SOUTHINGTON, Conn. There is a photograph gathering dust atop a television set in a suburban Connecticut basement, a joyous and wholesome image for which Carl Pavano, of all people, was the catalyst, and in which he does not implicitly appear. But I have been assured he is down there somewhere, in the depths of that pile, amid the tangled mass of arms and legs and cleats and hats. And given that he has just thrown the final pitch to win the Connecticut high school baseball championship, given that he was the impetus for this spontaneous celebration that took place more than 13 years ago, in the shadow of a scoreboard badly in need of an electrician, he is most likely trapped near the very bottom.
The man in possession of this photograph, and of this basement, is John Fontana, and there is one particular story that Fontana, who has since retired as the baseball coach at Southington High, likes to share about that state championship game. It is an anecdote he has crafted and shaped and retold over and over again when people have queried him, at various junctures, about Carl Pavano's apparent dearth of testicular fortitude. It goes like this:
Top of the seventh and final inning, Southington High up 4-1. Fontana has a reliever warming up, just in case Pavano tires, but mostly, he admits, because he knows how to push Pavano's buttons. So he calls timeout.
Pavano says, "Coach, don't come out here."
Fontana keeps on walking toward the mound. Pavano says, "Don't embarrass yourself." Fontana takes a few more steps, and Pavano says, "If you reach for this ball, I'm going to sit right down on the rubber and embarrass you."
So it progresses, in archetypal fashion: Fontana backs away, Pavano strikes out the next hitter, completes the game, and is mobbed by his ecstatic teammates. By the next season, at age 19, he is pitching for the Red Sox Class A League franchise in Battle Creek, Mich., a 6-foot-5, 225-pound alpha male, a cocksure ladies' man with a willful streak and a bright future, the envy of all those around him. His early career path is peripatetic, but, like an episode of "Entourage," it always seems to wind up just fine: At age 27, after a series of stops and starts and nagging arm injuries and Zelig-like brushes with fame, after he allows Mark McGwire's 70th home run and is traded once for Pedro Martinez and again for Cliff Floyd, he pitches his way to a World Series ring with the Florida Marlins. And the following season, after a brief tryst with Alyssa Milano (Alyssa Milano!), he wins 18 games and becomes a free agent with leverage and several clamoring suitors.
And then just a few days before Christmas 2004, Pavano signs a four-year, $39.95 million contract with the New York Yankees, the team his mother adores, and the team his grandfather envisioned him pitching for, because while Southington is located on the cusp of Red Sox Nation, Pavano's was always a Yankees family.
But what has happened since that day is the reason I am here, sitting in Fontana's basement, bearing witness to his recollections while staring at a photograph of a teenaged boy with a square jaw who bears a resemblance to a young Elvis Presley. Because what transpired between Pavano and the Yankees will take its place among the most bizarre and sad and pathetic sagas in the history of a franchise that has borne witness to decades of inexplicable behavior. In the course of 30 arduous months, Pavano has not merely endured the very public and very embarrassing breakdown of his body and his pitching arm, he survived the wreck of his Porsche while speeding in Florida (he broke two ribs, a fact he did not disclose to the Yankees until 11 days later, when he was scheduled to return to the team from a rehab assignment) and he also survived a nasty breakup with an aspiring model from Queens (which ended when she accused him, on the front page of the New York Post, of cheating) and so many extended stints in the purgatory of the disabled list that even his own teammates gave up on him. In turn, his reputation has devolved from a promising (if overpriced) free-agent to that of a con artist, an idler, a curse, a walking punch line, a target for YouTube parodies and mocking blog posts, and a metaphor for all that had been going wrong with these floundering Yankees, and with the string of pitching failures signed by their general manager, Brian Cashman, and, for that matter, with every overpaid and pampered free agent in the history of modern sport who has failed to live up to his value.
It is nothing new for Yankees fans to devour one of their own this is considered an almost inevitable byproduct of living and playing baseball in the world's most unforgiving city, for the game's most absurdly competitive and deep-pocketed franchise. The list is long, and includes a wide range of personalities and talents, from outright busts like Don Gullett to Hall of Famers like Dave Winfield to more recent Cashman-acquired disasters such as Jeff Weaver and Javier Vazquez. In the 1980s, New York swallowed Ed Whitson, another free-agent signing who became so psyched out by the venom directed toward him that he could no longer pitch at Yankee Stadium. And there is, of course, always the ongoing tragicomedy known as Alex Rodriguez, whose reputation serves as a daily reminder that money cannot begin to purchase street cred.
