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BASEBALL WITH A CAPITAL BEE : In San Jose, the Spotlight Is on the Strs of Yesterday, Not Those of Tomorrow

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

This is Steve’s fourth year in San Jose. The first three were spent directing teams that finished last, last and dead last, that averaged about 750 fans a game if you counted ushers, that seldom were covered in the local newspaper except for an occasional box score. While Steve owns the team, Woody Kern of Ohio owns the franchise. And Kern, according to Steve, is happy with everything happening to the Bees.

That’s this year. Neither Kern nor Steve were happy two years ago when the Bees’ working agreement with the Montreal Expos was not renewed. The team not only lost its affiliation with the majors but more than $100,000 in financial aid as well. The working agreement paid for player and staff salaries, travel expenses and equipment in addition to providing the Bees with young talent.

Steve operated his team as an independent last season, signing only minor league players. Last fall, Steve learned that the Toronto Blue Jays were looking for a Class-A player-development affiliation. He applied and thought he’d get it easily. But the franchise went to Ventura County instead of San Jose.

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Thus were born the Ventura Gulls and the Bad News Bees.

“Going with Ventura was a slap in the face to me and my organization,” Steve said. “We have an established franchise and we play night ball. Ventura has new owners and day ball. Besides all that, Toronto waited and waited to make a decision. When they finally decided, I said it was the last time I’d count on anybody but me.

“Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’m trying to fight the commissioner of baseball. They could really mess with me and make my life miserable. But I just wasn’t getting any help from baseball. I want it understood that I just didn’t sign those ex-major leaguers because I’m a radical.”

When Toronto picked Ventura, Steve decided to stay independent, a rare status among minor league teams. The Class-A Miami Marlins are the only other independent team in baseball. Thomas was a player-coach for them last season, when they had seven ex-major leaguers on their roster. This year they signed only three.

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With no affiliation--except for a working arrangement with the Seibu Lions of Japan--the Bees are able to sign players who aren’t under contract to anybody else. And it was when Steve began signing former major leaguers, especially former major leaguers with a history of drug problems, that strange things began to happen this season.

First, the press woke up. The Bees suddenly were a hot item both in San Jose and elsewhere in the country. In Steve’s tiny office inside Municipal Stadium, the walls are papered with articles on the Bees, though none, strangely enough, are from the National Enquirer.

Until this spring, the walls had been practically bare. Most of the recent articles were from the San Jose Mercury News, which barely acknowledged the existence of the Bees in years past.

“I was amazed the Mercury News treated us so badly in our own city,” Steve said. “I know a newspaper’s job is not to promote, but they weren’t even reporting.”

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The newspaper has begun giving the Bees more attention, with the signing of Howe rating a banner headline on the front page. And the media in the Bay Area, which usually talks about nobody but the Giants and A’s, is taking notice. A San Francisco television anchorman recently mentioned the Bees a few times during his on-air patter with a reporter.

But not all the coverage is positive. An Oakland Tribune columnist criticized the Bees for signing the ex-major leaguers for publicity.

“He wrote that I did this for ticket sales, which really ticked me off,” Steve said. “I did it to win games. Losing embarrasses me. And I guarantee this: We’re going to win.”

Steve’s protests notwithstanding, another strange thing happened when the Bees signed players such as Howe and Norris. Ticket sales went up. Way up.

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Since Steve took over the team after the 1981 season, the Bees had never had advance ticket sales for obvious reasons: plenty of seats were always available in the 5,800-seat stadium, primarily because the Bees were always in a losing battle for the entertainment dollar with the Bay Area’s major league’s teams.

But the Bees’ advance sales for Friday’s opener against Salinas were considerably more than 1,000. Season ticket sales and advertising revenue are up as well. San Jose, a city of more than 600,000 in Silicon Valley, is evidently more intrigued by the former major leaguers than turned off by the drug issue. The Mercury News reportedly has received only one negative letter since Steve began signing problem players last month.

Eva Hemstreet, a fan watching practice in the cozy stadium, apparently spoke for the entire community when she said, “Those boys have had problems, but there’s so much drug use out there these days that you just have to forgive players like Howe and Norris. I just don’t believe they should be singled out.”

