What happens when you throw together a bunch of 1980s cocaine scofflaws, big league has-beens and minor league never-weres on one bedraggled, cash-strapped independent team? It's not a reality-TV pitch. It's the story of the weirdest baseball summer ever
MIKE NORRIS AWOKE ON NEW YEAR'S Day 1986, in bed with a 300-pound woman he did not immediately recognize. He staggered to the Oakland dive where he had spent New Year's Eve. The bartender was the only person there. The wall behind the bar was mirrored. Norris saw his reflection. It horrified him. Usually a proud dresser, he was wearing the previous night's clothes. They hung on his thinning frame as sad as sails on a windless day. "Major league ballplayer, my f------ ass," he snarled at his reflection. It was only six years since he had won 22 games and a Gold Glove as a righthanded pitcher for the A's. "I see an addict! I'm no better than the pimps and whores I'm hanging with!"
"Greatest day of my life," he says now.
Two months earlier Norris had been in a Dominican jail on drug charges. He had been through drug rehab five times in four years. This was bottom.
September 12, 2016
Norris used to mock the many teammates who snorted cocaine during his big year, in 1980. "Don't you know that stuff is going straight up your nose to your brain?" he told them. But when Norris tried smoking it, in '82, suddenly he too was hooked.
Cocaine and an achy right shoulder kept him out of baseball in 1984 and '85 except for two games in Class A. His New Year's dive bar epiphany pointed him toward sobriety and baseball again. But there was one big problem with his plan.
What team would be crazy enough to take a lost soul like him?
BASEBALL HAD a serious drug problem in the 1980s. It became a public relations problem in '85, when a Pittsburgh grand jury indicted seven men as drug traffickers to major leaguers. Seventeen players were named as users. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth suspended 11 of them in February '86. "Somebody has to say 'enough is enough' against drugs," Ueberroth said. "Baseball's going to accomplish this."
One strategy to make the cocaine problem go away would be to shun players tied to the drug, especially the marginal ones. "After realizing I was blackballed from baseball," Norris says, "the only means of getting back was an independent team or Mexico."
Today there are 42 independent professional baseball teams. Thirty years ago that landscape was nearly barren. Only two independent teams existed, both operating in Class A leagues: the Miami Marlins of the Florida State League and the San Jose Bees of the California League.
The 1986 Bees became the hard landing spot for 45 players who had fallen through the cracks of professional baseball. Fifteen of them were former major leaguers, including Norris, 31, the '80 American League Cy Young runner-up; Ken Reitz, 35, the '80 National League All-Star starting third baseman; Steve Howe, 28, the '80 NL Rookie of the Year; Steve McCatty, 32, the '81 AL leader in wins and ERA; and Todd Cruz, 30, the starting third baseman for the '83 world champion Orioles. Norris, Reitz, Howe, Cruz and former Angels first baseman Daryl Sconiers, 27, were tainted by alcohol or drugs and thus considered unemployable—outside of the Bees.
The rest of the team was a crazy quilt of dreamers and the downtrodden. Those who passed through San Jose that year included five players on loan from Japan's Seibu Lions; a Japanese pitching coach--acupuncturist--Zen master who slapped his players when they made mistakes; a third baseman who played drunk and had a warrant out for his arrest; a seven-year major league veteran who slept in a gray van in one of the stadium tunnels; a shortstop with a slick glove who talked to himself; and a mysterious hanger-on known only as Rooster.
"It was like the land of the misfit toys," says Kevin Christman, a fourth-string catcher only two years out of high school who had never played in a professional game. "I learned more about life in that one year of baseball than I did in my previous 20 years alive."
Those Bees were catnip to the national media. When training camp opened, a CBS helicopter swooped into the parking lot of San Jose Municipal Stadium, a crumbling hunk of concrete known as Muni that was built in 1942. Soon The Times of London, Rolling Stone and The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Daily News and The Washington Post assigned reporters to investigate this strange petri dish of a ball club.
Reitz was the oldest Bee and was named captain. He had a warm welcome for the national chroniclers of the bizarre: "Welcome to the Bad News Bees. This is the last refuge of retired drug abusers."
The name stuck. Soon the players were working out in white T-shirts with a mock newspaper headline of BAD NEWS with BEES underneath. Howe topped off the renegade look with a cap that said DON'T PISS ME OFF.
