It began last November on a Saturday night, live from New York, at the St. Mickey's K of C sports banquet sketch. Jane, Larraine and Gilda were the girls in the kitchen; now let's hear it for the girls in the kitchen who made all the great spaghetti -- so c'mon out and take a bow, girls. Aykroyd was the St. Mickey's priest; bingo next Tuesday, and Father Dolan's wondering why the parishioners start laughing when he calls, O-68. Belushi was the master of ceremonies. Bill Murray was his wise-guy son, the jocko. And Garrett Morris was the guest speaker, a retired ballplayer from the Dominican Republic who believes, above all else, in that old Spanish proverb, "Take the dinero and run." For those who missed it, it went something like this:
M.C.: "All right, now we come to the featured guest of the evening. I'm sure this man needs no introduction. We all know him, the former second baseman of the Mets, Chico Escuela. Chico is going to say a few words to us, so let's give him a warm, St. Mickey's reception; (clapping) Chico Escuela."
Chico (smiling): "Base-a-bol been bera, bera good to me; (smiling still). T'ank you bera much." (Sits down.)
M.C. (stunned, rising): "That's it? Twelve hundred bucks and that's it?" We paid you 12 hundred for that? You don't have any more? Something to say to the kids? I mean is that all we get for the 12 hundred" (Glares at Chico.)
Chico: (getting up, still smiling) "Keep you eye on the bol." (sits down)
Chico Escuela, this is your life.
"I thought it was a one-shot," said Brian Doyle Murray, brother of Bill, father of Chico. "I wrote it one night, about 5 in the morining. The premise was that these ex-jocks get big money just for showing up at these banquets. In this case, the kicker is that Chico can only say about five words of English. I made him a Latino because I thought that would be funnier. But Chico's not stupid; he could go on for hours in Spanish. Like I say, though, I had no plans for a continuing character. Zweibel really ran with it."
Enter Alan Zweibel, staff writer for "Saturday Night." Zweibel, who created Roseann Roseannadanna for Gilda Radner, was responsible mainly for the Weekend Update segment. Zweibel knew a star when he saw one. Just one look, that's all it took. "My fantasy was to have a junior high in the Dominican Republic named after him," Zweibel said. ("Escuela" is the Spanish word for "school.") "'Where do you go to school? I go to Escuela Escuela.' I put him on Update as the sports announcer."
Chico made three appearances as the Update sports maven. It was, however, his first appearance on Update -- Dec. 9, 1978 -- that remains the classic Chico Escuela segment, the bit that established Chico as a "Saturday Night" character equal in stature and recognizability to Roseann, Samurai or the two wild and crazy Czechoslovak brothers, Sam and Dave. Here then is Chico's debut on Update:
Jane: "And now we'd like to welcome a new member to the Weekend Update team, the former second baseman for the New York Mets, Chico Escuela. Chico will be doing Update sports. Chico."
Chico: "T'ank you, t'ank you bera, bera much. (Smiling, as usual) Base-a-bol been bera, bera good to me. T'ank you, Hane (Picture of Pete Rose flashes on screen behind Chico). Pete Rrrhhose. Base-a-bol been bera, bera good to Pete Rose. Three point two million dollars para Pete Rrrhhose. Charley Hustle? You bet. T'ank you bera, bera much. (NFL scores flash on screen). En futbol/En Dominican Repooblic, futbol ees -- how you say? -- soccer. Your football? I don' know. (smiling). En Nacional Hockey League? (they flash NHL scores). I don' know hockey. En beisbol. (they flash baseball scores). Base-a-bol ben bera, bera goooooood to me.T'ank you, t'ank you bera, bera much. (smiling) Hane."
Jane: "Great Job, Chico. I'm glad that we haven't hired just another stupid ex-jock sportscaster."
Chico's great strength, of course, was his great weakness. Functional illiteracy. How far can you run with it?
Even before Chico's second appearance on Update, Zweibel knew that to keep Chico fresh he would have to give him more depth, more vulnerability. A lifelong sports fan, Zweibel was familiar with the Jim Bouton motif -- jock writes best selling tell-it-all book, becomes sportscaster, attempts comeback. Zweibel sketched a similar scenario for Chico; Chico would, at 41, attempt a comeback with the Mets, the team he had scandalized in his book "Bad Stuff About The Mets." Some excerpts, in Chico's words: "Tom Seaver always take up two parking space . . . Yogi Berra is bera, bera bad card player . . . Ed Kranepool, he always borrow Chico's soap and never return it."
