By his own admission, something of a flake, Eric Show showed up 35 minutes before game time once this season in St. Louis, on a day he was the starting pitcher. He has absentmindedly left his $40,000 (biweekly) paycheck behind in visitors’ clubhouses.
To understand Eric Show, you must meet his dog Willie. The white bull terrier has a stout, compact body and the pointy face of a pterodactyl; and if he likes you, he’ll kill for you. But you wouldn’t want to be on Willie’s bad side, because he brooks no shadings between love and hate. One of a breed developed centuries ago as fighters, Willie is the kind of dog that General George S. Patton owned.
You wouldn’t want to be on Willie’s bad side.
Willie’s favorite toy is an indestructible, 15-pound, thick-treaded dune buggy tire. To show off for visitors, he shoves his head into the center of the tire and clamps his vice-grip jaws on one of the side walls. Then he’ll offer it to you; but no matter how much you yank and pull, he’ll never let you take it from him. When he isn’t hauling it around, he’s holding it down and trying to hump it. “Do you think people are like their dogs?” Show asks proudly, sitting at a glass- topped table beside the swimming pool in the back yard of his Tierrasanta home.
Show, before surgery
Well... Eric’s strong and compact, and he doesn’t seem to know what to do with that hefty brain he carries around. And some people think he’s got a hole in the middle of that big brain. As a pitcher, he’s been victimized by his own hound-like sensitivities, reacting with anguish and foreseeing his own doom as a home run arcs over his head or a batter trots to first base after four straight balls. Next to Show’s wife, Cara Mia, Willie is the major constant in a life fraught with baseball’s endemic insecurities and doubts.
"I like to use my time productively — reading, practicing guitar, or just thinking."
Show’s fan mail now consists of letters from people who either want to worship him or crucify him. But every time he comes home from the ballpark — or more often these days, from Scripps Clinic and a check-up on his ailing back — there’s Willie, and his black rubber halo, and his unfailing acceptance. In the eighth year of a stormy career in the big leagues, the 33-year-old righthander can stare at the dog and venture, “If I was out of baseball tomorrow I wouldn’t have any regrets. I’m happy now. Just like Willie here.”
“To a lot of players, this is not important. But for me, I wanted to know where I came from, and where I was going, and what was the meaning of this existence."
Show is out of baseball — for the remainder of the season. He was placed on the disabled list July 6 with a bulging disc in his spine, and he underwent surgery last Wednesday. He’s certainly not happy about that, but he’s always preferred to look at the Big Picture. “I’ll go into spring training next year probably in the best shape of my life,” he declares.
"I finally said, ‘Okay, ’Melo, let’s go for it then.’ ” Show and Martinez lunged at each other and had to be restrained by their teammates.
When he’s able to put the surgery and the lost season out of his mind, he’s happy because he believes he’s finally learning how to pitch, and he’s no longer a victim of hard luck. “I am a lucky pitcher now,” he affirms. “Early last season, I decided to quit associating with negative people and to quit thinking negative thoughts,” he says. “Thoughts are energy; they have consequences. But since I’ve been in the positive mode, say, about since the All-Star break last year, I’m 24 and 13.” He had 8 wins and 6 losses this season, before his back injury, and he passed Randy Jones’s 92 career victories on June 14 to become the Padres’ all-time leader in wins. After getting off to a 1 and 4 start in 1988, he performed his mental overhaul and ended the year 16 and 11, the most wins he’s ever had in a season. He was 10 and 3 in his last 14 starts and won four complete games in September.
“Do you think people are like their dogs?” Show asks proudly, sitting at a glass-topped table beside the swimming pool in the back yard of his Tierrasanta home.
Entering this season, he felt like “this was going to be my year.” But he was wrong. He accepts that with the kind of equanimity that would have been extremely un-Showlike two years ago. “Nothing consistently works in baseball,” he says, trying to wrestle the tire away from Willie. “That’s what drove me nuts my first four years. The ‘Why do these things happen to me?’ question. But I’ve learned a lot about myself and about pitching, and that question doesn’t bother me anymore. Baseball is a microcosm of the world. Things happen because they happen. There isn’t a rational explanation for everything.”
“I know that I sealed my fate by going public about joining the John Birch Society in 1984."