The '86 Bees, with all their major league experience, thought they would steamroll through the California League, which was populated mostly by teenagers and players in their early 20s. They didn't. The Bees were terrible. But over one summer of 142 games the Bees experienced something bigger than the quick-fade joy a Class A championship would have brought. As a kind of halfway house for baseball's unwashed and unwanted, the Bees carved out a unique place in history. Few if any pro teams have fielded so many outsiders. Few have been so unloved by the baseball establishment. These were dissidents playing against golden prospects such as future stars Roberto Alomar, Dante Bichette and Todd Stottlemyre.
Putting the team together, and constantly mending it as a tailor would a threadbare suit, required the crazy genius of one man. Harry Steve was the Bees' 31-year-old general manager turned manager, a fidgety smoker who admitted to not knowing much baseball. Says McCatty, "He reminded me of the guy who started The Gong Show."
Harry Steve had never coached a day of pro ball in his life. And Harry Steve passed himself off as the owner. In other words, Harry Steve was the perfect king Bee.
THROUGH THE chill of winters and the swelter of summers, young Harry Steve came to one conclusion while helping out in the family business (parking lots in Youngstown, Ohio): I'm going to do something for a living I like from the get-go.
Harry loved sports. He played basketball and baseball and volunteered as an assistant youth coach. He earned his undergraduate degree from Bowling Green before starting on a master's in sports administration at Biscayne College in Miami. In his spare time in 1979, he did some marketing for the Miami Amigos of the Inter-American League, an independent circuit with six teams in six countries. The league folded three months into its only season. The Amigos' owner bought the Macon (Ga.) Peaches, another unaffiliated team, and asked Harry, who was two months shy of earning his master's, to be the assistant general manager. Harry left school, figuring he could always finish the course work. He never would.
Midway through the 1980 season, making $300 a month while the last-place Peaches churned through three presidents and three managers in five months, Harry quit the team. The next year a fellow Ohioan, Woody Kern, who owned a chain of nursing homes, asked Harry to be general manager of a minor league team he owned in San Jose. The club had just gained an affiliation with the Montreal Expos. In '82 it would be known as the San Jose Expos of the California League. Harry was only 26 years old. He didn't even have his own bank account.
The first and only season of the San Jose Expos was awful. Harry distributed 30,000 free tickets to local merchants. Only about 120 were used. After the season the Expos pulled their affiliation, leaving the renamed San Jose Bees as an independent team. Harry, who earned $1,000 a month, told Kern, "We can't make it like this."
Kern came up with an idea: "Why don't you lease the team off me?"
Harry would pay Kern $50,000 a year and call himself the owner. He would pay all the bills but keep whatever profit the team generated. Under the rules of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which banned the leasing of teams, "it was totally illegal," Harry says. "It's right there in the [National Association] blue book. But it didn't bother him, and it didn't bother me."
One of Harry's first moves was to visit Cal League statistician Bill Weiss, who knew everybody and even had contacts in Japan. Harry used Weiss to get the Seibu Lions to contribute five players to the Bees. The Lions would pay Harry $25,000 in 1983 and cover the salaries and costs of the five players. After the season, Harry negotiated a two-year, $180,000 deal.
The Bees finished last in 1983, '84 and '85. They averaged about 750 fans per game. The San Jose Mercury News didn't bother to run box scores of their games.
Meanwhile, in November 1985, Ueberroth summoned 24 players involved or implicated in drug use to January meetings in New York City. Harry noticed that some of those players who did not have contracts for '86 were getting no attention from major league clubs. Why not try to sign them? "These guys needed a second chance, but I wasn't some noble guy," Harry says. "It was self-preservation. I decided to start with the best and work my way down."
He called around and got a telephone number in Whitefish, Mont., belonging to a 28-year-old host of a rock 'n' roll radio show who happened to have one of the best left pitching arms in baseball.
STEVEN ROY HOWE, the son of an auto-assembly-line worker in Michigan, was a first-round pick by the Dodgers in 1979, the NL Rookie of the Year in '80 and a world champion in '81. He threw 95 mph with precision.
During those early years with the Dodgers, Howe met a woman who offered him cocaine. So began one of baseball's most infamous slides down the rabbit hole of drug use. By '82, Howe was spending as much as $1,000 a day on cocaine and snorting it in the Dodgers' bullpen. By '85 he had rehabbed and relapsed four times and been released by the Dodgers and the Twins.
Harry flew to Montana. He told Howe and his agent, John Lence, that he would pay Howe $2,000 a month—four times the standard player salary—to pitch for the Bees, with the stipulation that Harry would get half the purchase price when a major league team inevitably called to give Howe another chance.
