There's this one Houston Astro who's full of life. During batting practice, he'll tell Lance Berkman, "I think I'll learn to make sherbet from scratch." Or, in the midst of a pitching change, he'll tell Adam Everett, "Dodger Dogs are the best." Or, between innings, he'll ask Everett, "Cancún this winter?"
His teammates love him, but they can't explain him. They can't explain why his pulse never rose during last year's World Series. Or why he won't argue with a bad umpire. Or why, this June and July, he insisted on playing with one good arm.
Or why, when fans ask him in the kindest way for an autograph, he lowers his head, purses his lips, pulls a cross out over his jersey, looks down, signs abruptly, and rushes away.
That one, a lot of people just don't get.
MORGAN ENSBERG has scars on his wrists and eyes in the back of his head, and that's the first thing you need to understand. Six years have passed now, six years since the holdup, and every season, the Astros third baseman feels the aftereffects, feels what a gun to the face can do.
He isn't nervous batting with the bases loaded; he's nervous entering a crowded restaurant. He doesn't mind the recent trade rumors; he minds a hotel valet knocking on his door to restock the minibar.
He is perhaps the calmest player in baseball at game time, and the most unsettled player in baseball after the 27th out. And it makes no sense until you see his eyes fill up with tears, six years later. It's a story about duct tape and an intruder in a green bandanna. It's a story that elicits responses like "You're lying" or "That sounds like a movie." It's a story that explains why Ensberg's frustrating 2006 season is nothing, nothing compared to the night he "looked evil in the eye."
ENSBERG WAS a 24-year-old minor leaguer then, a surfer dude from Hermosa Beach, Calif., about to get married, about to spend another spring training learning how to hit the curveball. A ninth-round pick out of USC in '98, he'd batted .230 in rookie ball and .239 at Class-A, and who knew how long he'd last in baseball, how long before he'd have to quit and become a banker or a minister.
But everything changed on the night of March 12, 2000, the night Ensberg invited several Astros minor leaguers back to his Kissimmee, Fla., hotel room to watch SportsCenter. They all lived in a rundown Holiday Inn just off of busy Kissimmee Boulevard, and it had the feel of a college dorm. The doors opened onto an outdoor breezeway, and the players spent most of their spring training nights traipsing in and out of the many unlocked rooms. Anyone could've waltzed in, even strangers off the street.
That particular night, five ballplayers ended up crowding in front of Ensberg's TV. There was his roommate, Keith Ginter, a slick Double-A second baseman; his childhood buddy Derek Nicholson, a hard-sliding Class-A outfielder; Mike Rose, a stocky Double-A catcher; Eric Cole, a fair-haired Double-A outfielder; and Ensberg, a Double-A third baseman, who was lying on one of the beds. Joining them was Ginter's new girlfriend, Alicia Szczerba. At about 9:30 p.m., Szczerba got a phone call from a friend in another room, who was asking to borrow her cigarette lighter. When she opened the door to leave, two armed men instantly shoved her back inside.
The men had been loitering in that open-air hallway, carrying duffel bags, watching the six people convene in the room, waiting for their chance. They were low on cash and had no idea these were ballplayers. It was a random hit, but they were serious.
One wore a dark ski mask and demanded everyone's car keys, cell phones, watches and wallets. While he loaded up the duffel bags, the other one began getting physical. He wore a black skullcap with a green bandanna over his face—exposing only his eyes—and he went person to person to see whom he had here. When he got to Ensberg, he pressed the gun to the back of his long blond hair and asked, "You a tough guy? You a hero?"
If he only knew. Ensberg had never even been in a fight. He was the grandson and greatgrandson and great-great-grandson of Lutheran ministers, and if he got into any mischief as a kid, it involved outsmarting his father, a banker. Martin Ensberg had told his three sons that if they used their savings to buy something, he'd split the cost. Morgan brainstormed about that, and, as a 12-year-old, came home one day with a surfboard he'd been given for free. He sold it to his younger brother, Lars, for $100 (Martin had to pay half), and then Morgan used the $100 to buy a new $200 surfboard (Martin again had to pay half). The kid had brilliantly turned an old surfboard into a brand-new, pristine surfboard, to which his dad said, "I work every day with Harvard investment bankers, and I just got put away by a 12-year-old." But that's how much of a thinker Morgan was.
So, typically, right there in that hotel room, Ensberg's mind began to race. An hour had passed, as the crooks used cheap plastic fasteners to hog-tie everyone at the wrists and ankles. They put duct tape over the hostages' mouths and blankets over their heads, and Ensberg began counting away the final seconds of his life. He thought of God, his fiancée, Christi, and his family, in no particular order, and finally decided he was ready to die. That somehow freed his mind, and he had an idea. He wanted these men to know whom they'd be shooting. To know they wouldn't just be shooting a pile of blankets. So he wiggled out from under the bedspread to show his wavy hair.
