Niedenfuer Is Dragging a Gopher Ball and Chain : Homers Have So Beset Dodger Reliever That Not Only Clark but Even Flannery Must Be Feared
He said he was down on his luck and needed some advice.
He could have written Dear Abby.
He wrote Tom Niedenfuer instead.
He said he had a brother who was a murderer, a lifer in prison. His other brother was a sportswriter.
His mother had run away with a salesman when he was 3. His sisters worked nights, and he didn’t mean at Ralphs.
Recently, he met a woman just released from jail. He wanted to marry her, he said.
“Tom, my problem is this,” he wrote. “Do I tell her about my brother the sportswriter?”
Niedenfuer hasn’t pinned the letter to the top of his locker--yet. But in the Dodger clubhouse, the letter has enjoyed wide circulation, although not as wide as Niedenfuer’s own tale of woe has received in sports pages from Pacoima to Palos Verdes.
And unlike his correspondent’s fanciful missive, which was designed to produce a smile, Niedenfuer’s story is all too true.
A tear-jerker? For Tom Lasorda, maybe, but no one has died.
A home run-jerker? Well, that’s Niedenfuer, twisting in the wind.
Lasorda said he has never seen anything like it. Tim Flannery in a home run trot? Might as well cast Pee Wee Herman as Rambo.
Teammates say the same thing.
“And I’ve been on some terrible teams with some terrible pitchers,” said Bill Madlock, quick to add that the adjective terrible did not apply to Niedenfuer.
Niedenfuer’s yield of nine home runs in 44 innings--after six home runs in more than twice as many innings last season--hasn’t escaped the attention of the paying customers, who more often than not get their money’s worth in boos whenever the Dodger reliever appears.
Niedenfuer, who is known as Buffalo to his teammates because of his oversized build, would need a buffalo’s hide not to feel the critics’ arrows. They have been aimed at him ever since the National League playoffs, when he was knocked out first by a lightweight--Ozzie Smith, game-winning home run, ninth inning, Game 5--and then by heavyweight Jack Clark, who hit a pennant-winning homer in the ninth inning of Game 6.
Some say he has never recovered from that double shock and that the Dodgers would be better off with Niedenfuer on a psychiatrist’s couch than in the bullpen.
“I’m not going that bad, am I?” Niedenfuer said when asked if he’d ever considered counseling.
A teammate had another suggestion.
“He needs to see the wizard,” the teammate said.
“The one in Emerald City,” he said. “To get a new heart.”
If it’s not his head or his heart, still others say, it must be his fastball. He’s not throwing as hard as he used to, they say, which is why he can’t blow a high fastball past batters like Omar Moreno and Jerry White. He spends too much time warming up in the bullpen and has nothing left when he gets to the mound. His velocity hasn’t diminished, but his fastball doesn’t have that little jump at the end as it once did.
By now, Niedenfuer has heard it all. For now, his only answer is to respond to Lasorda’s call, which usually is issued until the stress level is at its highest and the margin of error is as thin as one pitch.
“I wouldn’t blame Tom Niedenfuer if he never wanted to pitch in the ninth inning again,” wrote columnist Steve Bisheff of the Orange County Register.
But two nights after the San Diego Padres’ Flannery flattened him, there was Niedenfuer, striding in from the bullpen with the bases full of Braves in a tie game.
“You think a lot of weird things,” Niedenfuer said. “With the bases loaded in the seventh inning of a tie game, it would be real easy to quit. I’ve pitched with guys who have.
“But I want to go in, in that situation. I don’t care if I’ve had 10 bad games in a row. Regardless of what people think, if I know I’ve given 100%, I can’t do better than that.
“It’s no secret I’ve been struggling, but the only way out of a slump is to keep pitching. When Larry Bird is 1 for 15 shooting, he doesn’t just pass all night the next game.
“And I can’t be defensive when I pitch, either. You can’t be intimidated by the crowd, or the batter, either.”
About the home runs, though, Niedenfuer is defensive.
“Everything has been exaggerated by the home runs,” he said. “They could still be losses, but if it were singles instead of home runs, it wouldn’t be as noticeable. I just have to stay away from the one bad pitch.”
What people fail to recognize, he said, is that he has been with the Dodgers since 1981, when he split the season between Los Angeles and San Antonio, and this is his first prolonged slump.
“If I’m as bad as the press makes me out to be, then think about this: In three of the five years I’ve been here, we’ve won the division,” Niedenfuer said. “My second year, we missed by one game. The year I missed three months (1984), we finished in fourth place.
“That speaks for itself, right there.”
Niedenfuer also notes that at 27, he and 25-year-old Ken Howell help compose one of the youngest bullpens in the big leagues.
“Bruce Sutter’s had bad years in the past, Goose Gossage, (Dan) Quisenberry has struggled,” Niedenfuer said.
“In five years, I hadn’t had a slump at all, not even three games in a row. So far, I’ve had half a year that’s bad, and I can still have a good year with a good second half. I’ve got five wins and four saves.
“Terry Forster (the Angel reliever) has called me a few times and told me it couldn’t be as easy as I had it in the first five years. In a 10-year career, not all 10 years are going to be outstanding.”
Relief pitchers are strange, anyway. You don’t know the makeup of a Mark Littell or Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter or Rollie Fingers--or Niedenfuer. You don’t know.
Bruce Hain knew Tom Niedenfuer long before Niedenfuer became a Dodger, and long before Jack Clark shadowed Niedenfuer’s every pitch.
Hain coached Niedenfuer in high school in Redmond, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, and has remained a friend since.
“Was he the losing pitcher last night?” Hain asked a reporter who called Thursday afternoon. “I saw the score on the news last night, 3-2, and I said, ‘Uh-oh, did he give up another gopher ball?’
“I’m getting a little paranoid, too.”
When Niedenfuer visited last winter after the playoffs, Hain said the pitcher seemed unaffected by what had happened.
“From what I could tell, he took it very well,” Hain said. “He’s an awfully nice guy.”
As a high school pitcher, he may have been too nice.
“He was a big kid, but he looked so nice, a big teddy-bear type of kid,” Hain said. “I tried to change his image, so I gave him the nickname Nasty.
“He still looked like a teddy bear, but I spread the word about how nasty he’d become, how vicious, and he started to believe it. We did things with his delivery, and his facial expression. He still has that look.
“Inside, he’s got to be one of the gentlest, nicest kids you’ll meet. But he’s definitely a competitor.”
When Niedenfuer gave up a grand-slam home run to George Foster of the Mets last month, the TV cameras remained focus on his face for what seemed to be a full minute. Niedenfuer never moved, his eyes focused on something only he could see, while the red that started in his cheeks spread across his face and down to the base of his neck.
“That’s not a still you’re looking at, folks,” Met broadcaster Tim McCarver finally said. “That’s a live picture.”
And underneath the uniform, the heart was still pumping.
“There’s a fine line between success and failure up here. Everybody’s got about the same stuff, but to be successful year after year, a lot of it depends on inner drive.
“And I’m not going to roll over and die.”