Patrolling the Comiskey Park outfield during batting practice, Mike Pazik didn't quite seem at home--not yet, anyway. After three and a half years serving as White Sox general manager Ron Schueler's special assistant, Pazik returned to uniform last week as the team's pitching coach--the third person to hold the hot-seat position this long, troubled season. He has a hunched-shoulders appearance, and last Saturday night--his second day on the job--he could still be seen introducing himself and shaking hands with pitchers shagging flies during BP. A left-handed pitcher during his career, he wore his glove on his right hand with an air of distracted discomfort--the way a stockbroker in a three-piece suit might carry an umbrella on a sunny day. Nevertheless, when he came off the field he was cheerful and pleasant and eager to talk about the craft of pitching in general and the White Sox in particular.
"I think it's fun, it's what I love to do," Pazik said, sitting down atop the back bolster in the Sox dugout. "I've been around pitchers my whole life, and this is a good bunch of guys. I know they haven't pitched to their capabilities, but it's a good bunch. I think we have a good foundation. They're open to suggestions. So if you want to ask me on a one-day basis, so far it's been great. Ask me tomorrow it might be a different story."
Indeed it might. At the time, Pazik was sitting in the afterglow of a new job and an excellent outing the night before by de facto staff ace Alex Fernandez. Fernandez had gone seven innings and given up only two Oakland runs to earn his sixth win against eight losses. Though the bull pen struggled a bit--Kirk McCaskill surrendered three late runs as the Sox lumbered home 13-5--Sox pitchers allowed only three walks for the game. Considering that the Sox were first--that is last--in the majors with 440 walks in 836 innings going into the game, this was a marked improvement that for a day made Pazik look like a genius. Saturday night, however, retread Dave Righetti allowed two walks in five innings (and ten hits, including five in a row in the third inning) and reliever Jose DeLeon followed with three in an inning plus, as the A's swamped the Sox 8-2. Welcome back, Mr. Pazik.
Pazik has clear blue eyes and a pleasant manner in conversation, and he was brought in--in the words last week of both Schueler and manager Terry Bevington--to be "more aggressive" with the pitching staff. Jackie Brown opened the season as the Sox pitching coach, but he was accused of coddling the team's young pitchers--foremost among them starters Fernandez, Jason Bere, and Wilson Alvarez and bull pen closer Roberto Hernandez--and departed alongside fired manager Gene Lamont. Don Cooper was brought in alongside Bevington to tinker with the staff, mainly to reorganize their strategic thinking. Bevington had originally wanted Pazik, an old comrade going back to their days coaching in the Milwaukee Brewers' system, as his pitching coach, but Pazik had then been on a specific assignment for Schueler. When Cooper produced no noticeable results, Schueler and Bevington made the decision to move in Pazik.
How can a pitching coach be aggressive? "You're more aggressive in how you approach your pitchers, as far as when you talk to them you have to be honest," Pazik said. "You can't say things and turn around and say something else to them. So I have to be honest so they know what's going on. And if I don't think some things are right I'm going to tell them some things aren't right."
This, yes, might include some mechanical overhauls, something big-league pitchers generally dread and pitching coaches try to avoid. "I told them we might want to make some adjustments," Pazik said. "They might not feel good right away. But more importantly it's pitch selection. That's the one thing I think we've been a little lax on. Concentration and pitch selection, that comes hand in hand.
"There is no reason in the world this pitching staff should have 400 walks. That's ridiculous. To me, that's lack of concentration and not trusting what you have. That's where we're starting. Everything's going to be real basic. So we're going to start off with, OK, this is what you have, we're going to work with this, and we're going to work with it around the strike zone. And that's what I mean by being aggressive."
When we mentioned that this sounded a lot like a conversation we once had with Pat Dobson, the renowned coach who said he worked only to simplify and streamline a pitcher's basic motion, to remove all extraneous movements, Pazik's eyes lit up. "I'll tell you," he said, "Pat and I go a long way back. We're very good friends. We talk a lot. We talk in the wintertime. And his philosophy and mine are probably as close as two guys can get. We believe in the same thing. We believe in the same mechanics. We believe in the same philosophy of pitching."
This is perhaps because both Dobson and Pazik are self-taught as pitching coaches. Dobson enjoyed more big-league success--he was a 20-game winner with the Baltimore Orioles in 1971 and spent 11 seasons in the majors, while Pazik won but one game in three abbreviated seasons with the Minnesota Twins in the mid-70s--but both pitched in the days before coaches had really studied the mechanics of pitching. Ted Williams had already produced The Science of Hitting and Charlie Lau was even then working on his theory of the swing, yet there was nothing comparable for pitchers.
"In all seriousness, I learned the most from other pitchers," Pazik said. "No one in particular, just watching guys and how they deal with the opposition and how they go about their business." If there was one pitcher who helped Pazik along it was Ray Bare, a journeyman with the Saint Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers in the 70s. "He really simplified the game as far as pitching is concerned, mechanics," Pazik said. "He made it very simple. He made it easy to understand. He helped me a lot as far as using what I had. So I try to use some of his basic, fundamental principles when I talk to kids."
Pazik had a journeyman career as a pitching coach with the Sox organization in the early 80s, then with the Brewers and finally with the Orioles before joining Schueler--a 1977 Minnesota teammate--in 1992. Pazik was credited with helping Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina advance to the majors in Baltimore. Now he has to untangle the mess with Fernandez, Alvarez (who had a messy outing Sunday), Hernandez, and Bere, the most promising pitcher of the bunch, who has landed on the disabled list with tendinitis after going 5-10 with an atrocious 6.44 earned run average and 77 walks in 100 innings. Also on the staff are youngsters like Rod Bolton, Matt Karchner, and Larry Thomas, and no doubt when rosters are expanded to a maximum of 40 in September Pazik will be called on to straighten out James Baldwin and Scott Ruffcorn, two former phenoms who have fallen on hard times.
"Really, what we're trying to do is lay all the groundwork for next year," Pazik said. "We've got six weeks, and one of the things I've stated is we're not taking these last 50 games just to get the season over with. We have a lot of work to do, and all the groundwork we lay will hopefully carry over to next spring so we can have a positive attitude."
It all sounds so simple, and maybe it is for a good pitching coach. Yet if Pazik is to be successful he'll have to be a skillful politician as well. For one thing, he's considered a pal of Bevington, and Bevington has received nothing resembling a vote of confidence from Schueler. If the Sox bring in a new high-profile manager during the off-season, that manager will almost certainly insist on his own pitching coach. For another thing, Pazik is a Schueler aide, so unless he proves himself immediately as a pitching coach he may well be considered a clubhouse spy, helping Schueler ferret out the desirables from the undesirables. What's more, Schueler has done little to endear himself to players by constantly blaming high salaries for the Sox' underachieving season. Finally, Pazik is, after all, management, and owner Jerry Reinsdorf recently alienated players--especially the pitchers--when he wondered aloud to a reporter how the Sox were keeping themselves in shape during the off-season. Such is the current state of the Sox clubhouse.
"Everybody has arguments, and we're going to disagree on some of the things I say," Pazik said. "At least the lines of communication are going to be open." He was talking about his dealings with the pitching staff, but he might as well have been referring to the best interests of the team as a whole.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.