Commentary

'Shooter' Beck lived as hard as he played

Originally Published: October 12, 2007
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

Christmas parties always brought out the best in Rod Beck. They epitomized him, really. There were games, karaoke, plenty of booze and a mix of people who came because they loved the guy everyone called "Shooter." Here he was, an All-Star closer making millions of dollars. And when they asked what to bring, his guests were told to bring a toy. Beck and his wife, Stacey, wanted to make sure Toys for Tots had plenty of gifts for the children.

It sounded like a Hallmark card, but it was true. Beck was nothing if not genuine. He was a normal guy who usually called everyone "dude," who instead of asking a clubhouse attendant to pick up his used, dirty towels, would ask him to go share a smoke.

"His image was not something he was," says Tim Wakefield, Beck's teammate from 1999-2001 in Boston. "He had a huge heart, and was so humble. He was so full of life."

Rodney Roy Beck, a name that even sounds like a cocktail, was usually with a Coors Light and a KOOL cigarette, and "he wasn't no pop hitter," said Dusty Baker. "That's what they'd call you back in the day, pop hitter."

OUTSIDE THE LINES
Amy Nelson's feature on Rod Beck is scheduled to appear on "Outside the Lines" this Sunday at 9:30 a.m. ET on ESPN.

Baker knows. He 'd never had a sip of alcohol before arriving in the minor leagues in 1967, when his first manager saw him drinking soda and told him he wasn't carrying no pop hitters on his roster. Beer or water only, Dusty quickly learned.

"Back in the old days he would've really been accepted," Baker says, "because [beer drinking] was the norm."

When he arrived in San Francisco as a rookie in 1991, with Baker as the hitting coach, Beck needed no introduction to the old school. He was it.

*****

Something was wrong, different this time. Whether the hallucinations were returning again, another seizure was on the horizon or the thumping of his heart was causing alarm, only Rod Beck knew. But when he dialed his personal assistant, Tina Buchanan, at 11:57 a.m. on June 23, he told her he wasn't feeling well. He knew he was in trouble.

When Buchanan walked into his bedroom 15 minutes later, she found him not breathing. And 37 minutes after that, he was pronounced dead.

House Baseball Plate Card
Courtesy of Phoenix Police DepartmentA photo taken from Rod Beck's house on the day he died shows a baseball plate with a rolled-up dollar bill, a Beck baseball card and cocaine residue.

Police arrived to a den of cocaine and crack, with pipes in about every feasible place Beck could stash his daily tools of addiction.

This was the life of an addict, not a professional baseball player who finished with 286 career saves and a 3.30 ERA. The addict was once a legendary reliever who made a career out of intimidation; with his shoulder-length, wavy mullet, a long, straggly mustache and a dangling arm that ticked like a pendulum, putting batters on notice that his next pitch was near.

The baseball player was long gone on that June day, but there were a few remnants of his prolific career, and reminders of who he once was. Among those was a white ceramic plate in the form of a baseball. Atop it lay a rolled-up dollar bill, Beck's 1993 San Francisco Giants baseball card, and a dusting of cocaine over the plate.

*****

Stacey came from New York City, or so she would tell anyone who asked, until Rodney -- that's what everyone who knew him called him -- kept reminding her that she really hailed from Van Nuys, Calif., just like him, even though she left New York at age 9.

They met when they were both 15 and sophomores at Ulysses S. Grant High School. They first became friends, but right away Stacey was drawn to Rodney's soft, endearing side. He also seemed more mature than most, able to enjoy sappy movies with her. And he always seemed to care about people.

"He had dreams and aspirations and a sense of where he was going," she says. "And you know, that's attractive."

Drafted out of high school by the A's, Beck married Stacey by age 20 and was toiling in the minors. At one point, Stacey asked him if he wanted to go get a real job.

"I love you," Rod told her, "but all 28 teams are going to have to tell me that I'm not good enough before I quit doing this, so you can come with me or not."

Rod Beck
Courtesy Stacey BeckRod Beck, far right, was drafted by the Oakland A's in the 13th round of the 1986 draft.

Stacey became a baseball wife for life.

And it was a good life for a long time. Beck, later traded to the Giants, was called up in 1991, and he quickly endeared himself to teammate and fans.

"He had that Fu Manchu, that menacing glare, the stare, the dangling right arm," says Barney Nugent, the Giants' former assistant athletic trainer, who first met Beck in 1991. "That mullet blowing in the Candlestick breeze all the time. ... It was, 'Me against you, and I'll tell you, I'm going to win. There's no way that I'm gonna lose.' That was Shooter, and everybody could respond to it."

