Sunday, July 24, 2005

Hardball by Steve Oney

When senior writer Steve Oney proposed to write an article about former Angels pitcher Bo Belinsky I hesitated. Nobody will know who he is, I said. He might have pitched the first major league no-hitter in California. For a year or two he might have been one of the most celebrated athletes in Los Angeles, but he was a flash in the pan who was all about style and not much else. That's exactly the point, Steve responded, and he was right. His piece, "Fallen Angel," about Belinsky's brief rise and long descent into alcoholism, violence, and drugs and then his shaky years of sobriety, is a quintessentially Hollywood story not because he rose as high as he did and fell as hard but because he gained stardom for doing so little. During five-and-a-half years in the major leagues, Belinsky won only 28 games, fewer than six wins a year. At the end of his career, he proclaimed he got more out of those 28 games than men who had won 300. It was a glib comment, but on one level Belinsky was correct. He had parlayed a no-hitter and good looks into instant celebrity He drove a candy apple red Cadillac; he had a bachelor's pad in the Hollywood Hills; he could walk into any club or restaurant and get a table; and in the perverse way that fame works, the more he could afford to pay, the more he got for free. On the other hand, he was dead wrong. Thirty-five years after he retired, Belinsky is remembered for squandering his talent, and no serious baseball fan mentions him in the same breath as 300-game winners like Warren Spahn, Nolan Ryan, or Roger Clemens.
So why write about him? Why not write about, say, Sandy Koufax, who like Belinsky was an early'60s LA icon, Jewish (a rarity in baseball), had an abbreviated career, but otherwise was opposite in almost everyway? He stayed with one team, hated celebrity, devoted himself to his craft, and for four years may have been the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball. Koufax was proud, always doing the right thing (he refused to pitch a play-off game Yom Kippur), and tragic (his arm gave out when he was 30). He is what we're supposed to be. Belinsky is what we fear we're going to be. Not blessed with Koufax's talent, he still had the chance to have a solid career, but he wanted more. He wanted fame and the illusion fame offers: that you can do anything, that there are no boundaries. Belinsky threw himself into the mythic LA life, and even though he was a tough street kid from New Jersey, the myth ate him alive. Los Angeles has always attracted the Bo Belinskys. They're part of the landscape — the actor or rock and roll star who scores a hit, experiences a couple of years when every bouncer and waiter knows him by his first name, and then the bottom falls out. In Belinsky's case, it took him more than 25 years to recover, and when he did, he was living alone in a Las Vegas rental, working on a car lot.

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