Lence and Howe refused the offer. The Mariners were interested in Howe, and he was scheduled to throw in Florida for other teams. But by March no major league club had made him an offer, not while Ueberroth was vowing to clean up the game. Finally Lence called Harry. "Harry-O," he said, "we'll sign."
Harry held a news conference to announce the signing. The next morning, on page one of the Mercury News, above the fold, there was a big color picture of Howe with a San Jose Bees banner in the background. "I knew then," Harry says, "we were on our way."
MICHAEL KELVIN NORRIS grew up in the tough, predominantly black Fillmore District of San Francisco. His father was murdered when Mike was seven years old. The A's drafted Norris in 1973, and he was in the big leagues two years later, at age 20. When he arrived at his locker to make his first start, he found a blue pill. Confused, he threw it in the garbage. He then asked a teammate about it. He was told it was an amphetamine.
Playing naked, as players said of the sober, Norris threw a three-hit shutout, becoming only the ninth pitcher in AL history to debut with a shutout on so few hits. Nobody in the AL has done it since. It wasn't until three years later that Norris tried amphetamines. "Lasted 22/3 innings," he says. "Thought I was Nolan Ryan, and all I did was back up third and home plate."
Norris was one of the best pitchers of 1980. He could make a baseball move like a rabbit flushed from the brush. He went 22--9 with a 2.53 ERA while completing 24 of 33 starts. No one has topped 24 complete games since then. Norris once faced 51 batters in a 14-inning complete game and five days later faced 41 in a nine-inning complete game. Asked how he could stay so strong through such arduous work, Norris said, "I get proper rest between starts—chasing women."
Late in the 1982 season, Norris, a cigarette smoker, tried smoking cocaine and became hooked on it. He was one of at least 13 players connected to convicted drug dealer Mark Liebl, who provided cocaine at his suburban Kansas City home in exchange for memorabilia.
Meanwhile, Norris's shoulder started to give out. He had surgery in 1983 and did not pitch in '84. By the fall of '85, Norris had been through drug rehab five times. He went to the Dominican Republic to pitch winter ball. Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson visited him there to offer him a minor league contract for '86. "I thought it was an insult," Norris says. "Triple A? I refused it."
While in the Dominican, Norris was arrested on drug charges. "They put some marijuana in my leather coat," he claims. "I sat in a Dominican jail for four days. My mother and my [winter league] team don't know where I was." Finally, he says, he went to court and was freed with the help of a lawyer from his Dominican club, Licey.
The following March, Norris met Harry. "He looked like he was 150 pounds," Harry says. "He was depressed. He was a former 20-game winner who didn't have a job. Mike was real easy to sign. He just wanted a place to play."
KENNETH JOHN REITZ grew up next to Candlestick Park, where he would grab batting practice home runs hit by Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. The kid made it to the big leagues in September 1972 with the Cardinals. What he saw in the clubhouse astonished him: "Cigarettes, chewing tobacco, candy, gum, a cooler full of beer. It was as if baseball promoted being a degenerate."
He was such a spectacular fielder—he won a Gold Glove in 1975—that he was nicknamed Zamboni for his acumen at cleaning up anything on the Busch Stadium carpet. One day in '78, Reitz says, he saw a teammate pull out a small vial with white powder. "Hey, what is that?" Reitz asked.
"Let me try that."
Down, down the rabbit hole went Reitz. After the 1980 season he was traded to the Cubs. On his first day with Chicago, in '81, a stranger approached him near the players' parking lot. The man threw Reitz a brown paper bag. Inside were four jars of amphetamines, each containing about 100 pills. "I'm a pharmacist," the man said. "I got whatever you want and as much as you want. Tell the guys I like memorabilia: jerseys, bats, balls, whatever."
Says Reitz, "It ruined my life." He became hooked on pills. His marriage fell apart. He drank heavily. One day, high on amphetamines and having gone without sleep for two days, he was driving his new Jeep in Chicago when he became convinced that a group of girls was trying to steal his tires. He grabbed a .22-caliber gun, jumped out and shot his tires out so that the phantom girls couldn't steal them. "That's when I went to the treatment center," he says.
The Cubs released him in 1982. The Pirates released him two months later. He played three games in '83 for the Cardinals' Triple A team, none in '84 and 45 for the Rangers' Double A team in '85. In March '86 he was 34 years old and had played just 55 games over the previous four years, 48 of them in the minors.
"I felt like I could still play," Reitz says. "My dad said, 'Why don't you try San Jose?' So I called. I thought I was going to a rec league. I didn't realize we were in the California League."
