Weirdest. Team Ever.: Drug users, has-beens and never-weres on 1986 San Jose Bees
Mike Norris awoke on New Year’s Day 1986, in bed with a 300-pound woman he did not immediately recognize. He staggered to the Oakland dive where he had spent New Year’s Eve. The bartender was the only person there. The wall behind the bar was mirrored. Norris saw his reflection. It horrified him. Usually a proud dresser, he was wearing the previous night’s clothes. They hung on his thinning frame as sad as sails on a windless day. “Major league ballplayer, my f—— ass,” he snarled at his reflection. It was only six years since he had won 22 games and a Gold Glove as a righthanded pitcher for the A’s. “I see an addict! I’m no better than the pimps and whores I’m hanging with!”
“Greatest day of my life,” he says now.
Two months earlier Norris had been in a Dominican jail on drug charges. He had been through drug rehab five times in four years. This was bottom.
Norris used to mock the many teammates who snorted cocaine during his big year, in 1980. “Don’t you know that stuff is going straight up your nose to your brain?” he told them. But when Norris tried smoking it, in ’82, suddenly he too was hooked.
Cocaine and an achy right shoulder kept him out of baseball in 1984 and ’85 except for two games in Class A. His New Year’s dive bar epiphany pointed him toward sobriety and baseball again. But there was one big problem with his plan.
What team would be crazy enough to take a lost soul like him?
Baseball had a serious drug problem in the 1980s. Royals first baseman Willie Mays Aikens snorted coke after each of his unprecedented two two-homer games in the 1980 World Series, as well as on the nights when he did not homer. Expos outfielder Tim Raines used coke in the dugout bathroom between innings and kept his stash in his batting gloves or back pocket, which is how he came to slide headfirst. Cardinals outfielder Lonnie Smith wore Playboy socks with pockets in them off the field so he could hide and transport his cocaine. Pittsburgh outfielder Dave Parker introduced his cocaine dealer to the entire team, allowing him unfettered access in the clubhouse and the services of the Pirates’ traveling secretary to join the team on the road.
Baseball’s drug problem became a public relations problem in 1985, when a Pittsburgh grand jury indicted seven men as drug traffickers to major leaguers. The trial pulled back the curtain on the sport’s drug culture—17 players were named as drug users. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth suspended 11 of them in March 1986. “Somebody has to say ‘enough is enough’ against drugs,” Ueberroth said. “Baseball is going to accomplish this. It’s a tiny little segment of society. We’re going to remove drugs as an example.”
One strategy to make the cocaine problem go away would be to ignore players tied to the drug, especially the marginal ones. “After realizing I was blackballed from baseball,” Norris says, “the only means of getting back to baseball was an independent team or Mexico.”
Today there are 42 independent professional baseball teams. It’s a veritable hydroponic hothouse of dreams and second chances. Thirty years ago, that landscape was nearly barren. Only two independent teams existed, both operating in otherwise affiliated Class A leagues: the Miami Marlins of the Florida State League and the San Jose Bees of the California League.
The 1986 Bees became the hard landing spot for 45 players who had fallen through the cracks of professional baseball. Fifteen of them were former major leaguers, including Norris, 31, the 1980 American League Cy Young Award runner-up; Ken Reitz, 35, the 1980 National League All-Star starting third baseman; Steve Howe, 28, the 1980 NL Rookie of the Year; Steve McCatty, 32, the 1981 AL leader in wins and ERA; and Todd Cruz, 30, the starting third baseman for the 1983 world champion Orioles. Norris, Reitz, Howe, Cruz and former Angels first baseman Daryl Sconiers, 27, were tainted by problems with alcohol or drugs, and thus, outside of the Bees, considered unemployable.
The rest of the team was a crazy quilt of the downtrodden and the dreamers. Those who passed through San Jose that year included five players on loan from Japan’s Seibu Lions who spoke no English, a Japanese pitching coach/acupuncturist/zen master who slapped his players when they made mistakes, a third baseman who played drunk and with a warrant out for his arrest, a seven-year major league veteran who slept in a gray van in one of the stadium tunnels, a pitcher who was a private investigator and had not played pro baseball in eight years, a catcher who looked like Jimmy Buffett, was a talented artist and lived in a utility room in the bowels of the stadium, a “weirdo” shortstop with a slick glove who talked to himself, a mysterious hanger-on known only as Rooster, and a tk-year-old fourth-string catcher who had never played in a professional game.
“It was like the land of the misfit toys,” says Kevin Christman, the young catcher only two years out of San Jose’s Archibishop Mitty High School. Christman had signed with the Phillies after graduating but was released before playing a game when Philadelphia culled two teams from its minor league system. “I learned more about life in that one year of baseball than I did in my previous 20 years alive.”
The Bees were catnip to the national media at the start. When training camp opened, a CBS helicopter swooped into the parking lot of San Jose Municipal Stadium, a crumbling hunk of concrete known as Muni that was built with $80,000 of Works Progress Administration money in 1942. Soon the London Times, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Daily News and Washington Post assigned reporters to investigate this strange Petri dish of a ballclub.
“Mom,” Reitz said as he left his San Francisco home to join the Bees, “today I’m going off to join the circus.”
Known as Reitzy to his new teammates, Reitz, the oldest Bee, was named captain. He was ready with a warm welcome for the national chroniclers of the bizarre: “Welcome to the Bad News Bees. This is the last refuge of retired drug abusers.”
The name stuck. Soon the Bees were working out in white T-shirts with a mock newspaper headline of Bad News with Bees underneath. Howe, known as Howser, topped off the renegade look with a cap that said, Don’t Piss Me Off.
The 1986 San Jose Bees, with all their major league experience, thought they would steamroll through the California League, a low level minor league otherwise populated by teenagers and players in their early 20s just starting out in the pros. It didn’t happen. The Bees were terrible. But over one summer of 142 games, from brawls in Bakersfield to brothels in Fresno, tethered together by a 1956 GMC bus (when it wasn’t broken down) and the last flickers of major league dreams, the Bees experienced something bigger than the quick-fade joy a Class A championship would have brought. As a kind of internment camp for baseball’s unwashed and unwanted, the Bees carved out a unique place in history. Few, if any, teams have been populated by so many outsiders while playing inside the ropes of affiliated professional baseball. Few teams have been so unloved by the baseball establishment. These were dissidents playing against the golden prospects of major league organizations, such as future stars Roberto Alomar, Dante Bichette, Ramon Martinez, Jose Mesa and Todd Stottlemyre.
Putting the team together, and constantly mending it as a tailor would a threadbare suit, required the crazy genius of one man. Harry Steve was the Bees’ 31-year-old, fidgety, cigarette-smoking general manager-turned-manager who admittedly didn’t know much baseball. Says McCatty, “He reminded me of the guy who started The Gong Show.”
Harry Steve really wasn’t really a manager—he had never coached a day of pro ball in his life. And Harry Steve passed himself off as the owner. In other words, Harry Steve was the perfect king Bee.
Through the chill of winters and the swelter of summer helping out in the family business—parking lots in Youngstown, Ohio—young Harry Steve came to one conclusion: I’m going do something for a living I like from the get-go. It wasn’t operating parking lots in the Rust Belt. His grandfather, Pete Stavrenos, had opened the lots after emigrating from Greece, being sure to Americanize the family name so customers could pronounce it. His son was born George Stavranos but always went by George Steve, even before he legally changed the family name to Steve after appearing before a World War II draft board.
