KURT BEVACQUA : He Has Hung Around the Major Leagues Since 1971, Exceling as a Kind of Zany Pinch-Hitter's Pinch-Hitter

Times Staff Writer

There was steam rising from the pool in the hotel courtyard as the cool desert night yielded to morning. There was cigarette smoke issuing from Kurt Bevacqua, who had just finished a plate of eggs, hash browns and cinnamon toast.

Wearing a Padre warmup top that revealed a broad expanse of chest hair, Bevacqua was in--for him--a deeply contemplative state as he gazed out at the pool through wire-rimmed dark glasses.

Spring training is traditionally a time for renewal and hope and optimism. A time when the young, the middle-aged and even the elderly can pretend to be boys again. But here was Bevacqua, one of the game's irrepressible, blithe spirits, the guy who once dismissed Tom Lasorda as "that fat little Italian," conducting a serious interview, as if he had no respect for his own reputation or the mood of the season.

Bevacqua, 37, has been a professional baseball player since 1967, a major leaguer since 1971 and an employee of half a dozen franchises. He may have done a serious interview before, but it has long since been forgotten.

Bevacqua is taking voice and acting lessons with a thought to following the path taken by Bob Uecker and Joe Garagiola, but the evidence suggests he doesn't need the acting lessons. He could save his money for other causes. He came across as entirely sincere, with no sign of a put-on, during an hour-long conversation.

What emerged was a hard-edged plea for respect.

He thinks of himself as a factory worker who has battled for 18 years to keep a job. "My attitude is, I don't owe baseball a thing," Bevacqua said. "I'm like a guy working on an automobile assembly line, the guy who is always subject to getting laid off.

"I've put all my guts and perseverance into this game, and it has tried repeatedly to get rid of me. I'm not like some big executive or ballplayer earning $1.5 million a year. I'm the little guy who always has to fight to support his family. Guys like me, who have to work hard just to stay around, we owe the company nothing. "

See? Serious.

Padre Manager Dick Williams was dead serious when he employed Bevacqua as his designated hitter in the 1984 World Series. The three-run homer that won Game 2 served as vindication--for both men.

Laugh with me. Even laugh at me, Bevacqua seemed to be saying now. But give me my due as a ballplayer, too.

"It used to be they'd take a photo of me next to Steve Garvey with my hat on backward," Bevacqua said. "Or they would write about me putting a snake in someone's shoe . . . or inviting Willie Stargell and Dave Parker to a dinner party and sending them to the address of a vacant warehouse in New Jersey."

Bevacqua paused dramatically.

"But now you read that I can play this game a little," he said, alluding to the publicity generated by his home run, which accounted for the Padres' only victory in the Series. "Hey, I've always been proud of my ability. Just being on a roster is achieved by few. I don't feel lucky. You don't last as long as I have by being lucky."

Or by being zany, either. Bevacqua has endured in spite of that.

Fortunately, he can see himself as others do--as an ageless kid with a bent for the wisecrack and the practical joke who once won a bet by walking alone through the streets of Harlem late at night.

He took exception, however, to the suggestion that he's a playboy. Out of concern for his newly established domestic tranquility, he must draw the line somewhere.

Bevacqua's name crept into the headlines for the wrong reasons last summer. He was accused of breaking into an apartment and accosting his estranged wife and a male friend. The charges later were dismissed. Padre President Ballard Smith rose to Bevacqua's defense, for which the player is dutifully grateful.

Bevacqua spent much of the off-season traveling with his wife, Carrie, and working to reconstruct their marriage. He believes the effort has succeeded.

Last summer, however, was a nightmare for him. The problems with the marriage spilled over, unavoidably, into baseball.

"I don't know how many months it lasted, but I didn't care about anything for a while," Bevacqua said. "I thought I cared about coming through when I was at the plate, but I had so much on my mind, it didn't seem to matter what happened.

"When you've got problems away from the job, you can't perform, especially if a big part of your ability is mental. If I'm not all there head-wise, I'm in serious trouble."

