A baseball uniform has always looked good on Mike Ivie's powerful frame, and as far back as he can remember, he has wanted to wear one. When Ivie was a Little Leaguer, he was already hitting the ball so hard that some concerned parents around Decatur, Ga. petitioned to have him moved to a higher league.
Naturally, a lot of people were surprised when the 27-year-old Ivie took his San Francisco Giant uniform off last month and said that he was quitting his $300,000-a-year job. But last week, after a sudden change of heart, a more secure Ivie returned to the team, saying he felt fully refreshed and was anxious to begin his baseball career anew.
Ivie, a 6'4", 210-pound first baseman, had the best season of his career last year, hitting .286, with 27 home runs and 89 RBIs. After platooning parts of four seasons at first base in San Diego and San Francisco with Willie McCovey, Ivie had finally won the position outright. "This was the first year I was going to have first base all to myself," Ivie says. "I was going to wear it out."
Unfortunately, the only thing Ivie wore out was himself. On June 6, after struggling all season to overcome a debilitating hand injury and a sprained left ankle, Ivie was batting .231 with only two homers and six RBIs, and the Giants were last in the National League West. He had reached a state of such high anxiety that he and Dr. Thomas Tutko, a psychologist who had been treating him, asked the Giants' management if he could have a rest. The team put Ivie on the 15-day disabled list, giving "mental exhaustion" as the reason. Following his return, Ivie remained on the bench for four games, striking out in his one appearance as a pinch hitter. Then on June 25 in San Diego he abruptly announced his plans to retire immediately.
At a press conference—which Ivie says he convened because "I didn't want to just walk away; I'm no quitter by any means"—he insisted his departure had nothing to do with his injuries or his slump. Instead, he claimed he wanted only to be "an average Joe" working a nine-to-five job in Georgia, and added that the life of a professional player had been "dehumanizing."
Ivie now says he regrets some of those statements, but not his decision to retire. "I woke up one morning in a hotel and said, 'I've got to talk to somebody; I need some more help.' I knew no matter what it took, I had to straighten my stuff out before I could play again. I was super, super depressed, sleeping a lot, then going to the park at two in the afternoon and just sitting in my locker for hours. I was really kind of spaced out."
Ivie called his wife, Pam, at their home in Foster City, Calif. to tell her his decision. Despite her best efforts, she was unable to change his mind. "He said it was like being in a burning building and he had to get out," says Pam Ivie.
Several Giants were upset over Ivie's apparent lack of regard for the team, particularly Coach Jim Lefebvre, who said, "Ivie is a deserter. If he pulled something like this in the Army, he'd have a bullet hole in the back of his head."
Ivie's difficulties as a professional ballplayer began June 4, 1970, the day the Padres selected him first in the amateur draft, as a catcher. "You're supposed to be the best out of all the high school and semipro players in the country," Ivie says, as if he were describing a curse. He was 17, a pampered only child who had never been asked to wash his own clothes or do any cooking. "When I started out I was lost," he says.
During his first minor league season, Ivie developed a phobia about throwing the ball back to the pitcher. The Padres didn't realize how severe it was until spring training two years later. In an intrasquad game Ivie would double- and triple-pump before returning the ball. When Manager Preston Gomez upbraided him for it, Ivie packed his bags and flew home to Georgia. Weeks later he agreed to join the Padres' Alexandria (La.) AA farm team, but he vowed never to catch again.
"If Mike had played out his career behind the plate," says Bob Fontaine, former general manager of the Padres, "he would've become a candidate for the Hall of Fame. He had the softest, quickest hands you ever saw, a strong, accurate arm, plus all that size and power."
Ivie played in his first major league game less than a month after his 19th birthday, and to him it became the second clear indication that his lifelong dream was turning into a nightmare. "Here I was catching behind Henry Aaron, Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, people like that," he says, "and I still had their bubble-gum cards on my wall. Even now, to a certain extent I feel like I want to get these guys' autographs when I see them. I realize now maybe I've put them on such a high pedestal I could never play with them."
Ivie tried to help himself early in his career by taking part in a Silva Mind Control program, a sort of transcendental Dale Carnegie course in which participants are told to think positively so they will act accordingly. But he went AWOL again in 1973 when he felt the Padres' front office had reneged on a promise to bring him up from their Hawaii farm club. Ivie continued to have his problems after reaching San Diego. In May of 1977 Manager John McNamara suspended him for two games when he refused to play third base after working out all spring at first. Playing most of the season at first, he batted .272 and in the winter of 1978 he was traded to San Francisco, where he hit .308.
By performing even better last year, Ivie seemed to have conquered most of his demons. But he was unsettled again by an off-season accident last December in which he cut the flexor tendon in the little finger of his right hand while cleaning a hunting knife. The damaged finger required delicate surgery and 8½ weeks in a cast, and when the cast came off, much of the strength in his right arm was gone. It was a devastating loss, one that gave Ivie a feeling of emasculation.
"My talent is my hitting," he says, "and I couldn't do it. Maybe I think differently than other people, but when you've had a body that's been like a bull, you expect it to perform. I went to spring training and saw guys who didn't have nearly my ability hitting the ball twice as far as I could. I wondered if I was ever going to get better, and that, in turn, created a lot of mental stress."
"The doctors said he was coming along great," says Pam Ivie, "but in his mind he wasn't doing as well as he could. That's when he began to get depressed. People can understand when you say you have cancer, but how many understand when you say you have mental depression?"
Evidently, not many. Though Ivie says now, "I was right at the point of a nervous breakdown," he was privately reviled by some of his teammates. He says now that consulting a psychiatrist during his layoff has given him new peace of mind, and that a sympathetic phone call from his old rival McCovey gave him the impetus to ask the Giants to reinstate him. "It was like Santa Claus calling," Ivie says.
When Ivie rejoined the club, in Pittsburgh, he was greeted with a mixture of open support and quiet disdain. Giant Manager Dave Bristol, who let Ivie work out for two days before inserting him in the lineup Thursday (he was 1 for 15 through Sunday), said, "I can handle it myself, but I don't know how the rest of the club will take it." Said Outfielder Bill North, "I've got better things to worry about besides whether some boy thinks he can play baseball again." And Lefebvre added, "He's got to prove to himself, to the players and to the coaches that this isn't just more of the same old stuff. We're not unforgiving people. If he wants to come back and bust his butt, we'll accept him. But nobody wants to hear about any more of his problems."
That should be all right with Ivie, who doesn't want to have any more problems.