VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico — As training camp broke last spring, Larry White sat in a comfortable airline seat with the Dodgers, winging his way back to Los Angeles on a chartered jet.
He looked around and saw Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser, two of the premier pitchers in baseball. He was with them. He belonged. It was the happiest moment of his life.
Twelve months later, White was on another flight. This one dumped him in a hot, steamy, grimy jungle city in the Mexican state of Tabasco, just 110 miles from Guatemala.
Today, while the Dodgers are playing the Angels in the final game of the 1986 Freeway Series, White will be bent over his bathroom sink, performing what has become a daily chore for him. As the Dodger pitching staff that he was a part of just one year ago tries to get out batters, White will be trying to get the dirt out of his cheap baseball uniform.
The scrubbing of the uniform is a long-standing tradition in the Mexican League. White's white uniform, with bright green trim and Tabasco printed on the jersey just below a set of bull's horns, must be dry by 5 p.m. That's when he must be ready for another Mexican League tradition--begging a ride to the ballpark.
This one requires players to wander out onto the dusty streets in full uniform, glove in one hand and spikes dangling from the other, and scream, "Alto! Alto!" at taxi cabs traveling at near the speed of sound.
This is Larry White's new life.
In one year, the former San Fernando High School and Pierce College star has fallen from the graces of the Dodgers and the prospect of a lucrative professional contract to pitching for a bad team, in a bad city in a deeply troubled country.
A year ago, White was on the threshold of drinking from a silver cup. This year, he learned on his second day in Villahermosa, he can't even drink the water.
"I was there. I was right there at the top," White, 27, said earlier this week as he struggled to adjust to his new environment. "I had everything. I had both feet in the door. I was a major league pitcher.
"Now, it seems as though I'm starting all over again. I'm right back at the bottom. The very bottom. This is as low as you can go."
White says he was the victim of Dodger efforts to rid themselves, at all levels, of players linked to drug use. He claims that simply because he associated with some of the alleged troublemakers, he was thrown out on the street.
People in the Dodger organization disagree. They say he lost his ability to pitch, his mind, or both.
White was the Cleveland Indians' 31st-round draft pick in 1979 from San Francisco State. He came to the Dodgers in a 1981 trade that also brought Jorge Orta and Jack Fimple for pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, who had already been National League Rookie of the Year and later, with the Chicago Cubs, would win the league's Cy Young Award.
White went directly to the Dodgers' Triple-A club in Albuquerque, and immediately started impressing people. Overpowering batters with a 90-m.p.h. fastball, he was 12-5 in his first season and had a seven-game winning streak. His 12th victory, against Spokane, clinched the Dukes' Pacific Coast League championship.
"He looked like he had a good arm," said Larry Sherry, the Dodgers' minor league pitching instructor. "He was a good physical specimen, and the first year I saw him, he had a major league change-up, which is unusual in a young pitcher."
But White soon contracted a case of the slows, a deadly disease common among fastball pitchers past 25.
The same radar gun that consistently read 90 when White pitched in 1982 began reading 83 in 1984. In the major leagues, the difference between a 90-m.p.h. fastball and an 83-m.p.h. fastball is about 400 feet, straight over the fence.
Despite the slowing fastball, White pitched decently for Albuquerque in 1983. He made his major league debut Sept. 15 against the Houston Astros, but found himself back in Albuquerque at the start of '84. He responded to the demotion with a dismal 7-12 record and a 6.09 earned-run average.
Just when things looked bleakest for White, however, he was invited to Vero Beach for spring training in 1985.
He dazzled the Dodgers.
Used primarily in long relief, he finished the spring with a 1-0 record and a 2.40 ERA. His strong performance had apparently earned him a major league job.
But in the next three days, White was run over by the Freeway Series. In three total innings of relief in two games, he allowed two earned runs, six hits and three walks.
The final blow was delivered in the 10th inning of the final game. The Dodgers had taken a 6-5 lead in the top of the inning, and White was summoned to seal the victory. But an error by shortstop Dave Anderson put Doug DeCinces on second base, and White then hung a slider to Bobby Grich, who tied the game with a single.
Next, right fielder Mike Marshall lost a routine fly ball in the sun, and a rattled White walked Rod Carew on four pitches to load the bases.