Leitch on Ellis

Will Leitch comments on Dock Ellis’ passing today, particularly his acid no-hitter. In so doing, we’re reminded that Deadspin lost a hell of a lot more than most people realize when he left:

The world is a crazed, nonsensical place, mostly random, confused, chaotic, numbing. We search for reason wherever we can find it. And then, out of the nether, someone throws a no-hitter on LSD, and we realize that there is so much we do not understand, so much that will always elude, so much with a strange beauty that’s impossible to comprehend. Dock Ellis’ achievement has been lost to the years — it’s not exactly the type of thing ESPN can do a “SportsCentury” about — but it’s staggering and awesome, and we mustn’t ever forget it. R.I.P. Dock Ellis. We know a little bit more about our world because of you, and a lot less. Thank you.

Much of the appeal of baseball is that it allows you to shut out the real world for a while, but I find that it’s much more fulfilling to use baseball as one of many points of comfortable reference to observe and understand the real world. Leitch is doing that here, and I find it far more satisfying than simply listing the guy’s stats and noting the LSD thing as a comical aside, which so many other remembrances have done since Friday.

Sure, trying to find some greater human truths in the world of baseball is an approach which has its limitations — for example, if you’re looking for the secrets of the universe inside the Rockies’ decision to designate someone for assignment, good luck — but it’s something I shoot for around here, and something I’d like to see more of in the sporting press.

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  1. lar said...

    Maybe it’s just me and my utter disinterest in illegal drugs/narcotics of any sort, but why is this something to be celebrated? It’s an honest question, and not meant to disparage anyone’s opinion or point of view.

    I mean, I understand that it’s kind of cool to know that something like that can be done and I understand the insight into baseball that it provides (and how it can help to show us that ballplayers are much more human and much less perfect than we sometimes make them out to be), but is that it?

    How is this different than Tim Raines sliding head-first to avoid breaking his vials of cocaine? If Paul Molitor admitted to hitting for the cycle while flying high on coke, would we celebrate it too? Is this different than Steve Howe or Darryl Strawberry or Doc Gooden? Why? Is it a recreational-vs-hard drugs thing that I can’t pretend to understand? A hierarchy of drugs?

    Sorry for all the questions. Like I said, they’re honest and not meant to be belligerent. I just never understood the fascination with drugs. I’d much prefer the focus of his remembrances to be about the more substantial aspects of his life, of which I’m sure there are many (East Windup Chronicle does a pretty good job: http://eastwindupchronicle.com/dock-ellis-1945-2008/)


  2. Craig Calcaterra said...


    Last point first:  I can’t speak for Leitch, but please don’t think that my highlighting of his piece suggests that the no-hitter on LSD should be the focus of all remembrances of Dock Ellis or somehow constituted the most notable thing in his life.  Some people have been comprehensive in their memories of him, and those writings are certainly better places to start (and probably end) when thinking about the guy.  Others have focused on just one or two things, and this just happens to be one of them.  This happens to everyone who passes or any news story worthy of comment.

    As to your greater point, I am not, nor do I think Leitch is assigning any moral value (or any other kind of value) to Ellis’ LSD experience.  To use a hackneyed phrase, it was what it was, and no matter what you think about a person using drugs of any kind, it certainly is interesting that someone was able to accomplish something that normally requires a sharp brain and body to accomplish while under the influence of something like acid (indeed, my cropping of Leitch’s quote left out the part where he noted how difficult it was for Leitch himself to write while once using drugs, and how Ellis’ thing therefore amazed him).

    Ellis wasn’t a better person worthy of great praise for doing what he did.  The accomplishment itself, however, was quite a thing, and does lead one—like Leitch—to marvel at what it says about human beings and what makes them tick.

    As for Molitor, Raines, etc:  I am likewise morality-free amazed that they managed to perform while under the influence.  This does not prevent me, however, from disapproving (as I might disapprove of Ellis’ drug use as well) and wondering how much more they could have accomplished had they not used drugs.

    Maybe Molitor has 4000 hits.  Maybe Ellis’ one LSD no-hitter came at the expense of four clear-headed ones he never got.  We can’t know, but if they did, then I find it all a shame.

  3. The Common Man said...

    @ Iar

    I think the act means something different to each of us. Timothy Leary is going to celebrate it as a demonstration of the mind-freeing powers of LSD, I suppose.  Many of us are going to be amazed.  Some aren’t going to care, or are going to be be disturbed that it doesn’t teach the kids a lesson.  What’s most interesting, to me, is that this speaks to the incredible talent Ellis had, pitching a no-hitter while impaired.  And it’s a warning because of how he managed to squander a great deal of it, washing out at age 34. 

