Is this going to be another story about the white knight in shining armor?" an old friend asked Steve Garvey. "No, no," the old knight replied. "Those days are over. The horse has been shot. I'm a foot soldier now."
The horse has been shot. The white knight's a foot soldier now. That's not bad. In fact, it's about as good a way as any to begin telling the story. But it's a hard curve, and it comes in hanging: with guilt and frustration, nostalgia and remorse, and finally with clearing a whole marriage out of a dream house overlooking the San Fernando Valley, out of closets and drawers, and packing it, piece by piece, photo album by photo album, into large cardboard boxes.
This was in February. With the house sold, the divorce in the works, with another spring training and baseball season about to begin, Steve and Cyndy Garvey returned to Calabasas Park to close the home they had built together. There wasn't much to say, but in the gloaming there were all those drawers to be opened, windows flung open to the past: 2½ years of courtship, 10 years of marriage, two children, four grandparents, almost a decade of celebrity—his for nine years as the durable, hard-hitting first baseman of the Los Angeles Dodgers, hers as Mrs. Steve Garvey and a local television talk-show hostess. That's a lot of pictures.
But there were a lot of drawers. There were wedding pictures and mug shots and baby pictures of the girls—Krisha Lee, now 7, and Whitney Alyse, now 5—and pictures of the trips to Hawaii and Santo Domingo and such. Pictures of Steve and the girls at their first player's family game at Dodger Stadium. Pictures of Cyndy on TV. Pictures of the first apartment they had in Playa Del Rey (circa 1971). Pictures of the first home they owned in Calabasas, a tri-level (circa 1973).
April 12, 1982
In one drawer Steve found the sweater, green and white, that he remembered her wearing as she walked with him one snowy night in the light shining from the windows of a building at Michigan State, where they had met. Another drawer produced the sales slip of the Eldorado, baby blue and white, that he bought on their eighth wedding anniversary, in 1979. And there was the letter that set him to recalling dimly the night in 1973 when he came home from a road game in Santo Domingo, where he was playing winter ball, and found her stirring laundry in a tub with a nine-iron. "You should be using a two-iron," he had said at the time. "Less drag."
Garvey has a sense of humor, but not at the moment of his unraveling.
"Every drawer had memories," he says. "It was like a cassette of the last 10 years. It was like going back on rewind, then fast forward to the present, then back on rewind, then fast forward. Ten years of it.... It takes you right back. The nostalgia. And then the reality would set in. You can't go back. The memories will never go, but you can't go back to what once was. Sure there were tears, throughout the week, for different reasons. They were the toughest days of my life. There's no way you can know how emotional that is unless you've been through it. It was the most emotional, draining period of my life."
The web (failure): "No one feels more human than I do. I failed. Of course I failed. I had never failed before. It's not failing for the first time, it's failing at what I've thought to be the single most important thing we can do in life."
The spider (guilt): "I do feel a guilt...a lot of frustration and guilt."
The fly (himself): "I guess we all think it couldn't happen to us until it does. But maybe certain things were meant to be in life that we don't always have an answer or reason for. Just like I didn't. No answers. Only questions...I want that sense of guilt to go away.... You can only hurt somebody so long. I'm essentially restructuring my life now so she has the freedom to be herself, unaffected by what I do."
A bit thin for a dossier on a white knight, perhaps, but nonetheless: Steven Patrick Garvey, at age 33, has arrived very suddenly at the middle years, when it's time to spare the kids, cut the losses and look for an apartment in the city, when the career is peaking and there are choices, never before considered, to be made. In fact, he will be living alone this year in a town house in Mountain Gate, northwest of downtown L.A. A year from now, he may be living in an apartment overlooking Central Park and playing first base for the Yankees. He doesn't know. He is in the last year of a six-year, $2 million contract, which will pay $360,000 this season. That makes him the most dramatically underpaid player in baseball. Garvey wants to retire a Dodger, but he isn't sure they want him badly enough to do what it takes to keep him.
Five years ago, when he signed his last contract, Garvey had a home in the Valley and a career in the Ravine, and all signs pointed to forever. He was, more than any other player, a professional Dodger. Garvey has never asked to renegotiate his old contract and only seeks "parity" in a new one. Nowadays, for a player of his stature—a .303 lifetime average, 945 consecutive game appearances, and in a normal season 200 hits, 25 home runs, 100 RBIs—that means at least $1.5 million a year.
