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The Intimate Steve Garvey : The Former Dodger Hero Tells How His Perfect Life Became a Perfect Nightmare

September 24, 1989|PETER J. BOYER | Peter J. Boyer, a former Times reporter, is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair .

IT IS SUNDAY morning in the middle of nowhere--Bloomington, Ill., actually--and Steve Garvey has a little time to kill. He's sitting in his hotel room, talking about baseball, particularly about his swing. It wasn't so much a swing, really, as a ritual. He eagerly hops off the bed and offers a demonstration.

Stepping to the imaginary plate, he raises his right hand to his invisible helmet and then tugs gently--almost daintily--at the front of his shirt as he settles into his batting stance. Hands together high at his chest, left foot aligned precisely with the inside corner of home plate, which he has tapped lightly with his phantom bat. A brief, perfect stillness, then WHOOSH, the Garvey swing. It is not spontaneous and pretty, like the long, loping stroke of Darryl Strawberry, but short, straight, vicious. It is not an act of the heart but of the mind, an effort carefully calculated to maximize efficiency. And it is always the same. Even here, at age 40, two years after baseball, in this $39 room at the Holiday Inn, it is the same ritual performed over a 19-year career in the big leagues: 8,835 at-bats, 8,835 wordless sermons on the art of control.

Control. It is what Steve Garvey meant as a ballplayer. It is how he transformed himself from a wild-throwing liability into one of the most prized first basemen of his time, a 10-time All Star, the only first baseman ever to play an entire season without committing an error. It is how he played for more than nine years without missing a single game, 1,207 consecutive games, the longest streak in the history of the National League.

Control is what Steve Garvey meant off the field as well; it framed his urge to be not just a ballplayer but also a role model. He said "yes, sir" and "no, ma'am," he didn't drink or smoke, he made bedside visits to hospitalized kids. Control is what allowed him to spend long hours after the ballgame, indulging fans (even the rude ones) by signing autograph after autograph and indulging reporters (even the rude ones) by answering their questions until they ran out of things to ask.

And that utter control is why Steve Garvey commanded attention when his life went haywire. In February, Garvey went public with an account of his complicated romantic life--a bizarre, cross-country tangle in which he got two women pregnant and married a third. With any other ballplayer--almost any other celebrity, for that matter--it might have been a one-day headline, a snack for the quick-chewing trash compactors of the daily TV gossip shows. But this was Steve Garvey, the man whom a town had named a school after, the man who once said, "I walk around as if a little boy or a little girl was following me." In an age of mere superstars, he had wanted to be a hero. And he still does.

In a few minutes, there will be a knock on the door from the promoter of a local baseball memorabilia show who will deliver Garvey to the 400 or so fans who have paid $7 for each signature that Garvey will apply to the bats, baseballs, gloves and posters they have brought. Some of them have driven hundreds of miles to get to the hotel. Before the knock comes, Garvey edges warily toward the subject that has scarred his life--"my situations," he calls them.

"People were interested because I was the all-American boy on a pedestal with feet of clay," he says of the reaction to his troubles. "Of course, the cynics and the critics just reveled in it. But the average fan has compassion for me. He says, 'Hey, this happens to people; it happened to Steve; how does he handle it?' "

How he handled it, of course, was in characteristic Steve Garvey fashion. He went on television in San Diego. He gave interviews to newspapers and magazines. He appeared on Larry King's TV show and on "A.M. Los Angeles." At each stop, he calmly explained that he had thought the women involved had used birth control but that he planned to "accept my responsibility" and provide financial and parental support for his unborn children. A man in control.

And Garvey maintained that apparent equanimity throughout the summer, even as his ex-wife, Cyndy, made her way across the country on a book tour, acidly portraying Garvey as an unfeeling "sociopath" on a scale with serial killer Ted Bundy.

What no one would have guessed through all of this is that Garvey has his own story to tell, a surprising and slightly harrowing story about a perfect life unraveling, of a private life that for the last decade has been as anguished as his public life had seemed ideal. Now, stung by Cyndy's attacks and pressed by his new wife to fight back, Garvey has decided to tell his side of this strange and convoluted story.

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