1: A SEASON UNDER THE INFLUENCE
That chess board would not stop shape-shifting. I leaned over the bar in the Cul de Sac, a Montreal hangout on lower Crescent Street, trying to place a pawn on a black square that kept slithering out of reach. The white boxes melted over the lines and swirled into the blacks. Next the board expanded and flopped over the sides of the bar. A tablecloth. But only for a moment. It rapidly shrank again until it appeared no larger than a postage stamp. And then back one more time to normal size, only now the squares re-formed as cubes, elevated off the board in descending heights. An M. C. Escher etching.
Sounds like some nefarious drug held me in its clutches. No, I'd just run a minimarathon through the heart of Montreal. My blood sugar had dropped to my ankles, and dehydration had sucked up all my bodily fluids. My lungs felt scarred after inhaling ten kilometers' worth of car exhaust. This weakened state left me prone to hallucinations as all the toxins stored in my body after a week-long debauchery recycled to deliver a haymaker to my senses.
My chess opponent had introduced himself moments earlier as Milos, a fat, brooding man with a scraggly beard and thick Slavic accent. Never seen him before. I'd come in for a beer, and he challenged me to a game. It took him only a few minutes to notice my disorientation.
"You look all in," he said.
"Rough week. Not enough sleep. Ran too fast too far today. Didn't eat enough. A cold brew will put me right."
Milos handed over a stunted joint wrapped in black rolling paper. I assumed it contained either pot or hash and merrily struck a match. I know. Accepting drugs from a stranger is a stupid thing to do. Nancy Reagan would never approve of me; I rarely say no to anyone offering a good time. I never thought her antidrug slogan got it right anyway. Really want to drive a drug dealer crazy? Don't say no. Say maybe. Dealers hate to wait around while you make up your mind.
I toked twice, paused, and again considered how to outflank my opponent. The board had stopped playing tricks. But as I raised the pawn to shoulder height, the head of the piece grew bulbous and top-heavy. It pulled me backward.
I teetered on the edge of my stool for a moment and swooned. I surrendered to buoyancy. Buoyancy failed me. I could not float. Down, down, down my body fell, off a bar stool the height of a skyscraper. My brain went as well, rolling, tumbling ass over cerebellum down a velvet staircase studded with spikes.
Customers and staff ran over to help. I heard them babbling somewhere far off, cushioned snub-nosed sounds from under a bubble, imploring me to get up. Betty Boop shimmied naked on the pale, hairless chest of Koko the Clown. He passed an opium pipe to Cab Calloway, who was spinning on his heels, fronting an orchestra of skeletons. Hot jive. Hot jive. Cold fingers played hot jive. Bone bebopped against cold metal until . . . jazz slid into dirge . . . and then . . . crabalocker fishwife . . . sheep . . . barking . . . like . . . frogs . . . semolina pilchard . . . rat-faced gremlins . . . flagellating . . . Toulouse-Lautrec . . . yellow matter custard dripping . . . banshees devouring . . . flamenco dancers . . . dead dog's eye . . . a chanting castrato chorus . . . the egg man . . . Gertrude Stein buggering . . . Dr. Billy Graham . . . mouth . . . opens . . . goo goo goo joob . . . Davy . . . Davy Crockett . . . could . . . not . . . com . . . plete . . . a . . . senten . . .
Four hours later I awoke in a beer cooler, splayed on top of six cases of Labatt's. Oh, fuck. Not even my brand. Josh, the bartender, grabbed the front of my sweatshirt and gently hefted me to my feet.
"What the hell did you stick me on ice for? Did I look overheated?"
"No, Bill. You looked dead. We figured this was the best place to preserve the body."
My tongue tasted of glue mixed with sand. I gulped two tankards of water and joined Milos at the bar. "What was that shit," I asked, "opium? Angel dust?"
"Just some pot."
"Yeah. Laced with a little powdered heroin."
"Heroin! Jesus, why didn't you warn me? You could have damaged me!"
He waved me off. "Not with just two tokes. Besides, you fall pretty good."
"I've had lots of practice."
I first experimented with pot, hash, mescaline, peyote, and other hallucinogens during the sixties and continued to indulge throughout my major-league career. Guess that means the experimental phase is over. Drugs erased my shyness, made me more sociable. They wiped the mind clear of extraneous thoughts, so I could listen intently to what other people said without judgment or expectation.
A philosophy teacher once told me that all conversation represents a form of persuasion. On pot, I never tried persuading anyone of anything. My weed-wacky friends and I stopped confusing discussions with competitions. I became convinced that if everyone took drugs, we could put aside our egos and differences to improve the planet. There would be no quarrels, no borders, no governments. Instinct and telepathy would render language superfluous. Love would guide our actions, armed conflicts would become passe, the loaves would inherit the fishes, and the lambs would sleep with the dinosaurs.