"I don't know what it means," says Al Campanis, the Dodger vice-president.
Some Dodgers are already concerned. "I hope the organization doesn't do something foolish and let him go," says Outfielder Dusty Baker.
Whatever else all this means, it signifies to Garvey that he is facing an uncertain passage in his life, professionally as well as personally. What had seemed so unshakably certain and secure just four years ago has gone the way of his horse.
"I really don't know what's going to happen," he says.
No matter. What he knows in the spring of 1982 is that he hasn't felt so good about being a Dodger since 1973, the year he made the starting team. "Professionally, I'm going to feel more comfortable than I ever have with the makeup of the team," he says. "I'm as comfortable on this team as any I've played on." It will be a clubhouse in which he feels more at ease, because it no longer includes three men with whom he didn't get along: Second Baseman Davey Lopes (traded to Oakland) and Outfielder Reggie Smith (signed by San Francisco as a free agent) left this year, and Pitcher Don Sutton, with whom Garvey had a clubhouse fight in 1978, went to the Astros as a free agent last season.
Also, the resolution of his marital problems has left him with a sense of relief and a clearer perception of who he is than he has ever had before. "I have played well, but maybe I can do better, simply by being at peace with who I am and what I am and where I am, in the summer of '82," he says. "This is the summer of my career. It's no longer the spring, and it's not quite the fall. At 33, I'm an adult. I'm a mature man, who has finally reached an inner peace about what I'm doing and where I'm going. Secure in who I am, secure because in the past I've had to question it because others have. I've gone through it. I've come to terms with the detractors, with idealism, with reality, and I am now the person I want to be."
The person he is, of course, is the one he has always been, even if many people—teammates, the media—never really appreciated it. Garvey was born in Tampa on Dec. 22, 1948. His father, Joseph, and his mother, Mildred Winkler, met and married on Long Island but soon moved to Tampa to help her parents open a motel. After Steve was born, his father found a job as a Greyhound bus driver. Many things serve to demarcate the son, to be sure, but among the most formative circumstances of Garvey's youth was the fact that Steve grew up an only child, unburdened by sibling rivalries but also deprived of the opportunity to learn how to cope with such conflicts and jealousies as arise within a large family. Also, like many only children, he felt he had missed something.
"I used to see friends with sisters and I'd say, 'It would be nice to have a sister,' " Garvey says. "I always had a certain amount of chivalry." He saw himself coming to her defense. "It would have been an opportunity to share," he says.
Because his father was frequently away Steve spent a good deal of time with his mother, whom he describes as the "disciplinarian" in the family. He was an exemplary child: clean, controlled, orderly, courteous, thoughtful and responsible. His room was spotless. "It was like no one lived there," Mildred Garvey says. "If something was moved, he knew that someone had been in his room." He said "yes sir" and "no sir."
"You never had to push him into anything," Joe Garvey says. "He shook hands with people, even as a little boy." He mowed the lawn, washed the family car, took out the garbage, helped with the dishes. You never had to ask him.
When Steve was 10, Mildred's father died and Steve's widowed grandmother, Mae, moved in with them. She was a semi-invalid. By then Mildred was working at an insurance agency, so Steve took care of Mae after school. They had a signal. If she needed him when he was out playing, she turned on the front-porch light, and he would dash home. He vacuumed for her, learned how to cook, helped her in the bathroom. "I helped her any way I could," he says. "It was part of being a Garvey, the son of Joseph and Mildred Garvey."
When Joe started driving the Dodgers around Tampa during spring training, Steve became the Dodger bat boy, at age seven. Every spring he rode the bus. "He came home at night, he was so high he couldn't eat," Joe says. No single experience of his youth impressed him more powerfully: Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, the banter, the bats and gloves.
"I enjoy letting a 7-year-old boy carry my bats to the field because he'll never forget that," Garvey says. "I can't forget the time I played catch with Gil Hodges. The time I caught Frank Howard's throws from the outfield on a line, with Pete Reiser hitting to him, saying, 'Will ya take it easy on the blank-in' kid! What're ya doin'? He's just a little kid!' I was 12. I remember all those things. The smell of the pine tar, the smell of the balls, the gloves, the shoes. Putting the bats in the bat bag and carrying them, lugging them, to the bus."
