ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Rochester is a good place to play baseball. It has a history; Pepper Martin played here, and Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, Harry (The Hat) Walker, Luke Easter, great names up to Cal Ripken Jr. It has a newly renovated park that retains charm. Within its signboard fences, the ritual of an evening's batting practice unfolds to a radio station's piped-in songs and capsule news reports of what seems a remote world: "The Dow Jones went down three points today -- no big deal there. There was a slight earthquake this morning in Ohio . . . It's a nice night for a ball game if it doesn't rain . . ."
Pleasant as life is on Baltimore's top farm club, Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, Ken Dixon and Jeff Ballard didn't expect to be part of it just now. All have been starting pitchers this season in Baltimore. Flanagan and McGregor each has pitched more than 10 years for the Orioles; Dixon thought he saw the last of Rochester in 1983; Ballard started this season at Rochester by winning five straight, was called up by the Orioles, discovered life was no dream and was sent back. So it came to pass that the latest Rochester Red Wings pitching rotation would be -- and no one anticipated this -- Flanagan, McGregor, Dixon and Ballard.
Each is conducting a search: Flanagan, for his former curveball and some luck; McGregor, for his old confidence and some sign that he can still pitch; Dixon, for a more thoughtful approach and an offspeed pitch so he will stop serving home run balls, giving the game the look of a war in which the Orioles are perpetually bombed; Ballard, for his April magic that, once bottled, could put him on the shelf with Flanagan and McGregor -- the shelf of a bookcase in the Rochester clubhouse that includes a history of the Orioles in which Flanagan and McGregor play major roles.
(Would the Gas House Gang have had a bookcase in their clubhouse?)
First, McGregor and his search. His back against the wall, gray-haired McGregor, 33, occupies a corner of the new Rochester clubhouse (dungeons have been brighter than the old clubhouse, which could give a major league veteran the feeling he had sunk to a nether world).
"I lost my confidence," said McGregor, who gave up six runs in one inning at Boston in his last Orioles outing, "and when you lose your confidence you're in trouble. The whole game is in your mind.
"Flanny" -- Flanagan -- "was 0-5, pitching well, but after a while you just start thinking, what do I have to do to win? He kept trying harder with his breaking ball and he ended up getting hurt. In my case, I kept trying harder and harder, and we kept losing more and more, the fans started booing, and I guess I just sort of pulled back. I got kind of intimidated. Before I knew it, I wasn't throwing the ball worth beans.
"I tried to do some things at the end" -- change his motion, experiment with a split-fingered pitch and a forkball. Nothing worked.
"People started saying, you're getting older, you need to make changes and stuff, and I've never been a believer of that," McGregor went on. "I've got three pitches" -- a fastball that has never been overpowering, curve and change-up -- "that have always worked well for me and that's the way I've got to pitch. I threw a three-hit shutout with them so far this year. I had a great spring. So obviously the problem was just up here." He tapped his gray head.
McGregor has heard it all: various suggestions, booing and even "a little voice in your ear saying it's all over." He does not believe the "little voice."
Down the row of lockers, Flanagan read a newspaper, taking a break from a search he said is about over. He believes he's found what he's been looking for.
"No problem with the elbow, I guess that's number one. I'm getting some people out, getting things going in a more positive direction. It's probably the first time all year I've thrown the ball correctly." It's easier on the arm, that way.
He's completed a rehabilitation program that included long throwing -- hurling a baseball 140 times a day at 250 feet over a mythical home plate. "All of a sudden the delivery seemed to feel smooth. Then, gradually, you creep up to the mound. It's worked out great for me."
Flanagan's arm went bad this season as gradually as his record. "Anytime you lose, I don't care if you lose 2-1 or 1-0, if you lose three or four of those in a row, you feel in your mind you have to change something. You think you're not doing enough to win, and that's the trap you fall into sometimes. Instead of saying, I'm throwing the ball good, it's okay, the tendency is to try to change. So I went out and threw too many curveballs on the side, trying to find it, the correct way to throw it."