This isn’t to say that Show is content to be on the DL. “It could get depressing if I let it,” he says. “You have to be careful about what motivates your thoughts; there’s so much failure in this game, and how you deal with it is crucial. You say to yourself, ‘I’m letting the team down.’ ‘I’m useless.’ ‘People suspect me of faking.’ This game is a psychological obstacle course.” He’s convinced that baseball teams need to add one more coach, a psychology coach, to their rosters. The lack of such a coach “is one reason nobody repeats [championships] anymore. So many guys aren’t playing up to their potential because of this insecurity thing,” he muses.
“Almost everything going on in this country, and in baseball, I don’t agree with. But I’ve tried so hard to conform. I just don’t do what the rest of them do."
Show admits to a years-long struggle against the insecurity inherent in the game. Mostly, he thinks he’s won the fight; but now that he’s hurt, the old doubts have revealed themselves again, just below the surface. He has this nagging sensation that teammates and coaches think he’s faking it, even though the bulging L-5 disc is clearly visible through magnetic resonance imaging. (Show read up on the high-tech medical procedure and can give a detailed explanation about how it works.) After watching a reporter talk to manager Jack McKeon about the pitcher a few days ago, Show said, worriedly, “I didn’t like McKeon’s body language at all. All that arm waving and gesturing. What was he saying about me?”
Actually, McKeon was saying mostly positive things. He was recalling the time he first watched Show pitch, on a Padres’ double-A team in Amarillo, Texas, in 1980. McKeon was touring the Padres’ farm system a few days before being named vice president of baseball operations, and he saw Show pitch five innings. “I liked this guy,” McKeon recalls. “He had big-league stuff. Eric wasn’t high on the team’s list of prospects; but after I saw him I said, shit, this guy’s the best pitcher down here.” McKeon sent Show to play ball in the Puerto Rican winter league the next season, an unusually competitive venue for a double-A level pitcher. Show led that league in strikeouts, “and that springboarded him into the majors,” says McKeon.
What does a man like Show have to be insecure about? He’s been the mainstay of the Padres’ rotation since being called up in 1982, posting a 94 and 79 won-lost record. He’s in the first year of a two-year contract worth an annual $1.4 million (if he’d pitched 175 innings this season, a third year would have been picked up automatically). Despite his so- so start this season, he’s pitched better for the last couple of years than he ever has before. He’s married to a beautiful, friendly woman and has a jazz album in the stores and another set for release at Christmas. He has three companies going: Mark’s Guitar Exchange on Rosecrans Avenue, a music production company, and a real-estate investment firm. And his dog worships him.
But his very individuality seems naturally to engender self-doubt. Show, by his own admission, is something of a flake, who is compulsively late for appointments — he showed up 35 minutes before game time once this season in St. Louis, on a day he was the starting pitcher. He has absentmindedly left his $40,000 (biweekly) paycheck behind in visitors’ clubhouses; holds extreme political views for which he has been publicly castigated; is devoted to a form of music that none of his teammates appreciates; carries books on road trips that could be rough going for a university professor, most recently The Invisible War, an examination of the nature of good and evil, by the late theologian Donald Grey Barnhouse; and keeps mostly to himself, both at home and on the road. Pitcher Ed Whitson comments, “The only time you see Eric is at the stadium or on the airplane; he doesn’t hang around with the rest of us.” Does that matter? “Nah,” Eddie Lee drawls. “Everybody’s their own self.’’
“I know most people think I’m weird,” Show comments. His attitude about that shifts, depending on the day and his surroundings. One afternoon, during an interview near the new batting cage above the Padres’ clubhouse, Show spat tobacco juice into a paper cup and disclaimed any concern for what people thought of him. “I know that I sealed my fate by going public about joining the John Birch Society in 1984.1 understand that, and I accept that. I’m not going to be a Steve Garvey type, a loved guy, ever.” But another time, in his back yard, with Willie snoozing beside him, he said, “Almost everything going on in this country, and in baseball, I don’t agree with. But I’ve tried so hard to conform. I just don’t do what the rest of them do, but I’m trying, I really am. I want to get along, and I want to be part of a winning team. But I won’t go out drinking with the boys. I like to use my time productively — reading, practicing guitar, or just thinking. I’ve learned so many things. Rocking the boat just isn’t worth the effort unless it’s something you absolutely can’t capitulate on.”
