Jack Armstrong Is a Red-Hot Longshot


Jack Armstrong, one of a number of pitching hopefuls on the Cincinnati Reds’ roster, was running outdoors and throwing baseballs against a brick wall in freezing weather when he suddenly knew what he had to do: Scrape up a few dollars, leave his young family in New Jersey and fly to Florida to prepare for the strike-delayed season.

And that’s just what the big right-hander did, though he had only a few hundred dollars in the bank. Leaving behind his wife, Kristine, and their newborn son, Jack Jr., he bought a plane ticket, borrowed $5,000 from his agent, rented a car and drove toward the Reds’ spring training camp in Plant City, stopping wherever he could find a ballfield and someone to catch.

Like several other calculated gambles Armstrong has made in his career, this one apparently has paid off. He not only made the team but has emerged as Cincinnati’s top pitcher and will take an 8-1 record to the mound tonight at Dodger Stadium, where the National League West-leading Reds open a four-game series against the Dodgers.

“Right after (the last game) last season, I went into the weight room and lifted for about three hours to convince myself I was going to work out all winter and make the team,” Armstrong said the other day in his strong Jersey accent. “I was working out six hours a day in New Jersey--running, throwing, karate, shooting baskets--and it was becoming a burden in the cold weather. I was throwing a ball at a brick wall because I had nobody to catch for me, and it’s about 20 below out. It got brutal.


“One day, I was sitting around with some buddies watching a football game in somewhere like Pasadena, and my friend said, ‘You gotta get the hell outta here.’ He was right. So I called the airline, got a ticket, rented a car--knowing I had about a week’s worth of payments in the bank--and flew to Sarasota. Then I drove to West Palm Beach and Plant City, beating up high school and college catchers along the way. I probably threw to 10 or 12 different catchers. When spring training started, I probably had $100 left in the bank. But my plan worked. After they saw me throw three or four times, I made the team.”

Gary Wishard, Armstrong’s agent who bankrolled his early spring, said the pitcher’s Florida trip is typical of his approach to the game. “He hasn’t stopped throwing since last year,” Wishard said. “When the (1989) season ended, he went right to the Instructional League. He ran outdoors during the winter in New Jersey. (In Florida), he worked out every day. That’s what separates Jack from a lot of the guys out there. He’s got that linebacker mentality--he’s not intimidated. He doesn’t have a fear.”

For a while, Armstrong also didn’t have a clue. But he was smart enough to know it.

“I’ve been making mechanical adjustments for years. There were a lot of things wrong with my delivery,” Armstrong said. “I get my good days and bad days. I can’t complain the way things have been going, but I’m nowhere near where I think I could be. There’s a lot of room for improvement, regardless of where I am win-wise.”

Armstrong, 6 feet 5 and 220 pounds, says he didn’t get serious about baseball until midway through college. Until then, he learned most of what he knew about pitching from reading Tom Seaver’s book, “The Art of Pitching,” while growing up in Englewood, N.J. He was promoted from the minors to Cincinnati for portions of the 1988 and ’89 seasons, with only occasional success. He ended last season with a 6-10 major league record after pitching impressively for triple-A Nashville, where he had 12 complete games, six shutouts and a 13-9 record in 24 starts.

“I’d see guys throwing in the bullpen and think, ‘I’ve got better stuff than them.’ I went out there with all the ability in the world and (couldn’t win), while they did, and I didn’t know why. Now I know,” Armstrong said.

“You can be told things a number of times by coaches, but until you go out there a couple times and get your butt kicked, it doesn’t sink in.”

Pitching coach Stan Williams, part of Lou Piniella’s staff in Cincinnati, says Armstrong is “an extremely hard worker, very serious about the job, very critical of himself.”

Armstrong opened the season by winning his first six games. After his only loss, Armstrong has come back with two more victories, both shutouts that were finished by the Reds’ outstanding bullpen. In addition to being tied with the Oakland Athletics’ Dave Stewart and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Neal Heaton for the major league lead in victories, Armstrong leads the majors in earned-run average with 1.61, hasn’t allowed a home run and has given up only 48 hits in 61 innings.

“And he still doesn’t feel he’s pitched his best ballgame yet,” Williams said. “He has had spots in every game where he’s struggled. He wants to be perfect out there. He’s getting pretty consistent.”

That’s a far cry from the rookie who in 1988 got into a flap with umpire Fred Brocklander in spring training, telling reporters, “I don’t care about his name. I’ll recognize his fat face behind the mask.” He ended up making a public apology. And his spotty performances prompted then-manager Pete Rose to observe, “He doesn’t seem to have the same personality here as in Nashville.”

Armstrong, 25, prefers not to talk about the Rose days, other than to note that Rose and his staff didn’t understand him. His personality, he says, hasn’t changed.

It’s the same personality that led him to leave Rider College in New Jersey after his junior year, turn down an offer from the San Francisco Giants and transfer to Oklahoma, to see what he could learn about pitching. “I never had a pitching coach until I got to Oklahoma,” he said.

It was a profitable move for Armstrong. He set a school record for strikeouts and earned All-Big Eight honors. The Reds made him the second selection of the June 1987 draft. A year later, he had a 4-7 record in the majors.

Armstrong gets along so well with Piniella that he sits near him on days he’s not pitching, to try to learn the subtleties of the game. “My knowledge of baseball is really not that broad. I take some notes, try . . . to get an idea of the moves that are made, little things that can help,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong has been the ace right-hander in the league so far this season, but he said he’s not concerned with labels. “With guys like Danny Jackson, who’s won 23 games, and Tom Browning, I don’t think there’s any ace on this staff,” Armstrong said. “I’m just trying to go out there and be the best I can be.”