At it’s heart, every story is a human story. Humans love telling stories because we love to see ourselves reflected in different ways, we love have our minds turned sideways and be invaded—to surrender our thoughts and emotions to the narrative. When the story loses sight of humanity, when the myth is more powerful than the individual, however, the cognitive dissonance robs a good story of its ability to transport the reader.
Content warning: addiction, sexual assault
To put it simply, in their attempt to bring the full story of Steve Dalkowski to light, Bill Dembski, Alex Thomas, and Brian Vikander lose track of the human at the heart of the story. For that reason, Dalko does not succeed for me.
In writing Dalko, the authors give you their mission statement as the subtitle: to tell “The Untold Story of Baseball’s Fastest Pitcher.” Steve Dalkowski was an enormously talented pitcher, credibly cited as the fastest pitcher ever by innumerable eye witnesses throughout the book. Later serving as the inspiration for Nuke Laloosh in the film Bull Durham, the story of Dalkowski was widely spread by mouth as legends and tall tales. Thus, his story is ripe for examination and has potential to be an incredible story. The story of Dalkowski is not a comedy, like Bull Durham, though, it is a tragedy. Lacking in coaching and sound physiological instruction, Dalkowski failed as ballplayer; lacking in mental health help, Dalkowski struggled as a human. Unfortunately, Dalko only addresses one of these issues.
I lost track early on in the book how many times the authors bemoan the deficiencies of 1960s baseball, specifically the lack of true pitching coaches, athletic trainers, and mental skills coaches. That’s likely because each instance of Dalkowski’s legendary wildness is followed by an account of his legendary partying and excused as baseball player behavior. Even though the authors detail Steve Dalkowski’s father’s life as a functioning alcoholic and include the fact that Steve started his own drinking in high school and it may have been his father who provided his first drink, the drinking is continually written off as the crazy antics of a young athlete.
One thing the authors do not seem to consider, either when writing about Dalkowski’s early days or his later years (when he suffered from alcohol-induced dementia), is that alcohol use disorder is a serious mental illness, one defined by the DSM-5. By all accounts, Steve was a problematic drinker, but his problematic behaviors are shared as asides to his prodigious talent, as legendary minor league tales. It is precisely this kind of attitude that pervades our culture and makes things like the drinking problems of Hall of Fame manager or a pitcher in the prime of his career with an opioid habit get swept under the rug until they absolutely cannot anymore, until the world is wondering how the hell Tony La Russa could be hired again or Tyler Skaggs could die so young. This willful ignorance is a form of the old “boys will be boys” narrative that has enabled the worst behavior among men for decades.
In Dalko, ignoring the real issue is done in service of making the book more enjoyable, of lightening up the tale of a talent that never reached his potential. For instance, rather than consider the troubling circumstances in his life that led Dalkowski to immediately leave the stadium after being relieved one night and go AWOL until showing up prior to the next day’s game covered covered in lipstick with gambling winnings in his pocket and eating raw bacon, it’s more fun to frame the story around a quote from a teammate about how the whole team was “excited about being part of the Dalkowski legend.”
There is plenty of the legend of Dalkowski to marvel at, such as his reported ability to throw a ball out of a stadium or through lumber, but by treating those superhuman feats the same as disturbing acts abetted by addiction the book fails. The authors do not shy away from sharing the poor behavior, including criminal behavior like smashing into a police car, and perhaps as an editorial decision they thought simply sharing those details was enough. But the real issue is framing. On page 165, for example, there is an alleged event in which Steve sexually assaults a woman, but on page 166 he is quoted as being likable. In another instance, on page 175, former teammates discuss him literally drinking constantly and then wonder aloud if his drinking was exaggerated.
Perhaps the greatest example of my problem with the book is that on page 228, near the end, the authors write that many previous stories about Dalkowski “focus on the legend and miss the man.” By not talking about how addition and broader mental illness shaped the life of Dalkowski for the first three-quarters of the book, though, the authors are guilty of exactly what they accuse others of doing. To me, Dalko fails because the story of Steve Dalkowski is the story of how a lack of mental health awareness robbed a young man of his potential, but it is written as a pitcher failing to reach his potential and somehow surviving his vices.
Alcohol is responsible for more than 95,000 deaths per year in the US, but we have so much more knowledge and resources available for those who might be struggling now than in the 1960s. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please seek help. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). If you have questions about alcoholism or treatment, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has many resources available as well.
If you would like to read more about Steve Dalkowski’s life, Dalko is available now via Influence Publishing. The book also has a website with more information, DalkoBook.com.