By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Thirty-five years ago, on June 12, 1970, Pittsburgh Pirate and future Texas Rangers pitcher Dock Ellis found himself in the Los Angeles home of a childhood friend named Al Rambo. Two days earlier, he'd flown with the Pirates to San Diego for a four-game series with the Padres. He immediately rented a car and drove to L.A. to see Rambo and his girlfriend Mitzi. The next 12 hours were a fog of conversation, screwdrivers, marijuana and, for Ellis, amphetamines. He went to sleep in the early morning, woke up sometime after noon and immediately took a dose of Purple Haze acid. Ellis would frequently drop acid on off days and weekends; he had a room in his basement christened "The Dungeon," in which he'd lock himself and listen to Jimi Hendrix or Iron Butterfly "for days."
A bit later, how long exactly he can't recall, he came across Mitzi flipping through a newspaper. She scanned for a moment, then noticed something.
"Dock," she said. "You're supposed to pitch today."
Ellis focused his mind. No. Friday. He wasn't pitching until Friday. He was sure.
"Baby," she replied. "It is Friday. You slept through Thursday."
Ellis remained calm. The game would start late. Ample time for the acid to wear off. Then it struck him: doubleheader. The Pirates had a doubleheader. And he was pitching the first game. He had four hours to get to San Diego, warm up and pitch. If something didn't happen in the interim, Dock Philip Ellis, age 25, was about to enter a 50,000-seat stadium and throw a very small ball, very hard, for a very long time, without the benefit of being able to, you know, feel the thing.
Which, it turns out, was one of the least crazy things that happened to him on that particular day.
The high-desert town of Victorville, California, is the last stop on the long road out of Los Angeles, and the place does little to embarrass the word "shithole." It's best known as the home of five prisons, some reportedly very good crystal meth and a kick-ass Long John Silver's; its primary attraction to residents is that, unlike the small towns across the mountains in California's central valley, its air does not always smell like burning tires and cowshit. It is, in sum, about as far from major-league baseball glory as one could get without a spaceship or a body bag. And it's the place that, for the past two years, Dock Ellis has called home.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Ellis, now 60, stands outside his house, waiting for movers to arrive. Ellis lives in an upscale subdivision of identical homes laid out on identical streets; this weekend he's moving to a larger house several blocks away.
Ellis is not a small man -- when he drove up in his wife's tiny sports coupe, his knees looked like earrings -- and here, now, watching him pace around his front yard, a few flecks of gray are the only suggestion that Ellis's "heavyball" couldn't still kill a small animal. (Well, plus the fact that he can't lift his arm over his head, having torn his rotator cuff lifting weights in 1993. There's that.) In conversation, he's intelligent, funny and what former Rangers owner Brad Corbett calls "dangerously honest."
Throughout his 12-year career as a player, he was often labeled a different kind of dangerous. Brash, gifted and impetuous, he would do almost anything to make a point he believed in. When baseball brass complained about his haircut, he wore hair curlers on the field. When a heckler called him nigger during a minor-league game in Alabama, he entered the stands, sat among the hecklers and said, "What happened to all those niggers up here? All those niggers calling me nigger?" (In Ellis's version of the story, he also has a gun in his pocket.) When the Cincinnati Reds taunted the Pirates after beating them in the 1972 National League Championship Series, Ellis decided to motivate his team by hitting every single batter in the Reds' lineup. He hit the first three and walked two before he was pulled. He had, in short, that certain combination of raw talent and insanity that rarely creates Hall of Famers but almost always creates legends.
"Dock Ellis was without question the most intimidating pitcher of his era," says former MVP and batting champ Dave Parker, who came into the majors on Ellis's 1973 Pittsburgh Pirates. "Bob Gibson is up there, too, obviously, but with Dock it wasn't just his stuff. It was his flamboyance, his perceived militancy and his fearlessness. When he came and said he was gonna hit all those Reds, I thought, 'You ain't gonna do nothing, man.' Then he did it. I gained a lot of respect for him right there. Dock was and is one of my best friends -- I call him my baseball father -- but after I left the Pirates, he said he was gonna hit me in the face. And every time I faced him, I was scared."
Ellis grew up 97 miles southwest of Victorville, in a section of Los Angeles known colloquially as "the Neighborhood" -- a middle-class black suburb nestled between Gardena, Long Beach and Watts. His childhood was, by all accounts, remarkable mostly in its normalcy: His parents loved him, he got into trouble here and there, he excelled at sports and practical jokes.