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Original Issue

Game Boy

Last October, 21-year-old Steve Avery of the Braves was America's favorite phenom. But now, back home in Michigan, he's just another kid on the block

This is the story of a dog and his boy. Steve Avery may have the whole world in his hands, gripped tightly across the seams, but he isn't master of his own household. A golden retriever named Cyrus shakes off all of his owner's signs. When a friend enters the Avery home with baseball cards to be autographed, the 21-year-old pitcher tells his three-month-old puppy, "Get him, Cy! Kill! Kill!" But Cyrus lies motionless in the middle of the den, a throw rug with halitosis.

This is a true story. Steve Avery pitched and won both ends of a district-final doubleheader in high school, powered by Steve Avery's three home runs. Steve Avery was also married this past November, six days after his Atlanta Braves lost Game 7 of the World Series. "It worked out," he says. "I got to miss all the planning. I didn't get stuck going to the shower and everything." The two anecdotes are not unrelated. The lesson: In love or in war, Steve Avery will not be sent to the shower.

This is the story of the boy who has everything. "What do you get for the boy who has everything?" asks Ken Avery, one of Steve's two older brothers. "For Christmas, I got him a squirt gun. Shoots water up to 50 feet." Connie Avery bought her youngest son a brush designed to clean lint from his navel. That's what you get for the boy who has everything.

This could be the touching story of the pitcher who couldn't be touched. The wedding that followed the World Series followed the lefthander's MVP performance in the National League playoffs, in which Avery twice beat the Pittsburgh Pirates by a score of 1-0 and never once allowed himself to be rattled by all that was around him. "Rattled?" asked Pirate centerfielder Andy Van Slyke. "He's young enough to carry a rattle, that's about it." Before that, Avery beat the Los Angeles Dodgers on successive weekends in late September, holding L.A. to one run in two games to raise a division flag for Atlanta. He finished last season, his second in the major leagues, with an 18-8 record and a 3.38 ERA. But this isn't really a baseball story.

It's the story of, it's the glory of, love. Love of home and of family, of youth and of games—and love of the girl in your seventh-grade algebra class. Steve and Heather Avery met at West Junior High in Taylor, Mich., where the couple still lives, five minutes from Detroit's Metropolitan Airport and two minutes from the homes they grew up in. Heather attends Eastern Michigan University and is a part-time waitress at Dimitri's in Allen Park. "It's hard getting to my tables," she says. "Everyone wants to talk about baseball. But I understand that. I think I've talked to all of our regular customers by now, anyway." She no more plans to give up the gig than the Averys plan to leave the neighborhood.

Three blocks and four telephone digits from his parents' house is the boy's small redbrick one-story home, separated from its neighbors by perhaps 12 feet. The walk is shoveled. The surname AVERY is inscribed on the brass door knocker. Heather has left for class with the truck, so her husband isn't going anywhere. Come inside. Leave your shoes on the HOTLANTA BRAVES doormat. Never mind that Cyrus just picked the pocket calendar from your jacket and ate January, February and the first two weeks of March. We'll begin by revisiting last October.

Steve Avery knows that life is short and the off-season is even shorter, so he vigilantly clings to both his youth and his couch. Seated in his wood-paneled den, he recounts the chaos that transpired during Game 6 of the World Series, which the Minnesota Twins won 4-3 in 11 innings. Of course, Avery's account of the evening is secondhand, as he had to pitch that night in the Metrodome, some 500 miles from all the action.

"My brothers had a party here that night," he says. "They were going to try to get through it without me knowing. They had five TVs in here. One in the garage, one in the kitchen, one downstairs, one in the bathroom...."

Ken, 28, and Mike, 26 (sister Jennifer, 20, is a junior at Ferris State University), say they invited 15 people to their little brother's house that evening. That is their story, and they're sticking to it. "But," concedes Ken, "it got bigger than anticipated. Word got out: 'Party at Avery's.' It was raining, so everyone had to come inside."

"There were, I don't know, 175 people here," says Steve.

"More like 70," says Ken.

Even if a Channel 2 mobile unit hadn't crashed the bash and beamed the festivities live throughout Detroit on the 11 o'clock news, Steve most likely would have learned of the covert blowout. There was other incriminating evidence. "We left the place too clean," says Ken, still cursing himself. "Neater than it was before."

Steve also started Game 3 of the World Series, a 12-inning, four-hour affair that the Braves won 5-4. Who will ever forget it? Not Chris Donahey, Steve's best friend, who has dropped by the Avery residence bearing a sackful of McDonald's. As if it happened yesterday, Donahey evokes the now familiar series of events that preceded second baseman Mark Lemke's game-winning single. "Steve got us tickets," Donahey remembers wistfully. "A group of us drove all night to Atlanta. We took two cars. I fell asleep in the 10th inning. I woke up right when the winning run scored."

