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The Invisible Villain

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A sad story with no ending.

a baseball player
a baseball player
1984 Barry Colla postcard

July 22, 1988, 10:30 PM: The roars of the Kingdome echoed off the concrete and the empty seats, abandoned amidst a twelfth straight meaningless season. The M’s needed a win, in the sense that they always did. It was the bottom of the tenth. Tom Henke, the Blue Jays’ closer, squinted heavily from behind his window-pane glasses, three innings of work already squeezed out of his arm. Mickey Brantley led off third, one out.

John Rabb stood the plate. No one knew who he was.

Rabb had joined the team two weeks before, started a single game, pinch hit in a few others. He was a lesser Gary Gray type, a Triple-A lifer, a sign that another roster had gone wrong; he hadn’t played in the majors in three years. It was already his best game in four, with an RBI single in the eighth. The Henkes of the world generally make quick work of the Rabbs, but not that night: he hit a 2-1 pitch into the gap in deep right, the kind where the outfielder gives up chasing it halfway. Brantley jogged home, the Mariners won, and for one brief moment, John Rabb was a hero.

A week later he was out of baseball.

...

The list of drug suspensions in baseball is a long one, especially in the eighties, as cocaine swirled through the league. It reads like a wikipedia article cast back in time. "Lonnie Smith suspended one year, commuted to sixty days after arbitration. Keith Hernandez’s suspension lifted by promise to pay 10% of his salary to drug awareness programs." And on. John Rabb was suspended indefinitely, his ban the only one never lifted. More than likely, they just forgot.

Rabb reported to spring training that season with the Mariners, a non-roster invitee with little hope of earning attention. But the catcher/outfielder/DH did just that, by declaring an addiction to cocaine and seeking rehab. The Mariners supplied it, and afterward they sent him to Triple-A Calgary, where they took urine samples each week. He spoke with his teammates and the community about the lure of addiction, supporting a daughter born with serious birth defects. He also hit .304 with 13 home runs, and by mid-summer he got called back up to the big leagues. It was the perfect story.

A week after that walkoff, he flew to California for the birth of his second daughter. While he was there, somehow, the drugs regained their hold. He failed a test, and within a day commissioner Peter Ueberroth and the Mariners both cut ties with him, threw him away. His major league career was over. Trying to earn a living, he played in Mexico for a while, likely away from his children, then an independent league near home. The story ends with his final stat line, fourteen at bats in Salinas, just up from Cannery Row. Then, nothing.

...

Today we still struggle with the concept of drug use as illness. In the eighties, the height of Nancy Reagan’s powers, there was no such conflict: it was an act of sheer criminality, something to condemn and forget. The sweeping suspensions and bans made baseball appear firm, resolute against moral decay: America's game, and America's moral center. Yet despite the climate, men like Steve Howe received chance after chance, assuming their talent provided value to a prospective team. Athletes operated in another realm, as they always do. Rabb lived on the very edge of this pedestal, the edge between being a baseball player and being a person, until he fell off.

We don’t know what happened to John Rabb. We don’t know whether he fell before his daughter was born, whether the fear of another problematic birth was too much, or the weight of too much time away. We don’t know how many times he won the battle before the one time he lost, or how it tore at him each time he forced himself away. We don’t know how he faced his family when word came that he had lost his job and could never have it again. We don’t know whether he won that battle against temptation the rest of his life, time after time after time after time. We don’t know if he, or his children, turned out okay.

John Rabb stopped being a baseball player, stopped being a hero, and so we stopped wondering.