Steve Dalkowski and his fictional alter ego, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, had little in common.
Dalkowski was a 5-foot-10 left-hander who wore glasses, didn’t really look like a ballplayer and never acquired a cool nickname. He drank too much and remained stuck in the minors until his career flamed out in 1966. LaLoosh, a tall, fun-loving, good-looking righty bound for the big leagues, lives forever in the classic film “Bull Durham.”
What they shared was the ability to throw a baseball extraordinarily fast and comically wild (although Nuke eventually learns to harness his energy). Neither pitcher, in real life or on film, was accurately timed, but it’s a given they hit 100 mph - a magic number that by itself guarantees little success but connotes the mythic quality of an achievement beyond the reach of most mortals.
“It’s the triple-digit thing,” said Ron Shelton, a former minor leaguer who used Dalkowski as inspiration for LaLoosh in the movie he wrote and directed. “It’s a goal, whether it’s meaningful or meaningless. It reverberates. There’s a digital board in every stadium, and after every pitch, you look up there.”
In a few months, Nationals fans might be doing the same thing with Stephen Strasburg, whom the club is expected to take Tuesday with the first pick in major league baseball’s first-year player draft. Generally regarded as the best pitching prospect in years, Strasburg has an arsenal of weapons. But the one everybody talks about is a fastball clocked at upward of 102 mph.
Welcome to the 100 mph club, kid.
“It’s a number that is recognized as the elite of arms,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, the all-time strikeout king who threw harder for longer than any pitcher in history. “So when someone throws at that level, it gets people’s attention.”
Said Shelton: “We like strikeouts, and we like home runs.”
In other words, fans like speed and power, and the 100 mph fastball, often heard but not seen, combines both. If you can throw that hard, you’re called a “power pitcher.” Even better is when you can throw that hard for strikes. It took a few years for Ryan, now the Texas Rangers’ president, to learn how to do that. Dalkowski never did.
Shelton followed Dalkowski by a few years in the Baltimore Orioles’ farm system and heard all the stories about his speed and wildness. Dalkowski reputedly hitting an announcer in the press box and a mascot. Dalkowski hurling a baseball through a wooden fence on a bet, firing three pitches through a backstop during a game, breaking an umpire’s mask in three places and causing a concussion. He supposedly pitched a no-hitter while striking out 18 and walking 20.
Ted Williams faced one batting-practice pitch from Dalkowski before dropping his bat and leaving the cage. Williams and others said Dalkowski was the fastest they ever saw, but he never escaped the minors, where he went 46-80 with a 5.59 ERA in nine seasons. In 995 innings, he struck out 1,396 and walked 1,354.
He also was a serious alcoholic.
In a way, Shelton said, “It was like talking about Michael Jordan or LeBron James. This was some other kind of a creature. He was 5-10, wore glasses and short-armed the ball. He’s the last guy in the world you’d think could throw that hard.”
Shelton said he was enthralled with “the idea of a guy with this gift from the gods that doesn’t know what to do with it.”
Other hard throwers have known what to do with it, but how fast did they really throw? Timing the speed of pitches always has been problematic. Even now, radar gun readings vary. In the 1940s, Bob Feller was timed at 98.6 by a photo cell device at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The only serious effort to time Dalkowski’s fastball took place in 1958, also in Aberdeen, not far from where Ripken Stadium now stands. Using a primitive radar device, he was timed at 93.5 mph, but that was laughable. It took Dalkowski 40 minutes of nonstop pitching to get a reading - a day after he threw about 150 pitches in a game.
Even the next generation of fastballers, which included Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax and “Sudden” Sam McDowell, was not accurately timed. Ryan’s 100.9 mph in 1974 still stands in the Guinness World Records’ book as the fastest “official” time, although many have since surpassed that. Detroit’s Joel Zumaya’s 103.9 is generally considered the fastest pitch. But eFastball.com, using clockings at 50 feet from home plate (not the 10 feet formerly used), determined Ryan threw the fastest pitch ever, an astounding 108.1 mph. Feller is next, followed by Zumaya, Mark Wohlers and, yes, Dalkowski.
“There’s not many people that can throw that hard,” Zumaya said. “It’s very rare. … I just think we’re blessed with an arm. It’s cool. It’s great you can throw a ball a hundred miles an hour. It’s just a blessing.”
But Dalkowski proved simply throwing 100 mph isn’t enough. Good location and at least another pitch also are necessary. In recent weeks, fireballers Jorge Julio and Daniel Cabrera were released. Even Zumaya had to develop a breaking ball.
“Velocity doesn’t get me as hyped up as it used to,” he said. “You’ve got to know where to locate it.”
Randy Johnson became a 300-win pitcher after he developed a killer slider to supplement his 100 mph heater.
Nationals broadcaster Rob Dibble, who regularly hit the century mark as a reliever with the Cincinnati Reds, said, “I don’t think it’s that special to be able to throw 100 miles an hour. I think it’s special to be able to pitch at 100 miles an hour.” Besides, he said, “I threw sliders to get outs.”
But when properly located, a pitch boring in at 100 or more “is just a different level,” Nationals outfielder Josh Willingham said. Facing reliever Billy Wagner a few years ago, Willingham said, “When he throws it a hundred miles an hour and put it where he wanted it, I didn’t have a chance to hit it. If he had left it out over the plate, then maybe. But he was throwing on the inside corner, and I couldn’t hit it.”
Zumaya is one of five Tigers pitchers who have touched 100 mph. Justin Verlander probably hits the speed more than any starter in baseball.
“I have no idea why,” he said. “It’s a God-given talent, and that coincides with the right mixture. There’s two different muscle types. There’s fast-twitch and the type that stores energy, and I think it’s the right concoction of that that allows you to be explosive. I can run pretty fast. I can jump pretty high. I can throw a ball pretty hard.”
Ryan was among the first pitchers to lift weights. Now almost all of them do. Verlander said he began lifting as a freshman at Old Dominion, and his fastball rose from 93 mph to 97 by the end of his freshman year. Glenn Fleisig, the director of research at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala., who has been studying pitchers for 20 years, said many pitchers can throw harder than they do - to a point.
“With good mechanics, good strength and conditioning, you can see more pitchers reach their ultimate potential,” said Fleisig, an associate of James Andrews, the famed orthopedist. “And for some people, it’s throwing in the high 90s or 100s.”
But it still takes one more thing: “Good genetics,” Fleisig said.
A 100 mph fastball naturally puts more stress on a pitcher’s elbow and shoulder than a slower pitch, but Fleisig said flamethrowers aren’t necessarily at a higher risk. “It varies from person to person,” he said. “I can tell you that people are throwing harder and putting more force on arms. But the question is can ligaments and tendons handle it? The answer is who knows?
“They don’t have little sensors inside of each pitcher’s arm. The human body is very smart. A baseball pitcher doesn’t need a medical degree or a Ph.D. Their bodies tell them if their arms hurt. It really depends on how good their strength and mechanics are and how good the feedback is between the pitcher and the team.”
Former big league pitcher and pitching coach Tom House called the 100 mph fastball “a mom and dad and God thing.” Meaning “you can’t condition, drug or steroid anything more than what the gene pool dictates,” he said.
“If the genetics are there, throwing that hard consistently is a function of three or four things,” said House, the pitching coach at Southern Cal. “You’ve got to be mechanically efficient. You have to be strong enough. You have to have parity between acceleration and deceleration. Then the final piece - the one very few people understand - is that some kids can throw perfectly in the bullpen, but you put them in a game, performance anxiety and stress precludes everything.”
Just for the record, House added without prompting: “When you’ve got all of that, you’ve got something similar to the Strasburg kid.”