Together, they were All-Star starters in 1976, the two Detroit Tiger phenoms who had little business dominating the Major Leagues, let alone appearing on the grandest stage. Yet there was the rookie goofball, and there was the ex-convict, standing side by side in front of 63,974 fans at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium for the mid-summer classic.
At quick glance, one would have thought Mark Fidrych and Ron LeFlore shared little in common. One was a quirky white kid from Massachusetts with a mop of blond hair and an untouched naiveté. The other was black and hardened, a tough guy from Detroit who had served five-and-a-half years for armed robbery at the State Prison of Southern Michigan.
"Man, I loved Mark," said LeFlore. "Loved him. I hung out with him whenever I could, because you knew you were with a guy who was genuine and real. That was the 'Bird' -- genuine and real."
It has been five days since LeFlore learned of his former teammate's death at age 54. And while the news stung, he absorbed it not with shock or sadness, but with a chilling envy. Approaching his 61st birthday, LeFlore admits to being beaten down by life and increasingly tired of the struggle. In the 27 years since his retirement, he has all but begged for a coaching job with a major league club, only to be repeatedly turned down and ignored.
Hence, the man with 455 career stolen bases, including 97 with the Montreal Expos in 1980, now spends most of his waking hours sitting with his wife Emily inside their St. Petersburg, Fla., townhouse, wondering how it turned out this way. The couple lives check to check, trying to squeeze every nickel and dime out of Ron's monthly MLB pension payments. Though he has needed a hip replacement for years, the cost is too high. "I no longer have health insurance," he said. "Got too expensive for me to handle."
Thirty years ago, LeFlore was the toast of baseball and, in a sense, America. With great fanfare, his autobiography, Breakout: From Prison to the Big Leagues, hit bookstores, and a nation was presented with perhaps the most improbable success story in league history. In a sport that lends itself to cliché, there was nothing even remotely standard about LeFlore's tale.
Born and raised in Detroit, he had never played organized baseball until being sentenced to five-to-15 years for armed robbery. In an effort to vaporize the endless hell that is prison, he picked up a bat, started playing on the inmate team -- and dazzled. Somehow, word leaked from behind the 20-foot walls to the front offices of the Tigers. When Detroit manager Billy Martin learned of the youngster's ability he visited the prison and convinced authorities to allow LeFlore out for a tryout. LeFlore was eligible for parole in July of 1973 and signed a contract with Detroit, then joined the team the next year. By 1975, he was starting in the outfield.
Throughout the 1970s and early '80s, there was Rickey Henderson, there was Lou Brock, there was Willie Wilson, there was Omar Moreno and there was Ron LeFlore. Though unschooled in the art of the basepath theft, LeFlore was blessed with remarkable instincts and a fearless outlook. "I ran on feel," he said. "That wasn't taught or pounded into my head. I just knew how to steal a bag."
Yet LeFlore was also cursed with an inability to hold his tongue. In 1982, his final big league season, LeFlore was an angry member of the White Sox, and he let that anger show. He repeatedly blasted manager Tony La Russa in the media, and still calls the veteran skipper "a liar" for promising him playing time and then giving it to a rookie named Rudy Law. "It was horse----," LeFlore said. "I've never forgotten that."
In April 1983, LeFlore was released by the club -- his career over at the tender age of 33. In the ensuing years, he has tried and tried and tried to get back in the game. He managed the Cook County Cheetahs of the Frontier League and the Saskatoon Legends of the Canadian Baseball League. Eight years ago he showed up at various spring training sites promoting something called Blackwrap, a tape-like product to wrap around the handle of a bat. "I still love the game so much," he said. "I want to be a part of it. I have a story that people can learn a lot from, and I can teach anyone how to run. I just want a chance."
If only it were that simple. Truth be told, Ron LeFlore has baggage. Lots of baggage. On Sept. 27, 1999, he returned to Michigan to celebrate the closing of Tigers Stadium. Before the game, he was notified of an open warrant for his arrest on charges of unpaid child support. The police agreed to let him participate in the on-field activities and then subsequently arrested him. Eight years later, he was arrested again on the same charge. LeFlore says he didn't pay because, quite simply, he didn't have the money.
"Talk to people," he said. "I'm a good guy. I really am. I've had problems. But I haven't robbed anyone or killed anyone. I feel like I've been blackballed, and it's not fair. You give your life to baseball, and when you need help, baseball doesn't give back.
"I need help."
VAULT: A leg up in the league (7.14.80)