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Original Issue

Playing for Laughs


He is more fun than a barrel of Mookies. In fact, Andy Van Slyke may be the most entertaining player in baseball. If he can't make you smile, you might consider humor implants. The Pittsburgh Pirate centerfielder was once asked if there was anyone in the world with whom he would trade places for a day. "My wife," he said. "So I could see how wonderful it is to live with me."

"You know what? I wish he could trade places with me," Lauri Van Slyke says of her husband. "I wish Andy could experience how much fun it is to live with him."

If you can't have fun with Andy Van Slyke, well, Dr. Kevorkian has an opening next Tuesday. Fun? Van Slyke sees life's dribble glass as half full. That kind of attitude comes in handy when your back is so stiff that you can't tie your shoes, and your wife suspects that your career might be over, and your eight-year-old informs you that your three-year-old has drowned. "After all that happened this spring," says Van Slyke with typical Van Slyke logic, "I thought this was going to be the most enjoyable season of my career."

"That's Andy," says Lauri. "That's his optimism."

Naturally, this has been the most enjoyable of Van Slyke's 10 major league seasons. And why wouldn't it be? The way Van Slyke has it figured, he has already extended life to extra frames. When a drunken hillbilly holds a gun to your chest and, for some reason or another, decides not to ice you, let's just say you have a sense of reprieve. When your youngest boy is found unconscious at the bottom of a hot tub and survives, you begin to think that every day thereafter is served up in a gravy boat.

So Van Slyke treasures a stolen moment in August at the Dodger Stadium batting cage with the guy who played Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley. "Yeah," confirms Van Slyke wearily. "I know Squiggy." Never mind how. When you're Andy Van Slyke, you just...know Squiggy.

And later in the evening, when Van Slyke finds himself 0 for 3 against Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser, he remains anchored in the batter's box as a six-hop pitch comes rolling toward his ankle. When you have stared death in the face and death has gotten the facial tic, you are willing to take one for the team, especially when the pitch couldn't bruise fruit.

"Aw, did that hurt?" Hershiser screams as Van Slyke is awarded first base.

"Do that again," Van Slyke replies, "and I'll kill you!" And he appears prepared to do so—as soon as he stops laughing. Van Slyke should be credited with a stolen base for this one. "That pitch never hit the city speed limit," he says later.

What's that?

"I said," repeats Van Slyke, "I'm surprised that pitch didn't knock me out for the season."

When you read They Said It, chances are He Said It. While his colleagues won't so much as cut cheese in the direction of a writer, Van Slyke actually enjoys chatting up scribes. He could talk the car off a brass monkey. If there were a Gold Glove for fielding questions from the media, Van Slyke would have retired the trophy.

Tough day at the plate, Andy?

"I couldn't have driven Miss Daisy home today," he says.

Any resolutions on Earth Day, Andy?

"To replace all divots in the outfield."

What would you say is the biggest difference, Andy, between playing at home and playing on the road?

"On the road, when you go downstairs for coffee in your underwear, they throw you out of the kitchen."

Of course, he is as elegant in centerfield as he is eloquent in the clubhouse. Franco Harris didn't cover as much ground at Three Rivers as Van Slyke does, which is why he will be awarded his fifth consecutive Gold Glove this season. Van Slyke considers winning the Gold Glove the most underrated accomplishment in pro sports. It is the only award he displays in his home.

Which isn't to say that the guy is Good Quote, No Hit. Van Slyke may well win his first batting title this season. As of Sunday his .331 average tied him with third baseman Gary Sheffield of the San Diego Padres in the National League batting race. In July, Van Slyke made the All-Star team for the second time in his career. The first-place Pirates could afford to extend the contract of only Bobby Bonilla or Barry Bonds or Van Slyke in their outfield, and they chose to spend their money on baseball's Bartlett. "Andy has carried us this season," says one member of the Pirate organization. "Probably even more so than Barry."

