Yesterday's Sports pages are full of the names of faded phenoms nobody remembers, flashes in the pan who flared brilliantly for a year or two before fizzling out.
Baseball, more than other sports, is a showcase for such Hash dancing. It's a streaky, skimpy game in which players can be awesome one season—or one month, or one week—and awful the next. "You settle into an orbit in which it seems you can do no wrong," says Bill (Spaceman) Lee, who charted his own weird trajectory in the big leagues for 14 years, most of them with the Boston Red Sox. "When you finally spin out and reality sinks in, you think you'll never get back on course again. And a few players don't."
One of the flashiest falls of all was taken by the late Bob Hazle, who earned the nickname Hurricane after storming into Milwaukee at the end of the 1957 season. The 26-year-old rookie hit .403 in 41 games and helped the Braves win the pennant. By '58, Hurricane was little more than a zephyr. He got beaned, lost his equilibrium and lost his place in the outfield. With his barometer holding steady at .179, a trade wind took Hurricane to Detroit, here he hit .241 in 58 at bats. He never played again in the majors.
Hazle succumbed to injury, or maybe success. He figured he'd get better: instead he got figured out. After a while a book goes out on every major leaguer, and once it's published, every team knows what he can't do. If there are too many holes in his game, his career becomes a short story.
May 3, 1992
The pages on a player's flaws should be as blank as his mind. Baseball is, after all, a game of instinct, not intellect. "Thinking can be fatal," says Lee. "To stay on top, you've got to bypass your brain completely so that impulses shoot directly from your eyes to your fingertips. Technically speaking, you must rely on your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems."
To keep in perfect parasympathy, players must remain kids. The trouble is that fans, managers, general managers and sportswriters insist that these outsized children act like adults. Listening to other voices instead of their own, many so-called flashes lose their way. They forget what got them to the top.
The symptoms of this form of amnesia include feverish second-guessing. Many Hashes are not too sure of their ability in the first place, and they get tighter and tighter until they lose the capacity to relax. That's the thing about baseball: It'll smoke out any hidden psychological problem a player has.
Teams have little sympathy, much less parasympathy, for a player who fails to live up to his early promise. When his talent deserts him, the team does too. "Good guys who go bad are gone in a heartbeat," Lee says. "Ironically, management, through its own insensitivity, is as much to blame as anybody. Ballplayers are finely tuned machines worth millions and millions of dollars, yet teams put in bad plugs and lousy oil and wind up having to trash them."
Our selection of discards includes a joker, a free spirit, a dreamer and an innocent—each a castaway drifting in fantasies of what might have been. Four characters in search of an offer.
SAY IT AIN'T SO, JOE
Nuts and screws, tens of thousands of nuts and screws, cram the bins at The Bolt Bin in Lexington, Ky. Binkeeper Joe Cowley surveys his stock like a shaman contemplating miraculous artifacts. He calls out his prize trophies: "Hex nuts. Square nuts. Locknuts. Jam nuts. Castle nuts. Carriage bolts. Phillips-head screws. Lag screws. Cap screws. Deck screws. Dowel pins. Fine-thread, sharp-point, dry-wall screws...."
Nuts and screws. "That's what it's all about," says Cowley. "At one time I was a little bit nutty and screwy. Now I'm selling them."
Cowley seems content with the life he lives. For a long time—perhaps even during his best years in the big leagues—he was not. His career in baseball took more turns than a wing nut. After floundering in the Atlanta Braves' farm system for eight years. Cowley hooked on with the New York Yankees in 1984. He was 21-8 in a season and a half. Dealt to the Chicago White Sox, he threw a no-hitter, led the team in victories (with an 11-11 record) and set an American League mark by striking out seven hitters to lead off a game. Then came 1987 and a swap to the Philadelphia Phillies. Twenty-eight years old and seemingly on top of his game, Cowley suddenly, inexplicably stopped throwing strikes. He scattered pitches all over South Philly—from Brocco's King of Hoagies to Olivieri's Prince of Steaks. Things got so ugly that in mid-season the Phils sent him home.
Five years later Cowley still doesn't know what went wrong. He doesn't like to talk about it. "I don't need the publicity, and I don't want publicity," he protests. "This is not going to do me any good. No good at all." Still, he submits.
