The real cause of Eric Show's death will not appear on autopsy or toxicology reports. He snorted crystal methamphetamine--speed, crank, rocket fuel--but he died of an inner torment not even his closest friends fully understood.
They heard his panicked cries of fear, his desperate calls for help. They loved him, but couldn't save him. Not the friends who took him in for weeks at a time, nor the wife who waited for him to come home. They saw death coming, yet didn't recognize it until it was too late.
The former San Diego Padres pitcher wrote a tender letter to his wife Cara Mia, a week before he died at 37 on March 16, telling her he was entering a new stage of life. Death, he believed, would bring salvation. At the same time, Show visited his father, hospitalized with Alzheimer's disease, and made peace at last with him after years of emotional emptiness between them. He held his father's limp hand, kissed him and never saw him again.
A portrait of a brilliant, generous but terribly troubled man emerged from interviews with Show's friends and former teammates since his death. He was never easy to understand, and his death in a rehabilitation center was no ordinary drug overdose.
He had been a millionaire star for the Padres, led them to their only National League pennant 10 years ago, and possessed the talent to be a top jazz guitarist. Yet he got sucked into a vortex of despair, and a week ago he was buried in a green coffin with his guitar, his glove and a ball.
Some of the secrets of his enigmatic life are beginning to surface. The infamous cuts on his fingers at spring training two years ago came from climbing a barbed wire fence to escape "the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time," he confided to a friend. That led to his release by the Oakland Athletics and the premature end of his baseball career. To all but a few people, he disappeared mysteriously when he left camp.
Show's death ended two lost years in a life that had been so full of fervor for baseball and music, physics and art, math and religion, politics and philosophy. He had a probing mind. He would much rather spend an afternoon on the road in an art museum than hanging around the hotel talking baseball. He had an appetite for learning as great as his appetite for food.
If Show came off as arrogant, as he did to some teammates, he demonstrated compassion often enough, too, by helping the homeless with hot meals.
It was not arrogance or petulance that led Show to sit down on the mound when he gave up Pete Rose's record 4,192nd hit in 1985. He certainly looked odd at the time, but all Show did was rest a few moments until the commotion died down. And he did congratulate Rose.
But the Show of those years was far different from the troubled soul of recent years.
"He was obviously sick. I don't know if drugs made him sick, or because he was sick he used drugs," said Mark Augustin, his partner in a guitar shop, one of his most devoted friends to the end and a pallbearer at his funeral. "It was a gradual diminishment of enthusiasm over the past couple of years. He told me he was bored. He was stuck. He hated the fact that he was doing drugs. But he was never a vagabond, a street person, as some people said. He always had a roof over his head and he was very successful in business.
"Eric had always done everything passionately. There was no halfway about him. That's why he accomplished so much in such a short time. But he was so complex that, as much as I knew him, as tight as we were, I still could never get at the bottom of what his real struggle was. We talked about it many times. We talked about what made him tick. He wanted to know. That was his struggle.
"Drugs were just part of his struggle. There were deeper issues inside--childhood issues, his relationship with his father. He wanted to be closer to him. I think there was a void there that Eric desperately wanted filled. His father really pushed him hard to play ball. If it wasn't for his father, he never would have been a major league ballplayer. But being a major league ballplayer is not everything."
Show loved the game, calling it "divine" in its balance and symmetry and praising it for being "purely American like a Norman Rockwell painting." He majored in physics at UC Riverside and once observed, "As long as air has weight, I'll have a slider."
Yet he was always a little uncomfortable with the money and fame baseball brought. He wanted people to know he was more than just a guy who threw a ball. When kids were around, he signed autographs enthusiastically, chatting with them and taking an interest in their answers. He never considered himself a hero, and when he first saw his picture on a bubble gum card he got a little angry.
"I didn't look like Mickey Mantle and I was mad," Show once told Mike MacIntosh, the San Diego Police Department chaplain who eulogized him at last Saturday's memorial service in his hometown of Riverside.
"He was serious," said MacIntosh, who had known Show since his minor league days in 1980. "In his mind's eye, he would look as big as Mickey Mantle, and he said, 'It was just me on the card. I wasn't Mickey Mantle. I wasn't some big hero. It was just me."'
Around Christmas, Show wept on the phone to MacIntosh, pleading for help. MacIntosh, busy at the time, assigned two pastors to Show full time to assist him during another attempt at rehab.
"He was smart enough to know not to do drugs," MacIntosh said. "And he hated it. But it confirmed that he had a weakness, a flaw. He was struggling to please everybody and be perfect and he just couldn't be. He tried to be a good college student, a good son, a good friend, a good husband. He was always real intensive. But when he would see his flaws and weaknesses, he'd beat himself over the head, trying to say, 'Oh, I've got to do more.' Instead of just enjoying, he was always struggling. He couldn't turn his mind off."
Show, profoundly religious for years, was consumed by an overpowering spiritual battle with himself. Former Padre teammate Dave Dravecky credited Show with giving him the courage and faith to deal with the loss of his pitching arm to cancer, but Show couldn't deal with his own demons.
