Caught Looking

For five seasons, one young beat reporter had a front-row seat at the most hedonistic, destructive party in sports history. Those were the days.

Illustrations by ROBERTO PARADA

The Beat Guy was young then and lethal around women, at least the kind of women who liked coarse treatment. He was an odd algorithm of masculine beauty: the sun-kissed charm of one of Titian’s cherubs and the body of a Big Ten wrestler. Players knew he was special from the day he showed up—he had a swagger that reminded them of themselves. And with that team of heathens—the most hell-bent in baseball—it helped greatly that pretty women liked him.

That was his press pass into the real show, the one that started after every road game. But professional athletes are a skittish bunch, and it wasn’t until his second season covering the team that the players trusted him enough to take him clubbing. This was back in the late Eighties, before billions poured in from Fox and TBS and made everyone stupid rich, even the bench guys. In those days, teams stayed at the Marriott, not the Ritz Carlton, and kicked off their evenings at the hotel bar. On this team—let’s call them the Midway Monarchs, to keep the libel lawyers guessing—there were five or six stars who assembled each night to guzzle beer, snort coke, and gather their harem of big-haired girls to tag-team upstairs in their suites. “It was all so easy,” says the Beat Guy, sipping spring water. In his careful middle age, he has egg whites for lunch and drinks nothing much stronger than hard cider. “We’d sit there and wait for them to approach the table. ‘Hi,’ they’d say. ‘I’m a really big fan. Could I sit with you guys a second?’ And Strider, a pitcher and king of the nonchalant put-down, would say, ‘Eh, I s’pose. Whatever.’”

Strider (whose name has been changed in this piece, as have all the players’) was a long, lean whip of a right-hander—a kid with a filthy slider, a Ford model’s looks, and a precocious sense of how to work a hitter. Along with Driller and T.J., Strider formed the backbone of a pitching staff that had come of age together, turning a bad team good in a couple of years. They were young and they were pretty, a new breed of star who liked to party in public and who didn’t give a fuck who saw them do it.

That night at the bar, there wasn’t much to pick from, so they all piled into a couple of cabs and headed to an all-hours joint. Every baseball town had one, but this place was bionic: a giant, throbbing dance floor, buxom bar girls, and plenty of dark corners in which to turn invisible with a trophy hunting club girl and her friends. The guys had just shot gunned their first round of beers when four women approached. Three of them were splendid; the fourth was obese—pretty in her way and livelier than the others, but just out-of-the-question fat. After 20 minutes of chitchat, two things became clear: (1) The other girls weren’t leaving the club without her, and (2) she was the Beat Guy’s obligation.

“You gotta fuck the fat girl,” said Strider. “Take one for the team tonight, man.”

“No way!” said the Beat Guy. “She’s wearing a tent.”

“Tough. You’re fucking the Tent,” said Rico Suave, the third baseman. “Low man on the totem pole.”

“Here,” said Strider, turning his back to the girls. He reached into his wallet and pulled out a hundred. “Is that enough to get you hard?”

“Shit,” said the Beat Guy. “I wouldn’t kiss her for that.”

“Who said kiss her?” Suave said, peeling off a hundy of his own. “Take her back and show her your fucking golf swing.”

“Nope. Not happening.” Everyone turned to Driller, who was on his first contract and still tossing around ten-spots as if they were barbells. Glumly, Driller put up his hundred.

The Beat Guy looked at Strider. “One more or forget it. I need four hundred bucks to fuck the Tent.”

Strider looked him over. “All right, but we want details. Chapter and verse tomorrow—and give her your best.”

Sitting back in his seat now, the Beat Guy winces and stares out the window at the traffic. He’s since evolved to the point where he’s horrified, not amused, by these stories. For him, they aren’t excused by the ethos of the Eighties. Bad behavior is karma, not an era. “I was literally the worst human being alive,” he says. “I’m amazed no one shot me.”

“Right, but did you?” I ask. “Did you give the Tent your best?”

The Beat Guy’s eyes are the pallid blue you see on the walls of old hospitals. He shuts them a moment, measuring his shame to the last drop. “Oh, I fucked her but good,” he says. “And the hell of it is, she was great.”

ONCE UPON A TIME everything was different about baseball. The best players were people, not media-trained jock-bots who say and think nothing that isn’t stamped on their OS by the time they reach Single-A ball. They could grow up in public then, make all their dumb mistakes without reading about them daily in the tabloids, or stumble out of strip clubs at 4 am and not be rushed by the mutants from TMZ. They drank beer at their lockers, chain-smoked after games, and gave belligerent quotes that the beat guys softened so a beanball war wouldn’t erupt in the series finale. “We really liked the players, and the players liked us,” the Beat Guy says. “They knew we were there because we loved the game—and some of us even understood it.”