Garvey simply inhaled the entire experience, and never got over it. He starred at all levels of baseball through Chamberlain High School. He was the star quarterback on the high school football team. And in his senior year, as if through will alone, he made himself a member of the school's concert choir and men's chorus. What he brought to that enterprise was an inordinate determination to make a space for himself, to win acceptance, to succeed. "He was ambitious," says Marge Wooldridge, his counselor at Chamberlain. "Ambitious, competitive. He enjoyed being good."
"He started out with about as little talent, musically, as you can have," says Jim Copeland, the choir director. "Steve couldn't match a pitch. He was terrible." So raw that Copeland left Garvey's name off the list of students chosen to sing in the first program of the season. Copeland can see him now. "The kid came into my office and almost broke down," he says. "He had tears in his eyes."
"I've never been cut before from anything," Garvey said. "What did I do?" Copeland told him that his voice needed work and that he wasn't as good as the other, more experienced, students.
"I've got to be a part of the concert," Garvey said. In that case, Copeland told him, he could come dressed in a suit and tie and help move the piano and pull the curtain. So there he was, the best-dressed stagehand in Florida, working all night long. "Best piano mover and curtain puller I ever had," Copeland said. "And that was the last concert he was ever cut from. He couldn't stand that he could not do this well. He went to the piano accompanist and she played his part and he practiced, over and over and over again, until it got to the point where he just made himself a good singer."
So proficient, in fact, that by season's end he accompanied the choir to the state championships. Both groups he sang in earned best-in-state.
Following that concert, Garvey and several other students got into a shaving cream fight outside their rooms. When Copeland arrived, Garvey was covered with lather. The director scolded them, ordering them to their rooms with a warning: "If the lights aren't out in five minutes, I'm going to take all of you home tonight." Five minutes later Copeland toured the outside of the building, looking for lights, and saw the blinds open in Garvey's room. There was a faint glow inside. Copeland peeked through the window. "There's Steve, sitting in front of the refrigerator with the door open, taking all the shaving cream off his face by the light inside...."
Garvey closed the refrigerator door and stepped into the living room of the condominium overlooking Vero Beach. It was dark outside, and the ocean below pitched heavily as if in fitful sleep. Spring training 1982 had begun just a few days before. Garvey was now glancing back.
"I knew life wasn't perfect," he was saying now, "but I didn't know that in order to continue to reach, there would be battles within that quest, that there is no easy path, that you're going to be challenged, always challenged. As a person, I've gone through Camelot and there have been chinks and dents put in the armor. It's as if people have chipped away at me over the last seven or eight years. And I have come through it the same person, with the same ideals and the same principles. I can still look ahead to doing the things that I want to do."
Camelot and armor. Steve Garvey is a romantic, and the vision he has of himself is essentially heroic. Not modern heroic, but Arthurian heroic, involving duty, honor, chivalry. The difficult path began in 1975, the year after Garvey won the National League MVP in only his first full season as a starter. He had worked fiercely to get there. He has always hit the ball hard—he had a swift, compact stroke that was a model of economy—but his arm at third had been suspect as far back as high school.
Garvey struggled at third in the minors and in his early major league career, and it was only after Dodger Manager Walt Alston moved him to first, in 1973, that he took off. In his MVP year he hit .312 and had 200 hits—21 dingers—and 111 ribbies. And a Gold Glove, the first of four straight. Just like him.
The sails of his career caught the warm Southern California winds. With his striking, rugged good looks, pleasant disposition and tireless willingness to meet the press and mix with the fans, Garvey became the most popular player in California—in the game itself. All at once he was doing endorsements and making public appearances and going on television with Cyndy, the public Barbie to his Ken. Lindsay, Calif. even named a junior high school after him.
Some of his teammates thought the Garvey persona was too neat, his near-immaculate life-style too perfect, and that what they were witnessing in his daily embraces with the media, in his publicized visits to semi-invalids in hospitals and in his marathon autograph and photo sessions was nothing more than image making. What they believed they saw was a cynically calculated polishing of the Jack Armstrong image for personal gain—a businessman, blasphemy of blasphemies, in Gil Hodges' uniform.
In 1975, the San Bernardino Sun-Telegram published a story quoting Davey Lopes as saying that eight starting Dodgers viewed baseball as a game and the ninth, Garvey, saw it "more as a business." Ron Cey, the third baseman, said, "If he wants to go out of his way to be the clean-cut kid, that's fine, as long as he doesn't interfere with my style.... Basically everyone knows he's a public-relations man."