"For anybody who wants to know, read Romans 7:5-25," Augustin said. "That was his struggle. It talks about doing the things that you don't want to do, but you still do them. It's not you that's doing them, it's the law of sin. And the law of sin is opposed to spiritual law. Eric delighted in God's law. He really did. He would want you to print that."
Part of that verse reads: 'O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"
Show had a theory about everything. He stirred up a fuss in 1984 by joining the right-wing John Birch Society, espousing a belief in global conspiracies, and getting Dravecky and Mark Thurmond to join him at a society booth at the Del Mar Fair. But Show was no racist, no neo-Nazi as some who didn't know him thought. He was more of an intellectual conservative in a William Buckley way, soft-spoken but pointed in his arguments.
One of Show's best friends on the Padres, and favorite opponents in heated debates, was Alan Wiggins, an admirer of Malcolm X. Wiggins died three years ago of AIDS contracted from intravenous drug use.
Show took heat in 1987 when he caused a near-riot in Chicago by hitting Andre Dawson in the face. Show's John Birch affiliation had made some people believe he was bigoted and the throw deliberate.
"I felt very isolated, very alone at times," Show said a few years ago. "It was like a family--a dysfunctional family. There was a lot of turmoil. A lot of chaos. There were times when it seemed like everybody was hating everybody."
Show could have left it all behind and walked into a new career in jazz. "He had the talent," saxophone player Joe Marillo said at Croce's, the bar owned by Jim Croce's widow where Show sometimes sat in on sessions. "He had the feeling, the timing, the knowledge of the chords, the scales, and the passion most of all. And when you have that, you don't rely on cliches. You wait for your ear to bring you melodies. If he did it full time, he could have been a great jazz player."
But Show never gave up the hope of returning to baseball, even when it was clear to others that he couldn't. He was working on a new pitch--a "cup ball" that was thrown like a fastball but slowed like a changeup--and stayed in good shape by working out often. His numbers still looked good, a San Diego record with 100 victories in 10 years before his release. If only he could start over fresh somewhere and without back pain.
He had undergone back surgery to remove a disk in 1989 and lost his first six decisions in 1990. Fans booed him and some teammates turned against him. Jack Clark called him selfish and screamed at him in a team meeting. He began feuding with pitching coach Pat Dobson. The Padres tried to trade him, but got no takers. At the end of the season they bought out his contract. Two months later he signed a two-year, $1.6 million deal with the Athletics, the pennant-contending team he had long dreamed of playing for. But after one mediocre year in Oakland and his release when he showed up with cut hands in spring training, Show was finished.
By that time he was getting more involved with the insidious and powerful crystal meth. Ten bucks for a big rush, a six-hour high and, inevitably, depression and paranoia.
Show had spent part of that off-season trying to get away from the drug by turning to Scott Ruiz, Oakland's team chaplain. Show briefly left his wife to move in with Ruiz and his wife for many draining days of prayer and talk. Cara Mia stayed home, hoping Show would return at peace with himself and with the zest he once had.
"Cara Mia never gave up on Eric," Ruiz said.
"This really needs to be made clear," Augustin said. "Eric and Cara Mia had a very strong marriage. There was a tremendous amount of love between the two of them. People probably are pondering how come Eric wasn't at home with his wife. He knew that what he was dealing with was inappropriate. He left out of love for her."
Show's moods swung from exuberant to apathetic, but the more time went on the more his indifference dominated. The thrill was gone, as B.B. King sang, and jolts of crystal could bring it back only briefly. The drug called to him and he answered.
The night before Show checked back into rehab for the final time, he and friend Bob Bell were eating at a Burger King when Show abruptly wrote out a complicated math formula and said excitedly, "Hey, Bob, look at this. It works." Bell stared at the symbols and found them as incomprehensible as French, but it was a moment that recalled the time when Show had been a dazzling intellect to all those around him.
"He lived several lifetimes in one," said Bell, who works with Augustin in Mark's Guitar Exchange. "He was always just go, go, go. He had a profound intensity about everything. I wish I had half his brains, talent and energy. He was what every guy wanted to be. Who doesn't want to be the pitcher in the pennant race, a jazz guitarist who can stand up and play beautifully, a man who can talk intelligently about Plato and physics. I called him a Renaissance man. It embarrassed him when I said that, but it was true."
The next afternoon, Show was distant and disinterested again. He had lunch with Augustin, and at 11 p.m. that night checked himself back into the private Rancho L'Abri rehab retreat. He was still trying to kick the habit, still looking for a safe place. At 8:23 a.m. the following morning, he was found dead in his bed.
"Now that I look back on it, he was saying goodbye to people near the end, as if he knew it was close," Augustin said, thinking about a signed photograph Show gave him recently expressing love and friendship. "At the time you don't realize.
"He was larger than life," Augustin added, his voice choking and his eyes moist. "I felt honored to be with him."