By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Butch Hobson walks into a batting cage, holding a bag of baseballs, and arranges a tee.
"You ready, hotshot?" he asks a young boy who steps into the batter's box.
Standing in the cage behind the left field wall at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf, Hobson eyes the Little Leaguer's swing.
Hobson, who hit 30 home runs for the 1977 Boston Red Sox, offers one-on-one hitting lessons for $90 an hour. The work supplements his regular job managing the first-year Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, a minor league team in the independent Atlantic League.
Butch Hobson is here because it's where the game led him. It's the same reason he'll stick a baseball under his nose, just to get the scent, when he's watching a game on TV. It's why, for the entire baseball season, he lives some 3,000 miles from his wife and their four children in California.
But Hobson also is here because, as he says, you plant seeds every day of your life. Good or bad, those seeds grow.
He's here because the bone chips in his right elbow left him a different player, because managing the Boston Red Sox is a tough initiation into big league coaching and because drugs drove a wedge between him and his family, friends and, perhaps, the major leagues.
"If I had an opportunity to go coach for somebody, I would," Hobson, 56, says of getting back to the majors. "I think I've learned from my first experience managing in the big leagues. I had only been in the minor leagues five years and I got a major league job. I thought I would be the first guy to bring a World Series to Boston. It didn't work out that way."
So at the moment, he is occupied with this kid's swing. Hobson removes his cap. Scratches his paunch. Spits a stream of chewing tobacco -- Skoal wintergreen, long cut -- that splats on the floor. How to fix this swing?
"When you hit this ball," Hobson says, "I want you to feel your weight go forward."
The boy nods.
Hobson continues to tweak the swing, and after a short while the session ends. He heads to the field, tosses batting practice for his team and refills his lower lip with more chew.
Only 2,783 people will come to the stadium on this night to watch the Blue Crabs lose their third straight game, after which Hobson will go back to his host family's home, where he lives in the basement.'Bama to Boston
Hobson grew up near Tuscaloosa, Ala., and lived every Alabama boy's dream by age 19. He played quarterback, albeit as a backup, for Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama.
But Hobson always loved baseball. As a child, he would turn his mother's old broomsticks into bats, pretending to be Mickey Mantle as he lofted rocks to himself and cracked them across the river behind his house. In college, he spent summer weekends sticking out his thumb along Interstate 59, hoping to get to Birmingham for summer baseball games. He played anywhere, even that old ballfield in Bibb County, Ala., the same place his daddy used to play as a kid, the one that had railroad tracks running through center field.
Two baseball scouts from Cincinnati noticed Hobson -- the kid who could swing a good bat and was willing to throw his body all over the field to make a play -- before his senior year at Alabama and told him he might have a future in the game. He decided then to give up football and two years later, in 1975, having been drafted into the Red Sox organization, received a call-up to the majors.
Fans in Boston loved Hobson because he was the type to dive headlong into the seats after a foul ball or bulldoze an opposing catcher at the plate.
But injuries cut short Hobson's playing career. Years of crashing on AstroTurf as an Alabama football player chipped bone in his elbow. By the 1979 season, he had three bone shards in his arm so large he had to rearrange them, just so, to throw a baseball.
Hobson's eight-year major league career ended in 1982. He turned to managing in the minor leagues later that decade and was named the International League manager of the year in 1991 with the Class AAA Pawtucket Red Sox. A year later, on the strength of several in-house recommendations and a 1 1/2 -hour interview, he was asked to manage the Boston Red Sox. The team struggled to a .472 winning percentage in his tenure, and the Hobson family stopped receiving the local newspapers because "they either really loved him or really hated him," his wife, Krystine, says. At the end, they hated Hobson, and he was fired after three seasons with the Red Sox.
Hobson returned to managing in the minor leagues, and it was on a road trip in Pawtucket, R.I. -- the same place he was noticed as a promising young manager five years earlier, the same place where his likeness is painted as a six-foot mural in its minor league stadium -- that Butch Hobson's life took another turn.Derailed by Drugs
Hobson says he had been in a club in Chicago in the 1970s with friends, and people were partying hard. It was there, with people snorting lines off tables around him, that Hobson says he first tried cocaine.
"I have a very addictive personality, and I know that, and then it took hold of me," he says. "I remember thinking that this is pretty cool. But that's what you think as a young athlete. You think you can't get caught. You think you can do what you want to and nobody's going to do anything about it. You think you're beyond getting in trouble."
