Alcoholism drove him from the big leagues, but pitching ace Sudden Sam McDowell learned about redemption, too. Now he's pitching a retirement haven for athletes, west of Orlando.
By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2003
CLERMONT -- The memory is a burning reminder. It measures not only how far he once fell, but the distance he has traveled to achieve a dream in this little Central Florida town.
It was 1980, the end of a dreary afternoon in Pittsburgh. He sat on a curb wondering what else could go wrong. His car had just run out of gas. He hadn't eaten all day. He had 35 cents in his pocket.
This was Sam McDowell. Sudden Sam. For years, he had been one of the most feared pitchers in Major League Baseball -- a 6-foot-5 lefty who could bring the heat with the best in the game. He notched five strikeout titles between 1965 and 1970 as a perennial All-Star with the lowly Cleveland Indians. And he averaged 8.86 strikeouts per nine innings over 15 seasons, a feat surpassed only by Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan.
Now, he sat alone, with nothing left but his careerlong alcohol addiction.
Instead of pitching fastballs at 98 mph, he was pitching life insurance on 100 percent commission.
Suddenly, he was just Sam.
Five years before, baseball had booted him out.
McDowell was cut adrift because of his hot temper and barroom brawling, his wild stunts (which included jumping from a hotel balcony into a pool), and his constant boozing. Though he still had his physical gifts, no teams would touch him after his release in 1975 by his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates.
"I was a violent drunk, the biggest drunk in baseball," he says. "So I got thrown out and then blackballed. Which I understand. They didn't know how to deal with it back then."
On top of that, his wife, Carol, had ended their 16-year marriage and taken the son and daughter McDowell cherished. His Sudden Sam pool halls and restaurants had been shut down, leaving him $190,000 in debt. He was forced to move back in with his parents.
But there was something McDowell did have as he sat on the curb, pondering his next move.
He had his sobriety.
Months earlier, McDowell had decided to enter an alcohol rehab clinic. He came out determined to make a comeback by becoming the best insurance salesman Colonial Life and Accident had ever seen.
"But all I had that day was 35 cents," he says. "So I had to decide: Should I get a hamburger, because I was starving, or get gas, because I had an appointment in the morning to sell insurance."
The old McDowell would have looked for the nearest bar. The new one bought enough gas to make it home and to his appointment the next day.
The fuel he relied on most, however, was his high-octane willpower. It was what he once called upon to mow down batters, throwing so hard in one game in 1962 he suffered two broken ribs. And it was what his father, Pete, a 30-year veteran of the steel mills, had instilled in him with the adage: "We're McDowells, we will succeed."
So determined was McDowell to redeem himself that he wrote his creditors and promised to make good on every debt. In 1988, he celebrated what he views as his No. 1 achievement: He repaid every debt without ever declaring bankruptcy. "Part of my recovery was based in honesty and self-respect, and bankruptcy wasn't part of it," he says.
But another remarkable change occurred in McDowell. He became certified as an addictions counselor and sports psychologist in 1981. And in 1983, baseball invited him back. McDowell began a new 15-year career, this time as a team therapist, first for the Texas Rangers, then the Toronto Blue Jays.
McDowell retired in 1998, but he has worked the past 14 years as a consulting counselor for the Baseball Assistance Team, a charity to help former players who have hit hard times. "Whether it's financial, emotional, psychological, physical or addiction problems," he says. "I know the serious needs for medical help athletes need as they get older."
Which explains what McDowell is doing in this town of rolling hills and lakes west of Orlando.
Most days, you can find him in his spacious office adjoining the Westminster Nursing Care Center. Surrounded by stacks of paperwork and walls of memorabilia, McDowell plows into a project that has consumed him for two years.
It is called the City of Legends, a retirement community designed for former pro athletes in baseball, football, hockey, basketball, you name it. McDowell is the president and chief executive officer.
But City of Legends is more than a haven for year-round golf at three luxury courses, more than the sprawling new subdivisions around Clermont.
It is a venture that also combines a college campus with curricula designed for the ex-athletes, an Olympic triathlon training and sports medicine center they can use, plans for public sports clinics and old-timers games, and a hospital to care for any kinds of problems that arise in retirement.