He was a person. They'd be killing a person.
THEY WERE saved by a thump next door. The gunmen had heard someone enter the adjacent room, so they told Ensberg and the other hostages, "We'll be right back with some company."
What ensued was even more surreal. Rose, the catcher, noticed the crooks had left the door ajar. He squeezed his wrists and ankles free of the plastic zip ties and quickly crossed the room to shut it. The gunmen tried returning with the player from next door—a Class-A infielder named Aaron Miles—but found the door locked. By then, Ensberg had also yanked his wrists free, scarring them in the process, and had frantically called the front desk. Police were on their way.
When a wave of cop cars screeched into the parking lot, the man in the ski mask—a convicted felon named Richard Cook—jumped two stories to the street and temporarily escaped. But the burglar in the green bandanna, Alexander Williams, wasn't bailing. He shoved Miles back into his room at gunpoint. The police escorted Ensberg and the others out of their room and down to the parking lot, and dug in for a standoff. For 25 minutes, the crook had a gun to Miles' head, until the 5'8" infielder, the son of a heavyweight boxer, took matters into his own hands. He attacked the 5'11", 175-pound intruder, and during the struggle, Miles bit Williams on the forearm while Williams bit Miles fiercely on the upper back. Both had their hands on the gun, and eventually, with Miles lying on top of the burglar, a SWAT policeman who'd broken through a window had no choice but to fire six close-range gunshots.
"We're downstairs in the parking lot, and you hear this, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop," Ensberg says. "And we're like, 'Aaron's dead.' "
But the cop hadn't missed, wounding Williams once in the face and five times in the upper torso. The burglar was still alive, but some of his teeth had literally been shot out of his mouth. Miles bolted through the broken window and down to the parking lot, straight into the arms of his teammate Rose.
"He nearly broke me in half," Rose says today. "He had the guy's skin in his teeth, blood all over him. I mean, the guy took a big chunk out of his back. He's cussing and saying, 'F— those motherf—ers.' I'd never seen him like that."
Says Nicholson: "We mobbed him like we won the World Series. He's got his fist up, like, 'Yeah, wooooohoooooo,' saying all kinds of expletives. We were all going off. We wanted 'em to pull the crook out of the room alive. Everyone wanted to kill that guy."
All the hostages were taken to the Kissimmee police station, where they were met after midnight by Tim Purpura, then the Astros' assistant GM in charge of player development. Miles told Purpura the whole story, blow by blow, and Purpura was amazed by the kid's tenacity. He thought to himself, "This will be a big leaguer. He's got the makeup." Purpura perused the other players and sensed that they were all fine. Except one. He was worried about one. Morgan Ensberg.
AT 1 A.M. that night, a dazed Ensberg dialed his parents from a house phone in the hotel lobby. Martin Ensberg answered. "Dad, I'm okay," Morgan said. "Well, of course you're okay," Martin said. "No, Dad, I'm okay." "I know you're okay." "Dad … " By the end of the exchange, Morgan was on his knees, sobbing, telling the story of a gun being pressed to his brain. Martin immediately put Morgan's mother, Laura, and Morgan's fiancée, Christi, on that night's red-eye from LA to Orlando, and, for the next few days, he says, Morgan "just wanted to spoon or cuddle with Christi." Miles had been back on the field two days after the holdup—"Better than sitting there thinking about it," Miles says—but that wasn't Ensberg's nature. The night of the incident, at the police station, Ensberg had blurted to the others, "Do you realize what just happened? We were seconds from dying!"
The Astros flew in a psychologist, Dr. Tom Eppright, who urged the players not to play the "what if" game. Ensberg felt as if the shrink was speaking directly to him—"I'd realized how fragile life is," he says—but he responded well to Eppright's advice. At an emergency minor league players' meeting, Ensberg volunteered to address the 150-plus prospects, and asked them to leave the six of them alone for a few days, not to ask questions. Then, after a dramatic pause, he said, "But if you want to do us a favor, throw us an 86 mph four-seam fastball down the middle during intrasquad games. That'll help." The place cracked up.
Right about then, Ensberg got himself back on the field, where a peculiar thing happened: he stopped thinking. The ordeal had somehow uncluttered his mind. If he went 0-for-4 now? Big deal. If he didn't reach the big leagues? So what? He was alive! He used to brainstorm too much about hitting the breaking ball, and for a while, it appeared he might overanalyze himself right out of baseball. But now, in the batter's box, he felt free.