Harry loved sports. He played basketball and baseball and volunteered as an assistant youth coach. He earned his undergraduate degree from Bowling Green before starting on a master’s in sports administration at Biscayne College in Miami. In his spare time, in 1979, he did some marketing for the Miami Amigos of the Inter-American League, an independent circuit with six teams in six countries. The league folded three months into its only season. The Amigos’ owner bought the Macon (Ga.) Peaches, another unaffiliated team, and asked Harry, who was two months shy of earning his master’s, to be the assistant general manager. Harry left school, figuring he could always finish the course work. He never would.
Midway through the 1980 season, making $300 a month while the last-place Peaches churned through four presidents and three managers in five months, Harry quit the team. The next year a fellow Ohioan, Woody Kern, who owned a chain of nursing homes, asked Harry to be general manager of a minor league team he owned in San Jose. The club had just gained an affiliation with the Montreal Expos. In 1982 it would be known as the San Jose Expos of the California League. Harry was only 26 years old. He didn’t even have his own bank account.
The first and only season of the San Jose Expos was awful. Harry distributed 30,000 free tickets to local merchants. Only about 120 were used. After the season the Expos pulled their affiliation, leaving the renamed San Jose Bees as an independent team. Harry, who earned $1,000 a month, told Kern, “We can’t make it like this.”
Kern came up with an idea: “Why don’t you lease the team off me?”
Harry would pay Kern $25,000 a year and call himself the owner. He would pay all the bills but keep whatever profit the team generated. “It was totally illegal,” Harry says. “It’s right there in the [National Association] blue book. But it didn’t bother him, and it didn’t bother me.”
One of Harry’s first moves was to visit Cal League statistician Bill Weiss, who knew everybody and even had contacts in Japan. Harry used Weiss to get the Seibu Lions to contribute five players to the Bees. The Lions would pay Harry $25,000 in 1983 and cover the salaries and costs of the five players. After the season, Harry negotiated a two-year $100,000 deal.
The Bees finished last in ’83, ’84 and ’85. They averaged about 700 fans per game. The San Jose Mercury News didn’t bother to run box scores of their games.
Meanwhile, in November ’85, Ueberroth summoned 24 players involved or implicated in drug use to a January meeting in New York City. Harry noticed that some of the players who did not have contracts for ’86 were getting no attention from major league clubs. Why not try to sign them? “These guys needed a second chance, but I wasn’t some noble guy,” Harry says. “It was self-preservation. I decided to start with the best and work my way down.”
He called around and got a telephone number in Whitefish, Mont., belonging to a 28-year-old host of a rock ’n’ roll radio show who happened to have one of the best left pitching arms in baseball.
Steven Roy Howe, the son of an auto assembly line worker in Michigan, was a phenomenal youth athlete who starred at Michigan and dabbled in nothing stronger than his prescribed dosage of Ritalin. Success came quickly. He was a first-round pick by the Dodgers in 1979, the NL Rookie of the Year in ’80 and a world champion in ’81. He threw 95 mph with precision.
During those early years with the Dodgers, Howe met a woman who offered him cocaine. So began one of baseball’s most infamous slides down the rabbit hole of drug use. By ’82 Howe was spending as much as $1,000 a day on cocaine and snorting it in the Dodgers’ bullpen. By ’85 he had rehabbed and relapsed four times and been released by the Dodgers and the Twins.
Harry flew to Montana. He told Howe and his agent, John Lence, that he would pay Howe $2,000 a month—four times the standard player salary—to pitch for Bees, with the stipulation that Harry would get half the purchase price when a major league team inevitably called to give Howe another chance.
Lence and Howe refused the offer. The Mariners were interested in Howe, and he was scheduled to throw in Florida for other teams. But by March no major league club had made him an offer, not while Ueberroth was vowing to clean up the game. Finally Lence called Harry. “Harry-O,” he said, “we’ll sign.”
Harry held a news conference to announce the signing. The next morning, a Sunday, Harry ran to a street corner with one of those metal newspaper boxes. He peered through the window. Right there on page one of the Mercury News, above the fold, there was a big color picture of Howe with a San Jose Bees banner in the background. “I knew then,” Harry says, “we were on our way.”
Michael Kelvin Norris grew up in the tough, predominantly black Fillmore District of San Francisco. His father was murdered when Mike was seven years old. The A’s drafted Norris in 1973, and he was in the big leagues two years later, at age 20. When he arrived at his locker to make his debut start, he found a blue pill. Confused, he threw it in the garbage. He then asked a teammate about it. He was told it was an amphetamine.
Playing naked, as players said of the sober, Norris threw a three-hit shutout, becoming only the ninth pitcher in league history to debut with a shutout on so few hits. Nobody has done it since. It wasn’t until three years later that Norris tried amphetamines. “Lasted two and a third innings,” he says. “Thought I was Nolan Ryan, and all I did was back up third and home plate.”
Norris was one of the best pitchers of 1980. He could make a baseball move like a rabbit flushed from the brush. Long and loose-limbed, he unloosed curveballs and screwballs that darted this way and that. Under manager Billy Martin, he went 22–9 with a 2.53 ERA while completing 24 of 33 starts. No one has topped 24 complete games since then. Norris once faced 51 batters in a 14-inning complete game and five days later faced 41 in a nine-inning complete game. Asked how he could stay so strong through such arduous work, Norris said, “I get proper rest between starts—chasing women.”
Late in the ’82 season, Norris, a cigarette smoker, tried smoking cocaine and became hooked on it. He was one of at least 13 players connected to convicted drug dealer Chris Liebl, who provided cocaine at his suburban Kansas City home in exchange for memorabilia.
Meanwhile, Norris’s shoulder started to give out. He had surgery in 1983 and did not pitch in ‘84. By the fall of ’85 Norris had been through drug rehab five times. He went to the Dominican Republic to pitch winter ball. Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson visited him there to offer him a minor league contract for 1986. “I thought it was an insult. Triple A?” Norris says. “I refused it. Little did I know it was one of my two biggest mistakes: using cocaine and not taking that contract, which led to me not having a job.”
While in the Dominican, Norris was arrested on drug charges.
“They put some marijuana in my leather coat,” he claims. “I sat in a Dominican jail for four days. I’m sitting there in jail. My mother and my [winter league] team don’t know where I was. I finally had to kick my leg against a bench to cut my leg open so I could get out to the infirmary. There happened to be a doctor there who spoke English. I told her what my problem was. She said, ‘You’re going to court. Your case is coming up.’
“Now I’m in court. I don’t understand Spanish much. Then the judge pounds the gavel and I hear ‘seis meses’—six months! Suddenly the courtroom doors open up, sunlight comes in, and so does a tall man in a leisure suit. He says, ‘Excuse me. I am here for Michael Norris.’ It’s a lawyer for the ballclub, Licey. I went back with him. That was a nightmare.”
The following March Norris met Harry. “He looked like he was 150 pounds,” Harry says. “He was depressed. He was a former 20-game winner who didn’t have a job. Mike was real easy to sign. He just wanted a place to play.”
Kenneth John Reitz grew up next to Candlestick Park, where he would grab batting-practice home runs hit by Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. The kid made it to the big leagues himself in September 1972 with the Cardinals. What he saw in the clubhouse astonished him: “Cigarettes, chewing tobacco, candy, gum, a cooler full of beer. It was as if baseball promoted being a degenerate.”