"Throughout the last 20 to 25 years, I've known of all the problems the pro athlete runs into when he retires -- some psychological, some emotional, a lot of it physical," McDowell says. "So I've thought there was a real need for a retirement village for athletes. Recreation is an important part of it. But I had no interest in doing this at all unless it was built around one thing: a strong medical component.
"That's what sets this place apart."
At 60, McDowell remains an imposing figure. He maintains an intense gaze behind wire-rimmed glasses, has a direct, no-nonsense style, and talks with a voice made husky from one remaining vice, his ever-present Kool cigarettes.
"It's called stupidity," he says dryly. "I quit once. And I plan to quit again."
He makes the drive along busy U.S. 27 each day. On a recent afternoon, he points to one of many hillsides once covered with orange groves.
Now, rooftops of custom homes affiliated with City of Legends fill the landscape.
"Everything here was solid orange groves, until the last freeze in 1993 wiped everybody out," he says. "All the growers moved south, and what was left here was nothing but barren, devastated hills."
It was there that McDowell's vision took root.
He had come to Clermont four years ago, when a consortium of ballplayers called the Diamond Players Club coaxed him into managing two Clermont golf courses. McDowell had just started a comfortable retirement, splitting time between Pittsburgh and Palm Harbor. But he accepted the offer.
Immediately, he was struck by the potential Clermont had for the idea he'd mulled for years, an athlete retirement community. New housing developments were sprouting where oranges once did. He became more convinced as he befriended hundreds of retired pro athletes in the Orlando area, inviting them to Clermont for weekly celebrity tourneys.
The clincher came when he met Dr. Michael Ray, a Clermont-based orthopedic surgeon. Ray, who treated many pro and Olympic athletes, had long wanted to create a modern training and sports medicine research facility. McDowell talked to Ray about his dream of a retirement village.
They decided to help each other. Ray's institute would offer services to any old pros moving in. It would be a centerpiece of City of Legends.
The truth is, this is not really a city.
What McDowell has done is form partnerships with contractors and institutions in Clermont, selling City of Legends as an umbrella concept, a name that unites many of the new developments with already existing facilities.
A handful of retired athletes, including former Baltimore Orioles ace Mike Cuellar, reside in City of Legends homes, but they were living in the area before the project began.
A lot more may be on the way.
McDowell says negotiations are nearly complete and contracts should soon be signed with the NFL Players Association and Major League Baseball Alumni Association to make City of Legends their retirement village.
"We'll make that announcement within the next month," he says. "We have all the verbal commitments, but we still have two or three contracts left."
The athletes will vary in ages and needs. They will be as young as their 40s, as old as their 90s. They can buy homes from $70,000 to million-dollar models. Once here, they will get free use of many facilities -- such as the training center and three golf courses. "If they can't afford insurance, they'll get free use of the medical resources, too," says McDowell.
How many retired players might come to live?
"The NFLPA sent a questionnaire to 800 former players two years ago when we started, and it got back 800 favorable responses about this kind of retirement village. Now, we're not counting on 800 athletes. But I can guarantee you between football and baseball, we'll have 250 coming here to live."
Mike McBath, a Buffalo Bill from 1968 to 1974, is a recent president of the NFL Retired Players Association. A founder of the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League, McBath said he couldn't provide details on the deal "because it's not official."
However, he added, "Sam has done a lot of wonderful things for us and we're certainly in debt to him. We're very happy with what we've seen."
McBath noted that, because of McDowell, in May the NFL retired players convention is coming to Orlando and holding several major golf charity events and football clinics at City of Legends. "By even referring to that says something about how we feel about what Sam is doing," McBath says.
For now, most of the houses -- about 9,100 recently built with 6,000 more planned -- are occupied by regular, nonsports folks. The idea is to create a community with no walls, says McDowell, allowing retired athletes to live next door to nonathletes.
"It's astounding how many of the retired athletes we've contacted told us 'I would love to live in the same area, but not necessarily next door to another athlete,' " McDowell says. "They get tired of always talking about the old days."
For McDowell, the old days were cocktail time.
He had broken into the majors as an 18-year-old whiz kid who never had any interest in alcohol, he says. Veterans often ostracized rookies in that era until they proved themselves. McDowell remembers being shunned by teammates until he pitched his first strong game in his second season in 1962.