Big and thick, he stands behind the register, wearing a dreamily crooked smile, swaying to some private melody wafting in his head. He tells you about the time in Yankee Stadium when he walked the leadoff batter in the top of the eighth. His manager, Billy Martin, met him at the mound and signaled for a reliever. "Good move, Billy," said Cowley, and patted Martin on the back.
Martin did a double take, then doubled over in laughter. "I've managed a lot of pitchers," he said later, "but that's the first time I've had one compliment me for taking him out."
Cowley had a cheerful, this-is-the-way-I-am approach to life. "He was as flaky as they come, but in a harmless way," says Yankee pitching coach Marc Connor. "He couldn't throw the ball straight—even his fastballs moved." Cowley's first big league manager, Joe Torre of the Braves, had no taste for this flake. Cowley didn't enhance his image when a Dodger Stadium scoreboard showed him in the bullpen, mimicking a teammate's pitching motion during a game between Atlanta and L.A. in 1982. Later that season, during a road series against the New York Mets, Cowley woke up late one morning in his hotel, took a shower and had breakfast, turned on the TV and heard the national anthem being sung at Shea Stadium, "I'd assumed we'd be playing a night game," he says. Torre assumed Cowley had been kidnapped. Within a week he was back in the bushes.
Though he pitched decently at Richmond in 1983, the Braves kept him down on the farm. "Torre didn't want to have anything to do with mc," Cowley says. "I'd already made my mark on him." Cowley turned free agent that fall and jumped to the Yankees. "I wanted to start off right," he says, and he did tossing a one-hit shutout in his Triple A debut. By the time the Yanks called him up in July, he was 10-3. "Billy Martin grew to like Joe," says Connor. "Initially, though, he just saw this man-child who was never serious about anything." In fact, the only thing serious about Cowley was his record: He was 9-2 in '84, 12-6 in '85.
Before the '86 campaign the righthanded Cowley was shipped to Chicago in a deal involving lefty Britt Burns. That spring he impressed the White Sox with his new gold-wheeled Mercedes but not with much else. He spent most of April and May with the Buffalo Bisons, the Sox's Triple A team. "It was an adventure every time Cowley went out there," says Dick Bosnian, the Bison pitching coach. "He'd embarrass two hitters, walk the next two, then give up a rocket."
Cowley had his most Cowleyesque outing a week after he was called up to the Sox. He made baseball history by fanning the first seven Texas Rangers he faced. Unfortunately, he never got out of the fifth inning; by the time he was pulled he had allowed six hits and six runs and made a throwing error and a wild pitch. "You have good days and bad days," says Cowley. "That's what you call a good day and a bad day."
His no-hitter, a 7-1 win over the California Angels, was no less fitful. Cowley walked seven batters, including the first three in the sixth inning. In all, he threw 69 strikes and 69 balls. "Cowley had full counts on nearly every hitter," says Jim Fregosi, his manager, "I almost yanked him five different times. I'll tell you, I've never seen an uglier no-hitter."
That night Fregosi and his wife were out dining when a waiter brought them a complimentary bottle of Dom Pèrignon.
"Who's it from?" asked Fregosi.
"Joe Cowley," said the waiter.
"Better send it back," said Fregosi. "He'll need the money."
The Sox unloaded Cowley in spring training of '87 for Phillie outfielder Gary Redus. "We thought we made a hell of a trade," says Bill Giles, the Phillies' president. "Everybody we talked to thought Cowley would be great. We handed him a spot in the rotation."
Cowley lost his grip in his very first inning as a Phillie—a three-hit, four-walk, seven-run disaster against the Chicago Cubs. More disasters followed. In five games he was 0-4 with a 15.43 ERA. In a mere 11⅖ innings of work, he had surrendered 21 hits and 17 walks. "It was like a voodoo curse," Cowley says in a choked voice. "My control was near perfect in practice, but against live hitters I couldn't put the ball over the plate. I don't know if it was my shoulder, the manager, the coaches, the hecklers. I wanted to do so well, but it was beyond my control. Isn't that something? Beyond my control."
His coaches fussed like old birds. Straighten up, they said; apply yourself. Junk your cut fastball, they said; throw your sinker. But their advice didn't make a dent. "I threw and I threw and I threw, and nothing ever turned out right," Cowley says. "Every game had the same result. I guess I had Steve Blass disease." Blass, the hero of the 1971 World Series, won 19 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates in '72 before he lost his control and walked his way out of baseball in '74.
So what did happen to Cowley?
Giles says, "The fans just booed the hell out of Joe. He'd throw pitches over the backstop, and they'd razz him unmercifully. He couldn't take it. He was scared to go out there."
