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Original Issue

The Rose has bloomed

Tiger rookie Dave Rozema presents a thorny problem to hitters. Though his pitches have been called garbage, he's enjoying the sweet smell of success

After Alex Grammas watched Tiger rookie Dave Rozema pitch a seven-hitter to defeat the Brewers 6-2 early this season, the Milwaukee manager said, "Rozema doesn't throw hard enough to break a pane of glass. I could go into a coma just waiting for his fastball to reach home plate."

Although Grammas somehow maintained consciousness during Rozema's two subsequent appearances against Milwaukee, his players were certainly knocked out. On each occasion, the 21-year-old righthander had a complete-game, five-hit win, and now Grammas has changed his tune. "I didn't say Rozema wasn't effective," he says. "It just proves that he can win without a fastball."

He certainly can. Despite his bent for beating the Brewers, Rozema (pronounced ROSE-muh) is really not choosy about which American League teams he defeats. His 14 wins at the end of last week included victories over the seven strongest offensive clubs, and he was tied for fourth in the league in complete games (14) and ERA (2.84) and tied for third in wins. His record might have been even better had the Tigers managed to score more than a single run in any of his four losses.

Rozema's performance has not only made him the majors' best rookie pitcher, but it also may make him the American League's Rookie of the Year. His competition should come from Oakland's Mitchell Page, a .299-hitting outfielder who stole 26 bases before he was caught, a league record; from Baltimore's switch-hitting DH Eddie Murray, who has a .272 average and 18 home runs; and from Texas Second Baseman Bump Wills, who is batting .280.

The most surprising thing about Rozema is not his success but the way he has achieved it. His main pitch has been a changeup, a delivery that many of his contemporaries have not begun to learn. By mixing it in with his not-so-fastball and an occasional slider and curve, Rozema ends up switching speeds as often as Niki Lauda shifts gears, and that has kept batters off stride. Tiger Catcher John Wockenfuss says, "He's really not as slow as everyone says he is, and that's what makes him so effective." That, and the pinpoint control (only 28 walks in 179 innings) that enables Rozema to keep his grab-bag assortment of pitches low. As a result, he has induced batters to ground into 15 double plays.

Rozema learned to throw a change-up two years ago from Detroit's roving minor league pitching instructor John Grodzicky. "He stood right near me, made a big motion and appeared to throw the ball as hard as he could," says Rozema. "I ducked, but the ball still hit me. The surprise was that it just touched me lightly on my back." By late that afternoon Rozema had the same soft touch. With it he mystified minor league hitters for two seasons before the Tigers brought him to Detroit this April.

Within a month Rozema became the team's stopper, the only big winner on a staff that has labored for most of the season without 1976 Rookie of the Year Mark Fidrych. The Bird missed six weeks at the start of the schedule because of a torn knee ligament, made enough starts to run up a 6-4 record and is now sidelined with tendinitis in his right shoulder.

The Detroit press has treated the rise of the Rose as if it were the second flight of the Bird, which has made it difficult for Rozema to establish an identity of his own. He doesn't pat the mound or talk to baseballs, and this lack of flamboyance has resulted in Rozema's drawing only 18,571 fans per start. Fidrych averaged 31,077 last season. Nevertheless, Rozema has been unable to escape the endless stream of comparisons, largely because his 14-4 record puts him slightly ahead of Fidrych's pace of '76, when he won 19 games.

Rozema's nickname is not quite as catchy as the Bird's. "But it's a pretty expensive one, because roses go for about $1.25 apiece," Rozema says. When he returned to Detroit after pitching his first major league victory, a four-hit, 8-0 shutout at Boston, friends and relatives from nearby Grand Rapids brought him 100 roses to pass out to teammates, fans and anybody who happened to walk by. Someone even handed one to Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver.

Weaver's Orioles were the last team to take the bloom off the Rose by beating him 2-1 on July 5. Since then, Rozema has pitched seven victories and roses have been blossoming everywhere he goes. Fans hand them to him from the stands, and for his 21st birthday early this month he received five dozen.

Rozema grew up not far from Gerald Ford's house in Grand Rapids, where his father worked in a refrigerator plant. Neither of his brothers nor his sister has ever left Grand Rapids, and Rozema decided against attending Eastern Michigan University, 130 miles away, after signing a letter of intent, because he was afraid he would be homesick. After Rozema graduated from high school in 1974, the San Francisco Giants drafted him, but he says, "They didn't enthuse me by selecting me in the 23rd round and offering me no money to sign."

Bob Sullivan, a Tiger scout and his summer-league coach, feared that Rozema might remain in Grand Rapids with his siblings, who devoted most of their time to riding motorcycles. So while Rozema was spending a semester at Grand Rapids Junior College, Sullivan persuaded Detroit to draft him. The Tigers picked Rozema in the fourth round of the January 1975 draft and gave him a $2,500 bonus.

Then 18, Rozema came to his first spring training wearing shoulder-length hair, white spikes his mother had given him for Christmas and his brother's yellow glove. "That was the only glove I had," he says. "In winter ball, the fellows hid it. Then as soon as I bought a new one, the yellow glove reappeared." Even before that, he had coated his spikes with black dye—they turned out gray—and cut his hair.

Now Rozema is trimming everyone else. His only flaw, says Tiger Manager Ralph Houk, is a tendency to overthrow once he has a win in sight. "He starts trying to blow the ball by the hitters in the late innings," says Houk, who realizes the risk for a pitcher with so little velocity.

Of late Rozema may have licked even that fault. In the ninth inning of a recent game against the Twins, he led 4-2. A Minnesota runner was on first and Rod Carew was at the plate. Carew had one of the Twins' six hits. More significantly, baseball's best hitter had been unsuccessful in four other at bats, making outs on pitches he later called "garbage." When Rozema reared back and slipped him a changeup, Carew hit a game-ending grounder to Tito Fuentes at second.

Rehashing the defeat, Minnesota Manager Gene Mauch called Rozema "lucky." "I wish all my players were still in high school," he said, "because when they were 18 years old they'd have hit the devil out of that pitching."

Last week Rozema again defeated the Twins, although this time he did need a bit of help. He got it when teammate Tim Corcoran hit a pinch home run in the eighth inning to break a 5-5 tie. Which is another example of why disrespectful opposing managers better change their views. It seems that even when Rozema is not as befuddling as usual he comes out smelling like a rose.