THE UNWANTED kept coming to San Jose. Daryl Sconiers, then 27, had been the sweet-swinging heir apparent to Rod Carew as the Angels' first baseman. The athletic 6'2" kid from San Bernardino hit .370, .354 and .329 in successive minor league seasons. When spring training began in 1985, he asked the Angels for permission to arrive three days late. They didn't hear from him for 17 days. When he surfaced in camp, Sconiers admitted he had a drug problem. The Angels released him that December. Ueberroth named him as one of six players with "well-documented" drug problems who would be subject to drug testing. Nobody offered him even a minor league job.
Derrel Thomas, 35, a 15-year big league utility player, was such a showboat that he had four nicknames: Hot Dog, Minute Man, Farmer John and Junkyard Dog. By any name, Thomas could not get a job offer, not after former NL MVP Dave Parker named him in the Pittsburgh drug trials.
And Todd Cruz, 30, a scrappy infielder from Detroit who had bounced among six teams in six seasons and battled alcohol problems, needed a place to play after finishing the previous year with the independent Miami Marlins.
All of them wound up with the Bees, as did several other former big leaguers with no connection to substance abuse. The roster included Steve McCatty, Norris's fellow workhorse in Oakland's rotation; Fernando Arroyo, 34, who had pitched seven years in the majors but not since 1982 (he's the one who slept in his van); outfielder Lorenzo Gray, 28, who once had a 40-game hitting streak in the minors; and catcher Darryl Cias, 29, who got in 19 games with the '83 A's. Such has-beens were joined by the never-weres—fringe players who hadn't seen the big leagues and wouldn't.
The man hired to manage this eclectic collection of players was Frank Verdi, who played 18 years in the minors and later became a coach and manager, including a stint as the manager of the 1983 Bees. Just before the '86 Bees were to open camp, he called Harry. "I hate to do this to you, but I'm not coming," Verdi said. The Yankees had offered him a scouting job.
Verdi recommended his son, Mike, as his replacement. "I had never met him," Harry says. "I wasn't about to turn over this team to somebody I didn't know. So I said, 'Shoot, I'll manage.'"
THE BEES embraced their notoriety. Early in camp, drug scofflaws Norris, Reitz, Howe and Sconiers posed for a picture on the field with bandannas covering their lower faces, as if they were about to rob a stagecoach. The picture ran on the front of the USA Today sports section.
Hot Dog never made it to Opening Day: The arrogant Thomas, who pulled into Muni in a hot rod with no hood, was so disliked by his teammates that Harry cut him. "We had some nice cars in our parking lot," Harry says, "Mercedes, Porsches.... Problem was, they went nowhere. A lot of guys had suspended licenses."
Reitz was one of the disallowed drivers. He pedaled around Muni on a girls' 12-speed bike and lived in a stadium utility room with Cias and pitcher Mike (Stash) Bigusiak, a private detective whose previous job, in Atlanta, involved filming unfaithful spouses at motel rendezvous. The roommates called their pad the Stadium Hilton. It was tucked underneath the grandstand and furnished with sleeping bags, a hot-water heater, a washing machine (the roommates did the team's laundry each morning), a black-and-white television, six stadium chairs, a Led Zeppelin poster and another one for Bubble Gum, a 1983 XXX film.
Cias was a Jimmy Buffett look-alike, an artist and free spirit who rode his skateboard around Muni and donned a Superman cape to jump off the outfield wall. On the back of the door to the Stadium Hilton he painted a portrait of a crazy-eyed Charles Manson.
On Opening Night at Muni, Arroyo watched in amazement as Cias threw to the bases during pregame infield. Wow, Arroyo thought, what an arm on that guy! His adrenaline must really be going!
Cias blew his arm out with that show of strength. "Couldn't throw the ball back to the pitcher [after that]," Reitz says.
The Bees drew almost 5,000 fans on Opening Night. The club selected a season-ticket holder to throw out the first pitch. He was a one-legged septuagenarian who had lost his limb after stepping on a rusty nail.
EVERYBODY LOVED Mike Norris. Tall and angular, with a handsome face, he looked like Eddie Murphy, sounded like Eddie Murphy and was as funny as Eddie Murphy. He cackled all the time: an infectious, gut-busting ha-ha-HA-ha! People laughed when they saw Norris coming; he was that buoyant a spirit.