Don't ask me what those last few sentences mean. I smoked several joints just before writing this.
I might not have gotten stoned so regularly had someone made me pay for the privilege. But when you win even the smallest fame as a pro ballplayer, fans give you drugs gratis just for the chance to hang with you. In Boston, a jock-sniffing doctor regularly supplied me and several Red Sox—I'm not naming any names, but there were a half dozen of us—with pharmaceutical-grade cocaine. One hit of that powder and my body instantly fell into suspended animation. I would sit on a stool for hours in some Inman Square bar unable to move anything except the top joint of my pinky while my mind floated to Rio de Janeiro and rumbaed at Carnival.
We often participated in coke relay races during the wee hours. Fans would pour two white parallel lines down the length of the bar. Two teams of three Red Sox each would line up on either side of those powdery trails and stand about three feet apart. The first player would snort as much coke as his nose could hold in one inhalation before passing the straw to his partner. Whichever team finished the line first won the prize: its members got to sit down.
In Montreal, fans rained hashish on me in the Expos bullpen and pressed joints in my hand as I left the ballpark. Go to the Cul de Sac, the 1234 Club, or Grumpy's and you could always tell when the coke had arrived; the line outside the men's room stretched longer than the one outside the ladies' room. Several Expos and I snorted blow off twenty-dollar bills in the bathroom stalls free of charge. Most fans insisted that we keep the twenties. Or they presented us with a bullet shooter, a Vicks Vapor Rub tube packed with coke guaranteed to clear your sinuses by drilling a hole through them. We also frequented a club called the Longest Yard, a name that described the amount of coke the average patron snorted there in a night.
I rented my basement to a drug dealer, a mysterious gentleman who called himself Alex. His last name changed from week to week. I strictly enforced one rule during his stay: he could not deal inside the house. So he set up shop on our stoop. Alex would sprinkle several lines of coke on a dish the first of every month and send it up to my bedroom via the dumbwaiter. His rent. It was the closest I ever came to paying for drugs, but the arrangement suited me. I've always supported the barter system.
During the regular baseball season, I tried staying straight on game days and generally succeeded. Once the Expos let me go, though, I had plenty of time to fall into trouble. A typical day started with a joint. Then a friend might drop in and lay some hash on me. We'd smoke; he'd throw me four joints for later. I would trade two of them for four tabs of mescaline. That evening I would exchange two hits of mesc for a gram of cocaine and head to a local restaurant where the head chef and I smoked his hookah—a Middle Eastern water pipe filled with hash. After that, I started partying.
My friends and I snorted coke to stay up, smoked pot to come down, or drank several six-packs or a bottle of wine to soften the edge. We repeated the process twenty-four hours later. We spent our nights searching for level ground, trying to strike a balance, to harmonize our yin and yang.
I know what you're thinking. Poor son of a bitch loses his career and he just completely falls apart; next he'll be telling us how he slept among garbage cans under blankets of newspapers. Getting thrown out of baseball had nothing to do with this. I was not trying to escape. I just enjoyed feeling dopey. And I hadn't drifted all that far from the game.
Six weeks after McHale released me, the doorbell rang as I sat in the bathroom admiring my picture on the cover of High Times magazine. I ignored the nagging buzzer. The questioning reporters, the commiserating fans—I had no desire to greet any of them. Just wanted some down time, a chance to reflect on my next move. But that damned bell rang again and again and still again and continued ringing until I finally yanked open the door. He introduced himself as Gino Lemitti, a mailman whose route covered a neighboring district. Should have known. Leave it to a postman to ring more than twice.
Gino stood with his friend Claude in my doorway under the moonlight. A bright star hovering in the sky behind the pair made them resemble two of the wise men from a Nativity scene. "Jesus ain't here," I cracked. "You have any presents for him, just leave them on the stoop." As it turned out, they had arrived bearing gifts.
"How would you like to be pitching again, Bill?"
"Why, you boys just buy the Expos?"
Gino was quick to explain that he did not have an affiliation with any major league club. However, he did manage the Longueuil Senators, a team in the Quebec Senior League. Soon as the news of my release reached him, Gino drove to the Ministry of Sports in Ottawa and persuaded its members to reinstate my amateur athletic status. Now he wanted me to join his pitching staff.
It sounded ideal. The Senators played their home games in a Montreal suburb just across the river from the Expos' Olympic Stadium and only ten miles from my home. I could stay sharp pitching in regular competition against the best over-twenty semipro baseball players in Canada while showcasing my talents for any scouts who visited the area to watch the Expos. Before agreeing, I needed to know only two things.
"How soon can I start, and will you let me bat cleanup?"
"You can hit anywhere in the lineup you want," Gino promised, "and would tomorrow night be soon enough? We need pitching badly."