Because we live in a sporting world dominated by numbers, the Major League pitching career of Jack McDowell doesn’t exactly jump off the table.
In 12 1/2 big league seasons, McDowell compiled a 127-87 record, along with a 3.85 ERA and 1,331 strikeouts. He was a three-time All-Star selection, as well as the 1993 American League Cy Young Award winner for the Chicago White Sox.
But, again, numbers (and awards) don’t tell the whole story. In a sport often overwhelmed by lame sheep, McDowell was a genuine character. He flipped off Yankee Stadium, spent his free time playing guitar/singing in a rock band and never seemed to shy away from a microphone. You asked Jack McDowell a question, you more than likely weren’t receiving a mere cliche.
Now 45, McDowell dabbles in music and is the head baseball coach at baseball coach at San Dieguito Academy. Here, he talks about big moments, big awards, big steroid users and the opportunity to jam with Celine Dion for $250 a gig.
I’m pleased to return with the Quaz, and even more pleased to welcome in Jack McDowell …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Jack, I tend to ask this of most of the retired athletes I interview, because the concept has always fascinated me. Once, not all that long ago, you were a sort of God. You walked on majestic fields, you wore clean uniforms, you flew chartered jets and ate fantastic meals and had people screaming your name. Then, one day, it stops. Ends. You no longer possess super powers, and people aren’t screaming. What is that like to deal with? Is it a hard transition? How did you transition from baseball to … life?
JACK MCDOWELL: Well, I’m now in my 12th year of “transition” so let me think back … When I finally decided that the life of pro athlete had faded, I had my music to at least fall back on for a bit of a transition. We went after that for a while, recording and touring a bit more, but the life of a smaller indie band didn’t much exist because the landscape of music had changed so much. I took a while to give in to the fact that my true passion was baseball and that coaching it would more than likely be my life. I think it was good for me personally not to get back into baseball immediately after my career because it would have just been harder to actually transition mentally. In a way I can say that I’m a lot more comfortable knowing that my every move is not followed and I can go anywhere and not be the center of attention. I was never comfortable in that skin even though an athlete cannot deny that the accolades and adulation are wanted and needed! I guess it’s easier to speak about and acknowledge my old career because it seems like I can discuss it more like a fan … “Yeah, that Blackjack guy was pretty cool!”
J.P.: A bunch of years ago I asked Mike Scott, the 1986 NL Cy Young Award winner, where his trophy was located. He said it had turned a greenish tint and was wedged in a door. Where’s yours? Do you value it? And did winning the Cy Young Award have any long-term life implications? More money at card shows? Better seats at a restaurant? Anything?
J.M.: My Cy Young is on the back wall of my little office. It seems every first timer to visit my house wants to see it, so it is up where it can be seen. I have to truthfully say that prior to winning the award, I had no idea what it looked like. It always seemed like more of a “title” rather than a trophy, so seeing the trophy is always cool. I guess what it has done for me is given me a lifelong title! It seems that a player’s highest individual achievement becomes his lifelong title—three-time All-Star, 20 game winner, batting champ, etc.
J.P.: It seems like, as an ex-athlete, you’re stuck in the hellish vortex of doom, where you’re forever asked about things you did when you were 23. Hell, the last thing I wanna talk about are things that happened when I was 23. Do you tire of the questions? Of the “So what was Frank Thomas like?” sort of inquiries.
J.M.: I don’t mind answering all the questions because I think my perspective on all of that is far more historically correct than the public’s vision becomes over time. Plus as I move farther away from those times I can see things from more of a fan’s perspective and almost speak of things as if I’m talking about someone else.
J.P.: What did it feel like at the absolute best? What I mean is, when you were standing on the mound, just cruising along, and nobody could come close to touching you, and you were the absolute man, and 40,000 people are on their feet? How did that feel?
J.M: It felt great to be one of the top guys because it’s a presence that you bring and both teams can actually feel it when you’re coming into town. But as any athlete knows, you are never comfortable. It’s like having blinders on and continuing to push and move forward.
J.P.: You were always known as the quirky ballplayer who was also played guitar. I used to wonder—and now can ask—did being a ballplayer hurt or help your music career? On the one hand, clearly it gave you attention? But did people take you and your band seriously, or were you viewed, unfairly, perhaps, as a novelty act?
J.M.: Oh, it was always as a novelty act. Impossible to get away from. But now that we have some distance, I’m thinking about passing on some songs to possibly get recorded by other artists. More on the publishing songwriting end. I will say that while I wasn’t the best singer or guitar player around, I could write songs and that will come out soon … I hope.
J.P.: I’m a New Yorker. In 1995 you gave the fans at Yankee Stadium the middle finger after being booed. Personally, I love it. It’s raw, emotional, sorta funny—and just a fleeting gesture. Yet this city doesn’t take stuff like that lightly. What was the fallout like for you? Was it difficult to deal with, and did you think you were treated unfairly by the New York media? Also, there’s a song, The Yankee Flipper, that suggests the middle finger was related to an alcoholic night on the town. True?
J.M.: The flipper incident ended up just basically blowing over. A few in the media wanted blood but the fans were the ones who actually brushed it off and really made me feel like things were fine afterward. As far as the song goes, the story is true but from a week prior to the “incident.” It was the night of R.E.M.’s final date on their 1995 tour. Show was at MSG and the after party was epic. It was back when I was drinking whiskey which made for a long but ever memorable evening out with the boys. That was even before McCaughey joined he touring ranks of R.E.M. We were all just hanging with the boys and recorded for eternity.
