Recruiting is a dreadful but necessary part of the job. Perhaps, at a later date, I can go into the ways in which a coach must toe the line between truth-teller and snake oil salesman in order to lure talent into his program. Or maybe you’d like to learn about blood-sucking business boom of recruiting showcases — events which primarily consists of suckering parents out of $600, just so their 125-lbs kid can have the privilege of demonstrating to every college coach within a five-state radius that he’s incapable of hitting a batting practice pitch out of the infield. Or, maybe, you’d like to know what those very same parents think of their baseball-disabled son’s chances of landing a Division I baseball scholarship. Those would all be good stories to tell. This is not one of those stories.
This is the story of what happens when coaches stop recruiting and start being real. Real drunk.
The story takes place on a recruiting trip in Florida almost a decade ago. As with many of my stories, I will be intentionally vague about some details to protect the guilty.
About 150 players from the southeast corner of the country gathered to practice and play in front of approximately 50 coaches from the top colleges and universities in the nation. At this particular event, the coaches were “employees” of the showcase and were therefore dressed in full uniform to give an air of professionalism. After a particularly grueling day in the sweltering Florida sun, the rest of the coaches and I headed back to our hotel to shower up then grab food and a drink or six. I was splitting a hotel suite with another coach. Let’s call him Alex.
Alex and I had hit it off at a previous recruiting event. He was brand new to the coaching world and wasn’t sure what was considered acceptable behavior by coaches. At the time, I was very young for a head coach, so I was a lot less intimidating than approaching one of the dinosaurs who considered the Mets an expansion team. He’d ask me questions like, “That kid sucked, right?” or “Do you think it’s weird that a bunch of grown men are staring at teenage boys and jotting down notes like ‘nice thick legs’ or ‘sloppy rear end’ or ‘fills out the uniform well’?” Like I said, we hit it off.
Alex was in his early thirties, but could have passed for 22 if not for his rapidly receding hair line. He was tall, strong and slender – one of the diehard coaches who was still maintaining the same workout regimen from his playing days. His physique looked like it belonged in a Major League uniform, not the uniform of the small ultraconservative Christian college he was actually donning. Just a few years prior, wearing a big league uniform had been a real possibility for Alex, but his playing career came to a close in AA before eventually turning to coaching. Coincidentally, the field we were recruiting at all day was the very field he was given his release papers. The irony seemed lost on him as he changed out of his uniform and into his civvies and headed down to the hotel lobby with me.
We joined up with a pair of other coaches, Jim and Joe, before cramming into Jim’s rental car and heading off to a local hot spot for dinner and drinks. We only had to drive a couple miles before finding a massive restaurant in the heart of the local mall. The mall’s parking lot was set up in concentric circles, disorienting drivers and forcing them to pass by each and every store before finally making it in or out. The car snaked through a labyrinth of one-way streets and parking structures before finally arriving at the restaurant. We grabbed a booth and settled in.
The evening began the way it always does – fire back a couple beers, binge on greasy finger food, swap war stories, share strategies, and generally complain about why winning at each of our respective institutions is especially difficult/impossible. I am a relative lightweight compared to most baseball coaches (who are an accomplished fraternity of drinkers) – particularly after a day of simmering in the Floridian summer crock pot. I slowed my drinking down, as did Jim, since he was driving. Joe and Alex pressed on.
Towards the end of the night, Alex caught the eyes of a pair of ladies sitting together at the bar. He nodded for us to take a look. We obliged, but were not particularly impressed with either offering. This only seemed to strengthen his conviction. He slugged down his beer and laid a plan of attack.
Alex: Scott, I need a wingman. You mind hoppin’ on the grenade for me?
Me: Which one is the grenade?
Alex: C’mon man, the one on the right looks ok…doesn’t she? … No?
Joe: Ugh, all lright. I’ll go with ya.
Alex: Thanks, man.
Alex and Joe dropped some cash on the table then stumbled over to the bar. From a distance, it did not appear that either Alex or Joe was making much headway with the girls. Jim and I decided it was time for us to go, so we went to the bar to gather our compadres. Joe was more than happy to leave, but Alex was convinced he just needed a little more time to work. He assured us that he could catch a ride back to the hotel with the girls. So we left. And we never saw him again…
Okay, that part isn’t true. But bear with me, business is about to pick up. We got back to the hotel around midnight and I went directly to our suite. I kicked off my shoes and performed a face plant on the bed, falling asleep before my head hit the pillow. Around 2:30am, I woke up to take a piss. I poked my head into Alex’s room and saw that he had not made it back. I was either too tired or too drunk to care. “He’s a grown man,” I reasoned. “Maybe he got “lucky” and went back to the girls’ place. I’m sure he’s oka-zzzzzzzzzz.”
Around 6am I woke up again. I rolled over and checked my phone, this time noticing three missed calls and a voicemail from Alex. I played the voicemail:
Scott…what’s the hotel called?
