John Wesley Powell dug the last of a dozen snails from its cave of garlic, butter and herbs, savored it, washed it down with a sip of Médoc and fell back, in the fake Louis XIV chair. He began to croon Hello Walls in a perfect imitation of Faron Young. Escargots and Nashville in a French restaurant in Miami. The walls that Powell greeted were covered with bed-sheet-size maps of Paris and Bordeaux behind blue glass and, as a recent trip confirmed, the walls of the men's room were adorned with poodles, pissoirs, kiosks and Eiffel towers every 11 inches. The place was so patently French that I thought the hot air blower was going to sing the Marseillaise while it dried my hands. Charles Boyer in a telephone booth, onion soup served in berets.
The headwaiter was preparing the second course, a Caesar salad. He was dropping eggs and anchovies into it as if he were going to feed the multitude that listened to the Sermon on the Mount. He began roiling it up with wooden pitchforks. Boog Powell had recovered from the snails and with his pretty wife Jan was going over the menu again. Boog had endured a tense day. It was near the end of spring training and in an exhibition game that afternoon Boog had failed to hit. There was speculation in the press about who would be the Oriole designated pinch hitter. Boog Powell didn't want the job. "I'd play DH if I had to, but I surely don't like the idea," he said. In fact, Powell disliked the idea of being DH so much that he'd been dieting all winter and spring. Even more fabulous, he'd been jogging. "I run several miles a day, and then try not to make up for it at dinner," he said sadly.
The Caesar salad was served. Great mounds, glistening with raw egg. The headwaiter, who had initially introduced himself as Henri, stepped back like a midwife who had just delivered twins. "That's beautiful, Hank," said Powell, "but how about some forks?"
The joys and defeats of being a fat guy in sports are similar to those of being a fat guy anywhere else in life, but it seems that the stakes are higher, the definitions more finely drawn. The fat athlete is simply more of an event than, say, a fat banker. A man who makes his living by moving his body around, sometimes colliding with other bodies; a man who pays the rent by hitting baseballs or throwing them, or wrestling Russians, or blocking punts is expected to be in shape. If a fat banker puffs through a game of paddle ball before a shampoo, it doesn't give us quite the same thrill.
And so, like a tubby Diogenes carrying a lamp that burned duck fat, I was looking for an honest athletic biggie, searching for some steadfast fatty who refused to diet, who refused to be bought off on principle: I sought the nadir of fat. Fat men need fat heroes. And they get more difficult to find. In a nation crazed with slimming, yogurt, hip-huggers and tourist-class airplane seats, the fat man searches in vain for an idol, for some porcine charisma.
There was a time when the fat man stood out as an image of strength, solid success and even sexual prowess. The strong man at the carnival had a gut like a pony keg; Diamond Jim Brady swilled quarts of orange juice between a dozen courses at Delmonico's; Babe Ruth fired down 12 hot dogs before a game; the 1957 Detroit Lions fired down a lot more than that; and who now could hope to match that wily walrus Taft, waddling through the Rose Garden? Rather than these fond memories of fat affluence, we concentrate on water diets, cholesterol levels, carbohydrate grams, lifespan charts, Dexedrine.
Show business, a historical repository of lard, offers little relief. Jack E. Leonard is dead, predictably young, and Bob Hope appeared at the Weight Watchers 10th anniversary celebration in New York. There is William Conrad, who in Cannon makes the misery of viewing slim stars a little easier to bear. Cannon puffs his way through criminals half his bulk, gets caught in turnstiles, eats tacos when he should be on a stakeout. But he is small, or rather large, relief. The late-night talk-show panels seem to be composed of doctors with mysterious accents who have just discovered how you can lose more weight, and the stars who endorse them. In the darkness of one a.m., the fatty begins to think that if the entire nation turned sideways there would be only 27 people left to count.
One of the definitive indications of the demise of the fat man is clothing. Any good 250-pounder in a pair of flared, double-knit slacks looks like a watermelon balanced on a pair of trumpets. And hot-combed hair turns pudgy faces into extras for a Brueghel orgy. Put a wide, white-plastic belt around a 44" waist, add stack-heel combat boots and a string of love beads, and you have a Hampshire boar in drag. There are endless torments: Levi's, waterbeds, the full lotus position, bus seats, children, antique chairs....