He was such a spectacular fielder—he won a Gold Glove in 1975—that he was nicknamed Zamboni for his acumen at cleaning up anything on the Busch Stadium carpet. One day in 1978, Reitz says, he saw teammate Garry Templeton pull out a small vial with white powder. “Hey, what is that?” Reitz asked.
“Let me try that.”
Down, down the rabbit hole went Reitz. After the 1980 season he was traded to the Cubs. On his first day with Chicago, in 1981, a stranger approached him near the players’ parking lot. The man threw Reitz a brown paper bag. Inside were four jars of amphetamines, each containing about 100 pills. “I’m a pharmacist,” the man said. “I got whatever you want and as much as you want. Tell the guys I like memorabilia: jerseys, bats, balls, whatever.’
Says Reitz, “It ruined my life.” He became hooked on pills. His marriage fell apart. He drank heavily. One day, high on amphetamines and having gone without sleep for two days, he was driving his new Jeep in Chicago when he became convinced that a group of girls were trying to steal his tires. He grabbed a .22 caliber gun, jumped out and shot his tires out so that the phantom girls couldn’t steal them. “That’s when I went to the treatment center,” he says.
The Cubs released him in ’82. The Pirates released him two months later. He played three games in ’83 for the Cardinals’ Triple A team, none in ’84 and 45 for the Rangers’ Triple A team in ’85. In March ’86 he was 34 years old and had played just 55 games over the previous four years, 48 of them in the minors.
“I felt like I could still play,” Reitz says. “My dad said, ‘Why don’t you try San Jose?’ So I called. I thought I was going in a rec league. I didn’t realize we were in the California League.”
The unwanted kept coming to San Jose. Daryl Sconiers, then 27, had been the sweet-swinging heir apparent to Rod Carew as the Angels’ first baseman. The athletic 6' 2″ kid from San Bernardino hit .370, .354 and .329 in successive minor league seasons. When spring training began in 1985, he asked the Angels for permission to arrive three days late. They didn’t hear from him for 17 days. When he surfaced in camp, Sconiers admitted he had a drug problem. The Angels released him that November. Ueberroth named him as one of six players with “well-documented” drug problems who would be subject to drug testing. Nobody offered him even a minor league job.
Derrel Thomas, 35, a 15-year big-league utility player, was such a showboat that he had four nicknames: Hot Dog, Minute Man, Farmer John and Junkyard Dog. By any name, Thomas too could not get a job offer, not after Dave Parker named him in the Pittsburgh drug trials.
And Todd Cruz, 30, a scrappy infielder from Detroit who had had bounced among six teams in six seasons and battled alcohol problems, needed a place to play after finishing the previous year with the independent Miami Marlins.
All of them wound up with the Bees, as did several other former big leaguers with no connection to substance abuse. The roster included Steve McCatty, Norris’s fellow workhorse in Oakland’s rotation; Fernando Arroyo, 34, who had pitched seven years in the majors, but not since 1982 (he’s the one who slept in his van); outfielder Lorenzo Gray, 28, who once had a 40-game hitting streak in the minors; and catcher Darryl Cias, 29, who got in 19 games with the ’83 A’s. Such has-beens were joined by the never-weres—fringe players who hadn’t seen the big leagues and wouldn’t.
The man originally hired to manage this eclectic collection of players was someone who owned his own odd corner of baseball history. Frank Verdi made his major league debut with the New York Yankees on May 10, 1953 at Fenway Park. Manager Casey Stengel put him at shortstop after lifting Phil Rizzuto for a pinch hitter. The next inning Verdi, a righthanded hitter, excitedly stepped into the batter’s box for his first major league at-bat. Suddenly he heard someone yell, “Time!” Boston changed pitchers.
When play resumed, Verdi stepped back into the batter’s box. Digging in, just as he was about to hit, again he heard someone yell, “Time!” This time it was Stengel. He called Verdi back to the dugout so he could send another righthanded hitter, Bill Renna, to hit for him. Renna grounded out. Verdi played 18 years in the minors. He never did get an at-bat. He never played another day in the big leagues.
Verdi later became a coach and manager, including a stint as the manager of the 1983 Bees. Just before the 1986 Bees were to open camp, Verdi called Harry.
“I hate to do this to you, but I’m not coming,” he said.
The Yankees had offered him a scouting job. Verdi recommended his son, Mike, as his replacement. Harry wasn’t so sure.
“I had never met him,” Harry says. “I wasn’t about to turn over this team to somebody I didn’t know anything about or knew anything about these players. Another week went by and I said, ‘I signed all these guys and I know why I signed them.’ Back in your younger years you think you can do anything. That was me. I wasn’t fazed by it. I thought it would be really cool. So I said, ‘Shoot, I’ll manage.’”
The Bees embraced their notoriety. On one of the first days of camp drug scofflaws Norris, Reitz, Howe and Sconiers posed for a picture at the batting cage with bandanas around the bottom of their face, as if they were about to rob a stagecoach. The picture ran on the front of the USA Today sports section.
Thomas and Norris posed for a wire service photographer: Thomas spread his feet and held his hands high against the outfield wall while Norris frisked him.
Harry ordered a limited set of baseball cards—the first (and only) run was capped at 1,000. The Bees posed in their white home uniforms with Bees plastered across the chest in ballpark mustard yellow.
Hot Dog never made it to Opening Day. Thomas pulled into Muni driving a hot rod with no hood on it. “He got out,” Harry says, “and I’m being polite when I say he was really cocky. It didn’t bother me, but it bothered the other guys. They realized if anybody messed up, if Norris or anybody stepped off the wagon, it was bad for all.”
Harry soon began to think that Thomas thought he should be managing the team. When the Bees worked on relays, for instance, Thomas would shake his head and complain, “That’s not how the Dodgers do it.”
“I think in his head he thought, ‘I know more than you,’” Harry says. “And he was right. But it wasn’t about getting along with me. It was the other guys. They hated him. I can remember Howe coming in and saying, ‘You need to get rid of him before somebody kills him.”’
So Harry cut Hot Dog. Thomas did get his own managing gig the next year, 1987, with the independent Boise Hawks. He was fired with a 9–29 record. The next year he put his management skills to the test with a curious combination of jobs: he coached the Leuzinger High School baseball team by day and managed a topless bar in Gardena, Ron’s Barbary Coast, by night. The Bees moved on without him and his hot rod.
“We had some nice cars in our parking lot,” Harry says, “Mercedes, Porsches . . . Problem was, they went nowhere. A lot of guys couldn’t drive them because they had their licenses suspended.”
Reitzy was one of the guys with a suspended license. He pedaled around Muni on a girls 12-speed bike and lived in a stadium utility room with Cias and a pitcher named Mike (Stash) Bigusiak, the private detective whose previous job in Atlanta involved filming wandering spouses at motel rendezvous. The roommates called it “the Stadium Hilton.” It was tucked underneath the concrete grandstand; the ceiling sloped in the zig-zag pattern of the underside of the stands. The room had makeshift beds with sleeping bags, a hot-water heater, a washing machine (the roommates did the team’s laundry each morning; the team had no trainers or clubhouse managers), a black-and-white television, six stadium chairs, carpet remnants salvaged from the dumpster of a local flooring store, a Pepsi-Cola wall clock, a neon Coors beer sign, a Do Not Disturb side on the door pilfered from a Holiday Inn, a Led Zeppelin poster and a poster for Bubble Gum, a 1983 XXX film.
