OUT OF CONTROL
Symptoms of the dread affliction began to surface on May 18 at
Shea Stadium. Rockies closer Bruce Ruffin entered the game
against the Mets in the eighth inning with one out, runners on
first and second and Colorado holding a 4-2 lead. Ruffin
promptly walked Todd Hundley on five pitches. Then he walked the
virtually unwalkable Rey Ordonez (six bases on balls this
season) on five pitches. On his second delivery to the next
batter, Manny Alexander, Ruffin threw a wild pitch some 20 feet
wide of home plate. Ruffin wound up walking Alexander on four
pitches and getting the hook. Fourteen pitches. Two strikes. The
diagnosis was a pitcher's worst nightmare: Steve Blass disease.
Blass, a righthander who had a 103-76 record in 10 seasons with
the Pirates, was the hero of the 1971 World Series and won a
career-high 19 games the next year before he suddenly and
inexplicably lost his control early in the '73 season. He simply
could no longer throw strikes and finished that year with 84
walks and 12 hit batters in 88 2/3 innings. After another
scattershot season in the minor leagues in '74, Blass retired
the following spring. Since then several other pitchers,
including Kevin Saucier, Joe Cowley, Steve Trout and Sam
Militello, have fallen victim to the syndrome that now bears
This isn't the first time Ruffin has had trouble with his
control, either. He was first stricken on July 9, 1988, while
pitching for the Phillies; during a game in Cincinnati he threw
three wild pitches in one inning. Later that season he was
warming up in the bullpen at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh
when he threw a pitch so wild that it flew over a 15-foot wall
and struck a fan. Days later Ruffin was throwing in the bullpen
at Shea when a wayward delivery hit a mounted-policeman's horse
in the behind.
The unexplained wildness appeared on and off for the next three
years. "I'd hold a baseball in my hand and it was like gripping
a can or something," Ruffin has said of those days. "It was like
a foreign object in my hand." One fan wrote to him suggesting
that he remove the tin of chewing tobacco from his back pocket
because it was pressing on a nerve in his leg. A desperate
Ruffin removed the tin. Finally, at Triple A
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in '91, Red Barons pitching coach Jim
Wright helped Ruffin overcome his demons by breaking down his
pitching motion and rebuilding it and also by putting Ruffin
through drills to improve his concentration.
It seemed to work. Ruffin walked only 38 hitters in 119 innings
with Philadelphia that year and eventually signed as a free
agent with the expansion Rockies before the '93 season. He is
currently Colorado's alltime saves leader, with 60 at week's
end, including seven saves in eight opportunities in '97--the
only blown save coming in his blowup against the Mets.
The day after that awful performance, Ruffin warmed up in the
bullpen at Shea but was too wild even to enter the game. A week
and a half later he went to Double A New Haven, where Wright is
now the pitching coach. After two successful workouts with
Wright, Ruffin attempted to throw in the Ravens' bullpen during
a game. "He was flinging baseballs all over the place," says New
Haven general manager Charlie Dowd. "He nearly killed a couple
of our fans."
Ruffin, who as of Sunday was on the disabled list with a "stiff
back," also injured his left big toe last week when he kicked
the ground in frustration. "I feel like I've figured out some
things I need to work on," he says. "I just want to focus on
those things and try to block everything else out." But
encouraging workouts have been followed by stints of
cluelessness, all of which leaves Ruffin in an agonizing state
that only a few unfortunate pitchers can truly understand.
"It's a very lonely feeling because after a while, none of your
teammates knows what to say to you anymore," says Blass, now a
Pirates broadcaster. "But mostly it's horribly embarrassing
because you're always afraid your next pitch might end up in the
hot dog stand. It can be hell just standing on the mound."
AN ENDURING RIVALRY
Legend has it that on May 27, 1984, during one of Mississippi
State's NCAA regional tournament games against South Carolina in
Starkville, Miss., a violent storm arrived just as the eighth
inning began. With thunder grumbling and lightning crackling
overhead, the Bulldogs' Rafael Palmeiro hit a double and Will
Clark followed with a home run. The duo's nickname, Thunder and
Lightning, was born.
Some 13 years later, on June 3 in Baltimore, Palmeiro hit a
dramatic two-run, 10th-inning homer to give the Orioles a 7-5
win over the Yankees. About half an hour later in Texas against
the Twins, Clark completed a 4-for-4 night for the Rangers that
gave him a gaudy .392 average. It was just like Clark to trump
his former teammate.
