little hard to take. For now. And they had to put Pat Clements, who pitched for California, Pittsburgh and the Yankees, on the disabled list.

Joe Price? That's desperate.

And remember Ray Searage? We didn't think so. Searage, 36, had no job all winter after he was released by Los Angeles. But in mid-March, the Phillies held open tryouts for left-handers and signed Searage to pitch in three spring-training games. He was beaten out by LaPoint. As was Guillermo Hernandez, 36, who was good when his name was Willie. Hernandez is still twitching in Toronto's minor-league system, pitching for Syracuse.

In fact, there are a slew of left-handers who keep hanging on, guys such as Joe Hesketh of Boston, Jesse Orosco of Cleveland, Mike Flanagan of Baltimore and Don Carman of Cincinnati.

In the minors, Jeff Musselman, Stan Clarke, Dennis Powell and Dave Leiper may be just a couple of ground-ball outs away from resurfacing in The Show.

For these guys, the stay in the unemployment line is brief.

"There's always been a shortage of quality left-handers," said a former left-handed standout, Claude Osteen, the former Phillies pitching coach now with the Dodgers' Class AAA team in Albuquerque. "But in the last four or five years, that shortage has been more noticeable."

"I have two sons who are pitchers," Osteen said. "One of them, Gavin, is a lefty in the Oakland system. He just threw a two-hitter for Huntsville in Double A. I told him if he pitches another two-hitter, they'll probably move him right up to Triple A."

Left-handed relievers, even those with earned run averages of the Dow Jones type, are in demand for two reasons: because of the increasingly specialized nature of the game, and because of the long-held theory that lefties are more effective against left-handed hitters.

If Will Clark or Darryl Strawberry goes to bat with men on base late in a game, the opposing manager wants the option of bringing in a left-hander, even if the guy is so old he needs assistance getting to the mound.

"Some people are so hung up on the lefty-against-lefty thing that they forget about quality," said Miller, the Pirates' pitching coach. "It's gotten to the point where teams are taking mediocre lefties over quality righties, and I think that's stupid. A lot of times, you're bringing in a mediocre lefty to face one batter when a quality right-hander can probably do the job just as well."

Montreal's general manager, Dave Dombrowski, said the need for left-handed pitching depends on the number of tough left-handed hitters in your division.

"Against some clubs, like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, it's extremely important to have the option of bringing in a left-hander," he said.

There are several theories on why the quality left-handed pitcher is No. 1 on baseball's endangered species list. There is the undeniable decline in pitching in general. How many teams these days have three quality starters? Several don't even have two. There is the shrinking minor-league system and the general lack of proper instruction. Moreover, the demand for left-handers is such that when one shows promise in the minors, he is fed to the major-league wolves before he is ready.

"I think we rush too many pitchers," Osteen said. "As long as you can throw the ball, it seems, you can jump right from the minors to the big leagues in a wink. Success doesn't seem to have a lot to do with it. So you've got kids with terrific arms who move up even though they don't know the intricacies of pitching. They're throwers instead of pitchers.

"I don't know if there's a shortage of physical quality. But there's certainly a shortage of mental quality. When I was coming up, you usually didn't get to the big leagues until you really knew how to pitch, until you really knew how to work a batter."

"Hell, I'm 51 years old," Osteen added with a laugh, "and I'm not so sure I can't go in there and do at least as well as some of these guys are doing."

Osteen said the decline in the art of pitching might also be partially attributed to the use of aluminum bats on the amateur level. A hitter wielding an aluminum bat can turn a tight, well-placed pitch into a wicked line drive.

"My son David pitched at Oklahoma State, and he tells me how difficult it was to set up hitters with the aluminum bat," Osteen said. "You set up a hitter with a perfect pitch low and away, then come in tight on him with the next pitch, and he still beats you. You've executed what you're supposed to do and it still doesn't work. As a result, pitchers forget that you want to pitch a guy in on the hands. They get messed up. Heaven help us if the aluminum bat comes to the pros."

Miller said baseball is losing the arms race partly because many of today's young athletes are turning to other sports.

"There's more of an emphasis on the part of today's athletes on going to college," he said. "And more of the good athletes in high school are good in several sports, so they concentrate on the sport that'll give them the best chance to get a college scholarship.

"Also, kids just don't throw a baseball as often as we did when we were kids. In general, the arm strength isn't there.

"Overall, baseball is losing good athletes to other sports. Look at a left-handed guard in basketball, or a left-handed quarterback, and I'll bet you the guy could have probably been a pretty good left-handed pitcher."

And no matter how much a left-hander is hammered around, the salaries baseball is handing out these days keep him from being discouraged enough to give up the game. That's why there are several Paul Mirabellas and Juan Agostos for every Frank Viola.

"Baseball players stick around longer because the rewards are so great," said Dombrowski, the Montreal general manager. "And since there's such a dire need for lefties, they keep trying. And there's usually someone willing to give them a chance."

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