BORN TO BE A DODGER

Now that he is one, Steve Garvey tries to live up to his obligations while opposing the cult of the antihero
April 06, 1975

Steve Garvey is resolved to be a hero, not an antihero. He used to be the Dodgers' bat boy and idolized their first baseman. Now he is their first baseman, and not only that but the National League's Most Valuable Player. If a lot of boys do not idolize him now, they are missing a trick, because he smiles at everybody, gives autographs like a garage gives calendars and is a known gentleman. At 26 he has a bright, beautiful wife, a fine baby daughter, a cute if careless cocker spaniel named Duffy (which plunged into the ocean at Vero Beach this spring and was nearly swept away) and a nice tie-in with Pepsi.

If there is anything imperfect about the way Garvey's real-life story has developed, it is that last winter was not, as he points out, the best off-season in history to be an MVP. Endorsements were down along with the economy.

However, plenty of people around the country have been after Garvey to accept awards and to make talks. He has sometimes appeared gratis for charity, but there were enough paid appearances over the winter to earn him half again his '74 salary, which was an estimated $45,000. This year, his performance having done much to bring them a pennant, the Dodgers amicably agreed to pay him about $95,000. He is worth that much in nice publicity alone. "The Dodgers are very P.R.-conscious," he says. "You have to be in Southern California."

At this point, the reader who likes to think of himself as P.R.-resistant may be tempted to grumble. But wait. One of the stories Garvey often tells an audience goes like this:

"In 1971 I went to Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles to visit a boy named Ricky Williams, who was suffering from cancer. The boy had just had an operation to remove the lower part of a leg, and he was in a bad way. It was a hollow feeling, seeing him there on the bed. His mother said, 'Thank you for coming.' The doctors said he had an 18% chance of living. He was heavily sedated.

"I took his small hand in mine. His mother said, 'Ricky, Steve Garvey's here.'

"And I started to feel a little squeeze from that 10-year-old's hand. He started opening his eyes. Although he couldn't talk, when he opened his eyes it also opened mine. I could feel the strength in that little boy's hand. I knew then that Steve Garvey had a place.

"Last year in Dodger Stadium Ricky Williams walked from the dugout to first base with Steve Garvey, on an annual night for crippled children.

"I don't really believe that I have any special powers. But Ricky that night gave me a medal, with an inscription that said, 'To Steve Garvey. Thank you for giving me the will to live.' "

O.K., now say something smart. Say "But I like antiheroes." Or "Sure, it's a storybook career, but who reads storybooks anymore?" Or "Lou Brock should've been the MVP. He probably visits hospitals, too, and he stole 118 bases." You can't take away the pleasure that a number of people around the nation are getting from shaking the hand that held the hand of Ricky Williams.

Besides, Garvey produced 30 more runs than Brock did last season; in times like these, you can't argue with production. There are more vivid ballplayers than Garvey, but he is good to watch because he is so solid: good, strong, compact-but-also-whippy swing, good hands and no waste motion in the field. And by the way, a lot of folks still like storybook themes. "People in TV have told me," he says, " 'If you want to quit playing ball today, we'll get a series for you.' You know, playing somebody with short hair—whether it's a police story, a Gentle Ben, or whatever. Middle America.

"In the '60s," Garvey says, "everybody was trying to gain awareness. They were trying to find out who they were." This, he says, resulted in antiheroes. For the record, he doesn't like to finger anyone in particular, but the kind of anti-heroism he has in mind includes aloofness to fans and reporters, irreverence toward tradition, acting notoriously flashy off the field and writing disrespectful messages in the base-path dirt. "Now we're getting back to Americana," he says. "The threat of depression opens everybody's eyes. I would like to strengthen the country through athletics."

This seems as good a place as any to note that Garvey admits to having signed up as an Athlete for Nixon during the '68 campaign. But now he feels that the Nixon Administration betrayed his trust. He says he is an old Kennedy man, who would vote in '76 for Ted. That political leaning does not seem stereotypically Middle American, although who knows these days. Garvey does have middling short hair and a clean-shaven, responsible-looking face, and his wife Cyndy was once a Breck shampoo model. But they cannot be dismissed as bland.