The publicity, Steve said, “was totally unexpected, but without a doubt it’s helped sales. I just never thought the media would make such a big thing over it. Personally, I don’t think it’s such a big deal. I don’t see any difference in what we’re doing than big league teams signing players like Joaquin Andujar, Keith Hernandez and Alan Wiggins.

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“And when do you decide that a guy doesn’t deserve a second chance? Just being down here in Class A shows me they want to prove to people that they’re all right. I think that’s admirable.”

The media blitz doesn’t seem to be abating. There’s rumors, Reitz says, that Charles Kuralt of CBS News is on his way to San Jose. And if the team changes from bumble Bees to killer Bees, the fans will no doubt continue paying $3.50 for box seats and showing up in larger numbers than anybody anticipated. But for now, says Reitz, captain of the team, there’s only one reason for all the attention.

“We’re kinda freaks, and I figure people are coming out to see what real drug abusers really look like,” Reitz said, half-joking.

While it would seem that most baseball players would shy away from conversation about drugs, the Bees are open and frank about their involvement. Howe, Sconiers and Norris are admitted former cocaine users.

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Thomas, however, denied any connection with drugs even though Cincinnati Reds outfielder Dave Parker implicated him during the infamous Pittsburgh drug trial last year. Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth interviewed Thomas personally during the off-season but did not fully exonerate him.

Despite Thomas’ protests of innocence, he had an unusual attitude about drug involvement that was typical of the Bees. Before he was released, he agreed to a wire service photographer’s request for a set-up shot with Norris. Standing in the outfield, Norris put his raised arms against the wall, spreading his legs, and Thomas pretended to frisk him. Ueberroth probably has the photo framed by now.

The players, Reitz says, have to take a cavalier approach to their minor league existence or get slapped in the face by reality. For example, the locker room would be adequate unless you’ve played in the majors and are used to spaciousness, comfort and luxury.

The Bees aren’t spoiled. They must wash their own uniforms and nurse their ailments. There are no trainers to baby them, no attendants to cater to their every need. The bathrooms and showers are dank and gloomy, the plumbing leaks and the carpeting needs repairs. But if the former major leaguers are depressed, they’re hiding it well.

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Typically, the player with the biggest problems is the butt of the biggest jokes. Norris, 31, out of the majors for two years, has been plagued by alcoholism and drug abuse. Last winter, he spent four days in a Dominican Republic jail on marijuana charges, which were later dropped.

He’s in a California drug-diversion program, and his driver’s license has been suspended, making him dependent on his mother for the 34-mile ride from his hometown of Hayward to San Jose. When he didn’t arrive on time for practice the other day, Howe knew the reason.

“I guess the buses aren’t running,” Howe announced in the locker room. When Norris came in late, Howe went up to him and teased, “I saw your work crew on the side of the highway when I was driving to the stadium. I guess you were hiding under the ivy.”

Norris chuckled and Howe strutted off. “If you laugh about these things, it makes it better,’ said Norris, who feels comfortable around the Bees, almost as if they’re a support group in a drug rehabilitation program. “I was the Lone Ranger with the A’s. But now I have a few teammates in the same boat, and that helps me.”

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Norris, like the other ex-major leaguers who reportedly earn between $950 and $1,500, doesn’t expect to be in San Jose for more than a few weeks. They all hope that their ability will impress the scouts in a short time, and they’ll be whisked back to the world of the real Hiltons and the real stadiums.

“This is fun now, definitely more relaxing than the majors,” Norris said. “My expectations are for staying here no more than two months. If it goes beyond that, well, I don’t know what my frame of mind will be.”

The scouts, however, may be looking at more than the box scores to determine the readiness of players such as Norris and Howe, who both requested mandatory drug testing in their contracts. All the former major leaguers agree that San Jose is the last stop on a ride that once took them all the way to the top. Howe, in particular, realizes how far he has fallen, and how vulnerable he is.

“This is my last chance,” said Howe, 28. Last summer, Howe was released by the Minnesota Twins because of cocaine-related problems. The season before he served a one-year suspension for violating baseball’s drug rules. But Howe feels he has been able to shake cocaine’s grip. “Have rifle, will travel,” he said. “I’m clean and healthy.”

