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Too Much Junkie Business

Photos by Ted Soqui

Of course, these things aren’t gender-specific, but we men, it seems, have a particular skill for seeking out and finding the end of our ropes. They call it hitting rock bottom, but it’s really more like scaling a mountain of broken dreams, broken promises and broken bodies. The vista affords a shockingly clear picture of what often looks like a future of diminishing returns. Arriving at this point — as so many of the wonderful characters in Wrecking Crew have — can hurt. It can even kill. Or, in that moment of clarity up there on top of the wreckage, maybe a man sees something he missed before, or had forgotten, something that once seemed ridiculous, but now makes utter sense. Salvation comes in many forms, and for the band of washed-up punk rockers, cross-dressers and recovering junkies who formed the Griffith Park Pirates, it came in the form of baseball. John Albert’s raw and hilarious memoir of the Pirates’ unlikely triumphs and tragedies, both on and off the field, began in his mind as a paragraph for the Weekly’s Best of L.A. issue back in 2000. “Because it’s your life, you don’t think it’s anything special,” says Albert, “but then you tell someone and they start laughing and you start thinking, ‘Oh, this might be interesting to other people.’ In telling it to someone else, I realized how strange and different it was.” Astute editor Libby Molyneaux recognized its potential, and the then-novice writer was soon assigned his first major feature story. When he started writing what would become the award-winning cover story for October 12, 2000 (“Hardball), Albert had one thought in mind. “To be honest, I didn’t want my friends to hate me or the article,” he says. “I wanted to do these guys justice. The same thing with the book.” In both cases, the teammates whose jagged lives he’d just laid bare called to say, sometimes tearfully, they approved. The moral, I guess, is that no matter how many times you’ve been brushed back, it pays to dust yourself off and take another swing. The following excerpt tells of how strung-out alt-rocker and team founder Mike Coulter hatched his plan and recruited Albert to get back in the game by forming their bad-news baseball team.