The Beat Guy was one of those writers. He’d grown up playing at a pretty high level— travel ball, varsity, regional playoffs in high school—but his feel for the game was better than his swing and he mostly rode the bench. A small-town kid and son of two immigrants, he was a cultural loner at his liberal arts college, where he was disdained as a jock and a hick. “In college especially, baseball killed me with women. It was one rung down from the chess team.” He was completely unprepared, then, for what came next: a job at a big-town tabloid. At first he fetched coffee, proofed the box-scores page, and very nervously rode the metro home.

After several years of under-the-gun training on lesser sports, he was suddenly assigned the Monarchs’ beat at the ripe old age of 25. That first spring training, he was scared so shitless that he hid behind other beat guys as they quizzed players. In that cut-throat culture, no one would show him where to go or tell him which players provided solid quotes. He says, “If only someone had told me what I’ve since told all the new guys: ‘You’re not writing literature. People read you while taking a dump. Type the first thing you think of and follow it out.’”

Over the next couple of months, he got his bearings. Several things occurred to him in short order. First, most of the players were richer versions of him—too young, immature, and small-town simple to know how to handle the big stage. Second, there were almost no limits on his access. He could show up several hours before the other writers and calmly get to know the players if he wanted to. And last, all the players ever seemed to want to talk about was the chase down, then disposal, of new women.

Early in, he got a bird’s-eye view of how girl-crazy the whole sport was. The Beat Guy made friends with the Monarchs’ right fielder, a great-looking guy who got into a good college and could form a complete thought without keeling over. He and the right fielder, whom we’ll call Georgetown, spent a lot of time together one spring training. Georgetown was sharing a house with a Monarchs fielder called Dirt Bomb, a farm town kid he’d met in the minors. The Beat Guy went out with them a lot during those seven weeks, and he very often woke up wildly hung over to a house teeming with half-dressed women. “I’d stumble out of bed and they’d be passed out on the couch or walking around the kitchen in their panties.” Georgetown’s girls were gorgeous, but Dirt Bomb’s were a different story. “He had to have sex with someone every half hour and would bring home the counter girl from Denny’s.” A gifted mental patient is how the Beat Guy describes him. “I’ve covered a number of guys who were certifiable, but he was top of the pops.”

Even for the Monarchs, Dirt was a whore of a different color. He bitched about playing time, alienated his friends, and was the first of the Monarchs to go hog wild for steroids, transforming himself in a couple of years. “He had acne on his acne and Popeye arms,” the Beat Guy says. “He didn’t give a fuck what people thought. “When other guys razzed him, he said, ‘I’m going for mine. I’m getting every dollar before I quit.’”

But that, of course, was later, in the mid-Nineties, when the Jose Cansecos and the Mark McGwires spawned a generation of drug cheats. The Eighties weren’t really about performance enhancers. No, the Eighties were about fun-house drugs, and the Monarchs’ favorite was cocaine. It was everywhere on the team, and it traveled well: Their road trips were rock-star bonkers. “Guys never used in front of me —it was the line they wouldn’t cross—but they told me about the madness later.” There was the epic party after a play-off win, when players were so stoned they waged food fights that did many thousands of dollars in property damage, and practically tore the doors off their suite bathrooms to snort more rails off the counter.

For ages the Monarchs flew the beat guys with them, but when management got a whiff of how deranged the squad was, it promptly bumped the media off its plane. “So, no, I didn’t see the worst stuff first hand,” says the Beat Guy. “But who knew a user better than me?” He’d started in himself as a kid out of college, haunting the dance spots downtown. In the early Eighties, you couldn’t hit a disco without catching a contact freeze. “I was one of those guys who did coke to keep drinking,” he says. “That’s how you stayed awake at 4am.” And since he didn’t have to start work until mid-afternoon, he could “mortgage away a day and barely feel it.” What saved him—and the players—was the schedule: They played away games only half the time.

“Back home, at least in season, was when you rested up,” he says. “Most of us were married or had long-term girlfriends.” Not that the players made it up to their spouses on the warm summer nights they stayed in.

They’d gotten married far too young to girls they’d met in the minors, and now that they were stars, walking scratch posts for groupies, many of the guys treated their wives like last year’s cleats.

