High Times

How to throw a no-hitter on acid, and other lessons from the career of baseball legend Dock Ellis

Rangers owner Brad Corbett didn't care about any of it.

"I absolutely loved him," says Corbett, who acquired Ellis from the A's in June 1977. "The biggest misperception about Dock is that he's this untamed, self-destructive wildman. And part of that is true; he was crazy, but in a good way. He was fun. He had a way of keeping people loose. He was a practical joker. He had character. Everybody loves to talk about that LSD no-hitter, but come on. Stuff like that was happening all the time. Everybody was doing something. One relief pitcher we traded for, I went to meet him in New York at Studio 54. And I walk in and look over and say to myself, 'Hmm. Is that sugar?'

"And of course, No. 1, he was a damn good pitcher and a terrific competitor. In fact, at one point we traded him to Cleveland, and I felt so bad about losing him that I called the trade off. And by that point he was at the end of his career, and his arm was fading. It clearly wasn't the right business decision, but I just couldn't let Dock go."

Ellis had powerful stuff. But strategy was just as 
important, and his consisted of one thing: intimidation.
Ellis had powerful stuff. But strategy was just as important, and his consisted of one thing: intimidation.
Ellis's true initiation to baseball took place under the 
tutelage of legendary pitcher Chet Brewer.
Ellis's true initiation to baseball took place under the tutelage of legendary pitcher Chet Brewer.

The Rangers' 1977 starting rotation of Ellis (who went 10-6 with a 2.90 ERA after he joined the team), Ferguson Jenkins, Doyle Alexander and Bert Blyleven remains the strongest starting four the club has ever had; that team's 94 wins, which placed it second behind Kansas City's 102, were the strongest whiff of the playoffs the Rangers would get until the AL West was pared down to four teams, making it easier for the Rangers to climb to the top of a very short pile.

But Corbett was right: Ellis's arm was fading, his body haunted by a problem that, like racism, he had first experienced upon arriving in the majors. One day early in his career, Ellis was lying on the dugout bench, "half-assed asleep and hungover," and found out he was supposed to pitch. An older player leaned over and handed Ellis a plastic cup.

"I said, 'What the hell is that?' " Ellis recalls. "He said, 'Juice.' I drank it, and next thing I know, I was out there on the mound like [Juan] Marechal. And I liked it."

Ellis had just had his first experience with amphetamines; by the time he arrived on the Pirates proper, Ellis was popping green Dexamyl pills before every game. Eventually he'd need between 70 and 85 milligrams to get up for a start; that would be somewhere between five and 12 pills, depending on what type he took. And over the next 12 years, he wouldn't pitch a single major-league game without them. Not one.

"Doctors aren't gonna come out and say it, but it enhances your game," Ellis says. "The thing is, you get addicted to it. You take half a pill and do great. Then you take half three weeks later and don't do good, so you say, 'Maybe I better take the other half. 'Cause I'm not feeling the same way.' It got to the point where I had to take it just to be on the bench, when I'm not pitching. Just to stay awake.

"Why? Fear. Fear of success and fear of failure."

By his final year, 1979, there wasn't much cause for Ellis to fear success. He bounced from the Rangers to the Mets, compiled a 4-12 record with a 5.98 ERA and made one last request to Pittsburgh general manager "Pete" Peterson: Trade me or let me die a Pirate. He was granted his request and made three relief appearances with the Bucs. When Corbett sold the Rangers before the 1980 season, Ellis made it official and retired. By that point, he didn't care about baseball at all. All he cared about was getting high. Speed, cocaine, even Scotch. Which he hated.

"Then my son was born," Ellis says. "I was wearing a lot of jewelry at the time, and when I'd hold him, I'd grab his arms and whatnot. Then I read these stories about parents who shake their kids and kill them. I asked myself, 'I wonder how hard I'm grabbing him.' Then I realized the truly fucked-up thing: that I had to ask myself at all. That's when I knew, something's wrong with me. I went to treatment the next day.

"I was in there sniffing ping-pong balls, trying to get high. A doctor came to me and asked me to list all the substances I'd done in my life. He looked at the paper and said, 'I have to classify you as suicidal.' I said fuck you. Suicidal. He handed me back the paper and said, 'Anyone who's doing that is trying to kill themselves.' I looked at him and thought about that. After a minute, I told him nobody will ever have to worry about me getting high ever again."

This is the point of the story at which things are supposed to get ugly. There should be backsliding, stories of long sweaty nights with "friends" whose last names you don't know, possibly a homeless period or two.

None of it happened to Ellis. Since he quit baseball and cleaned up, he's had basically no contact with the game -- he played a couple of seasons in a senior league and was briefly hired by George Steinbrenner ("the only person in baseball who wasn't afraid I'd be the old Dock Ellis") as a minor-league drug counselor -- but mostly he's been eating Snickers and drinking Dr Pepper, working as a drug counselor. He seems to genuinely miss the game, especially the fans, but he doesn't seem devastated by it.

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