But then it is 1970 and you are in front of the tube with a diet cola and some dry-roasted cashews. The American League's Most Valuable Player comes to the plate. My God! There's a bowling ball under his shirt! This guy is fat, and he is the best! Pass the chips and dip, please. Boog Powell knocks in two runs and lumps around third base. Something in you has taken pride, you undo the top button of your slacks. Everything is going to be all right.
We finished the Caesar salad and waited 20 minutes for the main course, getting regular butter-dish replacements for the sourdough bread. Hank finally came toward us rolling what appeared to be a surgical cart bearing our dinners. Boog had ordered steak Diane, a piece of filet punished regularly with an empty champagne bottle until it reaches the appropriate thinness. The steak is rolled, with a filling of truffles, mushrooms, old Renaults, can-can bloomers, chunks of the Maginot Line, anything. At this point Hank whipped out a bottle of cognac and a cigarette lighter and began to torch everything that looked flammable. When the fire and smoke died down, Boog and Jan began talking about the agonies and ecstasies of being fat in sports.
"I'm six feet five," Powell said, "and I weigh 252. That's the best shape I've been in for a long time. At one time in my career I was up around 290." I plunged into my immolated steak au poivre with renewed faith, as if the numbers themselves were a form of magic. "I just couldn't stop eating."
There is a story about Boog's irrepressible urge to eat that should be dear to the enlarged heart of any fat man. One recent winter Powell went on a cruise through the Caribbean. On the trip from Miami down to Key West a rough sea blew up. The ship was an emergency ward of seasickness. Few passengers were able or willing to go to the dining room that evening, but Powell put in an appearance. He ate well and vastly. The next morning one gray-faced passenger was heard to complain that he could not sleep. A large person kept running to the rail over his cabin. "It sounded like a wounded buffalo," he said. Even in the adverse conditions of hurricane, tornado, sleet, hail and the postman euphemisms for impossible weather, the biggie always manages to chow down. Even at the price of his own discomfort.
Back in 1965 the Oriole team doctor became concerned about Powell's rapid weight gains. Boog assured the doctor that he was as mystified as anyone about it. What Boog did not reveal was that the mystery, as old as gastronomy, was that the more you put in your mouth, the bigger your body gets. This is a mystery that has not yet found its savior, and the doctor did what he could: he sent Powell to a specialist. The endocrinologist reported, after a series of nothing-to-drink-after-midnight-and-no-breakfast tests, that there was nothing wrong with Powell. He suspected furious eating to be at the root of the weight gain.
As Powell wavered on the brink of 280, a natural breaking point between "being big" and "he's fat," the team doctor sent him to consult a psychologist who dealt exclusively with the fat and famous. Through several sessions she and Powell probed his swelling psyche for the deep-seated, or wide-seated, reasons for his discontent. There was the usual tossing about of terms; oral orientation, insecurity, success replacement, autoeroticism, automat.... At the last session the psychologist declared that she could show Powell how to curb his desires and eat well. She pulled from a desk drawer a hard-rubber fried egg, painted in perfect detail. Then a rubber glass of orange juice and rubber toast with rubber margarine. "I couldn't believe it," Powell remembered with amazement. "Here I was a grown man and she was using visual aids on me. She was just pulling out a rubber b.l.t. when I split for the door."
The misery of rubber food piled up on us like storm clouds, and before the rain broke in a shower of loss of appetite, we began a furious chowing down. Veins stood out on the temples, powerful jaws committed meat to memory, a thin sheen of perspiration under the eyes appeared. The second bottle of Médoc smelled of old life preservers in a flooded locker, but we drank it gratefully. There was some worry that if we complained, Hank might set the wine afire.
Cognac was served by a cocktail waitress. She brought shot glasses of brandy and dumped them into those joke-shop snifters that usually have I BET YOU CAN'T painted on them. By this time Powell was feeling better. The steak Diane had blurred the recollection of his hitless day, the rubber food, the still pressing problem of being DH. We decided to retreat to Powell's house for coffee. Hank forgot to set the check on fire.
In the Powells' sprawling ranch home with its 20- by 20-foot kitchen, the dining room is in a separate county. The decor is Spanish, and there are filigreed iron gates on the dining room entrance. "Those are to keep me out or in, depending on the season," Powell explained. He put a stack of Dave Dudley truck-drivin' records on the elaborate stereo, and we settled down with coffee.
