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Finding Himself Far From Home
Delino DeShields Goes From Big Leagues to Big Sky

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009

BILLINGS, Mont.

This is how it happens. You play 10, 12, 13 years in the big leagues, cash in a couple of big contracts at the end. "Retire" by the simple act of not answering your phone for an entire offseason, your career numbers a statement for all eternity as to who you were. You lay low, help raise those kids, get the oldest ready to fly the nest. Get divorced -- ouch -- and watch the economy go down the toilet -- double ouch. Start thinking that, well, if you were ever going to get back in the game, this might not be a bad time.

Yep. That, as a general outline, is how you get from the couch back onto the field. But even that doesn't explain -- look around -- this: how Delino DeShields, player of 1,615 big league games, stealer of 463 big league bases, earner of nearly 29 million big league bucks, wound up in Billings, Mont., hard by the Yellowstone River, at the lowest rung of the minor leagues, a rookie ball hitting coach at the age of 40, some six years after retiring as a player.

To explain that, you have to find a shady spot out of the way of the blazing, Big Sky summer sun and ask some questions DeShields has contemplated himself, but never really articulated.

"I've been sitting home, basically, since I retired in 2002," DeShields says one recent afternoon. "Really, [I was] just bored -- besides the fact I was able to spend a lot of time with my kids. I just felt that something was missing. This ain't about the money, obviously. . . . I enjoy seeing young men improve."

He is sitting at a picnic table under a giant tent, outside the home clubhouse at Dehler Park, home of the Pioneer League's Billings Mustangs, a rookie-level affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. It is six hours until game time, and he is clutching a Subway sandwich bag, foot-long, having apparently found the standard pregame clubhouse spread -- peanut butter, jelly, white bread, bananas, same thing every day -- somewhat lacking. Inside, meanwhile, DeShields's players, some of them still teenagers, are slathering it on and gobbling it down.

"This is who I am," he says. "This is pro baseball. This is what I'm more accustomed to."

Accustomed to? Only in the most general sense. In the big leagues, where DeShields played from 1990 to 2002 for five franchises, he traveled in chartered-air elegance; here, he is taking bus trips of up to 12 hours. In the big leagues, he never touched his luggage -- it just magically showed up in his five-star hotel room; here, he is always carrying something, whether a clipboard or a fungo bat or a camcorder or a bucket full of scuffed-up batting-practice balls.

Here, the Mustangs can't always practice when they want, because the field is being used by local American Legion teams -- which , for that matter, sometimes get better play than the Mustangs themselves on the front of the Billings Gazette's sports page.

There being, at present, no baseball played on the moon, this is about as far as one can possibly get from the big leagues -- almost literally: The nearest big league team, the Colorado Rockies, is 551 miles away. As for Cincinnati, it's 1,500 miles, at least two flights and five ladder rungs away from Billings.

"He must love what he's doing," said Marquis Grissom, a longtime friend, ex-teammate and neighbor back in Atlanta, "to be all the way out there in Montana."

It's funny how things work out, depending upon whom you know. Like DeShields, Grissom is back in the pro game this year after a layoff (his lasted three years), but Washington Nationals President Stan Kasten adored him, so Grissom is now the Nationals' first base coach. DeShields, meantime, has an old buddy, Freddie Benavides, who is the Reds' director of minor league infield instruction, and so he wound up in Billings.

What is DeShields doing here? Only he knows for sure, and you're going to have to work to get it out of him.

'I Just Disappeared'

Opening Day for the Mustangs, June 23, arrives on a glorious, sun-splashed evening before a packed house of 4,086. Fans line up at the concession stand down the left field line for the house specialty -- a " 'Stang burger," topped with a slice of brisket. They cheer mightily for all the Mustangs, but especially for the designated "Beer Batter" of the game, who, if he gets a hit, entitles everyone to a special four-for-$10 beer discount.

Dressing in the clubhouse before the game, DeShields pauses before putting on his uniform. This is the first time he's worn a professional baseball uniform since Aug. 8, 2002, when, playing for the Chicago Cubs, he struck out as a pinch hitter, dropping his batting average to .192. He was released the next day, never to return.

"There wasn't no retirement, per se," he says. "I just disappeared."

When DeShields emerges from the clubhouse into the sunshine, he is wearing an unusual uniform number -- 90 -- and hoping some of his players ask about it. Because if they do, he will tell them: That's for 1990, the year he broke into the majors. Every time you see this number, remember that's the ultimate goal here.

When the Reds' Benavides first broached the idea of coaching minor league ball about a year and a half ago, DeShields, retired for five years by that point, was intrigued, but not quite ready from a life standpoint. This past winter, when Benavides called again, DeShields said he would think about it.

