Derek caught a glimpse of the pro scout’s notes when a Kansas City Royals’ rep shifted his laptop to show him endless rankings, including “arm strength” and “home to first” speed. Next to his name, however, the scout added in bold: “He eats dirt.” Derek cherished that description; he still did, four years later.
Those words helped set him apart from 1,000 prospects, some feasting on acne-faced high school pitchers or climbing Latin American leagues. “He eats dirt” described Derek’s scrappiness. On one play, for instance, he tossed his body up a metal fence to snag a foul ball pop up, chipping a tooth on the way down but holding the ball for an inning-ending out.
And he never, ever, hesitated to steal home, despite the ever-present chance that the batter would swing if he missed the third-base coach’s sign. Derek’s fourth steal of home became an Instagram hit.
That hustle-loving scout, with a razor-sharp military haircut and an overused Toyota, plucked Derek from worthless community college games and dangled future riches for the late-round pick. Between bites of scrambled eggs and hash browns at Waffle House, Derek signed his contract as quickly as blowing out a candle.
“Guts matter,” the scout told Derek, “especially for a basket case like you.” He waved his hand as if erasing Derek’s juvenile record for fights. “How many first-round picks wind up in the big leagues?” the scout asked. Derek considered an answer, but the scout didn’t wait. “Less than a third.”
The scout was right. Derek hustled in the lowest level of the minor leagues flinging himself at the ground to stop balls hit during batting practice. He developed the kind of sweet, patient swing that makes contact off flame-throwing pitchers. His batting average rose as he jumped from a Florida rookie league to Billings to Lubbock to Memphis, the latter one step from the majors.
It was in Memphis that Derek tried stretching a single into a double after avoiding the first-base coach’s stop signal. A high-leaping Indianapolis second baseman landed on Derek’s right foot as he slid late. Combined with the awkward angle, Derek’s ankle seemed to shatter like glass. All he could see was the field umpire frantically waving his arms at Memphis’ bench.
Ten hours after the play, with pins inserted in his ankle at Memphis’ St. Augustine Hospital, he knew he suffered a career-ending injury. Derek stared firmly at a hospital mirror and saw nothing in his future. He was not quite 22 years old.
Derek landed in drab Taylorville, Illinois – with its decrepit downtown and thriving Wal-Mart near the highway – when his girlfriend, Janie, said she wanted to see her favorite cousin, who lived in the central Illinois town. After his injury, Janie and Derek were heading from Memphis to Billings, Janie’s hometown. He met the feisty and blond-haired Janie in Billings, one year before playing in Memphis, during an impromptu party at a teammate’s apartment.
Janie drove while Derek sat with his foot in a cast and pain pills making him drowsy. They reached her cousin’s rented duplex in Taylorville, where Janie embraced her cousin and quickly renewed their friendship. Janie introduced Derek, but her cousin already knew about him: He was going to make millions playing major league baseball, but now he’d lose a footrace to a third grader.
Derek and Janie’s originally planned two-night stay lasted indefinitely when Janie’s cousin offered her a job as a hair stylist. He nodded at the news, thinking Taylorville was fine if no one minded him anchored to the couch, playing Fortnite.
Four months later, the hair salon closed after the chain Cost Cutters opened near Wal-Mart. By then, Janie and Derek argued nightly. She fumed at his laziness, noting that his days were spent drinking PBRs and staring at the computer screen.
One night, she pulled a pillow from under his head on the sofa. It had a deep indent. “And you were known for hustling in baseball,” she shouted, unloading verbal arrows. “Pathetic. I’m leaving this town – alone.”
Derek moved to an efficiency apartment in Taylorville above a vaping supplies store. He skimmed online job sites, but that provoked more drinking and moodiness, overwhelmed by the low pay offered. It was as if he never realized what anyone who attended pro baseball games did for a living. Derek avoided most fans, especially the ones begging for baseballs.
Now with Janie gone, Derek sat in the Taylorville Tap, where an oversized poster of Johnny Cash flipping off a photographer hung behind the bar. It’s there that he heard an old, grizzled guy rant about lousy workers at his repair and construction business. Something clicked in Derek. He leaned toward the guy clutching his bottle of Rolling Rock.
“I’m your man,” Derek said, fairly buzzed.
The grizzled guy was puzzled by Derek’s abruptness then turned around on his barstool and sized him up. Derek had the forearms of a once-powerful third baseman. He asked if Derek had ever worked with a jackhammer or done home repairs.
“Sure,” he lied.
