SAN JOSE — After a baseball practice last week, Ken Reitz and Darryl Cias were relaxing on their beds in the "San Jose Hilton," which is not quite as ritzy as its name suggests. Sunk deep within the concrete bowels of Municipal Stadium, it is a boiler room that has been transformed into their home sweet home, a damp, windowless bunker that bears more than a small resemblance to a cinder block prison cell.
Cias finished painting a wall portrait of Charles Manson, the patron saint of the San Jose Bees, and turned on a black-and-white television to watch "Dynasty" reruns.
Reitz pulled his sleeping bag over his bare legs. There was a knock at the door. Cias looked surprised. He had hung a "do not disturb" sign on the doorknob. Then he remembered. "Ah, room service," he said. A teammate entered with carry-out from Wendy's. Reitz perked up. "Mmmmm, dinner time," he sighed, licking his lips and forcing a smile as he examined a double hamburger.
This is not the life style of the rich and famous baseball player, which Reitz certainly was only a few years ago. A former Sporting News cover boy and National League All-Star, Reitz, 34, is playing in the Class-A California League, the lowest level in the minors with the possible exception of the rookie leagues.
With a neon Coors sign illuminating the room at night, Reitz tosses on his hard mattress, listens to the wind whipping through the stadium, and dreams of holding on to the only life he knows. What he wants more than anything is one more shot at the major leagues, one more taste of those glory days, gobbling grounders at third base, taking another hard swing at destiny. If only a big league club were interested, he muses before drifting into sleep.
But like all his teammates in San Jose, Reitz wasn't wanted in the majors. Not one of the 26 teams gave him a chance this spring, partly because of his diminished skills and partly, he suspects, because of his past association with drugs. His only choice this season was whether to retire or persevere, to be a Bee or not to be a Bee. Last year he wouldn't have had a choice. It is only this year that the Bees became willing to take a chance on drug-tainted players.
"Welcome to the Bad News Bees," said Reitz, who openly talks about his past use of amphetamines. "This is the last refuge of retired drug abusers."
Reitz may have lost a step but he has retained a big league sense of humor that seems a necessary companion in these times of painful adjustments. And like Reitz, teammates Steve Howe, Daryl Sconiers and Mike Norris are all former big leaguers who are making jokes about what surely must be a humiliating predicament, as though laughter is the best medicine in dealing with facilities that are far less first class than anything they experienced in the majors.
"If you get too serious about all this, you're in trouble," said Reitz. Indeed, it's hard to get serious when Howe, the former National League Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers, gives up back-to-back singles to a semipro team from Orange County, or when Norris, a former 22-game winner for the Oakland A's, misses practice to meet with the Department of Motor Vehicles, Internal Revenue Service and his probation officer, or when Sconiers shows up for a workout wearing tennis shoes.
Baseball has had its Gas House Gang and its lovable Mets and more than its share of oddballs, but seldom has the potential existed in the minors for wackiness on such a grand scale. The Bees are a team with six ex-major leaguers, four of them linked to drugs. They are a team with a manager whose only managing experience occurred in Strat-o-Matic fantasy baseball games. And they are a team with five Japanese players whose English consists of only two words: baseball and McDonald's.
Just when the Bees appear to be putting all the pieces together, things start falling apart. Two days before the season, they released their cleanup hitter, veteran minor leaguer Ken Foster, then came to their senses the next day and rehired him.
"This looks like a possible TV series," said former Dodger Derrel Thomas, who certainly won't be asked to guest star. The Bees gave Thomas his release Wednesday, apparently because of an attitude problem. Thomas, it seems, wasn't taking the interim manager seriously. After Thomas departed, the interim manager made sure the other players knew he was serious by changing his title to permanent manager.
The permanent manager and creative mastermind of "All My Castoffs" is Harry Steve, who is also owner, president, general manager and the guy who lays out the ads on the scorecard. Steve, 30, went to Biscayne College in Florida to study sports administration and must have taken a course from Charlie Finley, the former maverick baseball owner who got his kicks by defying the establishment.