Beck soon was entrenched as the team's closer, and went on to make millions of dollars during his seven seasons in the Bay Area. One night Rod came home and told Stacey that Giants owner Peter Magowan had asked everyone on the team to pick a charity to support.

The couple scanned the list, and Beck's eye spotted an empty "other" box. Beside it, he wrote "AIDS." A few weeks before, he and Stacey had watched the Ryan White story on TV. Rod, always one for the sappy story, turned to his wife and told her no child should feel ashamed because he or she is sick.

In the misogynistic, homophobic world that is a major league clubhouse, it was taboo back in 1993 to publicly endorse a cause largely associated with gay men. Rod didn't care.

The lack of fear that permeated his game also translated to his life.

*****

Whenever cocaine entered Beck's life, it didn't take hold right away.

But by the end of 2003, Stacey spotted the signs: staying up late, sleeping in, complaining of a constant cold, and becoming more distant emotionally. A friend told her it was coke, and that's when Stacey confronted her husband of 15 years. He admitted to using and said he wouldn't do it anymore. He had it under control, he claimed. It would never happen again.

"I just couldn't believe it," she says, "so I did what many other people do -- you beg and plead and ask them to stop."

For Stacey, it was exhausting being a watchdog, wondering what he was doing every time he was in an adjacent room for too long, or when his trip to the grocery story took an extra 30 minutes.

Addiction was slowly taking away the father of their two daughters and the man who was her soulmate. By Christmas 2003, Stacey realized his addiction was now "bigger than we are, and something needs to be done."

*****

Years earlier, as a young minor leaguer with the Giants, Scott Linebrink met Beck for the first time when he walked into the spring training clubhouse and found Beck puffing away. Now it was 2003, and they teammates with the Padres, after Linebrink was claimed off waivers from the Astros. He was new and so was Beck, whom general manager Kevin Towers had picked up from Triple-A Iowa when closer Trevor Hoffman went down with an injury.

Beck's fastball had been topping out in the mid-80s in Des Moines, but he had already made national news earlier that spring when reporter Wayne Drehs wrote a story on ESPN.com chronicling Beck's unique living arrangements.

Beck was 34 and a year removed from Tommy John surgery when he drove from Phoenix to Des Moines by himself and parked his RV camper next to his workplace, behind the right-field fence. And when the light was on, that meant anyone could stop by for a beer. When the light was off, the Iowa closer was sleeping in preparation for the next day's game.

Rod Beck Family
Courtesy Stacey BeckRod Beck poses for a family photo with his wife, Stacey, and their daughters, Kayla and Kelsey.

"It's just like an old-time ballplayer story, you know?" Stacey says.

Beck saved 20 straight games for San Diego on little else than his experience and will. Being the new guys, Linebrink and Beck became catch partners.

"A familiar picture that I'd see of him [in my mind] was him riding the bike with a sweat towel over his neck, smokin' a cigarette, doin' a crossword puzzle, riding about five-miles-an-hour," Linebrink says, then laughs. "He said he was always playing for the tie."

The tenacity and energy he brought to the closer role are what Hoffman admired from afar before they became teammates. Baseball's all-time saves leader thought Beck was bigger than life.

"His bark is much worse than his bite," Hoffman says. "I think the minute you get the opportunity to have him let you in, you're in for life."

Hoffman's words ring more true than he could ever imagine.

Beck kept two framed jerseys in his living room. One was a Beck Cubs jersey. The other was Hoffman's.

On the back of Hoffman's jersey was an inscription to his friend:

    Shooter, We all know we're lucky to be able to play this game. But it's the game that's lucky to have players like you who play it hard and play it right.

    All the best, Hoffy

*****

By the beginning of 2004, Stacey was living in chaos and knew Beck needed help. She called over a half-dozen family and friends asking them to attend an intervention for Rod.

Beck was neither angry nor abusive -- he never was. But on that day Beck was agitated, and he insisted nothing was wrong. He had everything under control. The logical part of his brain had turned off; that's what usually happens with addicts -- they're unable to relate.

"It was awful," says Nugent, who became close friends with Rod and Stacey and who spoke at the intervention. "He was pacing, and it was a different Rod Beck than I had known. It was very emotional."

After several hours Beck finally relented.

He had spent two weeks in rehab when Stacey and the girls went to visit Rod during a family weekend. It was there, at the treatment center, where Stacey enrolled the girls in a children's program about addiction.

During the visit Beck told Stacey he was convinced he had the addition licked. He was ready to leave, especially since spring training was a week away and he didn't want anyone in baseball to know. Stacey wanted him to stay. Against medical advice, Rod came home.