The man gave Derek an address for AAA-Fix It and told him to be there at 6 sharp the next morning.
Derek walked with a slight hobble while fixing a rickety porch or helping install a sump pump in Taylorville. When the job got so boring he could burst, Derek swiped a pair of earrings from a frilly bedroom or squeezed decorative trinkets into his jacket. It’s stuff he knew would get him a few bucks at pawn shops in nearby Springfield. No harm, really.
Other times, Derek let his mind wander, thinking about following a curve ball and knocking it down the right-field line, then sliding safely for an extra base hit while dirt drifts across his face.
Derek’s AAA-Fix It co-workers, each of them Taylorville natives, scoffed at him. They showed initial interest in his baseball stories, then started to mock him. “Hey, Babe Ruth,” one said, “would you clean this crap or do you need an introduction first?”
For these guys, athletic glory began and ended at Bowl-A-Vard Lanes, Taylorville’s only “pin and pub.” Wednesdays at work were the worst. That was the day after his co-workers’ bowling league. They recalled frames with the same analysis that they applied to NASCAR races’ final laps.
Two months earlier – smelling like a sewer after helping fix a backed-up toilet – Derek returned to his apartment and listened to a rare message on his phone. It was a reporter from The State Journal-Register in Springfield. He explained that he got an e-mail from someone mentioning how a former baseball star is living in Taylorville. The reporter wanted to write a story about him.
Derek knew the reporter would call. He crafted the “anonymous” email carefully for the paper’s sports department. Desperate for an ego boost, Derek wrote that he was a neighbor of “this friendly baseball hero who tells great stories about playing against some of the game’s current superstars.” Derek named at least a dozen players, many of whom may or may not have crossed his path.
One week later, a balding Springfield sports reporter knocked at the door twice. He shook Derek’s hand vigorously, introduced himself and said he lives for baseball. He boasted that his grandfather took him to his first ball game at Wrigley Field when Ryne Sandberg played. Derek tried to smile.
The reporter surveyed Derek’s apartment, clearly disappointed. “Where’s memorabilia from your playing days?” he asked, nodding toward the yellow walls with only a tattered dart board bought at a garage sale.
Derek wanted to explain that he sees the most vivid reminder of his career daily. It’s the two-inch scar, extending across his ankle to his Achilles tendon.
Instead, Derek showed him some photos spread across his kitchen table from his playing days. Then he led the reporter through his career: all-area honors at a southern Minnesota high school; one successful season at Trinity Community College in rural Iowa; and his selection in the pro draft. For the latter, Derek bumped up his status by several rounds.
Truth is, Derek was a hothead in high school and missed the team’s final two games after swearing at an umpire following a called third strike then launching his helmet against the backstop. No four-year college wanted him because of his poor grades and troubled reputation. A friend’s friend coached at Trinity Community College, but Derek told the reporter that he attended the school to stay near his ill father.
Family life is a big deal, Derek added as the reporter’s phone recorded him. Derek relaxed when the reporter didn’t ask him to elaborate about his family. His alcoholic dad left home when he was 3; his mom concentrated on her revolving door of boyfriends and crummy jobs. Derek’s baseball prowess seemed to bewilder her. She never understood the sport’s thrills or angst. But they lived near a go-kart track, where Derek cleaned tiny vehicles in exchange for endless free swings at the track’s batting cages. By age 16, he was trouble to everyone, but, man, he could rip fastballs.
Derek played well in community college, earning passive interest from a few pro scouts. They watch you closely, he told the reporter, even during pre-game warm-ups. As a result, he was covered with some dirt before the game started.
To the reporter, Derek happily recalled every game-winning swing from minor league games. But the reporter jumped ahead.
You never had “a cup of coffee” in the big leagues, he said. Derek leaned back on his folding chair and reflected, rubbing his chin. Even one game in late September would have made him an ex-major leaguer, not a former member of the Billings Blue Sox. Derek said those are the breaks.
The reporter continued, “Doesn’t it bother you?”
Derek could tell him that he was nearly broke; drank too much while his gut grew; and felt his ankle’s chronic pain at 5 each morning.
“Not at all,” Derek said, smiling like a fool.
Two days later, a State Journal-Register photographer took pictures of Derek kneeling on third base at the local high school diamond to run with the story.
“Excuse me, but are you OK?” the photographer asked when Derek arrived in a wrinkled T-shirt, dirty jeans, sunglasses and a beat-up Memphis Redbirds’ cap.
