Thursday, February 28, 2013

Minor League Flakes

For every player who succeeds in the big leagues, there are a dozen others who toil anonymously in the minors. Some of these nameless, faceless individuals have left behind a legacy of fascinating tales largely unheard by the masses. Among the most colorful players in minor league history, Bill Faul and Steve Dalkowsi had careers well worth examining.

Dalkowski is generally considered to be the fastest pitcher who ever lived. Unfortunately, no one will know precisely how fast. A simple-minded left-hander who never progressed beyond Triple-A due to extreme wildness, he created his own mythology in the Orioles’ farm system between 1957 and 1965. One of his pitches allegedly tore off a batter’s ear lobe. Another offering shattered an umpire’s mask. After looking at one fastball, even Ted Williams refused to hit against him. To satisfy their curiosity, the Orioles sent Dalkowski to an Army training ground in Aberdeen, Maryland, where they were granted access to a device designed to measure the velocity of projectiles. Unfortunately, the experiment required the unpredictable southpaw to toss the ball through a small metal box just a few inches in diameter. It took Dalkowski forty minutes of full exertion to get one of his throws into the box. The result was a disappointing 93.5 miles per hour. Hall of Famer Bob Feller had been clocked at 98.6 using a similar method, but he was well-rested and throwing off of a mound at the time of the trial. Dalkowski was working from a flat surface on a day he had already pitched. An elbow strain in 1963 reduced his velocity and forced him into retirement two seasons later. A chronic alcoholic, he eventually drank himself into a state of permanent dementia. His story became the premise for a character in the 1988 film Bull Durham. A measure of his wildness, he averaged 12 walks per nine innings during his 9 seasons in the minors. 

Bill Faul had several cups of coffee in the majors, appearing in 71 games for the Tigers, Cubs and Giants between 1962 and 1970. Most of his career was spent on the farm, however, where he notched a 46-35 record and a 3.57 ERA in 220 games (a majority of them in the Pacific Coast League). Faul got his start at the University of Cincinnati, becoming the school's first All-American selection. A college teammate described him as extremely gullible and highly vulnerable to the pranks of teammates. Tigers' manager Chuck Dressen made the following observation: "You watch him for awhile, watch how he acts, talk to him, spend some time with him and you figure he's the dumbest guy in the world or the smartest one you've ever met." The jury is still out on that one. In addition to a quirky delivery that irritated many hitters, Faul was known to hypnotize himself before games by standing in a corner and placing himself in a trance-like state. He said it was to boost his confidence. He had other eccentric practices as well. In order to give himself a competitive edge, he was known to bite the heads off of live parakeets and swallow live toads. He claimed the toads gave him extra velocity on his fastball. He averaged nearly 6 strikeouts per 9 frames during his brief major league career. Faul seemed to have the skills  necessary to pitch in the Big Show, but his strange behavior doomed him to a life in the bush. Inexplicably, he was on the mound for three triple plays during his career.   

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