But no matter how hard he tries or how much he loves to pitch, Show can’t bring himself to embrace much of the life outside the basepaths. “I wish everyone could hang out in the clubhouse for just one day,” he says. “People’s adulation of the game would really change. Eighty percent of baseball conversation is just nervous chatter, and a lot of it is put-downs. There’s such a lack of communication, even among the coaches. Things are kept secret a lot of times, just for the sake of keeping them secret. You have to be careful about the questions you ask because they’re usually misinterpreted. Like, I was afraid to ask if I was going on the next road trip [to Cincinnati in mid-July] because they’ll think that means I don’t want to go. If you’re open about things, you’re considered feminine. There’s gotta be a bone sticking out of you before you’re really considered hurt. In baseball, always make jokes about people; always put them down and play on their insecurities; always think the worst about people, not the best. That’s true in all of baseball, and in life, too, and it’s an abominable attitude. I’m not bitter, angry, or anything, I’m just telling the truth.”
Ironically, most of the Padres players seem to have an affection for Show. A couple of weeks ago, during batting practice, he came into the dugout in his ultra-stylish civvies, including a bold-patterned acid-flashback shirt. A couple of players cracked, “Hey, Eric, that shirt oughta be back in style in a couple of years. You should hang on to it.” His smile was confused, as if he didn’t know whether to laugh or get upset. Garry Templeton, Padres team captain and a frequent ragger of Show, believes he understands the sensitive pitcher. “Eric’s not an outcast, he’s just different, and he likes to play up that he’s different. A lot of things are said in baseball that you just have to let pass, but to Eric, it’s a major blow. He’s oversensitive and takes things way too seriously. He’s a very intelligent guy, and he outthinks himself on the mound sometimes. Most guys as intelligent as he is are wearing a tie. And a lot of guys that intelligent feel people are against them.”
Show strenuously protests the “smart” rap. “I’m ignorant,” he insists, “I’m just not as ignorant as everybody else.” One of his favorite lines is a Bircher bromide: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
Still, whether you call it intelligence or curiosity, Show’s mind seems unusually active. He used to dream about the human brain when he was in grade school. He built the see-through plastic models of the Visible Head, the Visible Man, the Visible Woman, and the Visible Dog. He’d sit in home room and draw pictures of the human anatomy, after he’d made short work of his class assignments.
His mother wanted him to be a doctor, and that’s what he wanted, too; but his father insisted that he play baseball. “I was better than all the kids in the neighborhood,” Show explains of his childhood in Riverside. “I could throw farther, hit farther, do everything better; but I never went out for Little League until my dad forced me. I wasn’t used to the competition, and I think I was afraid of failure.” Once he started playing ball, he was a perennial all-star, and in 1974 he was drafted as a hitter out of Riverside’s Ramona High School by the Minnesota Twins. He turned them down and went to UC Riverside on a combined athletic/academic scholarship. He majored in physics, did well as a pitcher, continued to play guitar (he had been lead guitarist and singer in a high school rock and roll band called Annabel Lee), and was drafted in the 18th round by the Padres in 1978.
Before his senior year in college, Show describes himself as “misguided.” His parents had gone through a nasty divorce when he was in high school, and it had a disorienting effect on him. “It was the simple things that always screwed me up,” he recalls. “I’ve run out of gas on the freeway, been late for games, I’d miss meetings. I’d roar up to a game on my motorcycle, a girl on the back, my shoulder-length hair streaming out, 30 minutes before I was to start — then pitch a shutout. I was a very disorganized and messed-up person, and it wasn’t until later I realized the key reason. I had not come to fundamental conclusions about who I was and what the world was.”
Just as he was starting his career in pro ball, Show was also beginning to ponder the Big Questions. “To a lot of players, this is not important,” he understates. “But for me, I wanted to know where I came from, and where I was going, and what was the meaning of this existence, because it seemed rather superfluous to me to live your life only for baseball and not have any other purpose outside of that, because baseball is a limited thing.”
Show’s interests outside baseball might have sparked some discontent among his teammates; one of the many raps on him is that his other passions — jazz guitar, the international Communist conspiracy, business administration, God — distract him from pitching. But he counters this by saying,
“See, I love everything, or almost everything, and that’s worked against me sometimes.
