Welcome to The Quazcast, a weekly podcast that brings listeners in on a frank conversation between myself and a random person from the world of sports.
These interviews are about digging deep and avoiding the cliché questions and answers that too often plague sports conversations. My guest could be anyone. I might speak with a 90-year-old NFL kicker one week, the manager of a Major League Baseball team the next, and a bull fighter the week after that.
This week I talk with former Major League Baseball All-Star Ellis Valentine. Over eleven seasons in the big leagues, Valentine earned a reputation for having an amazing arm, prompting former Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou to quip, “There’s a plateau where you can’t throw the ball any harder and you can’t be any more accurate. That was Ellis Valentine.”
The Gold Glove Award winning right fielder faced a ton of adversity throughout his career. In addition to fighting drug and alcohol addiction throughout his playing days, Valentine missed a crucial month of action back in 1980 when he was hit in the face with a pitch from St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Roy Thomas that cracked his cheekbone in six places. Valentine maintains to this day that he was targeted with a beanball.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation and a recording of the complete interview. As always, to get future podcasts downloaded straight to your listening device, you can subscribe to The Quazcast on iTunes.
Jeff Pearlman: So Ellis, is it true, do you remain – 30 years removed from the game of baseball – can I still refer to you as the coolest guy in the world, or is that a stretch?
Ellis Valentine: No you’re right on point. It’s all good, Jeff.
JP: How would you explain the exhaustion or the fatigue that comes with being a professional athlete?
EV: There’s a ugly side of baseball that people don’t know about that I think is pretty much across the board in all walks of life. There’s times when you’re sailing along with a company or a business and then all of a sudden the bottom falls out and then you start to see people for what they really are. I think I experienced that and I decided that all of these red flags, all of these arrows that were pointing to retirement were becoming significant and I just decided it was time I did something else and I just walked away from baseball.
JP: I often think, maybe the athletes themselves, maybe it’s not as important to them as it is to us. Maybe we say, ‘Ellis Valentine. Man, he had Hall-of-Fame talent’, and maybe Ellis Valentine is saying, ‘you know what? I played 10 years in the major leagues; I don’t really care about the Hall of Fame. I’m pretty happy with my career.’ I wonder if that happens more than we think it does.
EV: You make a good point. The bottom line when it come down to it and you look at my numbers, and you’ve got guys in the majors making millions and millions of dollars and never had the type of injuries that I had – and I never hit .230 when I was healthy. I never hit .220 when I was healthy. There’s guys hitting .220, .240 now and they’re healthy and they’re making million-dollar contracts, and they never got hit in the jaw with a baseball. When I got hurt, my average did dip a little bit but because of unfamiliar territory and I got traded from Montreal the year after the injury. I was still emotionally a very young person and I wasn’t able to really process leaving Montreal. It was like I was being adopted or given away and that’s how I took it. It really really affected me emotionally. It took me a couple years to finally come around emotionally and then the following year I went to the Angels and I felt like, ‘ok, this is gonna be – this was 1983 – I felt like this was going to be the comeback, the year that things would get turned around. Back in the Los Angeles area, I grew up with the Anaheim Angels up the road, so I kind of felt that they were sending me back home to reclaim the things from yesterday and I getting loose the first day of spring training down in Casa Grande and I strained the Achilles tendon in my leg, and I’m out until almost June, I guess. Oh, man. I just kept fighting. It was like I was going up this hill from 1981, well after 1980, the season after 1980, I felt like I was doing some uphill climb and that had never been my career, Jeff. That had never been my baseball talent. I had never had to struggle to play this game.
JP: May 30th, 1980, you’re playing the St. Louis Cardinals, you’re hit in the head by Roy Thomas and a fractured cheekbone …
EV: By a manager, probably, and I do believe this to this day that I was probably intentionally thrown at because pitchers do do that; people try to sit here and say the ball just got away. Sorry; excuse my language. That’s bullcrap, ok? They don’t just get away. They don’t hit little .220 hitters and .215 hitters, no punch-and-judy hitters, no base-hit hitters. They hit power hitters, pitchers do, and it’s obvious. I didn’t want to cut your thought off, but that’s what happened in St. Louis. I believe that to this day. If Whitey Herzog wants to get on it, he might tell the truth one day, but he wasn’t really a fan of mine anyway cuz he just thought I was supplying his team with drugs when I wasn’t.