Most of the players had “Annies” in every road town, women they’d call before boarding the plane and make plans to be with when they landed. The trick, says the Beat Guy, was to hide their names and numbers from the eyes of suspecting spouses. A common ploy was to file them on slips of paper, which they’d hand to the Monarchs’ clubhouse staff. Clubbies also worked as pimps for a couple of the team’s stars. They’d go to the hotel lobby with two signed baseballs and ask girls if they wanted to meet so-and-so. If they said yes, the clubbies would bring them upstairs, where the star, shirtless, would greet them at the door.

For that absurdly gifted club, flings mattered as much as rings. It was a badge of honor to play hung over and still beat the tar out of other teams. “They’d yell, ‘We’re the Oakland Raiders of baseball!’” the Beat Guy says. “‘We’re the last stop before rehab!’”

IN THOSE DAYS—the golden age of newsprint’s power —the Monarchs were covered by several dailies, each of which dispatched at least two writers to bird-dog every breath the players took. The Beat Guy filed three times a day: once before the game, for out-of-state subscribers; next, a bare bones recap after the game went final; and then, of course, the city edition, with its fire breathing lede and ballistic quotes an hour and change after the last out. It was brutal work done six days a week, and you had to be at your absolute best while dog tired at 11 pm. “I had 50 minutes to bang out 600 words after I talked to the players,” he says. “You couldn’t do the job unless you lived and breathed baseball, found something in every game that fired you up.” What made his prose pop was a knack for building stories around that one pivotal moment every night.

For all the wear and tear of his strange vocation—the deadline adrenaline that kept him up, bug-eyed, until 4 or 5 am; the deplorable food served at the parks; the endless jet lag, predawn arrivals, and fighting to stay awake as he drove home—the Beat Guy prized that life and its many pleasures.

He loved the crowded press box and its in-game rhythms: the young guys on the phone, making plans for a late-night drink with the girls they’d met the night before; the geezers chatting up their bookies back home, trying to get a bet in at Hialeah; and the running jokes and scabrous gibes that bounced back and forth among friends. “I had a group I ran with when I wasn’t with the players,” he says—three or four beat guys who would go out, get trashed, and share stories until 3 am. They were living their teenage dream: watching games for a living and getting laid by association. “If a girl even saw you talking to the players, she and her girlfriends had to come meet you.”

Then there was the glorious chance to watch the game up close. Spring training in those days was a loose affair: 800 fans camped out in the stands, and reporters parked in plastic folding chairs on the playing field. One day the Beat Guy was treated to a duel between Dino, the Monarchs’ slugger, and a bitter rival’s lefty ace. The lefty was dealing, painting mid-90s smoke, but Dino, just a kid then, was on top of every fastball, fouling them back over the Beat Guy’s head. It was less an at-bat than a 10-pitch cage match—and he sat 30 feet behind the plate. “That day it really hit me: These guys are superheroes and I’m the lucky stiff who tells their story.”

He started at 35 grand a year and lived beyond his means but still banked money. “I never bought a drink when I was out with the players,” he says. “They got mad if I even reached for my wallet.” Steakhouses, strip clubs—all expensed by his paper because of his killer access to the players. “No one else was getting the blockbuster quotes or off-the-record news about the team. I had players talking shit about others’ drinking or about [the manager] Skip’s bending over for his best player, Dino, giving him days off whenever he wanted. Some of my best stuff was from those guys. They’d tell me their secrets, and I’d tell them mine.”

Those secrets—which player was banging another’s girlfriend, or which Monarchs star was getting busy with his boy toys across town—never made it into the Beat Guy’s stories. He didn’t just love the game, he loved the men who played it and ignored their every rudeness and peccadillo. The smart ones knew that and returned his warmth, hanging out with him as friends after the season. Several dropped by his nephew’s hockey games or invited him to play tennis at their clubs. When his father had a sudden heart attack, Strider sent a Monarchs poster, signed by every player, to the hospital with a big bouquet. “I took some time off to be with my dad, and when I came back, the guys hugged me and applauded,” he says. “I mean, trust me, I get it: They did bad things to women and fucked away their shot to be a great team, not just good. But you have to understand that they were the Biebers of their day—kids who got famous way too fast. Let’s see you try to handle that at age 23. I was 50 rungs below them and I sure couldn’t.”

THE BEAT GUY is married and has teenage daughters to whom he is deeply devoted. Though he still covers baseball, he now has a job that lets him pick up his kids after school and ferry them to ballet classes. His oldest has reached an age when she’s catnip to boys, and the Beat Guy torments himself that she’ll pay a karmic price for his past-life mistreatment of women. This isn’t just something he jokes about to friends. No, it guts him that a guy like him could mosey along and trample his daughters’ sweetness. But that’s the way the conscience crumbles: You frolic for five years, then suffer for 20. He knows that he has just started doing penance.