That's when he hurt his elbow. The tendinitis worsened progressively. "One game it would start hurting in the seventh, next game it would be the sixth inning, then the fifth, then the fourth. Finally, it was there all the time, and it reached a point where I really couldn't throw anymore."
He went on the disabled list in mid-May, now he'd come to Rochester. Saturday afternoon in Kansas City, he is scheduled to pitch for the Orioles. At age 35, having lost eight straight decisions at Baltimore, Flanagan needs to look impressive -- since 80 pitches has been his maximum in any one game at Rochester, it would be surprising if he could go the distance against the Royals.
Then there's Dixon, on the other side of the clubhouse. He needs -- and, at age 26, can still get -- some of the craftiness that has sustained Flanagan and McGregor, whereas they can only dream of having Dixon's youth and fastball. Dixon is searching: "I'm working a lot on my offspeed pitches. I've started concentrating more on just getting guys out as opposed to just raring back and trying to strike everybody out sometimes. That's not a good approach to the game because if you make some mistakes over the plate somebody's going to take you out of the ballpark."
That's what happened -- he allowed 20 home runs in 65 1/3 innings for Baltimore. He'd even get ahead of batters and still give up home runs. The Orioles said he needed to be more a pitcher than a thrower. Here since last month, he's been working up a sweat -- taking batting practice, running laps along the right field fence, pitching on the side, working at an offspeed pitch which he believes is improving. "Overall," he said, "I've gotten a little mileage out of it."
A few lockers from Dixon is Ballard. A left-hander like Flanagan and McGregor, Ballard, 23, has more the look of a young Flanagan, with a curve and good-enough fastball. He's bright -- a Stanford graduate. He's needed to be smart, considering what's happened to him this season. When the Orioles brought him up in May, they risked ruining his confidence.
"When I was here in April and 5-0, I didn't even have to think about anything when I was out there pitching," he said. "I just went out and threw the ball, hit my spots, I got outs. Everything went my way."
Pitching can be mysterious. Ballard then found it can be maddening.
"When I was at Baltimore, I got away from pitching the way that I pitched here. I started thinking about mechanics. You can't do that; you can work all that stuff out between starts. I got away from my strong points, which are establishing the outside part of the plate, throwing away -- low and away -- and then coming in." In the big leagues, he thought he'd better throw almost exclusively inside on the batters. "When I got to Baltimore," he said, "I went in, in, in, in."
Sounding like McGregor, he added, "I got out of my mental aggressiveness. I started thinking, I've got to keep my shoulder in here. I lost my confidence, my edge a little bit. When I came back here, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do when I was out there on the mound. I wasn't sure how I wanted to set up hitters. I said, I've got to figure this out again."
Quickly he did. Sunday, in his third straight good outing, he retired the first 14 Toledo Mud Hens and went on to pitch an impressive 8 2/3 innings for a victory in 98-degree heat. Ballard allowed only six hits and two runs, striking out 10 and giving up only one walk. His search had paid off, and his attitude seemed right.
"I'm not in any big rush to get to the big leagues," he said, arm encased in ice. "I still have plenty of years left to go. When I get there again, though, I'm going to stay."
Monday evening was a little cooler, and 6,236 fans settled in, many specifically to watch Flanagan in his third and final start for Rochester. The Genesee beer man began early, walking up and down the steps of the park: "Genny Beer here."
Flanagan is liked. In a poll of fans published the previous day, he was voted left-handed pitcher on the all-time Red Wings "dream team." As he warmed up, people leaned over the box seat railing, trying to talk with him. Ballard, pleased but not overly so with his Sunday performance, autographed baseballs and programs handed to him across the dugout roof. Floyd Rayford, called up by the Orioles, stuck around to play -- the Orioles had an open date, so he decided to suit up for the Red Wings, making premature the local newspaper headline, "Rayford Gone." It's hard to find a player who doesn't want a day off.
