Baseball’s Thinking Man : Padre Pitcher Eric Show Is Rare Element in Dugout
Let’s play a game. What if some real smart people with a sense of humor--people who know nothing about baseball--one day decided to invent a very good baseball pitcher.
But after giving him an elbow and shoulder and all the usual stuff, what if they decided to get tricky?
What if they gave him a love for physics? A love for studying philosophers, historians and theorists? A love for writing classical jazz?
What if on road trips, while his friends are shopping and watching movies, he is in the basement of musty libraries trying to figure out why the Earth is round?
What if at home, while many players are at the ballpark several hours ahead of the required reporting time, he is still in his home, in his second-floor office, under a bright light, studying the effect of a new foreign government or ancient civilization?
What if, before he wins 20 games, he records and produces his own record album, and co-stars in a movie? Finally, just to throw everybody off, what if they made him an open, verbal member of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society? What if . . .
Forget the what ifs. Such a pitcher exists. His name is Eric Show.
His six seasons have established him as one of the National League’s best pitchers and most unusual people.
Yet, after six seasons, another question is probably more applicable.
Why has he no close clubhouse friends? Why does everybody in there look at him so funny? Why do some think he’s selfish and arrogant? Why did some even take to calling him ‘Erica’? And why do things always seem to happen to him?
In 1984, his John Birch affiliation is uncovered when he is spotted passing out pamphlets at a fair, and black players think he doesn’t like them.
In 1985, he gives up Pete Rose’s record 4,192nd hit, but during the 10-minute celebration he sits on the mound, and now nobody likes him.
Last season, he hits the Chicago Cubs’ Andre Dawson in the head and must flee Wrigley Field fearing for his life. When he returns to that city this season, he has only half-jokingly claimed it will be in disguise.
Show, 31, enters the 1988 season in the final year of a $725,000 contract and at the crossroads of his baseball career.
Can he find enough peace to once again become the pitcher that won 15 games to help lead the Padres to the 1984 World Series?
Or will he continue twisting in the winds of discontent, like last season, when he went 8-16 despite a 3.84 earned-run average?
Either way, the Padres say he’s trying.
“There has been change in Eric just since the middle of last season,” Padre Manager Larry Bowa said. “In the clubhouse, away from the stadium. He’s really working at understanding and being understood.”
Show says he’s trying.
“As strange at it may seem, I have tried to be more a part of my baseball environment,” Show said carefully. “If I’m still off, it’s because I started way off .”
And whatever happens, only one thing is ever certain with Eric Show.
Something will get lost in the translation.
At the end of a recent lengthy conversation that covered only the major points of a basic 20-volume encyclopedia, Show grabbed a reporter.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “Aren’t you going to ask me about anti-si-hyperon particles?”
Everybody on the Padres has a good Eric Show story. Then there’s Tony Gwynn. The punch line on his story is a broken bone.
It was 1982, Gwynn’s first big-league season, Show’s second.
“I get an off day in Pittsburgh, so during the game I am kicking back on the bench when Show comes over and sits next to me,” Gwynn recalled. “He looks at me and says, ‘There’s 10 questions every American should know. Do you want me to ask you those questions?’
“I figure, I got nowhere to go, so fine, ask away. And he does. Who was the fourth president of the United States? What is the capital of Montana?”
After a couple of questions, Gwynn realized something: “We’re in the middle of a game, and he’s giving me a history test.”
Then he realized something else: “I wasn’t getting any of those questions right. I didn’t know a single answer.”
After missing all of them, all 10, Gwynn sat there, dumbfounded. Suddenly, he was called into the game.
“I run into right field, the first batter Jason Thompson hits me a fly ball, I break the wrong way, I have to dive to catch it, and I land right on my wrist, breaking my wrist,” he said. “I was so messed up over that quiz, I am out for four weeks.”
Show has spent his life messing people up, making them think where they don’t necessarily want to think.
When he was a fourth grader in Riverside, he developed a three-dimensional model of the human digestive system out of foam rubber that is still used by the school system. Throughout grade school, he would finish his homework early and on the back, draw diagrams of the human body.
“I wanted to be a doctor, so I figured I had better memorize every part of the anatomy,” he said.
By age 14, he had already taught himself to read music and play the guitar, and was being paid to teach others.
“He has an amazing musical ability,” said bassist Bob Magnusson, who plays with Show on the pitcher’s yet-untitled jazz album. “To do what he’s done with so little training is very impressive.”