Zweibel's plan was to take Chico down to the Mets' spring training site in St. Petersburg, Fla., and film reaction by players and fans to Chico's comeback, and actual footage of Chico playing baseball. To set this up, Zweibel contacted Thornton Geary, a Met official, who discussed the plan with Joe Torre, the Mets' manager. The Mets were not just agreeable, they were completely cooperative. And in late March, Zweibel, Billy and Brian Doyle Murray, Jim Signorelli, who filmed the on-location Chico bits for "Saturday Night," and Garrett Morris flew to St. Pete. Morris, who had never had a breakout character in the four years of the show, finally had something that would distinguish him from the position he had always held, that of "Saturday Night's" black face. This one, Morris knew, had the potential to be an all-timer.
"When I first saw Chico, I said to myself, 'this could be it. I finally got a character,'" Morris said from his office at NBC studios in Rockefeller Plaza. On the door was a bubble-gum snapshot of him as Chico. "Before Chico, I was always doing drag queens. After Tina Turner, I didn't want to do them anymore -- how many times can you get compliments as a drag queen and not feel funny? So I really dug Chico. I was digging him from the start, patterning him after Clemente and Pele. What I really dug was how the cat could get away with anything just by smiling and prtending to be stupid. Lookit, Chico don't have to do that 'Ho-la. Das how you say, 'hello' en ingles. Hola. How you say? Aitch. O. Elll . . .' He knows how you say it. He's just running his scam."
Morris laughed so, he fell over backwards.
Getting to his feet he pointed at the snapshot of Chico and said, 'Chico Escuela has overwhelmed everything I've done here. Everywhere I go, I'm Chico Escuela. I'm not Garrett Morris anymore. Chico been bera, bera goooooood to Garrett."
Morris is 43. He is in great shape thanks to rigorous yoga routines. But he is not a baseball player. He played it as a kid in New Orleans -- "I sure as hell could have been as good as Joe Garagiola" -- but gave it up for music and drama in his teens.
The Mets understood. They loaned Morris No. 5, the uniform worn by Steve Henderson, the starting left fielder; Joe Torre got two players, Bobby Valentine and Doug Flynn, to tutor Morris on the care and feeding of ground balls; Torre even put Chico into the lineup for two innings against St. Louis in a "B" game. Chico, of course, had no clue. "When I put him in to play second, he ran out there and just stood on the base," Torre said. "God knows I couldn't let him get up at bat -- I was afraid he'd get killed. He even scared me on the field on a popup."
Meanwhile, Zweibel was scrambling to come up with some dialogue to go with the planned montage of screwups, including a shot of Chico getting hammered in the groin by a grounder. Zweibel had gone to St. Pete with a concept but not a script. "All we knew," he said, "was that Chico would be a hero, then a goat. We would film all of it, then come back, take a look and put it together." So, even as the lights and the cameras were warming up after a Mets-Yankees exhibition game, Zweibel and Brian Doyle Murray were writing one-liners on looseleaf paper, newspaper -- even toilet paper -- and handing them to players seconds before the cameras rolled. The fans in the stands were advised to stick around and be part of a crowd scene and banners supporting Chico -- "Bring Back Chico," "We Love Chico," "Parsippany, N.J., Loves Chico," "Senior Citizens Respect Chico" -- were hung over the railings. When Bill Murray finally introduced Chico, the fans went wild. Chico got a standing ovation; the best Garrett Morris ever got was a good hand.
Zweibel got three Update segments out of Chico's comeback, a comeback that failed when it became obvious to all that Chico was so far over the hill he needed a cab to get back. Bill Murray narrated the bits in the style of a "'60 Minutes" reporter, occasionally interviewing Chico.
Bill: "Chico, you've divorced your wife. You've cashed in your children's trust funds. All this for your comeback. Do you think that's right?"
Chico: "Wife? (smiling) Wife been bera, bera good to me. Children been bera, bera goooooood to Chico."
Chico Escuela was hot.
Very hot. Very, very hot. Monster hot.
