Commentary

Kenny Powers is back

An exclusive interview with the fireballer

Updated: September 24, 2010, 5:18 PM ET
By Tim Struby | ESPN The Magazine

HBO/Fred NorrisKenny Powers is still adjusting to his new surroundings.

It wasn't like I was looking for him.

Last month I got a call from Ray Midge, an old college buddy driving around Mexico looking for his third wife, who'd run off with a Chili's barback. Ray had stopped for a cold one at a dingy cantina in the town of Copales, and chose a stool next to a gringo who was knocking back a stack of Tecates. Within moments, Ray realized with excitement the guy wasn't just any gringo. He was Kenny F------ Powers.

The name brought me back. I'd bought into Powersmania along with everyone else when the future World Series hero saved 49 games and struck out 106 in 66.1 innings as a Braves rookie. But I got off the bandwagon just as quickly when Powers' ego, ERA and waistline suddenly inflated in unison. The last real memory I had of him was of his infamous F------ 15, the night he blew a 15-run ninth inning lead for the Red Sox. ("Even before he threw up on the mound, you could tell he was drunk," Bill Simmons, who was at the game, later told me. "When he got the balk for wobbling off the rubber, that confirmed it.") By then, it had become tough to keep track of all the uniforms the flamethrower had worn during his career. Last I'd heard, he was out of baseball, teaching phys ed in some small North Carolina town. But mostly I heard nothing.

Still, when one of the game's all-time great heels reappears on your radar, you have to be a little intrigued. And if Orbitz tells you a ticket to Mexico was cheap, well, what choice do you have? Forty-eight hours later, I was navigating my rental Nissan through the dusty streets of Copales. A group of window washers pointed me towards the three area bars known to the locals as La Entrepierna del Fuego -- The Herpes Triangle. Inside, amid the dim light and smell of rotting cabbage, I spied a lone figure at the bar: denim shorts, purple tank top, sunglasses nestled snugly atop a prodigious mullet. The man himself.

Not until I paid his sizeable outstanding bar tab was he even willing to hear my pitch. I told him I wanted the world to hear Kenny Powers in his own words. I told him sports had never seen a character so outspoken and polarizing. I told him his unparalleled career needed this one last piece to cap it.

He told me to f--- off. His career, he said, wasn't ready to be capped.

A shot and a beer later, though, he was agreeing to give me a few minutes. I wasted no time.

"Why come to Mexico?" I asked.

"To share my talents and experience with Mexicans," he began. "It's not like enough of them don't come to our country. As long as we're not gonna build a giant-ass wall along the border, why the hell shouldn't I encroach on their turf too?"

"This is a long way from the bigs," I said. "Ever feel like a modern-day Icarus?"

"Is that the dude from Clash of the Titans?"

"No, he's the boy with the wax wings who flew too close to the sun. His wings melted and he fell into the sea. It's a parable about arrogance and rising too far, too fast."

"I'm so impressed," he said, gesturing to the bartender to put another shot on my tab. "I bet you went to a fancy college, didn't you? Professors with elbow patches and theatre people nobody makes fun of. Did Icarus ever make eight figures a year and bone swimsuit models? Didn't think so. A better comparison would be Superman Returns. I never fell to earth, I flew to space. And when I came back home, people thought I was some alien."

"How have the locals taken to Kenny Powers?"

"In all the usual ways. Hero worship, idolatry. Such is the nature of celebrity, the trappings of fame and whatnot. A superstar like Kenny Powers can't really hide anywhere in the world. I could go to the most remote corners of Africa and some pygmy would be trying to get me to autograph the bone in his nose. But the Mexicans have been all right to me. I just wish every damn thing down here wasn't written in Spanish."

Powers downed another mescal, shotgunned a can of beer and stood up. Eyes narrowed, he put his hand on my shoulder and leaned in close. My instincts told me this was a big moment; Kenny Powers was about to reveal a deep secret, share some great truth.

He puked on my leg.

Ten minutes later, I was following Powers through a maze of alleyways. It was midday -- about 110 degrees in the shade -- and besides several stray dogs, the streets were deserted. As we walked, the conversation drifted to his formative years.

"My childhood was spent mostly perfecting my pitching form," he said. "I finished that chapter of my life around age 11, then got pretty heavy into skeet shooting, weed, jet skis, the band Mr. Big and trashing graphic calculators." When I asked about his family he demurred, referring to it only as background noise during his ascent to the top.

"What about your old teammates?" I tried. "Still talk to any of them?"

"Honestly, I don't even remember the names of most of those clowns. I'm sure I could look 'em up in Who Gives a F--- magazine, but I let my subscription run out."

"Is there anyone in baseball you respect?"

"The current crop? I don't give a s--- about any of those dudes. Are they making calls, sending emails, talking to their connects to get my ass back in the game? No. So why should I care about them, or about how they're not doing anything remotely as impressive as what I can do? Last game I saw was the last one I played in. I don't spectate. I participate."

HBO/Fred NorrisKenny Powers had a long day at the bar.

"You didn't really do yourself any favors, reacting the way you did when Seattle released you."

Powers stopped and glared at me. "Seattle didn't release me," he began, then turned to relieve himself in a doorway. "I released myself. Hated every minute in that place."

