Thrown a curve

"I still see myself as a baseball player who trades oil," Scott says. Nathaniel Welch

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 11, 2003, issue. Subscribe today!

IT'S A FALL NIGHT in 2003, and I'm watching the Chicago Cubs fight history. Game 6, and the opportunity is there for the taking; five more outs for a trip to the World Series. But opportunity can be both a blessing and a curse, and as Steve Bartman reaches for that now infamous foul ball, the greatest possibility soon turns to the most agonizing reality. "Wait 'til next year," Cubs fans cry, their only solace coming in the knowledge that spring training is less than five months away. But what if there is no next year? What if opportunity knocks, and you can't answer? For some, the reality lasts a lifetime.

IT'S a spring night in 1992, and I'm watching Gary Scott fight for his life. Okay, so he's not taking mortar fire; he's taking nasty breaking stuff and fastballs up and in. But it is his life, because his life is professional baseball -- a life that could end tonight. During spring training the previous year, Cubs manager Don Zimmer had named him his Opening Day third baseman. But the Can't Miss Kid, as they called him in Chicago, started missing a lot. He couldn't hit a big league curve, couldn't touch one, so they sent him down to Triple-A. Now he's back in the starting lineup, but the nightmare has returned, too. With his average hovering at .100, Scott is basically one bad game away from getting shipped down again.

The stage is set, right out of The Natural. It's one of those April evenings at Wrigley Field that's about as comfortable as a Thanksgiving cruise on the North Sea. With the bases loaded, two outs and the Cubbies leading the Phillies 1-0 in the bottom of the fourth, Scott is fouling off pitch after pitch from Kyle Abbott in front of a national TV audience ... 10, 11, 12. The crowd knows what's at stake; 23,000 voices chant, "Ga-ry, Ga-ry."

Back in Pelham, N.Y., the Manhattan suburb where Gary grew up, Doug and Doris Scott are watching, confident their youngest son is talented enough. They've seen him do it countless times before. They rearranged their lives to sit in the stands while he broke five Villanova batting records, tore up Winston-Salem and Charlotte, then ripped the cover off the ball in the 1991 Cactus League. And when they couldn't watch his Cubs games in person, they got special permission from the town zoning board to put a NASA-size satellite dish atop their Linden Avenue home.

Glenn and Gregg Scott are watching too, certain their little brother is tough enough. Glued to the TV -- Glenn in his exact replica No. 25 Cubs jersey -- they're remembering those brutal backyard games, how they served up hardball heat and halfcourt elbows to the smallest one of the bunch.

They're all watching. There's Ray Bartoszek, the close friend and former next-door neighbor who bought 2,500 Gary Scott baseball cards after Zim made him a starter. There's Tony Orlando, his best friend from high school and best man at his wedding. There's his old coach, Charles Lightsy. There's Chuck the cop and Bubba at Pelham Pizzeria. The same blue hue shines from every living room window in town. Pelham doesn't produce heroes; it produces bankers and lawyers and accountants. Peter Zoccolillo, who attended Pelham Memorial, played 20 games with the Brewers in 2003. But the last major leaguer to actually come from Pelham before Scott? Try 1927, when Bob Cremins hurled all of 5 1/3 innings for the Red Sox. Gary Scott is lightning striking, the lottery hitting. You can almost smell it in the air, feel it in the breeze.

But there's something else, something deeper that infuses a small town with big-time fervor. Gary is different, certainly, but not like the actor who catches his big break or the politician propped up by money and influence. He's an athlete, and athletes are special. They're organic creatures, products of the sun, the soil, the streets. And whether you know Gary or not, every Pelhamite who ever soaked up the same sun, played on the same soil or walked down the same streets feels special too. It's as if he's bringing a tiny indelible bit of the American dream to each and every one of us.

He connects cleanly with the 13th pitch.

All across Pelham we jump to our feet as the small white sphere rises into the night, catches a tailwind and carries just over the leftfield fence. With a redemptive shout, Gary circles the bases, but nobody in town is there to watch because we've burst open our doors and are celebrating in the streets.

THE GRAY-SHINGLED offices of A.E. Bruggemann & Co. in Rowayton, Conn., feel a little like a yacht club. From his desk, Gary looks over the smooth waters of Five Mile River. He is 35 now, but he has the same dirty blond hair and lean six-foot frame of a decade ago, the same boyish handsomeness. These days he fields orders instead of grounders; his life is barrels, not balls. It's a constant, all-day whirlwind of calls, instant messages, bids, counter bids, offers and deals. As he orchestrates two phones, a keyboard and a notepad, there's a familiar flow, the calm urgency of a man who, in his prime, could snag a bottle rocket with a pair of tweezers.