“I drank too much last night,” Derek admitted. He also didn’t sleep last night. The day before, he was fired from his job.
The firing happened after he joined a crew tearing up a carpeted floor for several hours. This home was one of the biggest in the area, surrounded by open fields for the owner’s six horses to roam.
After using the upstairs bathroom, he peeked at the master bedroom and saw a lavish dresser scattered with 30 or so bracelets and necklaces. Derek figured he could sell at least two pieces for good cash in Springfield if he picked correctly. He had been taking more and more items from customers’ homes, a momentary thrill and financial boost during otherwise dull days. This time, as always, he kept an eye on his co-workers and, during a break, stepped into the bedroom. He held up two old pieces with what appeared to be diamonds and put both in his pocket.
Derek never saw his boss at the bedroom door staring at him. Derek opened his mouth, but he stayed silent.
His boss wouldn’t shout with a customer in the home’s family room, so the man stood an inch from Derek’s face, his breath reeking of coffee.
“You’re almost always late,” he spat out in a vicious whisper. “Your work is subpar – and now you’re the one who’s been taking stuff from my customers. You’re gone. You’re fired. Put the jewelry back. Now. Right now. Then leave. Go. Go. Get out.”
Four days later, minutes dragged like days. Derek answered an ad looking for a junior varsity baseball coach and substitute teacher at the high school. The school’s athletic director loved his playing background, but he said his background check uncovered two DWIs and one marijuana possession.
So Derek sat in his apartment, watched YouTube endlessly, drank whatever was on sale at Liquorland and toyed with a pocketknife that he took from an AAA-Fix It customer’s basement. When his phone buzzed at midday, it startled him. It was the reporter. Derek told him he was on vacation that day from work.
“Well, I just called to tell you that your profile will run as our main feature this Sunday,” the reporter said. “And thanks for sending that picture of you in your Memphis uniform. We’ll use the one our photographer took as a small, secondary shot.” The reporter chuckled softly. “You look pretty haggard in that one.”
Walking to Liquorland on a Tuesday evening, Derek was spotted by a former co-worker, who maneuvered his pick-up truck toward the sidewalk. He motioned to Derek and announced that it was his lucky night. Derek saw a bowling bag in the passenger seat.
“We need an extra bowler for our team tonight,” he said. “You being an ex-pro athlete and all, this should be a breeze for you.”
Derek hadn’t bowled since his early teens. He thought about how it would bother his ankle. But why not? He agreed to play, figuring he’d ace this sport after a few frames. At the noisy bowling alley with day-glow walls, Derek went straight to the bar and drank a vodka shot followed by a Rolling Rock bottle. He picked a heavy bowling ball to impress them then drank from a pitcher that was brought to their lane.
Derek bowled with power, occasionally knocking down pins solely on velocity. But he rarely hit the pocket and couldn’t make a spare even if the lane had inflatable bumpers in the gutters. The other team, sporting T-shirts that read Thunder Strike on the back, rejoiced at his struggles. Derek’s bowling teammates sat slouched and, finally, stopped offering tips when it was obvious he would drag them to a resounding defeat tonight.
After Derek missed an easy spare, he heard a pint-sized member of the other team call him Pinhead.
“What did you say?” Derek demanded.
“Nothing,” the little guy said startled, “just bowl.”
Derek finished the night with dismal scores over three games, each one clearly displayed on the overhead screen. Quite a few league bowlers glanced over at him stunned that he was a former pro athlete.
Afterward, Derek wobbled into the bowling alley’s bar. He drank two more potent shots. As a result, the room spun slightly. Even with a soaring tolerance, he easily eclipsed his alcohol limit. Derek slowly hobbled to the restroom when he overheard the pint-sized bowling opponent cackling to two young women and the bartender.
“And here’s the funniest thing,” the guy said, “this thief almost made the major leagues with Seattle or some team.” The pint-sized guy laughed loudly and shook his head. “What a loser.”
The rest was a blur.
It took four people to pull Derek off this guy, but he knew he pounded him and blood seeped into the carpet. Derek heard screams for an ambulance and police. His heart felt like it would tear through his ribs. His mind scrambled as he shuffled away for fresh air and an escape. Nobody dared to step in his path. His right hand stung and both legs felt flimsy. Outside, the chilly air didn’t shake his daze.
Derek tried to run quicker, but he fell. He landed in a dirt patch face first.
In seconds, there would be blaring sirens and urgent commands. For now, the ground felt soft and soothing as Derek ran his fingers through it.