Friday, December 5, 2014

Card #140: Ron LeFlore

Who Can It Be Now?
Ronald LeFlore was born on June 16, 1948, in Detroit, Michigan. He was the son of an auto worker who found himself on the street early. This was not because his family could not provide for him -- he just chose to veer away from the straight and narrow. He claimed that, at age 11, he was stealing around $1,000 out of a supermarket cash register using a stick with gum on the end of it to pull dollar bills out of a cashier's box. 

LeFlore told People magazine that at the age of 15, a People magazine article says that he was involved with prostitution, shoplifting, and con games. At age 16, according to LeFlore, he was snorting heroin. LeFlore said that he and some buddies needed money for drugs, so, at the age of 17, they held up a check-cashing service in particular. They were caught and sent to jail.

If there is one thing that baseball fans know about Ron LeFlore, it is that he was "scouted" or "discovered" in the Jackson State Penitentiary in Michigan by Billy Martin. LeFlore never played baseball before his incarceration on an armed-robbery conviction, but when you have 5-to-15 years to spend behind bars, I imagine you might try a few sports that you hadn't played before too.

Prison officials convinced Martin to watch LeFlore and give him a tryout. Sufficiently impressed, the Tigers signed LeFlore the day he was paroled in July of 1973 and assigned him to Single-A Clinton -- a town of around 20,000 people on the Mississippi River about 45 minutes away from the Quad Cities. That must have been culture shock to LeFlore. He only spent 32 games there in 1973 before the season ended. The next year, LeFlore was assigned to Lakeland in the Florida State League. There, his speed was on display -- 42 steals in 46 attempts -- and he hit very well too: .339/.398/.451.  After just 93 games in Lakeland, the Tigers promoted him first to Triple-A Evansville for 9 games and then right to the major leagues with Detroit.

When he was first called up to the major leagues in 1974, LeFlore's story preceded him. In fact, that People article about him recounted all of the facts above. The story put LeFlore's age at 22 years old. The only problem was that LeFlore had lied about his age to the Tigers. I know -- shocking that a convicted felon in prison for robbery with a chance to get out and make gobs of money playing a game would lie about something.  He told the Tigers first that he was born in 1952. Later, his story changed to being born in 1950. Only in 1976 did all the facts come out to confirm that he was born in 1948.

As the facts developed later, yes, he was arrested at age 17. That was for "attempted safe-breaking." That arrest happened in 1965, however, and not 1970 as he had claimed initially. He went to jail in January of 1966, was paroled in July of 1967, re-arrested in May of 1968 for a parole violation, paroled a second time in September of 1969, and then, in January of 1970, he was, in fact, arrested for armed robbery of a bar on Detroit's East Side.

The response to these facts from the Tigers was that they really did not care how old LeFlore was and that their only concern was whether he could play baseball. By the time these facts came to light, LeFlore had already played in 195 games for the Tigers and stolen 51 bases (against 29 CS...a terrible percentage). In those days of overlooking OBP, LeFlore's was not what you would want from a leadoff man -- .302 over 863 plate appearances.  

To be fair, though, LeFlore was still learning the game (if his stories about not having played baseball before prison were true). Indeed, in 1976, LeFlore's story became even more heartwarming, if your heart can be warmed by a former armed robber becoming an All-Star. In 1976, America's hearts could be, leading to LeFlore starting the All-Star Game (with teammate Mark Fidrych starting the game for the American League). 

That 1976 season was probably his best as a major league baseball player. While he couldn't field his position very well, he hit well -- .316/.376/.410 -- and stole 58 bases in 78 attempts. The whole thing was straight out of Hollywood, it seemed -- so much so that CBS couldn't help itself and made the story into a TV movie called "One In A Million: The Ron LeFlore Story" starring as LeFlore a young LeVar Burton. Go here to see some clips from it, including cameos from Norm Cash, Al Kaline, and Bill Freehan and starring Billy Martin as himself.