Of his many guilt gems, Alison shines the brightest. She was his first serious girlfriend after college, a tall, peppery blonde who worked for one of the airlines and fell for him hook, line, and sinker. Though they weren’t living together, the two were rarely apart when the Beat Guy came down off the road. She cooked for him, tidied up his roach-trap apartment, and blew his doors off in bed. “Any other guy would’ve kissed the ground she walked on,” he says. “Me? I couldn’t keep it in my pants.”

One morning at 7, she called him in Chicago. The Beat Guy was in the john, heaving up his guts, so the girl who’d slept over answered the phone. “Who is this?” cried Alison. “Put him on right now! You tell him it’s his girlfriend calling!” Five hours later she was in the lobby of his hotel, after she’d hopped aboard the next flight. (As an airline employee, she flew for free.) The girl was still with him when Alison pounded on the door to his room. “I can hear you in there, asshole,” she said. “Open the door! Open, or I’m calling security!”

“Oof!” I groan, reaching instinctively for my groin. “What the hell did you do?”

“What could I do?” he says. “I opened the door. She came in and flushed my sweater down the toilet.”

“And?” He makes a compress of his palms and sponges his brow, as if trying to wipe away the telltale trace. “After talking a while, we agreed I was a bad person.”

I’ve known the Beat Guy for decades and have been after him almost as long to sit and write his story as Anonymous. For better or worse, fate dropped a pearl in his lap, giving him the looks and charm to embed with a team that was everything great and ghastly about the game. Few sportswriters had ever gained such unfettered access to the hypertrophied heart of male privilege. It was like living on the plane with Zeppelin in ’73, during the band’s Song Remains the Same tour, or being Don Juan’s wingman in 14th-century Spain as he bull-rushed the women of Seville. But he always put me off, saying no, he wasn’t ready—there were his wife and kids to consider. Also, what team would let him inside its clubhouse if people figured out who he was? He still loved the job, even after the sport became a nightly version of the home-run derby as player after player hit the juice. How could he even think of chancing that?

But as the game degraded in the Nineties, so did the job of covering it. It began, says the Beat Guy, with the birth of sports talk radio, which badly frayed his connection with the players. “What those call-in shows did was enrage the guys and make them paranoid,” he says. “They’d tune in to listen while they drove to the park and hear fans rip them up and down.” It was ugly and uninformed and egged on by hosts who knew nothing about the game. By the mid-Nineties, teams had walled off the players: They cut locker-room hours for writers, posted security in the clubhouse, and sent team flacks down to monitor conversations between the media and the stars. Eventually players stopped speaking altogether, except in snatches of jock-world Esperanto, beginning each sentence with “at the end of the day” and ending it with “on the same page.”

It was enough to make you run to the manager’s office—except that he, too, was suddenly off-limits. “For years I’d drop in on Skip, who’d say, ‘What do you need? Soda’s in the fridge if you’re thirsty.’” The Beat Guy would ask why he’d made a certain move—say, brought in the lefty early or double-switched in the eighth. By doing so, he learned to think along with the manager and shared that knowledge with his readers. But now there was a press conference in the dugout, and good luck getting in a two-part question.

Then there were the changes that didn’t come from on high. The Monarchs eventually replaced that earlier breed of playboys, now aged and scattered, with a joyless bunch whose objective was to get big and get paid. Players’ salaries doubled between 1989 and 1992, and then doubled again by decade’s end. The younger generation could make a killing, not just a living, and did everything possible to goose their earning potential. They stopped snorting coke and shot Winstrol instead; chugged MetRx shakes, not Old Milwaukee; and worked out compulsively in the team’s new weight room. The Beat Guy loathed them. They practically juiced in front of him, turning their lockers into GNC outlets. “They were begging to be taken down, but I just couldn’t do it,” he says. “It would’ve been the end of me as a writer. The team would’ve pulled not only my credentials but everyone else’ sat my paper.”

As for that demon group he’d covered in the Eighties, things didn’t end well for them. By the end of the decade, their orbit decayed and they began to break apart like so much space junk. For years, after games, they’d boarded the bus with three beers slung in a sock, having packed them end to end in one of their stirrups to swig on the ride to the hotel. “Strider used to joke, ‘They should put me on warning posters: This is your face before beer. This is your face after.’” The former pretty boy became puffy, putting on 20 pounds, none of them useful. Where once his arm whipped through, now it dawdled, taking some of the hair off his curve.

So too with T.J., who’d been Nureyev on the mound, a beautifully balanced firebird bringing the heat. No one could figure out where his fastball went, and he was years too young to lose that gorgeous gas. Without it, he was naked, a one-pitch pitcher. Hitters jumped his curve and pummeled mistakes.