"A friend of mine once brought over some raw tuna," Powell remembered. "I was pretty suspicious, but we got some beer, put lots of salt on the tuna, and it was damn good." His eyes lit up. "In fact, raw tuna and raw grouper are my favorites now." Would you show this man a rubber b.l.t.?
The major problem for Powell, as it is for most fat men, is that great nemesis, grease. "Sometimes when you're driving, the car just seems to turn by itself into a McDonald's, and while you're there, you might as well get a large order of fries." This is not a legal definition of insanity, but it helps define the overpowering urge for butter, fat, bacon and pork roast that lurks in a king-size body.
All the talk of food was making me hungry. Dave Dudley was mooning a lament about the loneliness of the American truck stop, the sun was making getting-up motions and Powell obviously was restless. "I've got a game against the Yankees today," he said, "and I probably ought to get something in my stomach first." Soon we were zooming down an interstate to one of those gigantic truck stops that have truck-washing buildings, sleeping barracks and tons of hash browns. A fleet of idling diesels had emphysema in the parking lot.
In diners truck drivers seem to be of two types: the skinny guys with long sideburns, tattoos and polished Wellington boots, and fat guys in green work pants with immense key chains and three slices of pie in front of them. Powell and I squeezed into a booth and ordered the standard hysterical breakfast that you always want if you've stayed up all night: three eggs (fried), double order of sausage, toast, orange juice, hash browns and two pancakes for luck. "I don't do this very often anymore," Powell said as he savored the hash browns, "but once in a while nothing beats a good breakfast."
But as we ate I began to realize that Powell was indeed a thin man, 6'5" and 252. Trim. No more the gutbuster. Realizing the importance of change, Powell was paring down to get in tune with a whole new movement in sport. He would hold his first-base position. Another fatty who had succumbed to the pressures of reality and melted away to average size. My search for the steadfast fatty must continue. Powell's great breakfast, and dinner the night before, were essentially nostalgic, the way young ad execs listen to the 1956 hits of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.
Powell let me off at the Miami airport three hours before game time. I was armed with two bottles of Pepto-Bismol. I wanted to grab the stewardess and hijack the plane to the Mayo Clinic. I did have some revenge, however. The New York Times, reporting on that day's exhibition game between the Yankees and the Orioles, which the Orioles won, mentioned a curious fact. Speaking of the batting average of the Oriole DH, the Times noted, "Boog Powell helped raise that average today when he wasn't running sprints in the outfield...." The guilty jogger got two hits, driving in two runs with a single in the first inning. God bless overwrought French restaurants, raw grouper and diners.
Chris Taylor called for me at my motel in Des Moines. He lives in Ames, some 40 miles away, but had to appear at a boys' club reception in Des Moines. The reception had lasted longer than expected; it was close to 7:30 and Taylor was ready for dinner. Since we were both unfamiliar with Des Moines, I asked the desk clerk where we could get the best steak. "Why here, of course, sir." A company man. He looked like a recent graduate of a hotel and restaurant management school. He was doing his ingratiating best.
When you're taking a man who weighs 450 pounds to dinner you don't want to cast your fate at the uncertainty of a motel dining room. They nearly all have an invention that stuns fat men: portion control. The frozen steaks have been pared down on a band saw until they weigh exactly 12 ounces, the butter has been sliced with a scalpel, the potato grown in a hothouse for exact size.
But Taylor was getting impatient. He winked at me and turned to the clerk. "Suppose I pick you up and pull you across that desk. Do you think you might remember a steak house then?" Taylor did no more than wag his eyebrows but the clerk caved in. He quickly named 20 or so restaurants and even came up with a good place for breakfast in Norman, Okla. As we headed for the door he was reciting state capitals in alphabetical order.
When we arrived at Taylor's new Plymouth Fury III, his fiancée, Lynne Hart, got into the back seat, leaving the two front buckets free for Taylor and me. I gallantly protested, but Lynne claimed that she was used to it. I fumbled with the seat belt as Taylor pulled out. "I don't use those things myself," he said. "I'd have to buy an extension. If you're as big as me, you just have to sit on them."