"As far as being on time?" McCatty says. "That was a constant problem for him." Like Reitz, Norris had a suspended license. He often ran late because of meetings with the IRS and the DMV and responsibilities related to a court-ordered two-year drug diversion program. Norris petitioned Harry to sign Kenny Foster, 27, a first baseman from Oakland who had been released by the Twins in 1984 after five minor league seasons. The tall, muscular Foster, who wore a serious look that put people on notice, hadn't played baseball in a year, but to Norris he had one very important attribute: He owned a car. It was an old, dented green Buick he called Bess. So Harry signed Kenny.
Between Norris's legal issues and Bess's mechanical issues, Harry had to keep postponing Norris's starts on account of tardiness. One day they came puttering in late again. Harry had seen enough. He called Foster into his ratty 12-by-12 office and released him. A few minutes later Norris walked in. "Harry, do you know what you just did?" he said. "You just released one of the biggest gangsters in Oakland."
"Uh, I didn't know that."
The next morning there was a knock on Harry's door. It was Foster. He sat down on the couch and began to weep. "My momma told me to come in and apologize to you and to pray to the Lord that you'll take me back," he said.
A relieved Harry said, "Are you going to do your best to be on time?"
"Yes. I promise."
Norris now says he exaggerated the danger Foster posed. "Ah, maybe he wanted to be a big gangbanger, but he wasn't," Norris says. "Kenny was a big old teddy bear. He wouldn't hurt anyone."
Harry scheduled Norris to start the first game of an April series in Fresno, the first road games of the season. But Norris, Foster and Bess showed up late for that one too. Norris's first start was postponed again. After the series the team headed back to San Jose on the bus. After about an hour the players saw something burning on the side of the highway. It was ... "Bess!" they shouted. About a mile down the road they saw two black men in baseball uniforms, carrying bats and walking next to the shoulder. "You can imagine the bus," Harry says. "They came in, and everybody was hooting and hollering."
Foster picked up another beater, and the tardiness continued. One day Norris simply didn't show. So on April 18, Harry released both of them. Foster had played in only five games. Norris had yet to throw a pitch for the Bees.
A few weeks later Norris's mother told him, "You should go apologize." So Mike went back to see Harry.
"Who am I to release you?" Harry said. "If you want to play, you can play." The Bees needed Norris. They were 21--30, in last place, and Howe was gone.
STEVE HOWE," Harry says, "was the ringleader. He was hilarious and very personable. Everything was more fun with him. That's why he got nine chances, or however many he got."
But players who were familiar with drugs were not as enamored with Howe. "Steve Howe was a smart-ass," Reitz says. "He knew he was better than everyone. He acted like he didn't have a problem. He was in and out of treatment about 25 times, and he's walking around like nothing happened. You can't do that. You need a support group."
Says Norris, "Howe was very bright, which was his problem because he was a con man. He charmed my mother into cooking a soul-food dinner for him. She brings it to the ballpark, and he didn't show up. He would have teams come watch him, then he'd go on one of his binges and not show up for three days. And when that happens, that's a blemish on the rest of us."
There was a guy who hung around the team, especially around Howe, who wore a Mohawk. Nobody knew what he did or his real name. They called him Rooster. "He supplied cocaine to Steve Howe," Reitz says. "Rooster would show up and Steve would disappear for three days, and everybody covered for him: 'family emergency.' But he still had great stuff." Howe had major league stuff. The scouts saw it. He was on the verge of getting back to the big leagues.
Harry scheduled Howe to start one night in mid-May against Fresno, knowing that veteran front-office men Pat Gillick of the Blue Jays and Al Rosen of the Giants were coming to watch. That morning Harry received a phone call in his office. It was John Johnson, the president of the National Association. "There's been a discrepancy in one of Steve Howe's tests," Johnson said. "You're not to pitch him tonight."
"What do you mean?" Harry said.
"I can't say anything else." Click!
Harry was confused. If he flunked a test, just tell me he flunked a test. Howe was throwing lights-out. He had a chance to get back to the Show. At 2 p.m., Harry called Johnson back. "I sent him back to the hotel," Harry said.
"You're doing the right thing."
When he hung up, Harry thought about what Johnson had said: You're doing the right thing. Harry thought, Am I?
At 6:15 he called Howe at the Holiday Inn: "You still want to pitch tonight?"
Howe raced to the ballpark and started the game. He pitched O.K. for five innings. The next morning, at precisely 9:01, the phone rang in Harry's office.
"Who ... the ... f--- ... do you think you are?" It was Johnson. "Nobody has ever disobeyed an order from this office. You are suspended immediately. Steve Howe is suspended for a month, and you are suspended indefinitely."
