Monday, June 25, 2007

Former Sox Reliever Rod Beck Found Dead

The license plates on one of the several cars Rod Beck owned read "9 IS MINE."

The former Cubs closer owned more than just the ninth inning. He amused and engaged those who covered him, earned the respect of his teammates and won the hearts of fans who admired him for more than his Fu Manchu mustache and long, wavy hair.

Beck, 38, was found dead Saturday at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., and police are investigating the cause. He is survived by two daughters and a lifetime worth of memories.

Beck collected 286 saves for the Giants, Cubs, Red Sox and Padres, but life went fast for him shortly after his 13-year major-league career ended with San Diego during the 2004 season.

He drove a 1980s-style van during his early playing days in San Francisco, but gained more fame for the motor home he parked next to Sec Taylor Stadium and lived in during his brief stint with the Iowa Cubs as he attempted to revive his career following reconstructive shoulder surgery in 2003.

"Tragic," Cubs President John McDonough said. "Colorful character. Great for baseball. It's sad. I don't know all the details, but he was a big part of the '98 team. He was at the Cubs Convention [in January]. … Baseball needs more people like Rod Beck. It's tragic and all of us are saddened.

"It's almost a contradiction where you call a guy who throws 86 or 87 (m.p.h.) 'the Shooter.' You always remember him coming in, his arm, dangling. It's a very sad day."

With the Giants, Beck drank his beer out of a boot-shaped mug and was revered in the clubhouse for his willingness to take the ball—despite an aching hip that required painkilling shots, he pitched in nine of the Giants' final 11 games in 1993 until they were eliminated from the division race on the final day of the season.

He was just as quick to grab a dinner check, once picking up a $700 tab for a group of writers sitting near his family at a Scottsdale restaurant one year during spring training.

Beck got by on guile when his split-finger fastball wasn't dipping or his arm was tired. He heeded the advice of his former manager, Dusty Baker, when the Cubs faced Baker's Giants in a one-game playoff to determine the National League wild-card entrant in 1998.

Remembering what Baker told him about hitters tending to lean over at pitches, Beck jammed Joe Carter with an 81-m.p.h. fastball for the final out, igniting one of the craziest parties at Wrigley Field in nearly a decade.

Beck could have torn into the Giants for letting him go after the 1997 season, when they signed Robb Nen as their closer, but instead he tossed a champagne bottle in the direction of the visitors' dugout during the celebration.

Several of his former Giants teammates, including Shawn Estes, Steve Scarsone, Mike Benjamin and Russ Ortiz, were frequent guests at Beck's annual holiday party, at which his family collected toys to be donated as gifts for needy kids.

Beck became an instant favorite during my first season covering the San Francisco Giants in 1992 for the San Jose Mercury News. His weight was always an issue early in his career, but he treated it with typical candor.

"I've never heard of anyone going on the disabled list because of pulled fat," was one of his many memorable quotes.

And he couldn't wait to take the ball in the ninth inning, or sooner if needed.

Beck lived in a spacious Scottsdale home for most of his baseball career, but he was as casual as your average neighbor.

He had a passion for fixing up cars or camping with some of his ex-teammates and looked totally comfortable with a can of beer and pinch of dip. He was the only player invited to my wedding in 2004, and he fit in nicely at a table that included a doctor, an accountant and ESPN reporter Pedro Gomez.

"In '03 when I was down in Triple A with him, it was my first time in the bullpen, and just being able to talk to him about baseball and certain things, he was a great human being," Cubs reliever Michael Wuertz said.

"When I heard it [Sunday] morning, I was in shock. He was quite the character. He went about his business and he pitched hard and pitched well."

Wuertz was invited to Beck's RV after Iowa Cubs games.

"It was amazing how many people went back there behind the wall in center field," Wuertz said. "He'd have his cooler underneath, and grounds crew people and fans would come back. That's how he was. It was unbelievable how many fans would go back there and how he'd treat the fans. That's how he was.

"Just being able to take bits and pieces from him was a great thing. It's so sad. What he's done will leave a lasting impression on me. He treated fans like friends, no matter who they are. He always said it like it was. Watching him do that was an incredible thing."

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