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COLUMBUS, GEORGIAConstructing shaving-cream pies and blowing bubble-gum bubbles for the tops of baseball caps. Setting off firecrackers in the bat racks to "wake up the bats." Administering a hotfoot or two. (Instructions: Stick a book of matches to someone's shoe with gum, then light the whole book.) Wearing a tool belt in the dugout. Starring in a classic Seinfeld episode as the "second spitter."
That's the Roger McDowell whom Mets fans know and loveso much so that in 2002 they named him the right-handed reliever of the 40th Anniversary All-Amazin' Team.
A closer with a dive-bombing sinker and nasty change-up, McDowell was the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the 1986 World Series against Boston and is fifth on the Mets' all-time career saves list (with 84). Hey, but remember the time he put on a uniform upside down and walked through the dugout on his hands?
But he could pitch, and even the most smart-alecky of smart alecks grows up. In fact, the Los Angeles Dodgers are convinced that McDowell's matured to the point where they've entrusted him with their arms of the future. McDowell is in his second year as the pitching coach for the South Georgia Waves, the Dodgers' Columbus affiliate in the Class A South Atlantic League.
"I wasn't so sure it was something that I wanted to do," McDowell told the Voice. "I felt that when I retired I was going to get out of the game and be kind of done with it, spend time with my family. But it's kind of like anyone else who goes to college or gets their education in a particular field. This was my education."
McDowell smiles at the realization that most of his protégés (that he has protégés is an interesting concept in itself) are in their teens and remember seeing him on TVbut not playing baseball.
The 1992 Seinfeld episode, he said, is only the "second most important thing I'm known for. The first one was MTV's Rock and Jocks. I get the Seinfeld thing all the time. It wasn't much of a part, and it was a no-speaking part. But I did throw the 'magic loogie.' "
Now McDowell spits out the knowledge. "These young men are going to make mistakes, and it's my job to help them minimize those mistakes as much as possible," he said. "As a player, you're accountable for yourself and that's all. As a pitching coach you're accountable for 15 players. Whether they succeed or fail, I take that personally."
These days, the legendary prankster says all the right things. "I want them all to pitch in the big leagues," he said. "Will it happen? Probably not. But I want to give them the best chance that they have. If they fall short, you have to sometimes look yourself in the mirror and say, 'Did I do all that was possible?' "
That attitude should please Don Mattingly and Cal Ripken, two owners of the Waves, who had an unsettling start to the season. Last year the team played in Albany, Georgia, and the franchise was supposed to move to Wilmington, North Carolina, for 2003. But that deal fell through, and the Waves ended up in Columbus 10 days before spring training ended.
As of a recent conversation with McDowell, he hadn't seen his famous bosses. "The last time I saw Donny was in New York," he said. "We played a subway seriesthis was before interleague. The last time I saw Cal was when we were teammates in Baltimore in '96. So I haven't had any extra-special perks lately, I can tell you that."