Broken: The middle reliever

The son and the father

June 5, 2008. That’s the date baseball held its amateur draft, and every team in the majors desperately wanted to load up with prospects, each franchise trying to build a more promising future. The Arizona Diamondbacks were looking at a pitcher with their third-round pick, and they reached out to snag a high school kid with a commitment to Santa Clara University. Playing for Aptos High School in California, he had gone 10-1 as a senior, with a 0.78 ERA. In 67.1 innings, he had 120 strikeouts and 16 walks. He was good.

In a preview of the draft, Baseball America said “he has touched 94 mph with his fastball and shows excellent fastball command… His arm works well, and with his athleticism and bloodlines, he’s the best prep prospect in Northern California.” Arizona didn’t want him to get away, so in order to bring him into the fold, they went well above slot, giving him a $500K bonus—more than $150,000 above Major League Baseball’s recommendation. The high school kid’s name was Kevin Eichhorn. And it turned out that he was the son of a former Major League pitcher.

Ah.

Bad news. Bad, bad news. Mark Eichhorn. He was Mark Eichhorn’s kid. And as soon as I encountered the name, it brought back questions. All of them. All the old questions–

How much are you willing to risk? Are you willing to be naked, exposed? Are you willing to make yourself vulnerable? How far would you go?

You know, I hate all those questions. I hated them seventeen years ago. I hate them today. Because every time I think about them, they remind me of what a coward I am. Deep down inside, where it really counts, I know that I’m a total coward. And, I have to be completely honest with you, that’s not a very pleasant thought to live with.

The terrors of growing up

I had a friend named Ellen. We went to high school together. She passed away on May 28, 2006, at the age of 32. Thirty-two. That’s far too young. It’s hard to argue that. There were whispers when she passed away, about the circumstances, about the nature of her passing. No, I was not surprised. But I was saddened. Very deeply saddened. Dammit. It’s been two years and I still have a hard time accepting the news.

When we were in school together, on a long ride to Rhode Island, Ellen told me her father was an alcoholic. She said he was verbally abusive. I can’t remember if he was physically abusive as well. I don’t know. I don’t care to speculate. But I do know that he scared her. Scared her when he was away. Scared her when he was around. Scared her both with his presence and his absence, because she would always wait and wonder when he would be back.

In high school, she would drive to my house in the middle of the night and come to my room. I would hold her and talk to her with the lights out, so that she could fall asleep. Which did not thrill my girlfriend when she found out. But I was a kid, and I couldn’t help myself. See, I had a good circle of friends that I could spend time with. Other friends to talk to. Ellen, on the other hand, told me she had no friends. We went to the same school, and I found this easy to believe. Because of her problems, because of her issues, she kept to herself. She needed me. And for a while, it was nice to feel needed. The problems came later, when I realized that she needed me too much.

A false start

On August 30, 1982, Mark Eichhorn made his Major League debut for the Toronto Blue Jays. Stepping into fellow rookie Jim Gott’s spot in the rotation, he took the mound against the Baltimore Orioles, opposed by Storm Davis (again, another rookie.) Facing a lineup with names like Bumbry, Singleton, Murray and Ripken, the rookie aquitted himself admirably, pitching 4 and 2/3rds, giving up six hits and striking out five in picking up the loss. This was his introduction to The Show. He didn’t dominate. But it looked like he belonged.

A former second-round draft choice out of Cabrillo College, Eichhorn had moved up a level in the minors each of the previous three years, winning double digits at every stop along the way. He ended up making seven starts for Toronto over the remainder of the ’82 season and looked like a potential mainstay in the rotation for years to come. He was only twenty-one, the eighth youngest player in the league, and he still had his rookie eligibility. Mark Eichhorn was young and talented and the future looked promising.

But something happened along the way. Eichhorn blew out his arm. His shoulder. His shoulder went bad. His fastball disappeared. His velocity was gone. Mark Eichhorn spent the tail end of 1982 on the Blue Jays roster. But that was before he got hurt and his velocity vanished. Years went by. It wasn’t until 1986 before he would get back to the Major Leagues again. And when he came back, he was a changed man. He was a different pitcher. Very different. In more ways than one.

Let you down easy, let you down hard

Ellen and I went to college in the same city and we kept in contact. I went to Harvard, she went to BC. But even at a new school, away from home and with a fresh start, things were not easy for her. She told me that the starting fullback of the BC football team sexually assaulted her, and she felt that the school administration didn’t do anything to support her. She thought they didn’t care. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. She may have been right.