"I have 50,000 barrels of 3 percent available in Hofti, Aug. 10 through 12 at $26.50," he barks into a headphone. Bruggemann & Co. is a 52-year-old fuel-oil brokerage desk, split into two parts. Four guys handle fuel-oil derivatives, another four, including Gary, handle the real thing-barrels, barges, brands. Rated the No. 1 fuel-oil derivatives desk in the U.S. by Risk Magazine, the operation moves well over 200 million barrels a year. It's no place for amateurs. When Bob Bruggemann was searching for someone to reopen the Gulf Coast market five years ago, he called Ray Bartoszek, a respected player in the oil business. Imagine Bruggemann's surprise when Bartoszek recommended a washed-up ball player.

Then again, Gary never actually quit baseball. There was no definitive moment when he said, "I'm done." It was more like a gradual blending of events and circumstances. When the Cubs traded him after the '92 season, baseball became a blur: five years, six cities, nine organizations. Then, one morning in 1997, after his release by the Mariners in spring training, Scott woke up and found himself without a team for the first time since T-ball. Retreating to his home in Hilton Head, S.C., after a three-week stint in Mexico, he got his real estate license and began selling half-acre lots on a nearby golf course to support his wife and 2-year-old son. A temporary sentence, he told himself. January was around the corner. Teams would call. Someone would want him.

Here's the difference between a minor league curveball and a major league curveball: major league pitchers throw it when they're behind in the count. They throw the kind that start at your head and end up a foot off the plate. They throw it for strikes. Consistently. That's why for every Barry Bonds, there are a thousand Gary Scotts.

Of course, people who know Gary, people who love him, will tell you why he played only 67 games in the big leagues. They'll say it was his agent, the pressure, the timing, management, marital problems, moving, trades, that he came up too quickly, that he was hitting in the eight spot. Every answer sits on the border that separates legitimate explanations from lame excuses.

Gary knows how simple it really is; he knows the math. If, over his brief time in the Show, he had hit just 13 more curveballs for singles -- that's one a week -- his Cubs photo would probably still be hanging on the wall of Pelham Pizzeria.

So January came, but the calls never did. Eight months later, Gary separated from his wife, left his son and moved in with his parents. He spent his days in a suit, commuting to Manhattan, dragging himself to places like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs. Experience? None. Resume? A baseball card. Nights were lonely. "I didn't see anyone," he says. "The interviews were horrible. But I had to make money. I had a mortgage. A son."

Then one August afternoon Ray called. You have an interview with Bob Bruggemann, he told Gary: "Take the job if they offer it. Things'll get better."

Bruggemann will tell you it came down to Ray asking a favor. Gary will tell you that his ex-pro status helped, and does to this day. But they'll both tell you that he was thrown to the wolves and fought like hell to make it, because a grand slam on national TV might open the door, but it doesn't keep you inside.

"I know a lot of pro athletes in business," says Morty Bouchard, a 25-year veteran of the industry. "Gary's one of the best. He works hard and takes his job very seriously. If not, he'd have been eaten up."

So now he's a professional oil broker. That's what it says on his business card. But a man's identity isn't that simple; it's a puzzle of who you once were, who you are now and who you always wanted to be. And if who you are now is light years away from who you used to be, it doesn't matter what others see -- it only matters what you see.

"Sometimes it doesn't seem real," Gary says between sips of beer on the waterfront patio of Rowayton Seafood. "Is it over? I don't think I'm going back. I'm happy. I'm needed. But I still see myself as a baseball player who trades oil. It's not an identity crisis. I think everyone has those questions."

His voice is deep and flat and remarkably consistent, like a buddy's arm around your shoulders. It's the voice of a man who appears to have not a worry in the world. Take a snapshot of his life. The picture you'll see could serve as the blueprint for every ex-athlete: the comfortable six-figure salary; the stylish Greenwich, Conn., apartment; the beautiful and witty fiancee, the same girl he took to the junior prom.

But if he makes it look easy, well ... it's been a struggle, day in and day out. Because he had the shot, the shot most kids dream about. He was the starting third baseman for the Chicago Cubs. Hit the ball, catch the ball, you're a major leaguer. Other guys in his rookie class -- Jeff Bagwell, Ivan Rodriguez, Vinny Castilla -- they're still doing it. And no matter how many people pat him on the back, buy him a beer and look at him like he's a rock star because he made the Show, he knows he blew it. Great experience? Failure. Memory of a lifetime? Failure.

It's in your head, they say. Get over it. But how does he get over something he's reminded of every day? He's on the treadmill at the gym, and there's Pete Walker on the TV, the guy he roomed with in Triple-A ball in Vegas, facing the Yankees tonight. At least once a week, someone will say something like, "Hey, Jeter's on the DL. You ready to make your comeback?" Gary's folks still have the shrine in the den, with all the bats, balls and plaques. They have no idea that it only reminds him of failure. He sees those trophies, and all he can think about is the entire hometown he feels he disappointed.