Cowley says, "If I had to boil it down, I'd say not running had a lot to do with it. I got out of condition. Once that happens, everything else just snowballs."
Bosman says, "An awful lot of panic went on when Joe unraveled. He may have felt he had no one he could depend on. That can be difficult when you're not especially strong mentally. In these kinds of situations, the battle is within."
Cowley was sent to the Triple A Maine Guides in May '87. He went 3-9 in 13 starts. In 63 innings he allowed 63 hits and 76 walks, and he hit 16 batters—three of them in a row. Against Richmond one day he walked 11 batters in 2⅖ innings. He threw balls over heads, in the dirt, even behind hitters. "Maybe I should have tried to throw at them," he cracks. Cowley makes a lot of mild jokes at his own expense, and you sense sadness and frustration beneath the ironic surface.
Finally, Giles sent him to an Arizona sports psychologist, whom Giles called for a progress report a few days later.
"How are things going?" Giles asked.
"Joe's a nice guy," said the shrink, "but I'm having a hard time communicating with him."
"What do you mean?"
"Every morning he shows up to borrow my Cadillac and my golf clubs. And every night he goes out on the town. He's enjoying life, but he's not taking the treatments too seriously."
Everybody agreed Cowley ought to just go home. Cowley described his predicament this way: "It gets to the point that after you get through the first inning, you come back to the bench and say to your-self, 'I really don't want to go back out there.' That's terrible."
The time off, from July to October 1987, didn't change his performance or his attitude. Cowley stopped playing ball in 1988, unhappily. "Every game I pitched in spring training was horrible," he says. "I didn't have any good games. Zero, zero, zero." The Phillies gave him his unconditional release at the end of March. Giles saw him shuffling through the parking lot at Jack Russell Stadium in Clearwater, Fla. Cowley looked pale, discomfited. Giles took his hand and shook it.
"Mr. Giles," said Cowley in a halting voice, "what am I going to do now? I have no schooling to do anything. What am I going to do? What do you do?" Then he slowly walked away.
Cowley went back home. He thought he could play a couple more years, but he wasn't part of anyone's game plan. "The truth of it is," says Cowley, "that if I'd been a general manager, I wouldn't have taken a chance on me either."
He couldn't eat. He couldn't sleep. He couldn't bear to watch baseball on TV. "I still haven't called one ballplayer since I got out," he says. "It's not that I didn't like my teammates. I did. It's that I don't want to bother them. I don't want them to feel an obligation to lift my spirits. I know what I did. As far as I'm concerned, baseball is dead, and I buried it.
"I've really struggled to get back to normalcy," Cowley continues, his voice breaking. "I had lived in the fast lane since I was a teenager. I went from game to game, city to city. I made hundreds of thousands of dollars, bought a big home for my family in Lexington. Then suddenly the money stopped coming in. I had to start thinking about a nine-to-five job. I had to sell the house. And I started to worry about what people thought about me. I can see how a guy might have an emotional breakdown. But I'm not angry. I realize there's a reason for everything."
So what was the reason for this?
Cowley's head rolls back, his eyes glaze over. "I really couldn't tell you," he says at last. "Somewhere down the line, I hope I'll find out."
WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, JOE CHARBONEAU?
All that remains today of the legend that was Super Joe Charboneau is a brick batting school in the Cleveland suburb of Brecksville. Inside what was once a natural-gas substation, the former Indians sensation gives lessons on how to run and hit and hit-and-run—all of which he is too mangled these days to fully demonstrate. Since opening his school last May, Super Joe has dispensed wisdom to more than 4,000 kids aged eight to 62. "I always wanted to run an orphanage," he says. "And now, in a way, I do."
At 36, Charboneau is no longer the rugged dharma bum celebrated in posters, books and song. Back in his rookie year, 1980, he was practically a matinee idol, inscribing scorecards the way James Dean had autographed publicity stills. But then the lights went out on the marquee, and nobody replaced the bulbs.
Charboneau lived his life radically askew, the way he held his bat. He was a genial brute with a top-heavy build that left his arms hanging wide from his torso. Legend has it that at various times he performed his own oral surgery using a razor blade, pliers and whiskey; picked up pocket money by fighting bare-knuckled in boxcars and warehouses; owned a pet alligator named Chopper; dyed his hair a patriotic red, white and blue for the Fourth of July; drank beer through his nose with a straw after opening the bottle with his eye socket; and scraped a tattoo off his arm with a razor blade. ("I wasn't into pain," he explains. "I just heard ball clubs frowned on guys with tattoos.")
