A Troubled Life, a Lonely Death : Former Padre Star Alan Wiggins Is Remembered by Friends Who Lost Touch With Him After Drugs Ruined Promising Career
The three sat together in pews at Calvary C.M.E. Methodist Church in Pasadena Friday during the funeral service, trying to comfort one another and erase feelings of guilt created by their friend’s death.
These were three of Alan Wiggins’ closest friends growing up in Pasadena, staying together from Little League to Elliott Junior High to the Senior Babe Ruth League to being teammates at Muir High.
There was Warren Hollier, a 6-foot-6 pitcher and the star of the group, who eventually earned a baseball scholarship to Oral Roberts. There was Lyle Brackenridge, the shortstop, who went to Cal. There was Wayne Stone, the right fielder, who also wound up at Oral Roberts.
They were all close, all sharing the same dream. They were inseparable, playing ball at Brookside Park across from the Rose Bowl in the mornings. Their diamond was nothing more than a sandlot. They would rake an infield, build a pitching mound, and while playing the field, pulled their hats on tightly to prevent them from falling into the stickers.
“We’d sit around and talk about pro ball, what was going to happen, how we’d do,” Hollier said. “Alan and I were best friends. Neither of us had a dad, or much money, and we figured sports was our way out.
“Alan probably had less than any of us, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him. I remember once when he didn’t have any shoes to wear, so he wore these white Converse high-tops, and he didn’t care who laughed at him.”
What did matter was that Wiggins could out-run anyone in his bare feet. He knew he was going to play ball. He just knew it. All you had to do was ask him.
“Alan knew he had superior talent,” Stone said. “I remember one day I was working, and he said to me, ‘You know something, I’ll never have to work a day in my life,’ and he kind of laughed.
“You know something, he never did.”
Said Donald Wiggins, Alan’s 35-year-old brother: “I remember those guys would actually sit around and practice signing autographs. That’s why when you look at his signature, it’s so good. He had been practicing.”
When Wiggins made it to the big leagues with the Padres to stay in 1982, the four of them would get together every time Wiggins came into town. Each of the four players was drafted, but with the exception of Wiggins, none advanced past double-A. He was living out all their fantasies.
“When we saw him, we’d always pick his brain, wanting to know how he made it,” Stone said. “He’d tell us we all could make it, you know, making us feel good.
But the visits became more infrequent each year, and when he was released by the Baltimore Orioles after the 1987 season, the gang never again got together, or even talked by telephone.
They never had a chance to say goodby.
Wiggins, 32, died Jan. 6 of complications caused by AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, according to one of his doctors. Wiggins had been suffering from complications caused by AIDS for three years, said the doctor, who declined to be identified.
Wiggins’ family and the Cedars-Sinai Hospital staff decline to publicly acknowledge the cause of death, but one family member, and several friends of Wiggins, confirmed that Wiggins died from complications caused by AIDS.
“He has had some health problems for some time, he knew what was happening,” said Dr. James McGee, Wiggins’ psychiatrist in Baltimore. “The last few times I talked to him, about four months ago, were not fun, happy conversations. He was not in good shape, and wasn’t optimistic.
“Things were not going well for him.”
Wiggins, who had been hospitalized on several occasions, was admitted into the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai at 12:20 a.m. Nov. 29. The admissions report said Wiggins was “coughing, had breathing difficulty, and a clear indication of pneumonia.”
He drifted in and out of consciousness during his stay, and 37 days later, he was dead.
“It’s so tough when you see someone going through the pain he was going through,” said Donald Wiggins, “and not being able to do anything about it. We always hung onto that hope. We kept praying God would perform a miracle.
“We held out hope right to the end.”
The man who was the catalyst on the San Diego Padres’ 1984 National League championship team weighed less than 75 pounds at the time of death.
“I feel like basically he died alone,” Hollier said. “We all cared about him greatly, but I think he felt embarrassed about what happened, and he shut us out. I mean as close as we were, none of us even knew he was sick. Can you believe it?
“I’ve shed a lot of tears over this, and I don’t want to place blame on myself or Lyle or Wayne, but we feel bad because we were not persistent enough. We used to say all the time, we need to go down there (to San Diego), grab the brother, pull him aside, and straighten him out. But we lost contact.