At a banquet this spring, for instance, old blooper pitcher Rip Sewell said of Garvey, "He's a credit to baseball, he's a credit to the city of Tampa, he's a credit to humanitarians of this country." After the speeches Garvey asked Sewell, "Who makes those, Hillerich & Bradsby or Adirondack?" Sewell, thinking Garvey was referring to his trousers, said, "Oh, I don't know, my wife gets them for me somewhere." But Garvey was in fact referring to Sewell's artificial legs.

Cyndy does not see things in soft focus. She is willing to complain about the fact that being a baseball wife doesn't give her a chance to pursue her interests in art and the dance, and, of all things, she was taught a course at Michigan State by Dodger Pitcher Mike Marshall.

The world was made aware that the Garveys were blessed with a daughter during the World Series. This is how Cyndy remembers it: "It had been in the papers that the Dodgers had had eight girls in a row so all the medical students were gathered around pulling for a boy. Then she was born. 'Oh, it's a girl,' they said, and everybody left. Just me, my natural-childbirth adviser and the doctor were there. The next thing I knew I was in my room and there was a TV set in there and everybody was watching my husband playing a ball game. Then the words started going across the bottom of the picture: STEVE GARVEY JUST HAD A BABY GIRL, KRISHA LEE. I had just told him on the phone that her name was Bliss Ann! Can you imagine? I called the nurse: 'We've got to change the name!' 'It's too late,' she said. 'It's on all the documents!' But they changed it. It had been on television, after all."

Garvey was christened Steven Patrick, and he grew up a nice middle-class Irish boy in Tampa, with easygoing parents who have always been proud of him. Steve's father Joe was a good first baseman on local teams and played some minor league football on Long Island before the family moved to Florida. Steve's mother Mildred played field hockey as a girl and was always more limber than her son. "He'd get mad because he couldn't get his foot up on the counter," she recalls. "You know, when you come in from working in the yard and wash your feet. I'd say, 'Put your feet up there like mine,' and he couldn't do it."

But he hit .750 in Little League, with 18 home runs in 20 games, and in his first four innings in Pony League ball he hit for the cycle. "Little things like that happened to me along the line," he says, "that made me think 'Maybe I am destined to be a professional athlete.' "

Even before such omens, he was imagining himself in the majors. "I was an only child, which wasn't too bad. I always had balls available for me because we had 11 grapefruit trees in the yard. In the spring I'd take the little hard grapefruits that had fallen off and I'd hit them with a broomstick. I'd be the whole Dodger lineup: Charlie Neal, Gilliam, Campanella, Snider, Hodges. As a grapefruit hitter I was a line-drive hitter, even then. It must've been my build."

The build is 5'10", 195 pounds—muscular, just barely too lithe to be chunky. Its most conspicuous feature is a set of forearms that resemble Popeye's. "I built them up by swinging a barbell as a bat. Or I'd use one of the Dodgers' broken bats. They were too heavy for me, but they made me strong in the arms for my age, from the elbows down, and that's the key to hitting."

He got big bats because father Joe, a Greyhound driver, transported the Dodgers when they came to the Tampa area to play spring games. And Steve would take a couple of days off from school to travel along and be batboy. "Gil Hodges was my hero, on and off the field," he recalls. "He was a gentleman at all times. His handshake was something I still remember." But he admired the team in general, for instance "Carl Furillo in Bradenton, playing right field in water up to his ankles. He couldn't have enjoyed it but he did it, for the Dodgers. I was batboy for the Yankees and Tigers some too, but a few of the players on the Yankees weren't quite what I expected. When you have an idol, you always expect they're perfect. You hear them say a few cusswords, or see them refuse to sign a few autographs, and it takes some of the shine off. Some days now I'd like to go right home after a game when people are waiting for autographs, or let out a big 'bleep' instead of holding it in. But I always like to behave as though some little boy or girl is following me around. Because, you know, if you do do something wrong, I'll be damned if somebody won't be standing right there." (He doesn't seem to say even "damned" very often. He doesn't smoke. He will drink a gin and tonic, but without much gusto.)

