They Need More Than Comic Relief : Dodgers: McDowell is best known as a practical joker, but he has also been a consistent 20-save man and his new club is in serious pennant race.


Now that the Dodgers claim to have finally fixed their problem bullpen, a question needs to be asked of their newest relief pitcher.

What on earth was Roger McDowell doing wearing a sombrero while standing in the middle of a mariachi band in center field before a game at Dodger Stadium last week?

"I was singing 'Feliz Navidad,' " McDowell said Thursday from his Mississippi home. "Why?"

The most complicated things come simply for McDowell, who showed his versatility by pitching an inning for the Philadelphia Phillies a couple of hours after providing the pregame entertainment.

He had little idea he was actually auditioning for the Dodgers, who acquired him Wednesday in a trade that sent Mike Hartley and minor league outfielder Braulio Castillo to the Phillies.

"It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out I might be traded, because the Phillies needed to get rid of my contract" said McDowell, who will make $2 million this season and $2.2 million next year. "But then, I'm not a rocket scientist."

The reason he joined the band, becoming the focus of many cameras and laughs, is one of the reasons he has become one of baseball's premier practical jokers. He did it on a dare.

"And you do not dare Roger McDowell to do anything," Dodger pitcher Bob Ojeda said. "And I mean, anything."

Beginning today in Houston, as the Dodgers start a span of 20 games in 20 days, the Dodgers will offer McDowell baseball's ultimate challenge:

They will dare him to help them survive a pennant race.

"Roger has been out there with the game on the line many, many times," said Fred Claire, Dodger vice president, who has seen McDowell pitch in two championship series and a World Series while with the New York Mets.

"He has showed he can pitch in a lot of big games," Claire said. "In him, I saw a way we could improve the club."

Claire smiled and added: "The only thing is, he can't play with the mariachi band. I heard they are taking two years off."

Don't be surprised if McDowell, 30, finds other ways to liven up the house. His baseball gear, which is being shipped to Los Angeles, includes:

--Firecrackers, for slipping under bathroom stalls and throwing at first base coaches.

--A custom horn, which can be filled with talcum powder that will cover the face of anyone blowing it. Just ask the Chicago Cubs' Chuck McElroy.

--A custom uniform with pants that fit around the torso, and a shirt that fits around the legs. This outfit is worn by McDowell's most famous creation, "The Upside Down Man."

--Odd hats, wigs and masks.

"I guess people think I'm a left-hander trapped in a right-handers' body," McDowell said. Ojeda, who is a friend and former teammate of McDowell when both played for the Mets, still hasn't figured him out.

"He has a mind that works in a different way," Ojeda said. "He would never do anything to embarrass the ballclub or himself, but he knows how to lighten things up."

Oh yes, McDowell is bringing two other things to the Dodgers. A good sinker and a good attitude.

The sinker, which helped him average 21 saves in six major league seasons before this year, did not serve him well on the turf in Philadelphia. He played there since June of 1989 after being traded from the Mets with Lenny Dykstra for then-Phillies' second baseman Juan Samuel.

After losing his job as a stopper this summer upon the acquisition of Mitch Williams, he was 3-6 with a 3.20 earned-run average and three saves while giving up 61 hits in 59 innings.

By moving him to the grass of Dodger Stadium, and putting a veteran defense behind him, the Dodgers hope his ball will sink again.

"I rely heavily on the defense, especially the infield defense," McDowell said. "Guys put the ball in play a lot against me. So I think I will be helped at Dodger Stadium."

He paused.

"Of course, if the sinker isn't working, then we can be playing on a playground in Beverly Hills and it still isn't going to help me," McDowell said. "There are times I go through streaks where I can't get anybody out."

McDowell's best weapon besides his sinker is his humility, which will serve him well in his new role as a setup man and occasional closer working behind Jay Howell.

"I bet you could hit me," McDowell said to his questioner. "Maybe you wouldn't get a hit, but you would put the ball in play. That's just the way I pitch.

"I don't have a problem being a setup man, I don't have ego thing where I have to get 20 saves, as long as I can contribute to wins. I'm not the prototypical closer, where you get a lot of strikeouts, and I never will be. I just try to win and have fun."

McDowell said he likes to keep things light because of days like Oct. 4, 1988. While pitching for the Mets, he gave up the game-winning home run to the Dodgers' Kirk Gibson in the 12th inning in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.

"After that game I showered, dressed, and went to the hospital to see my son, Logan, who was less than 24 hours old," he said. "That kind of puts things into perspective. Being a relief pitcher, with all the wins and losses, you can never think of this game as life or death.

"Of course, in New York, there were times I feared for my life. Pitching for the Mets is like walking the front lines with Saddam Hussein."

Not that he doesn't like that feeling just a little bit. McDowell was so excited about being traded to a pressure situation that he phoned Ojeda in the clubhouse in the middle of Wednesday's game.

And that's no joke.

"When I played in New York, we were always in the race, and I really enjoyed pitching where there was an ultimate goal," McDowell said. "Not that Philadelphia didn't have that same goal, but it's different when you are 20 games out.

"I can't wait to get in there for the Dodgers. I just can't wait. Fred Claire said I couldn't sing with that band anymore, but, hey, I can handle it."

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