So. That's the story of Games 3 and 6. If you're young enough, two of the most memorable contests in World Series history can be summed up in a pair of college-kid exclamations: "Paaar-dee!" and "Road trip!"

His life is an ascendant express elevator that has made few stops of late. By many accounts, it may one day burst through the ceiling, like the runaway Otis in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, raining plaster on the rest of us far below. "Bob Gibson," Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller likened Avery to last October. "Sandy Koufax. Take your pick."

Nine years ago Steve Avery was 5'2" and weighed 89 pounds, according to the back of the Little League baseball card that the 12-year-old had made at the time. (His current card lists him as 6'4", 180.) Five years ago, as a high school junior, he had a 28-inch waist, a 36-inch inseam and, for all he knew, a future in baseball that stretched for half an inch in front of him. A year later the boy had gained 20 pounds, and opposing batters were receiving standing ovations from their teammates anytime they fouled off one of his pitches.

"His senior year, in the eighth inning of a Connie Mack game, he struck out a kid with a 92-mile-an-hour fastball," says his father. Ken Sr., a former minor league pitcher, now athletic director for the three Taylor high schools. "That's probably the first time we thought, Jeez, this is really something special."

Steve was ready to pack his bags for Stanford, where he would be a senior today, when the Braves chose him third overall in the 1988 draft and offered him $211,000 just to sign his name. They also told him he would be in the bigs in a jiffy. And what is a kid supposed to say to that? He signed and bought a car.

Steve Avery, bound for the minor leagues, was every red-faced school kid on a yellow school bus whose mother would stand at the curb until her boy had faded from sight. "I remember standing here one day," says Connie, looking out her front window, "watching Steve back out of the driveway, when the phone rang." She answered the call in the kitchen. It was Steve, on his car phone, still in the driveway, asking Mom to please knock it off.

The threads of his neck remained squarely screwed into the grooves of his shoulders—for while he briefly left home, Steve Avery never left family. Assigned to rookie ball in Pulaski, Va., Avery lived there with an older couple named the Huffords, who treated him like a son. He and ex-teammate Turk Wendell, now in the Chicago Cub organization, talked themselves into four-wheel driving in the Appalachian Mountains at two o'clock one morning. They were forced to abandon Wendell's Jeep in a mud-filled, waist-high hole at four o'clock. Terrified, the two outdoorsmen carried baseball bats like hiking staffs through the thick night, and they arrived back home from their harrowing ordeal at 7 a.m., on foot, tracking mud all over the house.

"Mrs. Hufford was real nice," recalls Avery, who still exchanges Christmas cards with the woman. "She left a note in the morning that said, 'I would appreciate it if you and your friends would clean up after yourselves.' And she left a bucket of water and a sponge."

Clean up after yourself. It is a Robert Fulghum All-I-Really-Need-to-Know-I-Learned-in-Rookie-Ball adage in its simplicity, but one Steve Avery hasn't forgotten. Never clean up too much after throwing a party at someone else's place. That's another one he's picked up along the way.

He is still blinking from the bright flash of' last autumn, just beginning to recall shapes and forms from those days four months ago. He has just remembered that all receipts at Hudson's department store in Taylor in October were adorned with the message CONGRATULATIONS STEVE AVERY! The register-tape tribute is far more meaningful than, say, the day-in-the-life videotape he did during the Series with CBS's oleaginous Pat O'Brien. "I forgot about that," says Avery. "I haven't even watched that yet."

After Game 3 former president Jimmy Carter waited patiently in line at Avery's locker before introducing himself and offering congratulations. "I got a ball signed by him," says Avery, sifting through last season's rubble, "I got a ball signed by Dick Cheney. M.C. Hammer, yeah, he was in our clubhouse a couple of times. Charlie Sheen. Evander was there almost every weekend. Steffi Graf came to watch us once. I send the ball boys to get autographs. I don't think I could ask someone I don't know. I guess I'm too shy."

Isn't this Dante's seventh circle? Too shy to ask for autographs, Avery nevertheless must sign 1,500 photographs of himself that sit in a box beneath the kitchen table. There is a dinner and autograph show in his honor next weekend. The money raised will go to the Taylor Little League and to John F. Kennedy High, Avery's alma mater, which plans to build a new baseball field.