Indeed, the wheel was so close to Taylor's stomach, even with the seat jammed back, that you could hear the buttons of his Olympic blazer pinging on the horn ring when he turned corners. Although Taylor was a considerate, relaxed driver, the traffic in Des Moines was the usual Saturday night passion play of supercharged engines, racing slicks, Hurst shifters and stop-light drag races. If we were in an accident, it would be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest known Yorkshire pudding.
When you meet someone as awesome as Taylor, your first reaction is to ask him his weight. It is a kind of protective device to keep from getting hurt, the way you hold a cross up to a vampire.
"Well, I just finished a speech at this boys' club," said Taylor, "and some kid asked me how much I could lift. I told him, 'Four hundred fifty pounds every morning when I get out of bed." Taylor had gone into the Munich Games last summer at 400, but he had just won the NCAA wrestling championship in Seattle at this new, astounding weight—450. The champ was immense. It made me feel better right away. On the plane to Des Moines, I kept seeing visions of a recent New York Times Sunday magazine cover that depicted four stages in the life of a fat-clogged artery. In the last stage the artery was about the size of a pencil. Yet here was a man who obviously ingested enough cholesterol to make the most stalwart cardiologist cringe, and he was a successful athlete. I could almost feel my arteries dilate with hope.
The restaurant was a specialty house: steak, lobster and pizza. It was a hyped-up place with things that looked real and weren't. The barn-wood walls turned out to be press-board paneling, and the cotton-weight napkins were paper. But the throngs at the tables were in some space/time transport of chowing down. The lobsters and steaks were being consumed as if the Chinese army were in Kansas City and due any minute.
The waitress looked like my mom. She looked like Taylor's mom, too. Her name was Lois, written in carnival stitching on a lavender hankie pinned to her uniform. Lois was very happy because a 101-year-old man had come in for his birthday dinner. "He ate an anchovy pizza and a helping of spumoni and left under his own power," she glowed. I hoped we'd be as lucky.
I experienced a certain uselessness in telling a 450-pound man "this is on me." He began to read the menu as if later he was going to be examined on its contents. Lois arrived with mugs of beer to help us in our deliberations.
There is always some doubt about the authenticity of a man as big as Taylor. Maybe he isn't an honest fat guy at all, perhaps he has maddened glands, maybe this is a fraternity prank, or elevator shoes, or some disease so rare it is unknown outside certain villages in Nepal. But Taylor's credentials are without peer. "When I was a boy I went to the University of Michigan medical center on and off for quite a while. It cost thousands of dollars of insurance money, and my family had to pay a lot on top of that. When they were done, all they said was, 'Either you've got a gland problem, or you're a giant.' I wanted to say, 'Well, I knew that.' "
The restaurant grew noisier as the fever pitch of lobster, steak and pizza demolishing reached a crescendo. Lois arrived with salads served in great Vermont wooden bowls that said MADE IN THE PHILIPPINES on the side. And the salads appeared to have veins and arteries, as if they were separate organisms with TVs and children of their own. In the dim light it took me some time to discover that it was merely shreds of red cabbage, a favorite Midwestern ingredient. The salads were capped with several dipperfuls of Thousand Island dressing. No portion control on these brutes. The terrified desk clerk had told the truth. After the war we would repatriate him back to his own country of computerized innkeeping. As we worked on the salads, Taylor talked about his childhood.
"I've had a potbelly since I was a child," he confessed. "My mother would worry once in a while, but you can't put a kid on a diet. And diets never work for me. I go on them for a week or so and then start cheating. I probably have to lose about 75 pounds. I'll do it, but I don't know how."
Did Taylor have any fat heroes when he was a boy? "Not really; you know, Mickey Mantle and the usual ones, but I did like Baby Huey in the comics. He was this giant duck who could pick up trains and buildings. I guess I've always liked the strength part of being big."
And yet kids now look up to Taylor and his weight. "I get letters from kids saying, 'I'm this old and I weigh this much, how can I be great?' I tell 'em, 'Well, kid....' " Taylor waves his fork and grins.
Lois arrived with the main course. Chris and Lynne had ordered one of the mainstays of Midwest elegance: Surf 'n' Turf. It is composed of a broiled African rock lobster tail, a coffee cup full of melted butter, a rare slab of sirloin and a mandatory mound of French fries. As you go farther west, say by the time you get to the Montana border, this dish takes off the gloves and gets called by its more brutal name, Lob-Steak. Between the sweetness of the lobster tail and the juicy textures of the beef, some devotees of this dish have been known to experience swoons as deep and profound as those produced by fundamentalist preachers or rock stars.
