It's the time of year that frequently brings up such horror stories as Steve Dalkowski. You can still stir up a debate in some spring training dugouts with the name of Dalkowski. Never threw a pitch in the major leagues. Wound up a derelict working the farm fields in California. Through when he was 27.
"Threw harder than anybody whoever pitched major league baseball," you'll say, and you've started a debate.
Harder than Koufax? Guys who batted against both said, "Yeah." I've heard oldtime major leaguers say. Cal Ripken Sr. for one. Cal hit against Dalkowski in the minor leagues, then later against Nolan Ryan in the majors.
"Ryan couldn't compare with him," Cal has said.
Dalkowski's name always comes up during spring training, when some young dude will come into camp throwing bullets.
He was just average size, 5-feet-10 and about l80 pounds. Out of the industrial town of New Britain, Conn. A sorry background, like a bad horse that couldn't be broken.
The Baltimore Orioles gave him $40,000 and a new car when he came out of high school. That only set him on the road to nowhere. The Orioles hadn't bothered to find out that he was an alcoholic. Had other problems, like peeping through keyholes at women undressing in the next room.
A fellow I knew who managed him in the minor leagues in California said he had Dalkowski when he was at the top of his game. "Struck 26 batters and walked 26 in a game," Billy Demars told me.
"He was Polish, so I promised him a good Polish dinner if he'd pitch a complete game," Billy said. "He did, won and I thought he'd turned the corner. He got to the bar before I could get him to dinner."
Slow learner. "If I tried to teach 100 pitchers," Earl Weaver said, "he'd have been the last to learn."
Out of baseball, he just disappeared. Then someone found him on a truck heading for the picking fields. A onetime teammate found him with his dog, down and out, a sodden wino, and tried to give him a hand, but he still kept the missions open at night. You won't find any Dalkowskis around any more. Teams check them now before they get past the clubhouse door.
His kind doesn't come along any more. But let me tell you this -- there were more of them in those days than teams were willing to admit. They're still out there, but they're picking vegetables, not pitching baseballs. Management set the standard too high, which means the Josh Hamiltons are rare nowadays.
But that's another story.
Furman Bisher is one of the deans of American sports writing. The longtime Atlanta sports journalist is a member of the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame and in addition to his newspaper writing has authored multiple books on major figures like Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer. He writes periodic columns for the Daily Post.