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Safe at Home

He's a child in a man's body. But with the lessons--and lingo--of baseball, Skipper Carrillo's life has been a grand slam.

March 04, 1997|DAVE WIELENGA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Call me a boy, not a man," specifies Arthur Talbot Carrillo, who has a teddy bear on his bed, a Little League plaque on the wall and a 5 o'clock shadow spreading across his face.

Semantics are important to Carrillo, who 58 years ago was born developmentally disabled. Mentally retarded, he was called then.

His brain was deprived of oxygen during a difficult birth that occurred two months prematurely. He refers to the consequences, which include impaired hearing, speech and coordination, as "my difficulty," but he summarizes their effect with ease.

"I don't feel like I'm 58," he says, shrugging. "I feel like a boy. I am just a boy. I don't like to be called a man. I like to be called a boy. It makes me feel good."

For more than half a century, most people have simply called him Skipper. In Laguna Beach, where he has lived for 34 years, it's one of the best-known names in town.

"When they call me that, it's a home run--touch 'em all!" says Skipper, unspooling a wide and crooked smile. "If they call me Skipper or Mr. Uniform or Ballplayer, it's all a home run."

As always, Skipper is wearing a baseball cap and a sports-related outfit. In this case, it's a sweatsuit from Laguna Beach High School, not far from the small and spotless ocean-view home where he lives.

"Welcome to my ballpark," he says when a visitor arrives at his front door. "Welcome to beautiful Wrigley Field."

Skipper is an immaculate housekeeper and a fascinating interior decorator. The furnishings are mostly the lovingly maintained leftovers from his parents, both dead for years, who bequeathed him the house and established the trust fund that provides his monthly allowance.

But the accouterments have the flavor of a sports bar--where the favorite flavor is root beer.

The living room lamps are fashioned from wooden baseball bats. The bedroom is a time capsule of a 1950s kid, authentic down to the twin bed, baseball pennants, autographed photo of Jerry Lewis and lamps made out of football helmets. Skipper calls it his dugout, and so does a carved wooden sign hanging over the door. The house is laden with photos and portraits of athletes and teams, awards from schools and civic groups. One photo of his name in lights on the Big A scoreboard at Anaheim Stadium reveals that Skipper was Laguna Beach's Citizen of the Year in 1975.

"And there's a picture of my mother, Don Drysdale," says Skipper, pointing to a framed silhouette of a middle-aged woman. "She died 13 years ago on St. Patrick's Day. I miss Don very much."

Skipper catches the second look and cuts off the question.

"I named my mother after Don Drysdale," he explains. "Don Drysdale is my all-time favorite ballplayer. I called my mother Don Drysdale for many years, and she was very honored."

Skipper called his father, who died in 1966, the Coach.

"He got me interested in sports, you know," Skipper says. "He used to play semipro ball. My dad gave me a baseball when I was 3 years old. He took me to my first baseball game."

Skipper enjoys living alone, although he admits he doesn't accomplish it by himself. His sister, a Christian missionary in Japan, helps manage his allowance, a cousin checks up on him, and he knows nearly everybody in Laguna Beach.

"It's wonderful here, wonderful," he says. "I get to keep my ballpark clean. I have more independence, you know? I get up in the morning, hit the showers, go have breakfast, come back, do some blocking and go out on passes. Sometimes I go shopping, go to a movie. But now it's a wild pitch because the movie prices are ridiculous--they cost too much Willie Mays."

Over the years, Skipper's conversation has become saturated with euphemistic sports jargon, history, cliches and heroes. He calls his home his ballpark. His friends are his teammates. His plans are his lineup card. Running an errand is going out for a pass. Working is blocking. Wasting time is delay of game or three seconds in the key. Attempting something is stepping up to the plate. Determination is crowding the plate. Falling short is a strike. A good try is a line-drive out. A mistake is a wild pitch. Being called safe is good, being called out is bad. It goes on and on. Most of the terms are self-explanatory, Skipper says, if you use your batting helmet.

But not all of them. Skipper calls money . . . Willie Mays?

"I'll tell you why. Willie Mays was famous for hitting home runs, but really he could do almost everything. He was very fast. When he didn't hit a home run, a lot of times the opposing pitchers didn't pay attention to Willie Mays when he was on base. Then he would surprise them and steal a lot of bases. Well, that's the way money does. If you don't watch your money, it will steal bases on you."

Skipper is devoted to the students at Laguna Beach High School, where he is a volunteer and booster. His own athletic career, however, was limited.

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