A few days later, he relapsed.

Rod Beck
AP PhotoRod Beck enjoyed a comeback season with the Padres in 2003, saving 20 consecutive games.

Stacey gave him an ultimatum.

"You can't live in this house if you're going to stay in the solution," she told him. "If you're going to stay in the problem, then you can't live at home."

He left, but a few days later he called and said he wanted to come home. She insisted he call baseball officials and tell them he had an addiction and needed treatment. The Padres were in full support, and Beck packed his bags for a 30-day rehabilitation program, his absence explained as a personal matter.

This time, he completed the program and then spent six weeks in an outpatient program. He lived at home in Phoenix with Stacey and the girls, away from the game. Their family was back together again. But soon Beck felt it was time to return to baseball.

When he returned, he told his teammates in a meeting that he was an addict and he hoped for their support. Some time after his return, Linebrink and Hoffman noticed Beck on the back of the team plane drinking beers.

"He's a grown man, and we're big enough to make decisions on our own," Linebrink says. "There was that not wanting to step on his toes and embarrass him in front of the team."

With a 6.38 ERA, the Padres released Beck in August.

By the beginning of the fall, Linebrink and Hoffman heard that Stacey had kicked Rod out of the house, and that he was living in his famous RV by himself at Lake Pleasant campground, about 30 miles from Phoenix. Both men knew Beck was in trouble, especially without Stacey.

So they took the unique and amazing step of traveling to Arizona. With hope, they flew to Phoenix on a Saturday in October 2004, Linebrink from his offseason home in Texas, and Hoffman from San Diego, and Stacey directed them to the quiet campground.

Hoffman and Linebrink were nervous, and not knowing whether he would be high or armed or both. They approached and knocked on the RV.

Beck opened the door, startled to see his two former teammates. He invited them inside, where the conversation over the next few hours was not about baseball but about trying to save his life.

"We just told him we loved him," Linebrink says. "We miss our friend. We know there's some things going on that are not healthy for him."

Adds Hoffman: "I don't really think it was Rodney we were really talking to. I think it was someone that had been taken over."

*****

Both Kayla and Kelsey share characteristics of their famous father. Kayla is intuitive and soft-spoken. She and her dad could spend an afternoon shopping; it was one of their favorite things to do together. She also loved riding ATVs with her dad, and unlike Kelsey, she felt at home when she was in a major league ballpark watching a game.

"He was just like a little kid," says Kayla, now 14.

Kelsey, 13, never liked watching the games but is now the only girl on her Little League team. She's the right fielder, and when frozen in time by photograph, her throwing motion is eerily reminiscent of her father's.

"He never missed a single baseball game of mine," says Kelsey.

After their dad moved out, his house just a few miles away, the girls had learned his addiction was a disease, one requiring treatment and empathy, not exile and shame.

It stole a son, it stole a father -- the girls, they don't have their dad. It stole my best friend.

--Stacey Beck

But at the beginning of June, the disease was taking its toll. Beck had developed a staph infection in his right leg and began having hallucinations, his assistant said, likely associated with his daily use of cocaine. He had suffered seizures but was trying to keep it together, even attending one of Kelsey's baseball games in early June.

Around that time, Stacey could sense he was in trouble. She decided to have another intervention, this one smaller but with Rod's children. The night before the second and final intervention, Kelsey wrote and rewrote the words she would speak to her father the next day, asking him to help himself.

"I just really want you back," Kelsey said to her dad.

She hoped it would work.

"I think it registered somewhere inside him," Kelsey says. "Just not a powerful enough level to where he would take it into action."

Dusty Baker hates funerals, and he never wanted to go to the one of someone he considered a nephew. Sitting in a Scottsdale, Ariz., mortuary during Beck's memorial service in late June, Baker wasn't sure whether he was sad, mad or both after he saw Kelsey try to tell her father how she much loved him. She couldn't make it through the eulogy.

"I know how much he loved those girls," Baker says. "He loved them girls. Them girls loved him."

*****

Whatever perceptions one has of drugs, addicts, and addiction, the Becks want people to know it's a disease. They hope that its victims can be viewed with respect, not scorn. They want people to know that there's help; there are children's programs, counselors, research and education available to help people overcome it.

"The reason we're telling this story is so that other people will seek out the information," Stacey says, "seek out the people who can help them. My daughter asked me to tell this story so that daddy doesn't die in vain without helping someone else."

Rod lost his battle with the disease, and that took away a person they all tried to save, someone who was worth fighting for.

"It stole a son, it stole a father -- the girls, they don't have their dad," Stacey says, crying. "It stole my best friend."

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.