ROCKY ROAD TO RECOVERY : Padre’s Biggest Battle Is Off the Field : Baseball: York hopes his struggle with alcoholism won’t keep him from making the team.
Mike York’s hands start to tremble. His eyes dart back and forth while his foot incessantly taps the floor. He picks up a rubber band, and snapping it so hard between his hands that it finally breaks.
No matter how he tries to conceal it, he still can’t hide from the anxieties that await. He makes his Padre debut today as the starting pitcher against the Cleveland Indians.
He prays to be spared the cruel and vicious taunts.
“Want a beer, York? Have a sip with me, I won’t tell anyone. You know you want it. It tastes so good, York, one beer won’t hurt you. Come on, York, you afraid of a little beer?
Baseball fans can be merciless at times.
York has heard all of the malicious heckling. He tries to brace himself for it each time he pitches, but the words hurt just the same. Now he’s terrified someone will bring it up in front of his new teammates.
“I think maybe two or three of my teammates know,” York said, “but that’s all. I hate it when everyone finds out, because they start to change. They act differently toward you.
“They don’t ask what you’re doing after games. They quit asking you out to dinner. They don’t want to go anywhere with you where there’s going to be alcohol.
“It’s like you’re a social misfit.
“All I am is a recovering alcoholic.”
This is York’s sixth organization in nine years. Three times he was released because of alcoholism. Twice he has been in and out of rehabilitation centers.
York is 27.
“There are things today I still don’t know about Mike,” said Stephanie York, Mike’s wife of nearly two years. “He’s told me a lot of things, but it’s been piece by piece. He never wanted to hit me all at once with it.”
It’s not easy to tell your wife that you’ve been arrested five times and placed behind bars for: assault and battery; assault and battery on a police officer; disorderly conduct; and two driving while intoxicated charges.
“I just didn’t get along too good with police officers,” York said. “It seems like every weekend I was in jail for something. Sometimes longer.”
It has taken three years for York to get his driver’s license back.
It has taken nearly six years just to put his life back in order.
“There was a time when all I thought about was my next drink,” York said. “People like to say there’s a difference between being an alcoholic and drug addict. That’s a bunch of crap.
“It doesn’t matter whether you drink it, smoke it, snort it or shoot it. It’s still drugs, man. You still crave it. You still want it. It’s no difference from being addicted on crack, or alcohol.
“Everyone knows a crack addict would do anything for his next hit.
“Well, I’d do anything in this world for that drink.”
York usually sneaks out of his hotel room in the late afternoon or early evening. He leaves, saying he’s taking a walk. His walks take him to the local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
It doesn’t matter that nearly six years have passed since York touched a drink--Sept. 26, 1986. Every day remains a battle.
“You’re never cured,” York said. “You may not be drinking, but you’re not cured. There’s no cure for an alcoholic. It’s not the 20th beer, or the fifth beer that gets you. It’s that first beer.
“It never goes away. You think about it when you’re alone. You think about it when you’re watching those beer commercials on TV, imagining how good it will taste. You always remember that taste.
“But when I start thinking about it more than five minutes, then I know I’m in trouble.
“That’s when I get on the phone.”
The calls go to Sam McDowell, the ex-Cleveland Indian pitcher. He is a drug and alcoholic counselor who has treated 285 baseball players the last 11 years. He also is a recovering alcoholic.
York has telephoned McDowell four times since the beginning of camp. McDowell bolsters his confidence.
“That man saved me life,” York said. “I don’t know where I’d be without him. He’s my best friend. He’s my life-support system.
“I remember when I got out of rehab, I must have called that man every day, at every hour of the night, for four straight months. I mean, I as calling him at 5 in the morning, midnight, it didn’t matter.
“He was always there when I needed him.”
McDowell entered York’s life in 1986. York had just been released by the Detroit Tigers, his third organization in four years, and was looking for a job.
What once began as twice-a-week drinking sessions when he was drafted in 1982 by the New York Yankees, had become a raging battle with alcoholism that had turned him into a derelict. He daily was drinking a case of beer and a half-fifth of whiskey.
“When I was drinking, I didn’t care about anybody but me,” York said. “I thought this was Mike’s world, and everybody’s visiting it. I’d get drunk during games, and hope line drives would break pitcher’s legs, just to help me get to the big leagues. I didn’t care.
“I was drinking all the time, and I thought I was hiding it well, but everyone knew what was going on. I was fooling nobody.”
There were times York couldn’t even stop drinking during three-hour games. He used to hide liquor in the bullpen and was drunk several times when he came into games.
“I just loved that feeling,” York said. “That’s why I started in the first place. It gave me this confidence. I could talk to women without fear of being rejected. I could pitch without fear of failure.
“Alcohol did for me what no human being could do.”
The Tigers never were fooled. They released him one day before the end of the 1986 season at Class A Gastonia. York may have had a great arm, but they were tired of his blood-alcohol count being higher than his ERA.
York remembers going home that afternoon, buying a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey. He began bashing furniture and screaming in anger, which forced the neighbors to call the police.
“I went out the back door and just ran,” York said, “and never came back.
“I went back to Chicago and got drunk for four weeks straight. Every day and night, I’d go out and get drunk.
“I remember going into bars at 11 in the morning, my hands shaking where I could barely control them, just looking for that first drink. I needed it like a heroin addict needs his fix, then I was all right again.”