“He always felt embarrassed about the problems he had. He probably just needed someone to say, ‘It’s OK. I don’t want to put any guilt on myself, but I wish I had been there for him, and given him encouragement.
“It’s really a shame. There’s so much I wanted to tell him. There’s so much I wanted to thank him for what he did.
“Most of all, I just wanted to tell him that I love him.”
Steve Garvey was the only member of the 1984 Padre World Series team that attended the services. Lee Lacy was the only Oriole player who arrived. In all, there were only five former teammates who paid their respects to Wiggins.
“Some friends, huh?,” said Tony Attanasio, Wiggins’ agent and confidant. “I remember when he was with the Padres, and was in Minnesota (in drug rehabilitation). He’d call me and say, ‘Here’s my number, tell the guys to call me.’ I’d go to the ballpark, give out the number to a few guys, and you know what? Not once did anyone call.
“That’s what makes me sick now, seeing these guys come out in the paper like they’re his friends, and they’re not even at the funeral. His friends were at the service. The rest is pseudo, and that bothers me a lot.”
Wiggins always was different, friends and family say. He was an introvert and trusted few people.
“If you didn’t know him, you might get the wrong picture of him,” Stone said. “People didn’t have the right perception. We’d see things in the paper about him, and say, ‘Come on, that’s not the Alan we know. “
Said Padre right fielder Tony Gwynn: “To not like Alan Wiggins, is to not know Alan Wiggins.”
In Baltimore, they gave everyone on the team an IQ test. Wiggins scored the highest. The only one in uniform who was higher was Manager Earl Weaver.
“You know,” McGee said, “he could have avoided the bad press. If he told people his life story, people would back off. But he didn’t think it was their business.
“He was a guy who had a lot of pride, and that was both an asset, and a liability, in a lot of ways.”
Said Donald: “He was so very honest, and very direct. I may not have liked some of the things he was saying, but at least you knew where you stood.
“It may have gotten him into trouble at times, but that’s Tony.”
Wiggins, who was called Tony by his family and Alan by his friends, acknowledged that he sometimes would be stubborn intentionally, simply to see the reaction of his teammates. And always, always, he would love a debate. There was no teammate he enjoyed more than pitcher Eric Show, who belongs to the John Birch Society. They would scream at one another for 20 minutes, and teammates would prepare to step in for a fight, but then it would stop, and Wiggins would congratulate Show for a nice round of discussion.
“It was like point-counterpoint, Wiggs just loved that,” Gwynn said. “I mean, Wiggs would say, ‘What do you like better, Coke or Pepsi?’ He could care less. He just wanted an answer. And as soon as you said one thing, he’d take the other side, and make you argue about it.
“But he’d respect you for putting up an argument.”
There were others who simply couldn’t figure him out. His Oriole teammates never did, or perhaps never bothered. And there were occasional spats in the Padre clubhouse.
“I think Alan was confused,” former Padre Tim Flannery said, “even his best friends never knew him. I don’t know if he was searching, had a chip on his shoulder, or what it was. I don’t agree with a lot of things he did, and I didn’t like him much, to be honest with you, but we were on the same ballclub, and respected one another.
“People who don’t play professional sports say you should know everything about a guy, but we didn’t know him. Who did? Maybe he didn’t want to play anymore. Maybe he didn’t want success. I don’t know, I’ve got more questions than anyone else.
“I’ve got a picture on the wall I keep staring at. It’s me and Wiggins hugging each other after scoring the winning run against the Cubs in the ’84 playoffs.
“One day my son’s going to ask me, ‘Who’s that hugging you, Daddy?’ and I’m going to have to tell him.
“And that bothers me.
“That bothers me a lot.”
There are no direct, simple reasons why Wiggins became an addict, and allowed drugs to ruin his life, but McGee said: “I think they were a number of very significant traumas in his personal life that very few people know about. It was one of issues where he was depressed or preoccupied, and it was perceived as arrogance or aloofness.
“At the time, he was carrying the weight of the world on his two shoulders, and no one knew.”
There were marital problems between Wiggins and his wife, Angie, but when friends suggested divorce, Wiggins would glare at them. He was raised without a father, and wanted to make sure his kids had both parents.
There was the everyday pressure of trying to succeed in the role of a public figure, when he so badly wanted to remain private.