In 1977, LeFlore continued his hot-hitting ways, racking up 212 hits, in a "triple-double" season: he had 30 doubles, 10 triples, and 16 homers to go with his 39 SB (in 58 attempts, mind you). He walked just 37 times in 698 plate appearances, striking out 121 times. 

But, you can see how it appears that LeFlore really was learning to play baseball while in the major leagues. 1978 solidified that belief. At the age of 30, LeFlore led the American League with 126 runs scored and with 68 stolen bases in 84 attempts -- far more respectable than his previous years -- while drawing 65 walks in 741 plate appearances. Even his fielding was improving somewhat, as his speed made up for occasionally lacking fundamentals. While his SLG lagged in 1978, it really seemed that LeFlore had come of age as a player.

Come 1979, however, LeFlore had a problem. His previous manager, Ralph Houk, had been fired.  In June, Sparky Anderson was named manager after the team fumbled around with Les Moss and Dick Tracewski. If LeFlore and Houk agreed to disagree about team rules, well, Anderson just got upset and wanted him shipped out. So, despite LeFlore's 78 SB (in 92 attempts, an 84.78% success rate that was good enough for third in the league) and a slash line of .300/.355/.415, he was traded during the Winter Meetings in December of 1979 to the National League's Montreal Expos for pitcher Dan Schatzeder.

As one sportswriter put it the next spring, there were three reasons for the trade. The first was the Tigers' desire to bring up local football star Kirk Gibson. The second was Sparky Anderson and his rules -- no beards, no jeans, no long hair, and lots of rules. As LeFlore put it, "Obviously, he didn't feel I fit his mold. He felt I was a threat to his authority. Otherwise he wouldn't have authorized the trade." The final reason was that LeFlore was asking for a lot of money and a long-term contract. 

LeFlore responded well to the trade, leading the National League in stolen bases with 97. His batting average dipped to .257, but his new-found batting eye kept his OBP at a respectable .337. That was not enough, however, to convince the Expos to make him an offer of a long-term contract. 

Into that breach stepped the Chicago White Sox, who signed him to what was called a "multi-year, $2-million offer" which turned out to be a three-year deal. Interestingly, in both this article and the previous story about LeFlore, the myth of his birth being in 1952 was still being carried forward. Apparently those sportswriters -- and probably the Expos media guide -- did not get the memo from 1976 about his 1948 birth. This would continue to be the case throughout his career -- some newspapers used 1948 and others used 1952.

LeFlore thought that the Expos were making an example out of him with Gary Carter, Steve Rogers, and Warren Cromartie all coming up for new contracts. More likely, though, this was just a move similar to what the Tigers had done since the Expos had a 20-year-old left field prospect named Tim Raines chomping at the bit for his opportunity.

Perhaps the White Sox thought they were getting a thirty-year-old outfielder. I can't imagine that was the case, but maybe that is what they thought. Or, perhaps they didn't quite understand the decline phase for a player starts around 32 and that, for guys like LeFlore who rely on their speed, that decline is often extremely swift. 

Indeed, that is exactly what happened. 1981 went reasonably well healthwise for LeFlore, but the bottom dropped out of his ability to take walks -- just 28 in 369 plate appearances. Then, in 1982, LeFlore's inability to follow rules came back again. He butted heads with Tony LaRussa by failing to show up for a full-team pregame workout the day after the All-Star Game and for showing up late for a day game (just minutes before game time) over the next weekend. That led to his being suspended for three games and costing LeFlore $10,000 of his estimated $625,000 salary.

Then, at the end of the season, LeFlore got in trouble with the law again. After a three-month surveillance, LeFlore was arrested in Chicago for possession of Quaaludes, a stimulant, and two unregistered .25 caliber derringers. A "reliable source" tipped off the police that LeFlore was purchasing narcotics, so the police followed him around. The White Sox placed him on their "suspended list" as a result.

That was the start of a terrible six months for LeFlore. On January 16, 1983, LeFlore's six-week-old son John Christopher died from sudden infant death syndrome. Two days later, he was ordered to stand trial for the charges from October of 1982, for which he was eventually acquitted.  

