When I first started Rookie Card in 2001, I was excited to finally be playing my own songs and would busk outside of shows for fun sometimes. Once I went to play near the exit door of Solana Beach’s Belly Up at an Old 97’s show. A tall, bearded man came out to have a smoke while the band was still on, so I started playing. He nodded and after awhile said, “I like your songs. You remind me of Scott McCaughey.” He was testing me. “I love the Young Fresh Fellows!” I replied and we bonded on all things Replacementsy. After playing for the departing concertgoers, I went inside to say hi to the band. Rhett took me aside and said, “Do you know who that is?” I hadn’t followed baseball since my early childhood obsession so I’d never heard of Jack McDowell. He probably appreciated that.
Besides being the winningest American League pitcher of the 90’s, Jack is an unabashed music fan. He’d started his own band, Stickfigure, and we played together a time or two. I’d just fallen in love with Kevin Chanel’s baseball/punk magazine Chin Music! I’d been wanting to do more musicwriting and both Jack and Kevin agreed to an interview. I went up to his house in Del Mar and we talked a long while about baseball and music. It was good and lengthy enough to be a two part article, so I focused on baseball in part one. Before we could publish part two, Kevin stopped doing the magazine. RIP
Some of the old articles, including a GREAT one with Johnny Ramone and A’s owner Billy Beane and Apollo 9 from RFTC talking about meat prep, are archived on the magazine’s website but my interview never was. You can buy back issues from their site. Do it. Writing about the Old 97’s for the ABC’s of Rock on the YDG Facebook page made me want to dig up a photo of Jack and I from when I had him play acoustically at M-Theory Music. I came up empty, so I thought I’d at least put the article up online. Someday, I’ll come across the cassette again and put up part two of the interview….
START SPREADIN’ THE BOOS!
Recently, ChinMusic! was lucky enough to sit with real-life ex-Yankee & rock star-in-waiting “Black” Jack McDowell. He’s one of the few baseball players to ever take being a musician seriously, first fronting the band V.I.E.W. in the early 90’s which eventually turned into his new band, Stickfigure. In the first of our two-part interview, McDowell focuses mainly on his time pitching in the Big Apple. The winningest American League pitcher of the 1990’s spent the 1995 season with the Yanks, posting an impressive 15-10 record, leading the league in complete games and pick-off throws, while finishing top 10 in strikeouts and shutouts. Though only in New York for one season, he made quite an impression, pitching the team into the playoffs AND making the best use of a middle finger since Billy Martin’s 1972 baseball card. To many, including this magazine’s editor; whose band dressed in ChiSox uniforms onstage in tribute, McDowell was the perfect marriage of rock and baseball. It’s not surprising that he loved being in NYC. Correspondent Adam Gimbel visited him at his home in Del Mar, California.
ChinMusic!: You were in New York for a year. Did you live there?
Jack McDowell: Yeah, on the upper west side. We’d just had our first kid, Lucas, in February of that year. We were living in Chicago and coming out of the strike. I didn’t know where I was going to be. I got traded by the White Sox during the strike so no one knew whether it was valid or not. I was supposed to be a free agent that year but I was 13 days short because they weren’t counting the time that I was on strike. Kenny Rogers and I were the only two players that didn’t get our free agency that year. So, I had to play seven seasons to become a free agent. It was screwed but it turned out being fun. New York was probably the most fun year I had in baseball.
JM: Yeah, because the team was great. The guys were great.They hadn’t been to the playoffs in 13 years and we got to the playoffs and Mattingly got to be in the playoffs before he got out of there.
CM: You had a pretty good year.
JM: I was 15-10 and it was a shortened season. I ended up missing my last few starts of the season before the playoffs because I had a torn lat (latisimus dorsi) muscle. No one ever knew. We couldn’t say anything because we were going into the playoffs and they knew I wouldn’t be able to heal but I said,”Screw it. I’m just gonna roll with it.” I had this golf ball sticking out of the back of my lat. So I missed the last two starts of the season but still ended up, like, third in the league in innings.
