Occasionally, one player perfectly illustrates what is best and most characteristic about his particular major league organization.
Mike Boddicker shows why the Baltimore Orioles have been so solid for so long, as well as why his battered team is continuing to contend in a pennant race when many clubs would long ago have sunk from sight.
In the same May doubleheader in which Mike Flanagan hurt his knee and was lost for 10 weeks, Boddicker made his first significant big league start. He pitched a shutout. Last Sunday, with the Orioles slumping seriously, Boddicker pitched another shutout just when the club needed a lift.
Even more important, in the view of Manager Joe Altobelli, Boddicker won again on Friday night, pitching a complete game against powerful California on an evening when he gave up four runs in the first three innings and seemed to have nothing. Boddicker wouldn't quit, adjusted to the realization that he couldn't throw his fast ball past anyone, and ended up pitching a six-hitter.
Boddicker has started 11 times, and his steady performances--6-4 record with a 3.52 earned run average in 72 innings--have been a reasonable approximation of what Flanagan might have done.
Quality pitchers have been the Baltimore signature for 25 years. But few have shown the Orioles' methods and particular cast of mind as well as Boddicker.
Many teams think that pitchers are born. They look for imposing stature and strength of arm as Boston still searches for the reincarnation of Jim Lonborg. The Orioles appreciate a Jim Palmer or Storm Davis. But they can also make a pitcher--make that craftsman--out of a slim, smart and unheralded all-sports athlete such as Boddicker.
The Orioles' handling of the 25-year-old right-hander's career tells a good deal about a "winning tradition" and "baseball judgment."
Boddicker, from Norway, Iowa, where he still returns in winter to work for a grain elevator operator, was a third-team all-Big Ten choice at the University of Iowa. Nice, but no ticket to the bigs. After Orioles scout Joe Bowman signed him in 1978, Boddicker proved a quick study and rocketed from college ball to AAA Rochester in only 15 weeks. Suddenly, the 5-foot-11, 172-pound Boddicker looked like a real prospect.
By 1980, Boddicker, then 23, seemed the finished product. His Rochester ERA was the best in any AAA league: 2.18. He had stamina (13 complete games) and control (1.66 walks per game); he was a slick fielder and a handsome, polished athlete. He was as ready as he'd ever be. That, at any rate, is what many teams would have thought. Perhaps a dozen clubs would have rushed such a prospect to the majors to exploit his gifts.
After '80, the Oriole brass picked Boddicker apart and reached a consensus.
Boddicker was called in and told the truth.
He didn't have a single outstanding major league pitch. His curve and slider were too close to his mediocre fast ball in speed. A hitter could look for any one pitch and still hit the other two. He had no pitch that left-handed batters feared.
The organization told Boddicker that, if it brought him up, his brains and breaking stuff might keep him in the league a few years, but, essentially, he'd only be a decent .500 pitcher. Baltimore is interested only in winning pitchers.
The most effective pitcher in AAA was told to go back to Rochester and stay there until he developed an exceptional offspeed pitch.
Boddicker tried every sort of change-up, slip pitch, knuckler and fork ball. In '81, constantly fiddling, he was 10-10 with a 4.20 ERA. Prospect watchers crossed him off. In '82, Boddicker improved, gaining control of a fork ball; he was 10-5 with a 3.58 ERA at Rochester, then pitched 26 innings for the Orioles in the pennant race with a 3.51 ERA.
Still, Boddicker kept experimenting. Turning his change-up from good to gold was the key to making all his other pitches look better. This spring, he found it--the pitch he'd sought for nearly three years. Boddicker calls it a fork ball, but since he pushes it from between his fingers with a sidespin that produces a screwball, his pitching coach, Ray Miller, has named it the "fush ball."
Last Sunday, Boddicker threw the Mariners 56 sinking fast balls. The fush ball, which looks like a fast ball until it falls away, appeared/disappeared 34 times. Add 29 sliders and 16 curves of varying speeds and, suddenly, it's not hard to understand why Boddicker has almost as many strikeouts (49) this season as hits allowed (60)--usually the mark of an outstanding "stuff" pitcher.
The jury remains out on Boddicker, who has had four spectacular games (0.56 ERA), five solid outings (4.20) and two early kayoes (18.56). His full-season stamina is untested and he has blister problems. In the constant war of adjustments, will Boddicker outsmart the league, or will it learn him? What can be made of his 2.04 ERA at home, but 6.31 on the road?
"Once you get here (to the majors), it doesn't matter who likes you or what the 'experts' say; all that matters is what you do," Miller says. "Mike was No. 9 on the staff when he came up from Rochester and now he might be No. 4."
On many a team, Boddicker might have gotten his big break in 1981 when he wasn't equipped to succeed. Like so many failed phenoms, he might never have known what hit him. Now, with 600 innings of Rochester varnish and his new fush ball, plus the double-edged luck of Oriole injuries, Boddicker will get a long and honest chance.