"Barry Latman and Gary Bell took me out to dinner at Jim Diamond's in Chicago to have a steak dinner, and I remember vividly, because it was the first time I ever drank," he says. "Gary ordered a Scotch on the rocks. So I ordered one. Barry ordered some fancy pink drink. So I ordered one.
"But after they had a couple of drinks, we went back to the hotel and they went to bed. But not me. I wanted more. And I went out on my own that night to get more. That was the beginning of it."
McDowell pitched hard and drank hard, and began using uppers and downers to "medicate" the pain in his arm. Still, he says he never imbibed the night before or day of a game. Batters feared him, not just the speed and ferocity on the mound, but his touch of wildness. When he was on, he was unstoppable -- once throwing back-to-back one-hitters, also becoming the youngest pitcher to strike out 300 batters.
His drinking lasted through his career, with a stint with the Giants in 1972-73, the Yankees in 1973-74 and his brief tenure with the Pirates in 1975.
The Yankees were well aware of McDowell's reputation and assigned a coach to stay with him on the road to keep him sober. "The first night we went on the road," says McDowell, "I got him drunk."
McDowell says he knew something was wrong. During the off-season, he took college courses in psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne. "I didn't understand what was happening to me," he says. "I didn't understand me. I'd always had great self-discipline except for drinking."
He read about genetic predisposition to alcoholism and realized drinking problems affected other members of his family. Still, it wasn't until he entered rehab in 1980 that McDowell made a change: "It clicked -- 'I'm not crazy after all, I'm an alcoholic.' "
A psychiatrist who treated McDowell in rehab encouraged him to go into counseling, but the pitcher was reluctant at first. "But I've always loved working with kids," he says. "So I started doing a little of that, and they'd come to me with their problems, and then I'd go ask my doctor what I should tell them."
"And finally, one day, he said, 'Sam, haven't you got the message yet? These kids are coming to you. Not to me. You're the one who can help.' "
McDowell began reading books on psychology recommended by his doctor. Then he decided to complete his degree in sports psychology, becoming a certified addictions counselor and a therapist. Word of McDowell's recovery spread, and in 1983 the owner of the Texas Rangers hired McDowell to institute an in-depth sports psychology program.
He later took his program to Toronto, where he earned something that always escaped him as a player: a World Series championship ring.
He wears it proudly as a reminder of the 1993 title won by the Blue Jays, and of all the work he has done in baseball helping players cope with problems.
"To do what Sam's done, or any alcoholic, and not drink, it takes a lot of intestinal fortitude," says Casey Cox, who pitched for the Washington Senators and the Yankees.
Cox knows something about the topic. The Largo businessman struggled with his own drinking problem as a player and hasn't had a drink in 20 years. "Sam's always had a lot of toughness, he'd stand out there and fire the ball by Frank Howard -- it was something to see," says Cox. "I think it's wonderful what he's done as a counselor, and with the City of Legends."
In his office, McDowell displays countless mementos from his playing days: an Indians hat, a photo of him and Koufax, a shot of Jerry Lewis clowning with him at his Indians locker circa '65.
There are plaques from the Jacksonville Hall of Fame, the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame, but nothing from baseball's Hall of Fame. Drinking cost him any shot. Yet he takes pride in another career feat: He hasn't touched alcohol, he says, in 231/2 years.
On the edge of his desk is a small black-and-white photo: a strapping pitcher sitting in the dugout with a little boy and girl. It's McDowell with his kids, Tim and Debbie, taken in the mid '60s. "They were with me all the time when I played," he says.
Today, he says, he has a close relationship with both: Tim is a school psychologist, Debbie a financial accountant. He has patched up his relationship with his ex-wife. And this past May, he married a woman he met in Clermont.
He likes to drive to one particular hillside, where Ray's National Training Center and Sports Medicine Institute is nearing completion. The view includes South Lake Hospital, the USA Triathlon Training Center, a campus of the University of Central Florida, the Special Olympics of Florida site, and City of Legends' soon-to-open headquarters.
"Everybody asks if I regret the way things went for me," he says. "And I say, no. The reason is I wouldn't be who I am today, doing what I'm doing, if it wasn't for what I went through. So I'm grateful."