JP: Well there’s a loaded answer to a question.
EV: Well I’m just telling you this is real. This is real stuff. It’s documented stuff. I’m just telling you what I went through. I got thrown at. I believe I was throw at intentionally. I just feel that in my heart.
JP: Let me ask you, there’s some things, bar mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, graduations, that stick with a person, and I imagine that getting hit in the face in a major league game sticks with a guy. What do you remember from that day?
EV: I don’t remember much from when it initially happened, and several days after, it was just a blur and I probably went through some serious head trauma stuff for several years. We’re going through this with football with guys getting hit time and time again. It happened to me in baseball but that’s not part of baseball’s culture or genre but in football it is, so you get a guy who gets hit in the head with a 90 mph fastball and he has head trauma. I think I experienced some of that. I went through one of these attorneys that does workers compensation stuff and we can get you such and such an amount of money we can write you off with these claims and stuff and all this stuff is history and you get no future medical. Let me tell you, that doesn’t even cover the whole story. It happened to me and for those years, it was kind of the next several years of my life, the beaning in 1980 was really kind of a blur.
JP: You’ve alluded to, and you’ve talked very openly over the years, I think, about your battles with substance abuse, and I wonder, how did that come about for you? You were a really good ball player, but you were playing in an era that I think people would look back now and talk about cocaine in baseball. Why did a guy, a nice normal kid from California, Ellis Valentine, kept his head clean, deep in the game. How did addiction come to knock on your door, to use a really bad phrasing.
EV: It worked, man. It made you feel better. Like I told you, I had a pin in my leg early on going into pro ball and one thing I discovered was that a little pot mixed in with some drink here and there, and once I got to the majors and could afford cocaine, that stuff worked. It took away certain pains and then you continued to use it and you find out it took away emotional pain as well and I always said that I didn’t really have a drug problem, I had an Ellis problem and I used drugs to deal with it. And that way I could do something about it because I can’t so nothing about cocaine; I can’t do nothing about marijuana living live in the world right now, but I could do something about me. I had control over me as a person. I could control the drugs but I could control me.
JP: You played in the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium and before the game, it was you, Reggie Smith, Dave Winfield and David Parker standing in right field having a throwing contest and it almost goes down as sort of an urban-myth kind of thing where people are like did that really happen or did that not really happen where you had four all-time great arms just letting loose. It happened, didn’t it, Ellis?”
EV: It did. People talk about that today. All the time they bring that up and they wonder if we did that on purpose, and I’m like, ‘No; we didn’t.’ Back in the day, we took infield practices before the game and even took infield practice before the All-Star Game. But now, guys don’t take infield practice because now, baseball is secondary; promotions are first. Now everything is about perception, looks, and how can we sell tickets. They don’t really give a damn about baseball anymore and if we win, we win. But that’s what we did, man. We threw from the outfield and people were in awe. I mean, Dave Parker, Winfield, Reggie Smith, myself, I mean, you can talk to the guys like Reggie Jackson, he’s on the other team, sitting there like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ We hear this all the time.
To hear the entire interview – including more about Valentine’s job working for a rental car company after his playing days were over, the difficult transition athletes make when they retire from pro sports, and his thoughts on Josh Hamilton’s struggles with addiction - you can download the podcast here or listen below.
Jeff Pearlman is a former senior writer for Sports Illustrated. He is the author of six books including Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, The Bad Guys Won (a biography of the 1986 New York Mets) and Boys Will Be Boys (an account of the Dallas Cowboys dynasty from the 1990s). His newest book – Showtime (due to be released on February 11, 2014) - explores another famous sports dynasty: the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s.