I’ve been…running… I see the…light.
:::rustling and static:::
I can’t get out…OH SHIT!
:::heavy rustling and a crash followed by police sirens:::
I thought they saw me…
Can you find me?
:::loud rustling and the sound of feet pounding on pavement:::
:::more loud rustling:::
:::metal scraping and clanging:::
:::END OF MESSAGE:::
By the end of the message, I was in a thick lather of sweat. Where is Alex? Why was he running? Why were the police after him? Why didn’t I have my ringer on? Was he dead?
I opened the door to his room in the suite. Alex was laid out prone on the couch, in a state of half-dress. He was breathing, but his body was littered with open wounds on his arms, legs and head. His shirt was in a soaking wet heap on the floor. It was ripped across the chest. His pants appeared wet too and were caked with mud and grass stains.
Relieved, I let him sleep a while longer before stirring him to get ready. After he got dressed, we headed to the lobby for breakfast. I tried to be patient, but I had to ask.
Me: What the hell happened to you last night? I thought you were gonna get a ride back with the girls
Alex: Oh, man. Those girls backed out. They left me there by myself when the bar closed. But it was cool, ’cause I felt like I needed to work out anyway… so I figured I’d just run back to the hotel.
Me: You ran back?
Alex: Yeah, I mean… I tried. I was runnin’ for like twenty minutes through that parking lot, but it kept turning me in circles. I musta run three miles and I was right back at the bar.
Me: What time was that?
Alex: I dunno, maybe 2am.
Me: Shit. So did you call a cab?
Alex: Fuck! I shoulda tried that. Nah, I was wide awake and I thought I could still make it. So I just kept running. I mean, I could see the top of our hotel…ya know, the big light on top of it…so I knew which way I needed to go. I just couldn’t find my way out of the parking area. I got frustrated, so I just took off my shirt and did pushups.
Me: Where? In the parking lot?
Alex: Yeah, I needed to let off some steam, man. But then a cop car was driving around and I thought they were looking for me, so I jumped behind some bushes until they left. Then I started running again. Somehow I got out of the parking area but I was all turned around. I wasn’t by the street anymore. I couldn’t find the hotel.
Me: Is that when you called me?
Alex: I called you?
Me: Yeah, sorry I didn’t answer.
Alex: I don’t remember that. I just remember… running. It started raining, but I finally could see the light on top of the hotel again…but there was a big chain-link fence in front of me with barbed wire. I heard the cops coming and there was no place to hide, so I had to climb over it. I made it over okay, but my shirt got caught on the barbed wire. I tried to pull it loose, but I slipped and fell off the fence and down this ravine.
Me: Holy shit.
Alex: It fuckin’ hurt, man. I knew I was close, but the fuckin’ highway was in the way. There was no way around, but I remembered that the highway went right by our hotel. I knew we were on the other side. So I went up.
Me: Up? Up where?
Alex: Up the on ramp. Or the off ramp. I think it was the off ramp, ‘cause a car almost hit me.
Me: Are you fucking with me?
Alex: Haha, nah man. I ran across and down the other ramp…
Me: Across? The highway? You ran across eight lanes of high speed traffic?
Alex: Yeah, but there weren’t many cars. It was late, man. It was like that frog game.
Alex: Yeah, Frogger. So then I ran down the other ramp. And I was basically at our hotel.
Me: Wow. Well, I’m glad you’re alive. What time did you get in?
Alex: I dunno. Prolly like three or four. Woulda been earlier except I musta lost my key card along the way. The front desk didn’t believe me that I was stayin’ here and were about to call the cops. Luckily the chick that checked us in was working and recognized me. She let me in.
Me: Why were you running from the cops anyway?
Alex: If my school finds out I was drinking I’ll get fired. They’re real strict about that stuff. Not a single beer. ‘Walk in Jesus’ path’ and all that.
Me: Sounds like a good fit for you.
Alex and I worked the showcase that day. I was dying from the heat, so I don’t know how he made it. We parted ways later that evening.
Before I left for the airport, I drove back to the bar to retrace Alex’s steps. Sure enough, I saw the bushes by the parking lot, the fence with the barbed wire, the ravine, the highway, everything. Alex’s story was plausible if not believable. I also saw that his entire path was approximately 200 feet away from the sidewalk that would have taken him directly back to the hotel. If he had just run a little further, the distance it takes to leg out a double, he could have avoided his death defying adventure.
Once I got back to my home, I wrote an email to Jim, Joe and Alex, recounting the story Alex told me and I added this little message:
“For 24 hours only, I have changed my voicemail password to ‘1234’ so all of you can check it and listen to the voicemail for yourselves. Enjoy.”
We all got a big kick out of it, wished each other luck with our respective teams and seasons, and promised to keep in touch.
Epilogue: Alex is still coaching at the same school. I’ve never heard from or seen him again. Seriously, this time.Next post: You’ve Got Mail… Now Leave Us Alone
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