FOR THIS COACH,
BY TYLER KEPNER
TAMPA, Florida The first hands to touch Gilbert Thomas Patterson Jr. were his father's. They were the same hands that once fired baseballs like no one had ever seen. The right hand did, at least, and the left one tried. But that was many years before.
On 1 May 1998, the hands had a more important job: guiding a baby into the world. The doctor at the Fort Lauderdale hospital had asked Patterson if he wanted to witness the birth, and Gil Patterson asked to perform the delivery. For a man who gives instruction for a living, he also took it well.
" Oh my gosh," Patterson said recently in the Yankees' dugout, crouching like a catcher to show how he did it. " What an experience !" Maybe, Patterson says, that bond is why he is so close to his son, who goes by G. T. Maybe that is why, when the season ends, Patterson all but Velcros himself to his boy.
Maybe, too, there is the feeling that many baseball fathers have, that gnawing guilt of being on a bus or a plane while their children grow up. Patterson is a pitching coach in the Yankees' farm system. Thirty years ago, he may have been the best young pitcher in minor-league baseball. Long after the lightning left his arm, his talent resonates.
" When I saw Gil throw, I always said that I wish I had his ability," said Ron Guidry, a minor league teammate who went on to win the Cy Young award in 1978. " His stuff was just dynamite. He threw hard, he had a good breaking ball, he had good command. Even when I was established, I felt like still saying, ' I wish I could be that good.' "
When Mel Stottlemyre retired as the Yankees' pitching coach last winter, Guidry replaced him. Patterson had been the coach at Class AAA Columbus, after four years on the major league staff with the Toronto Blue Jays, and he was reassigned to the Yankees' team in the Gulf Coast League.
It is the bottom rung of the minor league ladder, but it was exactly where he wanted to be. Patterson had asked for the assignment. As the Yankees were making their coaching decisions last October, Patterson said he was scared. There was something unusual with G. T.
Watching television one night at home in Tampa, Patterson noticed his son tilting his head back, over and over, every 10 seconds or so. " I thought he was playing around," Patterson said. " I said, ' Don't do that, you'll hurt your neck.' He said, ' I can't stop.' " There were other problems. Sometimes, G. T. would make high-pitched noises, as if clearing his throat. He would curl his feet inward or press his fingers beneath his jaw, movements he could not control.
Patterson did not know it then, but his son had Tourette's Syndrome, a condition of the nervous system characterized by involuntary movements or sounds, or both, called tics. Reaching that diagnosis took a month of tests on his blood, brain and heart. Every other day, it seemed, Patterson and his wife, Jan, would take G. T. to another doctor. They saw a pediatric neurologist, an infectious disease specialist, an allergist and a psychiatrist. The outlook was unclear.
" It's one of those things where no one knows," Patterson said. " You would think in today's day and age, they could tell you exactly. They think it might last till he's a teenager. It could last longer. They don't know if it's going to get worse. They don't know if it's going to get better."
"He wants to be down here with his son, not just because he got diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome, but because he's 7 or 8 years old," said Yankees pitcher Aaron Small, who has known Patterson for 10 years. " At that time in a kid's life, especially with what he's going through now, it's important that his dad is down here. It was nice of the Yankees to accommodate him."
Patterson spoke over the winter with Jim Eisenreich, the former major league outfielder who overcame Tourette's to have a productive career. He suggested that Patterson point out his own rituals, such as cracking knuckles, to show his son how other people make similar movements. That helped, Patterson said, but it could not numb the heartache.
"It makes you almost cry when he says, 'Dad, why is this happening to me ?' " Patterson said. "When I try to explain that, I'm not sure I always have the answer he wants to hear, or even the right answer." But Patterson said he wanted to keep trying, and wanted to be there for whatever might happen.
G. T. is improving, he said, but if classmates teased him and his son was sad, he did not want to hear about it on the phone from far away. To Patterson, whose father left home when he was 12, family is especially important. His mother, Elizabeth, died of leukemia last August.
His youngest brother, Wally, died of a heart attack before Christmas. Two other brothers died years ago. "If there's anybody who could say, 'Why me ?', he's got a lot of things on that side of the checklist," said Yankees pitcher Al Leiter, a longtime friend. " But he hasn't, and he won't." Patterson is religious, and that has helped him stay upbeat. But he admitted he always wished he could have bought a home for his mother. And it should have happened easily.
Patterson was a first-round draft pick four times in the mid-1970's. Pat Gillick, then the scouting director for the Yankees, finally signed him in 1975. Gillick still remembers the whiplike action at the end of Patterson's delivery, which gave his pitches a late hop that confounded hitters. He remembers his temperament, too. "When he was out on the mound, the dirt was sort of his world and nothing really bothered him," said Gillick, who is now the Philadelphia Phillies general manager." He had an excellent arm, but to go along with his arm, he had control of all his pitches."
Patterson went 18-4 at two levels of the minors in 1976, throwing a no-hitter and promising George Steinbrenner, the principal owner, that he would win 300 games. The Cincinnati Reds tried to trade for him, offering Tony Perez, a future Hall of Famer. The Yankees turned them down.
They should have made the deal, because the magic was about to fade. Yankees General Manager Gabe Paul ordered Patterson to play winter ball in Venezuela, ignoring his workload of nearly 500 innings over two years. Patterson, 21, did as he was told. He soon felt a popping sensation in his arm.
Patterson fooled people for a while, but deep down, he said, he knew he would never be the same. He pitched in 10 games for the Yankees in 1977, once striking out eight Red Sox in a loss at Fenway Park. Carl Yastrzemski praised him after the game, and Patterson said he almost felt guilty. "I remember thinking, geez, if these guys would have just seen me last year, when I was real good," he said.
Patterson had pitched that 1977 season with a torn rotator cuff, and he soon had the first of eight operations, including an experiment in which a surgeon shaved the tip of his elbow with disastrous results. Whitey Ford suggested he throw with his left hand one spring, and Patterson hit 85 miles an hour, about 10 m.p.h. slower than his speed as a right-hander.
"He actually threw pretty well," Guidry said. "He looked funny doing it, but that was his determination."
Patterson was out of baseball by 1983, though he held out hope for a comeback. He took a job parking cars at a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, throwing left-handed against the outside walls after closing. The Yankees trained in town, and Steinbrenner went to the restaurant one night and recognized Patterson.
Steinbrenner offered him a coaching job for life, but it did not last long. The Yankees fired Patterson after the season. When arm problems jeopardized Leiter's career a few years later, Patterson, a neighbor then working in the Oakland Athletics' farm system, rebuilt his delivery.
"He knows pitching mechanics as good as anybody I've ever had," Leiter said. " Hands down."
Leiter is 40 now, and still pitching. Patterson still hears about the career he never had. Reds Manager Jerry Narron, who caught him in the minors, once told Patterson he had finally found a pitcher as talented: Pedro Martinez. Rick Sutcliffe, a former Cy Young award winner who faced Patterson in the minors, stopped him one day in Arizona. " To this day," Sutcliffe told him, " you were the best pitcher I ever saw."
Now, it is Patterson's job to make others better. With Toronto, he taught a cutter to Esteban Loaiza, who used the pitch to win 21 games the next season. Last spring, he moved Small to the left side of the pitching rubber, and Small went 10-0.
He will work with youngsters this season, young pitchers adjusting to life in professional ball and a young son with another kind of challenge.
There are no certainties at work or at home, but Gil Patterson, forever hands-on, will be there.
Major League Baseball 4 March 2006