By the time he was a senior at UC Riverside, he was so bored with school, he stopped going. He spent his senior year playing baseball and tutoring other students so they could stay eligible.
“There was so much going through his mind, he couldn’t stay focused on one thing,” said his coach, Jack Smitheran. “But he was intelligent enough to make up for it. I remember his sophomore year, he was flunking chemistry, so I forced him to sit down at my house and, in three weeks, he memorized the entire book and got a ‘C.’ It was amazing.”
Show’s college career ended with one of the greater ironies of his life: He is 30 credits short of a degree. And he has no plans to go back.
“Why?” Show said. “The things I study about life cannot be found in textbooks.”
In fact, he said he considers the rest of his life to be like a senior year in college.
“I have dedicated the rest of my life to learning,” he says.
You innocently ask, learning what?
“Learning what? " he shouts. “What should I learn? I should learn everything!
“The question you should ask is, what should I leave out?”
Some Padres feel he could start by learning to keep his mouth shut.
When he entered baseball as an 18th-round draft choice in 1978, he was quiet, methodically overcoming the odds and making it to the big leagues four years later. But when he got there at the end of 1981, and was finally able to stick his head up and look around, he was stunned.
Nobody was like him. There was nobody to debate economics. There was nobody to accompany him to physics lectures.
He couldn’t understand how, of all the 100s of major leaguers with whom he came in contact, he couldn’t find more than a couple of friends.
“My world prior to baseball was one of theoretical extrapolation,” Show said. “I was working under the assumption that everyone has an insatiable curiosity.
“I get into it and find, I am wrong. So I was uncomfortable.”
And so in his own subtle, even witty, way, he lashed out. Still does. Greg Booker, the club’s popular relief pitcher, was recently leaving the clubhouse here. He called to a reporter about a future interview.
“Oh, going to engage in interesting conversation, are you?” Show said to Booker. “Something about Moon Pies, perhaps? Something about fishing holes?”
Booker looked at Show with a tight smile. Booker understands. Some don’t.
“Oh, Eric is fine,” Booker said. “I would not attempt to know him off the field, no way, but on the field, he’s great. You just can’t let him use those big words on you. You force him to speak English.”
Said Tim Flannery: “Guys know he marches to his own drummer. We just chuckle at him and leave him alone.”
It is isolation that Show seems to relish.
His only companion on the road is his guitar, which he carries from bus to plane to clubhouse. In the clubhouse, he will rarely join in the repartee of others. He doesn’t curse. He doesn’t drink except with dinner.
There are television sets in clubhouse, but he will not watch. He thinks television is generally a waste of time.
There will be newspapers lying around clubhouses, but he doesn’t read them. He doesn’t believe what they say.
One day before a game, Show went to a library’s archives and checked every footnote in a new philosophy book to make sure the information was properly disseminated.
“My life style is basically my choice,” Show said. “I have found very few people that have the same sense of life as I do.”
But he has discovered something. If he is to be the complete pitcher and player, it is an isolation that must end.
This realization came last year when his only two friends on the team, Storm Davis and Dave Dravecky, were traded.
“I think me and Dave leaving was a blessing in disguise,” said Davis, now with Oakland. “It will make him get out to the rest of the clubhouse more. It will maybe make the rest of the team realize how lucky they are to have him.”
Show agreed that having nobody to lean on may have changed things.
“I really think I am closer to acceptance than I have ever been,” he said. “I no longer try to influence people. I no longer come to work expecting anything but a good job and good time.”
Yet the isolation has already left its scars. From the haze around Show has risen two labels that he will spend the rest of his career fighting.
Eric Show doesn’t care about anything but Eric Show.
This rap arose partially because Eric Show cares about a lot of things other than baseball. Music is his true passion. He owns two guitar stores and has a ceiling-to-floor bookshelf filled with rare jazz albums.
Besides his new album, which the Eric Show Quartet cut this winter, he has released a pop single called “Gimme Some Kind Of Sign.”
On that single, he doesn’t sing, he just plays guitar, while a woman named Cinnamon sings.
“She’s the Mexican ‘Madonna,’ ” he says proudly. He is also playing the part of a government agent in a motion picture coming in June called “The Patriot Game.”
All of this is wonderful, but, combined with his just-in-time arrivals at the ballpark, they tend to make some members of the Padres wonder--just how important is baseball?
“He has more talent than anyone on the club, his stuff can really be nasty,” Gwynn said. “But it’s a matter of concentrating on your trade, on your job, on what you are paid to do, and nothing else.