York began looking for work again and the Pittsburgh Pirates called. Sid Thrift, then the Pirates’ general manager, said the team would give him another chance if he agreed to be evaluated by McDowell.
“He was very, very reluctant at first,” Thrift said. “But we said it would be simple: ‘Either work with Sam, or you’re not coming with us.’ ”
Said York: “I didn’t believe I was an alcoholic,” York said. “My impression of an alcoholic was a skid-row bum. The guys who live in boxes, the winos.
“I was still young, how could I be a alcoholic?”
McDowell, whose career was curtailed by alcohol, became the first man in his life to prove it.
“He also saved his life,” Thrift said.
York and McDowell met in Florida during the Instructional League. They would be roommates. For a week.
Unless York killed him first.
“Mike was trying to pretend he was in recovery simply because he wanted to get back in ball,” McDowell said. “He didn’t believe he needed help. He was filled with anger that I was even around.
“His feelings were uncontrollable. There was so much pent-up anger. I finally laid it on the line. ‘Everything you’re saying is bull. . . . I’ve been there. You can’t con me. I’ve heard every con in the world, and you’re not close to the best.’
“He got so angry he wanted to kill me.”
Said York: “I’m not sure I would have killed him, but I stood up and I was going to beat the crap out of him.”
It was at that moment he knew McDowell was right. He was an alcoholic who needed help.
“I called up Sid Thrift that night and told him to sign Mike.”
Thrift: “Go ahead, but I’m holding you responsible.”
McDowell: “OK, if anything goes wrong, I’ll guarantee his salary.”
Sober for the first time since he was drafted in 1982 out of high school, York won a league-high 17 games for Macon in the South Atlantic League. He slowly moved up the organization ladder, and on Aug. 17, 1990, pitched seven shutout innings against the Cincinnati Reds for his first major league victory.
York stayed with the Pirates for the final month of the season, but their talented pitching staff prevented him from making the team out of spring training last year. He was optioned to triple-A Buffalo, and was traded last May to Cleveland. He spent half the season with the Indians, but after a 1-4 record and 6.75 ERA, coupled with elbow problems, they became the latest team to release him.
Only this time it was because of talent, not alcohol.
York wondered if his career might be finished, but soon discovered he had more talent than he realized. Eight teams called, seeking his services. Two teams offered more money than the Padres.
The Padres told him they had an opening in their starting rotation. York asked where he could sign.
“We know he’s got a great arm, and also are aware of his past history,” said McIlvaine, whom signed York on the recommendation of scout Carmen Fusco. “Everybody has problems in life, but the people who overcome them are better for it.”
York sits by his locker, listening to teammates talk about the previous night’s escapades. They debate the best bars in town.
York doesn’t say a word. What’s he going to tell them, that he was in his first rehabilitation center at Palos Hospital in Chicago while everyone else was watching the 1985 World Series? Or that he missed the ’86 World Series too, spending 32 days at the Coral Springs Care Unit in Florida?
“Just because Mike York is a recovering alcoholic,” he said, “doesn’t mean the whole world has to stop drinking around him. I don’t want people to think they have to change when I’m around.
“I don’t want any sympathy, or certainly don’t want any self-pity.”
It was difficult enough telling his wife about his past. They met in 1989 when he was in Harrisburg, Pa. She worked in a sporting goods store and he was a star pitcher.
“I remember I didn’t even want to meet him in the first place,” Stephanie said. “I didn’t want to go out with baseball players. He kept insisting, so finally I told him I’d meet him at Club Met in town. It was a public place, so I felt safe.”
Club Met happened to be a sports bar.
When York walked in, Stephanie already was nursing a drink. He ordered a Coke. She ordered another drink. Stephanie was a bit surprised he wasn’t drinking, too, but thought the reason was because he was an athlete.
Little did she realize she’d soon be marrying an alcoholic.
“I still remember the day he told me, Stephanie said, “it was so hard to believe. We were in Williamsport after a rainout. He grabbed a bite to eat, and he pointed to a few of his teammates sitting at the bar. He said, ‘I used to do that. But I can’t anymore. I’m an alcoholic.’
“It was almost like I didn’t want to believe it. He was so young. How could he be an alcoholic?
“I always drank socially and thought nothing of it. You know, you go to college and have all those fraternity and sorority parties, and that’s all there is, a lot of drinking. How could someone so young have a problem?”
Said York: “I told her there’s nothing wrong with drinking. Some people can handle it. I can’t.”
York never thought about it at the time, but realizes now that alcoholism runs in the family. One of his immediate family members had a drinking problem, York said, but he refuses to become more specific.
He knows there’ll never be a day in his life where he can have another drink.
“Every day is a battle,” York said. “There’s not a day you don’t think about it, especially when there’s a lot of pressure, and you’re all alone.
“You start to hear voices. Voices that tempt you. I’m telling you, it’s a very powerful drug.
“Money don’t matter. The wife don’t matter. When you’re an alcoholic, all that matters is your next drink.”
It’s never as if you never completely conquer the disease, York said. You can’t jump and down, and ever say you’ve won. You just go day by day, dodging continuing bullets of temptation.
“That’s why if you’re on the tracks long enough, the train’s going to hit you,” York said. “It smacked the hell out of me.
“It’s taken a long time, but I finally can say I feel good about myself again.
“And you don’t know how good that feels.”