PITTSBURGH -- Denny Neagle used to spend his days between starts on the Pittsburgh Pirates' bench keeping his teammates in stitches with his imitations. Neagle could mimic movie stars, the team's traveling secretary, even the cartoon train that appears on the Three Rivers Stadium scoreboard.
The self-described "goofball" from Gambrills has matured.
Saturday night, Neagle studied the best ways to pitch to the New York Mets, many of whom he had faced with limited success the night before.
"I'm going to see what their tendencies are," Neagle said the day after his 12-hit no-decision. "Little things like that -- I didn't evaluate opposing hitters -- that's all part of the maturity process."
Neagle still imitates everyone and everything in the clubhouse. The difference is in his on-field maturity, a difference that has turned a goofball into an All-Star.
A 1986 Arundel High graduate, Neagle (9-4, 3.34 ERA) will represent the Pirates at tomorrow's All-Star Game in Arlington, Texas. His nine victories are tied for the National League lead and constitute nearly one-third of the Pirates' wins. Not bad for a pitcher who entered this season with a 16-22 lifetime record, a 4.93 ERA and a reputation for not taking the game seriously enough. A reputation, Neagle said, that is undeserved.
"One thing that gets frustrating for me and gets misunderstood and misconstrued -- when I struggled for a couple of years here, there was a lot of talk that I didn't take the game seriously, that I was too much of a goofball, Neagle said.
"I'm still a goofball. I'm still having fun at this game. But I've always been serious. It's just one of those things that when you're not having success, you're not serious enough."
But there was a sentiment within the Pirates' organization that everything had been too easy for Neagle. He was called up to the majors by the Minnesota Twins in 1991, when he was three months shy of his 23rd birthday, traded to Pittsburgh the next year for John Smiley, and promised by former Pirates general manager Ted Simmons that he was in the majors to stay.
The promise bred complacency. Neagle, used primarily in relief and occasionally as a starter, finished with a 4.48 ERA in 55 appearances in 1992 and a 5.31 ERA in 50 appearances in 1993.
"He takes baseball more seriously now than he did a couple of years ago," said Neagle's father, Denny Sr. "It was a hard climb, but it wasn't a hard climb. That might have been a bad thing, in a way."
Neagle's wake-up call came in July 1993. He was demoted to Triple-A Buffalo, but returned to Pittsburgh a week later with a renewed sense of purpose.
"He's grown up a lot, both as a pitcher and as a person," said Pirates manager Jim Leyland. "He's figured it out, how to pitch. That's the big thing."
Neagle's maturation has taken place under former Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller. The first thing Miller did was convince Neagle -- who throws in the high 80s and sometimes in the low 90s -- not to overthrow. He told Neagle: "Work fast, change speeds and throw strikes."
Neagle, who became a full-time starter in 1994, changed speeds more effectively by throwing his best pitch, a circle changeup, more often. He finished with a 9-10 record and 5.12 ERA, but by season's end was a Miller disciple.
"Ray Miller's philosophy is you've learned to pitch at this level when you throw a pitch you know the batter's looking to hit and you can take a little bit off of it," Neagle said.
And get him out.
Miller considers Neagle, who turns 27 in September, a cross between former Orioles left-handers Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor. He chalks up Neagle's late development to his being a typically quirky left-hander.
"Earl Weaver used to say you can't give up on left-handers under 26," Miller said. "He said a lefty's best years are from 27 to 35. If that's true here, Denny's got a lot of promise in him."
Neagle's initial reward came with his selection to the National League All-Star team. He said he cannot wait to watch the home run-hitting contest, but his dream moment would be to pitch to Cal Ripken.
"That guy's a legend in Baltimore," Neagle said. "Even if I never get into another All-Star Game, I'll have gotten to face one of my heroes growing up."
If Neagle faces Ripken, his family will be there to see it. His father; mother, Joann; brother, Doug, 22; and sister, Diana, 23, are making the trip.
"I'm pinching myself," Joann said.
"It's like a dream come true," said Denny Sr., a food salesman.
The family has noticed a change in Neagle this season. He is businesslike at all times, even when he hit a grand slam off Jim Bullinger on June 27 at Wrigley Field. His on-field expression never wavers.
"I can see it even watching him pitch on TV," his mother said. "Everything is different out there this year."
Neagle's coach at Arundel, Bernie Walter, noticed the difference watching him in person Friday night at Three Rivers Stadium.
"You could see a change in attitude, the mental toughness, the change in attitude that's necessary to be a big-league player," Walter said. "You could see it was there."
That doesn't mean the goofball in Neagle is gone.
"I've always been a goofball on every team I've played for," Neagle said.
Last Halloween, Neagle went to a club in Crofton dressed as a Hooters waitress.
"Denny was always the ringleader," Joann said. "You just never know what he's going to say or do."
Neagle's movie imitations have received national media attention. His impersonations of traveling secretary Greg Johnson, pitcher Jim Gott as Robocop or any other teammate can ignite the whole clubhouse.
"He's a little bit of a nut," Leyland said, "but in a good way."
"When it's game day, he is 110 percent in the game," said pitcher Paul Wagner, one of Neagle's closest friends. "By no means is he a screwball."
Still, after Saturday's game, Neagle was mocking winning pitcher John Ericks in a cave-man voice that caused a nearby teammate to snicker.
"I don't think he'll ever change," Wagner said.
In some ways, he already has.
When: Tomorrow, 8:30 p.m.
Where: The Ballpark in Arlington
TV: Chs. 2, 7; 8 p.m.
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)