He hit the majors with the force of a roundhouse right, belting an opposite-field home run in his second big league at bat, in the Indians' 1980 season opener. "The morning of the game I was so nervous, I threw up twice," Charboneau recalls. "I wanted a hit real bad, because I'd been told they give you the ball." That was on the road, against California. By the time he reached Cleveland, Charboneau loomed as large as Gulliver in the Land of the Little People. When he was introduced at the home opener, the delirious crowd gave him a two-minute standing ovation. He returned the favor by going 3 for 3, with a double and a homer.
"I really wasn't a franchise player," Charboneau says. "I wasn't even that good. I couldn't run. I wasn't gonna steal bases or drive in lit) runs. But baseball was dead in Cleveland, and the Indians needed someone to generate some interest in the club, to make baseball fun again. I was just the guy the media picked. It was a little embarrassing until I realized it was just writing."
Super Joe lived up to his early press notices. Despite missing much of the last six weeks of the '80 season because of a pelvis injury he incurred running into a railing at Comiskey Park, he hit .289 and belted 23 homers—the most momentous of which reached the third deck of Yankee Stadium. He beat out Boston's Dave Stapleton for Rookie of the Year. After the season Charboneau said, "I've heard about the sophomore jinx, but I plan to ignore it. I'm going straight to my junior year."
Instead he flunked out. In 1981, during a headfirst slide in spring training, he says, he felt something snap in his back. He was suddenly Average Joe, hitting only .210 in 48 games. Charboneau blamed his back; the Indians blamed his head. "For every good game I'd have three bad ones," he says. To offset the pain he began swinging from his hips, which reined in his power. From there on it was all downhill: the bat-heaving tantrums; the demotion to Charleston in Triple A; the spinal surgery; the helmet-heaving tantrums; the long days on the bench with Chattanooga in Double A; the second back operation: the wrist surgery; the longer days on the bench with Buffalo in Double A; the week's suspension for giving the bird to Bison fans, who booed him for not running out a grounder: his release from the Indians organization; the last-gasp try with a Pittsburgh Pirates Class A team; the ankle surgery; and then, in 1985, the end of the line.
"Once I got hurt, I couldn't handle anything," Charboneau says. "I concentrated more on the pain than the pitch." He had always thought ballplayers should play through their injuries—the way Roy Hobbs did in The Natural, in which Charboneau had a bit part as a ballplayer—until he got injured himself.
The more hobbled Charboneau was, the more he despaired. "I lived with the frustration of being unable to bend down to pick up my helmet, of having to run the bases at three-quarter speed, of knowing that when I slid, it was gonna hurt," he says. "It was a scary feeling."
Many of Charboneau's memories of baseball are tempered by a sort of weary sadness. "Baseball is full of peaks and valleys," he says. "When you're hurt, it's even valleyer."
Charboneau has a pragmatic view of things. "I never would have gotten hurt if I hadn't played with reckless abandon," he says. "Then again, if I hadn't played with reckless abandon, I never would have made it to the majors." He looks away, and his gaze is caught by a mote in the air. "That's the way it goes," he says. He reaches out and swipes at the mote with his hand. "It happens." He opens his fist, but he doesn't find anything. "That's the nature of life."
With all his fame, Charboneau never had a contract for more than $75,000 a year. "The season I had in 1980 is worth a few million dollars nowadays, isn't it?" he says with a shrug and a sigh. His major league totals read: 29 homers and 114 RBIs in 647 at bats. "I look at that and I'm happy," he says. "Baseball is an amazing game. It just keeps going on. In terms of playing time, I was a Hash in the pan. Still, three years is a long time. In a way I think it's lucky I got out when I did. The longer you have a dog, the more attached you get to it."
Does he resent being labeled a Hash in the pan? "Not too much," he says. "It means I made it to the stove, at least."
ROGER, OVER AND OUT
Collar open, arms folded and an hour late, Rogelio (Roger) Moret arrives at the San Juan office of the Puerto Rico Professional Baseball League. He wears a blue guayabera shirt, blue trousers, and blue socks. His loafers are black. He just bought them. "That is why I was late," he says. "I wanted to make a good impression."
