Too much, too soon, too late: The strange case of Steve Garvey

Steve Garvey, young perfectionist.

Steve Garvey, too perfectionist for his own good.

Long before he became a baseball player whose perfectionism on the field or in his person gave him something of a reputation as a phony, Steve Garvey was given too much, too soon. Not accolades but responsibilities.

He was an only child who was forced by two working parents to come home from school and clean house, get dinner on the stove, and look out for his invalid grandmother (partially paralyzed in a freak accident), even having to help her go to the bathroom regularly.

In a harrowing 1989 Sports Illustrated profile, written by Rick Reilly,  it came forth that, for the ten-year-old Garvey—with strict enough parents as it was, already forced to play by himself and invent baseball games in his mind while staying close to home—being home one second later than his mother, which meant his grandmother might have needed aid he wasn’t there to give, might result in a nasty “whack.”

A ten-year-old going on 28, Reilly described the boy. “[M]ore responsibilities than two and three kids,” Garvey himself would remember.

Garvey never wore his hair over his ears. Never rebelled. He was 19 years old in tie-dyed 1968, wearing color-coordinated Hagar slacks and monogrammed sweaters. He hated to dance, because dancing in the late ’60s was about losing control. His dormitory room at Michigan State was so neat it made the eyes of a resident adviser mist.

Once upon a time a Brooklyn Dodgers bat boy (his father drove the team’s spring training bus) who bounced on Jackie Robinson’s knee, Garvey was raised by will and circumstance to perfectionism and not disposed to challenge. He was imposed with too much long before he became a baseball player.

When I bought The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, I was slightly jarred to read his entry on Garvey, who’s up for Hall of Fame consideration on the Modern Era Committee ballot this year. Hall of Fame second baseman Charlie Gehringer was nicknamed the Mechanical Man, but watching Garvey play I thought the longtime first baseman personified it more. So, apparently, did James:

He used to get 200 hits a year, and they weren’t all singles. He was an odd player; he had a “program” for getting his 200 hits. He was supposed to bunt for a hit a certain number of times . . . I think it was twice a month. He was supposed to go with the pitch and slap it into right field a certain number of times. He had a certain number of times he was allowed to guess and try to cream the pitch. I never heard of such a thing, but that was Garvey; he was a Clockwork Baseball Player.

The problem with Clockwork Baseball Players, of course, is that staying that as well self-programmed as Garvey did means there may have been too many times when stepping off the program might do your teams a few more favours toward winning. And it may explain why, for all his skills, for all his career image as a winner, Garvey’s career wins above a replacement-level player (37.7) turns out to be 28.7 below the average Hall of Fame first baseman.

He made ten All-Star teams in streaks of eight straight and, a few years later, back-to-back. He was almost maddeningly consistent and durable for a long enough time, building some solid counting statistics while playing most of his career in a home park that usually throttled hitters. He helped his teams get to five World Series and one set of Series rings. And he did have six 200-hit seasons in two of which he led the league in hits.

So why isn’t Garvey a Hall of Famer?

For all his skills, Garvey wasn’t as great as people remember him for reaching base. Another Sports Illustrated analyst, Jay Jaffe, points out that his on base percentage is only one point above the park-adjusted average for his time and place. He’s in the middle of the pack of all first basemen for run production including being well below several who won’t be Hall of Famers, either.

He might have gotten those 200 hits a year for a good spell and not have them all singles, but he averaged 170 runs produced per 162 games. So did his contemporary Keith Hernandez, who was a) a far better all-around first baseman and b) shy of a Hall of Famer himself.

Garvey wasn’t really more than an average defensive first baseman; it’s still to wonder how he won four Gold Gloves. He was methodical and competent but that was about it. (Hernandez, in case you don’t remember, won twelve Gold Gloves. Allowing for both men playing in an era that didn’t necessarily produce a pack of above-average first basemen, that’s still a staggering achievement. Even if you cut Hernandez a peg or two down for winning maybe a pair of them by reputation.)

Garvey with Dusty Baker, the year they were two of four Dodgers to hit 30+ home runs---Baker was one of Garvey's only admirers on the team.

Garvey with Dusty Baker, the year they were two of four Dodgers to hit 30+ home runs—”He wasn’t that popular with some (Dodgers), but he was popular with me,” Baker says.

Garvey was also one of the first players in my memory who seemed to think of himself as a brand as well as a ballplayer, a squeaky-clean All-American who seemed to know baseball life was finite and looked at the bigger picture beyond. The good news is that that’s a rare level of intelligence for professional athletes in any era. The bad is that Garvey took it to a disturbing enough extreme.

He seemed so obsessed with the pursuit of excellence in his work and his person that he was thought to have forgotten what it was to be human. Teammates often mistrusted Garvey no matter how clean he was. Accounts of those years suggest too many teammates thought he was self-possessed and smug. One notable exception: Dusty Baker, who had little but good to say about Garvey from the first time he played against him in the minors.

“He was coming out of college, out of Michigan State, and, man, this guy hit 29 home runs in half a season out of college. I’m like, who is this guy?” Baker told the San Bernardino Press-Enterprise‘s Jim Alexander in 2016. “And I saw him after the game and he helped an old lady across the street. I was watching him. And then he did the same thing when he was a star. He was one of the best teammates I ever had when I got traded to the Dodgers. He wasn’t that popular with some of them, but he was popular with me.”