    The Common Man

  4. lar said...

    Thanks for the thoughts. I’m sorry if I came across as preachy or judgemental… it wasn’t my intention. And, Craig, I didn’t think you were suggesting anything like that. It was pretty clear that your post was about Leitch’s writing and how sports-writing should strive to be more human and less droll.

    I can understand the interest in the LSD no-hitter as a study of what the human body can do and what Ellis himself could do, and how it leaves tantalizing questions about talent untapped. I get that, and I agree. It really makes you wonder, and it makes you feel sad for the sport that we were unable to see the talent reached. Though, I suppose, it is one of just hundreds of reasons that certain players never hit their full potential, so it can’t be all that sad (esp when some of those reasons have to do with fighting in wars).

    I know, intellectually, that just because people are focusing on one thing when they write articles or blog-postings or whatnot, that doesn’t mean that that topic is necessarily what is most important. it’s just the way that they’ve chosen to frame their piece. And, for some people, that frame is too easy to pass up. But, sometimes, it’s hard to remember that when all you see is the same story over and over again.

    Leitch’s piece definitely had it’s own voice, and that last paragraph of his that you quoted, Craig, is very well written. I guess I just wanted to make sure I understood what he meant – and that I wasn’t missing anything – when he said “we know a little bit more about our world because of you”, and I think I did.

    [The discussion about drugs and how we view them in baseball and the specific examples of Ellis and Raines and Molitor and Howe and Straw and everybody else is probably a very interesting one to have though (esp. since some people seem to think that Raines’ exploits could hurt his Hall chances even though Molitor is already in there)]

  5. Pete Toms said...

    My first thought on hearing of the passing of Ellis was the LSD no hitter.  But in reading the many remembrances / bios of Ellis it has led me to think about how MLB has changed.

    Ellis played when I was a kid and I ( raised in Madoc ON Canada ) of all things – was a Pirate fan.  So his passing has led me to reminisce about “The Lumber Company” and all that.  And that era and in particular those Pirate teams were BLACK!  Lots and lots of American black guys. 

    We chattering classes have talked a lot these past handful of years about the diminished number of African Americans playing MLB.  And we eventually end up asking, does it matter?  And the passing of Dock Ellis makes me think that yes it does.  Because those Pirate teams had a swagger and an attitude that was African American.  And I do think MLB misses that. 

    William Rhoden writes in $40 million slaves about the uniquely African American flair and style ( I’m paraphrasing him badly ) that African Americans brought to all games.  He writes about being a Mays fan as a kid and how he loved the cap flying off the head and the daring baserunning and the basket catch….and how some white fans of the era didn’t particularly care for it.  Reminded me of when the old school “respect the game” purists used to get pissed at Jr. for wearing his cap backwards during BP.

    IIRC, some of the Dock eulogies have mentioned him being part of the first?? MLB club to field a team comprised entirely of black guys.  And Tom Reich has said a lot of flattering things about Ellis, his intellect and his principles.  And I think Ellis was maybe part of the generation of “civil rights” American blacks who were willing to “politicize” their vocation.  Rhoden laments contemporary African American pro jocks’ ignorance of their own history ( again, I’m paraphrasing ).

    Anyway, that’s all kinda rambling, but Dock Ellis makes me think of more than LSD ( although, that is a great story )

    I digress, but does anybody else think that maybe he fibbed it?  Is there tape of the game?

  6. Melody said...

    “Much of the appeal of baseball is that it allows you to shut out the real world for a while, but I find that it’s much more fulfilling to use baseball as one of many points of comfortable reference to observe and understand the real world.”

    I think Joe Posnanski does an especially amazing job of this, which is what makes his writing so compelling.  Most of the great baseball writing I love is the same way—“Ball Four” is really about much more than baseball.  I think playing sports helps us learn about life, so it makes sense that writing about it would explore some of the same themes.  Following and understanding sports helps you learn about unfairness, the difficulty of succeeding, focusing on the long view, and lots of other cheezy stuff about fair play.  But mostly, it’s one of those areas in which we start to first explore disappointment, and the feeling of helplessness—it’s a safe place to explore those things, and it gives us some practice for the real thing.

    Btw: Read Michael Chabon’s “Summerland.”  You won’t be sorry.

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