Though both were stars at Mississippi State from '83 through
'85, it was Clark who won the '85 Golden Spikes award as the
best amateur player in the country. Clark was chosen second
overall in the June '85 amateur draft by the Giants; Palmeiro
was selected 22nd by the Cubs. In his first seven major league
seasons, Clark drove in 100 or more runs three times and twice
reached the postseason. During the same period Palmeiro never
knocked in 100 runs and never made the playoffs.
Finally, in '93, Palmeiro appeared to get the upper hand,
hitting 37 homers and knocking in 105 runs for Texas while Clark
was hampered by injuries and had a poor season for San
Francisco. When both players became free agents after that
season, Palmeiro thought he would get a fat contract to stay
with the Rangers. Instead, Texas signed Clark to a five-year,
$30 million deal, intimating in the process that Palmeiro lacked
the fiery leadership that Clark could bring to a clubhouse.
Palmeiro signed with the Orioles, who negotiated with him only
after they had failed to land Clark. Even though the two players
received roughly the same money, Palmeiro bitterly complained in
the press that he had been ill-treated by the Rangers.
The Texas brass has absorbed much criticism for signing Clark
instead of Palmeiro, because while the two players have
remarkably similar career numbers (Clark has hit .302 with 225
homers and 974 RBIs in 1,557 games; Palmeiro has hit .298 with
244 homers and 889 RBIs in 1,517 games), in the three-plus
seasons since Palmeiro joined Baltimore he has played more games
and significantly outproduced the oft-injured Clark. Since '93,
Palmeiro has outhomered Clark 112 to 49 and knocked in almost
100 more runs. After going on the disabled list three times in
'96 and missing the first 12 games of '97 while on the DL with a
sprained left wrist, Clark was hitting .361 through Sunday,
coming off a .394 batting average in May, a club record for that
month. Meanwhile, Palmeiro led the powerful Orioles with 11
homers and was second on the team in RBIs with 41.
Despite their shared history, the two players have never been
close. When asked about Palmeiro last week, Clark quickly
insisted that the subject be changed. Says Palmeiro, "Will and I
have never really been friends, but I respect him as a player.
Will has always received more recognition than I have because he
exploded on the scene right from the start of his career, and I
just keep rumbling along."
WAR OF WORDS
Reds outfielder Deion Sanders and Phillies righthander Curt
Schilling got off to a bad start this season during an April
game in Cincinnati, when Sanders stole third base and then faked
a steal of home while the Reds held a comfortable 6-0 lead.
Schilling felt that was an egregious violation of baseball
etiquette, and when the two teams met again last week in
Philadelphia, Schilling fired a pitch at Sanders's head as he
squared to bunt. Fortunately for Sanders, the pitch ricocheted
foul off his bat, but he nevertheless approached the mound,
exchanging words with Schilling. Here's the running dialogue
that ensued between the unhappy couple.
Sanders (after the pitch): "Are you trying to hit me?"
Schilling: "If you think I'm trying to hit you, why are you
Sanders (after the game): "He is going to have to deal with
this, as God is my witness. I make my money with my body, and to
go above my waist is unforgivable."
Schilling: "If he thinks somebody's trying to hit him, he has a
responsibility to himself to do something. But the guy won't hit
anybody even when he's got [football] pads on. What's he going
to do, arm-tackle me?"
Sanders: "Please, tell him I'll meet him [between the
clubhouses] right now. And tell him if he doesn't show, you are
all going to put it in the paper. I'm a grown man, and I don't
like talking this kiddie stuff in the press."
Sanders (the next day): "I wasn't going to charge the mound and
get suspended for three games when I'm only going to get in one
lick. It ain't worth it. That dude has no heart. Just ask his
teammates. You'll notice he didn't do that last week when he
pitched in Cincinnati. He waited because he knew we weren't
going to see them again until September."
Schilling: "First of all, he said he's not going to do this
through the media, and now he's giving me a two-page
dissertation on heart. Here's a guy who quits his team halfway
through the season to go play football if they're out of the
race. Heart? You make your reputation getting out Barry Bonds,
Ken Griffey Jr. and Albert Belle, not Deion Sanders. What's he
done in this game? He's basically a glorified flag football
player who can run."
Does this mean Schilling won't be comped for Super Bowl XXXII?
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE For reasons he and Colorado can't figure out, Ruffin is struggling to get the ball over the plate. [Bruce Ruffin pitching]