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For Garvey, No Place Like Home

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: May 23, 2013 at 08:08 AM
AMPA -

When Steve Garvey flies into Tampa International Airport for an occasional speaking engagement, the plane touches down about a mile from his childhood home.

It's the little house in Drew Park where five decades ago, over the family meal of fried chicken and mashed potatoes, his bus-driver dad offered 7-year-old Steve the chance to fetch bats for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It's a place Garvey, approaching his 60th birthday, still cherishes.

"It's important that people realize that I've never forgotten my roots go deep in Tampa," Garvey said by telephone recently from his home in Palm Desert, Calif. "It's where I was born and raised and grew up, and even though I'm not there any more, you can always go home.

"I only get back maybe once a year, but when I land, I feel like I'm home again."

Garvey pays homage to that sense of home in his new memoir, "My Bat Boy Days," a conglomeration of anecdotes about the players he idolized and tried to emulate as a spring training bat boy in and around Tampa.

It's an idyllic little baseball book, 149 pages of pure Eisenhower-Kennedy era nostalgia. The Boys of Summer are celebrated, as are Mickey Mantle and Al Kaline.

It begins with the story of a supper-time surprise March 28, 1956. That night, Garvey's father, Joe, revealed that his charter for the next morning was none other than the defending World Series champions, who were scheduled to play the Yankees at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg.

Would Steve like to skip school and tag along?

"The next day changed my life and, I think, my family's life," Garvey said. "I was a bat boy that day and fell in love with the game."

Still Hoping For The Hall

At the urging of his wife since 1989, Candace, Garvey decided to add his childhood story to the growing 21st century library of baseball books on steroids and scandals.

"I just thought, with my wife, that it was time to tell this simple little story about a boy growing up with his idols and dreaming about being a baseball player," Garvey said. "And then suddenly, I was one of my idols."

Garvey's baseball career ended 21 years ago; he still hopes to join the Hall of Fame. He has spent the past two decades in the media business and building a new family - he's a grandfather now, and he dedicates the book to his children and his grandson.

His memoir is exactly the kind of book one would expect Garvey to publish in his autumn years - if one had gone to sleep in 1978 and awakened 30 years later, oblivious to the way things unfolded after he reached his pop-culture pinnacle in the late '70s as the Dodgers' (and Tampa's; and everybody's) All-American Boy.

At one point, his personal life became tabloid fodder.

"I'm not perfect," he said. "I'm a human being with warts and imperfections, just like everyone else."

There was the divorce in the early '80s from his first wife, Cyndy, and the ensuing custody battle over the couple's two daughters.

There were the concurrent relationships in 1988 and '89 with three different women, two of whom later bore him children.

There were seemingly endless financial difficulties and legal entanglements.

Since the end of his career, he has been sued (unsuccessfully) by the Federal Trade Commission and has battled the baseball players' union all the way to the Supreme Court over a $3 million collusion claim against the San Diego Padres. In a 2006 Los Angeles Times story, the financial shortcomings of his family were laid out in all-too-public detail.

The Same Guy As Always

Even now, it's no simple thing to reconcile the clean-shaven, buttoned-down image with the public revelations that proved him all-too-human and made him a late-night talk show punch line in the late '80s.

Garvey dismisses attempts by journalists over the years to delve into his psyche as superficial and an incomplete portrait of who he really is. The truth, he insists, is far simpler.

"People have always tried to analyze me," Garvey says now. "But I'm the same guy today that I was 20 years ago, the same guy as 40 years ago."

Historically, there are two Garveys for public consumption.

There is the product-endorsement Garvey at the peak of his career, the aspiring politician. That iconic image is displayed on a 1978 Topps baseball card, in which he smiles and poses with his trademark, statuesque batting stance, wearing that impossibly white Dodgers uniform like a knight in shining armor.

That Garvey, who still holds the National League record for consecutive games played at 1,207 and was a 10-time All-Star, seemed unflappable and infallible and was the darling of the annual Tampa Sports Club banquet during the baseball offseason.

He was the model for Tampa area Little Leaguers of the 1970s, some of whom went on to their own major-league careers.

