“We’re coming to Cooperstown to visit and we’re bringing a friend with us,” the voice on the phone told me.
“Who?” I asked.
That’s how one of the strangest weekends of my life began, with that phone conversation between me, ensconced in the hilly upstate village of Cooperstown in New York, and my uncle back in Michigan.
It was 2004 and my Uncle Mike, his buddy Vince, and my Uncle Bob were coming to visit me for Hall of Fame Game Weekend, and they were bringing LeFlore – the former Detroit Tigers All-Star center fielder.
The centerpiece of Hall of Fame Game Weekend was an in-season exhibition game between two major league clubs, the last such exhibition that still existed. The new collective bargaining agreement has since eliminated the game, which was hugely unpopular with teams and players who were giving up an off day in the middle of the marathon baseball season.
But more important to me than that game between the Tigers and Boston Red Sox was the arrival of LeFlore. I wasn’t sure how in the world LeFlore found his way into the world of my uncles and their pals.
Turns out LeFlore and his wife wintered in a home next door to Vince, in Florida. They became fast friends, and when it was announced that the Tigers would be playing in Cooperstown, their weekend road trip was planned. Especially when soft-touch Vince offered to pay the tab.
I was in Cooperstown as the webmaster for the Hall of Fame, an amazingly cool job for which they paid me unnecessarily. I would have worked for cracker jacks. I was anxious to see my Tigers come into my backyard (almost literally) to play the game and tour the Museum where I had a tiny little office.
LeFlore brought with him a checkered reputation and a criminal record. His story is likely familiar to most readers, but allow me to give the Twitterized 140-character version:
Born poor in Detroit, little thug on the streets, arrested for armed robbery, star player in prison, scouted by Billy Martin, signed by Tigs, great career early only to succumb to drugs.
You get the idea. His was a classic tale of rags to riches to rags again. Once a felon with a convict number in Jackson State Prison, a few years later he was wearing #8 and leading off for the American League in the All-Star Game for his hometown team. They made a movie about his life starring Levar Burton as LeFlore, with the baseball scenes filmed at Tiger Stadium.
LeFlore was a remarkably gifted ballplayer: fast, powerful, quick hands, great first step, good throwing arm. At the top of the Detroit lineup he seemed to string together a 20-game hitting streak every month. He stole bases in quantities that would have impressed Ty Cobb. What he lacked in grace (he seemed to lunge his entire body at the ball when he swung), he made up for with instincts. “I ran on feel,” LeFlore said, “I never learned the art of base stealing, I just knew how to steal a bag.”
But LeFlore was also what veterans would call a “clubhouse lawyer”. He griped, bitched, moaned, and whined so much that he had few friends on the team. Those few who looked up to LeFlore were quickly infected with his bad attitude. General Manager Jim Campbell, who liked controversy as much as Richard Nixon liked recording machines, could only stand Ronnie’s act for so long. When manager Sparky Anderson took over early in 1979, it was only a matter of time before LeFlore was shipped out. When Sparky told the Detroit media: “It’s my way or the highway,” he may as well have been whispering in LeFlore’s ear. The center fielder hit .300 in ’79 but he was traded to Montreal in the winter for a left-handed starter. Montreal!
Fans like me, just silly little kids, screamed at the deal, but we didn’t know any better. For the Expos, LeFlore showed how great a thief he was, stealing 97 bases in 1980. It was one more than Cobb had ever swiped. But Ron LeFlore was no Ty Cobb. At the end of the season the outfielder was allowed to leave as a free agent, signing a contract worth more than a million dollars with the Chicago White Sox. The Expos never even made an offer to LeFlore, didn’t even call him after the season concluded. It was curious, but when details emerged later, it made sense.
The fat contract and move to Chicago was a crucial turning point in the life of LeFlore, who was always just a nudge away from getting into trouble.
In the Windy City, LeFlore looked a lot different. He was slower, clumsier, and he seemed less interested in playing ball. His batting average shrunk, but his waist size ballooned. When he reported to spring training in 1983 grossly out of shape, he didn’t have a chance to make the team. The Sox released him as they traveled north to start the season. Once a promising star, the kid from the streets of Detroit was out of baseball.
What had happened?
