|Friday, May 16
Updated: May 20, 8:55 AM ET
The place to go where no one knows your name
By Wayne Drehs
DES MOINES, Iowa -- From the foot of his Iowa Cubs locker to the front porch of his home, former major league pitcher Rod Beck walks 159 steps. Down the hallway, through a thick blue double door, out a green door and along a flattened path of what's become dead grass.
The roughly 400 feet that separate home from office, play from work, is a shorter distance than home plate is from the centerfield wall in some ballparks. And it's only possible because Beck has chosen a most unique place to call home during his comeback stint in Triple-A.
The guy known as "Shooter," the guy with the shaggy mullet, the bushy Fu Manchu and the endearing beer belly, the guy who laughs contagiously, smokes religiously and looks more like a plumber than a professional baseball player, lives behind the right field wall of Iowa's Sec Taylor Stadium. In a motor home.
"For as long as I've been around this game, there have always been guys who have strayed from the norm," said Jerry Reuss, the I-Cubs pitching coach and a veteran of 22 major league seasons. "Then there are the guys that take it to a whole new level: Jay Johnstone. Mark Fidrych. Guys like that. Living in your own personal trailer park behind center field? This qualifies him in that group. I've never seen anything like it."
After missing all of the 2002 season following reconstructive elbow surgery, the 34-year-old Beck has stopped here for what he hopes will be a path back to the major leagues. Though the velocity on his fastball pales in comparison to that of Atlanta's John Smoltz, who leads the majors in saves, Beck has been dominant. He's compiled a 1-1 record and 0.37 ERA. In 25 innings, he's walked five and struck out 20.
The mullet is gone, replaced by a shiny bald dome that glistens with sweat. But the Fu is still there. And so is the personality. Despite the travel delays and the doubleheaders so common in the minors, Beck is having just as much fun off the field as he's having on it.
His wife Stacey and their two daughters are back in Arizona, but he isn't alone. For it isn't uncommon for Beck to leave the clubhouse, walk home and find strangers hanging out at the RV, curious if the rumors that have spread across Iowa's capitol are true. Does Rod Beck really live here? Does he really sign autographs after games? Is he really down to earth enough that he'll offer a Coors Light and tell old baseball stories to just about anyone who stops by?
Consider a game last week, when Beck showed up after a 3-2 Cubs win to find 11 fans milling about a plastic picnic table next to the 36-foot Winnebago Journey DL. One of the guys, confident he is welcome, but yet still nervous as Beck approaches, offers a can of Miller Lite and asks, "Is this cool? Do you want a beer?"
"Yeah," Beck says. "But sure as hell not one of those."
He unlocks a compartment beneath his RV, turns on the stereo and pulls out an ice cold Coors Light. His T-shirt reads, "You're killing my buzz," but his actions speak anything but. He tells baseball stories of the past, baseball stories of the present. He signs autographs. He offers cold beer. He gives tours of his luxury-laden RV. He lets people fiddle with the stereo, use the bathroom. On this night, his home is their home.
"Hey Shooter," one fan asks. "Can I check the Lakers score?"
"Yeah," Beck replies. "But you'll need the remote. I think it's on the table."
Complete strangers. Yet Beck welcomes them like longtime friends. Even autograph collectors, who admit they're going to take the signature Beck just gave them and sell it for a profit, are welcome.
"Hey, if you can make money off me defacing a baseball card," Beck says, "Good luck."
He's like the guy on the floor of your college dorm that has all the cool stuff: the big TV, the booming stereo, the PlayStation, the DVD player and the fridge stocked with cold beer. And his door is always open.
"I'm not a superstar in my eyes," Beck said. "I never was. If plumbing was a sport, all those guys would be on TV and I'd work 9-to-5 playing baseball. And it wouldn't mean a difference to me at all. I just like relating to people."
He hangs with teammates. He hangs with groundskeepers. He hangs with fans. Even former Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy has told people that he wants to head to Des Moines and meet Shooter.
"That would be something," Beck said.
"And I promise you, that light never goes off," Cubs reliever Phil Norton said. "I'm not even sure it has a switch."
Said Beck: "I didn't want to get a liquor license, so I just give the stuff away for free."
Not everything is fun and games. Beck signed a minor league contract with the Chicago Cubs last winter, but failed to make the big league club coming out of spring training. They sent him to AAA, where he has a handshake agreement that he can leave the club if a major league opportunity arise.
Last week, he struck out all five batters he faced in 1 2/3 innings of work. His fastball tops out at just 86 m.p.h., but he says that's enough to get major league hitters out. His catcher agrees. Keith McDonald said there were a handful of times in spring training when Beck was hitting only 81-82 on the radar gun, but would call for the fastball anyway.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'This guy's got brass balls,' " McDonald said. "And then the pitch would come and they'd swing and miss it. Whatever they were looking for, he would give them something else. The guy knows how to pitch."