But what makes Carl Pavano's tale unique is the sheer improbability of his failures to perform; in one particularly ignominious moment, the Yankees told reporters that Pavano had actually injured his buttocks while lurching for a ground ball in spring training the man, they said, had a bruised ass. At another point, teammates sniped about Pavano's indifference to his plight, citing his fondness for eating candy bars and getting massages in the Yankees clubhouse while unable to throw a single pitch. And what makes his fall from grace so fascinating, from a psychological perspective, is that it leads to questioning whether Pavano's body actually broke his spirit, or whether, as a legion of Yankees fans will forever be convinced, the spirit broke the body.
"It was one of those things where you're in a bathtub, and you increase the temperature one degree a minute until you're scalding yourself," says Mike Vaccaro, a columnist for the New York Post. "Every couple of days, it was something new and weird and different and strange with him. You can't ever get inside someone's head, and you don't want to accuse them of faking it, but it's hard to believe there isn't something else going on here. At some point, you have to earn your 40 million bucks."
It seems improbable, at this moment, that Pavano will ever do such a thing. In early June, after yet another bizarre and prolonged dispute with Yankees management over whether he actually needed reconstructive Tommy John elbow surgery allowing one last time for the implication, true or not, that Pavano did not want to pitch he finally had the surgery done. By the time he completes his rehabilitation, the 2008 season will most likely have ended, and Pavano's tenure with the Yankees will most likely have been euthanized along with it.
And in four years, Pavano will have won five games, a simple calculation that works out to nearly $8 million per victory.
"Say I live in New York and I've never met him," says Dave Marek, one of Pavano's high school teammates, one of the joyous figures in that photograph on Fontana's television set, and a lifelong Yankees fan. "I'd probably be saying, 'Who is this guy? What a clown.' That's the hardest part of this whole thing."
Understandably, Carl Pavano's Yankees legacy has become a rather awkward subject to address; and not just because Fontana, once Pavano's mentor, still keeps in touch with Pavano's parents, who operate a dry-cleaning business set in a strip mall just a few miles from Fontana's home and who declined to speak to ESPN.com, apparently at the behest of their son. ("Carl's hurting right now," his father, Carmen, said. "Let it go the way it is.") It is awkward because Fontana is as baffled by this absurdist chain of events as Pavano's childhood friends and his ex-girlfriend and the former high school teammates who have witnessed his implosion from afar.
"People are always saying to me, 'What's going on with Carl?'" Marek says.
"Like we're the doctors," says another Southington teammate Bob McKee. "Like we're supposed to know what's going on in his head."
Ask Fontana that question What's going on in Carl's head? and he will tell you of a boy he once coached who was so precise that they not only called pitches but the locations for him. He will repeat once more the story of that high school championship game, and tell how Pavano once drove several hours to visit him when Pavano was playing in the minor leagues and Fontana was having heart problems. And he will insist that Pavano dotes on his sisters and his nephews and nieces and can't wait to start a family of his own, once he finds the right partner, once he is finished with what all involved will admit is a storied ability with regard to women, at least to play the field.
"Maybe a nice country girl," Fontana says. "Sometimes people need someone like that, for stability. But I'm guessing. I'm not telling him what to do. I don't think anybody's gotten to know Carl that well."
I met up with the latest of Carl Pavano's ex-girlfriends ("I think if he were a professional ladies' man, he'd do pretty well," says one of his high school teammates) on a humid afternoon at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan. She was wearing a baseball cap pulled low over her eyes and carrying a Louis Vuitton bag she had "inadvertently" taken home for free because of a cashier's error. She was also more than an hour late, in part because she was rushing from a meeting with a movie producer; when I asked her the name of the movie, she batted her eyelashes and said she had no idea, only that she was likely to be cast as "the seductress." Her name, by the way, is Gia Allemand, and she is most certainly not a country girl, unless a country girl can be defined as a 23-year-old aspiring bikini model from Howard Beach in Queens, who recently posed half-naked for Maxim magazine's Web site I will pause here to allow you to Google the photos and shows up with her new manager, a man by the name of Horacio Blackwood, in tow.
It should be noted, for the record, that Allemand was not particularly interested in discussing her relationship with Carl Pavano. She would rather forget it ever happened, in the same way Yankees fans would rather forget their own tormented relationship with Pavano ever happened. "We had a bad breakup," she says. "I'm trying not to be mean."