How important is baseball? About as important as animals are, outside of the need for the food chain, ecologically.”
“Animals are important,” remarks an interviewer.
“Yeah, they’re delightful. Baseball’s important because people are interacting, it’s entertainment, it’s causing people joy. It’s healthy. There’s almost something mystical about the game.”
“Is it mystical when you’re on the inside, or is it just a job?”
“It’s mystical on the inside when I’m sitting in the stands alone when all the lights are on and there’s nobody else there but me and I’m looking at the field. Yeah, when you can sit and only imagine the best about it. And not think about the reporters. Like, I know [Tribune baseball writer] Barry Bloom has told me that he knows reporters around the country that hope, every time I go out to the field, I get ripped.”
The reasons for this aren’t hard to fathom. Show’s the guy who blasphemed (former) baseball demigod Pete Rose in 1985 by sitting down on the mound after Rose singled to break Ty Cobb’s all-time base-hit record; Show’s the guy who played a little chin music for Andre Dawson and ended up splitting open the slugger’s face with a rising fastball on July 7,1987, almost triggering a riot in Chicago; Show’s the guy who was the subject of more than 100 newspaper editorials written in condemnation of his association with the John Birch Society.
He seems to hold willfully heretical views on issues both in and out of baseball. For instance, with regard to Pete Rose’s current gambling woes, he remarks, like a Mr. Spock in spikes, “It doesn’t bother me that he’s gambled, because there’s no moral aspect here. It all boils down to the dollar. The integrity of the game means only one thing. It means that you must preserve the illusion, or the reality, whichever it is, that games are never thrown. Because if games are thrown, it would mean that people might not come to baseball games because the games don’t matter. And if people don’t come to baseball games, nobody makes any money. Integrity of the game means money. It’s funny, you know, but perfectly logical.”
But the main thing some baseball writers and fans hold against Show is his membership in the John Birch Society. The JBS, as its members refer to it, was founded in 1958 by millionaire candy mogul Robert Welch. Welch shanghaied the life and legacy of John Birch, a Baptist missionary who went to China in 1940 and became an Army officer there in World War II, helping the Chinese fight off the invading Japanese. Welch seized on Birch, who was killed by Chinese Communists a week after the end of the war, as the first casualty of the Cold War, as well as the embodiment of “Americanist” values: Christian certitude; devotion to family; opposition to government activism in education, civil rights, and the economy; and fierce, blindingly vehement anti-Communism.
In the 1960s, the heyday of the JBS when it claimed about 100,000 members nationwide, the organization began a campaign to impeach U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, whom Welch felt had led the court into rulings protecting the legal rights of Communists. Welch, who died in 1985, railed against the 1954 desegregation of public schools; believed that President Eisenhower was controlled by Communists and may have been a Communist himself; and in the JBS magazine American Opinion published an article in 1964, written by a charter member of the JBS national council, which alleged that John F. Kennedy was the leader of the Communist conspiracy in the United States and that the Communists liquidated him in Dallas because he wasn’t moving fast enough to communize the country.
The magazine published the writings of avowed anti-Semites in the early ’60s, but Welch himself was always careful to keep anti-Semitism out of the official positions of the JBS. In 1964 the California State Senate’s Subcommittee on Un-American Activities investigated the society, and on the question of anti-Semitism it reported, “We find a growing incidence of anti-Semitism, although the society as a whole is far from anti-Semitic.” The report linked this to an “influx of emotionally unstable people” in the JBS.
Even aggressive conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Jr., have sought to distance themselves from the JBS. Recently, Buckley referred to the JBS theory about an international Communist conspiracy made up of “insiders” who control both the U.S. and Russia as “preposterous... hardly worth bothering to analyze.”
By the early 1980s, JBS membership had sunk to about 50,000. One day in 1981, Eric Show was in Phoenix, in spring training with the Padres, and he found himself walking into an American Opinion reading room, one of thousands spreading the JBS philosophy throughout the country. “It was strictly by accident that I walked in there,” Show recalls. “I had no idea what I was getting into that day.”
