Call to Arms

Sky Sox pitching guru Bob McClure tackles mission impossible.

McClure is credited with major renovations in hot-and-cold starter Denny Stark, bringing injured phenom Chon-hui Tsao back into the picture and restoring the confidence of Aaron Cook, who's now back with the parent club. He is also getting top prospect Jeff Francis from Tulsa.

In his own long career, McClure experienced baseball's agonies and ecstasies in profusion -- sometimes within days of each other. When the Brewers made their only World Series appearance, in 1982, top reliever Rollie Fingers was injured, and it fell to McClure to fill the bill against St. Louis. He saved two of Milwaukee's three wins, but he also gave up what turned out to be the winning hit in the decisive seventh game. The man who struck it, it turns out, was an old friend from his hometown of Pacifica, Califiornia. A guy with whom he'd played Little League, Babe Ruth and high school baseball -- Cardinals first baseman Keith Hernandez.

"That's another thing young pitchers have to learn," McClure says. "The ups and downs of the game. The emotional things. Innings are important for young guys, because they teach you how to handle adversity and become consistent. But because pitchers are being pushed faster into the major leagues these days, they're not accumulating as many innings. Because of economics, that's just the way the game is now. So a lot of guys you get [from the low minors] never see the downside until they get here. Then it's hard to acclimate."

At the moment, there are two pitchers on the Sky Sox staff who have seen it all -- ups and downs, highs and lows. They may be the ones who best understand Bob McClure's value to an organization that faces pitching problems unlike any others in baseball. Rockies reliever Turk Wendell, the spirited 37-year-old big-league veteran famous for wearing elk-tooth necklaces and gleefully firing the rosin bag into the turf, is on a thirty-day rehab stint in the Springs with a stiff shoulder. "Two minutes into my first bullpen session down here," Wendell says, "he kind of tweaked my mechanics and pretty much figured out what I was doing wrong. He's one of the best...he's been through the wars; he pitched for a long time. So I pay attention."

Thirty-one-year-old Brian Tollberg, a former San Diego Padres righthander who underwent the dreaded "Tommy John surgery" on his elbow two years ago, has made only eight major league starts since then, but he's hoping for a return to the Bigs. "It's been kind of trying," he said the other night in the Sky Sox's cramped clubhouse, an ill-lighted place with a couple of dingy couches squatting beneath a lone TV set. "It's tough pitching in the altitude here and trying to work on some things mechanically that contributed to my getting hurt in the first place. But McClure is one of the top two pitching coaches I've ever had. He's good from the mental aspect and with mechanics, and he runs his staff the way it's supposed to be run. No question. He's one of the biggest influences I've had in professional ball. He's been a real help."

Now, if he can just help throw a major changeup at Coors Field.

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