—Joe Donnelly

This whole thing really started weeks before, when I walked in and found Mike Coulter sprawled out on my girlfriend’s bed in his underwear. The blinds were drawn and he was only half awake, his heavy-lidded eyes gazing over at the flickering television as two blow-dried stiffs on ESPN droned on and on about the previous night’s baseball games. I had never particularly liked the sport of baseball. It seemed excruciatingly slow and the players always reminded me of cops. Mike, on the other hand, has always loved baseball, and he loved it the most when his life was falling apart. Mike had been swallowing an assortment of tranquilizers to ease withdrawal symptoms, but his brow was beaded with sweat and the pupils of his eyes were dilated into solid black saucers. His short, messy hair was dyed an unnatural tint of red, but the roots were starting to show, and they were gray. Mike had always been — as they say in department stores — husky. But now his 33-year-old frame was starting to waste away from drugs, and the waif look wasn’t exactly working for him. With a shrinking physique, his already large head just appeared that much bigger, like a balloon on a string. Mike had just returned from being on tour with his three-piece alternative-pop band that had recently been signed to a major record deal. He was trying to kick the rather predictable drug habit he’d acquired on the road. Knowing there was little chance he could resist his cravings all alone in his messy East Hollywood apartment, my girlfriend took him in. The fact that they were sleeping in the same bed together didn’t really bother me. The two had been friends for years, and there had never been any romantic chemistry between them. I also knew my girlfriend wasn’t too interested in sex lately, because she would tell me so almost nightly before rolling over and going to sleep. So, while she was off bitterly waiting tables — a job she somehow blamed on me — I babysat Mike, to make sure he didn’t run off with the television or her prized vintage lunch-pail collection. Sitting with friends as they tossed, turned, vomited and sweated out the drugs was something I had done many times before. I was once on the other side of the equation, so I knew firsthand the intricacies of opiate withdrawal, and that knowledge helped when it came time to deliver the requisite tough-love, “you can do it, stop fucking whining, you pathetic weak bastard” motivational speeches. Mike pulled himself upright and announced that he needed a cigarette, so the two of us headed out into the large, weed-strewn back yard and sat at an old wooden picnic table someone had stolen from a local park. My girlfriend recently quit smoking — again — and understandably didn’t want her house to smell like cigarettes. I noticed Mike’s hand trembling as he retrieved a single, bent Marlboro from his pocket, carefully straightened it out and lit it. There was a silence as he smoked, punctuated by the sniffling of his constantly running nose. Eventually, Mike looked over at me, wiped his nose with the back of his hand like a little kid, and asked, “Hey, do you wanna play catch?” The question caught me by surprise. He might as well have suggested we go inside and make love in front of a roaring fire. I knew Mike was a serious baseball fan, but it wasn’t exactly what you expected from a guy with an armful of bloody track marks and a stomach full of black-market pills he’d purchased at some downtown Mexican bakery. We walked out to the alley, where his large passenger van was parked among several knocked-over trash cans. The thing wasn’t even a year old, but the front bumper was already smashed in, a massive scrape ran the length of one side, and the rear window was shattered. A sticker on the back door proclaimed fuck the yankees. The letter u in the word fuck was actually a baseball, so as not to offend anyone. Mike’s record company purchased the van with the band’s advance money, and the three of them had been touring in it nonstop, trying desperately to promote their major-label debut. Mike told me that while passing through Nashville on their way to yet another sparsely attended show, they stopped and bought baseball gloves, thinking they could play a little catch in their free time. Mike climbed into the van and began rifling around in the back. Peering in through a smudged side window, I could see layers of garbage — cigarette butts, coffee cups, CDs, pornography, a half-eaten hamburger, and a device that looked like a woman’s open mouth with a cord that plugged into the van’s cigarette lighter. I also noticed a syringe lying beneath the front passenger seat. I was debating whether to grab it when Mike jumped back into the alley clutching two brand-new leather baseball gloves. “Um, I just thought I would mention that there’s a rig under the seat,” I said, motioning to the syringe. He nodded and started to walk away. “Could you get rid of it for me, please?” he asked. I reached in and carefully withdrew the outfit, which contained a brownish, caked residue — dried blood, heroin, or a mixture of both. I broke the needle off on the ground, stuffed it into an aluminum can, stomped on that, and threw the whole thing into a nearby trash can. There was a time in my life when even seeing a syringe, let alone holding one in my hands, would have caused my stomach to knot up in reflexive anticipation. But after so many years of seeing my friends’ lives completely annihilated and even prematurely ended by drugs, I now just loathed it all. Mike and I started tossing the ball back and forth from a short distance, loosening up our atrophied arms. Mike’s mood seemed to be brightening, even though physically he still looked awful, his skin pallid and moist-looking. “Maybe I’ll sweat all the drugs out doing this,” he said with a weak laugh. I had to admit, the simple act of playing catch felt good. But my mechanics were terrible, and I was throwing the ball like a European. Mike didn’t seem to notice, and he backed up a few feet. He could actually throw fairly well for someone in such a state, and after a few more tosses, he motioned for me to crouch down so he could try to pitch. I squatted down and, after a rather exaggerated Vida Blue–like wind-up, Mike hurled the ball straight over my head into a trash can. I retrieved the ball and tossed it back to him, and he went through the same wind-up again, this time hurling an impressive fastball straight into my mitt. “Nice!” I exclaimed, and tossed the ball back. He fired another pitch, and this time, the ball veered wide, but I was able to reach out and