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.
White was yanked; Tom Brennan was summoned from the bullpen and got an inning-ending double play; the Dodgers won the game in the 11th inning, and White was gone, his dreams shattered like a mishandled light bulb.
White was told he was headed back to Albuquerque, and the 33-year-old Brennan was given the final spot on the pitching staff.
Brennan, whose gray-flecked hair looked as if it belonged on a 55-year-old aluminum siding salesman, spent two months with the Dodgers, giving up 41 hits and 26 earned runs in 31 innings. His ERA topped out at a grotesque 7.39 before the Dodgers returned him to Albuquerque. Today, Brennan is out of baseball, working on investments and raising a family in the Chicago area.
"I'll never forget that game," White said, grimacing now at the memory. "It seems like my whole career went up in smoke in one inning. I made one bad pitch to Grich, a couple of guys make errors, I walk Carew and I'm gone. History.
"I don't think I've gotten over that day yet. I think about it all the time, and it hurts just as much every time."
White, admittedly hurt, frustrated and angry at himself and the Dodgers, thrashed his way to an 8-12 record and a 4.34 ERA in Albuquerque last year.
"I thought I had the right mental approach, but maybe I didn't," he said. "Maybe I lost confidence in myself. You know, no matter how confident you think you are, when people keep telling you, 'You don't have it. You don't have it,' after a while maybe you start to believe them. For whatever reasons, I didn't have a great season in Albuquerque. It seemed like nothing went right all year."
When his contract expired at the end of the season, he decided to give free agency a shot. Another club, he figured, would surely give him a chance at playing in the major leagues sooner than the Dodgers would.
He was wrong. The Atlanta Braves expressed some interest in January but called back a day later and told him to forget it. Ditto with the San Francisco Giants. The Chicago Cubs had been in touch with him and his agent, attorney Ray Burgess of Houston, for several weeks, and White figured that would be his last resort.
In the meantime, the Dodgers offered to re-sign him for the 1986 season. They offered him $30,000. He had been paid $38,000 the year before. He told Al Campanis, Dodger vice president of player personnel, that if nothing else worked out in the free agent market, he would re-sign with the Dodgers.
When White finally realized that no other team was making a serious bid for him, he decided he would just return to Albuquerque and hope for another chance at the majors.
But by then, the Dodgers had decided that Larry White's place in their future was about as likely as holding tractor-trailer truck races across the outfield between innings.
"Mr. Campanis told me, 'Forget it. We don't want you,' " White said. "He said, 'We've changed our minds. We don't want you.' Just like that. He didn't give me any reason. That was the end of me as a Dodger."
White is still angry at the Dodgers but for now, he has decided not to let the lid blow off.
"I have a lot of things I might say about the Dodgers some day, but for now, let's let it be," he said.
As March dwindled away, the Cubs called White again. They offered him a Triple-A contract, but told him flatly they would send him to the Mexican Leagues this season and not to their Triple-A club in Iowa.
In Tabasco, the Cubs had found a 21-year-old hitter named Marcos Comacho, and they wanted to give him a chance in the minors. Tabasco had agreed to sell Comacho to Chicago, but in return wanted a replacement. That would be White.
"At first, I told them to forget it, no way I'm going to Mexico," White said. "But eventually it was clear that this was my only chance. It was this or nothing. So I told them OK."
Bill Harford, the Cubs' director of minor league operations, said he made no promises to White.
"Larry might well stay in Mexico through their whole season," he said. "It depends on what our needs are. If he's pitching well, we might bring him back to Des Moines, but right now, we have no need for him on our Triple-A club."
Despite what Dodger officials said, White is convinced that it wasn't a dramatic loss of pitching ability that caused the Dodgers to throw him out and most of the other major league teams to ignore him.
"If you don't fit in with the Dodgers' true-blue image, you're gone," White said. "I hung around with Dave Stewart because he was my roommate in Albuquerque, and Dave was tight with Steve Howe."
Stewart, after he was traded to the Texas Rangers, was involved in an embarrassing incident with a transvestite in Los Angeles, and Howe has had repeated problems with drugs.
"I'm gone because I hung around with some of them," White said. "It was guilt by association. They tested me (for drugs) several times at spring training over a couple of years, and I never showed a trace of anything.
"I don't fool with that stuff. I'm afraid of using cocaine because I'm afraid I'll like it like some of the other guys did, and that's the road to the end.
"I hung with the wrong crowd, as far as the Dodgers are concerned. That's why they got rid of me. I never did anything wrong, never did anything to warrant that kind of treatment."
Campanis said the Dodgers didn't care who White's friends were. He said they were more concerned with White's enemies, and said White himself was on top of that list.
"Releasing Larry had nothing to do with drugs or who he hung around with. Nothing at all," Campanis said. "His problem was a lack of concentration.