You couldn't go to a baseball game or a sports department of a newspaper without hearing, "Base-a-bol been bera, bera good to me."
Joe Torre said that when the Mets played in San Diego and Pittsburgh he saw signs in the stands that said "Bring Back Chico" and "The Mets Need Chico."
Garrett Morris said that "because of Chico my lifestyle will never be the same. People come up to me and say, 'Chico, how about an autograph.' They want me to do interviews first in English, then in Spanish -- I don't know Spanish, man. Now I do concerts and Chico Escuela sells out an auditorium. I mean, Garrett Morris don't sell out an auditorium. When I hear kids on the street do Chico imitations it thrills me to my toes.I mean I'm high as a kite on that stuff."
It is clear, in retrospect, that Chico Escuela touched a chord. Whether it was vulnerability, his acumen in always knowing how little to say and how much to smile or simply his extraordinary con job as the happy, shuffling Latino, he went over big. Sure, there's a racial sterotype going on. Nobody denies that."But there's an essential truth in every stereotype," said Jim Signorelli. "Look, Chico came to America to play ball and make money. Remember, he's been here a long time. He's learned how to get around the bull. And the thing is, Chico always gives off a good feeling. All we can say is Chico been bera, bera good to us. Jim, Brian, Alan, Garrett love Chico." Chico seems to be the perfect antidote to the mile-a-minute, let's-analyze-everything-in-the-park-including-the-guy-who-drives-the-bullpen cart sports announcer. Chico analyzes nothing; he just puts the cash into his back pocket. He is the opposite of sports as chess game. He is sports as siesta. He is the Leon Redbone of sports.
Sports been bera, bera good to Chico.
T'ank you bera, bera much.
So overwhelming was Chico's popularity that the Mets not only invited him to their Old Timers' Game this summer, they even listed him on their press notes as a member of the '69 team. They introduced him to the crowd. They even let him take batting practice.
"The pitcher demoralized me, man," Morris said. "That cat came out in front of the mound, and I couldn't hit a damn thing."
Zweibel, of course, was there to get it on film.
He was there when Chico walked up to Willie Mays and Henry Aaron -- and tried to borrow some money.He was there when Chico was in the cage, swinging awkwardly, and a legitimate Old Timer walked by, stared in disbelief, and said, "I don't know who this guy is. But in 10 years he sure lost it. He ain't got nothin' left."
But all this pales when compared to the ultimate scam Zweibel tried to run. He actually telephoned the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. -- the sacred shrine -- and tried to get Chico Escuela inducted.
"I got some guy on the phone," Zweibel said, "and said to him, 'I assume you guys know what's happening with Chico Escuela, the old second baseman of the Mets.' The guy recognized Chico's name, so I told him, 'Look, Chico's dying. He has been diagnosed as terminal. Seeing as how Chico's a shoo-in to get into the Hall of Fame, anyway, I was wondering if maybe you could make an exception to your five-year rule and vote him in right away. You did it for Roberto Clemente, and it would be real nice if Chico could bring his folks up from the Dominican Republic for the ceremony before he dies.' Well, the guy just said he'd get back to me."
Zweibel actually wanted to have Chico Escuela inducted into the Hall of Fame with Willie Mays.
He planned to film it.
"He really did that?" Morris wanted to know.
He says he did.
"Oh God, I can't believe it. That's great."
And, for the second time in an hour, Garrett Morris began to laugh so hard that he fell off his chair, leading logically to the observation that furniture not been bera, bera good to Garrett.
What's next for Chico?
Is anything next?
There are various ways Chico can go. He can do a George Plimpton, keep trying out for sports teams. He can do a Joe Louis, become a greeter at Caesars Palace. He can do a full-circle Bouton, stay as a sports announcer, maybe write another book, "More, Bad Stuff About The Mets." Or he can go down the tubes completely, maybe get hit with a paternity suit, end up wiping car windows down on Houston Street in the Bowery. That would probably be the clincher. Joe Torre could drive by, Chico could do his window and Torre could say, "Chico, you've still got that same, good stroke -- only it's one step too slow." And then, of course, Chico could smile and say, "Windex been bera, bera good to me. Can I have some money for wine, Joe? T'ank you, t'ank you bera, bera much."