And there was his mother, Karla Wiggins. It was her illness, friends say, that might have triggered Alan’s dependency, although Donald Wiggins scoffs at the notion.
It was about in 1983, Wiggins’ friends say, when Karla Wiggins was diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s disease. It left Alan devastated. Some say he never recovered.
“When his mom kind of lost it, that’s when he started to lose it,” Gwynn said. “His mom was so proud of his accomplishments. She was kind of like his life support system. That started his whole slide.”
Said Hollier: “I hate to say it, but it was like that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I remember seeing her, and she was so proud. Alan had made it. But she wasn’t herself anymore.
“Now, Alan couldn’t buy her a big beautiful house like he planned, or a nice car, because what was she going to do with it with Alzheimer’s disease?”
There were early signs of problems in Wiggins’ career after he was selected in the first round of the 1977 draft by the Angels. Midway through the season, he had a fight with one of his coaches, and was released in June.
The incident didn’t deter the Dodgers from selecting him in the first round of the free-agent draft in January of 1978. He kept improving, and stole a minor league record 120 bases in 1980.
The Dodgers, however, curiously left him unprotected after that season, and the Padres snatched him up.
The reason for the Dodgers’ decision was simple.
“It was known in our organization that he had a problem in the Dodger organization,” said Dick Williams, who then managed the Padres. “They didn’t want a part of it.”
The Dodgers won’t confirm any drug involvement, but Padre officials say it simply involved an arrest for possession of marijuana.
Wiggins was arrested again for possession of marijuana in 1981, but the Padres shrugged it off.
“We didn’t think it was anything problematic thing,” said Tom Romenesko, then-Padre farm director. “We just thought it was a social thing. I grew up in Wisconsin. You think I don’t drink beer? He was caught by the police, so we just hid it.”
But it happened again, this time in San Diego on the night of July 21, 1982. Wiggins was arrested for possession of a gram of cocaine.
This time, he was sent to a drug rehabilitation clinic in Orange County. He stayed 30 days, was reinstated, and then went right back into the lineup.
“I remember after that happened,” Gwynn said, “he sat by me and started telling me about the rehab centers. It was like he was laughing about it. He was saying how they don’t faze him, and told me, ‘You can’t rehab a guy in 28 days, you just can’t do it.’
“When he said that, I knew, sooner or later, he’d relapse.”
If Wiggins returned soon to drugs, he did a wonderful acting job. He was selected as the Padres’ most valuable player for the 1983 season, batting .276 with a club-record 66 stolen bases. The next season, he would establish himself as one of the finest players in the league.
“If not for Alan Wiggins,” Williams said, “we don’t win the championship. It’s that simple. He was our catalyst. He was our most valuable player. My God, could he play!”
The Padres experimented before the 1984 season by moving Wiggins to second base, and by the time the season ended, Wiggins had scored 106 runs, stole 70 bases, and the Padres had a National League pennant.
The Padres, wanting to make sure that Wiggins was going to be with them for a long time, signed him to a four-year, $2.8-million contract. No one even blinked. He was part of the future.
Until April 25, 1985.
“I’ll never forget that day as long as I live,” Flannery said. “I’m taking infield, and Dick Williams comes to me about 25 minutes before game time and said, ‘Get ready, because you’re going to be playing tonight. And you’re going to be playing a long time because the other guy'--that’s what he called him--'didn’t show up.
“That’s the last time most of us ever saw him.”
Wiggins never arrived, and after the Padres called the police, he emerged the next day, and was in a rehabilitation center by the weekend.
This time, the Padres ended their leniency. Padre owner Joan Kroc said that Wiggins wasn’t coming back, and there was nothing Wiggins or Attanasio could do to persuade her otherwise.
“It still bothers me to this day,” Attanasio said. “The problem in San Diego should have been taken care of from the start. It was not a matter of baseball. It was a matter of life. A human being was in trouble.
“They didn’t even listen. I said, ‘What if the doctor says he not only can play, but must play to preserve his life?’
“Do you know what (Kroc’s) response was: “ . . . him.’ I said, ‘What did you say? She gave me the same response.”
Ballard Smith, then-Padre president, said: “We knew after that happened, he’d never play for us again. While some people looked at what we did was somewhat cruel, every doctor I’ve talked to in the field told that me that the last thing drug addicts will do is hold onto their job. If you force them to live up to their responsibilities, you can be a catalyst. We had to do what we thought was right.”
