The Fastest Who Ever Lived has Died

Steve Dalkowski, who died a few days ago, is mostly remembered as a fictional character. If you’ve ever seen “Bull Durham,” one of the best baseball movies ever made, you know him as Nuke LaLoosh, the pitcher (played hilariously by Tim Robbins) with a million dollar arm and a five-cent head.

In the movie, Nuke falls under the world-weary mentorship of his veteran catcher, Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), and into the arms of local fan and serial cougar, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon). Together and apart, Crash and Annie help get Nuke on the path to big league stardom.

Like Nuke, Steve had Olympian gifts with no real sense of direction most of the time. Dalko, by anecdotal accounts (including Ted Williams’) was the hardest thrower to take ever toe the pitching rubber. He had blinding speed with limited control, just as likely to walk 20 in a game as he was to strike out that many.

Consequently, Steve never pitched in the big leagues, spending nine years in the minors, terrifying 19-year-olds all season long and veterans during spring training. Cal Ripken, Sr., who caught Dalkowski (and saw Sandy Koufax, Goose Gossage, and Nolan Ryan pitch) said Steve was the fastest ever, estimating the left-hander’s throwing speed at somewhere between 110 and 115 miles an hour – basically, Sidd Finch made flesh.

And unlike the comical fictional character, Nuke LaLoosh, the real-life flamethrower flamed out before he was 26, never pitching an inning in a regular season major league game. Dalko succumbed to injury and addiction, spending his post-baseball life in a pitched battle against alcoholism, going in and out of rehab, spending the last 25 years of his life in an assisted living facility a few blocks from his old high school ball field.

Mostly, he disappeared from baseball. But he did have at least one chance to pitch in a big league ballpark before he died, throwing out a ceremonial first pitch last year at Dodger Stadium.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if there had been a Crash Davis or Annie Savoy to set Steve Dalkowski on the righteous path. For me, Steve has always been like an itch I can’t scratch, a what-might-have-been itch.

Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed “Bull Durham” (and played in the Baltimore Orioles’ system a few years after Dalko), put it best: “He had it all and didn’t know it. That’s why Steve Dalkowski stays in our minds. In his sport, he had the equivalent of Michelangelo’s gift but could never finish a painting.”

Steve Dalkowski, I remember you.

Minor league pitcher Steve Dalkowski is pictured in Miami, March 1959. (AP Photo)


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