After missing almost all of 1984 for elbow surgery in the minors, McDowell developed a nasty sinker and made the New York Mets in the spring of 1985. After a strong run with the Mets for almost five years, the righty jumped to four other teams, amassing saves despite fairly high ERAs. But McDowell relieved more than games — he also relieved tensions on the field. He was notorious for playing pranks, going so far in 1991 to perform with a mariachi band at Dodger Stadium. But as his sinker became less effective, so did his clubs’ tolerance for his gags.
McDowell shared stopper status in the Mets’ vaunted mid-’80s bullpen with Jesse Orosco, recording 17 saves and a 2.83 ERA in 1985. In 1986 he set a short-lived Mets record by winning seven straight games from the start of the season and finished 14-9 (his 14 relief wins led the National League) with 22 saves as the Mets won the World Series. In the famous 16-inning Game Six of the 1986 League Championship Series, he hurled five innings of one-hit relief to help the Mets beat the Houston Astros. Although he pitched poorly in Game Seven of the World Series, he recorded the win as New York came back to defeat the Red Sox.
McDowell began the 1987 season on the disabled list with a hernia, and although he posted a career-high 25 saves, he was inconsistent. He returned to form in 1988 while sharing the bullpen stopper role with Randy Myers, as the Mets won the division title. He then surrendered a homer to Kirk Gibson in the 12th inning of Game Four in the LCS and took the loss.
McDowell did all he could to fit the stereotype of the prankster reliever. Trying to loosen the tension during games, he set off firecrackers in the bat rack to “wake up” the bats and planted “hot feet” in the dugout, the sneaky maneuver of attaching a book of matches to a teammate’s cleats with gum and lighting it. In one of his classic moments, he wore his uniform upside down in the dugout during a nationally televised game, with his pants over his head and shoes on his hands.
Traded to the Phillies with Lenny Dykstra for Juan Samuel in June 1989, McDowell left the Mets ranking second on the team’s career saves list behind Tug McGraw. After two seasons of average performances, he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for two minor leaguers in July 1991.
With Los Angeles, it was clear that McDowell’s clutch sinker had become little more than a mediocre fastball, and in 1992 the wacky reliever led the league in relief losses and lowest save percentage. Despite a brief resurrection the following year, the righty would never be as effective as he was with the Mets.
After refusing a minor-league assignment in April 1995, McDowell spent a middling year with the Texas Rangers, and at the end of the season signed with the Baltimore Orioles. But the weight he placed on his pitching shoulder caught up with him in 1996, and McDowell was forced to undergo surgery that year.
Though he joined the Chicago White Sox in January 1997, McDowell wouldn’t pitch at all on the South Side, instead having two more operations on his shoulder before the year was through. A brief comeback attempt with the Sox in 1998 ended when the veteran fireman decided to quit before the end of spring training.