Cias was the Jimmy Buffett lookalike, artist and free spirit who was voted Best Optimist in high school in Granada, Calif. Cias liked to don a Superman cape and jump off the outfield wall, ride his skateboard around Muni and play golf in the outfield. He had painted the TraveLodge and Almaden Hyundai signs on the outfield wall and a Bees logo on the side of the team bus (a bee with a baseball-shaped body). On the back of the door to the Stadium Hilton he painted a portrait of a crazy-eyed Charles Manson over the words, Helter Skelter. He also painted caricatures of anyone who stayed at the Stadium Hilton.
(Stash, who hadn’t pitched in eight years, was released after only four games in which he gave up 10 runs in five innings. Explained Harry, “He stunk. He just plain stunk.”)
“I was Squiggy, the guy from the TV show,” Reitz says. “Darryl was a great artist. When other teams came in to play us they wanted to see this place.”
On Opening Night at Muni, Arroyo watched in amazement as Cias threw to the bases during pregame infield.
Wow, Arroyo thought, what an arm on that guy! His adrenalin must really be going!
Cias blew his arm out with that show of strength.
“Couldn’t throw the ball back to the pitcher [after that], like Mackey Sasser,” Reitz says. “He was a happy go lucky guy. I remember we went to Reno. He decided he was going to get a tan lying in the back of a pickup truck. He wound up with third-degree burns.”
The Bees drew almost 5,000 fans on Opening Night. The club selected a season ticketholder to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. It was a one-legged septuagenarian who had lost his limb after stepping on a rusty nail.
Everybody loved Mike Norris. Tall and angular with a handsome face, he looked like the comedian Eddie Murphy, he sounded like Eddie Murphy and he was as funny as Eddie Murphy. He cackled all the time in an infectious, gut-busting “ha-ha-HA-ha!” Norris made people laugh. People laughed when they saw him coming; he was that buoyant a spirit.
“Mike was about the happiest-go-lucky guy I ever met in my life,” Cat says. “As far as being on time? That was a constant problem for him.”
Like Reitzy, Norris had his license suspended. He often ran late because of his meetings with the IRS and the DMV and his responsibilities related to a court-ordered two-year drug diversion program (which allowed him to avoid a trial for his cocaine possession arrest). Without a license, Norris petitioned Harry to sign Kenny Foster, 27, a first baseman from Oakland who had been released by the Twins in 1984 after five minor league seasons. The mustachioed Foster stood 6-foot-2 and a muscular 200 pounds, with the kind of serious look that put people on notice. He was a walking Do Not Disturb sign. Foster hadn’t played baseball in a year, but to Norris he had one very important characteristic: he owned a car. It was a green, dented beater of an old Buick he called Bess. So Harry signed Kenny.
Between Norris’s legal issues and Bess’ mechanical issues, Harry had to keep postponing Norris’ starts on account of his tardiness.
“I warned them both about being late,” Harry says.
Howser thought it was funny. He would needle Norris about his lateness, saying, “I saw your work crew on the side of the highway when I was driving to the stadium. You must have been hiding in the ivy.”
One day Foster came puttering in late again with Bess and Mike. Harry had seen enough. He called Foster into his ratty 12-by-12 office, sat him down on his ratty couch and released him on the spot.
A few minutes later, a stunned Norris walked into Harry’s office.
“Harry, do you know what you just did?” he asked.
“Yeah, I just released Kenny Foster.”
“No. You just released one of the biggest gangsters in Oakland.”
“Uh, I didn’t know that.”
The next morning there was a knock on Harry’s door. It was Kenny, and the big man was not happy. He sat down on the couch. And then he started to weep.
“My momma told me to come in and apologize to you and to pray to the Lord that you’ll take me back,” Kenny said.
A relieved Harry said, “Are you going to do your best to be on time?”
“Yes. I promise.”
“So I took him back,” Harry says. “I had a couple of guys that wanted to hit me.”
Mike now says he only exaggerated the danger Kenny posed.
“Ah, maybe he wanted to be a big gang-banger, but he wasn’t,” Norris says. “Kenny was a big old teddy bear. He wouldn’t hurt anyone. He was a big kid kind of a guy.”
Harry scheduled Norris to start the first game of a series in Fresno, the first road games of the season. But Norris, Kenny and Bess showed up late for that one, too. Norris’ first start was postponed again.
After the series the team headed back to San Jose on the bus. After about an hour the players saw something burning on the side of the highway. It was . . . “Bess!” they shouted. About a mile down the road they saw two black men in baseball uniforms, carrying bats and walking next to the shoulder. “You can imagine the bus,” Harry says. “They came in, and everybody was hooting and hollering.”
Foster picked up another beater. The tardiness of Mike and Kenny continued. One day Norris simply didn’t show. So on April 18 Harry released both of them. Foster had played in only five games. Norris had yet to throw a pitch in a game. Norris went home to Hayward to play shortstop on a softball team.
A few weeks later, Norris’ mother told him, “You should go apologize. You’ve got to make up your mind whether you want to play or not.”
So Mike went back to see Harry.
“Who am I to release you?” Harry said. “If you want to play, you can play. I’m okay with it. If not, that’s fine, too.”
Says Norris, “I looked at him and it came right out of his heart. It had no malice in it whatsoever. He had my interest in heart. He felt my empathy. He felt I was confused. I was in a funk. Imagine you are the Cy Young runnerup and a couple of years later you’re down in No-man’s Land like a piece of s—. Part of being a big leaguer is self-esteem. You have to have a certain amount of ego to perform. And that’s where I was: my ego was gone. I just quit this, like it was just no good any more. But you know, I’ve never been a quitter.”
The Bees needed Mike. They were 21-30. They were in last place. And Howser was gone.
“Steve Howe,” Harry says, “was the ringleader. He was off-the-charts hilarious and very personable.”
Howser had a line ready for the national media: “Have rifle, will travel.” Harry sometimes would bring Howser to a luncheon with bankers or a local Kiwanis Club. He never failed to entertain and charm them.
“If you went to lunch with Howser and a couple of people from the front office it was like an outing,” Harry says. “Everything was more fun with him. He made even the most routine events fun. He had a magnetic personality. That’s why he got nine chances, or how many he got. Let’s face it, if he were a [jerk] nobody would want to help him.”
“I roomed with him on road trips a couple of times,” Cat says. “We’re both from Michigan. We sat in the room and talked baseball. I never saw him do any drugs.”
But the ones who were familiar with drugs were not as enamored with Howe.
“Steve Howe was a smart ass,” Reitz says. “He knew he was better than everyone and walked around like a pompous ass. He rubbed guys the wrong way. He acted like he didn’t have a problem. He was in and out of treatment about 25 times and he’s walking around like nothing happened. You can’t do that. You need a support group.”
Says Norris, “Howe and I had a lot of similarities. This guy was very talented. He was a very bright individual, which was his problem because he was a con man. He charmed my mother into her cooking a soul food dinner for him. She cooked it, she brings it to the ballpark for him, and he didn’t show up. He charmed her like a snake. Those demons, he just never shook.
“He would have teams come watch him. Then he’d go on one of his binges and not show up for three days. It takes three days for it to leave your system. And when that happens, that’s a blemish on the rest of us.”
There was a guy who hung around the team, especially around Howe, who wore his hair in a Mohawk. Nobody knew for sure what he did or his real name. They called him Rooster.
“I stayed away from Rooster,” Norris says. “He looked like an egregious character. He didn’t look like anybody I wanted to know, and I’m from the street.”
Says Harry, “He stayed clear of me. He was one of the guys hanging around. I got the sense after a while he was hanging around too much.”
