To understand Eric Show, you must meet his dog Willie. The white bull terrier has a stout, compact body and the pointy face of a pterodactyl; and if he likes you, he’ll kill for you. But you wouldn’t want to be on Willie’s bad side, because he brooks no shadings between love and hate. One of a breed developed centuries ago as fighters, Willie is the kind of dog that General George S. Patton owned.
Willie’s favorite toy is an indestructible, 15-pound, thick-treaded dune buggy tire. To show off for visitors, he shoves his head into the center of the tire and clamps his vice-grip jaws on one of the side walls. Then he’ll offer it to you; but no matter how much you yank and pull, he’ll never let you take it from him. When he isn’t hauling it around, he’s holding it down and trying to hump it. “Do you think people are like their dogs?” Show asks proudly, sitting at a glass- topped table beside the swimming pool in the back yard of his Tierrasanta home.
Well... Eric’s strong and compact, and he doesn’t seem to know what to do with that hefty brain he carries around. And some people think he’s got a hole in the middle of that big brain. As a pitcher, he’s been victimized by his own hound-like sensitivities, reacting with anguish and foreseeing his own doom as a home run arcs over his head or a batter trots to first base after four straight balls. Next to Show’s wife, Cara Mia, Willie is the major constant in a life fraught with baseball’s endemic insecurities and doubts.
Show’s fan mail now consists of letters from people who either want to worship him or crucify him. But every time he comes home from the ballpark — or more often these days, from Scripps Clinic and a check-up on his ailing back — there’s Willie, and his black rubber halo, and his unfailing acceptance. In the eighth year of a stormy career in the big leagues, the 33-year-old righthander can stare at the dog and venture, “If I was out of baseball tomorrow I wouldn’t have any regrets. I’m happy now. Just like Willie here.”
Show is out of baseball — for the remainder of the season. He was placed on the disabled list July 6 with a bulging disc in his spine, and he underwent surgery last Wednesday. He’s certainly not happy about that, but he’s always preferred to look at the Big Picture. “I’ll go into spring training next year probably in the best shape of my life,” he declares.
When he’s able to put the surgery and the lost season out of his mind, he’s happy because he believes he’s finally learning how to pitch, and he’s no longer a victim of hard luck. “I am a lucky pitcher now,” he affirms. “Early last season, I decided to quit associating with negative people and to quit thinking negative thoughts,” he says. “Thoughts are energy; they have consequences. But since I’ve been in the positive mode, say, about since the All-Star break last year, I’m 24 and 13.” He had 8 wins and 6 losses this season, before his back injury, and he passed Randy Jones’s 92 career victories on June 14 to become the Padres’ all-time leader in wins. After getting off to a 1 and 4 start in 1988, he performed his mental overhaul and ended the year 16 and 11, the most wins he’s ever had in a season. He was 10 and 3 in his last 14 starts and won four complete games in September.
Entering this season, he felt like “this was going to be my year.” But he was wrong. He accepts that with the kind of equanimity that would have been extremely un-Showlike two years ago. “Nothing consistently works in baseball,” he says, trying to wrestle the tire away from Willie. “That’s what drove me nuts my first four years. The ‘Why do these things happen to me?’ question. But I’ve learned a lot about myself and about pitching, and that question doesn’t bother me anymore. Baseball is a microcosm of the world. Things happen because they happen. There isn’t a rational explanation for everything.”
This isn’t to say that Show is content to be on the DL. “It could get depressing if I let it,” he says. “You have to be careful about what motivates your thoughts; there’s so much failure in this game, and how you deal with it is crucial. You say to yourself, ‘I’m letting the team down.’ ‘I’m useless.’ ‘People suspect me of faking.’ This game is a psychological obstacle course.” He’s convinced that baseball teams need to add one more coach, a psychology coach, to their rosters. The lack of such a coach “is one reason nobody repeats [championships] anymore. So many guys aren’t playing up to their potential because of this insecurity thing,” he muses.
Show admits to a years-long struggle against the insecurity inherent in the game. Mostly, he thinks he’s won the fight; but now that he’s hurt, the old doubts have revealed themselves again, just below the surface. He has this nagging sensation that teammates and coaches think he’s faking it, even though the bulging L-5 disc is clearly visible through magnetic resonance imaging. (Show read up on the high-tech medical procedure and can give a detailed explanation about how it works.) After watching a reporter talk to manager Jack McKeon about the pitcher a few days ago, Show said, worriedly, “I didn’t like McKeon’s body language at all. All that arm waving and gesturing. What was he saying about me?”
Actually, McKeon was saying mostly positive things. He was recalling the time he first watched Show pitch, on a Padres’ double-A team in Amarillo, Texas, in 1980. McKeon was touring the Padres’ farm system a few days before being named vice president of baseball operations, and he saw Show pitch five innings. “I liked this guy,” McKeon recalls. “He had big-league stuff. Eric wasn’t high on the team’s list of prospects; but after I saw him I said, shit, this guy’s the best pitcher down here.” McKeon sent Show to play ball in the Puerto Rican winter league the next season, an unusually competitive venue for a double-A level pitcher. Show led that league in strikeouts, “and that springboarded him into the majors,” says McKeon.