We were still both in college and talking on the phone the first time she told me she was doing coke. I didn’t know what to say. It was such a weird and abstract concept to me. It sounded wrong. It sounded dangerous. But she didn’t seem worried. It was all very matter-of-fact to her. She sounded normal, like she always did. She sounded like Ellen.

Things changed when we saw each other for the holidays, over the Thanksgiving break. Ellen, Melissa, my brother and I were hanging around our living room, catching up. But Ellen wasn’t herself. She wasn’t in her right mind. She was crazed. She couldn’t stop playing with the candles and with fire. She cackled over everything. She started damaging my mom’s possessions. It wasn’t good. I think Ry and Melissa just figured she was acting hyper. I hadn’t told them what was going on. But I knew. Maybe not immediately. But eventually? Yeah. I knew.

I wasn’t happy. But I wasn’t sad either. I was—and this is the part that blows my mind today—angry at her. I couldn’t process things properly. I couldn’t parse the information. All I knew was that she came to my family’s house, full of disrespect, and started ruining things that my mom had bought, things that my mom had paid for with her own hard-earned money. And as she damaged these things, Ellen wasn’t apologizing. She was laughing. Cackling.

Look, I get it. I understand now. Seventeen years later, I see what was happening. She couldn’t help herself. She didn’t mean it. I get it.

But back then? Back when we were teenagers, freshmen, in college? I had no idea. It was messed up. I was quick to judge. I was bad at forgiving. When I should have felt sadness and sympathy and understanding, I just wanted to wash my hands of her. And I’m not proud of that. No. I’m not proud of that at all. But that was how I felt.

I cut Ellen off. I let her drift. Over the years, I’ve lost touch with people without meaning to. I think we all have. But when it becomes a conscious choice? That makes it easy. I stopped calling her, stopped getting in touch. She was a sweet girl. But she was much too problematic. I knew that I didn’t want to be involved. I mean, I was just a freshman. I had my own life to lead.

I spent a lot of time thinking about what hanging out with Ellen would mean to me. But, I didn’t have the emotional maturity and compassion to stop and think about what hanging out with me would mean to her. I had a good circle of friends that I could spend time with. Other friends to talk to. Ellen told me she had no friends. I didn’t factor this in. I’m not sure how much difference it would have made. I was in over my head. I figured, it wasn’t my problem. In the end, Ellen and I went our separate ways.

There was no fight. There was no argument. There was no dramatic Hollywood moment where I told her I didn’t want to see her again. I just walked away.

Cut to 2006. It’s fifteen years down the line and my old friend Sarah tells me Ellen passed away. People whisper drugs may have been involved. But I don’t really know for sure. I wouldn’t have been surprised. In the end, what difference did it make? She was dead. Whatever the circumstances, Ellen wasn’t coming back.

How much are you willing to risk?

I hate that question. Because looking back, I wasn’t willing to risk anything. Not a thing. I was looking after myself and turned my back on her. I was more worried about the problems it would cause, the complications it would introduce to my life. Afraid of getting caught in the wake. That’s all I thought about.

I was a total coward, man. No doubt. You don’t need to tell me. I know it. Cowardice in its purest form, complete and absolute. That’s the truth.

I know what I should have done. I should have reached out to her. But I was scared. I didn’t understand her. So I backed away. I don’t know if I could have saved her. But I know that I should have tried. If I tried and I failed, at least I could live with that. But I didn’t try. And now I have to live with that thought instead.

In this life, everything changes

When Mark Eichhorn returned to the Majors in 1986—after his shoulder injury, after the loss in velocity, after years struggling to get back to Toronto—he was a different pitcher. You could see it. He looked different. On the mound, his arm slot dropped. Everything changed. The angles, the visuals. Out of necessity, Mark Eichhorn had re-invented himself. According to Garth Woolsey, in the Toronto Star article from June 14, 1986, “Jays pitching coach Al Widmar and bullpen coach John Sullivan had discussed whether there was a candidate in the organization who might learn to pitch from down under, a la Dan Quisenberry of Kansas City. Sullivan had managed the Quiz in the minors. Eichhorn, in Widmar’s view, seemed to be the ideal candidate and the pitcher responded positively when the idea was put to him by pitching coach Larry Hardy in Syracuse.”