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When Steve contacted him about two weeks ago, Howe had been working out for three months in Whitefish, Mont., expecting to sign with a major league club. He says a club was interested in signing him four weeks ago but “never made a decision,” an indication, he feels, of his “de facto suspension” by major league baseball. But both Steve and Howe feel that the southpaw will return to the majors within a month.

Howe, noted for 90-m.p.h. fastballs when he saved 18 games and had a 1.44 ERA for the Dodgers in 1983, says he is ready for the big leagues. “I’m throwing the ball great.”

But Howe’s contention that his fastball still hums was disputed by Ron Salazar, a member of the Orange County A’s, a semipro team that buzzed the Bees for an 8-0 exhibition victory last week. Salazar led off against Howe, who was pitching in his first live outing of the spring. Salazar watched a couple of famous fastballs go by for strikes, then bounced a clean single between third and short.

“I really expected him to have more zip on the ball,” Salazar said, visions of the majors no doubt dancing through his head.

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Like Howe, Sconiers has not enjoyed the benefits of a normal spring. The Bees began practicing only two weeks ago, and more than a few of them looked rough around the edges.

Sconiers, the fallen Angel, seemed particularly rusty. He did not sign with the Bees until last week and had not faced a pitcher since last season. Aside from having to introduce himself to his new teammates, he had to borrow a sweat shirt for the game against the A’s and didn’t have his spikes with him.

Last December, Sconiers, 27, was released by the Angels for no apparent reason, but he holds no grudges.

“I was shocked, but they had put up with a lot of crap from me over the years, and you can only take that for so long. When they added everything up, I guess I wasn’t in their plans,” he said.

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Drugs may be a common bond among the older players, but the younger Bees realize they have to stay straight to advance up baseball’s ladder, especially with drug testing now mandatory in the minors and with Steve saying, “I’m sure this year we’ll all be tested.”

Ted Milner, a 24-year-old outfielder from Burbank, says he has learned a lot from the Howes and Reitzes, both on and off the field.

“It can only help me to be around these guys,” he said. “They know a lot about the game, but they’re also an example of what happens when you mess with drugs.”

Drugs in baseball seem to be a strictly American problem. Hank Wada, the Bees’ Japanese coach and translator, said that baseball in Japan is virtually drug free, a condition that reflects their society. Holding his hands together as if they were handcuffed, he said, “Use marijuana in Japan, you soon be in jail.”

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Despite limited practice time, despite the strange collection of players and the optimistic attitude that the Bees are going to romp through the California League, there is a feeling that the whole thing could unravel at any moment, especially if the team doesn’t live up to expectations. Fans as well as players may mutiny.

There are potential problems. If Howe and Norris don’t ascend as quickly as anticipated, how long will they put up with those long bus rides across the San Joaquin Valley?

Another possible trouble spot is Steve himself. Without any experience in the dugout, he named himself manager when Frank Verdi took a scouting job with the New York Yankees. His ability to deal with major league egos has not been tested. Steve is quick to anger, and during a recent workout, had harsh words with pitcher Ed McCarter as others looked on.

For now, Steve is tolerating Norris’ frequent tardiness. Norris even failed to show up for a morning practice last week, saying he “forgot” he had previous appointments, then repeated the performance the following day. But Norris, the first veteran player signed by Steve, is being given a lot of leeway by the club to clean up his personal problems.

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Right now, however, even next week seems a long way off, and today’s problems take precedence over tomorrow’s. Norris was worrying about a blister on his pitching hand. Steve was locking himself in his office to do the layouts for the scorecard. Howe was icing down a tender left shoulder. And Cias was working on getting a stereo for the San Jose Hilton.

“That’s just what this room needs,” Cias said. He, along with pitcher Fernando Arroyo, is a former major leaguer with a drug-free past.

Cias, 27, played 19 games for the A’s two years ago and spent last season playing in Italy. A catcher from Granada Hills, he is determined to have a good time with the Bees, which means doing things like skateboarding through the stadium and playing golf in the outfield.

The Bees, Cias realizes, have given him another opportunity to play baseball and showcase his talents. He appreciates the opportunity. He knows that former major leaguers who don’t sign with the Bees usually have only one other choice.

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“They go home,” he said.


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