But Van Slyke, traded once by the St. Louis Cardinals, will not allow himself to feel completely secure in Pittsburgh. He and Lauri kept their home in Chesterfield, Mo., for that reason. They weren't going to move with every trade, so they never left St. Louis. "We'll see," says Van Slyke. "I could be unprotected in the expansion draft. I could be a Rocky next year. Oh, God, please don't let me be a Rocky. I'd rather be a Marlin. There are certain implications about your mental state when your nickname is Rocky." Each time he says Rocky, Van Slyke does a voice like Popeye the Sailor's.

He is speaking between spoonfuls of oatmeal, not spinach, in the lobby restaurant of the Sheraton Grande in downtown Los Angeles. At no point does Van Slyke go to the kitchen to get coffee in his underwear. Instead, he gets it in a coffee cup. Of course, he has already had his morning pick-me-up. "There is nothing like a good equestrian event on ESPN at eight o'clock to really get my blood circulating," he explains.

Van Slyke can talk. When he was in the second grade at St. John's in New Hartford, N.Y., the nuns made him wear a scarlet cardboard tongue the size of a skateboard on a string around his neck after he was caught talking in class.

"I think people think that I enjoy attention," he says. "I don't. But whether players like it or not, we have an obligation to talk to the media. And I think any time you have an obligation, you should not only meet it but enjoy it. Some players try to separate themselves from the press. Maybe because they don't want anyone to know who they are or what they're like. But I don't think those players enjoy the full circumference of this job."

"Andy isn't quite as talkative at home as he is with the press," says Lauri. "He has enjoyed interviews from Day One. I think anybody playing at his level has to have a little showmanship in him."

Talk? The breakfast check doesn't come until three hours after ordering, even though Van Slyke's back is so sore that he had to be seated in a high-backed booth. One of his complaints about movies today is that "nobody talks in them. Movies used to have dialogue." In fact, Van Slyke has married his passions for talk and movies in the basement of his home, where he has assembled his own theater: Laserdisc player, 70-inch screen and—most important—eight speakers with subwoofers. "SurroundSound," Van Slyke says proudly. When the fighter jets come screaming down the runway in Top Gun, Lauri feels herself levitated on the third floor of the house.

When not 1) talking or 2) taking in a talkie in the basement, Van Slyke enjoys nothing so much as 3) talk radio. "I like listening to Rush Limbaugh," he says. "Right wing? He's not very far right of left, that's how far right he is. Rush Limbaugh is so far right, he's come all the way around again."

Few observations are more Van Slyke-like than that one. Van Slyke looks at life the way most of us look at abstract paintings, with his head always cocked to one side or the other. "Most of us look at an object and see the same thing," says Pirate third base coach Rich Donnelly. "Andy looks at that same object and sees something completely different."

Van Slyke is dyslexic; printed words and numbers sometimes appear scrambled to him. This probably has nothing to do with the fact that he throws right, bats left, writes right, eats left and, until this season, hit only to right and seldom against lefties. He is batting 62 points above his lifetime average, in part because he no longer pulls every ball. "There is something out there called left-field," Pirate hitting instructor Milt May informed Van Slyke this spring. "Use it." Van Slyke has, and he is hitting .316 against lefthanders, 98 points higher than his career average against southpaws.

On the other hand, so to speak, Van Slyke has a knack of making instant sense of things that appear as a hopeless jumble to the rest of us. For example: Van Slyke is a self-described Weather Channel groupie who gave the forecast on Pittsburgh's Channel 2 news the night before the Pirates clinched the National League East title last September. Never mind why; when you're Andy Van Slyke, you just have a thing for barometric pressure. Home viewers saw Van Slyke holding an umbrella and standing before a national weather map—though, as anyone who has toured a television studio knows, he was really standing before a blank blue screen on which the weather map was superimposed. This naturally discombobulated our guest meteorologist, who was pointing west while reading temperatures in the East, and pointing east while describing low-pressure systems in the West. So get this: "Next time I do the weather," he says, "I'll only give the forecast for Portland. Whichever way I point, there's going to be a Portland, right?"

Brilliant. Where we sec the potential for peril, Van Slyke sees two Portlands. Again the optimism. Again the off-center perspective. The world looks at the sky and sees a hole; Van Slyke sees the ozone. Is it any wonder he is the only man left in baseball who doesn't wear those rose-tinted Oakleys? Andy Van Slyke doesn't need them.

He is in the top 10 in the National League in 11 offensive categories—12 if you include covertly affixing a bubble-gum cud to the cap of an on-camera teammate. And what category could be more offensive than that? Van Slyke has also been known to throw knuckleballs back to the infield when Pirate knuckleballer Tim Wakefield is on the mound, and to do his stretching with a dead weasel on his head (it was, actually, either a very bad coon-skin cap or a very, very bad toupee).

"Andy is a lot more sane than he lets on," cautions Pirate catcher Mike (Spanky) LaValliere, Van Slyke's teammate for the last eight years in both St. Louis and Pittsburgh. "He comes to play every day. He has a lot of talent, but he works very hard."

You want focus? Van Slyke passed a kidney stone during a game three years ago. Talk about your squeeze plays.

He was not always so driven. As late as his senior year at New Hartford High School, when he was the sixth player taken in the 1979 draft, Van Slyke did not treat baseball as reverently as a boy growing up 30 miles from Cooperstown should. "How seriously could I take it," he asks, "when we only played 18 or 20 games, half of them in the snow?"

The man has a point. Van Slyke preferred basketball to baseball. At 17 he had a three-foot vertical leap, and he led his high school league in scoring two years in a row. He also preferred sleeping to school. Van Slyke woke up each morning at five to eight, grabbed a banana and arrived unshowered in his homeroom two blocks away at five after. If he was ever tardy, well, he had to see his father for the tardy slip. Jim Van Slyke was the principal at New Hartford High.

"One morning I came in late," Andy remembers. "I sat down, and some kid across the room gets up and says, 'Yeah, principal's kid, he comes in whatever time he wants.' I ignored him. He was one of those hoodlum-bully types. So he goes on and on. 'Yeah, Van Slyke, blah blah blah.' " Once again, as Van Slyke tells the story, the part of the hoodlum-bully type is played by the Popeye voice.

"So finally I stood up and told him if he said something else, I was going to come over there and take care of him," Van Slyke says. "I sat down and he stood up again. 'Blah blah blah blah blah.' So I got back up, went over to his desk, grabbed him here"—Van Slyke grabs the back of his own head—"and crunch, crunch, crunch, I started banging his head against the chalkboard. This is homeroom. First thing in the morning."

The two boys were sent to principal Van Slyke's office. He suspended Andy. He let the hoodlum-bully skate. And then the principal told his son: "I'm glad you did it."

Van Slyke was playing a summer-league basketball game when he met Lauri Griffiths of Notre Dame High. Lauri had gone to the game to see Andy's teammate Ron Evans. But Andy asked the gum-chewing girl for some of her Juicy Fruit, then invited her to a Doobie Brothers concert. And Ron? In life, as in high school basketball, you can't let 'em go back door on you, buddy. "I just worked harder than he did," says Van Slyke.

When he left New Hartford for the minor leagues, Van Slyke did so like John Wayne on Laserdisc. "I walked very loose and very cocky," he says. "Making the front page of the Utica Observer-Dispatch, in big letters that say VAN SLYKE BLUE-CHIP CHOICE, you get to feeling pretty good about yourself real quickly."

He kept vampire's hours at Class A Gastonia, N.C. He slept from Last call! to Play ball! Van Slyke knew he would soon be in the Show. Why not have some fun in the green room?

There was a party at his apartment after almost every game. Van Slyke had a black roommate who was dating a white woman. This did not sit well with at least one inbred bonehead, who crashed the bash one night and drunkenly held a handgun on Van Slyke when the offending roomie couldn't be produced. A dozen Hillerich & Bradsby-wielding Gastonia Cardinals finally persuaded the gentleman to leave, but not before Van Slyke became convinced that the gunman was going to dust him. The thought did not bother Van Slyke, a fact that now bothers Van Slyke.

"I laughed about it at the time," he recalls. "You know, Man, that guy was craayzee. If the same thing happened to me today, I'd have to change my pants. The first thing that would come to mind today are my wife and my kids. If I had been shot and killed then, my parents would have been upset, and that's about it. I don't know that my teammates would have missed me. I was not the nicest person to be around back then."