Show says he was at a critical point in a long search for God. And his discovery of the JBS and his spiritual quest are inextricably linked. Several years earlier he had set out to disprove the Bible, and this effort included reading not only that book but the Talmud and the Koran, studying Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Krishna consciousness, and other philosophies. He had also read deeply on the theory of evolution, digested Stanley Miller’s chemical evolution experiments, and decided that the chances of life being created accidentally on the primeval Earth were so infinitesimal as to be virtually impossible. Ultimately, by slow, careful reasoning, he came to believe that the Bible was right. “I didn’t like what I found. I love it now, but I went through a terrible, terrible battle when I found who God really was and what it was all about. I was ashamed, I was angry, I was mad. I didn’t want to hear it.” He joined the Mormon Church. Then he walked into the American Opinion bookstore.
“I found books about things that I had already figured out must be true, but no one talked about them. And I found an organization that was not only not afraid to talk about them but were willing to actually go out on the line, be called fascists and Nazis, smeared, get themselves in a lot of trouble for the sake of putting out this information. I noticed that Norman Lear’s group, People for the American Way, don’t have any problem wanting to censor those types of books.”
As the Cardinals took turns in the batting cage behind him to the #1 accompaniment of a Bruce Springsteen tape, Show explained that a person has to make one of two basic choices about the nature of life: either that you’re an accidental transformation of chemicals “with no purpose other than the happiness or sadness that you experience while you’re alive, and there is no morality other than that determined by your culture and that your rights come from government”; or that you were created by an intelligence, that you have a larger meaning and purpose, and that your rights are God-given, not derived from government. This revelation was to cause Show to stand separate from most of his teammates (although he later recruited pitchers Dave Dravecky and Mark Thurmond into the JBS) and most baseball fans, once he went public with his beliefs by manning a JBS booth at the Del Mar Fair in 1984.
Show’s views could be dismissed more easily if he just parroted the Birch/Welch extremist ravings; but listening to him openly, it’s obvious that he’s reached these conclusions himself, after many years of serious thought. Speaking with the manic passion of a Dennis Hopper character, Show explains, “I began to see that our government was doing things that were — our government was participating in things that weren’t in their best interest, if we operate under the assumption that we’re trying to promote a strong America.” He pauses long enough to expectorate some tobacco juice. “And once I figured that out, I knew there could only be two reasons for it: one, it’s happening because we keep making mistakes and accidentally sending to Soviet Russia billions and billions of dollars’ worth of technology, because, you know, we think they’ll become our friends, or, and this is the possibility that’s more frightening — ” he pauses and sighs for effect — “or, we don't want a strong America”
“You mean a certain group of people doesn’t want a strong America?”
“That makes more sense to you?”
“It’s the only argument now for me. There is no other argument that can even come close to making sense to me. You see, because after I discovered that book store, I started doing research. I researched it for five years. I went into libraries and studied microfilms around the United States, because of my travels in baseball. Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh, San Diego, L.A.” Ed Whitson, when later informed that one reason the pitchers never see Show during road trips is because he is searching index files in libraries, bugged out his eyes and exclaimed, “I gar-un-fee you’ll never catch any of the rest of us in a liberry.”
So while the other starters were working on their tans at the hotel pool or trodding the golf links, Show was “reading these pro-Birch books and verifying the quotes and a lot of the stuff they were talking about, because the theory they were offering me was just too horrible to really believe. I did not want to believe that the people we elected to our political offices to safeguard our country were, in fact, the betrayers. I just couldn’t believe that.”
“Is that always true, or was it only so back in some earlier time?”
“Well, if I had to name one year where it hit the fan, I’d have to say it would be 1913, because that year two very critical things happened. We passed two laws that both were against our Constitution and have both never been ratified by the states. The Federal Reserve Act was one; the other was the graduated income tax, which, by the way, and not coincidentally, is article two of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.” (He’s right.)
It’s now 20 minutes before the start of a day game; and even though he was on the DL, Show would have to be in uniform, on the bench. “The Federal Reserve Act is in violation of our Constitution, see, which says under Section 8, Article 5, that Congress has the power to coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the standard of weights and measures —”
“You know this thing by heart?”
“Well, I know parts of the Constitution, I’ve studied it. See, most people will talk about the First Amendment right, ‘free speech or something.’ But they can’t even quote it; they don’t know what it is, who wrote it, or for what purpose, at what time, or anything. They simply quote it. And now they’re quoting it to say we can burn our flag. See, what happens when you try to become so open-minded is, your brains fall out.”
