Oct. 9, 2013
RALEIGH, N.C. - For Mike Caldwell, pitching wasn't all about the arm.
It also was about mental toughness, dogged determination and fearlessly challenging batters.
"I never threw a pitch I thought would hurt me and I never faced a guy I didn't think I couldn't get out,'' said Caldwell, now retired in Raleigh after a long, distinguished baseball career.
It was that confident, competitive mindset, combined with an effective repertoire, that helped him excel at Tarboro High, star at NC State, and enjoy a rewarding Big League experience that spanned 14 seasons.
His resume, which included a coaching stint at Campbell University and 21 seasons instructing minor leaguers, are among the reasons Caldwell will be inducted in State's Athletics Hall of Fame in November.
Long before making his mark in the majors, where he compiled a 137-130 career record and was a Cy Young Award runner-up in 1978, the crafty left hander tantalized high school hitters.
The star of Tarboro, Caldwell pitched all 18 innings and struck out 31 batters in a memorable 2-2 tie against Washington. Though not overpowering and small in stature -- 5-11, 148 pounds at the time -- State's perceptive Sam Esposito was among the few college coaches who recruited him.
"I was going to East Carolina until Sam offered me half a scholarship (valued at $500),'' Caldwell said.
For that modest investment State got a Prince of a pitcher, one of the best in Wolfpack history.
In four seasons Caldwell carved a 32-10 record with a 2.30 ERA, won an ACC Player of the Year award, hurled State into the 1968 College World Series and set conference records for shutouts and most complete games.
He didn't throw bullets. His fast ball hummed in the 83-87 MPH range. But Caldwell had enough variety to vex batters. Take a look at him through the eyes of his college catcher, Francis Combs.
"He was just a competitor,'' Combs said. "He threw such a heavy ball that would sink. He had a good curve and his fast ball tailed away from right handers. It was very effective.
"He was not scared of anything. Tough situations didn't bother him. When things got tough he was at his best."
That's why in 1968, with State needing a win over Wake Forest to claim its first ACC championship, Esposito handed the ball to his precocious freshman.
Caldwell didn't cower.
"I thought we were playing another game. I was just playing baseball,'' said the unflappable pitcher. "I was doing what I enjoyed. We expected to win."
Caldwell seemed impervious to the pressure that day and pitched with the confidence of a prize fighter. Working fast as a UPS delivery man, he fired a one-hit shutout, throwing just 77 pitches in the 1 hour, 27-minute game.
That win gave State the title and sent the Pack to the NCAA District tournament, where the winner earned a trip to the College World Series.
It was a tough District field, but again Caldwell rose to the challenge. Before facing highly ranked Florida State in the championship game, he presumptuously told his teammates: "Well boys, we are one run and 9 innings away from Omaha."
In other words, he was ready to shutout the Seminoles.
That bold statement could have been bulletin-board material for Florida State. But Caldwell delivered, holding the Seminoles to one run in a 4-1 Pack victory.
"With the game on the line, in those last two innings, he was untouchable," Francis Combs remembered.
Then State made the school's first trip to Omaha, placed third in the CWS, and Caldwell completed his rookie season with an 8-2 record.
"One of the greatest experiences I had in my life was (with) the '68 team at State,'' Caldwell said. "It was baseball all for fun. I made friends for a lifetime and we've stayed in touch. It was unique."
That rookie season was the start of a stellar Wolfpack career that concluded with Caldwell winning the 1971 ACC Player of the Year award.
Despite his record and bulldog tenacity, Big League scouts were skeptical.
Caldwell kept hearing he "didn't throw quite hard enough, was not quite big enough," that he was just a "good college pitcher."
So Caldwell took a job with Carolina Telephone and Telegraph. But before reporting for work he was drafted in the 12th round -- after Esposito persuaded a San Diego Padres scout to pick him.
For $1, 500 -- the cost to complete a semester at State -- Caldwell signed his first contract.
Except for a 14-5 record in '74, those early years were more grueling than glamorous. He bounced around to four teams. He had a losing record in five of six seasons, partly because he was playing on sub .500 teams at San Diego and San Francisco. He also underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.
But it wasn't all pain and no gain. Caldwell said he "learned how to pitch" while coming back after the operation.
"It was a trying time, but an educational time,'' said Caldwell, who developed a change-up to go along with his sinker.
Like a sponge, he soaked up pitching lessons from Johnny Podres, Roger Craig, Cal McLish and George Bamberger. Every little bit helped when you were facing hitters like Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, George Brett and Pete Rose.
Finally, when traded to Milwaukee in '77, Caldwell's mound turnaround materialized.
Rewind to 1978. He posted his best season (22-9 record, 2.36 ERA), led the American League in complete games (23) and finished second in the Cy Young voting behind the Yankees Ron Guidry (25-3). Four years later he starred in the World Series, beating the champion St. Louis Cardinals twice.
"I was overdue,'' said Caldwell, who played on winning teams in six of his eight seasons with the Brewers. "It was a lot of vindication because the question was whether I could or couldn't pitch in Milwaukee."
Caldwell was the pitcher who could. From that vintage '78 season to '83 he produced a 91-59 record with 75 complete games. Forget pitch counts. Forget closers relieving in the ninth inning. Caldwell liked to finish what he started.
Even now, 26 years after his final big league season, Caldwell holds Brewers records for single-season wins (22), most complete games (23), most shutouts (6) and best ERA (2.36).
These days, after spending the last 21 seasons working with minor league teams, Caldwell is enjoying a change of pace.
He fitness walks, plays golf, gives individual instruction to young area pitchers, and supports the athletic teams at State, where his son, Daniel, played baseball.
He treasures more time with Linda, whom he refers to as an "extremely wonderful baseball wife" for almost 40 years.
"It has been a lot of fun, great memories, and our whole family has enjoyed it,'' said Caldwell, a Wolfpack Hall of Famer.
By A.J. Carr, GoPack.com