Eichhorn was now a deep sidearm reliever. Like Dan Quisenberry and Kent Tekulve, Chad Bradford and Brad Ziegler. Like Carl Mays. A submariner. But that wasn’t the striking thing about him in my opinion. No. More significantly, upon his triumphant return to the Big Leagues, Mark Eichhorn insisted on throwing slower than any human being I’d ever seen.

Yeah. It was ridiculous.

Not a trick pitch, mind you. Not some novelty. Not a knuckleball that would jump and dance. Not a show-me pitch he would throw five times a game, like a modern-day Eephus. His best pitch. His out pitch. His straight change.

And Eichhorn didn’t merely survive with his glacial changeup. He thrived. He dominated. No lie. When Mark Eichhorn returned to the Majors, he came back with a vengeance. In 1986, this random forgotten man who was still a rookie was tossing changeup after changeup with a deep sidearm delivery and became unhittable. Unhittable. He really did. Working as a set-up man who pitched multiple innings, he locked down the middle of games for the Blue Jays. His stats that year speak for themselves. A won-loss record of 14-6, 157 innings pitched, 105 hits surrendered, 45 walks allowed, 166 strikeouts, a 1.72 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP.

More than a strikeout per inning. Less than a baserunner per inning. A reliever who threw 157 innings. He would have won the ERA title that year, but he turned down the opportunity to throw five more innings so that he could qualify. All this from a man throwing beyond slow.

“Normally hitters argue…”

I know. You want a number. You want a radar gun reading. You want to know how slow he threw. I won’t give you a number. Instead, let me paint the picture. Let me tell you with words.

In the June 9, 1986 Toronto Star, Eichhorn discussed the contrast in styles when he set up for closer Tom Henke. “My stuff being so slow, must make his stuff look like 120,” he said.

Neil McCarl, a writer for the Star, echoed those sentiments. In the August 15, 1986 edition of the paper, he wrote “Mark Eichhorn and Tom Henke complement one another extremely well, Eichhorn with his sidearm delivery and his tantalizing slow stuff, followed by Henke with his 90 m.p.h.-plus fastball.”

Then there’s the money quote about Eichhorn, from The Scouting Report:1987: “Normally hitters argue about how hard a pitcher throws but in Eichhorn’s case, the opposite is true. Even most veteran hitters say they have never seen a major league pitcher throw a pitch as slow as Eichhorn does.”

In the indispensable Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers by Bill James and Rob Neyer, they provide a profile of Major League pitchers, and the pitches they throw. There are some tremendous off-speed pitchers listed there. Trevor Hoffman is described as having a “change” and a “straight change.” Pedro Martinez is listed with a “change” and a “circle change.” Johan Santana is also credited with a “circle change.” These are the greatest changeup artists of their generation. Men who made their living throwing off a batter’s timing, speeding things up and slowing things down, making hitters look foolish when a ball arrived much later than the swings. These guys threw nasty changeups. Any devoted baseball fan knows that. And when it came time for Mark Eichhorn’s profile, Neyer and James listed his pitch selection. Third was the slider. Second was the fastball. And his out pitch was listed at number one. The “Slow, Slow Change.”

That’s about right. Sometimes, all we have is slow, slow change.

Changing speeds

Clearly, it was not a fast pitch. And Mark Eichhorn threw it over and over again. Thousands of times. Slow. Then slow, once more. You could mark the passing of our days by the speed—or lack thereof—on his changeup. You could think about your life, and your choices, and the mistakes that you made. The pitch would slow down time, slow down your thoughts, slow down everything in this crazy, mixed-up world of ours. You could reach your senses in the middle of a changeup. You could find answers. Isn’t that why we watch baseball? Because we want the world to make sense?

How much are you willing to risk? Are you willing to be naked, exposed? Are you willing to make yourself vulnerable? How far would you go?

Mark Eichhorn risked everything. He risked it all. He would take the mound and stand naked and exposed. He was willing to make himself vulnerable. A rookie, facing the greatest hitters in the world, delivering submarine style, threw the ball as slow as he possibly could. Slower than anyone had ever seen. How far would you go? All the way. Mark Eichhorn took it all the way.

And here we are

Okay. So here it is. If Iearned anything from Mark Eichhorn and my sad experiences with Ellen, it is simply this—you have to be willing to risk it all. Because that’s how you thrive. That’s how you succeed. That’s how you learn to live in your own skin. And because, if you don’t—if you hold back, if you find yourself guided by fear—you might find yourself living with regret.

And regret is something, even seventeen years down the road, that’s awfully hard to wash away.

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