Same thing with Driller: early seasons of brilliance, then a decline to merely efficient. A funny, ebullient kid when he wasn’t plastered at 2 am, he’d work to keep the locker room loose, even when the team was coming undone. Of the dozens of debauched moments, here’s the most printable: The Monarchs kept their clubhouse monitor tuned to hardcore porn, an all-day feed of Seka and Traci Lords looped on the VCR. One getaway day, the team was scrambling to make its plane, but Driller was parked in front of the tube, avidly whacking off to a three-way scene. Everyone stood by, watching and laughing as he hammed up his grunts and pillow chatter. The manager walked in, jaw agape, and screamed at him to pull up his pants and board the bus. “Hold on, Skip. I’m commmming!” yelled Driller.

But the Driller you’d encounter after his sixth or eighth beer was a very different guy. As the years passed and his boozing progressed, the fun and games shaded into something else. He developed a taste for rough sex and pushed it past the point of light spanking. “The women would consent,” the Beat Guy says, “but some left bruised.” This was toward the end of that era, when he heard about other stars who used force on dates. He’s now galled that he didn’t pursue those leads. “A couple of those bastards should’ve gone to jail,” he says. Asked why he’d declined to, he says nothing for several seconds, pushing around the last of his veggie omelet. “I—I was just a beat guy covering a game. Who would take what I wrote seriously?”

Perhaps it’s friendship talking, but I tend to believe him: Star athletes had the benefit of the doubt then. For decades they’d been using their fame like a cudgel, wreaking mayhem on women and then strutting away. So it was in football (see: Simpson, Orenthal James), and so it was in baseball (DiMaggio, Joe). But then something happened in 1991 that forever shifted the levers of public trust. Mike Tyson was indicted, and later convicted, for raping Desiree Washington in his lavish hotel suite in Indiana. He was given six years in prison at the very top of his fame. “The effect of that case, both the charges and the outcome, sent a shock wave through all of baseball,” says the Beat Guy. “Now not only was a woman being heard, but juries were ready to send your ass to jail.”

Two months later came the coup de grâce: Magic Johnson’s announcement that he had “attained the HIV” from extramarital heterosexual sex. Players ran to get tested, then tested again, panicked that they’d slept with someone who’d slept with Johnson. A few diehards still straggled out at night, but they found the nightclubs empty of willing women. “This is bullshit!” groused a player. “I can’t even get a hand job because of Magic!”

And that, says the Beat Guy, was the end of that, the roll-up of baseball’s three-ring orgy. But it wasn’t just the Monarchs living the mackadocious life; most teams who flew into town to play them would get crushed in the second game of a three-game series. “If you were betting baseball,” he says, “it was a solid-gold lock: The road team would go to this legendary club and stumble in at 5 am. They barely had the strength to tie their shoes that night. The bookies figured it out and made a fortune.”

“And you? Did you bet the gimme games?”

He’s been balling and unballing a paper napkin for most of 20 minutes. The smile he gives now is a tired wince. “No, I didn’t. I’m an idiot, right? But of all the shit I regret, that’s not on the list.”

THESE DAYS, THE BEAT GUY goes to several games a week but rarely enters the clubhouse. “There are no players at their lockers, so why bother?” he says. “Everyone’s hiding off-limits.” Where once there were two places to duck the writers—the weight room and the trainers’ office—now there are lounges, video suites, an indoor batting cage, and a theater for first-run movies, all of them barred to the media. “Most of the senior writers don’t even go to games.” Instead they work from home, calling assistant GMs to write the one thing they care about, “trade rumors.”

When the Beat Guy trudges to the press box, he feels like a ghost. A handful of kids now cover the game, “stat nerds” indifferent to what’s happening on the field. To them, he says, it’s all just metrics. In place of columnists and sidebar writers are a dozen other young men tapping on phones: team hired bloggers tweeting the pitch-by-pitch to shut-ins too inert to watch the game. “Baseball writing’s dead, or it will be when we quit.”

So why does he still do it—fight the traffic to the park, where for three-plus hours he’ll watch a slow-death game while captive to the horror of hair-metal anthems and the whiff of piss-warm beer? “Because I fuckin’ love it,” he says irately, insulted that anyone wouldn’t. “My 98-mile heater versus your best swing? It’s the last honest thing we get to watch.” Yes, the players are now dumb as rocks and dishpan dull to talk to, but the Beat Guy got to cover them when they weren’t. “They would be bombed all night, too tired to take BP. But even hung over they could step in the box and turn around a fastball in their sleep.”