It was the kind of restaurant where if you didn't order French fries 10% would be added to your bill as a kind of immigrant tax. I ordered a baked potato. Lois looked at me strangely. I must be either a lawyer, a heart surgeon or a homosexual. If I had ordered an artichoke and a glass of white wine, she would have called the sheriff. Since I'd ordered the "he-man" cut of prime rib, blue rare, she exonerated me.
The steaks on Chris and Lynne's Surf 'n' Turf had tiny plastic steers driven into them that read MED. RARE and MED. WELL. When you pull these out, the juice bubbles from the wound. Taylor looked around the restaurant before addressing himself to the meal. He swept his fork about and intoned a quiet, heartfelt benediction, "Chow down."
We labored mightily and it was some time before we surfaced. Taylor had consumed several glasses of water while eating, the glass being replenished by Lois who seemed to have a sixth sense as she wielded the styrofoam pitcher. "I drink about a pint of water with a meal," Taylor said. "Helps wash it down. Also, I love salt."
As we warmed to our task, Taylor took off his blazer. The question of clothing came up, a terminal misery for the fat. That problem for Taylor is compounded in inches: 54" waist, 60" chest, 23" neck and a 14EEE foot. "I have to send away to Big Man shops," he mused, "or go to one when I'm in the area. Probably the best thing for a fat man would be to go nude, but I don't know if I'd like that, either. Fat people don't turn me on."
There are for Taylor, as for the rest of the overweight underworld, endless small humiliations that emphasize his uniqueness. The fatty wanders around in a world that resembles a child's room full of dolly teacups and beds that end at the knee. Take, for instance, the Lilliputian demon who invented the tourist-class airline seat. Normal-size air travelers stoically endure this bow to economy, but it is agony for the fat man. "I've ridden tourist," said Taylor, "but I don't anymore. It's kind of embarrassing. You can't help grossing out the guy next to you."
And there are problems raised by the "straight" world regarding how to treat fat people. People always are offering you food. "Here, do you want these toast crusts?" Or "I can't finish this pizza. Want it?" It's like those grannies in supermarkets who whirl around in the checkout line and offer you their green stamps.
Coming back on the airplane from the NCAAs in Seattle, Taylor was faced with just this situation. 'They passed around this tray of little sandwiches, and they were awful. Some sort of fish paste. Nobody wanted them so the stewardess gave them to me. The whole tray for the airplane. I'm not a garbage can, but I took a bite out of each one so they couldn't pass them off on somebody else."
It was a week after the meat boycott as we hunched over our slabs of Iowa beef. "I ate meat through the whole thing," Taylor grinned. "Every time I pulled into a McDonald's for double cheeseburgers, I was helping the farmers. Those guys need to make a living, too, and I just did what I could." As I spread some more butter on my potato skin, a young fan came shyly to the table to ask for Taylor's autograph. Chris turned back when he had finished. "Now where were we? It's hard to get any time to yourself when you're so good-looking."
Lois arrived to take the dessert orders and I was amazed to see that Taylor hadn't cleaned his plate. There was a lone French fry and a shard or two of lobster. But it is quite true that most fat people don't eat enormous quantities, they just eat more often. "Before a match we sit down and have a steak and potatoes," said Taylor. "Then after the weigh-in, I go home and eat another meal. When I'm nervous, I don't even notice it."
Taylor comes close to the oldtime image of the strong man. He can press 750 pounds with his legs 25 times at a go. He can even stand on one leg. Try 450 pounds on your toes sometime. But if there was any doubt in Taylor's mind about his strength, he invented a muscle test for the 450-pound class.
Chris has a friend who also weighs 450 pounds. They drove out to a lake near Ames, presumably not in the same car, and dove in. The other guy, who is not an athlete, was a sort of control fatty. The idea was to float. The one farthest out of the water was the less muscular. "This guy was hardly getting wet," Taylor recalls, "he was so far out of the water. But I went down like a rock." Can you imagine a crazed bass fisherman stumbling into his local tavern: "Boys, you'll never believe the monsters out there in Crystal Lake!"
