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August 1, 2014

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RON KANTOWSKI:

High pitch, but no heat

51s’ pitching coach had an accomplished big-league career, but he’s best known for a slowpitch softball-like curve

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Leila Navidi

Las Vegas 51s pitching coach Dave LaRoche had an accomplished 14-year career as a major league pitcher and raised two sons who are major league infielders. Usually, though, reporters talk to him about the LaLob, a novelty pitch much like Rip Sewell’s Eephus Pitch and Steve Hamilton’s Folly Floater.

WHAT’S AN EEPHUS?

Most baseball fans know an “Eephus” pitch to be a ball lobbed up to home plate with a high trajectory, but the origin of the term is unclear. Rip Sewell of the Pittsburgh Pirates developed the pitch in the 1930s. According to Pirates manager Frankie Frisch, the pitch was named by outfielder Maurice Van Robays. When asked what it meant, Van Robays said, “Eephus ain’t nothin’.” Some believe Eephus may come from the Hebrew word “efes,” which means “nothing.”

Only the Name Stays the Same

After spending the past eight season as the Triple-AAA affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Las Vegas 51s are the top farm club for the Toronto Blue Jays. The 51s open the season on Thursday night.

Folly Floater

51s Media Day

The Las Vegas 51s warm up before practice during media day at Cashman Field in Las Vegas on Tuesday, April 7, 2009. Launch slideshow »

Beyond the Sun

When I heard Dave LaRoche was going to be the Las Vegas 51s’ pitching coach, I knew I was going to write about him before the first bases-loaded walk of the season.

But where do you start?

• With his 14-year major league career during which he saved 126 games, was selected to two All-Star teams and pitched in the 1981 World Series for the Yankees?

• With his two baseball-playing sons, Adam and Andy, who are playing in the same infield for the Pittsburgh Pirates?

• With his short-lived UNLV career (it was Nevada Southern then), where he accepted a scholarship to play both basketball and baseball before signing a professional baseball contract and leaving school?

• With the little-known fact he was called up four times in the same season from the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, thus becoming, at least according to a Sports Illustrated headline, the literal Yankee/Clipper?

• With the time they signaled for Rudy May out of the bullpen, but LaRoche went anyway, resulting in two pitchers on the same mound at Anaheim Stadium?

Those are all good places to start. And as I told LaRoche, I would probably get to each of those stories, because it’s a long season.

Then I began where most people with an appreciation for baseball curiosity and whimsy begin any conversation with LaRoche.

By asking him about “LaLob.”

LaLob was LaRoche’s version of Rip Sewell’s Eephus Pitch. Of Steve Hamilton’s Folly Floater. Of Bugs Bunny’s Powerful, Paralyzing, Perfect Pachydermous Percussion Pitch.

It was the slowest of curves, tossed 20 feet above home plate. You timed it with a sundial instead of a radar gun. It once was clocked at 28 mph. But you couldn’t hit it most of the time. And when you did, it didn’t go very far.

This is how Sports Illustrated described LaLob in its Aug. 16, 1982, edition:

In the ninth inning of a game at Yankee Stadium last Friday night, with two outs and two strikes on large Lamar Johnson, Dave LaRoche unloosed his patented LaLob. The Texas pinch-hitter took a mighty cut, whiffed and screwed himself into a heap on the ground. As Johnson lay there giggling, umpire Ken Kaiser counted him out as he would a boxer, then helped him up, and the Yankee and Ranger benches erupted into scenes of great hilarity.

Well, most of the Ranger bench.

“Billy Martin was the manager and I had a couple of buddies on the Rangers who said he was furious,” LaRoche recalled as the 51s limbered up for their season-opening series at Colorado Springs. “They went back in the shower room at the old Yankee Stadium, because they didn’t want Billy to see them laughing.”

LaRoche said LaLob was born out of necessity and boredom during the 1980 season, his last with the Angels. He had only two pitches, fastball and curve, and thought if he could develop a changeup it might prolong his career.

“Back then, they could call you from the fifth inning on,” he said. “You’d get loose quick and wind up just standing there and playing catch. So I started spinning my curve, working on the rotation. It kept getting higher and higher.”

Fellow relievers Mark Clear and Don Aase finally talked him into throwing the pitch in a game — the last Angels home game of the 1980 season. LaRoche retired 20 batters in a row, liberally mixing in LaLob with his regular pitches.

“I probably threw eight or 10 of ’em and probably got five or six outs. I think I gave up one hit and nobody said anything about it, except the guys in the ’pen,” LaRoche said.

“But then I got to New York, where everything is bigger.”

Yankee fans, who became enamored of Hamilton’s Folly Floater a decade earlier — LaRoche would later meet Hamilton at an old-timers game where they compared flotation devices — encouraged the lefty to throw his during lopsided losses.

His most memorable LaLob struck out Gorman Thomas on Sept. 9, 1991. Thomas smashed his batting helmet into tiny pieces.

The next June, LaRoche gave Thomas a chance to get even. He tossed the Brewers’ slugger seven consecutive LaLobs. Thomas managed to nub the last one over the third baseman’s head for a bloop single.

“I’d turn around and (Graig) Nettles and (Bucky) Dent and (Willie) Randolph would have their gloves over their faces, laughing. It loosened things up. The fans would get back into the game and then we would get back into a lot of those games,” he said.

I asked LaRoche if it bothered him that with all he accomplished in baseball, all guys like me usually want to talk about is his novelty pitch.

“It’s better than you not wanting to talk to me,” he said.

As for teaching the pitch to one of the 51s, LaRoche said you can forget about it. LaLob is on LaShelf.

“I had a couple of guys messing around and throwing them,” he said about his travels as a minor league pitching coach. “I’d get these dirty looks from upper management so I don’t encourage it a lot.”

Well, there goes Mitch Williams’ comeback.

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