He grips the back of a chair, a lean, wiry man with a battered and chipped face as noble as an ancient Benin sculpture. He gazes out the window to the street, where a cat and her kitten ineffectually stalk a sparrow. He stands motionless, smiling to himself. "Roger's a gentle madman in a world of his own," says Benny Agosto, the league's executive director. "He took a trip with no return."
For years Moret has waged a profoundly painful struggle that perhaps no one who has not been mentally ill can comprehend. Doctors have called his sickness "chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia." For Moret, that often meant living in a kind of horrible alternative reality. He would become dazed and incoherent. He heard frightful voices and saw menacing hallucinations. "No, I have not been through hell," he says. "Hell has been through me." Moret's voice seems to come from the hollow of a watery canyon, so his words carry an eerie dissonance.
El Làtigo, they used to call him—"the Whip." "You could hear his pitches snap across the plate," says countryman Willie Montanez, who spent 14 years in the major leagues, playing for Philadelphia and eight other teams. "Roger had the potential to be the greatest lefthander ever to come out of Puerto Rico, another Juan Pizarro."
"Juan Pizarro?" says Bill Lee, who played with Moret in Boston. "Roger had the potential to be a Sandy Koufax. When he threw the ball over the plate, he was unhittable. If the Red Sox had spent a little time with him, he probably would have won 320 games, and we'd have won the World Series in 1975, '76, '77 and '78. He-was headed for the mountaintop." Instead Moret went slowly over the edge and into the ravine. And he packed a loose parachute.
In flashes, he was terrific. He posted a 13-2 record as a starter and long reliever for Boston in 1973, winning his first 11 decisions. Two years later he went 14-3. Then, traded to the Braves, he was 3-5, and later with the Rangers, 3-4. By 1978 his career was over. He was 28.
Some blamed Moret's troubles on loneliness; others, on a language barrier. A few thought Moret lived too high, literally. Word on the street in Puerto Rico was that he had tried everything from cocaine to campanitas, a hallucinogen distilled from the petals of a tropical flower. (Moret denies using any illegal drug other than marijuana.) Lee insists that Moret's problem had nothing to do with drugs. "It was the pressures of family," Lee says. "They hit him up for cash, bled his time and drained him emotionally. He had a big heart, and that heart was cannibalized by his relatives. Roger couldn't handle the complexities of life." And life kept getting more and more complex.
"Roger came out of nothing," says Montanez, "and when he finally got something—fame, money, success—his nerves broke down on him."
The nothing Moret came out of is Guayama, a ramshackle town where the air is thick with swirling dust and tedium. He pitched his way out of the projects, making headlines as the ace of the Santurce Crabbers of the Puerto Rican league. In the '71-72 winter-ball season he was a phenomenal 14-1 with a 1.81 FRA. The Red Sox organization, which liked Moret's fastball and his versatility—he could pitch long, short and middle relief with equal facility—had signed him to a contract in 1968. "He was kind of a lucky charm," says Don Zimmer, the former Red Sox manager. "We'd be four runs down, he'd come in, we'd score runs, and we'd win."
Moret did seem to lead a charmed life in Boston. Once, he took a car out for a spin from the dealer's. Four days later the cops showed up at Fenway looking for the car; they chalked it up to a misunderstanding. Another time, Moret slammed his Audi into the back of a stalled truck. Though the roof of his car was sheared off, he emerged virtually unscathed. "Roger was a light, free, flighty guy," says Bob Montgomery, who caught a one-hitter thrown by Moret in 1974. "He had a great arm, but not great control. I don't think baseball ever affected him personally. He was so erratic, it would be hard to determine what was a decline."
Despite having won 41 of 59 decisions with Boston, Moret was dealt to Atlanta after the '75 season. "The Red Sox front office said it couldn't handle Roger," says Lee. "But if you can't handle Roger Moret, you can't handle a Christmas savings account. He was the kind of guy you couldn't whip, and they whipped him. They thought all snowflakes were alike."
Moret was no proud Brave. "Atlanta's vibrations were no good," he says. Once, to keep bad luck at bay, he tossed back a concoction of rum and kerosene. On a road trip in Pittsburgh, Moret became hysterical in his hotel room. Fellow players helped spirit him to Bellevue Hospital in New York, where he spent several weeks. The Braves said he had "family problems."
