He's Been Better Than Advertised

By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

BALTIMORE, Aug. 28 -- Imagine, for one moment, a teenage LaTroy Hawkins, years from being a Baltimore Orioles reliever, strutting through the halls of West Side High in Gary, Ind., only minutes after class has ended for the day.

School rules forbid wearing hats indoors, but as Hawkins nears the exit, he begins to tug a baseball cap on to his head. He is only seconds from the door, but Hawkins doesn't wait. The school principal stops him. Hawkins argues that he just put the hat on. The principal continues to admonish him.

Then with a fervor that he says is a genetic gift from his mother, the DNA of dissent, Hawkins blasts the principal with a volley that earns him a suspension from school. In one swoop he has lost the favor of the principal, who won't ever see that inside the stubborn boy rests a thoughtful side, a natural curiosity about society and race, steeped inside a confident young man.

In this snapshot lies a perfect and sad metaphor for Hawkins's life. In Hawkins, 33, the Orioles have one of the most socially conscious and charitable players in the game, and yet under a blanket of blunt backtalk he has gained a mostly unsavory reputation.

"I think he's misunderstood and people go about what they read," said Hawkins's best friend, Minnesota Twins outfielder Torii Hunter. "One guy might write something bad, and then 'Bam!' it's over with. The pen is mightier than anything. Once somebody writes something about you, it sticks with people's view of you no matter what. When people think of LaTroy Hawkins, they think he doesn't like the media, and that the fans hate him."

Although his 4.80 ERA in 54 1/3 innings of work has been rather ordinary this year, Hawkins's work in repairing a reputation soiled by a tumultuous year and a half with the Chicago Cubs has been exemplary. The Orioles expected a surly, sullen reliever and instead they found a mentor and a reliable presence in the clubhouse and bullpen.

"There's not one person in the game I've ever heard have a problem with LaTroy Hawkins," Orioles outfielder Corey Patterson, also a teammate in Chicago, said. "If they did say that, then they're the ones with the problem."

Mostly the Orioles have found Hawkins to be caring, with a sense of responsibility and an open heart for the disadvantaged, traits his friends and previous teammates say had been overshadowed because of the reliever's run-ins with the media.

"LaTroy is probably one of the most genuine and honest people I know in the game," Cubs Manager Dusty Baker said.

In the past year, Hawkins took an active part in the Major League Baseball Players Association's Hurricane Katrina relief effort, working in trailer park hospitals and gutting damaged homes in Mississippi and Alabama.

When his wife, Anita, met a young woman with two children from New Orleans who was living in a hotel in Dallas after being displaced by Katrina, Hawkins offered financial help.

"I didn't have anything," Tasha Stevenson said. "It was a really tough time. They took me and my kids in and treated us like family."

Stevenson and her children Monae, 4, and Kerri, 1, have recently moved back to the New Orleans area with the Hawkins's help.

Hawkins gave almost $30,000 to Gary Youth Baseball, an organization that runs Little League in Gary but had fallen on hard times. For the first time in almost 20 years, locals say that the league is booming, interest is at an all-time high and the stands are once again filled with cheering parents.

"He's an integral part," said O'Don Reese, one of the league's commissioners. "Just hearing LaTroy being involved sparks interest. He's a local hero."

When Hunter needed someone to speak to kids at the Little League World Series last week as part of the Urban Initiative, a program designed to get more inner-city black children playing baseball, Hawkins went to Williamsport, Pa., after Wednesday's game.

"I think he cares for other people more than himself," Hunter said. "When people are in need, LaTroy is the first one there."

But Hawkins's temperament has not always been an ally, especially in his relationship with the Chicago media. Hawkins, who had been signed as a free agent after a successful stint with the Minnesota Twins, set the ground rules early in his tenure with the Cubs with a news conference that to this day still confounds many. Baker said it's perhaps the one regrettable thing Hawkins did in Chicago. After being given the closer's role in early June 2004 when Joe Borowski was injured, Hawkins gathered the media and said he would no longer conduct interviews because he thought they had incorrectly portrayed him as having been signed to replace Borowski.

That strategy might have been fine had Hawkins been effective. But he blew more saves (18) than any reliever in 2004 and '05. In 101 innings with Chicago, Hawkins had a combined ERA of 2.76, but the blown saves doomed his relationship with the media, and with many fans.

The first of many pieces of racial hate mail Hawkins received came shortly after a run-in with an umpire.

"You could feel the hatred on the paper," Hawkins said. "The devil was all over that piece of paper."

While driving with his family, Hawkins said one fan yelled at him, "Get your black ass back to Minnesota."

Hawkins said he learned to block out the hate, claiming a new sense of maturity. But Hawkins constantly feuded with fans and the media, and neither relationship appeared to have any hope of improving. The worse Hawkins pitched, the worse the hits to his reputation became.

"When you're constantly coming to your job every day and you know you're going to get pounded in a negative aspect, it's going to affect you," Patterson said. "There isn't anybody that tough, I don't care who you are."

Debra Morrow, Hawkins's mother, could only stand to go to a few games. In the stands fans constantly berated her son.

"I'm a warrior like LaTroy," she said. "I went to the games. You think [the fans] cared? I didn't care either."

She yelled right back at the fans.

The Cubs traded Hawkins to the San Francisco Giants on May 28, 2005. Hawkins was a Cub for only 208 games. It seemed much longer.

"I didn't know how he dealt with it," Patterson said. "I went through some tough times, but he went through worse than I did. That assessment of LaTroy and the fans booing him, I don't know why they did it. It's not like they're the Yankees and they won 20 World Series. They have no built tradition" of winning.

Hawkins won't accept fault about any of the bad publicity that surrounds him, showing some of that stubbornness that got him suspended on that school day.

"I can't change anybody and the thing is they can't change me because I'm going to be who I am," Hawkins said. "I'm not going to change anything because I'm very outspoken."

But Hawkins has clearly matured. Patterson admits he has never seen him so happy. He has become a unifying figure in the clubhouse and Orioles executives say they would gladly have Hawkins, a free agent after the season, back next year.

Hawkins's locker even has become a gathering point for several reporters. Sitting at his chair, Hawkins will spin tales about his beloved home town. One story that gives him special glee is how one day in high school he defiantly put on a baseball hat, much to the dismay of his principal.

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