"Garvey was the man," former major-league first baseman and Tampa native Tino Martinez said. "He was the first baseman for the Dodgers, the All-American guy, the great player, an All-Star year after year after year. Steve would be the guy you wanted to follow, a great role model because of the way he played the game. He never took any days off."

And there is tabloid Garvey, the butt of T-shirt jokes in the late '80s: "Steve Garvey is not my Padre."

Always, there were those who wanted to figure him out - or knock him off his pedestal. He answered those people, usually, with silence.

"They would always dig and dig and they would never get anything," Garvey said. "I wasn't going to rip anyone in public."

Still Popular In L.A.

He ends his book by offering this insight: "To be perfectly honest, I have failed miserably at times during my life, but when I realized that we are on this earth to serve, I was able to get up each time and go to bat for what I believed in, wiser and stronger."

Another passage, referring to the players featured in his book, provides a glimpse of how he might like to be perceived by others: "Even their flaws, which made me blush as a kid, didn't change the greatness of who these men were in their souls."

He's still as popular as ever in L.A. This past spring, as the Dodgers bid farewell to their longtime spring training facility at Vero Beach, Garvey drew a crowd of more than 300 fans for an autograph session.

On Opening Day at Dodger Stadium, he was part of the team's celebration of 50 years in Los Angeles. He took his place in uniform on the field beside other Dodgers greats at Chavez Ravine to a warm ovation.

He wore the familiar No. 6 that day, a number he had hoped would one day be permanently retired by the Dodgers by virtue of his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. But his 15 years of ballot eligibility ended in 2007, and he never earned more than 42.6 percent of the vote, far short of the 75 percent needed for election.

He'll point to his body of work - the consecutive games streak, the six 200-hit seasons, a .996 career fielding percentage at first base, those 10 All-Star selections (including as a write-in candidate in 1974), a .338 average with 11 home runs and 33 RBIs in 55 postseason games - and wonder why it wasn't enough.

"I don't know," he said. "It's just confusing. It's disappointing in many ways."

His hope now is to receive a call from the Hall of Fame's veterans committee, which every other year considers candidates overlooked by the baseball writers. Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, a Temple Terrace resident and, like Garvey, a Michigan State alumnus, is on the veterans committee but said he doesn't publicly speculate about individual candidacies.

"There are so many guys that are close," Roberts said. "When it comes up to the vote, it's like running for office. ... Stevie will be like all of us were - excited if he makes it, disappointed if he doesn't."

The veterans committee will consider candidates again in 2009, at which point Garvey hopes to join Al Lopez and Wade Boggs on Tampa's short list of Hall of Famers.

Ties To Tampa Have Vanished

Garvey's familial ties to his birthplace have all but vanished. His family moved here from Long Island in early 1948 to become proprietors of the Globe Motel, located on a sandy side road "too far" from the main north-south thoroughfare of U.S. 301.

He grew up in the Tampa neighborhoods of Drew Park and, later, Egypt Lake. His childhood homes are still there.

He learned the game of baseball on the Little League fields of Drew Park and Forest Hills. He played football and baseball at Chamberlain High (Class of '66) before moving on to do both at Michigan State.

He has fallen out of touch with most of his Chamberlain High classmates, but they still remember him as he was then.

"He was one of those guys that the way he came across was the way he was," said 1966 Chamberlain graduate Barry White, a U.S. Army chaplain who lives in Falls Church, Va. "He was just a nice guy. He lettered in every sport there was, I think. ... He was a great athlete. A nice guy, which is sometimes hard to find because of egos. He wasn't like that. I think even throughout his professional career he wasn't like that, either."

In 1968, he was drafted by the Dodgers, 12 years after he first served as the team's spring training bat boy. He and Lou Piniella became the vanguard of a wave of Tampa ballplayers, like Martinez, who rose to prominence in the majors during the '70s, '80s and '90s.

He once was as much a part of the area's fabric as cigars and pan Cubano, but those ties were severed when Joe and Millie Garvey retired to Southern California in 1984 to be near their only son during the twilight of his major-league career with the Padres.

Still, there is a part of Garvey that considers Tampa home.

"We all have our history and legacies," Garvey said. "I've always given significant credit for any success I had to growing up in Tampa. It was a great place to grow up."


Reporter Carter Gaddis can be reached at (813) 259-8291 or igaddis@tampatrib.com.

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