Baker also reminded people of one factor that might have kept Garvey from putting up a no-questions-asked Hall of Fame: the first baseman played in pain more often than he let on or people might have known.

“The thing I probably remember the most is that he came to play,” said Baker. “There’s times when he had migraines and he never said anything about it. I could tell looking at his face that he was in pain, but he didn’t complain. Anybody that’s had migraines — which I haven’t — knows that’s totally debilitating. How do you play with such pain?”

If Garvey was playing through pain it explains plenty enough about why he doesn’t come up as big in the surface and deeper statistics as you thought he might have done. He’d been raised to suck it up no matter what it was, but just how much did that kind of fortitude cost him? As a player and as a man?

Reilly reminded his 1989 readers that, during the consecutive-game playing streak that remains a National League record, Garvey “played at various times with a hyperextended elbow, 22 stitches in his chin, a pulled hamstring, a bruised heel, a migraine, the flu, a 103° fever and a toenail so impacted they had to drill a hole in it to relieve the pressure.”

He couldn’t let himself cut loose even once and felt more comfortable around elders, and his clubhouse reputation as a phony probably stung deeper than he would have admitted. Once, he bunted into an out, and five teammates were said to have high-fived each other over it.

When he forced a fifth game in the 1984 NLCS with a dramatic walkoff bomb, for once Garvey let himself cut loose.

When he forced a fifth game in the 1984 NLCS with a dramatic walkoff bomb, Garvey let himself cut loose for once.

Alexander himself had this to say about Garvey’s apparent reputation as a phony in the Dodger clubhouse: “Personal experience, from covering those Dodger teams of the late ‘70s and ‘80s: Garvey wasn’t the phony in that clubhouse. Not close. Actually, you could make a case that the biggest self-promoter on that team inhabited the manager’s office.” The manager was Tommy Lasorda.

Garvey’s most luminous moment as a player, of course, was the game-ending home run he hit as a Padre to send the 1984 National League Championship Series to a fifth game. His teammates carried him off the field in triumph. Garvey let himself cut loose in that moment. Maybe he should have done it more often on the field and in the clubhouse, but except in moments like that he simply couldn’t.

“He wasn’t good at leering at women and cutting up with the boys,” Reilly wrote. “Wouldn’t be responsible. Besides, one hotfoot could mess up a perfectly good pair of shoelaces.”

Garvey’s self-made image was obliterated during his nasty post-retirement divorce and revelations about his affairs and illegitimate children. Too many had hearty belly laughs over the sight of Mr. Clean’s takedown. (“I haven’t so many gorgeous girls since I spent Father’s Day with Steve Garvey,” Bob Hope cracked.)

Too many more forgot how good a player he’d been, and nobody stopped to think that, at long enough last, Garvey went as extreme in finally rebelling against his own self-bloated psychological weight as he’d gone in building it in the first place. “[M]aybe what happened,” Reilly wrote, “is that they took Garvey’s childhood away before he was done with it.”

Maybe it is too much to care for an invalid [grandmother] and go to school and do your chores and keep your room surgically clean and watch what faces you make and be ten years old all at the same time. And maybe when you’re forced to be that responsible on the outside, you resent it, and you become someone else on the inside.

“Some people have a midlife crisis,” Garvey remarked in the wake of his divorce and paternity suits. “I had a midlife disaster.” A disaster that included his daughters from his first marriage testifying in court, during a custody battle, that they didn’t love or trust him, one of his managers (Dick Williams) describing him as a selfish player in his memoir, his former wife describing him in her memoir as close enough to an automaton.

Garvey and his wife, Candace, showing their home. in 2014.

Garvey and his wife, Candace, showing their home, in 2014.

Since the divorce and the paternity suits (if anything was admirable about them, it was Garvey’s vow to support those children), Garvey remarried happily enough, having three children with his second wife and doing his level best, according to several profiles, not to impose upon them the perfectionism imposed upon him by his own upbringing and by his own self.

He’s had a mixed business record, with assorted losses and litigations. He finally lost his job in the Dodgers’ public relations department, after he criticised then-owner Frank McCourt publicly. He also tried (with fellow former Dodger Orel Hershiser) and failed to assemble a group to buy the Dodgers in 2012. And, he’s survived prostate cancer.

“Maybe trying to stay above it all isn’t worth it,” Reilly concluded in 1989. “Maybe nobody’s wings are that strong. Or maybe it’s just that nobody trusts a baseball player with a uniform that clean . . . Maybe, for better or worse, he can be himself now. The porch light is out for good.”

Garvey holds out hope that the Modern Era Committee or some other, future successor to the old Veterans Committees will find the way to elect him to the Hall of Fame. If they don’t, and his actual playing record suggests they shouldn’t, maybe he’ll finally be comfortable with having been a solid ballplayer who was excellent often enough, genuinely great now and then, not enough for Cooperstown and not going to be punished for it.

But he learned something precious from the fallout of his image takedown, after all. Perhaps to remind himself, a few years ago he and his wife bought the southern California home she originally found for her mother, who’d decided to downsize. If only it hadn’t cost him more than the dollars. Garvey punished himself and those he loved long enough when the porch light still had a dim glow left.

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