I’m just now getting cranking on a sports-related project—my first crack at writing about the athletic games that adults play since I covered the Nagano Olympics as a mere cub. To get into the right mindset for the challenge, I’ve been looking up the old Sports Illustrated stories that influenced me so deeply as young’un. Though I typically credit my college-age encounters with longform journalism for steering me down my current path, my love of in-depth storytelling actually dates back to my weekly consumption of SI in grade school and junior high. Looking back at some of those great SI pieces now, I’m struck by their artistry and detail; the best of the lot were darn near perfect, little jewels of the craft that deserve to be dissected and analyzed the same as any contemporary David Grann masterpiece.
One of the standouts is a story that I was able to found solely because a couple of lives have never left me. I couldn’t remember anything about this piece save for the fact that it was about prison sports, and that it contained the tragic tale excerpted below—a tale in which the simple observation in bold managed to echo in my noggin’ for the next 23 years:
During his first stint in prison, at the Georgia Training and Development Center in Buford, Leroy Fowler got a chance to go to an Atlanta Braves game as a trustee with Billy Shaw, a guard who also coached the prison baseball team. When they returned to Buford, Fowler told Shaw that he had a better fastball than anybody he had seen that night, and Shaw couldn’t disagree. Fowler had a slider and an overhand curve in addition to what’s reputed to have been a 95-mph heater.
“Fast? Oh, yes sir!” says Shaw, who is now deputy warden, when he’s asked about Fowler’s arm. “Our team barnstormed all over the state back in 1966 and ’67, playing Georgia Southern and a lot of semipro teams. We never lost but a couple of games, and Leroy pitched them all.”
The Cardinals and the Dodgers expressed interest in Fowler and told him to call when he was released. Then, just four days before he was to be paroled, Fowler, who was 20 at the time, escaped with one of his buddies. Why? “I was young and stupid,” says Fowler, realizing even as he speaks that what he did extends beyond stupidity to self-destruction.
Fowler and his pal stole a prison officer’s car and drove to Atlanta, where they watched a Braves game. Six months later Fowler was recaptured, but he escaped again in 1971. This time he went to a Cincinnati Reds try-out in Marietta, Ga., where he used a false name and took his turn with the other pitching hopefuls. Fowler says now of the scouts, “I think they were interested in me. I got to bringin’ it pretty hard. I pitched three innings, and they asked me to come back the next day.” Unfortunately, somebody in the stands who had seen him pitch on the prison team, recognized him, and Fowler ducked out, left town and didn’t return.
A year later, he was recaptured after taking a blast from a policeman’s shotgun in the right arm. He was in the prison hospital for six days before undergoing surgery, and, as he lay there, Fowler asked himself if he was a failure because of fate or bad luck or ignorance or maybe because his arm was an arbitrary gift that made him hope for more than he deserved.
The injury cost him the use of his little finger and caused nerve damage in the ring finger. He rehabilitated the arm as well as he could, but he was through as a prospect. A prospect needs it all. Fowler is now a star on the inmate Softball team, a power hitter with a really good arm and one of those sad stories nobody wants to hear.
I’m not sure why Fowler’s unvarnished admission of idiocy made such an impression on my young brain. It’s partly because even at that young age, I was astounded by the sheer stupidity of his decision to escape. But the line might’ve washed right over me if the writer, Rick Telander, hadn’t somehow managed to make me care about a felon—and in such a modicum of space, to boot. And that is the great trick of nonfiction: To make the reader understand that every character, no matter how high or low, must cope with basic human needs and emotions.
Moving on now to another SI classic from my youth: Gary McLain’s personal account of his cocaine abuse at Villanova. Yes, I have a thing for stories about wasted talent.