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Friday, December 04, 2009

Sawvell Needed Perfect Game 40 Years Ago

Jim Ecker        
Ed Sawvell wishes Perfect Game USA had been around 40 years ago when he was pitching at a small high school in Iowa. He figures he would have been scouted a lot more thoroughly if Perfect Game had been in business then, thanks to a fastball that undoubtedly reached into the 90s when he was a teenager. He figures he might have made the major leagues, although there’s no way of knowing for sure.

Sawvell, who lives in Muscatine, Iowa, is 58 now, still pitching and still going strong. He was clocked at 84 mph when he tossed a complete game for the New England Red Sox in the Roy Hobbs 55-and-over tournament in Florida last month, mowing down the defending champions with a nasty two-seam fastball in the semifinals.

This is nothing new for Ed. He’s never stopped pitching since he picked up a baseball as a young boy. He keeps in great shape by riding a stationary bicycle, lifting weights, stretching with elastic bands and throwing batting practice for his old high school team in Wilton, where he serves as an assistant coach for a club that went 42-0 in 2005. He still plays in the Eastern Iowa Senior League, but don’t be misled by the “Senior” in that description. It’s for players 26-and-over, many of whom are young enough to be his sons.

Ed was clocked at 94 mph when he pitched in a semi-pro tournament in the late 1970s. He was about 28 at the time, and that kind of fastball would have been impressive in the big leagues, let alone a tournament in Iowa. Even more impressive, he was throwing 92 mph fastballs nearly 20 years after that.

“That was back in 1997,” he recalled. “Yeah, I would have been 46.”

Imagine that: Ed Sawvell was throwing 92 mph fastballs when he was 46 years old, a feat documented by an assistant coach from the University of Northern Iowa who was there to scout Ed’s son that day.

Now flash back to the late 1960s, when Ed was pitching at Wilton High School. He can’t remember any pro scouts coming to his games. Ever. Wilton is a small school, and nobody really knows how fast Ed was throwing at the time. “We really didn’t have radar guns in those days, so I couldn’t honestly tell you,” he said. He was fast, though.

Ed wound up at Muscatine Community College, about 12 miles from Wilton along the Mississippi River, where he finally had a chance to pitch before a couple of pro scouts. He remembers a scout from the Montreal Expos coming to town, but Ed injured a ligament in his right elbow that spring and had to stop pitching for a while. That was in 1971, and the scouts did not come back.

He pitched at the University of Northern Iowa in 1972 and ’73, but never got a shot at pro ball.

“I guess I had some invitations to go to tryouts,” he said. “But I tell this story: I think I got a little upset and frustrated because all of a sudden there were scouts and all of a sudden there were none. They just kind of left and went away. I don’t know if it was because they found out I hurt my elbow. That’s the only thing I can think of. A year or two after that my elbow healed up and I’ve never really had a problem since then with my elbow.”

Perfect Game USA was not formed until 1993, so Ed came along before Perfect Game got into the business of scouting amateur players, a long time before Perfect Game brought the top players, pro scouts and college coaches together at its showcases, tournaments and leagues.

Ed is confident he would have gotten more opportunities if Perfect Game had been around when he was in high school. “I’m sure of that. Yeah, it’s too bad it wasn’t around at that point in time,” he said. “But I don’t regret anything. I still enjoy the game. A lot of good memories and I met a lot of people in my life. Good people, too.”

Years ago, Perfect Game President Jerry Ford had a young pitcher he wanted to see. He got him on a team that plays in the semi-pro Iowa Valley League to pitch a game for Walford. Ford went to the game to see the young pitcher and found out he was a mid-80s type, pretty good but not a professional prospect at the time.

“They had to pull him after a few innings,” said Ford. “I was packing away the radar gun and getting ready to leave while the next pitcher was warming up. After hearing the catcher’s mitt pop loudly a few times I asked, ‘Who is this guy?’ Someone said he was 40-some years old, but really good.

“Don’t know why, guess it was curiosity, but I took the radar gun back out. They told me the guy pitching was the oldest player in the league. His first pitch I got at 92 mph. I stayed an inning and watched him throw 89-92 with a plus slider. That pitcher was Eddie Sawvell. I will never forget that day when I watched him mow through a lineup of past professional players and college stars! You had to wonder just how good he must have been in his prime.”

Jim Arp, the national showcase director at Perfect Game, had the pleasure of catching Ed for 21 years. He’s convinced Ed had the talent to play pro ball at the highest levels.

“Ed was definitely missed by the scouts and should have signed at some point in his career,” said Arp. “I have seen him throw 96 and with pinpoint control. Back then players didn’t expose themselves and promote themselves like they do today. Back when Ed was in high school and college there weren’t the tools available like Perfect Game that would help young players get discovered.

“The scouting world has changed a lot since then, and today I really don’t believe too many get missed,” he said. “College coaches are more aggressive and there are more pro scouts out looking for players. Organizations like Perfect Game have been a big part of putting players on the radar screen for coaches and scouts. I really wish we would have been around when Ed was younger. He would have made it.”

Ed has pitched for the New England Red Sox in age-group tournaments for eight or nine years, and they assembled again for the 21st Annual Roy Hobbs tournament in Fort Myers, Fla., last month for the 55-and-over event. The Red Sox met the Washington Titans, the three-time champions, in the semifinals and the Sox gave the ball to Ed. He threw all nine innings and needed only 89 pitches, taming the Titans with a two-seam fastball that rode onto the batters’ hands. “And boy, did I get a lot of ground balls,” he said.

He struck out eight batters, did not walk anyone and allowed only four hits. The Red Sox won, 4-1, to reach the finals. They won the championship the next day, beating Washington again, and finished 8-0 in the tournament.

There’s a radar clock on the scoreboard at Lee County Stadium in Fort Myers, but Ed never took a peek when he was pitching in the semifinals.

“Not once during the game did I look to see how hard I was throwing, because I don’t really get too caught up with that,” he said. “But at the end of the game, when the catcher came out, he said, ‘You know what, Ed? A couple of your pitches were 84 today.’ So that kind of put a smile on my face.”

Remember, that’s a 58-year-old man throwing 84 mph fastballs, not someone who’s 38 or even 28.

Bill “Spaceman” Lee, who pitched in the major leagues from 1969 through 1982, was one of Ed’s teammates on the New England Red Sox in Florida. So was Mike Caldwell, who pitched in the big leagues from 1971 through ’84. Lee is 62 now, Caldwell is 60.

“Both of those guys, after I pitched in the semifinals, they said, ‘Man, how great it was to watch you throw,’” said Ed, who appreciated those remarks.

Lee and Caldwell have asked Ed why he never pitched in the major leagues. “Yup, both of them,” he said. “How did you get missed? Yup. I hear that a lot really. A lot of the teams I’ve pitched against, they wanted to know who I pitched for in the majors. I get that a lot.”

He’s flattered by those comments and it makes him wonder what might have been. “I do blame myself, because I honestly could have gone to tryouts. And I just didn’t do it,” he said. “I only blame myself. I should have gone to some tryouts.”

He’s not bitter, however. He’s enjoyed his life in semi-pro ball and is proud of the fact that he’s never stopped playing. He received an award for playing in the Iowa Valley League for 25 years, and kept playing in the IVL for several more seasons before finally retiring from that league.

“I’ve had a lot of fun, met a lot of great people, established a lot of friendships. Those are never going to go away,” he said. “If I start getting hit around, maybe it will be time to quit. But you know what? It hasn’t happened.”
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