Said Beck: "I think half the time, I was throwing my fastball, but they thought it was a change."
Beck said three teams have called his agent with major league offers. But he's waiting for the right fit and won't pitch for the major league minimum of $300,000. He's 34 saves away from 300 and is convinced, "if you tell me that I'm your guy and you give me the ball everyday, I can get you 35 to 50 saves a year. Guaranteed. I just need the opportunity."
Reuss, who sends daily reports to Chicago on the improvements of all his pitchers, thinks Shooter needs a little more oomph on that fastball.
"It isn't a necessity, but it would certainly help make his job easier when he gets there," Reuss said. "Right now, at 84-85-86, his fastball is below the major league average. It's his third best pitch. And if he gets too much of the plate, they're going to get it."
Interestingly enough, the team that Beck most wants to pitch for again, the Chicago Cubs, doesn't have room for him. But Dusty Baker (the man who made him a closer in San Francisco), Dick Pole (his pitching coach with the Giants), Mike Remlinger (his former minor league roommate) and Dave Veres, another old friend, are all there. And, after all, he pitched for the Cubs in 1998 and 1999.
"It's an absolutely perfect situation," he said. "All my worlds have come together. Now I just need to figure out where I fit in."
One team that has a struggling bullpen, that some say could use a veteran like Beck, is the Boston Red Sox. But he had a bad experience with them from 1999 - 2001, clashing with general manager Dan Duquette and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan.
"Everyday was like banging my head off the wall," Beck said. "We just didn't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. I've heard things are a lot better there now. But if those guys were still there, I wouldn't go back for all the money in Boston. And there's a lot of money in Boston."
A green extension cord connects his home to a power outlet inside the garage of the ground's crew. When he pops a circuit, he hops out of his RV, walks into the garage, waves to the guys and flips it back on. He uses a rental car to run for groceries. His bathroom is smaller than most closets and yet holds a magazine rack that carries the last three issues of Maxim. There's a leather couch. A double bed. A microwave. And mounted speakers for the stereo and television.
"Why rent an apartment, rent furniture, sign a lease, do all that stuff when I can just bring my own home, with my own stuff and then pick up and go whenever I want," Beck said. "It just made sense."
Outside, there's a plastic picnic table. Some old, ragged office furniture. And spotlights. On one of his first days in Des Moines, Beck threw what he called a "Brat-B-Que," inviting all of his coaches and teammates for brats, burgers, hotdogs and cold beer. Beck even hung Christmas lights on the overhang of his Winny.
"People aren't quite sure what to think," Beck said. "I get some looks. Brady Anderson was in here not too long ago and he goes, 'I hear you're living in an RV out there.' And I'm like, 'Sure am.' And he sort of stood there, looked at me and after some awkward silence said, 'Well … that's cool.' "
Beck figured he'd hate this. When he left for Iowa, he warned Stacey, his wife, that he probably was going to be a tad grumpy until he made it back to the bigs. Three different times along the drive, he stopped the trailer, sat on the side of the road and wondered what the hell he was doing.
After five days of what he thought would be a six-day drive, he was barely in Texas.
"That ain't right," Beck said. "But I was by myself and I kept thinking, 'I don't need this. What am I doing?' "
He thought back to his rehab, when for the first time in his life, he lifted a weight and he took care of his arm. "I'm old school, I was taught that ice was for bourbon, not for your arm," he said. He thought back to his daughters, who told their Daddy they wanted to see him pitch again. And he decided that he had gone too far to give up now. So he met up with his brother-in-law, who drives for Beck on the International Hot Rod Association, in Amarillo, Texas, and the two finished the drive together.
He couldn't be happier with his decision. He doesn't want to stay forever, but he says he has enjoyed AAA. As enlightening as the experience has been for jaded baseball fans, it's been just as rewarding for Beck.
Just last week, as Beck was holding court outside his RV, standing in a semi-circle and talking to four strangers about baseball, another man in a shirt and tie timidly walked up.
Beck sensed the nerves and, though he didn't know the man, made him feel instantly comfortable.
"Awe, hell," he said, motioning to the group around him. "I don't know any of these idiots any more than I know you. What's up? What can I do for ya?"
The guy wanted an autograph. "Hell, that's easy," Beck said. "That's it?"
There was nothing else. The guy was in Des Moines on business, had heard about Beck being in town and wanted to take a signed ball home to his son. Mission accomplished.
"Being here has helped me," he said. "Maybe mentally as much as physically. It helped me remember why I do this.
"This is not a game or an occupation, it's a lifestyle. I was 17 when I first signed. I'm 34 now. That's half my life. So if I give this up, what the hell else am I going to do?"
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.