Drugs and alcohol and women and trouble, that’s what. LeFlore had been ignored by the Expos because he was doing cocaine. Once he got to Chicago, a city where drugs were much more readily available, LeFlore ramped up his partying ways. He was soon involved with all the wrong people, which translated to his miserable performance on the field. The party life had turned LeFlore’s 34-year old body into one that seemed two decades older.
LeFlore tried desperately to get back into the game, but his drug and alcohol problems left him on the outside looking in. In 1999, when Tiger Stadium hosted its’ final game, LeFlore was one of the dozens of players invited back to take part in the farewell ceremony. He shuffled out onto the grass and took his position in center field, but after the festivities, Detroit police were waiting to arrest him under the bleachers for failure to pay child support. It was a new low point.
When he came to Cooperstown five years later, in 2004, with my uncles and Vince, he was still fighting uphill to turn things around. He wanted desperately to get back into the game as a coach. He even asked if I would write a letter of recommendation to an independent league team who was looking for a hitting coach. He severely overestimated my level of influence on anyone in baseball and I politely told him so. He offered to take part in a program at the Hall of Fame, to discuss his career. But the Hall of Fame, after soliciting opinions from people in baseball who knew LeFlore, declined. “I wouldn’t believe anything that came out of his mouth,” a baseball insider told my boss.
His integrity didn’t really matter that much to our small group that weekend. He rubbed shoulders with us, always a step or two away from Vince, his Florida pal, as we tipped back drinks in the bar at the Otesaga Hotel. LeFlore didn’t drink, but he did seem intoxicated by the baseball atmosphere, gleefully telling and retelling stories from his playing days. He didn’t pull many punches either, letting Uncle Mike and Uncle Bob and whoever else was in earshot what he thought about his former teammates and opponents:
Sparky was a good manager but he never gave Ron a chance; LeFlore had taught Tim Raines how to steal bases (and use drugs); Mark Fidrych had hurt his pitching arm because the husband of a women The Bird was fooling around with broke it in a Detroit bar. And so on.
He was an amusing character. It was surreal that the former ballplayer, who we’d all watched do his stuff on the diamond some 30 years earlier, was just hanging out with us that weekend. My Uncle Bob often punctuated sentences that weekend with, “Effing Ron LeFlore”.
Then there was the exhibition game, played on historic Doubleday Field, smack-dab in the middle of Cooperstown, a tiny little hamlet with maybe 2,500 permanent residents. The Tigers and Red Sox (just months away from slaying The Curse) played along more than they played ball. The players filed onto the trolleys and waved as they were paraded down Main Street, which takes all of three minutes. They seemed to realize that they were part of a strange baseball festival that was born in a different era.
Prior to the game, I was on the field scurrying around snapping photos and getting interviews. Then I ran into LeFlore. Standing right there behind home plate was Effing Ron LeFlore! He had squeezed his way through the crowd and caught the attention of Tigers manager Alan Trammell, who cleared him to come onto the field. Trammell, LeFlore, Tiger coach Lance Parrish, and Red Sox coaches Lynn Jones and Ron Jackson were standing there talking to the beaming LeFlore, who at his age looked a lot like comedian Flip Wilson. And indeed it was a comical scene. At least it was ironic, I thought, that LeFlore had been summoned onto the field, closer to the game he so desperately wanted to return to, by a former teammate. It was just a short visit, but long enough for me to snap a photo of the group.
That night my uncles and I and Vince and LeFlore spent one last night in the bar. LeFlore had the biggest smile on his face when he talked about the possibility of getting a job in baseball. Here was a man who had never done anything else other than rob a store at gunpoint and play baseball at the highest level. He didn’t have a long resume, but it may have been the most fascinating resume an employer could ever see. He was going to get his hip replaced, “thanks to George Steinbrenner and the player’s pension fund” he said. He was sure things would get better after that.
I’m not sure if they have. I’m not sure if he had the hip surgery, but I do know that Ron LeFlore looked that weekend like a man who had a lot of regrets. A man who wished he could go back and change a few things here and there. A man who was paying for the terrible choices he’d made. I’m not sure he had changed, he may have still been a con man, a thief at heart. But he was interesting, serving as a side character in one of the strangest weekends I ever had. He was what my uncle brought for show-and-tell. It was head-scratching and bizarre to see a man who had been so low and then so high, be so low again for so long. Seemingly stuck there. It made you shake your head with sadness and wonder.
As my Uncle Bob would say, “Effing Ron LeFlore”.