Doing it like Dock Ellis: My Trip at the Ballpark

Every year around this time I flash back to a simpler, psychedelic day when, as a young man, I followed in the hovering, four-dimensional footsteps of Dock Ellis, the late, great Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres while tripping on LSD on June 12, 1970. This story happened in June 1984.

I figure it’s safe to ask for forgiveness. It’s been 36 years. Most of the people I worked with back then are old men now. Some are retired. Some are dead. In my defense, it was supposed to have been a day off — the game was already afoot by the time Charlie Clark called me, asking if I’d cover the Suffolk County (Long Island) high school baseball championship series for the next day’s edition of Newsday. In other words, my unplanned trip at the ballpark had already begun.

A bright day in June was about to get to get much brighter (thanks to pupil dilation, and also my state of mind). The college semester was over. My brother and I and a few friends had plans to drop acid and spend the day at one of the nearby beaches, enjoying the sun, cold beer, and rainbow colored water. Over the phone, Charlie was more conciliatory than usual: “Grillo? Charlie Clark. Shaw’s sick. Can you cover the Suffolk County baseball championship? Kings Park and Commack North. Game starts at …”

At Newsday I’d joined a crew of a dozen or so part-timers in the massive sports department, most of us college kids or slightly older, who were generally pitted against each other in competition for the few writing assignments that existed for untested punks (that’s what Charlie usually called us, “punks,” or “finks,” still part of the angry old man lexicon in those days).

This was the cusp of two eras. We still had editors typing memos on clackety-clack manual typewriters and pretty much every desk had a video display terminal (VDT). The sports department, like most of the building, had done smoke-free, but there was at least one old writer who was allowed to smoke in the office (with an ashtray that supposedly sucked up the smoke). But these were great days for me, personally, working among some truly talented wordsmiths, men and women whose stories I’d enjoyed reading for years.

The part timers worked three or four nights a week, taking scores or chasing them down over the phone (Charlie’s assistant, Jim Barbanell, knew every phone number of every coach, once telling me how to reach the Mepham fencing coach at his favorite pub). Or we’d write the high school and college round-ups, compile agate, and sometimes take dictation from one of the writers out on assignment (Marty Noble is one I remember fondly because he was a nice guy and always phoned in with the upbeat greeting, “Noble here.”).

Charlie was the editor in charge of high school and local sports, I think. Truth is, I’m not sure what his title was. He’d covered about 500 Indy 500s. He’d been around newsprint twice as long as any of us had been alive. We were a bunch of know-it-alls. He’d done better things and now he had to deal with me and Shaman and Smales and Tennenbaum and the rest of the bums and finks on the part-timer crew. So sure, he generally hated us and was nearly impossible to please. But I was eager to try when he called me early on that lovely June day, right after I ate a little square with Mickey Mouse’s picture on it. I said, “sure, Charlie, you can count on me!”

My comrades went to the beach and I took off down the highway to Commack, my brain or spirit soaring faster than my little blue Pinto could possibly carry me. Would I be able to tolerate the languid pace of a baseball game? Along with the feeling of high adrenalin euphoria, the reality and thrill of a real writing assignment (with a tight deadline) kicked in, triggering a sense of confidence and invulnerability as manicured blades of grass sang the “Hallelujah Chorus” while giving off ultraviolet waves and the umpire yelled, “play ball!”

I had too much energy to sit in the bleachers. Instead, feeling the candy-coated cocktail churning inside of me (and dripping from my pores), I kept score while repeatedly circling the baseball diamond – again and again and again, filling my pad with notes both useful and incomprehensible, something about the strong limbs of indifferent trees set against an azure sky that stretched out in every direction, and the bittersweet taste of calliope music that no one else could hear, and something about the arc of Pete Harnisch’s curveball.

Yeah, one of the things I remember clearly about that day was seeing Pete Harnisch, the Commack North High School pitcher who would go onto have a fine major league career. Also playing that day, for visiting Kings Park High, was future Baseball Hall of Famer Craig Biggio. After the game I somehow managed to interview the young stars and the coaches, and I was still higher than Ben Franklin’s electrified kite when I pulled into the Newsday office. Here, finally, was the real trick: maintaining composure and writing a simple game story while surrounded by grown men who actually did this sports writing stuff for their livelihoods, men who had little time or patience for punks or finks tripping balls.

The VDTs stretched out like green-tinted reflections of reflections and I found one near the back of the now surreal sports department, and began hacking away. The story ran in the next afternoon’s paper and there wasn’t a single mention of sky, tree, grass, music. All-in-all, it was a straightforward piece. Your typical game story. I even managed to include the score and explained (with some effort) how Commack North managed to win.

The next day I covered Game 2. Commack North won, clinching the series. I wasn’t high and that story had the same simple, inverted pyramid shape as the first story, which proved to me the existence of another force in the universe, an internal autopilot that helps navigate the twisting terrain of thought and language to uncover useful words that, when linked together, form comprehensible sentences and stories. And as long as I don’t get in the way of that force, my sentences will have happy landings. Mostly. Hopefully.

Writer’s Note: If you want to know more about Dock’s remarkable, acid-trip no-hitter, here’s a terrific story about it: https://www.si.com/mlb/2017/06/12/dock-ellis-acid-no-hitter-pittsburgh-pirates-anniversary. And you really owe it to yourself to check out Chuck Brodsky’s stellar musical version of this timeless and pleasantly twisted baseball tale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wg9DXRP4Ywo

Dock Ellis (left) threw a no-hitter while tripping on LSD. Yours truly (right, seen here in his first column mugshot, a picture taken a few months after this story took place. Apparently, I was 12).

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