That 2000 season, none of the other five blossomed more than Ensberg. He batted .300 with 28 homers and 90 RBIs at Round Rock, and helped his team win the Texas League title. He adored the team and the town, and as the players celebrated their championship on the field, someone pulled him toward home plate. The PA announcer hushed the crowd then and revealed that Ensberg and Ginter, just six months after the holdup, were going to The Show.
Ensberg broke down and wept.
AFTER A 2003 night game in Colorado, Ensberg—now an established big leaguer—was walking back to the team hotel with Everett. And Ensberg kept telling the shortstop to speed up.
"What's going on?" Everett finally asked.
"I think there's somebody behind us," Ensberg answered.
Everett suddenly understood the duality of Ensberg. On the field, he's a motormouth, discussing the real estate market during pitching changes. Before the Astros face a hot pitcher, he'll wink at Berkman and say, "Charge the mound and fight him, so he gets thrown out." After home runs, he'll let the cheering die down in the dugout and then shout, solo, "Yeah, way to go!" He's always on a natural high.
"I've got a different look at the world than probably most," the 30-year-old Ensberg says now. "I'm not going to live or die with the next play. I don't hate and dislike people on other teams. A guy's having a good game, and I'm, 'Dude, this is awesome!' I never throw my helmet or bat. I don't chirp at umpires. I don't get rattled. Bases loaded, the entire crowd standing up, I'm either going to get a hit or I'm not."
But driving from the ballpark, he's on alert. He checks his rear-view mirror to see if he's being followed. He tries not to go home the same way twice. He looks for escape routes at restaurants. His home security system is a virtual Fort Knox. Ensberg says it's not paranoia, it's just who he's become.
"Unfortunately, I'm different than I was before," he says. "See, you completely lose the innocence. It's not fun being this way. I almost feel like I can see evil."
Everett, his close friend, sometimes feels the need to run interference. During spring training back in Kissimmee this year, Ensberg walked toward the clubhouse entrance one morning, wishing he had a security guard. Fans were calling his name, begging for his autograph, and it felt like March 12, 2000, all over again. He isn't calm at these moments. He signs as he walks, or he doesn't sign at all. His head's down, or it's on a swivel. He says nothing, or he says, "Write me, I'll sign via mail," and he knows those fans think he's a jerk. This spring, he got yelled at by an elderly woman. She shouted, "You ought to remember where you came from, Morgan!" And Everett—following close behind—told her to stop, that she didn't know anything about Morgan Ensberg, that he does remember where he came from.
All too well.
AND THEN his past rose up and saved him.
It started on June 9, when he dove for a bunt and jarred his rotator cuff. He could barely lift his right arm after that, and he developed biceps tendinitis, but he played through it, of course. It's just baseball, right? It's not a gun to the head.
A lot of other players might have crumbled. Here was a 2005 All-Star with 18 homers and 39 RBIs on the day of his injury. And over the next month, he hit .158. He heard boos. The team acquired a new third baseman, Aubrey Huff, and put Ensberg on the trade market. A lot of other players would've been mouthing off to Purpura, who's now the GM. Ensberg waited it out, waited it out.
After the All-Star break, he asked onto the disabled list, and after three weeks of rest, they sent him on a rehab assignment to, of all places, Round Rock—the same Round Rock where he played in 2000, after the holdup; the same Round Rock where he first heard he was going to The Show.
He dressed in the same locker stall, walked onto the field at the same time, saw the same season ticket-holders. He hit a home run in his first game, and in Round Rock tradition, the fans passed around his batting helmet, putting in $1 and $5 bills. He donated the $300 cash to the guys on the team, bought them a postgame spread. He hit another homer in his third and final game there before returning to the Astros to reclaim his job, and the fans passed his helmet around one more time. Hell yeah, he remembered where he came from. He wanted to thank the fans, wanted to sign autographs all night. But it's so hard to trust, so hard to ignore the white scars on his wrists.
"When I'm on the field, I'm happy," he says. "I'm protected. I'm doing something I love doing. But unfortunately, there's a strange two sides of me. If you were to meet me with a uniform on, or going to the ballpark, there's no give. I'm getting in the car, I'm getting in the stadium, I'm trying not to stop. I have my chain out at all times. You can think whatever you like of me, but I can't help it. If this experience had not happened, more people would see my happy side. I'm sorry."
He wishes he could get over it someday, and that's why he drove by the Holiday Inn off Kissimmee Boulevard this spring, to see where his head was, to see if he could look up at that room and deal with it.
The place was boarded up. Out of business. The first hint of closure.