“He supplied cocaine to Steve Howe,” Reitz says. “Rooster would show up and then Steve would disappear for three days, and everybody covered for him. ‘Family emergency.’ But he still had great stuff.”
Howser had major league stuff. The scouts saw it. He was on the verge of getting back to the big leagues. Harry scheduled Howe to start one night in mid-May against Fresno, knowing that veteran front office men Pat Gillick of the Blue Jays and Al Rosen of the Giants were scheduled to watch Howe in person. The rumor was that this would be Howe’s last game with the Bees; he would sign a major league contract that night.
At 11:30 that morning, Harry received a phone call in his office. It was John Johnson, the president of the National Association.
“There’s been a discrepancy in one of Steve Howe’s tests,” Johnson said. “You’re not to pitch him tonight.”
“What do you mean?” Harry said. “I need to know what ‘discrepancy’ means.”
“I can’t say anything else.”
Harry was confused. Discrepancy? If he flunked a test, just tell me he flunked a test. He kept kicking the brief conversation around in his head. Howser was throwing lights out. He had a chance to get back to the show as soon as tonight. And there’s a discrepancy?
At two o’clock Harry called back Johnson.
“I sent him back to the hotel.”
“Okay, Harry. You’re doing the right thing.”
When he hung up the phone, Harry thought about what Johnson had just said: You’re doing the right thing. Harry thought, am I? I’m just going along with the powers that be, which I’ve done many times … but this time it’s not the right thing to do.
At 6:15 p.m. Harry called Howser at the Holiday Inn, where he stayed under an assumed name.
“You still want to pitch tonight, Howser?”
“Why don’t you get in a cab and get over here.”
Howe raced to the ballpark and did start the game. He pitched O.K. for five innings—nothing great, nothing terrible.
The next morning, at precisely 9:01, the phone rang in Harry’s office.
“Who . . . the . . . f— . . . do you think you are?”
It was Johnson.
“Nobody has ever disobeyed an order from this office. You are suspended immediately. Steve Howe is suspended immediately for a month and you are suspended immediately indefinitely.”
The test was confirmed positive for cocaine. Howser never did get out of San Jose that year. He posted a 1.47 ERA over 49 innings. He struck out 37 batters and walked only five. It would not be until the following July when he signed to pitch with Oklahoma City, the Triple-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers. The contract stipulated that he could not return to the big leagues without the consent of Peter Ueberroth.
Harry, meanwhile, by taking a stand for Howe, had just managed his last game.
Sconiers was the opposite of Howe: humble, quiet and not in demand. Everybody on the team loved him. He was afraid to fly, which was not a problem in the Cal League.
He had an ex-wife and a nine-year-old son, Darryl Jr., in Southern California to support. Most Bees were making anywhere from $400 to $1,000 a month. It was common for them to ask Harry for a loan, usually equivalent to their monthly paycheck. It also was common for Harry never to see the loan repaid in full.
“Sconiers would come in and say, ‘Can I borrow 22 bucks?’” Harry says. “’Yeah, that’s all I want.’ Boom, he’d pay me back. Pretty rare.
“Sconiers was the nicest, most humble man. Oh my God, he was handed Rod Carew’s job and just went down the wrong path. I have a special place in my heart for that guy. He was such a good person. I think he fell off the wagon once. We sent him home for a week. We said he twisted his knee and went to see a doctor and he’d be back in a week.”
Says Reitz, “Daryl Sconiers could hit like nobody I’ve ever seen.”
One day Sconiers asked Reitz if he could borrow his bicycle. He said he wanted to go to a convenience store. The Bees didn’t see him for three days. When they did, Reitz said he told him this story: he said he had seen a car in which he just knew that the people in it had crack. He rode the bike six miles to chase them down.
Sconiers took ownership of his cocaine use. He blamed himself for what he called “belligerent intolerance,” a clever way of capturing the sense of entitlement that can poison a major league life. But Sconiers came to regret coming forward with his 1985 admission of drug use. He felt his honesty prompted baseball and his family to abandon him.
“My own family won’t talk to me since the drug thing,” he told the Los Angeles Times in his second month with the Bees. “I’m dirt cheap to them. I don’t blame them. They warned me. They told me when I was young that if I ever got into that kind of problem not to expect people to have any mercy or understand.
“They warned me. They were right.”
Drugs were foreign to the Japanese players on loan from the Seibu Lions.
“In Japan, you have marijuana you go to jail,” said Hank Wada, then 49, who was in his fifth and final season as pitching coach of the Bees. Wada, a former catcher in Japan, also was chaperone, van driver, acupuncturist and disciplinarian to the Japanese players, who ranged in age from 18 to 23 and spoke no English—at least until their grizzled American teammates taught them the kind of words you might hear in Bubble Gum. The best of the lot was second baseman Norio Tanabe, 20, who led the Bees in hits (166), home runs (nine) and RBI (64). Tanabe went on to become a successful player and now manager for the Seibu Lions.
The Japanese players worked astonishingly hard. Starting pitchers would run five miles before their start. Hitters would routinely ask for more extra hitting. What also stood out to the American Bees was the harsh discipline the Japanese Bees faced. Routine mistakes were met with tongue lashings and slaps to the face from Wada. One player was slapped for talking on the telephone.
“He would line guys up,” McCatty says. “And in Japanese he would scream at them and slap them in the face and tell them how horses— they were. It was interesting how they did it.”
Says Arroyo, “One time one of the Japanese players struck out and he threw his helmet—not hard, he tossed it. It showed he was angered a little bit. He was in disgust with his strikeout. They called him into the office and they made him stand there in front of the coach and they slapped him.”
It made for a stark contrast: this band of misfit Americans, some of them repeat drug offenders, sharing space with youthful Japanese who incurred verbal and physical abuse for a simple transgression such as tossing a helmet. The Bad News Bees lived down to their name sometimes. And the trouble wasn’t just about drugs.
“Don’t go back to St. Louis. There’s a warrant out for your arrest.”
There are better ways to start a season than the telephone call Reitz received from former Cardinals teammate Ken Dayley as the Bees opened California League play. The warrant was issued in eastern Missouri, accusing Reitz of writing a bad check for $1,083.40 to an Arnold, Missouri, car dealer. Reitz was classified as a fugitive from justice. California police were alerted to arrest him at any time.
“Here’s what happened,” Reitz explains. “I had a Camaro. Late one night a truck backed into me. I went down to the Chevy place to get it fixed. They sent an insurance check to me. I think I took the check and went to the horse track. And lost it. I didn’t know I was supposed to give it to the dealer.
“Later on, when I did come back to St. Louis, the warrant was over. Somebody paid it. I still don’t know who paid it.”
Besides being a fugitive from justice and a recovering drug addict, Reitz was an alcoholic.
“I was drunk all the time,” he says, “sometimes during games. It would take me two drinks and I was an idiot.”
The Bees went through Budweiser faster than the belching, wheezing 1959 GMC bus went through gasoline. There was Bud in the Stadium Hilton, Bud in the rooms of fleabag hotels on the road, Bud on the bus, Bud, Bud, Bud . . . always Bud, because this was Class A ball.
In the first week of the season, Harry called a team meeting. He brought in a San Jose police officer, Andy Trevino, and introduced him as “head of security” for the Bees. Trevino gave the players advice on how to stay out of trouble in San Jose. He made sure to be very specific in one case.