CM: It looked like you had a good year but what everyone remembers is you flipping off the crowd at Yankee Stadium. Was that just you having a bad day?
JM: I went in there as their number two starter. Jimmy Key was our number one and past me were basically fill in starters. Jimmy made two starts and then he was done.When Jimmy went down, (manager) Buck told me, “You’re an innings guy. I know you don’t care what your ERA is. You’re going to have to suck it up this year. You’re gonna have to take the ball and if you’re getting beat up, you’re going to have to stay out there.” Before I missed my last starts of the season, I was leading the league in innings by, like, 20 innings. It was ridiculous. But, I wasn’t giving up four runs in three innings, I was giving up seven runs in seven innings and stayed out there to get pounded on, if I was having a bad day. I had a couple of those starts in a row and I was getting booed and then the White Sox came into town. My old team beat the crap out of me, hit three home runs. I gave up about seven runs but I ended up sticking out there. Just kept going and I was getting booed. I said, “You know what? That is enough!” New York guys are supposed to be smart. They’re supposed to get it.That this was admirable what I was doing and I just snapped. Rather than bitching about it in the media, I just covered it in one fell swoop.They got it. though.They did understand. People on the outside were like “Oh, he hates it in New York. He’s cracking under the New York pressure.” The assumption is that I hated it there and I had a horrible year but it wasn’t that way at all. I had fun. It was a great team. It was a great year. There was that incident but after that I was like a folk hero. (years later, Scott McCaughey’s band the Baseball Project paid homage to the incident in “The Yankee Flipper”)
CM: How did it feel to know that you were going to be a Yankee? There’s such a legacy. Were you into that when you were a kid?
JM: I grew up in Van Nuys, so I was a huge Dodgers fan but if you’re a baseball fan, you know about that legacy. It was great to be a Yankee, at least for that one year.The strangest thing was changing teams in general. After spending six years with one team, you hate everyone that isn’t in your clubhouse and all of a sudden they hate you! I go into a new clubhouse and they’re thinking one thing about me and they don’t know anything about me.
CM: You were a Dodgers fan but you ended up with all American League teams.
JM: I know, I know and I was a good hitter too! I never understood why a National League team never picked me up.
CM: Could you actually try to get picked up by a National League team?
JM:Well, my only chance was when I was a free agent one year and we only had two offers. One was from the Marlins, who’d just started, and the other one was the Indians. No one was getting free agents.
CM: Did you try to call the Dodgers? I’d assume you’d want to be a Dodger.
JM: We tried to get the Dodgers to pick me. They were a few picks after the White Sox when I was drafted out of college. We were trying to sneak by, telling the White Sox I didn’t want to sign with them but they picked me anyways and you pretty much have to go where you’re picked. It ended up being great. We had a great team and it’s a super city.
CM: So when you grew up, were most of your early baseball heroes Dodgers?
JM: Oh yeah.
CM: Such as?
JM: You know. The Garvey, Cey, Lopes, Russell years. Dusty Baker and that whole thing.Those were my guys. When I was a kid, I had a Steve Garvey t-shirt that my brother painted for me. He was the only player that I sent away for his autograph and I got it back. I remember when I was 9, I had a 12 year old kid I was hanging out with and we all had baseball card collections. I traded all my dad and brothers’ 1920’s cards for that year’s Dodgers. Like,”Yeah, here’s Babe Ruth’s rookie card for Billy Grabarkewitz. You know? Bill Singer!
CM: Did you get to see Drysdale or any of those guys?
JM: No, but he was my first announcer for the White Sox when I was there. It was crazy because as a rookie, I came in and Jerry Reuss was there and (Tom) Paciorek was doing the TV and Drysdale was there. A couple of years later, they traded for Charlie Hough. CM: Were you wanting to be a pitcher when you were younger?