The game was set to start in 15 minutes, and Show was wearing only his knickers and stirrups, with a T-shirt. “Eric, it’s quarter to one. Don’t you have to get going?”
“You’re kidding! It’s quarter to one? Yeah, I’ve gotta go. But I’ll finish this up.” In the moments before game time, Show gives a thumbnail dissertation on why the Birchers believe the federal reserve system undermines the country and lines the pockets of the corps of “insiders” who always pull the levers of government, no matter who is elected. “The federal reserve lends our government money because, as you’re aware, we spend more than we take in. Now if you and I do that, we go to jail. If they do it, they borrow it from a privately owned, stock-holding company called the Federal Reserve Bank. This bank, which is run by a seven-member board of directors, reaps billions in profits every year from the American taxpayer.... They simply take the money out of the air, because there’s no gold standard and there’s no silver standard; they give the money to the U.S. government, which in turn lends it to Brazil, or usually some Communist country, which can’t repay it. So what does our government do? It amortizes the debt onto the backs of the American taxpayer. And who pays? The rich don’t pay, the poor don’t pay. The middle class pays. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that’s right. I think it’s very unfair, it’s exploitive, and it’s the real definition of a greedy capitalist. Taxes have gone higher and higher, and pretty soon we’re gonna have to be like Rome and sell our kids to pay our taxes.’’ With that, he rushes toward the clubhouse to put the rest of his uniform on and makes it to the field just in time for the national anthem.
Show has consistently disavowed any supposed racist leanings within the John Birch Society. “People call the society racist for one reason: that’s the worst thing you can possibly say about somebody,” he declares. “I hate racists as much as I hate Nazis or anyone who tries to force their views on anyone else. That’s one reason I’m a Bircher.” At the American Opinion Bookstore on Utah Street in North Park, there is no racist literature in evidence. Show’s jazz album is for sale alongside books by Phyllis Schlafly, pamphlets declaring that Henry Kissinger was a KGB agent before he went to Harvard, and bumper stickers proclaiming, “They won’t get my gun until they pry it out of my cold, dead fingers.” Show’s album looks incongruous here, like a naive college kid who’s wandered in among the denizens of a raunchy redneck bar.
After Show went public with his political philosophies, he was inundated with mail from baseball fans, as well as nonfans, criticizing him and questioning his beliefs. He often wrote back, sometimes penning 20-page letters. In one of his missives, written in 1986, he stated, “I do not claim to be a saint. I am not attempting to impose my ‘trip’ on anyone, and I do not advocate setting up witch-hunt committees to forcibly raid suspected homosexual households. I am a sinner and need Christ as much or more than most people I know. The reason I am supporting legislation and rallys [sic] against pornography, drugs, abortion, and homosexuality is because I am trying to protect rights of people to not have to be subjected to it!: (i.e., federal funds, taxpayer money — mine & yours — for abortion; quotas for homosexuals in jobs, including teaching; explicit pornography on magazine covers in stores where minors frequent (7-11’s, Circle-K’s, etc.); even though I am tempted by pornography too; and drugs — well, I don’t think I need to tell you the harm drugs cause.)
“So, if you haven’t swallowed the liberal double-talk of our press, and you study closely the issues, you’ll see that I’m fighting for the rights of people — not against the freedoms of people. Sincerely Yours, Eric Show, #30, Acts 4:12.”
Show, by the way, doesn’t subscribe to any newspapers. He thinks the press is controlled by the same group of insiders who are driving the country into the hands of the Communists.
After two years of mixing it up with the public and receiving death threats in several cities, Show decided to throttle back on his political assertions. His wife and his parents had urged him not to join the JBS in the first place, precisely because they feared a public backlash. They turned out to be right. And the whole imbroglio just gave his teammates another point with which to needle him when his pitching performances were inadequate. “Eric thinks too much and has too many outside interests” was the essence of the criticism. And cynics could look at his record to justify that assessment. In 1983 Show emerged as a star, posting a 15 and 12 won- lost record, and he followed in 1984 with a record of 15 and 9. But after coming out as a Bircher in ’84 and touching off nationwide criticism, his record dropped to 12 and 11 in 1985, 9 and 5 in 1986 (when he missed the last five weeks with elbow problems), and 8 and 16 in 1987, under manager Larry Bowa.