He zipped up, but we remained standing by the door.

"Did you learn anything during your career?" I asked.

"Sure," he responded. "I discovered in life there are those with talent and those without, and those without are constantly trying to screw those of us with. I believe it says something similar in the Bible."

Powers stepped over his puddle and walked through the doorway and into an unmarked bodega. "Jefe!" shouted three locals playing dice. Powers nodded, grabbed two beers from a tub of ice water and pointed towards the rear of the store. "Abra," said one of the dice players. "Abra!" We walked past the bodega's half-empty shelves and into a small back room. Mounds of cat hair covered two folding tables and a La-Z-Boy. "A pet grooming business," noted Powers as we strolled through another door. In the second back room sat a rusty, ancient tanning bed the size of a Volkswagen. Powers plugged in a cord. Bluish lights in the bed flickered on and began humming ominously. As I backed away, Powers stripped to his maroon bikini briefs, opened a beer and laid down.

I mentioned the inflammatory comments he'd made back in the day.

"Should I have not said some of the stuff I did?" he said. "Maybe. Should Jesus have not trusted Judas? Maybe. But then we wouldn't have Judas Priest, would we? Same deal with me."

I tried a different tack. "Is there anything you would have done differently to stay in the bigs?"

"I think about that a lot, actually," he responded over the electric whir. "The one thing I keep coming back to is I would've tried harder to get my coaches fired. They all sucked."

"And do you have any regrets?"

"I mainly regret that Major League Baseball has its priorities out of whack. They're more interested in ballplayers being role models than they are in ballplayers having tremendous ability. They've lost sight of what it's all about, which is level of play. Fans want to see great baseball, period. They don't care who's juicing or who says dirty words. The suits running the show only want to sell T-shirts and sports drinks. They don't give a damn about magnificence on the field."

"What's your favorite baseball memory?"

"It hasn't happened yet," he belched. "I did get that World Series ring. Of course, I pawned it." The lights of the tanning bed sputtered, then went dark. A trail of profanity followed Powers as he jumped out of the machine and stormed into the bodega. "Pito, damn it!" he yelled. "How many times I got to tell you not to use the microwave while I'm in a session? Go fix the damn fuse." In a minute, Powers was back, fresh beer in hand. We waited in silence, the rhythm of our dialogue broken. After a few minutes the tanning bed reanimated and Powers slid back into his ultraviolet cocoon.

In an attempt to restart the conversation, I casually inquired about whether he followed other sports. "Cockfighting interests me for sentimental reasons. And I had an assistant who sometimes ordered certain pornographic sporting events on the Internet for me. Mostly girls wrestling other girls and whatnot. Aside from that, no."

"Ever play anything else?" I continued.

"Did I ever Bo Jackson it? No. Other than golf, every sport has too much running or touching dudes to interest me. Golf even makes your ass walk unless you can prove to them you're crippled, despite having golf carts for that very purpose. As I mentioned earlier, I do ride jet skis at a level most already consider to be equal to, if not better than, that of a professional, but I've tried to keep my jet skiing pure. The day riding a jet ski feels like work is the day I check out. I already have one job as an athlete, I don't need to win the X Games to feel like a man."

"Since you've been in Mexico, have you checked out any soccer? It's the world's most popular game."

"Sure, but where is it popular? Latin America? Europe? Backward places, basically. When I think of soccer, I think of an activity for a small frail child, not a grown-ass man. Is there anything lamer than shinguards?"

"Okay, then what about MMA?"

"I like seeing two dudes beat the hell out of each other as much as the next guy, but I'm sick of those Tapout and Affliction shirts I see fat kids wearing. It's always fat kids. My nephew Wayne loves that stuff."

Spotting an opening, I began to ask a question about Wayne and the rest of his extended family, but Powers shushed me. He said he needed time to focus on his tan.

When he emerged an hour later, dark as a Thanksgiving turkey, Powers dressed and exited the bodega without a word. As he squinted in the incendiary heat, a pack of children rushed up and hugged him. "El Jefe! El jefe!" they shouted.

"See?" he said, lifting his arms to avoid any contact with the kids. "Kenny Powers doesn't make s--- up. Ever."

I knew my time was running short. I had to bring out the big guns. "Does Kenny Powers still have what it takes to make it?" I asked.

"No, I'm gonna devote my life to public service," he said, before walking away. "Sorry dude, but a stupid question deserves a stupid answer. Of course I do. I already made it. It's hilarious that for some reason people expect me to make it twice when everybody else only has to do it once, if at all."

"Where do you see yourself in a year?" I asked, skipping to keep up with his pace.

"I see myself back where I belong: on the cover of this magazine, instead of buried behind an article on some NFL asshats."

Powers whistled at a passing taxi. As it stopped curbside, he pushed aside his fans, opened the door and slumped inside.

"So what can we expect?" I blurted, through the open window. "Is Kenny Powers going to rise like the phoenix?"

"You can't rise if you never fell. And screw Phoenix. I could outpitch their entire bullpen right now, only I don't feel like getting heatstroke in Mexico Lite. Have fun rebuilding, jerks."

Then he slammed the door and sped off into the heart of Copales.

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