He had a lot of folks to bounce it off of, back home in Atlanta. There were his four children from his first marriage -- Delino Jr., 16; Diamond, 14; D'Angelo, 10; and Denim, 5. There was his fiancee, Michelle Elliott, and their 2-year-old daughter, Delaney.

"I told them, 'Daddy is thinking about taking this job,' " he says. "They were like, 'Go.' "

The job was hitting coach in Billings. "I'm thinking, whoa. Pioneer League? Billings?" he says. "I've never been out that way. I never played minor league ball west of the Mississippi. I wasn't sure what to expect."

It ain't the A-T-L, that's for sure. Billings is all cowboy hats and wide-open spaces, ranchland and large wildlife. It's the biggest city within a 350-mile radius, which says more about what's within that radius than about Billings's size. And according to the 2000 U.S. Census, African Americans make up about one-half of 1 percent of the population -- or precisely 494 folks from a total population of 89,847.

"I've seen a couple," DeShields says, laughing. "Let's just say, I don't think they were natives."

A week into his stay in Billings, DeShields moved from an old, decaying motel next to the stadium -- the Rimrock Inn, named for the towering cliff formation that defines Billings's northern edge -- to an extended-stay hotel across town. At least in terms of accommodations, he promoted himself from rookie ball to high Class A. But in every other way, he's still forever and a day from the majors.

"I don't know. I really don't know," he says, when asked if his goal is to get back to the majors as a coach or manager. "We'd all like to be in the big leagues. That would be ideal. But at the same time, I feel like this is going to be something I can draw back on one day. I'm learning a lot of things that get overlooked at the higher levels. It's like I've come full circle, back where it all started."

'We're Gonna Be All Right'

Monday, two weeks into the season, brings the season's first off day for the Mustangs, and they spend nearly all of it on the bus -- leaving Billings at 6 a.m., sharp, skirting across the western edge of Yellowstone National Park along state highway 191, shooting down I-15 along the Great Salt Lake, and arriving in the parking lot of the Days Inn in Orem, Utah, just before 6 p.m.

At least they didn't encounter a herd of bison in the road, as happens sometimes in the Pioneer League, because that could've cost them another hour or so of waiting time.

Twelve hours is long enough, of course. Long enough to watch DVDs of "Taken," "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Animal House," "Scarface" and Season 5 of "Entourage." There are two stops -- one for breakfast, one for lunch. The bathroom's in the back. Coaches and trainers sit up front, in relative luxury -- one man to a seat.

"It's tough here, because there's so many players, you have to double up," said Frank Pfister, a third baseman who had been demoted from Class A Dayton a couple weeks earlier. "At least in Dayton, if you showed up early, you had a pretty good shot at getting your own seat."

In rookie ball, some of the players are fresh out of the draft, away from home for the first time. Many have never been in a competitive environment in which everyone is just as good as they are, if not better. They don't talk about it, but their eyes, sizing each other up, betray it.

The season's opening fortnight has been a tough one for the Mustangs, and for their hitting coach. As the team hits Orem, it is 3-10, in last place in the league's North division, and the offense ranks last in the league in homers (one), on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

"We're gonna be all right," DeShields says convincingly. "These kids can hit. They just haven't yet."

In every sport, the coaching ranks are filled with ex-players who just couldn't bring themselves to leave the game -- or, if they did leave, couldn't bring themselves to stay away. What makes baseball unique is its plentiful opportunities.

Each of the 30 big league teams has a manager and six uniformed coaches, plus at least six minor league affiliates, each with its own manager and at least two coaches. That makes at least 750 uniformed positions. Suffice it to say: If you played the game and want to stay in it as a coach, there almost certainly is a position for you.

No fewer than nine ex-teammates from DeShields's 1999 Orioles team, to pick one, are involved in coaching, scouting or front-office work at the major or minor league level.

"None of us likes to abandon an identity that has been an important part of who we have been for many years, especially if it is associated with memorable and good times," says Jay Coakley, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and author of "Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies."

"With all this said," Coakley says, "sport is a unique context from which to retire. It is valued in the culture as a whole, it is tied to the freedom and joy of childhood for many people, and it is used by some people as the standard against which they compare other experiences. . . . If there are opportunities and you don't have to leave, why not stay?"

In rookie ball, first-year players are paid $1,100 per month (which is why the majority stay rent-free with "host" families), plus $20 a day in meal money when on the road. Coaches with no experience make around $35,000 -- which means DeShields this season will earn slightly more than he did on a per-game basis (about $27,000) in 2001, at the height of his earning power as a player.

"You can't explain it," former big leaguer Bob Forsch says. "People who love the game of baseball just have that desire. People say it's the money. It's not the money. It's the competition, being between those white lines.