JM:I always was. I played pitcher and shortstop when I was younger. I went into college as a shortstop AND as a pitcher but I ended up just pitching. I was a big Bob Welch fan.That was my guy. I ended up pitching against him. I also pitched against Tommy John when he was at the end of his career with the Yankees. Both of my brothers played at USC and they used to play the Dodgers every spring. I have a picture of me getting Tommy John’s autograph when I was, like, 7 years old. I always wanted to pull that out and show him. (note: in Feb 2014, McDowell was named manager of the Dodgers’ Ogden farm team)
CM: What do you remember about your first trip to New York?
JM: I remember room service being crazy expensive as much as anything. I mean, it was cool. I don’t remember being in awe of the stadium or anything. I just remember how very cool it was to be there and check it out and then ordering a couple of beers and a shrimp cocktail and having it be about a hundred bucks.
CM: So you’d already been to Yankee Stadium before you were a Yankee. What were your first memories of going there?
JM: It’s crazy going to EVERY big league park for the first time. First of all, you get to see all these places you’ve only seen on TV and, secondly, you’re pitching against a team where you know everybody in the lineup. Like, “Oh my god, I know all of these guys!” When you first get to the big leagues, you don’t know who your “outs” are and who the dangerous guys are. I tell rookies that you know you’ve made it when you know these guys are the “outs” and these are the guys I have to worry about.
CM: How was it having a newborn kid in New York? Were you walking him in Central Park and all that?
JM: Oh yeah, we were right by the park. We’d take those walks. It was a new team and a new city. Like I said, I didn’t know what team I was going to be playing for. I get a call from the Yankees when the strike broke,”Okay, we’ll see you at spring training in 48 hours.” Spring training was in Ft. Lauderdale and I was in California at the time. So I was on the phone with the (players) union saying”Is this real? Is that where I’m going?” I had to fly out there and then fly up to New York and get a place for us to live for the season while the season was starting. It was crazy. It was a crazy, crazy year.
CM: You were living in town. Were you able to go out at night?
JM: Not really. We had a new kid, so we were just trying to figure out parenting as much as anything. I had a couple of fun nights. I had one great night where we went to the R.E.M. concert at Madison Square Garden and we went out with all those guys afterwards, the Smithereens and Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows) who’d just started playing with R.E.M.. I was late for stretching the next day. Let’s put it that way. It was a Saturday night and there was a Sunday day game and I was late the next day.
CM: Was there anyone on the Yankees that could relate?
JM:Yeah, there were a few guys that were into it. They knew I was a huge R.E.M. fan. They understood that I could be late that one day to check in with my heroes. (check out Instream’s recent Jack interview where they talk a whole lotta R.E.M. -ed.)
CM: Had you already known the Smithereens?
JM:Yeah. we had already done a tour with them around ’91. It was the winter of ’91 when V.I.E.W. opened a tour for them.
CM: What other New York bands are some of your favorites? Stickfigure covers the Velvets (“Rock and Roll”).
JM:Yeah, I like all the stuff that was considered punk back then. But that’s not what people consider punk now. It was just basically straightforward rock from guys who weren’t into studio slick.There was some serious songs but some of it was funny and tongue-in-cheek. I like all that stuff from that era.
CM: Did you get to go to any of the smaller clubs?
JM: It’s tough during the season because someone will come through town when you’re not there. I wasn’t hanging out at clubs. In baseball, its tough because you get home at 12:30, you know? It’s different on the road because you’re just sitting there wasting time.You go out more on the road because your wife and kids aren’t there.You can get out of there and go to a club on the way back to the hotel.
CM: So you were just there for the one season?
JM: Just one year and I was a free agent after that year. Me & Coney (David Cone) were free agents. They fired Buck Showalter and they hadn’t hired Joe Torre yet and I had to make a decision. So I decided to sign with Cleveland. They were in the Series two years later.
CM: So, you got an apartment and you were only there for a year?
JM: Really just six months. As soon as the season was done, we moved back to Chicago and I ended up signing with Cleveland. Later, we moved to Cleveland and bought a house, had another kid, played that one season and had surgery the next season.That was pretty much it. I played two more years with the Angels, starting the season seeing if I could pitch without that muscle in my arm and it didn’t happen.
CM: What do you remember about 9/11?
