DeWayne Buice: The Season That Got Away : Angels Reliever Lost ’87 Form, Roster Spot--but Not High Spirits
DeWayne Buice leaned back in the dugout before a game against the Baltimore Orioles a couple of weeks ago, closed his eyes and muttered something about how he wished the baseball season would end right away.
The day before, Dave Winfield of the New York Yankees had sent one of Buice’s pitches into orbit high over the center field fence in Anaheim.
Winfield’s rocket had boosted Buice’s bloated earned-run average to 5.88, and the California Angels reliever, shell-shocked, was wishing he could start a new season the next day.
That very night, Aug. 29, Buice’s wish was granted. But not in the way he would have liked. After the Angels knocked off the Orioles, 4-2, General Manager Mike Port told Buice to pack his bags for Edmonton for the second time this season.
Then, poof! Buice found himself back in Triple-A, wishing he could stuff that all-powerful genie--Port--back into his bottle.
Of course, Buice didn’t really have much of a beef. The swollen ERA is testimony that Buice, a 1975 graduate of Carson High School, has been struggling all year. But before his second demotion, Buice was actually wishing that he could start fresh on a season like the one he had in 1987, when, as a 30-year old rookie, he notched 17 saves and emerged as the Angels’ most consistent reliever.
Through all his trials this year, Buice has maintained his effervescent sense of humor, the one that earned him a reputation last season as one of baseball’s most cheerful free spirits.
“It’s been tough, considering what I’ve been through this year,” Buice said. “But you can’t lose your attitude just because you’re slumping. That’s like being a fair-weather friend. You shouldn’t be out on the mound turning cartwheels after you give up a home run, either, but you gotta maintain your sense of humor.”
The Angels will miss Buice’s zany capers in the dugout and clubhouse as they wind down their season.
As for Buice, his season is already over. He threw his final pitch of the year Sept. 3 when he struck out three Tacoma Tigers in a 2-inning stint at Edmonton. Two days later, the Pacific Coast League season ended and Buice headed for his Costa Mesa home.
When Buice was optioned to Edmonton, there was still a chance that he’d finish the season on the Halos’ roster. At the time, Manager Cookie Rojas speculated that Buice could be back in Anaheim on Sept. 5, when the team’s roster expanded.
The Angels brought up four pitchers that day, but not Buice. The Angels called Urbano Lugo, Vance Lovelace, Mike Cook and Rich Monteleone instead. Outfielder Dante Bichette was the last player to be added to California’s expanded roster.
So now Buice has all winter to figure out how to recapture the form that earned him a handful of Rookie of the Year votes in 1987. With the emergence of Bryan Harvey as the Angels’ stopper this season, and with Greg Minton pitching well in a set-up role, it would take a strong spring training showing for Buice to avoid another trip to Edmonton next April.
Last April, Buice figured prominently in the Angels’ plans. After all, American Leaguers had batted a microscopic .213 against him in 1987. Buice’s weapons were a nasty split-fingered fastball and a forkball that exploded like a depth charge around the hitter’s ankles.
This year, however, Buice watched five of those forkballs vanish over the fence. He walked in runs. He balked in runs.
“I tried to pitch hurt for about three months, which was a stupid thing to do,” Buice said. “In the process, I screwed up my ERA and screwed up my credibility. All along, the Angels wondered, ‘Jeez, is this guy gonna be OK or isn’t he?’ ”
He wasn’t OK. En route to earning only three saves this year, Buice faced problems like these:
- On Aug. 11 in Oakland, Buice entered a 2-2 game in the seventh inning in his first major league appearance since going on the disabled list in June for a sciatic nerve injury. The bases were loaded.
Unfortunately, Buice walked Ron Hassey to force in the go-ahead run. Then Oakland slugger Mark McGwire launched a Buice forkball about 430 feet over the left field wall for a grand slam that broke the Angels’ back.
- On Aug. 28 in Anaheim, Buice made his final outing of the year in an Angels’ uniform. During the weekend series, the Angel pitching staff had held the Yankees to 17 straight scoreless innings--until Buice took the mound to mop up in the ninth inning of a 13-0 rout.