“There’s this bar, called J.P.’s,” Trevino said. “It’s on Market, about four blocks from the stadium. If there’s one place in town you don’t want to go, that’s J.P.’s on Market Street. Got it?”
The players nodded.
Three days later Harry decided to take a different route home after a game. He drove down Market Street, passing J.P.’s.
“And I saw basically every one of their cars was in the parking lot,” Harry says. “That’s basically how they were. The inner drug workings? I had no idea about the what, when and where. But I knew something about the other stuff. I knew these guys liked to live. They were possibly blackballed, but they still had their fun. We got a reputation early that ‘this place is bad news.’ That continued for the rest of the year.
“I remember I asked them once, ‘Can you just stay in twice a week?’ Read a magazine? Watch a movie? Do you have to go out every night?’”
One day the team was getting ready to board the GMC for a road game when a 5' 9″ infielder named Keith Thrower pulled into the parking lot. Throw-baby, as he was known on the Bees, once stole 89 bases in Class A ball, but had been recently released out of Triple A by Oakland. Thrower opened the door to his car and tumbled to the ground in a heap. He had scrapes on his face and he was bleeding.
“Throw-baby,” Harry said, “what happened?”
“I got jumped on my way down here.”
Says Harry, “Who knows?” They cleaned him up and put Throw-baby on the bus.
The worst of the trouble happened one night in Bakersfield, where the Bees were playing the Dodgers. Norris actually was on time and was going to start. To welcome him, Christman, the young fourth-string catcher, gathered some white chalk from the foul line and on the pitching rubber created four reasonable facsimiles of lines of coke. The Bees routinely kidded Mike about his drug history. Jeff Blobaum, a 25-year-old reliever who fell to the Bees after getting released by the Giants, once asked Norris, “Do you ever go through the drive-through of a fast food restaurant and just order a straw?” Norris thought it was hilarious.
When Norris found the faux coke waiting for him on the Bakersfield mound, he let out one of his famous cackles and said, “No more, brother.”
Harry, still on suspension from the Howe Insurrection, watched the game from the bleachers down the first base line, the kind you might see at a high school field. He was wearing a Bees golf shirt, which gained the notice of four town drunks. They heckled him, getting more belligerent with each threat and insult. The Bees, who were on defense at the time, could hear what was going on and told the drunks to knock it off. The drunks persisted, ratcheting the ugliness further.
As soon as the third out was secured, the infielders and Norris threw down their gloves and headed for the bleachers, scaling a fence to do so. A brawl broke out between the drunks, the Bees and the security guards who tried to break it up. Two security guards were injured. Harry was cut under his eye. The Bakersfield general manager and two police officers escorted Harry and Mike from short rightfield to the press box, apparently for their own safekeeping. The crowd booed and threw garbage at them on their march to refuge.
At that moment this is the thought that occurred to Harry: With any of our regular old stinky Bees teams, none of this would have happened. We’re on the baseball map!
When the season started, Harry thought his team would be a gold mine for the Cal League. He thought the fans would pack Class A ballparks to see former major league stars. His rotation at various points included Howe, Norris, McCatty, Arroyo, and Vern Ruhle, all solid ex-big leaguers. But the stain of cocaine was too fresh in baseball, if not in society. Baseball was still in the condemn-and-punish mode with drug users, so how could fans be expected to have a more evolved understanding? The crowds tended toward small and angry.
“We’d go into these towns, like Bakersfield,” Reitz says, “and there’d be signs across the road, ‘We don’t want these drug addicts,’ ‘these degenerate players.’”
After the game in Bakersfield, the one with the brawl in the stands, the Bees, naturally, repaired to a local watering hole for their daily requirement of Bud. About seven of them were there, including Shawn “Scooter” Barton, the shortstop. Barton, 24, arrived in San Jose in 1985 after the Mariners released him from Class A ball. He was a brilliant defensive player. “He was like [Giants shortstop] Brandon Crawford,” Reitz says, “but a weirdo. He was just a weird kid, but he stood out because he had so much potential.”
“He was all hustle,” Norris says, “like somebody shot him in the rear end. First one on the field. First one off the field.”
Scooter didn’t say much, except as it related to his odd habit when playing defense. As the pitcher wound to deliver each pitch, Scooter would quickly shuffle his feet and call out, “Hit it to me! Hit it to me!” He generally kept to himself, but on this night in Bakersfield he made the mistake of joining the boys for beers.
Who should be in the same bar but the four drunks who started the brawl in the bleachers. They jumped Scooter. Before the other Bees could intervene, they broke his jaw. Scooter said he didn’t want to go to a hospital. His teammates brought him back to the motel, placed him on a cot and packed his jaw in ice. Blood kept seeping from his jaw, which now had swollen so much the Bees were worried that Scooter wouldn’t be able to breathe. Scooter finally relented and agreed to go to the hospital.
“I want to be 100% honest with you, I was a little disappointed with the whole thing that it wasn’t a bigger deal than it was,” Harry says of the Bees’ popularity. “I thought everywhere we went there’d be 3,000, 4,000 people every night. Frankly, I was disappointed.”
Running baseball’s Gong Show, soup to nuts, wore down Harry. While suspended, he decided he would not return to managing. He would stick to being the GM. He named Mike Verdi full-time manager.
“It was getting a little messy,” Harry says. “I was getting tired. I remember I couldn’t get an extra minute to do anything. I was just swamped, morning to night.”
One day in July the team gathered in the Muni parking lot for the four-hour bus ride to Reno. Bus rides often provide more entertainment than ballfields in the minor leagues. No exception was the Bees’ 1959 GMC. The sausage-shaped asphalt liner once broke down so badly on a mountain pass on a trip to Palm Springs that it took two days to repair. “I left to play golf for a couple of days,” McCatty says.
Another time Verdi, apparently trying to save time, thought it would be fun to take over the driving from the regular driver while the bus was speeding down the highway, which resulted in a high-stakes game of Twister. Then there was the time the bus was stopped dead in traffic because of a bad accident ahead. Bored waiting, the players started walking down the highway. About two miles later, just beyond the accident, the players piled back into the bus. A police officer threatened to cite every last one of them.
No one had more fun on the bus than Howser. He would sit on a cooler of beer in the aisle between the front row seats, facing the other players, looking and acting like the master of ceremonies of a rolling variety show. He loved to pull the nose hairs of sleeping players, cracking himself up every time, no matter how old the gag became.
The bus rides to Reno generated more energy than most trips, what with anticipation for the kind of adult establishments for which “the Biggest Little City in the World” was known. But this trip seemed different. Harry sensed something was wrong as they gathered. Howser, in particular, didn’t seem to be himself.
Then Harry received a telephone call. He was ordered not to let Howe get on the bus. Howe had flunked another test. He never pitched again for the Bees.
By then the Bees long had disappeared from the national spotlight. They were nothing more than a curiosity at first, and the curiosity wore off. As Reitz said at the start, “We’re kinda freaks, and I figure people are coming out to see what real drug abusers really look like.” The many media stories written and told about the Bees happily stuck to skimming the surface of the “Bad News” angle. To the media, the Bees were animals in a zoo: you came, you gawked, you moved on.
Neal Karlen wrote the Rolling Stone piece on the Bees under the title, “Bad Nose Bees.” Thirteen years later, writing in a book about the independent Northern League, Karlen apologized for taking such a narrow view of the Bees for the sake of laughs at their expense.