But Allemand is also a firm believer in the inalterable cosmic force known as karma; and this, she says, is what happened with Pavano. Karma caught up with him. Karma dragged him down by his gluteus maximus.
In truth, karma might have already collided with Pavano by the time he met Allemand, which, she says, is what they bonded over in the first place. Allemand was in a professional ballet company, until she injured her hamstring and Achilles tendon and couldn't dance anymore. Pavano still aspires to be a pitcher but has always been fragile. Fontana says Pavano's parents told him he'd had arm problems since Little League, something that the Yankees and Cashman, on the basis of one good season, presumed was behind him. And once he joined the Yankees, coincidentally or not, that fragility became renowned. In July 2005, five weeks after he was booed off the mound during a 17-1 loss to the Red Sox, Pavano went on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis. In mid-August, right shoulder tendinitis became rotator cuff tendinitis, and Pavano was finished for the season.
The following February, Pavano complained of back problems. He began the season on the disabled list. He pitched one inning of an exhibition game, then departed to have an MRI performed on his left buttock (in case you are in need of specifics), began the season on the disabled list, then in May complained of soreness in his right triceps, and in June had surgery for a bone chip in his right elbow.
In the meantime, Allemand says she infused Pavano with the power of positive thinking, and with the dime-store spiritual principles she'd picked up in an Oprah-endorsed tome called "The Secret," which breaks down the meaning of life into a facile equation that goes something like this: Think about something positive, and you can attract positivity. (When I asked her why, if this is the case, she didn't return to Louis Vuitton and insist they charge her the proper price for her new purse, she shrugged and laughed and said this was a case of karma repaying her.) But none of this came naturally to Pavano, who is inherently distrustful of all but a few people in this world, who is on his third agent after a legal dispute with his previous representative, Scott Shapiro, that has been publicly attributed to Pavano's contract being worth only $39,950,000 instead of the $40 million Pavano expected (though one of his lawyers insists this is not the cause of the dispute).
"Carl's a really private person," says childhood friend Shawn LaBonte from his home in Florida. "He loves skiing and four-wheeling and fishing and boating. He just wants to be left alone. He doesn't want to be in the spotlight. But then again, it comes with the territory. And he's just not a city guy but then again, he's always wanted to be a Yankee."
Allemand wanted Pavano to give back. She preached and cajoled him about manufacturing positive karma, and she was naive enough to assume she was actually making progress. She was, she says, on the verge of starting a charitable foundation with Pavano. She was in the passenger's seat of the Porsche with him in August 2006 when he hydroplaned and crashed into a truck. ("He's always been a maniac," LaBonte says, "a hundred and twenty miles [an hour], full-speed ahead; I hope that was a wake-up call.") Allemand stood up for him in the tabloids a month later, when the news emerged that Pavano had made three rehab starts while hiding his broken ribs from the Yankees (headline: CRASH TEST DUMMY). To the fans, to the media, to his teammates ("I hope his car didn't get dinged up too bad," Johnny Damon joked), and to a man like Brian Cashman, who had staked his reputation on this signing, it was an inexplicable and unnecessary deception. But this is the nature of Carl Pavano, who was perhaps the last person to comprehend a rather obvious truth: The worst thing in the known universe a man who supposedly values his privacy can do, beyond establishing an exploratory presidential campaign or marrying a thespian Scientologist, is to sign a contract with the New York Yankees.
"Emotionally, I was not a big believer in Carl making the move to the Yankees," Fontana says. "He had other offers, from other teams. What's the difference between making $36 million and $39 million? If you hadn't won a World Series, I'd say go to the Yankees. Or if it was $60 million versus $30 million. But it wasn't."
But how was he supposed to resist such a temptation when this was what his family wanted for him? He was born in 1976, the only son of Carmen and Ann Marie Pavano, and by the time he was 2 years old, his mother was already dressing him in a wool Yankees jacket she had bought at a department store, a jacket she's kept preserved in plastic wrapping in a closet for almost 30 years.
I should acknowledge that I borrowed those details from a story that Tyler Kepner, the Yankees beat reporter for The New York Times, wrote in the spring of 2005 (in it, Pavano also insisted that his family hadn't affected his decision to sign with New York). In February 2007, Kepner wrote in a blog entry of the difficulty he had in convincing Pavano to comment for what was an unimpeachably positive article. "Pavano seemed surly and miserable, for no obvious reason," Kepner wrote, and this is how his teammates began to see him, as well: In spring training before this season, Mike Mussina said that Pavano "needs to show us he wants to pitch for us," leading to a closed-door meeting between the two, and more promises from Pavano that he was doing all he could to earn his money.