"He would do certain things incorrectly, the fundamentals and mechanics of pitching, and didn't give the effort to correct them. Larry has a major league arm, but it takes more than a major league arm to make it. It takes determination and concentration and a desire to improve and to work on your problems. He just did not have that ability."
Others in the Dodger organization offer similar explanations for White's new international baseball career.
"Attitude," said Guy Wellman, a minor league instructor. "He was unhappy. He was unhappy with himself and unhappy with everybody around him. And two years ago, I thought he had better stuff."
Dave Wallace, the Albuquerque Dukes' pitching coach, said: "He was always making excuses, always saying there was something wrong. His stuff regressed. And he was a little insecure. He was a really insecure, immature young man, and his reasoning powers at times were really poor."
Poor is something White sees a lot of these days. He shares an apartment with teammate Antonio Sarabia of Colombia, and together they make the daily trip to the ball park.
There, White encounters a rather primitive sight. The stadium seats about 7,500. The seats are rough, uneven concrete slabs with iron seat frames, complete with arms, embedded in them. The fans bring no cushions to sit on. The seventh-inning stretch begins in the first inning and often lasts well into the night. There is a joke among the fans that a ticket for a seat costs $2 but that standing room costs $3.
And this is the Tabasco club's nice stadium. Over the rivers and through the jungle about 40 miles away in the town of Cardenas sits a wretched monstrosity in which the Tabasco Ganaderos (Cattle Drivers) play half their home games. This is done in an effort to lure new fans from a different region. It seems to indicate either that Mexicans really do love baseball or that Cardenas residents have incredibly dismal social lives.
At the Cardenas stadium, all of the 2,500 seats are protected from foul balls by a chain-link fence, which is not unusual. Dodger Stadium provides the same protection for those sitting around home plate.
The difference is in the wire itself. Whereas Dodger Stadium's wire fence was designed just to protect the fans from errant baseballs, the fence at Cardenas was designed, one guesses, to keep stampeding elephants out of gardens. Each strand of wire is a quarter-inch thick. Watching a baseball game through such a fence is akin to watching a Laker game through a T-shirt.
Your eyes and mind wage a non-stop battle, first focusing on the players and then swiftly returning to focus on the fence. You cannot prevent it.
A headache sets in around the third inning, and partial blindness seems to creep up around the sixth. If you are unaccustomed to such rapid re-focusing and somehow last through the ninth inning, for the next few hours--no matter what you look at--you'd swear boxing promoter Don King was standing in front of you.
All Mexican League games are played at night, a concession to the mid-day heat, which runs from merely unbearable in some of the relatively northern cities such as Monterrey to plain old fall-over-and-die heat common in the southern cities such as Villahermosa. March and April are hot, but the real test of a person's ability to withstand a blowtorch begins in June and lasts into July and August, when the season ends.
How hot? Well, let veteran Mexican League pitcher Gil Rondon, a Puerto Rican who bounced around the minor leagues as property of the New York Yankees, Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox and played briefly in the major leagues, tell you:
"This place is so hot in July and August that you can't even believe it," he said. "I don't care where you've been, you've never felt heat until you've been in Villahermosa in July and August.
"It's 100 degrees during the day and 99 degrees at night. And the humidity will kill you. Like 80 and 85 and 90% humidity. Fans topple over all the time. You put your uniform on at 6 o'clock and at 6:05 it's soaking wet, from the shoulders to the knees."
And if the screaming yellow sun doesn't get you, a screaming yellow taxi probably will. People tend to drive with all the caution of a man heading for a lake with his clothes on fire.
On several occasions over a five-day period, a reporter and a photographer saw cab drivers actually speed up when pedestrians would step off the curb in front of the taxis, sending the pedestrians bounding back to the sidewalks.
Once in a while, the pedestrians don't bound quickly enough. Larry Viola, a teammate of White and a seven-year veteran of the Tabasco team who played minor league ball for the Detroit Tigers and New York Mets, recalled this story:
"It was after a game in 1979, and I stepped off a curb maybe two feet to get around some construction on the sidewalk," Viola said. "I never heard anything coming. The next thing I knew I'm flying.
"I got hit by a bus. No bones broke, but I was really banged up, nothing but scrapes and bruises. I couldn't pitch for two and a half weeks. The crazy thing is the street was about 40 feet wide and there was nothing else on the road. There was plenty of light, so I know he saw me.
"The bus driver took off. Never even looked back. They caught him later. The bus company paid all my medical bills and they fired the driver."
There are other minor inconveniences.
"Don't drink the water anywhere down here," an employee of a luxury hotel warned two Americans. "Don't even think about it. Drink beer."
White didn't get such sound advice. Shortly after his arrival, he drank the water. Shortly after he drank the water, he got sick.