Oddly, a team with so many disparate parts as Rochester seemed unified, drawn together, perhaps, by the unusual comings and goings. "Hey, Gonzo's here!" a player shouted on the arrival from Baltimore of utility man Rene Gonzales. It's a team of old Orioles, future Orioles, once-and-future Orioles and never-to-be Orioles. The parent club has called up or sent down 30 players since the start of the season. The Red Wings have used 23 pitchers, including 13 starters, and still managed to stay in the International League pennant race. Their manager, John Hart, smiled and called the ever-changing throng "strangers in paradise."
Perhaps the strangest sight in a Red Wings uniform is McGregor. While Flanagan's troubled season in Baltimore was finally stopped by a physical injury, McGregor simply "lost it." June 29, he gave up a grand slam to Boston's Wade Boggs. The ball seemed to reach the Fenway seats faster than it got from mound to plate.
"That was the worst I ever pitched," said McGregor, his earned run average having reached 6.69. "That's when I was trying a new windup, throwing a new pitch and stuff. That game was when I realized what was going on. I said, what am I doing? I don't need new windups and new pitches. I just need to pitch the way I've always been able to pitch. With confidence, like everybody else.
"Even some of their guys, Don Baylor, he came up to me the day after. 'What are you doing?' I said, 'Well, I tried some things that people suggested but,' I said, 'I think it's time to go back to what I've always done.' He said, 'Good, that's what you need to do.'
"Tommy John. Sutton. They've been pitching forever and they're still throwing it the way they've always thrown it. You've just got to keep your confidence. Don't listen to the other voices. I started opening up my mind to all kinds of things. I see now where you've got to keep your mind really strong. That's what you have to guard the most -- your mind."
The Orioles suggested he do his thinking here. "They want me back there, I believe that," said McGregor. But he said he had gotten it in writing that they would bring him back after three or four starts.
But his future seemed the largest question mark of the Rochester rotation. In his first try with the Red Wings, he gave up a two-run homer, three earned runs in all, in five innings, a defeat. If he doesn't pitch again for the Orioles, he has $2.5 million remaining on his contract and he'll have the knowledge that he tried.
In a more hopeful case, Dixon surely will be back to Baltimore. "I just work here," he said. "I don't know what's going on." But he also said, "I never stop working. Basically, I've tried to do everything they've asked me to do."
"He's looking to improve the quality of pitches, and consistency, in certain times of the count," said Hart. "He's got to use his stuff better. He needs to look at two-strike situations better" -- not simply try to mow the batter down on the next pitch. "We're trying to cut out the mistakes or the situations leading up to the mistakes. One of the things that makes a successful pitcher is the offspeed pitch. He has a good change-up, and he's thrown it effectively down here." Indeed, at Rochester, Dixon's record is 3-0, his ERA 2.67. "I've been pretty consistent throwing strikes," said Dixon. "By throwing strikes, I mean with all the pitches, I don't mean just with the fastball."
Similarly, Flanagan said, "I'm very pleased with my whole assortment of pitches." Monday night against Toledo, Flanagan had success with his curve, which kept the minor leaguers off balance. (He gave up two earned runs in five innings; in three starts and 12 innings total at Rochester, he allowed four earned runs.) But Toledo's leading hitter, Tim Tolman, solved Flanagan's fastball. Tolman went three for three against Flanagan -- then spoke respectfully of him. "I missed two curveballs that hit the dirt. I didn't go up feeling like I was going to rake him each time. I was really fortunate to get three fastballs, I've been hitting well and the ball's been falling in. Facing somebody like him brings everybody's level of play up."
After five innings and his 80 pitches, Flanagan showered and packed. Like McGregor, he seemed at a career crossroads. "The thing I was kind of disappointed in, after the long fourth inning I felt a little draggy. But I had pretty good control." He was off to Baltimore.
"Wednesday night they leave for Kansas City. I'll be with them on that flight. My fifth day is Saturday and I've been told that that'll be my game."
Someone wished him luck.
"I can use luck," said Flanagan. Tomorrow: Rediscovering Jim Traber