By then, almost no one believed him anymore.
A short time later, after his ugly public breakup with Allemand, and after a respectable outing as the team's surprise Opening Day starter (a horrifying prospect for the fans who had already mocked him for more than two years), Pavano's elbow acted up again. This, Gia Allemand might claim, was karma, biting Pavano on the posterior one last time. Still, with respect to the opinion of the woman who was recently named Miss Red Hot Taj Mahal, perhaps there was something else going on, something based in the psyche, in Pavano's inability to pitch with pain, or in his unwillingness to contribute to a franchise that, in his view, seemed to have publicly humiliated him according to one source, Yankees management downplayed the seriousness of his injuries and would later admit Pavano's buttocks injury was actually based in a recurrence of a back problem, and the tendinitis that excused him in 2005 might actually have been a stress fracture.
Or perhaps it was simply a toxic combination of all these things, a simultaneous breakdown of body and spirit.
"I wish I could tell you what he thinks because I don't even know," says LaBonte, who has known Pavano "since we were born."
"I sometimes wonder if Carl could be doing more than he is doing. But then again, it's not my body."
And in the end, it would seem, the man's true motives are irrelevant. Because it is the perception that will linger. And the perception is that Pavano never wanted to be in this situation in the first place, and this attitude manifested itself in his broken physique; hence George King, the beat writer for The New York Post, dubbing him the "American Idle." And Will Carroll, a senior writer for Baseball Prospectus, who writes a regular column about injuries, claimed Pavano could likely have pitched through his pain, instead of having season-ending surgery, and was essentially "stealing money" at this point. ("I was probably more harsh in that assessment than I needed to be," Carroll says now. "Still, you do have to question whether the guy is going to be able to come back all the way.")
This was how his teammates saw him, so this was how the media saw him, and so this was how the fans saw him, as well. Steve Lombardi, of the Yankees blog Was Watching, offered one of the tamer nicknames bestowed upon Pavano in the blogosphere: Lucy Van Pelt. "The Yankees and their fans are Charlie Brown," Lombardi wrote, "and the football is the hope and promise that Pavano will help the team."
On some level, this is absurd: Comparing the Yankees to Charlie Brown is like comparing Warren Buffett to Elmer Fudd. But Pavano, coming as he has on the heels of Weaver, Vazquez and others, and coming in the midst of a fallow period in Yankees history, has done something remarkable: He has induced neurosis into a franchise that always somehow seemed above such things.
"He's become a poster child of sorts," says Dom Amore, who covers the Yankees for Pavano's local paper, The Hartford Courant. "Every time the Yankees sign a pitcher who gets hurt, they're going to say he's another Carl Pavano. He's going to be remembered for things that you don't want to be remembered for."
And so New York City and Carl Pavano are most likely finished. It was a bad breakup, perhaps the worst he has ever endured; depending on how his rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery progresses, it might signal an end to his baseball career. Of course, on some level, a breakup like this could occur only in New York, where nothing ends quietly. When a free-agent bust of this magnitude occurs anywhere else, the reaction is often forgiving does anyone truly care that Wayne Garland blew up in Cleveland or Darren Dreifort self-destructed in Los Angeles?
But somewhere along the way, as the Yankees sank to the bottom of the American League East standings in the early stages of this season, it became personal between the Yankees and Pavano. Despite his protestations of innocence and helplessness, and even as Cashman told reporters that he "never once thought [Pavano] laid down on this club," it was far too late to offer apologies to the most impatient and impractical fan base in the known universe. In their minds, 13 years after Pavano threatened to sit down on the job and embarrass the hell out of someone, he actually did it. To them. And his own pitiful karma seemed to have dragged down the entire franchise, to the bottom of the division, to yet another Yankee summer in the new millennium, marred by discontent and desperation.
"Carl attracts negativity," Gia Allemand said.
On June 5, at a Manhattan hospital, Pavano finally had his elbow surgery. As if cleansing themselves of his aura, the Yankees painted over his space in the players' parking lot and reassigned it to Roger Clemens. That same night, they defeated the Chicago White Sox and commenced their longest winning streak in more than two years.
Michael Weinreb is a freelance writer and the author of "The Kings of New York: A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs and Geniuses Who Make Up America's Top High School Chess Team," published by Gotham Books. He can be reached at http://www.michaelweinreb.com.
Join the "Pavano" conversation.