In the minor league, it is the most pertinent topic: speed.
"I'm a power pitcher. I like to challenge the hitters. I throw hard, maybe in the low 90s," says Mike Zamba, age 22, occupation pofessional baseball player. Zamba is a pitcher for the Alexandria Dukes, the Pittsburgh Pirate affiliate in the Class A Carolina League. He has been on the roster for almost three weeks.
The subject shifts as Zamba slides from fast balls to fantasies. Again, speed is crucial.But now he is not talking about a Rich Gossage-type horizontal explosion. Instead, he is talking about a John Glenn-type explosion: a vertical blast, rocketing right to the top.The major leagues.
"I think," says Zamba, "that by the time I am 25 I will be in at least Triple A, possibly the majors.
"My goal in life is to get my name in Strat-O-Matic," says Zamba of a card game of baseball statistics and managerial skill. "To me, that's the pinnacle of professional baseball. I can see my (game) card now: 16 wins, seven losses, a 2.65 earned run average and 185 strikeouts in 215 innings. Yeah, that would do."
It may seem like kid's stuff, this goal of Zamba's. But Mike Zamba is a kid, playing a kid's game, so the goal is significant. He wants to be a major leaguer.
Among the Alexandria Dukes -- where players earn $600-$850 a month -- this dream is popular. Zamba graduated from New Haven University in June as an academic all-America. His credentials over a two-year period there were impeccable: 21-3, 1.74 ERA. "And I led the nation in Division II in strikeouts this past year," says Zamba, who was drafted in the sixth round by the Pirates.
Because he is so new to the strains of Class A life, Zamba has a fresh perspective that is, perhaps, a bit naive. He says he understands the frustrations of the minors.
"We are all in the same boat here," he says. "We're struggling. But I don't mind it. I had figured that in A ball we would be traveling around in some beat-up old school bus and be taking some 12-hour rides. This hasn't been bad at all, so far."
Saturday night, Zamba -- a pitcher with an aggregate total of three score-less innings in professional baseball -- appeared for the first time in a Dukes' game whose outcome wasn't already determined. He entered the first game of a doubleheader against the Lynchburg Mets in the bottom of the 10th, the score tied, 1-1. He pitched two scoreless innings, then gave up the winning run in the 12th.
"The pitch the guy hit was outside and he pulled it," said Zamba. "The pitch got away from me.In college, I would have gotten away with it. Suddenly, I guess, you realize you are in a world where everyone has the same abilities. Everyone here was an all-star somewhere."
Already Zamba has endured one change he believes was unjust. "They want to make me a reliever. They saw me ptich in college at the end of last year, when I had already thrown a lot of innings and was tired. They feel my velocity slows at the end of a game. They're wrong. But they say my quickest ticket to the major leagues is as a reliever. So what do I do? I relieve."
Zamba added: "But if they let me start, they'll see I'm right."
Zamba may have lost his chance to see his name in the morning list of probably pitchers, but he hasn't lost his confidence. "I have always had an undying confidence. I have always succeeded in baseball. Now, it's like the story of the man climbing up the mountain. I'll make it. I know it.
"There is a glamor to being a ballplayer," he says. "I'm a professional and I get to sign autographs. People respect me because I'm a ballplayer. It's really a trip."
Scott Kuvinka knows how Mike Zamba feels. He used to feel the same way. That was two years ago, when he embarked on a career he felt certain would drop him off at Three Rivers Stadium, with two quick stops for formality's sake at Buffalo (Double A) and Portland (Triple A).
But the train hasn't reached his station. He is starting to think it might be derailed. He still is in Class A.
"I really don't know what is going on," said Kuvinka, 23. "I'm kind of in a state of limbo. They say I'm still a prospect, but their actions say otherwise. Why do they keep me here?"
It is a rhetorical question. If Mike Zamba, three weeks into his career, represents minor league optimism, then Scott Kuvinka, three years into his, represents its pessimism. These two players are of the same Class A team -- one step above the rookie leagues -- but of very different philosophies.
"I don't get any imput. I have been in the same league, playing against the same teams in the same towns for three years. I have seen guys with less ability than me move up when I stay here. I have a bad taste in my mouth from this," says Kuvinka.
Kuvinka was drafted in the third round by the Pirates in 1979, after hitting .350 in his junior year at Ohio University in the Mid-American Conference. He sighed.
"I was named to The Sporting News All-America team as the third baseman in my last year," Kuvinka says. "People say that if you play at a good college, it is equal to Double A ball. I figured that Single A ball would be just a bunch of high school all-stars. I figured that I would be a lot better. I figured wrong. I hit .190 (acutally .184) in my first year."
That was in Salem, where the Pirates' Carolina League farm team used to play. Last year, Kuvinka hit .216 at Salem and this season he is hitting .260. "But I'm not a .300 hitter. I'm a power hitter. Every year I have led the team or have been close to leading the team in home runs and RBI."
"I have been moved around so much, position-wise. I came here as a third baseman. Then they made me into a catcher and that hurt my speed. It probably took three-tenths of a second off my speed to first. Then, I played the outfield some. Now I am the DH and I don't play the field," said Kuvinka.
"This may be my last year. Truthfully, I don't think my future is with Pittsburgh. You don't like to think about not playing baseball," says the physical education major, "but I guess I could do a few things. I could work construction or I could go out to Wyoming where my brother is a lawyer and find some work out there.
"The worst thing is, I've been a Pirates' fan all my life."