The story was a seminal event in Garvey's life, one that stunned and confused him, for as an only child he was faced with something he was unequipped to deal with. The Dodger organization was his family; the players, his siblings. "It was very tough to understand," he says. "I'd never confronted jealousy before."
Of course not. His teammates say that jealousy had nothing to do with it. A difference in life-styles, they say, no common ground. Whatever reasons they had for their sniping in the press, however, Garvey saw it as jealousy. Unable to deal with it, he was absolutely lost. "Whenever I've been confronted with a problem, I've basically gotten quieter, more introspective, and worked it out," he says. With his bat, basically, pounding the hell out of the ball.
So he withdrew. In a yelp of pain, he once said, "Why do I constantly have to defend my basic human feelings?" That is, why did he continually have to apologize for being the child that Joe and Millie raised? Resented and envied, disillusioned and misunderstood, feeling ostracized and depressed, he turned inward. But the problems never went away. Three years later, in 1978, Sutton referred to him indirectly as a "Madison Avenue facade." After Sutton allegedly made an ungallant reference to Cyndy, the two men came to blows. Garvey said he was defending his wife's honor. Leave her out of this, he said, and he wrestled Sutton to the floor. It was as if he were protecting the sister whose honor he had always wanted to defend.
Says Dusty Baker, "The number one question is, 'Is he for real? Is he really that nice? That straight?' People either love him or don't believe him."
That's for sure. Dodgers like Cey, Smith, Lopes and Sutton have always failed to understand that Garvey has lived his life with surpassing consistency, whatever they might think of him or it, from the day he first smelled the pine tar on the bats to that day last month, in Vero Beach, when he handed his sticks to an astonished young boy and the two walked from the clubhouse to Al Holman Stadium. Garvey didn't have to do it, but he did, as he has done it for years.
There are few places in America where the accepted canons of civilized comportment are suspended with more studied resolve than in a professional baseball clubhouse. Here, belching and swearing and scratching oneself are art forms. Garvey steadfastly judges not, but it isn't an arena in which he ever threatened to be best-in-show.
His idea of a risqué joke is right out of Tampa, 1956: "What do you do with an elephant with three balls?"
"What?" you ask.
"You walk him and then pitch to the giraffe."
In this clubhouse, Garvey became a man quite apart. He never hung out with the guys, rarely drank with them after games, didn't join in their rowdier escapades. Indeed, the apparent paradox of Garvey's professional life is this: Though basically friendly, he nonetheless found himself the most controversial man in the Dodger clubhouse—depicted as remote and lonely and viewed as the center of whatever storms swept the Ravine. But he continued to be an exemplary athlete. "The way I play baseball is an expression of my being, my personality," Garvey says. "The consistency, the durability, the dependability. The control, the concentration, the release of emotion at the proper time."
At the proper time. In fact, he rarely releases it. His control over his feelings, his emotions, has done as much to divide him from his fellows as anything else. He has never cussed an umpire. Probably the angriest he ever got at an ump was in the first game of the 1977 World Series against the Yankees, when Nestor Chylak called him out on a play at home and he thought for sure he was safe. He believed that Nestor was out of position, up the first-base line, and couldn't possibly have seen Thurman Munson's tag. Garvey leapt up and screamed, "Oh no, Nestor, that was an injustice!" One day, says Baker, Garvey jumped up off the bench during an argument and shook his fist and yelled to an umpire, "Hey, you really blew that one!" All full of himself, he sat back down and said to Dusty, "I told him, didn't I, Bake!"
"Yeah," said Baker, "you really told him, Garv."
Even today, the players who know him well still yearn for Garvey to let something, anything, hang out. "I look at him and wonder whether he'll ever allow himself outwardly to have fun in public," says Outfielder Rick Monday. "I sometimes look at him and wonder what's going through his mind. You want him to show some kind of human emotion."
I'd like to see him put on a pair of old Levi's and go out and let it down," says Baker. "But that's not him." "Say something bad about him," jokes Dodger pinch hitter Jay Johnstone, one of Garvey's closest Dodger friends. "Make him look real."
Nothing made him look more real than the events of last year. He and Cyndy had had a time of it in the fish-bowl of Los Angeles. They had those two kids and the house in Calabasas and the signs that pointed to forever. But they also had problems starting about four years ago. That was when the Garveys became another of America's troubled marriages. The last year was particularly bleak.
