Wednesday, November 18, 2009

a hitter and a no-hitter

There’s been a video going around the interwebs that reminded me of a funny and interesting story. The video is an animated short built around the hilarious storytelling of Doc Ellis, a Major League baseball pitcher who enjoyed the height of his career in the 1970s. In the video Ellis explains how he came to pitch a no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates while high on LSD and amphetamines. Ellis had earned the reputation as a troublemaker in professional baseball with his frequent antics even before this event. Ellis was black and after hearing a derogatory racial shout from the bleachers during a minor league game he made his way into the cheap seats and sat down amongst the fans shouting the same racial comment, stunning everyone into silence. He also says he had a pistol in his pocket at the time and it’s that kind of frightening honesty Ellis was known for. He was deemed a loose cannon by many of his coaches and other MLB officials because he was not afraid to speak his mind and he never feared repercussions of any kind. When MLB officials complained about his hair style he took to the field wearing a head full of curlers.

When he made the all star team in 1971 he announce to the press that his manager would never start him as pitcher b/c the opposing team had just named their starting pitcher who happened to be black. Ellis said there was no way the coaches would let both starting pitchers be black sparking a huge, fiery debate about whether racism still existed in America in the early 1970s. Ellis was no dimwit. He was quickly named the starting pitcher of the All Star Game and this helped solidify his reputation as a squeaky wheel.

My favorite story was after the Pirates were mocked by the Cincinnati Reds after a championship game, Doc Ellis vowed revenge. The next game he pitched against the Reds he told his teammates he was going to hit every single one of them with the ball. His teammates dismissed this as another joke and laughed with him about it. Ellis took the mound and beamed the first 3 batters. He continued trying to hit the next 2 but walked them as they dodged chin high fastballs. Everyone finally believed him and he was yanked from the game. I know this sounds mean, but before all the rules and regulations and sanitizing of baseball, hitting a batter was simply a part of the pitcher’s strategy. Part of what made Ellis so good on the mound was that a batter never really knew when the ball was coming for his head.

But there were other things bothering Doc Ellis. His greatest problem was fear. Fear of failure and fear of success. In baseball he learned the way players were dealing with this fear involved drugs. According to Ellis 90% of professional baseball players were playing on amphetamines at the time. As he grew to need more and more pills to get high enough he also explored other more powerful drugs.

Enough back-story, I think you get the idea. In June 1970 Doc Ellis had an off day in Los Angeles before a double header in San Diego. He took a hit of Acid on his way home and by the time he arrived he was what he called “high as a Georgia pine”. He tripped, did more drugs, slept and hung out with his friends. When he woke up around noon still enjoying his LSD he walked into the kitchen where his friend was reading the paper. She laughed and told Ellis the paper said he was pitching that night in San Diego. Ellis argued and told her he was sure this was his off day. She explained that his off day was yesterday and he had to leave NOW if he was going to make it to the stadium on time.
He says he doesn’t remember much about the trip. There was a plane and a taxi and soon he was sitting in the dugout hoping the game would be called because of misting rain. Ellis downed around 12 amphetamines to try and counter the acid trip and a few minutes later he took the mound trying to make sense out of his hallucinations. The ball in his hands felt like a golf ball one minute and a balloon the next. At one point he dove out of the way of a line drive that turned out to be a lightly tapped ball that didn’t even make it to the mound. Sometimes he saw the catcher and sometimes he didn’t. Much of the game he doesn’t remember at all. Hoping to could hide his condition he didn’t speak for most of the game and he avoided his teammates. He walked 8 batters and struck out 6. Richard Nixon and Jimi Hendrix made appearances near home plate and perhaps most surprising of all Ellis broke the age old superstition and actually talked about having a no-hitter going during the game.

Ellis’ telling of this story is very entertaining. In keeping with his frightening honesty he holds nothing back. Major League Baseball would have loved nothing more than to keep this story quiet. Instead, Ellis tarnished one of the most impressive feats that one can reach in baseball by telling the truth about it and revealing that he was high on drugs during the game. But while the animated video and Ellis’ story are extremely funny to consider, I think it’s important to make sure that the whole story is told.

After retiring from baseball before the 1980 season began Ellis was still completely dependent on drugs and alcohol to get through each day. Then, as he describes it with the same honesty he uses to tell the no-hitter story, Ellis says his son was born and one day while holding his infant son he realized how messed up his life was and that he needed to get well. He entered drug treatment the next day and officially retired from drugs and alcohol. Well, sort of. This is the point in every other story where you’d have to talk about relapses and broken families, but that is not a part of this story. Ellis did return to drugs and alcohol but when he did he was on the other side of the table. His knowledge of the power of drugs and reasons some people depend on them gave him the insight to become an effective drug counselor. Ellis worked as a drug counselor for baseball’s minor leagues and for a prison and helped countless other addicts turn their lives around before it was too late. Suddenly this feels like an After School Special, doesn’t it? It’s odd how the bad behavior is entertaining but when the mess gets cleaned up we don’t care anymore, huh?

Doc Ellis was a really good baseball player when the public was watching. But it’s what Doc Ellis did after his baseball career that made him great. All the self absorbed, money grubbing, ego maniacs with MLB contracts could learn a lot from Ellis’ example.

If you’re still here, and I seriously doubt that you are, you’re probably thinking there’s no way this relates to art. You would be wrong. In fact, there are two things about Doc Ellis’s story that appeal to me in creative terms. First, I love that Ellis’ life was changed dramatically by a single, specific and ordinary life experience. He didn’t have an encounter with a beam of light or a flaming shrub or have a conversation with a donkey (bonus points if you get all 3 references). He just picked up his kid. He had held his son many times before and he’d hold him many times after. This was a common experience for him and yet it was in that moment that something clicked in his head and a moment he’d remember some 20 years later as a transformative moment. I find it very interesting that ordinary objects and experiences can have such an impact on our lives. When these moments occur we often associate particular objects, colors, textures, or sounds with that moment when everything changed. These images become personal symbolism. When Ellis recalled his moment he specifically mentioned holding his son, wearing lots of jewelry and holding his son’s arms - three specific images that communicate his narrative.
The second thing that interests me about this story is the two very different sides presented of the same person. You have Doc Ellis the crazy drug addict who hit Reggie Jackson in the face with a fastball (hilarious) and caused all kinds of trouble in Major League Baseball. Then you have Doc Ellis the nurturing father and reformed drug addict who spent 20 years helping people get sober and stay that way. This is the kind of duality that exists in human beings that I find so compelling. There’s this idea orbiting every person that these completely opposing qualities can be fighting to surface and you never know which one will win out. The most respectable quality may surface in the life of the most abominable human being and then the most highly regarded person in the community may end up smoking crack in a back alley. And because of this uncertain and unpredictable human characteristic we have to withhold our desire to judge anyone too harshly because, lets’ face it, even in your spic and span life a secret trip to Argentina might be just around the corner.
To see the funny video, just go to YouTube and search "Doc Ellis". There are also a couple of good baseball songs you should check out that tell Doc's story. One is by Chuck Brodsky and the more recent one is by Todd Snider.

No comments: