A league of their own

In a stunning debut, punk rock drummer and ex-junkie John Albert finds redemption through a baseball team full of L.A. burnouts.

Published August 17, 2005 4:43PM (EDT)

In sports, as in so much of life, timing often carries the day.

The point guard's no-look feed to the power forward in the paint; the QB's last-second option pass to the tailback: surprise and execution -- in most every game, the point is to keep the opponent guessing.

And while most writers wring their hands and swear that their gig is not a competitive venture, timing's just as important on the printed page -- and especially important when bringing those pages to market -- as it is on the hardwood, the gridiron or, of course, the diamond. In John Albert's exceptional debut, "Wrecking Crew: The Really Bad News Griffith Park Pirates," the eminently unpredictable sport of baseball serves as an ideal device for illustrating how lives once lost to drugs, despair and a rather tiresome quest for oblivion can occasionally, with effort and luck, be reclaimed. Albert's story -- one that, it seems, could only happen amid California's golden smog -- recounts how the author and a motley, damaged, rehabbing band of brothers gradually coalesced into an occasionally formidable, frequently haphazard and, it turns out, endearing baseball team fledged in 1998 in a municipal league run by L.A.'s Parks and Rec department.

Improbable? Of course. Happily, though -- for the reader and, one comes to realize, for Albert and his crew -- the book is the right nonfiction stuff; it feels, as one delves deeper into it, more and more genuine, even as its preposterous, infuriating scenes of willful self-destruction unfold again, and again, and again. Heroin and curveballs; punk rock and double plays; nihilism (both real and playacted) and batting practice: For the first time in a long while, here's a book about baseball that actually feels like it's also about life -- or rather, life as it's been lived by so many of us born after, say, 1960.

"You never know what's going to save you," the book begins. "Most of the time, salvation comes from the usual suspects -- god, pharmaceuticals, romance -- but occasionally, as in this case, it arrives entirely from left field."

Cornball punning aside, Albert's story lives up to the vague, compelling promise suggested in those two sentences. This is, indeed, a story of salvation, and like all such tales, the pilgrims whose progress the book recounts are about as deeply flawed as one could possibly expect (or hope). But as "Wrecking Crew" takes place entirely in Los Angeles, and Albert himself is a former member of some of L.A.'s most original punk acts (the "semilegendary cross-dressing band Christian Death," as his bio has it, as well as the still-touring Bad Religion), the pilgrims' flaws, while Chaucerian in variety, are heavily SoCal in specifics. Junkies, parolees, former glam-rock deities, pretty, vacant call girls, aging skate punks, Internet porn addicts, cross-dressers (of course) and one sodden neighbor whose big toe explodes, or "goes off," one night on account of alcohol poisoning, or gout, or something.

So, it's not quite a Rockwell vision of these United States, but in its own way, it is just as genuinely and recognizably American as anything old Norman painted. Baseball, apple pie and speedballs: This is the Right Fielder's Tale, and Albert tells it like the veteran that, in many ways, he is. Like not a few ex-punk musicians -- Richard Hell, Henry Rollins and others spring aggressively to mind -- Albert eventually transferred at least some of his creative talents from music to writing, and has not looked back. Now a freelance writer ("Wrecking Crew" first saw light as an award-winning article in the L.A. Weekly in 2000), Albert also pens screenplays -- without much luck. "Why the industry never embraced my gothic ghost story about a washed-up masked wrestler ... always baffled me," he admits.

"It was a scorching weekday in February," he writes early on in the book, setting the stage for the craziness to come, "when I answered the door to find my illustrious screenwriting partner, Teo, standing there, clutching what appeared to be an antique portable typewriter. Teo was in his early fifties and weighed somewhere around three hundred pounds. No matter the weather, he always wore a slightly frayed, blue blazer that looked like someone had hurled a combination pizza across the front ... Teo and I existed on the fringes of the film industry like a world-weary screenwriting Abbot and Costello, barely scraping by and always believing we were just one phone call away from success and eternal happiness."

The typewriter, it seems, is (or might well be) one of Hemingway's. The Hemingway's. Teo's socialite expatriate parents apparently knew Papa; Albert has seen pictures of them arm-in-arm with the man, back in the day. This very early scene, then -- the struggling screenwriters; a tenuous connection to greatness; fame and riches always just around the next corner, or perhaps the next -- sets the tone for one of the book's central themes, adroitly maintained from beginning to end: that Los Angeles is still, more so than anywhere else, a sunny, sordid, intoxicating place where dreams are the one genuine currency. This is the L.A. of Nathanael West and Bret Easton Ellis, Billy Wilder and David Fincher and punk and glam bands like X, Faster Pussycat and a million other legendary and long-forgotten edge-of-the-continent seekers.

Albert's insights into that particular, off-the-tourist-map Los Angeles weren't gained vicariously, or without a price.

"I had known quite a few famous people throughout my life ... and had even experienced a brief glimpse of very minor stardom myself. Not much ... but just enough to know that success doesn't do what most people hope it will."

As the drummer for Bad Religion in the mid-'80s -- "a few years after the group's initial underground success and still some time before a creative resurgence would result in hit singles, gold records, and a dedicated worldwide following" -- Albert is one of thoseguys. He was there. He saw. He survived. Barely.

"On a warm, humid night ... we played to around three thousand kids in an aging downtown boxing arena ... and by all accounts it was a flawless and well-received performance. I even have a videotape to prove it. Yet instead of basking in the post-show glory and dog-piling nubile young groupies or snorting blow at some raucous Hollywood Hills party, I fixated exclusively on the fact that not one of the five people on my personal guest list had shown up. The obvious conclusion was, of course, that I had not a friend in the world, and so my night ended up rather unceremoniously, near the drug-infested fields of MacArthur Park, sitting all alone in my yellow Toyota bumblebee and shooting colorful balloons of Mexican heroin until my money was gone."

Such credibility has no demand or request for admiration attached, nor does it deserve any; it simply is. The author was a junkie who played in a punk band. What came after, however, might spark respect in even the most high-minded, blue-nosed reader.

Albert's slow (and, it's worth noting) ongoing redemption began on the heels of that solitary, smack-filled, post-show reverie, when he had the presence of mind, coupled with a well-founded fear of jail time, to get himself into rehab. He stayed at Impact House, a hard-nosed joint founded by bikers, for 18 months and got clean. "Sometimes," he writes, with a winning mix of pride, embarrassment and something like wonder, "troubled, petulant kids just need to grow up, no matter what stage of life they believe they're in."

The route that Albert took back to his early love of baseball, meanwhile, started after he'd been clean for a while and a musician friend, Mike, asked him out of the blue -- while he himself was going through withdrawal -- a question that red-blooded American lads have been asking each other for a century or more.

"I noticed Mike's hand trembling as he retrieved a single, bent Marlboro from his pocket ... There was silence as he smoked, punctuated by the sniffing of his constantly running nose. Eventually, Mike looked over at me, wiped his nose with the back of his hand like a little kid, and asked, 'Hey, do you wanna play catch?'"

In short order, a team consisting almost entirely of antisocial misfits is wreaking havoc -- controlled, sanctioned, umpired havoc -- on other, seemingly better prepared, better organized, less 12-step-reliant teams in the local Los Angeles hardball league. No beer-bellied, slow-pitch softball for these guys. Hardball, fast-pitch hardball, is the only way to go.

In quick, highly episodic chapters, Albert introduces the other members of the team, and it is in these characters that so much of the book's heart and its dark, often riotous humor reside. They include:

Chris, a muscular, handsome, cleft-chinned athlete and "skilled street fighter from a family of violent men" with a history of alcohol and drug problems and a predilection for dressing up in women's lingerie and heels. He's the team's catcher.

Johnny, a sweet-natured, romantic recovering addict and active high-stakes gambler who works at an advertising agency, falls hard for strippers and call girls and who spends much of his time, when he's not playing baseball, riding motorcycles and working out with his cousin, the ex-Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction guitarist and current host of CBS's "Rock Star," Dave Navarro. True to his eclectic nature, he's a solid utility infielder.

Clay, an ex-rocker who grabbed hold of, and then let slip, the brass ring with an almost-huge '80s metal band called Junkyard, ended up living in a broken-down Lincoln Continental for a while, cleaned up (for a while) and played a solid third base for the Pirates. For a while.

Masashi, a Japanese exchange student ostensibly studying acting and English in L.A. but whose primary activities appear to be drinking Budweiser, having sex, going to hardcore rock shows, having sex, thinking about sex, and having more sex. He had a non-speaking role in "The Last Samurai." He pitches.

Dino, another ex-member of another semilegendary punk band, the Hangmen; Don, a parolee who, his teammates eventually learn, once killed a guy, and who thus gets to play pretty much any position he wants; Mike, pitcher and manager, recovering addict, a founder of the late, lamented band Lifter, and the fellow who started it all, in a sense, with his query about playing catch; the West Virginian thespian Jacob, at second base; Jordan, a middle-aged, married, clean-cut baseball fanatic who claims to have invented a very slow pitch, "like an optical illusion," that's essentially unhittable -- he's mistaken about that last part ... and so on.

The really bad news Griffith Park Pirates, indeed. (They settle on the name Pirates in the most logical and democratic manner possible: The Pittsburgh Pirates are the one major league team that no one on the G.P. Pirates hates.)

Albert introduces his friends and teammates in a voice so conversational and engaging that by the time the entire team is assembled and playing -- occasionally losing; occasionally, increasingly, winning -- we've come to know them and like them in the same way that some people, as Hemingway himself once put it, go broke: gradually, and then suddenly. None of them are paragons: Dino has a frightening temper; Jordan and Mike are prima donnas; Clay proves a tough guy to trust. But when they're on the field, or smoking cigarettes in the dugout together when it's their turn to bat, these guys aren't a bunch of misfits at all. They're a team.

A bit more than midway through the book, the Pirates are scheduled to play a winter game in L.A.'s El Sereno Park, but days of rain have turned the field to quicksand. A player on the other team says he knows of another field a few miles off that might be in better shape, and everyone piles into their cars to check it out.

"As I pulled behind the caravan of player's cars," Albert writes, "I wondered when exactly I had joined the human race. You can pass off alienation as a style choice, but at heart, we're social creatures. The reason I'd loved the warmth of narcotics so much was because it made a seemingly inevitable loneliness seem tolerable. I'd stayed in rehab for a year and a half because it was a small world that I felt a part of ... While drugs weren't really an option anymore, isolation was. As I headed over the hill that morning with my friends, I felt grateful to have somewhere to go -- and people to go there with."

In almost any other book, that sentiment might feel either too wan to bear recalling, or too trite to bear voicing. Here, it's an instance of what makes so much of this improbable tale so satisfying: a small, throwaway moment that most of us would likely take for granted, but that "Wrecking Crew" turns into a quiet, hard-won and moving celebration.

By Ben Cosgrove

Ben Cosgrove is a freelance writer in New York and the editor of the baseball anthology "Covering the Bases."

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