Over and over, Kevin Saucier kept saying how relieved he is to be out of baseball. And that's odd because for one blissful summer before instinct abandoned him, Saucier was as good a relief pitcher as there was.
Dancing, strutting after every save he made for the Detroit Tigers, Saucier always seemed on the verge of losing control. And then he did, in the most unexpected way.
First, he couldn't make a pickoff throw. The pitching coach stopped calling them. Then, one day, in Oakland, he threw back-to-back fast balls behind Tony Armas' head. By this spring, he said, "I had no idea where that sucker was gonna go."
Scared of himself, scared he would kill somebody, Saucier went home to Pensacola, Fla., to open a pizza parlor. Saucier's Dugout is scheduled to open in November. The Tigers sent an 8 x 10 glossy signed by everyone on the team to hang on the wall.
He says he is happy now, home with his wife and daughter. He plays a little softball (in the outfield) and watches games on TV. But the ball still feels like a foreign object. "The feeling is just not there," he said. "I think it's gone forever."
How do you say, "I don't want to do this anymore?" when you have a job people kill for? Maybe you lose control, force yourself to make a choice you otherwise would not, could not, make. Saucier says no, he loved baseball too much for that. But maybe, he loved something else more. "Unconsciously, I think he opted for roots, family and living the American dream," said his agent, Dennis O'Brien.
This spring, after the Tigers released him, after a tryout with the Braves' AAA team in Richmond, Saucier and his wife Karen got in the car and headed home. She said, "Your mind's a funny thing, I know you love baseball and if you had your control, we'd be playing. But maybe in back of your mind, it's telling you it's time to quit and this is the only way to do it." He said, "Well, maybe."
Last year, he earned $140,000. Now, she is working in her parents' bridal shop. They've sold one of their cars and plan to move in with their parents until they get the business going.
They don't see any reason for people to feel sorry for them. "I'm proud of him," she said. "It's not many men who would stand up and walk out no matter how much it hurt. In baseball, you don't have your own life. He was taking a stand for his own life, for making a life that is his own."
For major league baseball players, there is envy not empathy. Pressure is getting laid off, not pitching from the stretch. They grow up being the best always, doing what comes naturally to them and so few others. They don't really have to compete until they reach the majors where everyone was always the best. But the skills that get them there are not the only ones they need to stay. Because he was a natural, when Saucier's skills failed him, he had no method for reconstructing them.
"Pressure is the most sure thing they will get out of baseball," O'Brien said. "Success is not a sure thing. Pressure is. Some guys thrive on it. A lot of them get eaten alive."
Saucier, who is 26 and a lefty, started pitching 17 years ago. "When I had the control, I was ready to deal anytime," he said. "I loved the game of baseball but it wasn't fun the way it was, the way it should have been."
In 1980, he pitched in the World Series for the Phillies. Before his ring arrived, he was traded to Texas and then Detroit. In 1981, he was 4-2 with a 1.65 ERA and 13 saves. He gave up only one home run all season. From April 16 to Aug. 18, he allowed only 13 hits and one run in 31 2/3 innings. One night in Baltimore, after a save, "he went off the mound like it was the seventh game of the World Series," said the Orioles' pitching coach, Ray Miller. "The guys in the dugout were saying, 'Good God, what's wrong?' If you show that much emotion, it tells you this guy didn't believe he could do it and he did."
Roger Craig, the Tigers' pitching coach who twice lost more than 20 games in a season for the Mets, said, "A lot of pitchers don't know how good they are or can be. They're getting publicity, pitching on national TV. It enters your mind: why am I here, am I really this good?"
Near the end of the year, Saucier began to get wild. No one thought much about it until later. The next season began well. In 17 games through May 28, he was 3-1 with four saves and 1.42 ERA. Then, the wildness returned: he walked 17 men in 16 innings. "We'd see this coming and take him out of the ballgame," Craig said. "He resented it. He didn't realize what was happening or didn't want to admit it."
Everyone offered advice. "Guys said, 'Don't worry about it, it's the hitter's responsibility to get out of the way,' " Saucier said. Craig suggested he talk to a psychologist or a minister. "People mentioned I should go to a hypnotist," Saucier said. "I don't think a sucker could put me under. They'd have to brainwash me and take everything out of my head and that ain't going to happen.
"Steve Blass, I read an article about him in People magazine. He's gone through this control thing. He had seen a hypnotist, a faith healer, a psychologist and it didn't work. I'm not a voodoo believer."
When the 1982 season began, his wife stayed home to go back to college. "We were having a little bit of trouble," she said. "Everybody does. I opted to stay here and make sure things were right for the two of us."
He hated being on the road. "He was married, bored stiff," she said. "A lot of times he would go out drinking with the guys. I take part of the blame for that."
In July, he was sent to the Tigers' AAA team in Evansville. "I was madder than hell," he said. "I didn't feel it helped."
His wife dropped out of school to be with him. "Him being sent down helped a lot," she said. "It pulled us together. We found out that we're more important to each other than other things."
This year, they went to spring training together. In batting practice, he threw balls "way out where the catcher couldn't catch them." On the sidelines, he was fine. When he went back to the mound "it came back twice as worse."
Finally, he asked for help. The Tigers flew Deborah Bright, an industrial psychologist who works with athletes, to spring training for two days.
She gave him a tape for his Walkman--suggestions for eliminating the bad thoughts, for concentrating on the feeling he had in his wrist, the tingle he had in his fingertips, when he was pitching well. Craig thought it was country music and asked to listen. "It was Deborah talking to him," Craig said.
The second time Saucier pitched after Bright left, he gave up five runs, including a grand slam. He was released the next day. His wife and his agent pursuaded him to try once more. The first time he pitched in Richmond, "it was pretty good," he said. "The next time it was unbelievable. Four consecutive wild pitches. It was crazy.
"It was like a nightmare, going through this thing. That's the main reason I quit. It was unbelievable, the pressure. The day I quit, it was like a big burden was lifted."
His wife came to Richmond and said, "Let's go home right now." He cried. "He asked if I minded," she said. "I said, 'Heavens no. It's you I want. Not that damned white ball.