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Bringing the heat

Fastball, not a speedball

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

“I had a friend was a big baseball player back in high school

He could throw that speedball by you make you look like a fool, boy”

Bruce Springsteen – “Glory Days”

The Boss obviously never played any baseball. I’ve never heard anyone call a fastball a speedball. A speedball to my generation was a mixture of speed (or cocaine) and heroin, injected into the bloodstream. This is the nasty concoction that killed John Belushi, Chris Farley and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. A speedball also killed former major league star Ken Caminiti. But were here to talk baseball, and specifically about flame throwing pitchers.

As long as baseball has been played, fans and players alike have been fascinated by pitchers who “can bring it”. Word gets around the dugout quickly when a flamethrower is on the mound. You’ve never heard the name David Heins, but in my small hometown of Lincoln, Kansas, in our Midget Baseball League (yeah, I know, it’s an obscenely politically incorrect name and is still used today), David was the Nolan Ryan of our league. When he threw, I literally could not see the ball. I could usually hear the pitch whiz by and sometimes complained to the umpire that it sounded a bit outside. Terrified of getting hit by one of those bullets, I decided to swing where I thought the ball might be. It worked. Over two games against him, I collected three hits, including a triple, much to my amazement. Herein lies the lesson, it’s great to have an otherworldly fastball, but it’s imperative that it have some movement. The second lesson for any fireballer is this: learn how to throw the changeup and use it often.

In recent years the Royals have employed several pitchers who threw gas, guys like Yordano Ventura, Joba Chamberlain and Kelvin Herrera. Now they have another one, Aroldis Chapman, who we’ll get to in a bit.

One of the earliest big guns was Walter Johnson. The Big Train, from Humboldt, Kansas, threw hard and he knew it. Johnson reportedly would not throw inside to get batters off the plate for fear that he’d hit, and kill, someone. Ty Cobb told Detroit owner Frank Navin that Johnson had the best arm he’d ever seen and that his fastball scared him which is a grand testament coming from Ty Cobb. Johnson had a smooth, easy motion and threw sidearm. Imagine being a right-handed batter and standing in against that. Manager, can we wear our brown pants today? Johnson holds the major league career record for shutouts with 110. He also won 417 games in his career, second all-time behind Cy Young. He still ranks ninth all-time in strikeouts which is amazing since his career ended in 1927.

Bob Feller, the Heater from Van Meter (Iowa), was another right hander who could bring the heat. Feller announced his presence during his first start against the St. Louis Browns in August of 1936, throwing a complete game and striking out 15 Browns. Rapid Robert was just 17 years old and after the season ended returned to Iowa to complete his senior year of high school. Talk about having some lunchroom cred. Feller led the American League in strikeouts seven different seasons despite losing nearly four seasons of his prime to military service. In an attempt to measure how fast Feller was throwing, two targets were set up on a Chicago street. Feller threw his fastball in a race against a Chicago policeman riding a motorcycle. The motorcycle sped by him at 86 mph. Feller spotted the bike about ten yards, then unleashed a ball that beat the bike to the target. It is estimated that the ball traveled at 107.6 mph. Feller was pitching off a small makeshift mound on a Chicago Street, wearing dress clothes and a tie. I was fortunate to meet Feller twice and he was a joy to talk to. He loved talking baseball and always took time to engage children about the beauty of baseball. There’ll never be another like him.

Any time there’s a discussion about the hardest throwers ever, the name Steve Dalkowski always comes up. Dalkowski was a slightly built (5’11, 175 pounds) lefty who reportedly could hit 110 mph. He was also very wild, which terrorized anyone who had to bat against him. In his nine-year minor-league career from 1957 to 1965, spent primarily in the Baltimore organization, Dalkowski struck out 1,324 batters in 956 innings of work. He also walked 1,236 batters. Despite his reputation for wildness, he only hit 37 unfortunate souls. They all survived. Dalkowski was reportedly the inspiration for Nuke LaLoosh, the wayward pitcher in Ron Shelton’s classic Bull Durham. Shelton recounts the time he climbed the backstop in a minor league park in Rochester, New York. Rumor was Dalkowski threw a blazer that went through the chain link fence about 25 feet above the ground. Shelton says he found the hole in the fence, confirming the story. Unfortunately, Dalkowski could never reign in his wildness, or his alcoholism, and never pitched in the major leagues.

Texas has produced its fair share of high-octane pitchers. The Royals have dipped their toes in the Texas waters on occasion. Several years ago, they selected a pitcher named Colt Griffin, who reportedly threw over 100 mph. In high school. Griffin never panned out, but another Texas schoolboy legend did: Nolan Ryan. The Ryan Express made his major league debut in 1966 at the age of 19 with the New York Mets. Like Dalkowski, Ryan could be wild. He led his league in strikeouts on 11 different occasions. He also led the league in walks seven seasons. Over a 27-year career, he threw 5,386 innings, striking out 5,714 batters while walking 2,795. The strikeout and walk numbers are all-time major league records. Ryan also threw a record seven no-hitters.

I saw him pitch once, in August of 1977 during what I thought was his prime. His prime ran a long time. This game was one of those Monday twi-night double headers at Royals Stadium, where for something like $2 you could get a ticket in the upper deck. We sat on the rail between home plate and first base and much like David Heins, I could not see the ball. It wasn’t one of Ryan’s’ better outings, he only went six innings, striking out three while walking seven. He gave up two hits and three runs and got the win by a score of 6 to 4. Between games, the Royals PR department drove a semi flatbed out by second base for a concert by C.W. McCall and the band that would eventually form the nucleus of Manheim Steamroller. McCall, who lip synched the entire show, had a big novelty hit in 1975 called “Convoy” and the near capacity crowd ate it up. As far as Ryan’s arm, he reportedly was clocked at 108 mph during a game against Detroit in 1974.

All of this brings us to the Royals newest pitching acquisition, Aroldis Chapman. It’s a bit amazing that Chapman is now entering his 14th major league season. He was a phenomenon when he made his debut with Cincinnati back in 2010. If a Reds game happened to be on television, and Chapman was pitching, you watched. His fastball has been clocked as high as 105.1

I went to a Padres-Cubs game in 2016 when Chapman was the Cubs closer. I bought a seat in the left field stands, close to the Cubs bullpen. When Chapman got up in the seventh to loosen up, at least 50 people left their seats to line the bullpen at Petco Park. When the circus is in town, you go. The Cubs had a comfortable lead going into the ninth inning but brought in Chapman anyway. He nearly blew the game, as the Padres, who at that time had a team of mostly AAAA players, took advantage of Chapman’s wildness and a couple of timely hits to make it interesting. It was fascinating to watch the speed clock on the scoreboard. 101. 103. 102. 101. 104. Yikes! The guy can bring it. The thing that really surprised me is how he is. He’s listed at 6’4 218, but I don’t believe it. He towered over everyone else. I’m going on record to say 6’6 and 240. He’s a big dude. I’m excited to see what he can bring to the Royals. If nothing else, it’ll be entertaining.