A catering truck is dispensing soda pop and tacos behind home plate. A young boy is making his way through the stands, raffling off a bottle of brandy. Under the trees on the hill in right field, a family is resting on a blanket.
It's the sixth inning of a muni-league baseball game at Hazard Park in Boyle Heights.
Suddenly, the serenity is broken momentarily by the commotion on the field. The team at bat is accusing the opposing pitcher of throwing spitballs. He's not wiping his fingers after he goes to his mouth, they say, and he's going to his mouth while he's on the mound, which is against the rules.
At the center of the controversy is a bearded man in a Pittsburgh Pirate uniform, No. 17.
Dock Ellis, it seems, has \o7 always \f7 been at the center of a controversy.
This is the same Dock Ellis who was called the Muhammad Ali of baseball during a 12-year major league career; who once caused a ruckus by appearing in uniform with curlers in his hair; who once opened a game by hitting three consecutive Cincinnati Red batters on purpose; who once was Maced by a security guard after the guard wouldn't let him into Riverfront Stadium without identification; who once was challenged to a fight by then-Pirate Manager Danny Murtaugh during a team meeting; who said he pitched a no-hitter in 1970 while under the influence of LSD.
But this latest controversy passes quickly.
Ellis, who as a minor leaguer once went into the stands with a leaded bat to chase down a heckler, stays cool, even joking with his accusers. There is no mound at Hazard Park, so Ellis scratches out a big circle around the rubber with his shoe. He seems to be promising to clean up his act.
No more protests are heard.
"They were just trying to break his concentration," says his catcher, Frank Garcia.
Ellis just laughs.
Pitching for a team called Latin Cananea, the 40-year-old Ellis goes on to complete a 14-4 victory over Last Chance, running his season record to 7-0 while striking out 12, walking one and giving up two earned runs and 11 hits.
Later, sitting in the stands, Ellis laughs again about the incident and explains that, in the six years since he stopped playing in the majors, he has mellowed somewhat.
The temper no longer rages. He thinks things through. He listens.
And there's a reason for it.
He says his appearances this season in the Los Angeles Veterans League (minimum age: 38) are the first he has made without drugs in his system since he was a teen-ager growing up in southeast Los Angeles more than 20 years ago.
Ellis, wearing jeans, a knit shirt and loafers, is sitting in his office in West Hollywood, explaining how he became involved in drug counseling. He is coordinator of the Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program of the California Institute for Behavioral Medicine.
After spending 40 days at The Meadows rehabilitation center in Wickenburg, Ariz., in 1980, Ellis said he had a hard time finding follow-up counseling.
"What I was running into was counselors who didn't have the first-hand experience of dealing with anything," he said. "It's hard to identify with someone if they haven't done anything. It's all out of a book."
Ellis' experiences could fill a book, but they're all first-hand.
He was experimenting with drugs as a teen-ager, he said. At Gardena High, he was found in the bathroom "drinking wine and getting high," but was told he wouldn't be kicked out of school if he agreed to play baseball. He played three games for Gardena.
Arrested for grand theft auto just before signing with the Pirates in 1964, Ellis was placed in the team's custody. He said he got into serious drinking in Batavia, N.Y., his first stop in the minors.
After ordering a beer in a restaurant "just so I could show everyone I could pass for 21," he was told by the waitress that he only had to be 19 to drink in New York.
"I said, 'OK, take the beer back and bring me some vodka stingers,' " Ellis said. "That was the opening for me to really get into drinking. Everywhere I went, I was ordering drinks. Playing baseball and drinking go together. It just kept progressing. Marijuana and pills were all over the place. LSD.
"That was the Love Child Era. The hippie-yippies."
Ellis tried them all. When he
pitched, Ellis said, he used Benzedrine and Dexamyl. Pep pills.
"I was into the speed in the minor leagues because of the expectations put on me by management and by myself to hurry up and get to the big leagues," he said. "I had a no-miss tag on me. 'It's impossible for this kid \o7 not \f7 to get to the big leagues.' That's a lot of stress.
"So how did I deal with the stress? I medicated with the drugs. If I'm high, I'm not afraid of anything."
By the time he reached the majors in 1968, he was hooked.
How many pills did he need to make it through a game?
"Who knows?" he said. "I just reached into a bag until I got tired."