Howe had tested positive for cocaine. He never got out of San Jose that year. He had a 1.47 ERA over 49 innings, struck out 37 batters and walked only five. Not until the following July would he sign with a Triple A club, the Rangers' affiliate in Oklahoma City. The contract stipulated that he could not return to the big leagues without the consent of Ueberroth.
Harry, meanwhile, had managed his last game.
SCONIERS WAS the opposite of Howe: humble, quiet and not in demand. Everybody on the team loved him. He had an ex-wife and a nine-year-old son, Daryl Jr., to support. Most Bees were making $400 to $1,000 a month. It was common for them to ask Harry for a loan, usually equivalent to their monthly paycheck. It also was common for Harry not to be repaid in full. "Sconiers would come in and say, 'Can I borrow 22 bucks?'" Harry says. "'Yeah, that's all I want.' Boom, he'd pay me back.
"Sconiers was the nicest man. Oh, my God, he was handed Rod Carew's job and just went down the wrong path. I have a special place in my heart for that guy. I think he fell off the wagon once. We sent him home for a week. We said he twisted his knee and went to see a doctor and he'd be back in a week."
Says Reitz, "Daryl Sconiers could hit like nobody I've ever seen."
One day Sconiers asked Reitz if he could borrow his bicycle. He said he wanted to go to a convenience store. The Bees didn't see him for three days. When they did, Reitz said, Sconiers told this story: He had seen a car and just knew that the people in it had crack. He rode the bike six miles to chase them down.
Sconiers blamed himself for what he called "belligerent intolerance," the sense of entitlement that can poison a major league life. But Sconiers came to regret his 1985 admission of drug use. He felt his honesty prompted baseball and his family to abandon him.
"My own family won't talk to me since the drug thing," he told the L.A. Times in his second month with the Bees. "I don't blame them. They warned me. They told me when I was young that if I ever got into that kind of problem not to expect people to have any mercy. They were right."
DRUGS WERE foreign to the players on loan from the Seibu Lions. "In Japan, you have marijuana, you go to jail," said Hank Wada, then 49, who was in his fourth season as pitching coach of the Bees.
Wada, who had been a catcher in Japan, was also chaperone, van driver, acupuncturist and disciplinarian to the Japanese players, who ranged in age from 18 to 23 and spoke no English—at least not until their U.S. teammates taught them words you might hear in Bubble Gum. The best of the lot was second baseman Norio Tanabe, 20, who led the Bees in hits (166), home runs (nine) and RBIs (64). Tanabe went on to become a successful player and now manager for the Lions.
The Japanese players worked astonishingly hard. Pitchers would run five miles before starts. Hitters would routinely ask for extra hitting. But routine mistakes provoked tongue lashings and slaps to the face from Wada. One player was slapped for talking on the phone.
It made for a stark contrast: misfit Americans sharing space with youthful Japanese who incurred verbal and physical abuse for the simplest transgression. The Bad News Bees lived down to their name sometimes. And the trouble wasn't just drugs.
DON'T GO back to St. Louis. There's a warrant out for your arrest." There are better ways to start a season than the telephone call Reitz received from a friend, Cardinals pitcher Ken Dayley. The warrant accused Reitz of writing a bad check for $1,083.40 to a car dealer in Arnold, Mo. Reitz was classified as a fugitive from justice. California police were alerted to arrest him anytime.
"I had a Camaro," Reitz explains. "Late one night a truck backed into me. I went down to the Chevy place to get it fixed. They sent an insurance check to me. I think I took the check and went to the horse track. And lost it. I didn't know I was supposed to give it to the dealer. Later on, when I did go back to St. Louis, the warrant was over. Somebody paid it. I still don't know who."
Besides being a recovering drug addict, Reitz was an alcoholic. "I was drunk all the time," he says, "sometimes during games." The Bees went through Budweiser faster than their wheezing 1958 GMC bus went through gasoline. There was Bud in the Stadium Hilton, Bud in the rooms of fleabag hotels on the road, Bud on the bus.
The first week of the season, Harry called a team meeting. He introduced a San Jose police officer, Andy Trevino, as "head of security" for the Bees. Trevino told the players how to stay out of trouble in San Jose. He was very specific in one case: "There's this bar called J.P.'s. It's on Market, about four blocks from the stadium. If there's one place in town you don't want to go, that's J.P.'s on Market. Got it?" The players nodded.