Besides starring in baseball in high school, Steve excelled as a football quarterback—in his senior year he gained more than 1,000 yards both running and passing—and when the Dodgers didn't draft him when he was first eligible he went to Michigan State as a defensive back. He was a starter his sophomore year, but when the Dodgers did draft him, he went with them like a shot. "I sincerely believe that there is such a thing as a Dodger," he says. "I don't think there's such a thing as a Padre or a Brave or a Met. I sincerely think that I was born to be a Dodger."

It took a while to adjust the old build. "As a defensive back on running plays I had to take out the pulling guard and tackle. To do that I had to work on weights. I had a football neck. Then when I went into professional baseball I had to—boom!—debulk. I had to stretch out all those muscles. It took three, 3½ years." But during that time Garvey was building a .343 lifetime minor league batting average. He would be on the big club's bus in the spring. Manager Walt Alston would be riding up front near the driver, Joe. Alston wouldn't be saying much, as usual. After miles of silence Joe would say. "How's Steve doing?"

"Don't know," Alston would say. "Pretty well. Drive the bus. He's got a chance."

By '71 Garvey had made the big club, and was famous in Los Angeles for his throwing errors. He played third base mostly, and his arm had not been the same since he separated his shoulder in college football. Dodger fans would call his house and berate him or Cyndy. "I had to keep telling myself they were mad at the Dodger third baseman, not at Steve Garvey personally," he says. "You just tell them you can't talk to someone so irrational, and then you have to hang up."

As a part-timer in '73, however, he hit .304, and last year the Dodgers got his bat into the regular lineup as a first baseman. He proved to be excellent at digging out low throws and he displayed a football-derived willingness to mix it up with base runners in order to make sweeping tags. "He's not afraid of any physical thing in the world," says Dodger Coach Monty Basgall.

And, well, the kind of things boys dream about happened to Garvey last year. "This is the way my agent, Jerry Kapstein, and I presented it to the front office after the season," he says. "We broke it down into four components." These were: 1) All-Star Game. Better than a million write-in votes got him into it and two hits and a diving stab made him the Most Valuable Player of it. 2) Regular season. The league MVP. A Gold Glove Award as league's best-fielding first baseman. A .312 average, 200 hits, 111 RBIs, 95 runs scored, 21 home runs. 3) The National League playoffs. A .389 average with two home runs and two standing ovations as the Dodgers beat the Pirates in four games. 4) The World Series. A .381 average and a notable dirt-digging scoop as the Dodgers lost to the A's four games to one. The Oakland pitchers, Garvey says, were keeping the ball away from the Los Angeles hitters, who tried to pull the ball anyway—except for Garvey, who went to the opposite field and got more hits than anybody else in the Series.

"It could have been the best year a professional ballplayer ever had," says Garvey with a good bargainer's calm exaggeration. The Dodgers accepted his terms.

And so do many other business concerns. He signs countless balls at a grocers' banquet ("Would you personalize this for my youngster?"), with good grace and only an occasional aside like "I'm going to have to put Vaseline on my teeth to keep my smile from cracking." And then he is introduced to the gathering as "a great ambassador for Tampa. A great ambassador for baseball. A great ambassador of the almost lost art of being a perfect gentleman." And then he takes the podium and says, "One other thing. I also represent PepsiCo of Los Angeles." He narrates with great poise a marketing film for the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. He goes into department stores to sell a line of boys' baseball T shirts he is associated with. "It must have been a great privilege to play in the Series," says the man in the boys' department. "It was the kind of thing you dream about when you're a boy wearing a T shirt," says Garvey, sticking to the main issue.

"You have to be fearless," Garvey tells people, about baseball and life in general. "You have to defy that Big Loss in the Sky."

How can we have a depression when such a ballplayer is at work in our society?

THREE PHOTOSFRED KAPLANAll-America and then some: Garvey at home in Calabasas, Calif. with his ex-shampoo-model wife Cyndy, his dog Duffy and daughter Krisha Lee.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)