grab it before it bounced off down the alley. I stood and threw the ball back to him. As I released it, Mike turned his head away and began to choke up some fluorescent green bile. He must have sensed the ball heading toward him, because he reached back and waved his glove limply behind him, as if trying to shoo a wasp away from a picnic. The ball hit him square in the back with a loud thud, and he stumbled forward, coughing and sputtering. As we gathered ourselves and started back inside, Mike grinned sheepishly, wiping spit and vomit from his mouth. “Well, that was kind of fun, wasn’t it?” Two weeks later, the drugs were pretty much out of Mike’s system. With a re-ignited appetite, he had started to cook again, and this particular afternoon, he was making a big simmering pot of his infamous, heartburn-inducing Maryland chili. The rooming-house-style apartment where he lived in East Hollywood had no air conditioning, so he was standing naked in his small kitchen, chopping a mountain of onions and crying. A Baltimore Orioles insignia was tattooed on the pasty flesh of his right shoulder. He had it inked in a fit of outrage back in 1996, when his beloved Orioles were playing the Yankees in the playoffs, and a pudgy 12-year-old Yankees fan named Jeffrey Maier reached his hand over the right-field railing and snatched a Derek Jeter fly ball out of Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco’s glove. The umpires ruled it incorrectly as a home run, and the Yankees went on to win the crucial first game of the series. After screaming at his television, Mike set out into the night and ended up on a seedy stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, among the teen runaways and drunk Marines. He paid some leathery old biker to ink the Orioles emblem on him in the hope that it would somehow inspire them to beat the hated Yankees. Of course, it had absolutely no effect, and the Yankees went on to beat the Orioles and eventually win the World Series. In the time since Mike and I had tossed the ball around in the alley, the three-year relationship with my girlfriend finally ended, and I was experiencing an unpleasant dose of near-suicidal depression and paralyzing fear. Sitting in my cramped apartment, I was perusing the back-page ads of a local independent newspaper and fantasizing about the various scantily clad masseuses and all that they could do for me, when the phone rang. It was Mike, who was standing nude in his kitchen. He simply uttered, “Batting cages.” The Glendale batting cages were a somewhat shabby, no-frills facility located on a busy street lined with Armenian wedding shops and hair salons. By the time I arrived in my barely running minivan, I was fortified with an entire liter of caffeinated soda. Mike was already inside the place, sitting on a wood bench, drinking an enormous iced espresso, and watching a pack of prepubescent Little Leaguers effortlessly knock line drives into the netting. I hadn’t tried to hit a baseball since the mid-’70s, when I played Little League for a grand total of two seasons. When my friends and I were growing up in Southern California, our heroes tended to be young skateboard rebels like Tony Alva rather than ultrasquare pro ballplayers like Steve Garvey. In those days, I was a longhaired, perpetually stoned 11-year-old who had already been hauled out of elementary school twice by the local police, the first time for possessing some rather large firecrackers called M200s and several switchblade knives, the second time for planting marijuana plants in the kindergartners’ vegetable garden. When I look back on those two seasons of Little League, they seem like the relative calm before the storm, a lingering moment of true childhood before I was swept up in a wave of teenage nihilism, petty crime and punk music. Mike went over and paid the attendant for 15 minutes in what was supposedly one of the slower batting cages. Since this had been his idea, I suggested that he could go first. He set his espresso down, snubbed out his cigarette, and sauntered into the small cage, wearing baggy shorts and a black Urge Overkill T-shirt. He swung the bat around a few times to loosen up, then planted his feet slightly apart and dramatically raised his hand to signal that he was now ready to the unimpressed teenage Armenian operator. The steel gears of the pitching machine began to turn, pulling a chain that caused a clawlike arm to rear back and hurl a dimpled, bright-yellow ball toward Mike at about 70 miles an hour. He lurched forward and swung the bat but made no contact whatsoever. The next pitch was already on its way, and he got the bat back just in time for it to fly past his chin. That sequence repeated itself over and over for several minutes, until he finally managed to foul a ball off into the backstop behind him. Satisfied, Mike stepped out and handed me the bat and helmet. “Your turn, chief.” I felt confident that I could do somewhat better, but after being in there for what seemed like an eternity and flailing hard at each pitch, I had yet to make contact. Mike sat on the other side of the fence and offered a multitude of helpful tips such as, “Come on, keep your eye on the ball,” “Oh, Jesus, you’re way ahead of it” and “Don’t step away, you fucking pussy!” All were valid points, but none seemed to help, and the frustration and anger slowly began to build. I hadn’t expected it to be quite so difficult. When I heard a kid off in the distance laugh at something, I was convinced that the Little Leaguers were openly mocking me. Mercifully, the pitching machine ground to a halt; I was left standing there, sweaty and entirely humiliated. I stepped out of the cage and collapsed onto the bench next to Mike. When I looked down, I saw that my fingers were raw and bloody. They looked the same way years before, when I played drums in the well-known punk rock band Bad Religion. Back then, the pain seemed well-earned, a bloody testament to the youthful fury I had used to propel the loud minimalist beats. Now I just felt stupid for not having worn batting gloves. Mike was looking over and studying the Little Leaguers again, lost in what appeared to be some serious thought. “You know what?” he asked. “We should start a fucking baseball team.” I nodded, more out of politeness than anything. It sounded about as likely as the two of us becoming international supermodels or, for that matter, homeowners or family men. “Yeah, sure,” I said, and we took off. Excerpted from John Albert’s Wrecking Crew, Scribner, in stores now.

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