Three days later Harry drove down Market Street, passing J.P.'s. "And I saw basically every one of their cars was in the parking lot," he says. "That's how they were. These guys liked to live."
One night in Bakersfield, where the Bees were playing the Dodgers, Norris was actually on time for his start. To welcome him, Christman, the young fourth-string catcher, and a few teammates gathered some white chalk from the foul line and created four reasonable facsimiles of lines of cocaine on the bullpen pitching rubber. The Bees routinely kidded Norris about his drug history. Jeff Blobaum, a 25-year-old reliever who had been released by the Giants, once asked Norris, "Do you ever go through the drive-through of a fast food restaurant and just order a straw?" Norris thought it was hilarious. When he found the faux coke on the Bakersfield mound, he let out one of his famous cackles and said, "No more, brother."
Harry, still on suspension due to the Howe Insurrection, watched the game from the bleachers down the first base line. He was wearing a Bees golf shirt, which gained the notice of four drunks. They heckled him with increasing belligerence. The Bees, who were on defense at the time, told the drunks to knock it off. The drunks persisted.
As soon as the third out was secured, the infielders and Norris threw down their gloves and scaled the fence to the bleachers. A brawl broke out between the Bees, the drunks and the security guards who tried to restore order. Two guards were injured. Harry was cut under his eye. The Bakersfield GM and two police officers escorted Harry and Mike from short rightfield to the press box. The crowd booed and threw garbage at them.
At that moment this is what occurred to Harry: With any of our old stinky Bees teams, none of this would have happened. We're on the baseball map!
When the season started, Harry thought his team would be a gold mine for the Cal League. He thought fans would pack Class A ballparks to see former major league stars. But baseball was still in condemn-and-punish mode with drug users, so how could fans be expected to be more understanding?
"We'd go into these towns," Reitz says, "and there'd be signs across the road, WE DON'T WANT THESE DRUG ADDICTS." After the brawl game in Bakersfield, the Bees, naturally, repaired to a local watering hole for their daily requirement of Bud. About seven of them were there, including Shawn (Scooter) Barton, the shortstop. Barton, 24, arrived in San Jose in 1985 after the Mariners released him from Class A. He was a brilliant defensive player, but, Reitz says, "he was just a weird kid." He had this odd habit when playing defense. As the pitcher wound to deliver each pitch, Scooter would shuffle his feet and call out, "Hit it to me! Hit it to me!"
That night in Bakersfield, who should be in the bar but the four drunks from the brawl? They jumped Scooter and broke his jaw. Scooter said he didn't want to go to a hospital. His teammates took him back to the motel and packed his jaw in ice. Still bleeding, the jaw swelled so much that the Bees were worried that Scooter wouldn't be able to breathe. He finally agreed to go to the hospital.
"I was a little disappointed that it wasn't a bigger deal than it was," Harry says of the Bees' popularity. "I thought everywhere we went there'd be 3,000, 4,000 people every night."
RUNNING BASEBALL'S Gong Show wore Harry down. While suspended, he decided he would not return to managing. He named Mike Verdi manager.
One day in July the team gathered in the Muni parking lot for the four-hour bus ride to Reno. Trips to Reno generated more energy than most bus rides, what with the anticipation for the adult establishments for which the Biggest Little City in the World was known. But this trip seemed different. Howe, who usually acted like the emcee of a rolling variety show and loved to pull out the nose hairs of sleeping players, wasn't himself. Then Harry received a phone call. He was ordered not to let Howe on the bus. Howe had flunked another test. He would never pitch again for the Bees.
By then the Bees had disappeared from the national spotlight. They had been just a curiosity at first, and the curiosity wore off. To the media, the Bees were animals in a zoo: You came, you gawked, you moved on.
Neal Karlen wrote a Rolling Stone piece on the team titled, "Bad Nose Bees." Thirteen years later, in a book about the independent Northern League, Karlen apologized for taking a narrow view of the Bees for the sake of laughs. "I bought everybody drinks," he confessed, "smoked dope with half the team, and took notes outside Fresno and Bakersfield motel rooms where the players whored away their meager paychecks. Then I completely betrayed the team in print, savaging the Bees and Steve Howe with all the confidences I'd milked from them in the middle of the darkest nights of their souls."
What the national interlopers missed was the compassion and humanity of the Bees at a time when baseball and the country were so frightened by the scourge of cocaine. Harry Steve may not have begun with noble intentions, but he quickly found them once the discarded and unwanted came under his charge.
