This Week in Baseball Death

ellis.jpg* Dock Ellis, 63, of cirrhosis of the liver. Twelve-year veteran of the major leagues, with most of those seasons spent as a starting pitcher for Pittsburgh. Went 19-9 for the 1971 world champion Pirates. Went to the Yankees in the same deal that brought Willie Randolph to NY, and notched a 17-8 record for the 1976 AL pennant winners. Also pitched for the Rangers, A’s, and Mets.

Oh, and he pitched a no-hitter while out of his gourd on LSD.

Or so he claimed 14 years after the fact. I tend to be suspicious of people who add sexy backstory a decade-and-half later, especially when that backstory involves narcotics. Ex-drug users don’t have the most reliable memories. But Ellis’ story is so good that I want it to be true.

The story goes that during a West Coast trip in 1970, Ellis thought the Pirates had an off day. So he decided to spend it relaxing in his hometown of LA. And what could be more relaxing than mimicking the effects of schizophrenia with lysergic assitance?

Unfortunately, about an hour into his trip, Ellis’ female companion read the newspaper and discovered that the Pirates didn’t have a day off. In fact, they were playing a doubleheader. In San Diego. Oh, and he was supposed to start game 1. Oops! I wonder what on earth could have made Ellis so forgetful?

Ellis managed to catch a flight to San Diego and made it to Jack Murphy Stadium in time for the first game.  What happened when he stepped on the mound?

I was zeroed in on the [catcher’s] glove, but I didn’t hit the glove too much. I remember hitting a couple of batters and the bases were loaded two or three times.

The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes, sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I tried to stare the hitter down and throw while I was looking at him. I chewed my gum until  it turned to powder. They say I had about three to four fielding chances. I remember diving out of the way of a ball I thought was a line drive. I jumped, but the ball wasn’t hit hard and never reached me.

Actually, according to Retrosheet, Ellis never loaded the bases and only hit one batter. But he did walk two in an inning three times, and allowed 8 free passes in total. The self-assessment of his fielding is impossible to verify, because no footage of his feat has surfaced yet.

His story isn’t supported by any contemporary accounts, none of which note anything unusual about Ellis after the game. Then again, back in 1970, sports beat reporters still tried to keep players’ peccadillioes out of the papers. Regular journalists like Seymour Hersh might have been uncovering presidential wrongdoing, but in the back pages, reporters still pretended that stars didn’t go drinking and whoring after games.

I’m also positive that those same reporters weren’t exactly the hippest people on the planet. So even if they saw Ellis exhibiting weird behavior, they wouldn’t have any idea what they were witnessing. “I guess he was really excited about the no-hitter when he said that stuff about filling Buddha’s eyelid with radioactive tangerines.”

After kicking drugs and alcohol, he spent the last years of his life counseling inmates, and served as a coordinator of an anti-drug program in LA. So it’s too bad that he’s most remembered for an incident that makes doing drugs seem really cool.

davesmith.jpg* Dave Smith, 53, of an apparent heart attack. 13-year major league veteran, mostly as a closer for Houston. Saved 33 games for the 1986 division champs.

I’m sure Astros fans remember him as a mainstay of the Astros’ bullpen in the 80s. Mets fans will remember him as the man who served up Lenny Dykstra’s game-winning homer in game 3 of the 1986 NLCS.

He also poured gasoline on the fire during game 6. The Mets entered the 9th inning of that game down 3-0. A loss meant they’d face the unhittable Mike Scott in game 7. But they rallied to tie the game, partly due to a Smith’s sudden inability to find the strike zone, and went on to advance to the World Series–but not before playing 16 ridiculous back-and-forth innings.

Dave Smith is a part of one of my first tangible baseball memories. I knew what baseball was, I’m sure I’d seen games on TV already, I knew the names of famous NY players (Darryl Strawberry, Don Mattingly). But I wasn’t really into baseball, really, when game 3 of the 86 NLCS became the first one that burned itself on my memory. And I wasn’t even watching it.

I was at the Bronx Zoo that day. Why my family picked a coldish day in October to got to the Bronx Zoo, I have no idea. I have no specific memories of the hows or whys of that trip. What I do remember is that I kept seeing this one guy with headphones. He was following the same route through the park as us. He seemed weird to me because he looked really nervous, for no reason that was obvious to my 9-year-old eyes.

And all of a sudden, he jumped in the air and pumped his fist and yelled “Dykstra!” My mom–who at this time was probably the only member of the household with any interest in baseball–asked him what happened, and she told him about Nails’ game-winning homer. Then he ran off, both arms raised, to spread the good news.

Probably not Dave’s most treasured baseball memory, but it was one of my first. So thank you, Mr. Smith.