Those were eventful years. There was the record-breaking hit he gave up to Pete Rose. There was the beaning of Andre Dawson.
There were the resulting catcalls about the Dawson incident (many fans and reporters thought he threw at Dawson on purpose;
Show emphatically denies this and shot back at one rabidly critical Chicago writer, “He’s an amoeba brain with cerebral ague and mental vertigo”) and the chants of “Nazi” when he shagged flies in the outfield of some far-flung diamond. There were all those editorials taking issue with the audacity of a pitcher in the Great American Pastime breaking a carefully nurtured illusion of the innocence of the boys who play the Grand 01’ Game by — tarnation! — spouting extremist political views. “I have about 60 of the editorials, and I’ve been told there are many more,” he says. “The Communist People’s Daily World said that I was linked to drug traffic and used by the FBI to disrupt civil rights groups and was heavily armed. They lie all the time. And then the Rose thing; but I’m glad that happened. But there was that fight with Carmelo Martinez.”
“You had a fight with ’Melo?”
“Yeah, that same night Rose got that hit, because the press was all over Carmelo the week before calling him a lousy left fielder, and Dave Parker hit a chink over the shortstop that drove in a run. I was angry that night anyway, and when [pitching coach] Galen [Cisco] came out to the mound, I pointed out to left field and said, ‘Well, God, Galen, they’re only getting chinks off me.’ Carmelo thought I was pointing at him. In the dugout, he kept choosing me out and saying things to me, so I finally said, ‘Okay, ’Melo, let’s go for it then.’ ” Show and Martinez lunged at each other and had to be restrained by their teammates.
“I’ve never criticized a player for anything he did on the field. They’re out there trying their best, you know, and I’m the one that let that guy hit that line drive. Anytime a guy hits the ball hard oft you, man, he ought to get a hit, I think. And every time he doesn’t hit the ball or hits some kind of flukey dink, it should be an out, but it isn’t always an out. That’s just luck, and it really used to bother me. But not anymore.”
Manager Jack McKeon says he talked to Show about his politics in 1987, and he told him "to give it a rest. The public had gotten on him about the John Birch stuff. Personally, I don’t have any problem with it. One guy’s a Democrat, another’s a Republican; you gotta have a right to your own beliefs. I don’t think the outside interests ever affected his pitching. But sometimes, Eric just talks too damn much.”
In his time on the disabled list, Show has had a chance to talk and think a lot about his pitching. ‘‘I miss throwing a ball, I miss pitching in a game,” he says.
“I’m going to come out like gangbusters when my back is healed.” He’s been studying tapes of his pitching motion, and he’s made some startling observations. He declares, contrary to popular belief, he’s never been much of a thinker on the mound. He looks at tapes of his dismal performance in the 1984 National League playoffs against the Cubs (five-and-one-third innings, eight hits, five home runs, 13.51 ERA) and wonders how he ever got anybody out with those pitching mechanics. And he claims that he used to have a much better slider when he was in college than he does now. “You know,” says McKeon, “I really liked his slider when he first came up. It’s not as good as he had.”
Show says he lost his slider when he got to the big leagues because the Padres turned him into a sinkerball pitcher. He lost the wicked break on his slider because he didn’t throw it as often. And even though he developed a diving sinker and still had a decent slider, in his own mind, he stubbornly clung to an identity as a power pitcher whose hard, jumpy fastball could get by anybody. McKeon remarks on this ambivalence when he says, “Eric had such good stuff that he tried to embarrass some guys, I think. He tried to strike out guys when a ground ball would do just as well.” Chris James, who came over to the Padres this year from the Phillies and has faced Show for several years, says Eric “goes right after the hitter; he won’t give in when there’s men on base. He makes you hit his pitch. He’s got that sneaky fastball that moves all over the place.”
Strikeouts are fascist, and ground balls are more democratic, as Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) points out in the baseball movie Bull Durham. The Birchers remind us, on one of their favorite bumper stickers, that America is not a democracy but a republic. Maybe Show, by going for strikeouts (he’s the all-time leader of the Padres in that category, with 896), has been trying to prove something about how power must sometimes prevail over the tyranny of the majority. “A lot of my problem is that I always wanted to have that optimal fastball. I always wanted to be throwing the ball over 90 miles an hour, all the time. Up to now, I’ve tried to get by on brute strength; but I’m not a Nolan Ryan. I’m only six feet tall, which is small for a pitcher in the National League. When I’ve lost my mechanics temporarily, I usually try to make up for it with a faster arm, which usually means a tighter arm, which usually means a dead fast ball, which usually means a Kevin Mitchell home run. I’ve tried to do everything the hard way, but I just don’t think that way about pitching anymore, which is why I’m on the verge of something big.”