But Winfield greeted him with the towering home run to straightaway center. After the Yankees scored again, on a ringing double to the gap in left by Jack Clark and an RBI single by Gary Ward, Buice was ticketed for Edmonton.
The season hasn’t been all bad for Buice. After all, he did make Oakland’s Jose Canseco--he of the bulging biceps and the MVP credentials--look silly by striking him out with the bases loaded the day after giving up the shot to McGwire in the same situation. And he did strike out 17 batters, while walking only two, in 11 innings in Edmonton.
But it has been mostly bad. Even Rojas has been at a loss to pinpoint a reason for Buice’s lack of success this season.
“I don’t know. He’s already proven himself in the big leagues,” Rojas said. “Maybe he has been used to pitching in winter ball, and he’s not as sharp as usual.”
Buice would tend to place the blame on sciatic neuralgia--in Buice’s words, “a pain in the butt” caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve--that he’s been hampered with for most of the year.
“I basically screwed up by not playing catch last winter,” Buice said. “But the nerve injury was especially painful when I would land on my left foot and follow through. It hurt so much I was basically trying to pitch standing straight up.”
But what explains the home runs to McGwire and Winfield after coming off the disabled list?
“The umps don’t seem to be calling the low strikes that I got last year,” Buice said. “The batters won’t chase any pitch around the knees when the umps won’t call it down there. And when you get a slow pitch like a forkball up in the strike zone, the batters are gonna hit it.”
Somehow, through it all, Buice has kept that infectious smile on his face. His impressions of cartoon and television characters, which run from Tennessee Tuxedo to Rodney Dangerfield, are legendary among his teammates. Even stoic bullpen mates like Harvey, Stewart Cliburn and southpaw Sherman Corbett, who Buice said are unlikely “to say three words among them all day,” get a kick out of Buice’s antics.
“DeWayne’s jokes keep everybody rolling in the bullpen,” Cliburn said. “He can come up with some off-the-wall things. With him and ‘Moon’ Minton out there, you can get a lot of laughs.”
Even during a series in May in Boston, when Buice was battling insomnia as well as the sciatic injury, he kept his spirits high. On May 21, when the Angels took on the Red Sox on NBC’s Game of the Week, announcer Marv Albert asked Buice to introduce California’s starting lineup for the pregame show--while doing one of his best impressions, that of TV’s bumbling secret agent, Don Adams’ Maxwell Smart.
“The whole time in Boston I never got more than 20 minutes of sleep,” Buice said. “I was getting up in the morning without a wink of sleep all night. That’s the most helpless feeling in the world. After three nights of this, Marv Albert approached me with the Maxwell Smart idea. What timing.”
Even though it required four takes to do it, the heavy-lidded Buice read the Angel lineup. Fighting the effects of insomnia, he had to ad-lib the lines as he introduced each player. On the first take, he forgot third baseman Gustavo Polidor. The second time through, he left out starting pitcher Ray Krawczyk. Finally, NBC got its clip in the can.
“Would you believe--Ray Krawczyk is making his first major league start,” Buice ad-libbed, a la Smart.
In an ironic parallel, Buice, like Smart, has been getting into trouble at every turn this year. Even in the minor leagues.
When he was sent down to Edmonton for the first time, in July, Buice ran afoul of a PCL umpire who, Buice said, had a “chip on his shoulder.”
Buice entered the second game of a double-header against the Colorado Springs Sky Socks in the seventh inning and quickly ran up a 3-0 count on Eddie Williams. Buice argued with the plate umpire, Larry Vanover, and shoved him. For that, Buice was awarded with an ejection and a three-game suspension.
“The umpire was mad because the pitcher before me had shown him up,” Buice said.
Buice said he later talked to Williams, who he said agreed that all three pitches Buice threw were strikes.
“The ump baited me,” Buice said. “Now, granted, you’re not supposed to bump an umpire. I was wrong for going berserk. But here I was busting my butt to get back to the big leagues and I run into a kid umpire who’s trying to show the guy coming down from the bigs who’s boss.”