So he doesn't go back. He forgets that Pelham is just 30 minutes away, that many of his old pals have returned to start their own families. The place is still full of kids who idolized him and parents who cheered for him. So he shows up briefly for family functions and leaves it at that. "It hurts my heart because it's like he rebelled from this town," says Richie Bell Jr., a lifelong Pelham resident and owner of a liquor store there.

Ducking the locals is one thing, but what about Tony? They were inseparable in high school, spending Friday nights downing beers on the golf course or taking girls to the New Rochelle Mall. Tony was right there with him at the altar 11 years ago. He was the one who came down to Cancun to help Gary get paid when that Mexican League GM gave him the runaround. Now they're strangers.

"I heard from someone that he got married," Gary says, his voice flatter than usual.

"It's a shame," Tony says. "I wish it could be different."

Does it make any sense to abandon a town that adored you, friends who would do anything for you? It makes perfect sense. When an athlete gets his shot and fails, he usually goes one of two ways. There's the guy who lets 67 games define him. His walls are filled with old photos, and at weddings and luncheons and picnics, he starts every other sentence with, "When I played in the majors ... " The memory sustains him, the past justifies the present.

Then there's Gary Scott, the guy who doesn't talk about it, doesn't keep one shred of evidence that he ever played a day in the majors. He barely follows baseball anymore. He might think of it occasionally, because next to the birth of his son, Cole, he's as proud of it as anything in his life. But he can't make it a big part of his life now, because next to giving up custody of his son, it's the toughest thing he's ever gone through. He can't let baseball define him because that would define him as a failure.

"It's like this," Gary says. "I love my parents to death, but baseball was so important to them. It's important to everybody. I used to do something extraordinary and failed. Now I do something ordinary and I'm great at it. But my parents have no real concept of what I do."

So brick by brick he's built a wall around himself, cutting off everyone and everything that defines him as "the baseball guy." He's struggling to redefine himself, because he needs to become his own man. Not the former Cubs third baseman. Just Gary Scott.

IT'S A warm summer night, and Gary Scott stands on a baseball diamond wearing a No. 21 jersey, hat, black glove and spikes, with a pinch of Hawken Wintergreen in his bottom lip. This is no comeback; he's the third baseman for Covered Bridge, Ray Bartoszek's Wilton, Conn., softball team. Not a soul on the opposing squad knows his story, but in the beer leagues it's easy to see there's something there. He snaps his arm like a whip and snags searing grounders with uncommon ease. It's as if an Academy Award winner has dropped by the local dinner theater.

For Gary, softball started as a debt repaid. He says he did it for Ray, a former Division III second baseman, the best friend who has known him "in both lives," the man who dragged him up and out. But that was five years ago. He could have begged off last year when Ray asked another favor. Instead, he agreed to pitch for the Wilton Red Sox, Ray's over-28 hardball team.

Does it make any sense for a man who's trying to erase his baseball past to play with a bunch of potbellied hackers trying to relive their wonder years? It makes perfect sense. Because, as Scott is beginning to discover, it's not so easy to redefine yourself. The essence of an athlete doesn't just fade away. "Sometimes, I'm like, 'What am I doing?' " he says. "But then you get a hardball in your hand, and you start throwing it, and you forget where you really are. You lose yourself."

And you find yourself.

"One game, I came around to third base, and their best guy was playing there. He turns to me and says, 'You played before, right?' I said, 'Kind of. Promise not to tell anyone? I played in the big leagues for the Cubs.' I'm not worried about people knowing. When it comes out, I'm proud."

That's not going to happen at a desk with a headset on. It's going to happen when some guy on the softball field sees something in you that can't be taught. And if he asks you about it, maybe you get the same sort of feeling you got when you hit that grand slam on national TV. It's the feeling that you are not like everyone else, and that in some way you never will be.

In July, a new Chicago-based client took Scott to an afternoon game at Wrigley, the first time he'd been back since his last major league game in 1992. "It was great," he says. "But it was also sad. It made me a little angry."

Did he feel angry sitting at home watching his former team squander a 3-1 series lead to the Marlins? No, it was more like deja vu. The Cubbies had an incredible opportunity and blew it. "There's gotta be a witch with an apartment overlooking Wrigley," he jokes. "It almost makes me feel better about my hitting."

He knows it's going to take some time. Some days he'll feel sad and angry, some days he'll feel happy. Therapy comes in a variety of forms: a hardball team, a trip to Wrigley, a magazine story. The one point he emphasizes is that he doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for him. One day he'll come back and spend time in Pelham. Maybe he'll show his son the scrapbook his mother made. Maybe he'll head to the country club for 18 holes with some of his old buddies. He'll call Tony and catch up.

He'll break down the wall, brick by brick.

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