After playfully siccing a tongue-wielding Cyrus on a neighbor boy not long ago, Avery extended one of his autographed photos as an olive branch. Unmoved, the neighbor boy returned another day with a Nerf bow and arrow, ambushing Avery as he sat behind the wheel of his Pathfinder. But Avery was carrying his water Uzi at the time. There was a drive-by squirting. A full-blown turf war has erupted. Will the madness never end?

"Young kids like him because he can act crazy, like them," says Connie.

"Kids come to my door a couple of times a week," says Avery. "I was a Tiger fan growing up. That's why it was weird going through this World Series, because I remember how excited I was when the Tigers were in the '84 Series. Sometimes you forget that kids are looking at you the same way you used to look at others."

He still looks at celebrities the way the rest of us do, even though he has become one. This winter he has kept tabs on his more famous colleagues. "Deion was on Arsenio Hall last night," he says of teammate and good friend Deion Sanders. "Ted just got married...."

But Ted Turner—owner of the Braves, founder of CNN, husband of Jane Fonda and TIME'S Man of the Year—has nothing on Cyrus, who is off in a corner, eating an Adidas hightop. "Three months old," Avery says with some envy, "and he's already gonna be in SI."

On the road Avery and Sanders have turned their teammates on to the handheld Nintendo system called Game Boy. What he plays is what he is. They call him the Kid, but Avery really is—always has been—Game Boy. His first nickname was Kanga, because as an eight-year-old he challenged all comers in the neighborhood to footraces: They could run, he would hop. On Saturday nights, in the driveway with a basketball, he played one-on-one all by himself, keeping score for two teams in make-believe megatilts. When his father gave him a baseball glove for his sixth birthday, Steve cried—until Dad exchanged it for a soccer ball. When he finally fell hard for baseball, the frail boy would pile Wiffle balls in his front yard, hit them over the roof of his house and repeat the process from his backyard, hour upon hour.

"He's very single-minded," says his father. "Extremely stubborn. But he can also set things aside. That's how he survived 1990." The boy was called to the big leagues in June of that year, two years out of high school, and suffered through a 3-11 season for a hideous Braves club. "Anyone who hasn't gone through something like that before is going to think. Maybe I don't belong here," says Avery. "I never doubted my ability, but I didn't know if I was ready yet."

Such are the experiences that have made Steve Avery the person he is today, and today that person is Bret Saberhagen. Avery and his buddy Donahey are playing Nintendo baseball in the den: the American League All-Stars of 1985 versus the Detroit Tiger team from the same season.

Donahey's Tigers hit a home run. "Who was that?" asks Avery. "Herndon? He always hits 'em." With Avery's All-Stars trailing 3-0 in the first inning, the video game mysteriously resets itself. "We'll have to start over," says Avery.

"He's the worst loser," says Donahey.

Avery, as Mark McGwire, hits one over the fence. "McGwire," he says. "Hits 'em out every time up on this game."

Donahey, as Sparky Anderson, is pitching Eric King instead of Jack Morris. Why? "Because he doesn't know what he's doing," Avery says of his nemesis.

"For some reason," says Donahey, ignoring his opponent's couch-jockeying, "King does better starting, then I bring Morris in from the bullpen."

"He doesn't know what he's talking about," says Avery.

When the game ends and the TV comes back on, the reception is fuzzier than it was before. Donahey has left the room momentarily. Avery fiddles with the set, then says of his absent friend, almost as if whispering an aside onstage: "He broke the cable."

When last we visit the Avery house, Heather informs us that her husband has rushed Cyrus to the vet. The pup broke a tooth while biting one of Heather's pant legs. The pooch's future as a guard dog appears clouded at best.

Yet another of Steve's neighborhood buddies pops in. asking to borrow the Averys' copy of the official World Series highlight videocassette. Never mind that Steve and Heather have not even broken the cellophane seal around the box yet. "I'm baby-sitting tonight," the friend successfully argues. "I need something to watch."

And finally we leave Steve, having returned from the doggie dentist, to contemplate his future—a future in which children will play video games while pretending to be Steve Avery. "I'm already in a game called Sega RBI III," he informs us. "I've never played it. They use my 1990 stats, though, so I can't be too good."

The boy is three blocks from his childhood bedroom, but he doesn't seem nearly that far away.



Whether his weapon of choice is a squirt gun or a baseball, Avery is dangerous when armed.



[See caption above.]



Avery's work in Game 3—he allowed just two runs—recharged Atlantans' Series hopes.



On his home field, Avery duels Donahey, his best friend and greatest Nintendo nemesis.



Heather and Steve—as well as Cyrus—are content with the creature comforts of Taylor.