Forsch, the Mustangs' first-year pitching coach, pitched in the majors for 16 seasons, but did so from 1974 to 1989, before the giant explosion of free agent money in the 1990s, and he never earned more than $975,000 in a single season. Like DeShields, he took a long break away from the game before jumping back in this year -- but Forsch's layoff was a whopping 20 years.

"I was watching the playoffs on TV last year, and it just hit me: I wanted to get back in," Forsch, 59, says. "A part of me had gone dormant for a while. I was an absolute couch potato. I hadn't picked up a baseball, other than going to a [fantasy] camp, in a long time.

"One of the questions [the Reds] asked when they hired me was, 'Can you throw batting practice?' I said, 'I don't know.' They said, 'What do you mean you don't know?' I said, 'Well, I've had 20 years between starts.' "

Forsch still makes his year-round home in St. Louis, where he spent the first 14 1/2 years of his career, and it was there, in mid-February 1990 -- his first year out of the game -- when he first felt the pangs of being out of baseball.

"The toughest part," he says, "was when everyone leaves for spring training. You know the dates. You know when the truck is getting loaded up, and they're sending it south and your stuff isn't on it. You don't make rental-car reservations or get an apartment down in Florida.

"It hits you: You're not a part of it anymore."

'What Do I Want?'

Here's how the money works. Say you make 29 mil. You pay close to 40 percent in taxes, another 3 or 4 percent in agent's fees. You hire a financial adviser, because you want to be smart about things, but that costs money, too. You and your wife buy a house, 6,000 square feet in one of Atlanta's finer neighborhoods, and raise the kids. You're doing well, financially -- you've got the nest egg. But the lack of income is just a little worrisome.

And then you get divorced.

"I thought I did well [financially] -- until the divorce," DeShields says. "But I'd do anything for my kids, so at the end of the day you gotta be a man and deal with it. I feel like you should always have some income coming in. I made a lot of money, but it's not like I made A-Rod money."

When he retired following that 2002 season, he was a mere 33 years old, with a lifetime still to live, and it wasn't exactly a clean break. There were questions, deep ones, dark ones, that he couldn't fully answer:

Did his career justify the decision he made as an 18-year-old to turn down a basketball scholarship offer from Rollie Massimino at Villanova University and go pro in baseball instead -- a decision that had more to do with helping out his family financially than about personal ambition? Had he left it all on the field, as he and his buddy Grissom used to vow to do at all costs?

"If you have a sense you didn't complete your career, man, it's going to haunt you," says Grissom, 42, who retired as a player in 2005 after 17 years in the majors. "I used to remind him all the time when I was playing and he wasn't: 'Dude, you should still be playing.' "

Another question -- not one that haunts DeShields, because he knows he chose the correct path, but still: What did he cost himself, in terms of money and career longevity, by staying clean, even at the height of the steroids era?

"You couldn't have told me this at the time, but I had a good career, man," DeShields says. "I wasn't no slouch, you know what I'm saying? I feel good about that, that I competed and did it without using steroids and all that stuff. If I stuck a needle in my butt, I might still be out there. But I don't know what that quality of life would be like in 10 years."

Reaching peace with those questions took years, and the search for answers took its own toll. You don't just transition from star ballplayer to well-adjusted family man overnight, not when that life and this one are so vastly different, and in some ways at odds.

"That's something they don't really prepare us for," DeShields says. "It's hard, not just for you, but for your family. All of a sudden, daddy's home every day. It's a big adjustment for everybody. Did it cost me my marriage? That [transition] alone didn't, but it had a lot to do with it.

"There was a point where I had to ask myself: What do I want? What do I want to do?"

At various points, the answers were: prospective music mogul (he started a production company that developed a handful of artists before going belly-up); socially aware businessman (in 2007, he and former pitcher Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd started the Urban Baseball League, which sought to "reestablish the Negro leagues" before going dormant because of lack of sponsorship); scriptwriter (according to Elliott, his fiancee, DeShields wrote a baseball-related screenplay); and youth baseball guru (he coached many of his oldest son's teams and was all set to run Grissom's sprawling, nonprofit baseball association this year until the Reds offered him a job).

"I think it was hard for him to figure out exactly what he wanted to do, like it is for a lot of retired players," says Adam Katz, DeShields's longtime agent. "He did a lot of parenting. He dipped in and out of a few things, trying to figure out where his heart was. In the last year or two, I could tell he was focused on getting back in the game."

Says Elliott: "It fills a void for him to be back on the field. He's back in the game now."

Maybe he still doesn't have all the answers (who does?), but ultimately, that's why he's here. Maybe the answers are out there in that big sky, out the window of that bus. Maybe they're at the end of a fungo bat, or on the back of a crisp, white uniform. And if they're not there, they're somewhere else, and by God there's plenty of time left to find them.

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