ROLLING HILLS ESTATES, Calif. – With his tee shot again safely in the fairway at serene Rolling Hills Country Club, baseball great Maury Wills thought back to another long drive. Except this one was not on the golf course and it was not serene. This drive, in May of 1981, changed his life. Wrecked it, was more like it.
It started in Seattle where Wills had been managing the Mariners – until he was fired 24 games into the season. He got in the car and headed to his home in L.A., and didn’t come out for months. He had alcohol and cocaine. They were his friends, he believed. They became his worst enemies.
“You look for anything where you can get your self-worth back,” said Wills, his approach landing just short of the green. “I was used to 58,000 people cheering ‘go, go, go’ at Dodger Stadium.”
Wills knocks his wedge to within a few feet and makes the putt for par. He is in control of his game – and his life. At 78, Wills is fit and alert. He says he hasn’t had a drink or taken drugs since 1989.
Even a right knee replacement (“This is the knee I slid on; it took quite a beating”) and the removal of his prostate in recent months haven’t slowed him down much. He strikes one solid tee shot after another, and although he has a little trouble on the greens late in the round, Wills comes through in the key moments. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Back in the 1960s, Wills played shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers and made the stolen base relevant again, leading the league six years in a row. In 1962, he stole 104 – the first player to reach the magical 100 mark – and was chosen National League MVP. (The most bases Ty Cobb stole in one season was 96 in 1915; Rickey Henderson holds the record now with 130 in 1982.)
In Wills’ view, however, the stolen base is no longer valued. “Today’s players are better athletes,” he said. “They are bigger and stronger and faster, but they don’t necessarily play the game better. It’s all about power. You can hit .220 and still get a big raise. You hit .220 when I was playing and you may not have a job the next year.”
Wills believes so strongly in the game being played the right way that he committed what many Dodger fans would consider an act of treason. He rooted for the San Francisco Giants in last year’s World Series. “The Giants played baseball the way I like it,” he said. “They moved runners over. They didn’t try to do anything they weren’t capable of doing.”
Wills, his game suddenly on fire (from holes 6 through 13 he goes three over par) recalls another difficult day – Nov. 2, 1972, when owner Peter O’Malley told him the Dodgers were no longer interested in his services. He knew the day was coming. Most ballplayers do. Yet it hurt. It hurt a lot.
But then, about a week later, he received a call from ABC to ask if he could be a guest on the popular ABC hunting and fishing show, “American Sportsman.” Wills agreed, and soon went on a duck shoot. He was familiar with the sport from his years living in Spokane, Wash., both as a minor league player and during offseasons after he joined the Dodgers. His appearance turned out so well that the host, baseball announcer Curt Gowdy, wanted to know if he might be interested in replacing Sandy Koufax on the backup crew of NBC’s “Game of the Week.” He landed the gig, and worked Saturdays for the next seven years.
He also took up golf. Wills never received any formal instruction, which explains why he swings the club as if a baseball were coming from Juan Marichal. No matter. Although he didn’t keep an official index, he estimates his handicap dipped to as low as 10. He regularly stripes it around 240, is consistent with his irons, and makes his share of putts.
“I’ve shot under par a bunch of times,” said Wills, who plays twice a week.
Yet something was missing in his life. He missed being on the field, and the only way to get back was as a manager. So when the offer came from Dan O’Brien, the owner of the Mariners, to take over the team with 58 games left in the 1980 season, Wills jumped at it. “It was a dream of mine,” he said.
Looking back, Wills recognizes what he did wrong, and it was plenty. He didn’t know how to win over the media and he didn’t know how to deal with his players. His one chance was soon gone.
“I was ready to be a manager, but not at that particular time,” Wills said. “Tommy Lasorda even tells me, at least twice a year, ‘I thought you’d be a great manager.’ I say, ‘You’re right, Tommy.’ ”
The Dodgers, Wills said, stuck with him through his substance abuse problems, even sending former players Don Newcombe and Lou Johnson to intervene. It made no difference. Wills remained where most alcoholics do – in denial.
“I never went to sleep,” he said. “I just passed out. I never woke up; I came to.”
Until the point in 1989 when he discovered the Lord and embraced sobriety. “I surrendered to a power that could do for me what I couldn’t do for myself,” Wills said.
Sadly, though, there were consequences. “I lost everything,” he said. “I lost my home, lost all my credibility.”
Perhaps most painfully, it harmed the relationship with his son, Bump, who played in the majors from 1977 to 1982. They see each maybe once a year. “A lot of forgiveness has to be done there, on both parts,” he said.
Willis doesn’t linger in the past for too long. There is nothing he can do to change it. Besides, he has a match to secure. After squandering a three-hole advantage with poor putting, the duel is all square with one hole to go.
“This is where we separate the men from the boys,” Wills said as he stepped on to the tee at No. 18, a 357-yard par 4.
He strikes a solid drive and an accurate approach to put himself in position for the winning bogey and a final score of 90.
In about a week, Wills will leave for the Dodgers’ spring training camp in Arizona. As he has done for many years, he will teach baserunning, base stealing and bunting. He’ll be in uniform once again.
It’s one trip he can’t wait to make.