The Orioles settled on an agreement in which the Padres would be obligated to pay part of the contract if Wiggins had a relapse, and then traded them pitchers Roy L. Jackson and Rich Caldell.
The Padres never were the same again.
Nor was Wiggins.
Angie Wiggins, Alan’s wife of nine years, stood in front of the congregation at the funeral service and asked if Lee Lacy, Alan’s former teammate in Baltimore, was in attendance. Lacy slowly raised his hand.
“Alan loved Lee Lacy,” Angie Wiggins said. “I believe Lee Lacy’s not in Baltimore today because he stuck up for Alan. They were dogging him with the Orioles, and Lee Lacy stuck by him where a lot of the others wouldn’t.”
Angie would have continued, but her brother, Darrell, firmly squeezed her elbow. This was not the time for bitterness.
Wiggins spent 2 1/2 seasons with the Orioles. He was ostracized by the fans, and, more painfully, by his teammates during his stay.
“It was abysmal,” Attanasio said. “Players would stand in an area, Alan would walk over, and guys would (disperse), and leave Alan standing alone. He’d walk over to another group, and they’d leave.
“When he was on the road, he was alone. When he was at home, he was alone. It manifested itself into a lot of disappointment, and a lot of misunderstanding.
“The guys didn’t even know he was married. They didn’t know he had kids. And they didn’t care.
“He was unmercifully depressed. They turned their backs and pushed him aside in San Diego, and now, he was going to Baltimore, replacing Rich Dauer, who was one of the close-knit guys on the team.
“They’re thinking, here comes this black militant kid, and he’s trying to to take one of our guys’ place. They never forgave him for that, and he was ostracized.”
Wiggins belonged to a clique of one. The end was near Aug. 5, 1987, when he wound up fighting Jim Dwyer by the batting cage. Before he knew it, Wiggins was engaged in a scuffle with Manager Cal Ripken Sr.
By the end of the month, he was suspended by Peter Ueberroth, then-Commissioner, for failing a drug test. On Sept. 29, 1987, Wiggins was released by the Orioles and out of baseball.
Wiggins began studying the real-estate market when he returned to San Diego. He frequently visited the library, studied zoning laws, and even talked about a possible baseball comeback. Mostly, he spent his free time fishing and playing an occasional round of golf.
He began losing weight, but he rarely weighed more than 160 pounds during his playing days, so few people noticed. He began preparing for his children’s financial future. He purchased a home in Rancho Penasquitos for $414,000 in June of 1988 and sold it for $657,500 last July. He double-checked on his $150,000 life insurance policy with the players’ association. He spent time with Attanasio, making the proper arrangements for his deferred salary, which was to be $100,000 a year for the next seven years, followed by a lump sum of $1 million.
“He loved his children so much,” Attanasio said, “he was going to make sure they would always be taken care of.”
His visits to friend became less and less frequent in the last year, until he almost was in seclusion. He still would make visits to see his family, but the telephone calls to even his closest friends began to stop.
He was with the family in May when his farther, Albert, died of cancer. It was a devastating loss to Alan, said his brother, Donald. Alan Wiggins and his father had become closer in recent years and Alan frequently would take his kids to see him.
Knowing that he was close to death, Wiggins put his Poway home on the market and moved to Pasadena. He usually stayed with friends, until he could no longer survive on his own, and it was his brother Kenneth who had him admitted to the emergency room that night in November.
Wiggins lapsed in and out of consciousness throughout the final seven weeks of his life. He kept fighting, trying so hard to beat the disease, but the infection was relentless.
“He kept fighting,” Kenneth said. “He never gave up.”
It was Angie, and her mother, Anna Woods, who last saw Alan alive. They visited him in the hospital that night, and Angie tried to soothe him, rubbing lotion on his shoulders. Still, the pain was unbearable.
Two hours later, after Angie returned to her home with the children, her mother telephoned. Alan had died.
Expect for a small group, most of Alan’s friends didn’t find out until they heard the news late Monday night. Questions immediately arose. Some remain unanswered.
“I think everybody’s asking themselves, ‘Why,’ ” Hollier said, “and what could could have done to help. I’m still trying to figure out why this happened.”
Wiggins is buried on a hillside at Rose Hills Memorial Park.