"Agonizing is probably a good word," Garvey believes. "You're going to talk about guilt, you're going to talk about agony, essentially."
What you're also going to talk about is a child of the 1950s, raised in a time when divorce was almost inconceivable, confronting what eventually became the inescapable: a separation brought on by the demands of his job, the pressures imposed upon him and Cyndy as a consequence of their fame, and ultimately her wish to take up with songwriter Marvin Hamlisch. Agonizing is probably a very good word.
The way Garvey sees it—and Cyndy wouldn't agree to be interviewed for this story—the marriage began yielding to his job years ago. The daughter of an Air Force colonel who traveled often, Cyndy grew up, Garvey says, "bouncing around from place to place. She wanted to stay in one place and to have somebody around all the time. She never had a father around all the time. It wasn't his fault; that's what he did. Then I end up a baseball player who travels 90 days a year in spring and summer. It's very slow building up. For me it was guilt, for her it was frustration. Frustration as shown by anger. I don't get angry."
What she longed for, of course, was the companionship he couldn't give. "Companionship," he says. "Nobody else's, mine.... I became part of sports in America; I wasn't just one player on one team. I became a certain image in America and she understood that. She knew she had to share me."
He never sensed he had a choice. Buffeted between his family and his role—his duty and responsibility as a national hero—he just kept playing ball the best he could. "I couldn't do anything else," he says. "If I were less than an average ballplayer, I would probably have said, 'Hey, I'm wasting my time in baseball. Boom!' But you can't do that when you're on top. You can't do that. When you spend 26 years doing something, to get where I am now, you've got to ride out the wave. And you can only hurt somebody so long. I've got to play baseball. I've got to ride out the wave, O.K.? Because I'm at the crest of it right now."
Moreover, he began increasingly to feel himself a lightning rod, more and more the focus of storms and tensions. In the summer of 1980, Inside Sports ran a cover story, entitled "Trouble in Paradise," in which Cyndy revealed how troubled their marriage was and how frustrated she felt in it. It was the heaviest laundry line in Southern California.
Cyndy and Steve circled the wagons, but there was no denying that, as the piece had indicated, she was unhappy, really unhappy, at home. "A lot of hearts went out to him," Rick Monday says. "None of us is perfect, for damn sure."
But their plight was a gossip columnist's delight. "Chipping away at the statue," Garvey says. The next year, 1981, the marriage came apart. Garvey had an off year, for him—he batted .283—but he doesn't blame all of it on personal problems.
"You can't just place it on my marriage breaking up," he says. "The strike was important, too. I wasn't sure I wanted to go back and finish the last 53 games. I was never that conscious out on the field of what was happening personally."
But, says Baker, "He was lost. He looked lost at the plate. He didn't know a fastball from a curveball. I asked him, 'Hey, Garv, what's wrong?' He said, 'I'll tell you.' But he never did. There is no one he can release to. That's one of the problems." And there were the days Garvey came to the ball park with red eyes and heard the catcalls from the fans, "Hey, Steve, where's Cyndy?" Says Baker, "I felt sorry for him."
The breakup, much ballyhooed, came in September though Steve didn't want to let her go. "How can this guy come in and take my wife?" he asked himself. Ever the rational, responsible adult, looking to do the right thing, he let her go. "She would have exploded if she had stayed," he says. "I had to let her go."
It was also, Garvey says, an opportunity to escape the web. The marriage as a public spectacle, jabs in the press, threatening telephone calls, public humiliation.
"How could I put a woman through all this?" Garvey asked himself. "Someone who had intelligence and who sacrificed a lot so I could become the best ballplayer I possibly could? As time went on this placed a tremendous guilt on me. Because of who I am and the pain that I eventually caused her. All these things are a spin-off from me, and I've got to eliminate that from her life. I'm restructuring my life so that she has her life and I have mine. When that time comes, when she's healthy and happy, that guilt will have subsided greatly.... Our common bond is the children. I've got to ride out the wave, play out these next years as strongly as I possibly can. And, during that time, prepare for a new life afterward in politics or something else. But I know we can't be together. I love her and she loves me, but I just know I'm not the right person for her."
So he has his town house in Mountain-Gate and a new sense of inner calm, and this is his option year. He is looking forward to playing the game again. With all he's done, the old white knight says, "The pure Steve Garvey may be better. I will never be any less than what I've been. That may be your last line."