Show has learned something profound from watching Bruce Hurst, his left-handed stablemate. “Hurst will throw a curve ball on a 2 and 0 count,” he marvels. “He’ll throw a change-up first pitch. He’ll throw a change-up on 3 and 0. He’ll throw three change-ups in a row and strike a guy out! I’ve never done that in my life.”
In his time on the DL, Show has looked at videotape of himself and not liked what he sees. He’s been studying the extensive notes he takes before and after each game, which contain information about who swings at the first pitch, how to throw to certain players on certain counts, which players tend to peek back at the catcher to try to steal the sign (the Mets’ Keith Hernandez is a peeker, Show says, as was Steve Garvey), and details about each umpire’s strike zone. He vows that he will become more of a control pitcher when he returns, partly because he figures that, at his age, he can’t expect to keep his 90-mile-n-hour fastball for too many more years. “I’ll have to sacrifice some speed,” he declares, ‘but I’ll have pinpoint control.”
One thing he won’t be able to change is the umpires’ strike zones. He says umpires can affect a game’s outcome by as much as 25 percent, and that’s an inexcusable intrusion into an athletic contest. He professes to not know what the definition of the strike zone is anymore. “The most disheartening thing about the strike zone to me is not what its definition is, which I don’t know, but the inconsistency with which they call it. You can throw the same pitch twice and get two different calls from the same umpire, back to back.”
Show has thought a lot about this problem and, naturally, has a solution. “Jack Clark and I talked one night in Pittsburgh about this,” he explains. “Jack was under the opinion, and so were a few of the other players, that we were getting an awful lot of bad calls at the plate.
So I suggested to Jack that there was really a very easy thing that we could do to rectify the situation. It will never be done, but it’s really very simple. It’s an infrared strike zone, with depth, that’s invisible.
“You have infrared beams coming up out of home plate and also from a device suspended high up above. Each player would have little tags sewn into his uniform demarking his strike zone. Then you have an independent evaluator in a room somewhere. And as the ball comes across the plate in the strike zone, it triggers an electronic signal that the evaluator sees. The umpire still calls balls and strikes as he sees them, but the evaluator counts how many of the umpire’s calls actually coincide with the electronic strike zone. This would give you ratios of how accurate each umpire is, and you retain the good ones and get rid of the bad ones. The technology is available....”
Of course, this is just one more heresy that baseball traditionalists can use to condemn Eric Show. These days, his back yard has the feel of a sanctuary where he can lie low and escape the mob that demands both athletic excellence and simplemindedness from its baseball players. One recent afternoon, as Show was nursing his back and computing his won-lost record in the dust of his glass- top patio table, a snorting and shuffling noise rose up from the bottom of the nearby canyon. From his deck, just beyond the empty hammock, a neighbor’s pig could be seen rooting around the canyon floor outside Show’s fence, at the bottom of some zig-zag wooden stairs. When he first had the stairs built, the pitcher was planning to put a batting cage at its terminus. The plan is still in the thinking stage, and now the stairs end in brush and rocks.
But at the sight of the pig this afternoon, Show’s face lit up, and he went to find his wife and fetch a bag of carrots to feed to the pig. Then he painfully negotiated the three flights of stairs with his dog Willie raring to tear the pig to shreds. Show and his wife held Willie back and passed through a gate, into the canyon. The pig and the Shows snorted and laughed and frolicked, though Eric’s bad back kept him from moving and bending much. The pig sniffed at a carrot in Show’s hand But refused to eat it. The animal wandered away, and Show was left holding the carrot. In one motion, he turned, reared back, and heaved the orange shaft toward Cowles Mountain. His motion was beautiful, and the pinwheeling carrot traveled an astonishing distance. Show chuckled with a kind of satisfaction and returned through the gate, fighting Willie back. He looked at the steps, paused for a moment, and remarked, “Isn’t it just like me to build a set of stairs down to nowhere?”