"He was a little more full of himself then," says Lauri. "He has more of a servant's attitude now. He had a temper then. He doesn't have a temper now." Van Slyke changed his life, changed his diapers, grew up. He picked up a Bible and found God to be more benevolent than He had seemed to an eight-year-old sitting at a school desk with a red tongue hanging from his neck like a millstone.

By the time he arrived at Double A Arkansas in 1982, Van Slyke had left the self-destructive behavior to others. In Little Rock a bloodied wino named Hook-slide worked the crowd at the ballpark, executing hook slides on the concrete walkway for beers. Chants of Hook-slide! Hook-slide! Hook-slide! still echo down the complex corridors of Van Slyke's brain. "It's kind of sad." Van Slyke notes, "that all I remember from one year in Little Rock is a drunk hook-sliding on concrete for beers."

Two weeks after he married Lauri, in 1983, Van Slyke was called up to St. Louis from Triple A Louisville. A variety of things went wrong in his four seasons in St. Louis, but suffice it to say that expectations of Van Slyke were absurdly high, and he was often made to play out of position. In other words the Cardinals put Van Slyke at third base and expected him to be Brooks Robinson.

"And I did play like Brooks," Van Slyke once said, in perhaps his finest moment as a wit. "Mel Brooks."

"Talk about Andy?" whines LaValliere when asked to speak of the man with whom he was traded for catcher Tony Pena on April Fool's Day of 1987. "I won't talk about Andy. I'm sick of talking about Andy. I'm sick of Andy!"

Andy is, of course, at a locker six feet away, and upon hearing this, he puts Spanky in a headlock. After releasing Spanky's noggin from the crook of his arm like a walnut from a nutcracker, Van Slyke admonishes LaValliere's inquisitor. "This is the one guy you can't talk to," he says. "This is the one guy I don't want around when I run for political office. Did he inhale? Not only did Van Slyke inhale, he also...."

Relax. Van Slyke assures us he isn't "running for no office," though the thought of House Speaker Tom Foley taking a shaving-cream pie in the mug on C-Span is a pleasing one, no?

Van Slyke has an unholier-than-thou air about him that would never wash in the attack-ad world of politics. "I understand who I am," he says. "I'm basically a schmuttball. The way I think, I'm worse than that guy. And that guy." He is pointing at passersby in a hotel lobby.

He has a copy of the morning's Los Angeles Times folded beneath his arm, roughly where Spanky's head used to be. A front-page story notes that 28 people were murdered in Los Angeles County over the weekend. Twenty-eight. Van Slyke is not such an optimist that he can't see that the country is pumping a handcar to Hades.

"Drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, and he is going to try to jump out," says Van Slyke, who is incapable of formulating a banal expression. "But drop a frog in a pot of cool water and slowly bring it to a boil, and the frog won't try to jump out. I think a lot of people in this country are letting the water slowly boil on them."

Van Slyke's own blood approaches the century mark, Celsius-wise, when any number of subjects arc broached: religion, race riots, the National Organization for Women and both political conventions, to name but a few. But more often than not someone else raises the issues. For all his pronouncements, Van Slyke really isn't an inkmonger. But what was it he said about those players who don't talk? They don't want anyone to know who they are or what they're like. "If people really want to know who I am," Van Slyke says, "I think they have to know that I have strong convictions."

Hillary Clinton, for one, really bakes his cookies. "My wife has done more for this country than Hillary Clinton ever did," says Van Slyke. "It is great security for a child to come home from school and know that his mother will be there. Good mothers are underrated, just like good defense."

As this last line hints, Van Slyke is most comfortable talking about these issues when sports is at their periphery. Who would listen to him, he says more than once, on any subject other than baseball? Two days after the Pirates played perhaps their final game at Candlestick Park, Van Slyke is asked if he will miss baseball in San Francisco—assuming the Giants move to St. Petersburg. His response has nothing to do with baseball.

"Considering what San Francisco stands for—what its identity is—the farther away we can play from San Francisco, the happier I'll be," he says. "Its acceptance of people's life-styles, life-styles that so contradict the way I think life should be lived, is a reason not to be around that place."

