The heart and soul behind the Orioles pitching staff

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Like the rest, the Baltimore Orioles have their areas they would not characterize as ideal, the result of being one of 30 and then the aching truth there is no such thing as ideal.

Baltimore Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace (Getty Images)
Baltimore Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace (Getty Images)

They do chase ideal in their own way, that not being quite ideal either, all of which is to say the Orioles generally were not picked to win the American League East because the starting rotation appeared to be achingly less than ideal again.

“And you still might be right,” their manager, Buck Showalter, said one afternoon late last week. “Who knows? We’ll find out.”

Showalter has a pleasant way of allowing opinions that have no bearing on the outcome, which covers pretty much all opinions, which seems healthy. Too much can happen between April and October every year, between 7-10:30 p.m. every night, to fuss over who thinks what about stuff that hasn’t even happened yet. Ideal is three hours of ball followed by a handshake and, don’t you worry, tomorrow will come soon enough and then we’ll all know for sure.

Edging toward June, the Orioles lead the division because their bullpen is excellent, because they score plenty of runs, because they catch the balls they get to (though they don’t get to enough, probably) and because the starting rotation many figured to be ineffectual has been better than that. It has been average. There are reasons for that, and mainly the Orioles will hold to Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman and hope Yovani Gallardo may some day rejoin them and lower his ERA. Like most rotations, there will be parts that improve and parts that don’t and parts that age well or not and parts that break and, so far, all of that has happened, and the best a man can do is to try not to let any of it get him down.

Dave Wallace bears a resemblance to one of those starting rotations. He’s had a knee replaced. He’s had a hip replaced twice. He wears glasses and a hearing device and is 68 years old. A few years back he feared he might be done – as in done done, as in this-can’t-be-it done due to a terrible infection – and now he’s back up over that knee and that hip and this life and coaching a starting rotation nobody thought much of. All of which could change tomorrow, of course, but it wouldn’t change him at all. There are ways to do this, to leave a young man on a hill with a ball in his hand and a plan and a healthy perspective for when he comes down off that hill, satisfied or not.

“I think it was Sandy, probably was, though it could’ve been Johnny, but it was probably Sandy,” Wallace started, and in that sentence fragment he’d begun to describe a young man, himself once an average pitcher, drawing wisdom from Sandy Koufax and Johnny Podres, in this case probably Sandy.

He continued, “Sandy had a saying I use to this day, and that is, ‘Pitching is the constant striving for perfection with the realization that you’re never going to achieve it.’ ”

He repeated it.

“No one knows what that hill is like,” he said. “It’s a different place.”

Maybe he was still talking about pitching.

Wallace is in his third season as Showalter’s pitching coach. He’s thought about it being his last, but that’s a decision for another day, once he sees this through. He has a wife, Joyce, back in Wrentham, Mass., along with five children and five grandchildren, and he’s hardly taken any real time off since the day the Philadelphia Phillies signed him in 1969. So, he has thoughts about what the road takes out of him, and how his 16-year-old, Hollie, who is a sophomore in high school, is growing up. He has been to the playoffs eight times, and won a World Series with the Boston Red Sox in '04, and he’s nudged and mentored and soothed and scolded enough men up on that hill to fill two careers.

Then he ponders that big old right-hander who ambled into Sarasota, Fla. a few Januaries ago and compares that guy to Brad Brach today, and he wouldn’t want to miss out on the next Brad Brach. Then he watches Zach Britton go a third consecutive season with an ERA under 2, and he senses the satisfaction bullpen coach Dom Chiti shares in such uncommon precision, and he’d miss that, too. He’s never had a job quite like this one, not with a manager quite like Showalter and a bullpen coach quite like Chiti and a challenge quite like the Orioles, and it’s not that he didn’t enjoy most of those other jobs, and he’s had plenty, but this one is special. Funny how a good life gets back to you eventually, how it can allow just enough time and opportunity and spare hips to be sure you’re where you should be, how it allows you to say one more time, “Yep, this is why I do this.”

Wallace, a kind man whose eyes laugh with him and who knows pitchers the way you know your drive to work, didn’t think long.

“Probably during a bullpen session with a guy like Kevin Gausman,” he said. “You know, young pitchers who make progress. Chris Tillman. Zach Britton. All the guys, especially the young guys, it’s so refreshing to watch them mature, watch them get better. Whether you had anything to do with it or not doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a joy to have these guys pick your brain and ask good questions and apply it in games. That’s why you do this.

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

“It’s not the wins and the losses. That’s great. But to see these guys mature, it’s like watching your child grow.”

Wallace probably gave up on the notion of ideal a long time ago, as far as results go. What he could do is get up on that hill, or send them up that hill. Spend 50 years doing that, the point remains to win, but also to understand. To be of use. To find a better way. To make a difference. To love it enough to try again tomorrow. That 16-year-old girl, Hollie? Dave and Joyce took her in 14 years ago in order to temporarily help the foster care system. They figured on a few months, maybe six. They adopted Hollie.

“You know, if you can help out a life, I don’t care what you do, you do it,” Wallace said. “If you can be a somewhat positive influence, when it’s all said and done, that’s what matters.”

He grinned.

“Again, well, Sandy put it the best,” he said. “He goes, ‘I admire you but I don’t envy you.’ ”

Ah well, maybe Wallace just can’t help himself. Who’s going to pass all this down for the next guy? What Sandy said? What Johnny Pods said? What worked for Pedro? How this kid Brad Brach made it? And, man, remember that year Gausman figured it out?

“I’m not going to hang around and do it forever,” he said. “But, I’ve been blessed to do it this long and if this is it, this is it. We’ll figure it out, my wife and I. Meantime, I feel good. I pray every day.”