“A couple of years ago, he asked me, ‘How can you do what you do? How can you get here this early and work so hard every day?’ I told him, ‘Because it’s the only thing I do.’ ”
Every fifth day, when Show does pitch, he has a habit of lingering on the mound after an umpire’s call he doesn’t like, or a poor fielding play. He might momentarily freeze his body in his follow-through position while shaking his head. It often looks as if he’s pouting.
Last season, on June 21, after getting pulled early from a game with the San Francisco Giants on a day of sloppy fielding, Show actually pointed at the fielders as he left the mound. This caused an exchange of words through the newspapers between he and Gwynn, a problem which has since been settled.
“I went to find him after that inning, and he had disappeared, out of the clubhouse, gone home,” Gwynn said. “We have to stick together in good and bad.
“And it’s an unwritten rule that you never show your emotion on the mound. The players get tired of seeing you complain. I get along great with Eric. But I can see in the past where there may have been problems.”
Explained Show: “I was just pointing at the fielders because I was telling Larry (Bowa), ‘If you are taking me out, take them out, too.’ It was just frustration.
“I have been selfish, sure, but is comes from wanting to do so good, so bad. My frustration becomes so intense, I internalize it. I am very, very hard on myself.”
And when he gets hard on himself, he just doesn’t think. Like when he sat on the Riverfront Stadium mound during Rose’s finest moment. At the time, some angry Padres said it was Show’s display, not Rose’s, that they would remember.
“I know, if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t sit down,” Show said. “But at the time I was tired of standing, and nobody would throw with me. Me sitting down meant nothing. People just don’t see things like I do.”
Eric Show is a John Bircher, Therefore he hates blacks, therefore he threw at Andre Dawson.
“First off,” Show said, “anyone who would hold the way a person is born against him, that’s the epitome of stupidity. I have a hard time believing people wear white sheets over their heads. I am not a racist.
“For gosh sakes, the two things I’m most involved in are dominated by blacks. Jazz and sports.”
This is a topic that makes Eric Show’s normally placid, pale face a deep red.
“Most people don’t take time to investigate me or my beliefs--they just believe what they are told,” he said, his voice rising. “To call someone a racist because they don’t understand or agree with their feelings is unbelievable!”
He is almost shouting: “I have a picture in my room of a man, Moise Tsombe, an African freedom fighter, one of the most important men of our time. I never even notice color.
“Nazi and racists have become liberal buzzwords for conservatives. I am not Nazi, or racist. How can people get away with calling me that? I’ve got a fundamental philosophy of less government, more reason, and with God’s help, a better world. And that’s it.”
On this point, at least one prominent Padre agreed.
“I can’t believe any of that racist stuff,” Gwynn said. “He’s always been very nice to me. That John Birch stuff never hurt him in the clubhouse, all the guys did was joke about it. Anyone who says he is a racist is wrong.”
On July 7, Show beaned Chicago Cubs star Andre Dawson. Not only was Show almost run out of Chicago, one ex-Padre said he wasn’t made to feel very welcome in his own clubhouse.
“After the Dawson thing, I sensed a coldness in there,” Storm Davis said. “It was like guys were laughing, like saying, ‘You dug your own hole, now how are you getting out of it?’ Some of them turned their backs, and didn’t care about him. It was cold and unprofessional.”
Show still shudders about that day in Chicago.
“The worst place, the worst time, the worst person to hit,” he said. “Later some people were backslapping me and saying, ‘Good job, you showed Dawson.” I would say to them, ‘You’re crazy! I never try to hit anyone.’
“Again, anybody who would try to turn it into a race issue is just crazy.”
Just the other day, Show appeared on a San Diego television talk show with ex-Black Panther Anthony Bryant. They talked politics and world affairs and became friends.
Gwynn was watching.
“Yeah, it’s funny; my wife and I came across that show on TV,” he said. “I said, ‘Look, Eric and a Black Panther,’ and we listened in. After 30 minutes I turned to her.
“‘Alicia,’ I said, ‘what the heck are they talking about?’ ”
Gwynn is laughing. Across the clubhouse, as if he has been listening in, Eric Show is laughing.
OK, Eric, we’ll talk about anti-si-hyperon particles now.
“Fascinating creatures,” Show said, brightening. “They are particles that you can’t see, so we can only judge them by the way they behave.”
Perhaps like this other certain creature he knows.