Intolerance? Not as he sees it. "It doesn't bother me if a person is gay," says Van Slyke. "What bothers me is when that is promoted as a life-style."

And what of the "bachelor life-style" that Magic Johnson said led him to contract the AIDS virus—a life-style most prevalent in professional sports? "It's something someone chooses to do or not to do," Van Slyke says. "The environment of professional sports allows you to take advantage of people. But that's all you're doing, taking advantage of them."

Remember, this is a man who pointed to strangers in a lobby as examples of people who are better than he is. If you think Van Slyke is on a soapbox, feeling smugly superior, you have him all wrong. So why does he open his mouth at all? The answer may lie in an allusion Van Slyke makes that again melds the sports world and the real world.

"John 3:16 gets all the attention," he says of the biblical bedsheets that are ubiquitous in televised sports. "But I think people should look at John 3:17, too." The verse goes like this: God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.

Again, Van Slyke's God is benevolent. "I think what Magic is confused about is that he thinks he was chosen by God to get AIDS," says Van Slyke. "Does that mean that God also chooses other people to get cancer? Is that what that means?"

Where's the rim shot? What's the punch line? A funny little kicker, perhaps, for the Quotables column in tomorrow's sports section? Sorry. Van Slyke is dead serious on the subject of life's fragility.

The Van Slykes were visiting Lauri's mother at her home in a Bradenton, Fla., residential complex on Feb. 28. In fact they were not far from the Pirate City spring training site, which Van Slyke calls Hiroshima. As he lay on the floor watching television before dinner, "Rigor mortis was setting in," Van Slyke remembers. "It does every spring training, but this spring it was worse."

He was enduring what he calls a headache in his back. He had felt others in previous years, but this spring the headaches in his back had become constant migraines. To swing a bat was excruciating. It hurt Van Slyke to pull his socks on. "I really thought that maybe his career was over," says Lauri.

Van Slyke remembers hearing a siren, but in this retirement community, he heard them all the time. He didn't know that the ambulance was responding to a call at the community pool, three blocks away. There, five-year-old Scott Van Slyke had reached into the hot tub to retrieve what he thought was a sunken toy and realized that it was Jared, his three-year-old brother, blue and unconscious.

Scott weighs only 53 pounds, but somehow he pulled his 33-pound brother from the tub. While a neighbor called 911 and Lauri's brother began CPR, Andy's oldest son, eight-year-old A.J., raced his bike back to his grandmother's house and announced, "Jared drowned."

"By the time I had absorbed what A.J. said," recalls Lauri, "Andy was already at the ambulance."

"It is unbelievable what goes through your mind," says Andy. "All I heard was, Jared drowned. As I'm running, I'm thinking. How come I don't feel any pain? How is it that I'm able to run like this? And I tell you, if Jared had been five miles away, I could have run it that day. It was the strangest feeling, like my feet weren't hitting the ground."

It was only later that Van Slyke remembered elbowing away the paramedic who was stationed by the ambulance. Inside, the father was elated to see his son's eyes rolling around in his head. Jared was breathing. After a single night in the hospital, he was back to normal. It was the boy's parents who were changed.

"I hate to use the word miracle" says Lauri, "but both Andy and I definitely feel like the Lord wasn't ready to let Jared go."

"Let me put it to you this way," says a somber Van Slyke, who, you must know by now, has his own take on all things. "If Jared had died, it would have been like a nail being driven into a two-by-four." He pauses, and his voice softens. "There would have been terrible pain and anguish. If you pull the nail out, there is still a hole. But my belief in Jesus Christ is such that he would have filled that hole. Jesus would have been the wood putty."

He couldn't have said it better if he had been Andy Van Slyke. Poignant, clever and nothing if not hopeful, the quote also has a little smack of humor. Donnelly knows why Van Slyke sees life down a sight line all his own. "Andy is just visiting here," explains the Pirate coach. "In two years they're going to call him back to wherever it is he came from."

And when he is gone, baseball will be left with a hole larger than the one between the shortstop and second baseman. When Van Slyke finally is beamed up, baseball had best have plenty of wood putty.









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