Then, after a horrible spring training on top of everything else (.152 AVG, 5 for 33), the White Sox told LeFlore on March 28, 1983, that they were going to eat his salary and release him. No one else in baseball wanted to take a chance on the nearly 35-year-old outfielder with dwindling hitting ability and an attitude to match his rap sheet, and that was the end of his playing career.

Mustache Check: Ron LeFlore sported a mustache throughout his career.

Family Ties
LeFlore's cousin, Todd Steverson, was the first round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 out of Arizona State University. Steverson was a Rule 5 pick of the Tigers in 1994, and then was traded to the Padres in spring training in 1996. He got one at-bat with San Diego that season before spending a couple more years in the minors.

The World According to Garp
When you have a story good enough for a TV movie, usually that means you have a story worth telling in book form. LeFlore worked with ghostwriter Jim Hawkins to produce a book titled Breakout: From Prison to the Big Leagues in 1978. It was 180 pages long, and the lone review of the book on Amazon says:
It is a very fast read. There are few words on each page, and it reminds me of the type of thing that I would check-out from my elementary or junior high school library when I was that age. . . . One more caveat, if you're looking for a hero or an inspirational figure look elsewhere. The subject offers little in the way of advice, lessons learned or even contrition for the things he did in his life. He seems to take the attitude of, "Hey, this is my life, this is what happened, it is what it is."
Trivial Pursuit
Ron LeFlore was the first player to lead both the American League and the National League in Stolen Bases. He led the AL in 1978 and the NL in 1980.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Because of his story, I was very aware of who LeFlore was. I recall being blown away at the idea of someone stealing 97 bases as well -- LeFlore and Rickey Henderson went neck-and-neck all year before Henderson ended up edging out LeFlore by hitting exactly 100 steals. Even then, I always had a bit of trepidation about LeFlore.  I mean, he was a convicted felon, after all.

The intervening years since 1983 have not been kind to him. The link in that previous sentence is to a long-form story from last year that appeared in the Toronto Sun which talks about the struggles LeFlore has had since his release. 

He tried to be a minor-league coach, but no one would hire him. As a result, he got a job as a baggage handler (Wikipedia says with Eastern Airlines, if you buy that). He went to umpiring school, but failed to perform well enough at that task to get hired by professional baseball. He was arrested twice for failing to pay child support -- one time in Detroit in 1999 after ceremonies to honor former Tigers players on the closing of Tiger Stadium. 

Then, to cap things off, he had a hip replacement in 2009. That wasn't the worst part, though. LeFlore was a heavy smoker for his entire life and, in 2011, that piper came calling. As the Sun article quotes LeFlore:
I started having problems walking on my right leg and it started swelling up and my toes started turning dark. I had trouble getting my shoe on, so I started soaking my foot in warm water and wearing sandals all the time. Being an athlete, I had built up a high tolerance for pain...I just let it go.  
When my toe turned black, I started picking at it -- and a piece of my toe came off in my hand. When I saw that, I said, "Oh, my God!"
I went back to see the doctor who had done my hip replacement and he said, "You need to get to the hospital right away. This is serious." 
No blood could get to my foot. That's when they started amputating. First they cut off my baby toe. Then they removed the toe next to it, trying to see if they could save my foot. [After an artery transplant to try to save the leg], finally they amputated my leg below the knee in the third surgery.
The article closes with LeFlore wishing that someone would have given him the guidance he needed to get over his past problems. He complains that "I had no support from anybody. I don't know if they were afraid, because I was an ex-inmate, but nobody ever went out of their way to really help me."

Not to be snarky or preachy or negative, but isn't that what all the managers and teams who tried to get LeFlore to conform more to their rules were doing? Show up on time, don't miss workouts, not have the attitude that others have to conform to you? 

I feel bad for his current situation in that no one deserves to lose a leg. But almost all the bad stuff in his life happened because he made choices -- choosing to smoke, to take drugs, to rob bars, to miss workouts, and to fail to pay child support. Actions have consequences, and it sounds like LeFlore has found that out over and over again.

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