Hobson says he lived that way for years and that it might be the reason his first marriage didn't work. He spent his time in a cabin near his home, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone, drinking and doing drugs.
"It got to the point where that part of my life, that seemed to be a priority," he says.
Then the seeds Hobson had planted earlier in his life -- the bad seeds -- had grown and conspired against him. They caught up with him 12 years ago.
Jerry Poe, a high school friend with whom Hobson had used cocaine, owed Hobson money. But instead of sending money, according to court documents, Poe put together a FedEx package for Hobson containing a Bustin' O-U-T magazine and a 2.6-gram bag of cocaine. On May 3, 1996, in Birmingham, Ala., a secretary handling the package accidentally spilled coffee on it. Opening the package to ensure contents were not damaged, the secretary noticed the bag of white powder, according to court documents. She contacted police.
Hobson, meanwhile, was in Pawtucket managing the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, the Philadelphia Phillies' Class AAA affiliate. Hobson stayed in the Pawtucket Comfort Inn during the road trip, according to court documents.
About 12:20 p.m. on May 4, an undercover Drug Enforcement Agency officer holding the FedEx package knocked on Hobson's door, according to court documents. Hobson, working out at Bally's Health Club, was not in the room. The agent left and returned later. At 1:12 p.m., according to court documents, Hobson met the undercover agent in the Comfort Inn lobby.
"I guess I just missed you earlier," Hobson said to the man, who he thought was a FedEx delivery person.
Hobson signed for the package, patted the man's shoulder and left the lobby. Hobson went back to Room 121 and put the cocaine in his brown vinyl shaving kit, according to court documents. About 1:30 p.m., a half-hour before Hobson was expected to be at the ballpark, he answered a knock at his door. DEA agents arrested him.
Hobson was granted a leave of absence by the Phillies, and was fired as Red Barons manager on Aug. 8, 1996.
Because he was a first-time felony offender for a nonviolent crime, Hobson completed a diversion program after the arrest and has devoted time speaking to young athletes about the dangers of substance abuse. He says he no longer uses drugs.
Hobson turned to independent baseball in New Hampshire in 2000, and the Blue Crabs hired him eight years later. This is where the game led him, even though it means living across the country from his family.
"It's a rare person that gets to do what they love their whole life long," says Krystine, who lives in Bakersfield, Calif. "You can't take that away from somebody. You can't say you should be doing something else and say you should be home by five o'clock at what he does."
Hobson has had success at the independent level, leading the Nashua Pride to the Atlantic League championship in 2000 and the Can-Am League title in 2007, and is something of a folk hero in that New Hampshire city, where the team recently retired his No. 17 jersey. But he hasn't been back to the majors.
Is it his past drug use? His struggles with the Red Sox?
"I think the biggest thing now is there's so many young [executives] now that don't know him," says former Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman, who hired Hobson to manage in Boston. "They have their own people in mind. They are probably unaware of what Butch Hobson has done."'Proven' Manager
Hobson is the navigator, riding shotgun in a black Infiniti on its way to Hallowing Point Park. Hobson reads the handwritten directions, but the drive is mostly quiet as the car rolls past farms and fields. Blue Crabs marketing assistant Ian Humphrey drives and rookie catcher Anthony Perry sits in the back, the three of them bound for a Calvert County Little League picnic.
For Hobson, this is life in the minors. It means acting as field manager and general manager, job descriptions that include waving home a base runner in the game and negotiating contracts during the offseason. Anytime in between, he is an ambassador for the fledgling Blue Crabs.
On this afternoon, Hobson is getting the word out at a Little League celebration. There's a moonwalk, face painting, lemonade, a dunk tank and snow cones with a choice of orange, green, blue or purple coloring. Wearing his Blue Crabs cap and sunglasses, Hobson ambles around the park, and people come up to shake his hand.
"I saw you play in Fenway Park," says Robert Ridgewell, 42, who sometimes skipped school to watch the Red Sox as a child growing up in Warwick, R.I. "I'm a Boston fan. I gotta tell my father about this. Man, it's good to see you, man. I saw you play for the Red Sox."
Butch Hobson is far from Fenway, and it's been a long time since he's been near the big leagues. But he nods politely and smiles. Soon, he leaves the park and heads back to the stadium.
"I look at my life in independent ball, I think I've proven I can still manage," Hobson says that night. "Players know how much I care about them. If something opens up [in the majors], it opens up.
"You never know. You never know what's in store for you."