Taylor has become Buddhalike in his acceptance of his size. "I don't think of myself as fat, the rest of the world's too thin." And since he keeps an active schedule, he refuses to believe that his weight is a handicap. "Being big doesn't run my life. And besides, I've got a new theory. If I lose weight I might become sterile." Mysterious fears lurk in the oversize heart.
Taylor finished his second piece of lemon pie. I pulled out my Pepto-Bismol like a fraternity boy handling a flask at a football game. But Taylor was genuinely concerned that he hadn't eaten enough to make a good interview. At Lynne's urging, he finally admitted that they'd stopped at a McDonald's on the way to my motel. "I just couldn't wait until eight o'clock for dinner," he confessed.
Although Chris Taylor was joyously, proudly fat, he seemed to lack some essential quality in my search for the ultimate fat athlete. I still sought the nadir of lard. And so I stood in the lobby of New York's Roosevelt Hotel looking for a fat Detroit Tiger. He was wearing glasses and paging through the morning papers, which rested comfortably on his paunch. Mickey Lolich, 22-game winner in 1972. We went to a coffee shop near the hotel for breakfast. It was full of secretaries and water-cooler cowboys pouring coffee and juice into their boilers. Someone was playing, at high volume, recordings of exploding crockery to set the pace for the day. I struggled into the booth, a masterpiece of Gestapo engineering, my gut pouring over the edge of the Formica. Lolich was less than dainty. It looked as though we were trying to break the table along its midline, there was so much pressure on it. Biggies often emerge from the obstacle course of the American coffee shop with what we professionals call "fat narcosis" or "big bends." The waitress threw menus at us from a distance. Time to feed the Planet of the Apes. She returned hours later to take our orders, a fat white pencil sticking out of her wig.
Mickey Lolich and the waitress then engaged in a time-honored American custom, an existential debate on the order of the universe.
ML: I'll have everything on the right-hand page.
ML: O.K., I'd like a cheese and jelly omelet with four eggs, toast and lots of coffee.
W: Did ya want the jelly inside the omelet or on the side?
ML: Do you think you could get them to put it inside?
W: Maybe, but it'll cost ya. About a buck extra. It's better if I just bring you some extra packages of jelly on a plate. That way they think it's for your toast. So you just want a cheese omelet.
ML: O.K., with extra jelly for my toast.
ML: You probably have to bring a guy down in a cab to get the jelly inside.
"My biggest meal is usually breakfast," said Lolich. "But I wouldn't call it big. I grew up in Oregon, and I like the logger's breakfast: three eggs, hash browns, pancakes, muffins, pork chops or sausage and thick coffee."
Lolich was to pitch against the Yankees that afternoon. When he works, he eats only breakfast. Even after the game, he's still too "up" to eat. "My wife kids me about not eating lunch like the other guys before a game. She claims I do it so that by the sixth inning I'm so hungry I start bearing down so I can get off the mound and up to a table."
But Lolich wasn't always a big eater. In fact, he was once normal. "I was a scrawny kid. When I went off the diving board at the swimming pool I had to hold onto my trunks coming up." Lolich's rise to 220 pounds from 185 began in the Carolina League. At six feet even, 185 was a perfect "athletic" weight. Lolich was trim, quick and ready. The trouble was that on a Sunday, 100° and humid, he was worn out by the seventh inning. "I perspire a lot, and I'd just run out of gas." He was so lean then that it was difficult to find a uniform that didn't sag on him. He's now gone from a 28" waist to a respectable 38".
In 1962 Lolich was playing for a Class AAA team in Portland, Ore. The Tiger general manager, who was impressed by the pitcher's potential, suggested a cure for the energy drain: more weight. Imagine if after your next physical the doctor said, "I'd like to see you put on 40 pounds." Home cooking helped. Soon Lolich was pitching at 200 pounds. It was going a little better. By 1966 he was up to 206 and it was going much better. "I'd put on a few pounds off-season and not worry too much." he said. "I'd think, well, I can always take it off in the spring. Then I'd go out there and pitch great."