J.P.: You were drafted by the Red Sox in the 20th round of the ’84 draft, but went to Stanford and won a College World Series. A. How close did you come to signing? B. Did you ever regret the decision? C. How would you compare the joy of winning a College World Series to whatever your greatest moment in the majors was? I’m guessing the innocence of college baseball lends itself to something that can never be duplicated. No?
J.M.: Back when I was drafted, if you had a Stanford scholarship you were considered hands off in the draft. There was no history of guys signing instead of going to Stanford or even leaving after their junior year which is now the basic route of college players. But that being said, the Red Sox affered me second round money so I actually did think about it for a bit. I went off and played on the USA junior Olympic team that summer and basically dominated. In the tournament I pitched three complete games, against Canada (a team of 9 lefthanded batters including Larry Walker), Taiwan and Cuba. I threw two shutouts, Cuba and Canada and gave up a leadoff homerun against Taiwan and that was it—27 innings 43 K’s 1 run. Against Canada I punched out 18 and went 4 for 4 with two doubles. So when I came back to the states we all thought Boston may try to jump in and bump the offer up a bit but that never happened and the rest was history.
Winning the College World Series was by far the most memorable and important event in my baseball career. I never won a World Series title, so the college thing stands as the one best event. I always tell my players that every individual year can be improved upon. The only end all achievement is winning a championship because at that point, there is nothing left to accomplish.
J.P.: You played during what can be called the golden age of performance enhancing drugs. Jack, did you ever use steroids or HGH, or did you ever consider using? Were you aware how much was going on and, in hindsight, does it bother you? If you didn’t use, and hitters were using, weren’t they stealing from you, to a certain degree?
J.M.: I never used steroids or any of that stuff. We all knew it was widespread but it wasn’t out in your face. Guys did it very discreetly but just as all the fans speculations about guys are usually 100 percent correct, our were as well. What would amaze people would be the guys who folks think “never” did it! I’ve already gotten in trouble for naming a few names in regards to speculation so I won’t go there, although in hindsight I was redeemed. Let’s just say I may have been one of the last “clean” award winners prior to testing …
J.P.: Back in 1992 your band, V.I.E.W. opened for The Smithereens. What do you remember from that experience? You were just a young lad, opening for a pretty friggin’ awesome band. Were you nervous? Excited? How did that compare to, oh, a big game? And do you get more joy from a great gig than you did a big game against Seattle or Texas?
J.M.: Music was so different because it was so new to me. Believe it or not the Smithereens tour was one of the first times I actually performed in front of people. We had only done a few shows prior to that gig. Mike Mesaros (the Smithereens bass player) had seen us perform the song “Prodigal” from the first V.I.E.W. record acoustic and live on Roy Firestone’s show and really liked the song. He made a push to get us on that tour over the winter which we did. It was awesome. Mike and I became good friends and he actually became a member of stickfigure and did most of the touring as our bass player. He still loves “Prodigal” and would always push for it to be included in the set list.
J.P.: You worked extensively with guitarist Geoff Pearlman. He sounds like an amazing man. What can you tell me about him?
J.M.: Geoff and I worked together toward the last stage of Sickfigure around the recording of the final record “Memento Mori” and our last tour. Basically he’s a superstud guitar player, great voice, great musical mind. He definitely added a bigger guitar presence to that final record.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JACK MCDOWELL:
• Five greatest guitarists of our lifetime: Brian Setzer, Hendrix, Clapton, Les Paul, Jimmie Page
• Would you rather play lead guitar on Celine Dion’s new CD, “Celine sings Streisand: The Love Album,” or spend the next month as the bullpen coach for Randall’s Island Prison softball team?: Celine’s gig would pay $250 per song as any side musician will tell you so I’ll pass … pitching coach it is.
• Does Roger Clemens belong in the Hall? Why?: Clemens should be in the Hall to join several other steroid users who are already there.
• Did you doctor a baseball more than, oh, 30 times in your career? And what’s the best way to do so?: I know a lot of people won’t believe this but I never doctored a ball. I would actually throw away balls that had cuts on them. I had a superstition that I needed to “know” where the ball was going!
• We give you five innings today against the Twins. What’s your pitching line?: Depends on how long I have to get ready to pitch. I would more than likely first need back surgery, rehab time and time to get back into shape. Then I could probably get guys out for one time around … before they called 911. The last “competetive” pitching i did was two years ago at the Stanford Alumni game. I was thinking I would toss it a bit at the old-timers game but instead they threw me in the big game vs the varsity. Two shutout innings!
• Rank in order: Daryl Hall, Lauryn Hill, Tupac and Lee Greenwood?: Hall, Greenwood, Lauren Hill, Tupac
• Five most talented baseball players you ever played with/against: Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, Robbie Alomar, Greg Maddux, Rickey Henderson.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details …: 1993 middle of the night flying home from Seattle night game, we feel a big jolt and bump and look out the left side of the plane and the engine is on fire. Only a few of us were awake at the time. It seemed like forever before anyone even responded … we were like, “Hey, I don’t know much about flying, but the WING’S ON FIRE!” Finally a flight attendant came back, saw what we saw and immediately reached over and shut the window-shade! Like that would make it go away. Then they shut off the left engine and we went with one. Had to land in Kansas city to get a new plane. Funny to see everyone’s reactions, some crying, praying etc. The truth rears its ugly head.
• The man/woman I want to win the presidential election in 2012 is: Anyone but Obama.
• Could an openly gay person survive in major league baseball in 2011?: It’s kind of like the steroid thing. Everyone suspects/knows but it’s not out in front of your face. They could survive the players, those relationships etc., but probably not the media scrutiny, curiosity and questioning.