"If Harry had said no to me," Norris says, "that would have been the end of my career. The compassion that he showed, I'll always love him for that."
Norris still had magic in his arm. He went 4--3 with a 1.44 ERA in 11 starts. He struck out 62 and walked only eight. But no major league team wanted him.
Harry also gave refuge to another increasingly disenfranchised segment of baseball: the marginal black player. In addition to Norris, Sconiers, Thomas, Gray and Foster, among the black players Harry signed were Jerry White, 33, who was released by St. Louis that year after an 11-year career; Terry Whitfield, 33, a first-round pick of the Yankees who had just been released by the Dodgers; Ronnie Harrison, 25, a speedy outfielder who had been released from Triple A by Oakland and was such a gifted athlete that he could leapfrog a standing 6'1" Howe; and Ted Milner, 25, a fleet outfielder and 1983 seventh-round pick by the Cardinals. The diligent and devout Milner was released by the Cardinals the spring after that draft, even though in 159 minor league games he had a .370 on-base percentage and stole 39 bases in 47 attempts.
"At that point some guys get bitter and won't even go to a game," Milner says. "I chose not to hate people. [In 1986] someone told me San Jose was starting an independent team. I drove up and did a tryout. They asked me to come back tomorrow. That's when I signed."
Milner hit .214 with no home runs in 32 games for the Bees, though with a solid .342 OBP. One day Harry called him into his office and released him. Milner had no way of getting back home to Southern California. Harry gave him his 1965 Ford Galaxie and told him to bring it back whenever he could.
"Harry was like a kid in a candy store with that team," says Milner. "He was happy to be there with those guys. Harry couldn't really judge talent, but in his heart he was a really good guy."
The Bees finished 65--77, 10 wins better than the previous season but still bad enough for a fourth straight last-place finish. "So much had happened," Harry says. "Howe and a ton of guys were gone. It came down to playing the younger guys and the Japanese guys. When the year ended it was depressing, because I knew that was a one-time thing."
Only three of the Bees' 15 former major leaguers returned to the team in '87: Reitz and Sconiers, the only two returning drug-tainted players, and McCatty. The '87 Bees weren't very interesting. They simply were bad. They went 33--109. They finished 61 games out of first place. After the season the team was reborn as the San Jose Giants, an affiliate of San Francisco.
At least Harry was able to pay his bills in 1986. If he made any money, it was hard to find. The Bees did see a 63% increase in attendance, from 752 fans per game to 1,229. Only the Fresno Giants outdrew the Bees in the 10-team league. Harry also received his annual financial wink from Woody Kern, the real owner of the team. As he did every year, Kern never asked Harry to pay his full $50,000 fee.
Neither their won-lost record nor their balance sheet is the proper measure of the 1986 Bad News Bees. Something sweet, even pure, happened to the impure that summer. Given second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) chances, they played baseball with a kind of freedom that players almost never feel, released from the burden of trying to rise to the next level, to impress the next set of decision makers and, should they reach the highest league possible, to hold on to one of those coveted spots.
Sure, boyhood dreams never die completely. Independent teams and leagues owe their very existence to the eternal flickering of this light inside a ballplayer's soul. But in San Jose in the summer of '86 this rolling tension of impending consequence was tamed by the simple joy of playing baseball in the moment.
"The unique thing about San Jose," Milner says, "is the majority of these guys, they'd had their day in the sun. If they struck out, they let things go. They were free. It was like being around secure big leaguers who knew they were going to play the next year."
Or as Harry puts it, "They could play to win, not play to develop. The Bees were a little older. They were there to enjoy it. They were past the other stuff."
Thirty years ago, on the back of a door underneath Muni, Cias painted a mural to commemorate the team: a tattered, long black ribbon bearing the words HOME OF THE BAD NEWS BEES. Below it he painted a swarm of bees busting out of a hive, honey dripping. Each of the Bees autographed the mural. Toward the bottom you can see even the one-name signature Rooster.
Unseen by fans, the mural remains. But 30 years later, something else remains that is much more meaningful. The Bad News Bees were possible only because baseball didn't want them. All they had was each other, and they always will.
"It was like the land of misfit toys," says Christman. "I learned more about life in that one year than in my previous 20."
"We had some nice cars in our parking lot," Harry says. "They went nowhere. A lot of guys had suspended licenses."
"Harry couldn't really judge talent," says Milner. "But in his heart he was a really good guy."
For bonus photos and more from Tom Verducci on the Bees, including an epilogue on their many characters, go to SI.com/bees