Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The passing of an icon...sort of.

When I was a kid, I was into statistics. And, by extension, I was into baseball in a big way. I would go to the library, and over and over I would check out this massive tome about baseball, featuring the complete career records of every player ever to have played the game. I would pore over the stats, and to this day I remember almost all of it. We all know Babe Ruth once hit 60 homers in a season, (well...lots of us do) but how many people know that his career high in RBI was 171? Or that his best single-season batting average was .393? Yes...I was a nerd.

But in poring over the history of baseball, I became a scholar in the lore of the sport as well. I would look up Eddie Gaedel's career stats - 1 game, 1 at-bat, 1 base on balls. Pulled for pinch-runner. Jersey number - 1/8. I marveled at the feats of Joe DiMaggio, Carl Hubbell and Johnny Vandermeer, and I knew the famous moments inside and out. I knew Willie Mays and Vic Wertz. I knew all about Ralph Branca and Bobby Thompson. I marveled over the fact that Bill Buckner was more famous for his moment than was Mookie Wilson. And I read with great interest the story of Grover Cleveland Alexander coming into a ball game in relief, totally hung over, and very nearly giving it up with a towering shot that just went foul, before buckling down and winning the game.

And, through this fascination with baseball lore, I learned about LSD. I knew about LSD before any other kid in my class - the rest of them learned about it when they got into music, and started listening to the Beatles, and thought the whole Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds thing was cool. But I knew about it when I was eight, because of Dock Ellis. Ellis, a pitcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the late 60s and early 70s, threw a no-hitter, in 1970, while out of his mind on acid. He told the story only after he retired, and cleaned up his life and kicked drugs altogether, but it became another of those legendary baseball moments that, at one time, made the sport larger than life.

Also larger than life was Ellis' legendary mean-spiritedness. He once threw at the first five batters in a game against the Cincinnati Reds, hitting three of them before being yanked from the game. He had intended to hit every single batter in the Reds' lineup, but his manager pulled him from the game, because...well, they were going to lose. His line for the game - 0 innings, 3 hit batters, 4 walks, 1 run, 1 earned run, 0 K. His reasoning? The Reds had been talking trash. In spring training. He also, legendarily, beaned Reggie Jackson, in retaliation for a monster home run he hit off Ellis. Jackson had hit this massive home run off Ellis five years earlier. And get this - it was in the All-Star game!

Last year, Ellis told Sports Illustrated that when he played baseball, he was a "damn fool". This is certainly true. He was indeed a damn fool. But he left the sport with some of it's most legendary bad behaviour stories, and he will be missed. Ellis died on Friday at the age of 63, due to a liver ailment.

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