Head-wise, Bevacqua is ready for his best year.

"Let's face it, I've always been a candidate for comeback player of the year," he said, taking a shot at his credentials, which include a .235 lifetime average, 24 homers and 250 runs batted in.

"I've outlasted a lot of people--not that I set out to do that--by being versatile. To his discredit, Bevacqua has posted some .200 years. In 1971, his rookie year with the Cleveland Indians, he broke in meekly by hitting .204. He followed that with .114 in 1972. He came through little with a .143 in '76 at Milwaukee. As recently as last year he batted a Bob Uecker-like .200.

Bevacqua had known some difficult times, even before the summer of 1984, and he has developed a resilience to cope with nearly anything baseball can do to him.

One of the lows occurred in the spring of 1977, after a winter during which he was named most valuable player in the Puerto Rican league, and a spring when he batted well over .400, hit three homers and drove in 15 runs for Seattle's expansion franchise.

To his amazement, Bevacqua was released just before the regular season opened.

He had been living with Carrie--this was before their marriage--and he was told he was a bad influence on younger players. He also was told he cursed too much on the bench.

"I thought I was going to be in the starting lineup and there I was without a job on April 1," Bevacqua said, with equal parts incredulity and outrage.

"I wound up signing a $10,000 minor league contract with Texas after I called my friend, Jack McKeon, who was then general manager for the Oakland A's. Jack checked with Charlie Finley and was told they couldn't use me because I had too big a contract, $26,500."

Bevacqua doesn't believe all his clowning has hurt him. He said he does his jokester routine in good faith, without hurting anyone.

"I'm not sure what my image is, but please don't say I'm a playboy," he implored. "I think you would be disappointed if you followed me around for a few weeks on the road."

Maybe so, but a reputation for being a wild and wacky guy has been following him around for years.

He enjoyed one of his finer moments in 1975, when he won a bubble-blowing contest sponsored by a bubble gum company.

This was 10 years ago, mind you, well before Bevacqua entered his serious phase, and it embarrasses him to talk about it now. Even so, he recalls blowing a bubble 21 inches in circumference, which he said was two inches beyond the then-world record as listed by Guinness.

The secret of a great bubble?

"Most people blow air into the bubble, which makes the back wall susceptible to busting," Bevacqua said. "Instead of blowing, you should breathe into the gum."

It was suggested that Bevacqua is too old to be blowing bubbles these days. "Hell, I was too old for it then," he said.

In spite of all the shenanigans--and we haven't begun to list them all--Bevacqua appears to have a pretty good handle on himself. What enables him to succeed, sort of, is the ability to look beyond the mere statistics and find the steely self-confidence needed to deliver as a pinch-hitter or designated hitter. He's a career spot player. A tough-spot player.

He's been playing mind games for years.

"I've always been brash and cocky," he said. "I can't say I'm surprised I'm still around after all these years. I always had the confidence and the desire. I mean, I don't wanna go to no dentist who lacks confidence in his ability to fill teeth or do root canals."

Whenever he was cut or traded, he never thought he was in trouble. He convinced himself, somehow, that the club was going to answer for insulting him.

Sure enough, he has come back to haunt nearly all of them. He has hit a home run against every team that ever traded him, except for the Texas Rangers, who sent him out of the American League for good, it appears. The five others, though, have been thanked with a home run, and that may be some kind of record. Baseball keeps records on nearly everything, but not that.

"Wouldn't you know," Bevacqua said. "My only chance for Cooperstown and they don't keep the record."

If they had a hall of fame for utilitymen, Bevacqua would be a cinch, but he sure as heck couldn't cut it as an everyday player.

Earlier in his career, given a chance to play regularly, he would press. He would think, 'Hey, if I do a little, I might get to stay in the lineup.' Then he would go 0 for 4, and he would be out of the lineup again.

But he managed a neat trick. He carved a career out of failure, teaching himself to think positively in a stressful, pinch-hitting situation with an inner dialogue that convinces him he is a veritable Ted Williams. For Kurt Bevacqua, it has worked just fine.

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