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Stomper's Peanutball #6: Fear & Loathing in the Cactus League


"He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."  --Dr. Johnson


We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.  I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive..."  My nearly Mexican accountant had covered his fat bald head with the foaming carpet bubbles I clean my suit with after every ALCS, like clockwork.  "Double vision...Dan Johnson...sunscreen," he muttered vaguely.  Anyone lucid enough to think sun protection in a station wagon at 6:00 AM needed to be at the wheel.  "Your turn to drive," I said as I swung the White Whale onto the shoulder.

I was 24 hours and 400 miles removed from the payphone call I almost didn't answer at the Stomper Fun Zone.  I'd spent the night tossing down Oracle Sterno shooters with Thunder after the Warrior game...  "Another Spree in the SFZ," we musta said a hundred times.  Didn't seem so funny now with the jackhammer in my skull.  Usually I let these calls ring; mostly angry rubes demanding appearance fees back.  Like the birthday party kids could tell that was puke coming out of my trunk.  The contract clearly gives me artistic license...fuck `em if they don't "get" mascot nouveau.  My act killed at R. Kelly's party.

But it wasn't the cries of a scorched patsy that blared over the line.  It was bullpen catcher Brandon Buckley.  Who wanted to be a scorched patsy.

"Stomper, I'm desperate and don't know who else to ask."  Jackpot!  "Billy rushed me to Phoenix early to work with Harden.  Rich's sneer isn't pouty enough when he throws the split, so we're working with video of his bullpen sessions.  But I don't have my car, and I need it.  Can you drive it here?  You're coming anyway, right?"

I was struck dumb...it was February?  I eventually choked out a yes, and a day of frantic supply runs later--Coliseum paint thinner, a radiator full of pruno from my urinal trough fermentarium, and all the cold medicine I could stuff in an elephant suit given a proper diversion--and I was nearing Palm Springs in a Volvo 240 that hadn't cracked 50 mph since a jackbooted Sonny Bono made the shopper shuttles run on time.



"Stomper, as your accountant I advise you to open the Robotussin.  I need to take the edge off the spray paint I've been huffing."

"No dice.  We'll need the Robo for Law Enforcement Day at Phoenix Muni next week."  The deranged fool had no idea.  "But don't worry.  The Whale's bad cylinder feeds gas fumes through the driver's air vent."

This was no time to screw around.  We had six hours of hard driving to go till the noon deadline for food coupons, which my accountant said were crucial to our liquidity.  You'd think you'd get sick of surplus egg salad sandwiches from the Valero gas station deli case.  And you'd be right.  But if Kaz Tadano could choke `em down, so could I.

The crowd outside team HQ at Papago Park stared in horror as we staggered in just ahead of high noon.  It's not every day you see an elephant and his 300 pound nearly Mexican accountant in a convulsive full speed stumble towards a ballfield.  Some of them were angry about the hail of rocks kicked up when I threw the White Whale into a power glide through the gravel parking lot for mascots and non-roster invitees.  But not as mad as whoever owned the `98 Silverado with the ROOOBY plates would be when he found his windshield in a thousand glass cubes in his front seat.



We made it through the gate and into the coupon line seconds before a team flunky pointed at us and hollered "It's 12:00, they're the last ones."  Ricky Ledee came in late and was acting all cool like he hadn't really been trying to get in line.  Had it already been 10 years since Ledee was the Yanks' next outfield stud?  Now here he was, sporting the same hot shit 'tude while wondering how many ketchup packets he could swipe from the condiment stand.  My accountant rasped loudly "Hey Ricky, the Red Cross stops buying plasma at 1:00."  Ledee glared, turned, and by the time he'd reached the gate his sullen strut was a headlong sprint.

I was surprised to see Erubiel Durazo in line.  He'd had a few good MLB paydays between Mexican League stints.  But for whatever reason (costly failed arm lengthening surgery?) Ruby was here with the rest of us, hoping to parlay toxic egg salad into a longshot roster push. Lou Merloni, clothes stained with old masking tape, looked haggard after a night spent outside the gate to be first in line.  Charles Thomas and Hiram Bocachica were there, fresh off not only their humiliating DFAs, but even worse, the harsh truth that none of the 29 other clubs thought them worth even a waiver wire fee.

My legs were unsteady in the relentless sun.  I have never been able to properly handle myself in this climate.  Not soaked with the oozing fruity sweat of the pruno drinkard...wild red eyeballs and trembling hands.  Who schedules stuff at "high noon" anyway?  I got my answer when the tortuous heat suddenly gave way to a cold shiver down my spine, and I felt the malevolent presence before I saw it.  Billy was here.

I've said it before:  Billy Beane craves fear like a leech needs blood, like head lice need preschools.  The fear sustains him.  Beane strode the Papago grass inhaling deeply, not of the romantic new mown John Fogerty bullshit that packs the Phoenix hotels each March, but the real coin of the spring realm...abject desperation.



Yesterday's fix doesn't feed tomorrow's savage fear jones.  You always need more.  Deluding no-chance stiffs like Freddie Bynum and playing roster puppet with Marco Scutaro wouldn't cut it for Billy now.  I looked past the coupon line to the real players.  Their desperation wasn't less intense...it was more pure.  Bobby Kielty went from wacky big leaguer to AAA Klown last spring, and Shannon Stewart's arrival meant one less roster spot this year.  Stewart had spent the winter icing his arches and waiting for calls that never came, until it was Oakland's lowball deal or nothing.  Eight years ago a rookie Durazo topped 1.000 OPS; today he was a slow swing or two from another season riding the bus in Hermosillo.

Ledee and Merloni.  Kielty, Stewart, and Durazo.  Mike Piazza.  Big league lifers, even stars once, some of `em.  On the razor's edge of ruin, selling themselves cheap and finding only one taker, the Caliph of Cheap, Billy Beane, who'd soon be feeding his fear monkey with the pure adrenochrome of despair, the call to the clubhouse to deliver the end of hope with crushing finality to players who knew enough to know what they were losing.

Oakland in the Beane era had been a very special time and place to be a part of.  Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run...but no explanation, no mix of highlights or boxscores or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . .

My central memories of that time hang on one or five or a hundred home game nights--or very early mornings--when I left the Coliseum half-crazy and, instead of hiding in the camera shack until everyone had left, took the keys I'd acquired and aimed Macha's Hummer across the Bay Bridge, at a hundred miles an hour wearing a Zito Father's Day giveaway tie and nothing else, always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change... but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people wearing green and gold were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . .

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not cruising the freshman dorms with Zito across the Bay, then drinking Bill King's fine wine in Sausalito, or down 880 to Hayward with the Giambi brothers...You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning...

And that, I think, was the supreme rush--that sense of inevitable victory over the forces in Anaheim and New York and Milwaukee.  There was no need to humiliate the old school GMs; our enlightenment would simply prevail.  We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on Hole-In-The-Rock hill in Papago Park and look West, and you can see broken down fear-fodder on the spring fields where undervalued talent once trod, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark--that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.


"Some may never live, but the crazy never die."  --Hunter S. Thompson, July 18, 1937 - February 20, 2005




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