Atlanta passed him on to Texas in December 1976. A week into the next season Moret had another episode of terrifying hysteria. He returned to the clubhouse during batting practice, stripped to his underwear and stood in front of his locker, his left arm extended outward, his right hand clutching a shower thong, his eyes in a blank stare. Moret held that position for about 90 minutes. His manager, Billy Hunter, was not understanding. "I don't think the rest of my players should have to stare at a statue in the middle of the clubhouse." he said. Eventually, Moret was coaxed into an ambulance and taken to a psychiatric hospital.
Moret rejoined the learn in a few weeks but was ineffective. He was released the next spring. He resurfaced in Puerto Rico with the Crabbers. Cleveland gave him a tryout in the spring of 1980. "Gosh, he had a heck of an arm!" says Charboneau. "But he didn't seem mentally into it. I realized that when I saw him come in from the bullpen one game in sneakers. Then he retired the side without even warming up." Moret was released in late March.
Life got worse. Back in Puerto Rico, Moret was busted for marijuana possession in 1985 and was sentenced to five years in jail, though he never served time. He has lived off and on in halfway houses. For a while he stayed at a drug-treatment center. He was sustained during much of this bleak time by $32-a-month welfare checks. Five years ago he began collecting a modest disability pension from baseball.
Moret recently joined a Softball team called the Camarones—"Shrimps." The Shrimps barnstorm all over Puerto Rico. And though he left baseball before a lot of the team's current spectators had even been born, Moret finds he's still a local hero. "In my short time in the majors, I was the greatest of them all," he says. "I pitched against the greatest—Catfish Hunter, Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan—and always won. My records are right there for everyone to see."
The past, he says, has passed. "People can't imagine what it's like to be in the big leagues, to be harassed by people, to lose everything, even the respect of your mother and father," he says. "All those things are behind me now. I hold no grudge against anybody. I accomplished what millions and millions of people could never accomplish. I even played in the World Series. I will live the rest of my life off those memories."
His only fear now concerns how he'll be remembered, "I don't want kids and grown-ups to think of Roger Moret as a monster," he says. "I want them to look at Roger Moret as a humble guy who made it to the top."
Most of all, he wants to be invited back to Fenway for Old-Timers' Day. "My dream is to wear my old uniform and take the field with my old teammates again," he says, grinning enormously. "Even if I only threw one ball, I'd be the happiest man in the world."
THE END OF THE STONE AGE
And then there was the home game last summer at Triple A Pawtucket (R.I.) when Jeff Stone asked permission to miss batting practice.
"My girlfriend's plane gets into the airport at 5:30," he told Butch Hobson, his manager.
"O.K.," said Hobson. "But remember, the game starts at seven."
At seven, no Stone. At 7:15, no Stone. He didn't show until the end of the second inning.
"What happened?" asked Hobson. "Was traffic bad?"
"I made good time!" said Stone. "The airport was in New York City."
Endearing confusion is what Stone is all about. "Stonie is the nicest, sweetest, goofiest guy I've met in baseball," says Boston outfielder Phil Plantier, who played alongside Stone at Pawtucket. "And he's a heck of a player. He can hit, he can steal, he can run anything down. Every day I wondered, Why in the world isn't this guy in the big leagues?"
Not long ago Stone was touted as the next Rickey Henderson, a name not batted around lightly. In Stone's first three full seasons in the Phillies' minor league system, from 1981 to '83, he swiped 307 bases—123 in 1981 alone. After a soaring lift-oft' with the Phillies in 1984, his bat went south and his career took a rough dip. This past spring he tried out with the Cincinnati Reds at their camp in Plant City, Fla. He was a nonroster invitee, a longshot fighting for a seat at the end of the bench. The Reds thought he would make a fine leadoff man for their top farm club, the Nashville Sounds. "It won't bother me if I get sent down," Stone said. "It would have bothered me once, but not now. I just want to play baseball." When the last cuts were made, Stone was sent to Nashville.
Stone has started more anecdotes than big league games. Asked once if he wanted a shrimp cocktail before dinner, Stone replied, "No thanks, I don't drink."
Another time, during a night game in minor league ball in Bend, Ore., Stone is supposed to have asked a teammate, "Is this the same moon that shines back home in Missouri?"
Another time, after a season of winter baseball in Venezuela, somebody supposedly asked Stone why he wasn't taking his TV back to the States. "What would I do that for?" Stone is said to have replied. "It only gets Spanish stations."
And yet another time, while on the road for a series against the Pirates, it was suggested to Stone that he count sheep to get to sleep. Stone said, "They don't have sheep in Pittsburgh."