It was Buice’s first ejection. He spent 10 years in the minor leagues after embarking on his professional career in 1977. In the meantime, he shuttled around the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s organizations in places like Fresno, Cedar Rapids and West Haven, throwing spitters. In 1982 he snapped his right arm throwing a spitball to Greg Brock, then with Albuquerque.
In the minors, Buice was an admitted master of the spitball. During one misty evening in Holyoke, Buice struck out 14 batters with the spitter in seven innings.
“I got to the point where I could really control that sucker,” Buice said. “I could throw that spitter every pitch and put up some tremendous knucklers. But the toll on your arm is just as tremendous.”
And, despite the fact that some American Leaguers accused him of doctoring the baseball during his stellar rookie season in 1987, Buice claimed he quit throwing the illegal pitch after he broke his arm throwing it.
“It was the arm toll that made me stop,” Buice said. Then, with a wink, he added: “That, plus the embarrassment of getting caught. A lot of people don’t steal or cheat because they’re afraid of getting caught, not because they think stealing and cheating are so bad.”
The broken arm was one reason Oakland quit on Buice after the 1983 season. After his release, Buice pitched for two years in the Mexican League for Nuevo Laredo, where, he said, the local police brandished submachine guns in the dugout instead of pistols.
“The fans were a lot more violent and emotional down there,” Buice said. “You’d see a lot of fights between drunks over balls and strikes. Fortunately, I never saw any of those guns get used.”
After pitching well at Nuevo Laredo, Buice caught the eyes of Angel scouts, who bundled him off to Edmonton. He finally made the big leagues on April 25, 1987, against the championship-bound Minnesota Twins, and struck out the first two hitters.
Pitching for the Angels was a dream come true. Buice became the first Angel reliever since Mark Clear in 1980 to strike out more than 100 batters in a season, and he did it only 30 miles from Carson, where he grew up.
Buice was an all-City pitcher as a senior at Carson High in 1975. Carson’s coach was Bob Ezell, now a top executive with the Diamond baseball manufacturing company. Gene Vollnogle, the coach who has turned Carson into one of the nation’s premier prep football powerhouses, was Buice’s driver’s education instructor.
Buice’s parents still live in Carson, and he has kept ties to the South Bay area in the past by working out with the pitchers at Cal State Dominguez Hills and Harbor College. Buice likes to trade tips to the college hurlers in exchange for the loan of a catcher to help him work out during the off-season--although he admits he didn’t do much of that last year and probably should have.
Buice has been a frenzied tobacco chewer ever since his Carson days. He started smoking when he was 13 and took up dipping Skoal at 16 to quit smoking. He ended up doing both, although he snapped a 14-year love affair with Kodiak tobacco after having a cheek biopsy during spring training. A team of University of San Francisco medical researchers made the rounds of Arizona major league training sites, looking for volunteers.
“I gave up tobacco right after that biopsy,” Buice said. “If that’s the kind of pain you’re in after a biopsy, then I don’t wanna know what cancer feels like.”
Buice has also had to say the heck with his interest in the Upper Deck--a company that is producing slick, high-tech baseball cards. Buice and Angels teammate Wally Joyner had to withdraw their participation in the company because the Major League Players Assn. has ruled it a conflict of interest.
It’s been that kind of year for Buice.
“It’s probably for the best, though,” he said. “Obviously, baseball has got to be the most important thing in my life, so everything else has to take a back seat.”
One thing Buice isn’t likely to chuck is his happy-go-lucky attitude. Even after Winfield’s home run ballooned his ERA to 5.88, Buice still saw the silver lining.
“There are only 260 pitchers in the major leagues and I’m one of them,” Buice said on that ill-fated afternoon before his demotion. “And even though I’m having an off year, I still think I’m one of the best of them.
“If I didn’t think so, I’d get my butt out of here.”
Unfortunately for Buice, his genie--Port--didn’t share the first sentiment and speeded up the second.