Weapons tend to be popular, here, too. A stroll through the city streets during the day reveals many men shuffling along with large handguns in holsters bouncing off their legs. Many men, however, do not carry guns. That is because there is no room for guns, what with the size of the knives and all.
Everyone, it seems, has a knife. Perhaps they are used to cut rope or whittle wood into duck decoys. Perhaps not.
At the ball parks, food vendors wield giant, 10-inch blades. Many are used to carve the peeling off papaya, a big ball park seller. But the vendors look over their shoulders in the near darkness. It seems many of them--if they felt threatened--would make no sharp distinction between a papaya fruit and, let's say, you.
"This is not a real safe city," said Gabino Martinez, the sportscaster for the Villahermosa television station. "Many bodies are found in the rivers. When people have disputes here, they seldom call the police. They settle it themselves."
Villahermosa is at the center of Mexico's new oil fields. More than 800 wells dot the state of Tabasco. During the day, the smell of burning petroleum hangs heavy in the air. At night, you can see the fires raging at well sites throughout the country. When the oil came to Villahermosa, so did the people. The city has swelled from about 100,000 in 1970 to more than 500,000 today.
It is a major city, but it is without much luxury. Bugs crawl and fly everywhere. In some areas, cockroaches own the turf. Big cockroaches. The kind that would be able to change the channel on your TV set if you left it unattended.
In this environment, Larry White is struggling to adjust.
"I was here a week and I was already so homesick," he said. "I miss everything. But no matter what, I've still got to go out and pitch and shut people down. Of course, there's disappointment. I'd rather be in the big leagues, but who wouldn't?
"I'd rather be in the United States, even with a Triple-A team, but who wouldn't if they were down here? Now I have to suck it up. I have to prove I can still pitch.
"This year will tell. Either I'm going to find out I can still pitch in the States for a few more years, or this is it. I wouldn't come back here for another season. One will be enough."
White said he considers his new career a test of his beliefs.
"If I have to stay here all season, I will," he said. "All my life I've been raised in the church, and I'll always remember that. What I'm doing now is called faith. Keeping the faith in myself and in God. I leave it in His hands.
"Whatever happens, happens. It is largely in His hands. If I'm supposed to be here, that's the way it is. If I'm supposed to get back to the big leagues, then that's part of the plan, too. All I can do is give it 100% and see what happens. I've always had faith, not just in times like these when things are going bad.
"Maybe this is just a detour for me. Maybe not."
For a week, White worked out with the Ganaderos at practice and before games. The season began March 12, and Tabasco, which finished 39 games out of first place last season, had already hit the skids. It was dipping in and out of last place in the Southern Division, and team officials looked to White as a savior.
Finally, last Monday night, he got his first chance. He faced the Aguascalientes Reileros, who had the best record in the Mexican League.
It was no contest. White overpowered some batters with his fastball and made the others look silly with change-ups and breaking balls. He allowed only a slow-rolling single in six innings and then took himself out, fearing too much stress on his shoulder in his first real outing in six months. The Ganaderos held on for a 2-1 win.
As White came out after the sixth inning, his new teammates rose from the warped wooden bench and shook his hand. Some delivered cincos altos to the smiling White. As a foreigner, especially as an American, much is expected of him. The Mexicans are slow to accept the so-called imports in their league. But Monday night, with a dazzling performance, White had earned the respect of his native teammates. It was a big night for Tabasco, a big night for White.
After the game, White sat in a stark, damp locker room beneath the stands. Over his head dangled a glaring, 100-watt light bulb.
"It feels good to get the first one over with," White said. "But there are many more to go. I've got to shut everyone down if I want to get out of here."
Viola, who himself had pitched a strong game just two nights earlier, congratulated his new teammate.
"This man has no right being here," Viola said. "He has major league talent. I can't believe they'd send him down here."
The star of the night got to his feet in the dim light. A large plastic bag containing ice cubes was unwrapped from his right shoulder. He stretched it a bit, moving cautiously, knowing the shoulder is his ticket out.
Former Montreal Expos second baseman Rodney Scott, the other American on the team, Larry Viola and Larry White went outside, standing several feet from the curb on Unidad de Portiva, the major street past the stadium.
Viola, with scars to remind him of the driving habits of Villahermosans, stood a bit closer to the curb than his two American friends. Still clad in their uniforms and carrying their gloves and their spikes, they tried to flag down taxis. None stopped.
Fifteen minutes later, a pickup truck that appeared to have made contact with many things in its life came to a stop. The driver motioned to the bed of the truck, and they climbed in. In a burst of noise, the truck moved off into the darkness.
It was a short ride back to the apartment building for the former Dodger pitcher, and he knows this road well by now, snaking past the rundown houses and alleys. But there is another road out there, one that leads back to the big leagues.
Larry White will try to find that road. Right now, he only knows that it begins in a strange city in a land far, far from home.