Down at a last-chance ballpark on a squalid edge of town, the infield dust was kicked around by an incessant, hot breeze. Steve Howe smoked in a dim training room, Ken Reitz lolled against a chipped concrete wall behind a pair of new-wave shades, and Daryl Sconiers flipped the ball to a young outfielder, who spit the dirt from his mouth and said: "Man, does the wind ever stop blowing here?"
San Jose Municipal Stadium is an arid, battered structure of 5,200 seats with a lopsided outfield that doubles as a soccer field. It includes one bunk room affectionately called the Stadium Hilton, and a permanent floating beer truck, generally parked next to the tool shack with the bent basketball rim hanging from a shingle.
This is the home -- literally, in some cases -- of the Bees, an independent and impoverished Class A team in the California League made interesting only by its uncommon roster. Among the Bees are six former major-leaguers, four of them recent signees who have admitted to drug problems and are trying to establish themselves in baseball again.
In the last month, this array of troubled talent and aging retreads has been signed by Manager Harry Steve to help his struggling minor league franchise. Steve, who also happens to be president and general manager of the Bees, has been called reckless by some and a smart businessman by others.
"When I did this I knew it wasn't going to turn out perfect," he said. "There wasn't going to be any storybook ending where all six or seven guys got back to the majors with no problems."
The four who have admitted to substance abuse are Howe, Reitz, Sconiers and Mike Norris. A fifth player, Derrel Thomas, who was named in the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trial, was released by Steve last week for an attitude problem unrelated to drugs. The other two former major-leaguers are catcher Daryl Cias and pitcher Fernando Arroyo, both of whom fall in the aging category.
This bizarre band of halfway-house residents is well aware of its image. Descriptions of them range from "The Dirty Dozen" to Reitz' preferred nickname, the Bad News Bees, and their tarnished reputations have been the subject of some rather twisted hilarity among them.
When Norris stood against the left field fence the other day for a picture, Thomas pretended to frisk him for the cameras. Asked to characterize the team, Norris usually replies: "It's like an AA meeting."
When Steve called a team conference on the field and told the players their pickoffs and rundowns were terrible, Howe spoke up.
"But Harry," he said. "We've been in jail for a year."
Their brand of outrageousness can be disconcerting, but it is apparently their collective and informal way of dealing with the curious scrutiny they have incurred. "I know why they come out," Reitz said. "They want to see who's going to screw up first . . . You've got to have a sense of humor about it, or you'd be back on the stuff."
For the players who once stayed in the major leagues' finest hotels, Municipal Stadium is the last and poorest stop on the comeback line, beyond which is the fearsome nothingness of life without baseball. The Bees have finished in last place in the California League for three years straight, and averaged only 750 a game in attendance last year.
Steve doesn't have a player development contract with a major league organization, which means he pays for his own expenses, including bats, balls, laundry and salaries. None of the former major-leaguers make more than $2,000 a month, and the minimum salary for the club is a mere $300 a month. Reitz and Cias, two of the lower-paid players, compensate by living in a converted storeroom in the locker room.
Steve is a 31-year-old self-made sports businessman, a dark, thin man dogged by the ongoing financial problems of the Bees. Frustrated by his poor finishes and inability to get a player development contract, Steve decided to seek out his own talent, regardless of reputation.
"When I met these guys and talked to them, I was pleasantly surprised," he said. "Their hearts are in the right places. No one else would pay a dollar a month for them. But who's to say they don't deserve a second chance? I thought if they could put their egos aside and come down here, then maybe it would be a steppingstone for both of us, we could help each other."
For Norris and Howe particularly, their stint with the team is an opportunity to show Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and the rest of the major leagues that they finally are straight.
Howe seems to have the best chance of climbing back to the majors after four visits to rehabilitation centers for cocaine and alcohol abuse. The pitcher who was National League rookie of the year for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1980, Howe first admitted to drug problems in 1983 and had unsucessful stints with the Dodgers and Minnesota Twins last year. He was working for a radio station in Montana when Steve called him.
"I came because I needed to throw," he said. "I have no idea how long I'll be here. Basically my story is nothing that anyone in other walks of life haven't experienced. I bet there isn't 15 percent of the population that hasn't had a problem with drugs or alcohol of some kind. I don't dwell on the past and I don't worry about what other people are thinking."
Howe's ability seems undiminished for the moment; he threw five shutout innings in the season opener against Salinas, struck out three and did not issue a walk. Cias judged him to be throwing at about 91 mph.
"I don't expect him to be here longer than a month," Steve said.
Sconiers is another who seems a promising prospect if he can convince teams that he is a low-risk buy. The 27-year-old first baseman was once considered the most promising player in the California Angels' organization, before he was dropped from the roster last winter. While the Angels refused comment, Sconiers had arrived 17 days late to spring training and later admitted to a substance problem. He said he sucessfully completed treatment last April.
"It all depends on who needs a left-handed hitter," he said. "I could be here two weeks, I could be here four or five months. You can't think 'what if this and what if that.' It only makes it harder . . . No matter what you've done in the past, I think there's always going to be someone willing to give you another shot, whether it's on a factory line or whatever."
Perhaps the largest question mark is Norris. The 31-year-old who was the 1980 runner-up for the American League Cy Young Award has been an enigma during his battle with cocaine that included two visits to treatment centers. He was recently placed in a two-year drug counseling and eduction program by an Alameda County court, the result of a 1985 arrest for possessing marijuana and cocaine when he was stopped on a freeway. This winter, he spent four days in a Santo Domingo jail when he was arrested for cocaine possession on his arrival. The charges were dropped.
The first of the major-leaguers to sign with the Bees, he has been the most erratic, and has thrown only nine days in practice. He missed two workouts and a game last week, incurring a week-long suspension from Steve, who was on the verge of releasing him before relenting. Norris' explanation is that he is dependent on others for transportation because his license was revoked after the 1985 arrest. He also has had conflicting appointments in court, with the IRS and with the DMV, but says his personal affairs are finally in order.
"The fact is, I missed a game," Norris said. "That's serious, but it wasn't drug-related, so I don't feel badly about it."
Reitz, the 34-year-old third baseman, was a former all-star for the St. Louis Cardinals whose career deteriorated when he was treated for a problem with amphetamines. He has perhaps the least realistic chance of reaching the majors again simply because of his age.
The Bees' captain, he was running baseball camps in St. Louis when he heard of Steve's signees and joined up. His bunkroom in the stadium is dominated by a hot water heater, a Do Not Disturb sign from a Holiday Inn, and a Pepsi-Cola wall clock.
"I was making a lot more running camps than I am here," he said. "I might be here all year. Someone like Howe is a commodity. I'm an outside shot because of my age. But I might come back and coach. There's a few other angles on this thing."