“I bought everybody drinks and slept on a greasy mat alongside three of the Bees in a windowless room underneath the stadium,” Karlen wrote in his confession, “smoked dope with half the team, and took notes outside Fresno and Bakersfield motel rooms where the players whored away their meager paychecks. Then I completely betrayed the team in print, savaging the Bees and Steve Howe with all the confidences I’d milked from them in the middle of the darkest nights of their souls. My guilt when Rolling Stone ran the story was overwhelming, but my treason proved to be a smash with my editors.”
What the national interlopers missed was the compassion and humanity of the Bees, at a time when baseball and the country were so frightened by the scourge of cocaine that those haunted by its demons became modern-day lepers. The national drug anxiety reached a crescendo in September of that year when President Ronald Reagan, in a televised speech with his wife, Nancy, by his side, called for “a national crusade” against drugs and “those who are killing America and terrorizing it with slow but sure chemical destruction.” The President and First Lady endorsed the death penalty for drug dealers.
Harry Steve may not have begun with noble intentions, but he quickly acquired them once the discarded and unwanted came under his charge. One of the better stories the press missed was the bond among the Bees, typified best by the love between a white, first-time, Greek-American manager from Youngstown, Ohio, and a black, street-savvy, former two-time All-Star with a drug problem.
“I love Harry,” Norris says. “If Harry would have said no to me that would have been the end of my career. The compassion that he showed, I’ll always love him for that.”
Norris still had magic in his arm. He still could make a baseball dance. He went 4-3 with a 1.44 ERA in 11 starts. He struck out 62 batters and walked only eight. He had major league stuff. But no major league team wanted him. He stayed clean, at least when it came to cocaine.
One night in Reno, where Norris and Reitz roomed together, Norris was on the mound with two outs in the inning when he summoned Reitzy from third base.
“Roomie,” Norris said, “I left my dope in the room. It’s in the curtain, in the corner where the curtain ends at the bottom. After this inning I’m going back to the hotel to get it.”
Norris got the next out, dashed across the street to the hotel, grabbed his stash of pot and made it back to the ballpark before the next inning.
To less attention than the druggies, Harry also gave refuge to another increasingly disenfranchised segment of the baseball population: the marginal black player. “I did a survey from 1980 to 1990,” Norris says, “and the quota of black players in the major leagues never varied. The guys that were there were guys on five-year contracts. What you didn’t find, even today, was the black player on the bench.”
In addition to Norris, Sconiers, Thomas, Gray and Foster, among the black players Harry signed were Jerry White, 33, who was released by St. Louis that year after an 11-year career; Terry Whitfield, 33, a former number one pick of the Yankees who had just been released by the Dodgers; Ronnie Harrison, 25, a speedy outfielder who Oakland released out of Triple-A and who was such a gifted athlete he could leapfrog a standing 6-foot-1 Howe; and Ted Milner, 25, a fleet outfielder from Riverside and a 1983 seventh-round pick by the Cardinals out of Biola University.
Milner proved in the St. Louis system to be a ballhawk of a centerfielder with a strong arm and 6.3 speed in the 60-yard dash. Diligent and devout, Milner kept an index card inside his cap on which he wrote an inspirational Bible verse and three personal goals, which he occasionally updated. For instance, the card might say, “1. Back up every groundball. 2. Run out every groundball. 3. Throw through your cutoff man.” In between pitches, Ted would take off his cap, pull out the card, read it for inspiration, replace it and put the cap back on his head. His manager at Class A Savannah in 1984, Lloyd Merritt, didn’t know quite what to make of him.
“He thought I was some kind of religious fanatic,” Milner says. “I explained it to him. He was pissed.”
The Cardinals released Ted the next spring training, even though Milner in 159 minor league games posted a .370 on-base percentage and stole 39 bases in 47 attempts.
“At that point some guys get bitter and won’t even go to a game,” Milner says. “I chose not to hate people. But I saw a lot of bigotry in the game. I saw a couple of others who were drafted who couldn’t run with me, couldn’t play with me, didn’t have the raw talent who kept getting chances.
“[In 1986] someone told me San Jose was starting an independent team. I drove up and did a tryout. They asked me to come back tomorrow. That’s when I signed the contract.”
Milner hit .214 with no home runs in 32 games for the Bees, though with a solid .342 OBP. One day Harry called Ted into his office and released him. Milner had no way of getting back home to Southern California, where he had been staying with his wife at her cousins’ home. Harry gave him his 1965 Ford Galaxie—told him to just take it home, and bring it back whenever he could.
Ted was driving south in Harry’s Galaxie, tears in his eyes, thinking about the disappointment of his wife, and the two young sons of her cousins who looked up to their ballplayer uncle. That’s when the weeping, freshly released Milner saw in his rear view mirror the flashing lights of a CHP cruiser. He pulled over. The officer saw that his eyes were red and wet. He asked what had happened. Milner told him he had just been released by an independent baseball team, the San Jose Bees. The officer handed back his license.
“Just slow down and drive safe.”
Says Milner, “Harry was like a kid in a candy store with that team. He was happy to be there with those guys. He gave me a car! Harry couldn’t really judge talent, but in his heart he was a really good guy.”
The Bees finished 65–77, a mere seven wins better than the previous season, but still bad enough for a fourth straight last-place finish.
“We were just finishing out the year,” Harry says. “So much had happened. Howser and a ton of guys were gone. Vern Ruhle made the trip to Southern California, and then he just never showed up again. He was done for the year. He just left. It came down to playing the younger guys and the Japanese guys. The year didn’t come across as great as I thought. When the year ended it was depressing because I knew that was a one-time thing, and without a working agreement, the future wasn’t very bright.”
The ’86 Bees occupied a unique space in baseball history. They were unlike any team before or since. Only three of their 14 former major leaguers returned to the team in 1987: Reitz and Sconiers, the only two returning drug-tainted players, and McCatty. The ’87 Bees weren’t very interesting. They simply were bad. Real bad. They went 33–109. They finished 61 games out of first place. After the season the team was reborn as the San Jose Giants, an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.
At least Harry was able to pay his bills in 1986. If he made any money at all in 1986, it was hard to find. The Bees did see a 63% increase in attendance, from 752 fans per game to 1,229. Only the Fresno Giants outdrew the Bees in the 10-team league.
Harry also received his annual financial wink from Woody Kern, the real owner of the team. Though Kern made that secret arrangement to allow Harry to keep all profits after paying all bills, Kern, as he did every year, never asked Harry to pay his $25,000 fee.
Neither their won-lost record, however, nor their balance sheet is the proper measurement of the 1986 Bad News Bees. Something sweet, even pure, happened to the impure that summer. Given second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) chances, they played baseball with a kind of freedom that almost never happens in a player’s lifetime. Once a boy starts playing baseball in which scores and batting averages and won-lost records are kept, the weight to rise to the next league, to impress the next set of decision-makers, grows heavier, like the bull on the shoulders of Milo of Croton. And even should you reach the highest league possible, the burden grows just to hold one of those coveted spots.
It was different in San Jose. Sure, boyhood dreams never die completely. Independent teams and leagues, with their low pay and deplorable conditions, owe their very existence to the eternal flickering of this light inside a ballplayer’s soul. The longshot of being “discovered,” sometimes even all over again, is there with every lacing of a pair of spikes, even for the Bees. But in San Jose in the summer of ’86 this rolling tension of impending consequence—what will become of me and my career?—was tamed by the simple joy of playing baseball in the moment, the way we did before scores and standings mattered.