To some extent, Lolich's gut has been his success. As he added weight, he pitched better. Along with Chicago's Wilbur Wood and Boston's Luis Tiant, there's a lot of beef on the mound lately. But Lolich is irritated by at least part of his image. When someone says "Mickey Lolich" you think of pizza and beer immediately. But it's always a mistake to bring fat heroes into your own dark recesses of lard. "I worked for a pizza company in Detroit for two years. I did their TV advertising, and I must have been convincing. In fact, I built up such a good image that they just dumped me once my association with the product had been established. But I still meet people who think I own the company. I go a month sometimes without a pizza. And I never touch beer. Maybe one after a game, but never at home. In fact, I'm not much of a drinker. I drink maybe eight highballs in a year."
Lolich's downfall is simply quantity. He is a steak-and-potatoes man: he rarely eats bread or snacks. It is the breakfasts and dinners that keep Lolich overweight and winning.
Our breakfast arrives, a two-fisted omelet for Lolich with a side order of jelly. Lolich pours a few spoons of sugar into his coffee. "I grew up staying with my grandparents a lot. They used to make old-fashioned coffee. You boil water, throw in the grounds and let it work for a while. You've got to cut it with a lot of milk and sugar."
Lolich's gut has been a blessing and a torment as far as fans are concerned. "I get ribbed a lot, particularly away from home, but it's easy to reverse that. Some guys go out to play on the road and nobody ever heard of them, even with their names right on their backs. I can put on my jacket and they still know who I am.
"Sometimes on the road I sprint along the outfield wall to stay loose, and I hear it start. They call me 'Jelly Belly," 'Whale Belly,' and anything else they can think of. I take it for a while, then I stop and walk over and say, 'Would you like me to pitch for your team? Would I be fat then?' "
There is one fan on the road who works unmercifully on Lolich. "I don't want to say what city it is, because I pitch so well against them, and I don't want them to remove this guy. He sits right behind the third-base dugout, and he's a real leather-lungs. He just keeps it up all afternoon. By the sixth inning, I'm hypnotized. It's like a chant, and I can really come down on those guys. I wish I could take that dummy everywhere."
But things can turn quickly against the fat athlete. Lolich was having a disappointing season the day we breakfasted, a 2-4 record. The letters were coming in from Tiger fans demanding the Stillman water diet for him, saying he should pay a fine if he was caught with a pizza in his hand. Lolich is steadfast in his response, and remains true to fattydom. Patting his gut, he said, "I think I'll just keep the tools I've got. And remember my watchword for this year: there are lots of skinny guys with bad arms."
Lolich mysteriously alluded to certain medical reasons for the size of his stomach. "It may have something to do with the way I breathe when I'm pitching," he hinted. But he finally had to add, "I asked the surgeons at Ford Hospital in Detroit what they would charge for a stomach amputation."
As for clothing, Lolich admitted that he sometimes succumbs to vanity like many fat men. "I wear a 38" waist, but sometimes I get a 36 for kicks. You've got to watch those double knits, though. Some of them are still like old pegged pants." Four years ago Lolich went to spring training at his normal weight of 220, but he pulled his pants up over his paunch. He usually wears his pants slung under his belly like a Southern auctioneer or a Little League umpire. Teammates were astounded, for it looked as though he had lost pounds. "After two weeks I put them down where they belonged, and when I showed up at the park, guys said, 'Damn, what did you do last night?' "
Lolich got bored with questions about his stomach. It was becoming a separate celebrity. So he put people off by claiming heredity. All the Loliches, he announced, had big bellies. But that story won't work anymore. His cousin Ron now plays for Cleveland. He is svelte. But Mickey pointed out, "The last couple of months Ronnie has been hitting .091. He's just got to fatten up and you'll see that average climb."
The secretaries and cowboys had dashed off to work. The only people abroad in coffee shops at 10 a.m. are ballplayers, writers and derelicts. Lolich and I worked out of the tiny booth.
As we said goodby, I realized that Lolich was almost the St. Francis of fat men. He is a sacrifice to the rest of the obese world of spectators. As he said, "When I'm out there pitching a Saturday game that is nationally televised, there is a fat guy in front of the set at home in his T shirt and shorts. He looks at me and says, 'See, Mabel, that guy's fat just like me. Now get me another beer, will ya!' "
And don't forget the chips, dip, popcorn, cheese puffs, pizza, Slim Jims, pickled eggs, Cokes, burgers, egg rolls, French fries, sausage links, tacos, butter, pickles, hot dogs....