If Stone didn't exist, you'd have to invent him. In fact, says Stone, most stories about him arc inventions. "All that stuff used to tick me off," he tells you, "but it don't bother me no more. Like I say, nothing bothers me no more."
Disappointment tugs gently at the corners of Stone's mouth. In his soft face, wilted by a decade of setbacks, the softest feature is still that mouth. "It's my mother's mouth," he says blithely. "I don't know what happened to my father's." He was one of 15 children from a poor family in southeast Missouri. According to legend, a Phillie scout timed him running barefoot with some friends in a plowed cornfield. "How much money do you want to sign you?" asked the scout.
"Money!" said one of Stone's buddies. "He'd sign for a doughnut."
"I ain't signing for no doughnut," said Stone. "I want $500 and a handshake with Pete Rose."
He got two grand and the handshake.
"People thought he was dumb, but he wasn't," says Paul Owens, Stone's first skipper in Philadelphia. "He was naive, but beautifully naive. It was as if he had been in a vacuum for 18 years."
He roared into Philly fast, elusive and swinging a hot bat. In 51 games in '84, he batted .362 and stole 27 bases in 28 attempts. The Phils put him on posters, made him a cover boy for their calender and built a p.r. campaign around Stone and teammates Juan Samuel and Von Hayes. One newspaper writer wrote, "Welcome to the Stone Age."
The next season Stone demonstrated that the only way he would get to Cooperstown was by bus. He went 0 for 3 on Opening Day. By the end of the week he was strictly a platoon player. By the end of the month he was back in the minors. The Can't-Miss Kid had gone stone cold. "He was picked off a couple of times," says Owens, "and the next thing you knew, he was afraid to move off first base."
Stone fingers John Felske, the martinet who had replaced Owens as manager. "He told me not to run, took my game away," says Stone. "Stealing bases gives me confidence. When I steal, it's like I'm getting a base hit. I'm accomplishing something. I don't enjoy just standing still. I feel incomplete, like I'm a failure, like I can't do anything for the team. Felske never gave me a chance to get my stride back, to settle in. If Paul Owens had stayed my manager, I'd probably be a superstar by now."
Owens had left Stone alone. "Certain players you don't fool with, and Stonie was one of them," Owens says. "I think he played so well for me because all I wanted him to do was be himself. My advice to Stonie was, 'You see the ball, you hit it, and you run." And he said, 'That makes sense.' But when they started messing with him in '85, he started thinking. And he wound up getting so confused, he forgot how he used to play. I knew that was going to happen. It was inevitable."
After that, Stone spent more time in the minors than the majors. "My career made a 40-degree turn," he says. He got traded to Baltimore in '88, just in time to be a key player in the Orioles' fabled 0-21 start. Stone had a 1-32 start of his own. He killed a big rally in one game by getting thrown out going from first to third on a grounder. He was the goat of loss number nine, losing a ball in the lights and unsuccessfully trying to field it with his chest. And he contributed to loss number 19 by getting doubled off second on a line drive in the ninth inning, after the O's had put the tying run on base. It was his fourth baserunning blunder of the barely begun season.
Stone's last brush with notoriety came a year and a half ago in Boston. The Red Sox had called him up from Pawtucket—where he had landed after being released by Baltimore and picked up and sold by Texas—in September to pinch-run down the stretch. But in the ninth inning of a big game against Toronto at Fenway in the last week of the season, the Sox ran out of players, and Stone, who hadn't batted in nearly a month, was allowed to hit. He drove in the game-winning run. "I'm on cloud 10," he said, Stonily.
He didn't stay cloudborne long. "I thought that hit was gonna open the door for me, but nothing happened," he says. "I hit .281 at Pawtucket last year and never got promoted. Somebody told me I was too old. I've been hearing that since I was 27." Now, at 31, he's trying to start over again. "All I'm asking for is a fair shot," he says. "A shot is all I want."
Stone lounges, restless and uneasy, at a batting cage. A chilly wind blows trash across the empty infield. "One thing about myself I really admire is, I've been through a lot, and I was strong enough to hang in there," he says. "Don't get me wrong—I still love this game with a passion. I'm just disappointed about the way my career has gone. When you think about it, there's not much difference between Vince Coleman and me. Yet I'm a minor leaguer and he's a somebody."
Dust rises effortlessly into the hazy, milk-white afternoon.
"I thought I was gonna be a somebody too."