JM:We were in Chicago.We were supposed to play a gig there on the 12th.The first I heard of it was our drummer waking me up in the morning from the airport saying there was something wrong with his flight. So I’m awake and on hold with United and I turn the TV on. I’m trying to focus on it I don’t know what it is, a burning building or whatever and then BOOM! The second plane goes in right as I’m watching. So I hang up the phone and turn it up to find out what’s going on. We were in downtown Chicago, so I’m on my balcony thinking “If they drop that Sears Tower, which you KNOW is next, we’re right here.” So, I’m FREAKING out. Mike (Mesaros, Stickfigure/Smithereens bass player) knew people that were in the building that got out. I knew friends of friends there but no one immediate.
CM: Did you actually use the phrase “chin music”?
JM: I’m trying to think of what we’d say. We’d probably say “knock ‘em down” more than -chin music”.
CM: Because, you were known for throwing high and tight.
JM: It’s so funny because I was known for that and it’s a crackup because I never hit more than, like, four guys in a particular season. Greg Maddux will hit 15 a year. I actually had veterans come over to our team and say, “You need to hit more people.You’ve got that reputation. You should just hit someone randomly, just to keep it in the back of their minds.” But I didn’t even have to. I’ve got this image that I do that anyways and it came from when I first got called up from college. I was primarily a two-pitch pitcher. I didn’t have a really good curveball. I had a fastball and a split-finger fast-ball. I didn’t have the normal split where they’d throw it in the ground and guys would swing at it. I had to throw mine for a strike. Over time, it became a great pitch for me. I was really basically a one and a half pitch pitcher, so I had to use my fastball a lot. Carlton Fisk was king on using the fastball, just moving it in and out in the right place. There were times in the first couple years where I’m throwing to Pudge (Fisk) where I would go into the windup and he’d move over to where he’s going and I can’t see him because he’s set up BEHIND the batter. (Adam laughs) You know? He’s set up and you can JUST see his glove sticking out behind the guy’s thigh. (thinking out loud) “So I’m throwing inside, man.” So, I got pegged as not being afraid to throw inside. But, I always threw inside to try to throw strikes to try to get people out.Very rarely did I waste a pitch just to get someone off the plate. I hated wasting pitches.
CM: Was it more up to the catcher to do that? I know there’s a signal for coming in tight, but, is there an actual signal for “knock ‘em down”?
JM: There’s a signal for “knock ‘em down”. Everyone’s got one but you can’t use it so much these days because you’ve got cameras. If a fight starts, they’re going to go back and see that the catcher gave the sign. Usually, when you see fights, it’s because someone got hit and then you’re in the dugout (and see it on a monitor), so everyone sort of gives the high sign that we’ve got one coming to us.
CM: Did you ever have a theme song like “Hell’s Bells” or something?
JM: The only time I had something on when I came out on the mound that they didn’t pick was one year in Cleveland, I had them play Pearl Jam’s “Present Tense”. I’d started seeing a sports psychologist, sort of a mental coach and his whole thing was to just stay in the present tense. It’s so easy to say and so hard to do. In baseball, if you throw a pitch and give up a home run, who gives a crap? You’ve gotta throw the next pitch. If you’re gonna trip about it, then your next pitch is going to be terrible. It’s all about “Next pitch, next pitch.” If you stay in the present, you’re going to look back and you won’t know what happened but you’re going to be good.That song came out almost exactly the time when I started seeing that guy. It was like (to Eddie Vedder), “You’re thinking along the same lines.” So I had them play that. It was a little knee-jerk. They played it as I ran out and warmed up for the game. It’s kind of a mellow song but it was good. It wasn’t like I was trying to trip anyone out. I was just trying to get in my own zone.
In the next issue of ChinMusic!, McDowell discusses what it’s like to be into “weird” music in a locker room full of jocks and being an ex-athlete trying to make it in the music world.
Check out Stickfigure’s website at http://www.stickfigure.com (link to archived version). Their new album, Ape of Kings, is out now on What Are Records? It’s available through their website at http://www.war.com (link to archived site, War.com now belongs to the band War).