Thursday, March 22, 2012

For Dock Ellis On His 67th Birthday: LSD Memories, Celluloid Dreams

from The Classical:
Given that his Baseball Reference comparables include Mike Boddicker and Charlie Leibrandt, Dock Ellis has enjoyed a good deal more staying power in baseball lore than would seem reasonable. He had some very good seasons during his long career, with his best coming as co-ace of the 1971 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. But that was the only season in which Ellis made an All-Star team, and one of just a handful of seasons in his career that even made basic statistical sense—when he went 17-8 with the Yankees five years later, Ellis struck out 65 batters in 211 2/3 innings. Which was 11 fewer than he walked.

And there was, of course, the ineffable and irreducible Dock-iness of the guy. If his K/BB ratio was somewhat mindbending, it could be argued that this was also the least surprising thing about a dude otherwise given to rocking curlers in the locker room, free-associating his way through interviews, and building with future Poet Laureate Donald Hall. And there was, of course, the no-hitter that Ellis threw on June 12, 1970, against San Diego, in which Ellis walked eight, plonked one, and was frying royally on acid throughout.

You have probably heard about this, because it is is amazing. You might have read A.J. Daulerio's attempt at a pharmaceutically accurate re-enactment of the feat, or enjoyed the fact that Vice has turned the doing-something-incongruous-while-on-acid genre into a very amusing web series. There is a brilliant video about the experience, narrated by Ellis, directed by James Blagden, and godfathered by the good people at No Mas. You have almost certainly seen this video, but it couldn't really hurt to watch it again, right? Because of how great it is, I mean, and because it's Dock Ellis's birthday, and it's surely what he would want.
But while all of this is indeed very awesome, there was more to Dock Ellis than this unique Legacy of Acid Curveball Visionz and his varied on-field feats. It's that other, broader, actual-human-person Ellis who has lost ground to the tripping-balls one—the former being the one who was regarded, somewhat ridiculously and certainly ignorantly, as a black militant during his playing days; the one who mentored kids in the California correctional system; the one who, to reiterate this in case it didn't resonate enough before, collaborated on a book with a future United States poet laureate. All of whom, of course, were very much the person who would wind up pitching a no-hitter while tripping balls. It's that guy—the one who is also all of those Dock Ellis-es—that fascinates and animates the people behind No No: The Dockumentary, a new documentary about Ellis and his various lives.

The project, which co-producer Chris Cortez expects will be finished within the year, is already some ways along—Cortez estimates that the team has shot over 50 hours of footage, with interviewees ranging from former teammates Dave Cash, Al Oliver and Steve Blass to the Ellis family in Southern California and the kids Dock worked with in the correctional system. "We became interested in Dock the same way as everyone else," Cortez says. "I mean, this is the guy who pitched a no-hitter on LSD." What animated the film, though, and what has been revealed during the 50-plus hours of interview coverage, is that Ellis was significantly more than the sum of that one deathless lysergic landmark and other quantifiable achievements.

Which is also true of just about every human, but especially so in the case of Ellis, who was so very publicly his contradictory, confounding, relentlessly Dock-ish self to stand out even in an era when players could afford to be weird—"Something about making $9,000 instead of $9 million let these guys be different," Cortez says. "And Dock had no fear with the tongue."

"He was born into a middle class life, and was in many respects a regular middle-class California kid," Cortez says. "But he was always drawn in these strange directions." Mapping those directions, and the tides that carried Ellis from one strange port to another, is a necessarily complicated task, but one that Cortez says is in the home stretch—editing has begun on the footage, although the film will likely launch a Kickstarter campaign in order to fund some animation and other last-minute needs.

Offering guidance during the process is an "advisory committee" that seems both appropriately and implausibly all over the map—it includes Ellis's former big league contemporary Scipio Spinks, South By Southwest founder Louis Black, and legendary punk photographer Glen E. Friedman, whom Ellis befriended at a ballgame when Friedman was a kid (there's a picture of them together on Friedman's website). It's a diverse group, all of whom Cortez says have offered input on matters ranging from verisimilitude to budgeting. There's the sense that, given who Dock Ellis was—how many things and how many people simultaneously, and how joyously he embodied those different identities—only a group this diverse could come close to capturing him.

We'll have a longer Q&A with Cortez about the film sometime soon, but for now, celebrate Dock Ellis Day—responsibly, please: LSD is pretty bad for you—secure in the knowledge that more Dock-related good times are coming. We may not see his like again, but we won't have reason to forget him anytime soon.

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