“The unique thing about San Jose,” Milner says, “is the majority of these guys, they had their day in the sun. They weren’t fighting it. If they struck out, they let things go. They were free. If those guys made an error it was ‘I don’t give a damn.’ They weren’t going home depressed. It was just that loose for them.
“It was like being around secure big leaguers who knew they were going to play the next year. Minor league players could be let go any day. It’s hard to be loose in that environment. Playing with these guys, and the attitude they had in the dugout, in the clubhouse, on the bus, they were like secure major leaguers. They weren’t scared every day.”
“That,” Harry says, “makes all kinds of sense. A lot of the guys said it was great not to worry about what the farm director or scouting director thought. They felt relaxed. They could play to win, not play to develop. The Bees were a little older. They were there to enjoy it. They were past the other stuff.”
Thirty years ago, on the back of a door underneath Muni, Cias painted a mural to commemorate the team. He painted a tattered, long black ribbon and on it he painted, “Home of the Bad News Bees.” Below it he painted a swarm of bees busting out of a hive, with honey dripping below. Each of the Bees autographed the mural. There toward the bottom you can see the one-name signature “Rooster.”
Unseen by fans, the mural remains. Still remaining, too, are some limited edition ’86 Bees trading cards, available for a few bucks online. Harry has kept a few Bees jerseys, as well as the blue hat with the mustard interlocking SJ and the mustard eyelets.
But 30 years later, something remains that is much more meaningful than any such memorabilia. The Bad News Bees were possible only because baseball didn’t want them. All they had was each other, and always will.
Steve Howe was suspended seven times from baseball because of his drug habit. He made it back to the majors briefly with the 1987 Texas Rangers before sticking with the New York Yankees from 1991-96. He finished his pro career with the 1997 Sioux Falls Canaries, an independent team run by Harry.
On April 28, 2006, Howe was riding his pickup truck in Coachella, Calif., when it rolled over, killing him. The autopsy found methamphetamine in his system. Howe was 48 years old.
Todd Cruz, after leaving San Jose, played on non-affiliated teams in San Bernardino, Salinas, St. Petersburg, Mexico and Italy. In September of 2008, living in Bullhead City, Arizona, on a $22,000 pension, half of which went to his ex-wife, Cruz was swimming in the apartment complex pool when he took a deep breath, dove underwater, and never came up. The drowning may have resulted from a heart attack. Cruz was 52 years old. In 2003 one of his sons, Dario, received a life sentence for a first-degree murder conviction in Michigan.
Vern Ruhle left the Bees to sign with the Angels, for whom he went 1–3 with a 4.15 ERA. He spent the next season, his last, winless in Triple-A. Ruhle became a pitching coach with the Astros and Reds. He died in 2007 from cancer of the bone marrow. Ruhle was 55 years old.
Daryl Sconiers played four more minor league seasons in the White Sox and Angels systems without ever getting back to the big leagues. His last known whereabouts were in San Bernardino County, California, where in 2011 he was homeless, telling the Press Enterprise, “I got into cocaine and I only lasted four years [in the majors]. I’ve run into [former] judges and ex-policemen. It can happen to anybody. The homeless are some of the most warm-hearted people you could ever come across. But you gotta [look] beyond the external.”
In 2014 Daryl Sconiers Jr. was convicted of first-degree murder.
Derrel Thomas, after his release from the Bees, played in Mexico, managed in Boise and coached high school baseball in Southern California. In 1993 he pleaded no contest to conspiracy to buy and sell 22 pounds of cocaine. Most recently he operated a non-profit youth league in the Riverside area.
Ken Reitz hit .209 with the 1987 Bees, his final season. He has been sober since 1988. Reitz lives in suburban St. Louis, where he plays golf, assists the Cardinals in community events and works part-time for Major League Baseball.
Lorenzo Gray never played pro ball again after the ’86 Bees. He is an instructor with the Compton, Calif., Urban Youth Academy, an initiative of Major League Baseball.
Fernando Arroyo left the Bees in 1986 to sign a minor league contract with the Oakland Athletics. On Aug. 11, 1986, Arroyo made his first major league appearance in four years. It would be his last. He faced three batters and walked all of them, forcing in two runs. “When I got back to my hotel room I saw the flashing light on the phone and thought to myself, They’re releasing me.’” Arroyo said. They did.
Arroyo became a pitching coach in Japan, Taiwan, Venezuela, Mexico, Dominican Republic and South Korea as well as in the organizations of the Tigers, Marlins, Red Sox and Dodgers. He invented a throwing training device called Armtrak.
Steve McCatty ended his playing career with the 1987 Bees, posting a 2.95 ERA while getting burned by 22 unearned runs. After a seven-year run as pitching coach of the Washington Nationals, McCatty is the pitching coach for the Lake County (Ohio) Captains, a Class A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians.
Jerry White ended his playing career with the 1986 Bees. He served as the first-base coach of the Minnesota Twins from 1999 until he was let go after the 2012 season. He returned home to Antioch, Calif., to restore cars.
Ted Milner, after his release from the 1986 Bees, played minor league ball for the Angels in 1987 and Indians in 1988. He is the president and founder of the Black Baseball Players Association and president of Executive Temps, an entertainment employment agency in Los Angeles. Said Milner, “I place people in jobs in the entertainment industry. When I need athletes from team sports I know they understand the value of team and the ability to sacrifice. I don’t think any other game teaches you and matures you as much as baseball.”
Kevin Christman played three games with the 1987 Bees before he was hired by the Milwaukee Brewers as one of the youngest scouts in baseball. He later was hired in the same capacity by the San Francisco Giants, for whom he still works. “Let’s put it this way,” Christman said of his education with the Bees. “It happened. I met some unbelievable people who knew tragedies and successes and it was part of my upbringing. I’m still employed in baseball, with three world championship rings. I know a ton of people. I value a lot things. What I observed and experienced with the Bees helps me be a better scout to this day.”
Bees teammate Jeff Blobaum once gave Christman a Wilson catcher’s glove in gratitude for catching him during his offseason throwing program. Christman recently gave the glove to his youngest son, who is entering college.
Jeff Blobaum returned to the 1987 Bees. He went 2–6 with a 6.16 ERA. It was his final season in pro ball. He works for an international food market and coaches Little League in San Jose.
Jim Tinkey ended his pro playing career with the 1986 Bees. He played semi-pro ball until he was 35. He is the athletic director at La Roche College in suburban Pittsburgh. With the Bees, Tinkey once arrived at his locker to find a new Mizuno glove. It was a gift of appreciation from Norris after Tinkey loaned him his protective cup. Tinkey and his wife recently were cleaning out their garage. They found the glove Norris gave him.
Harry Steve legally changed his family name in 1988 back to Stavrenos. He became a scout for the San Francisco Giants, then an owner, general manager, manager and executive in other independent baseball ventures. After returning to Youngstown, Ohio, he last worked as an executive with the North American League, which began play in 2011. It folded after its only season. “I sort of messed up when the North American League folded,” he said. “I should have taken one more shot at a team.”
Mike Norris made it back to the big leagues as a relief pitcher with Oakland in 1990, seven years after his last major league appearance. He won one game, after which he said, “There are three things you can look forward to with cocaine: hospitalization, incarceration and death. I’d done two of the three. The only thing left was death. It was the next step, the only way out of the misery, the madness.”
Norris underwent spinal cord surgery in 2000, is raising an 18-year-old daughter and runs a youth foundation in Oakland. He also has been writing his memoirs. A sample chapter, which addresses how Ueberroth handled the cocaine problem, is titled, “The Czar Who Went Too Far.”