Holton strug­gles to let go of sea­son of glory

Key re­liever in the Dodgers’ run to 1988 World Se­ries ti­tle still is caught in the past.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - BILL PLASCHKE

As Brian Holton lay in a Wis­con­sin hos­pi­tal pre­par­ing for knee-re­place­ment surgery a few days ago, he was com­forted by a num­ber on his med­i­cal chart.

It is a num­ber that, while leg­endary among Dodgers fans, has held an even greater im­por­tance to the team’s for­mer re­lief pitcher. It has de­fined both the best six months of his life and the dis­il­lu­sion­ing 29-year jour­ney to re­live it.

It has chased him through home­less­ness, jail and sub­stance abuse. Yet, for all the pain it has caused, it still fills Holton with blind­ing hope.

“On my chart, for what­ever rea­son, there was the num­ber 88,” said Holton. “I saw that and said, ‘Doc, this

:: You re­mem­ber Kirk Gib­son’s home run. But do you re­mem­ber Brian Holton hold­ing the Oak­land Ath­let­ics hit­less for two in­nings to help set up Gib­son’s blast?

“He was a guy who no­body had re­ally counted on, yet a guy who helped de­liver a world cham­pi­onship,” said Fred Claire, the Dodgers gen­eral man­ager at the time.

You re­mem­ber Mike Scios­cia’s home run. But do you re­mem­ber Holton pitch­ing out of a run­ner-on-third-none-out jam against those New York Mets to set up Scios­cia’s drive?

“He had big outs in big mo­ments in close games, a vi­tal part of our team,” Orel Her­shiser said.

For the last Dodgers World Se­ries cham­pi­onship, in 1988, Holton was their suf­fo­cat­ing mid­dle re­liever, their An­drew Miller, the best WAR in the bullpen, the best year of his life. In 45 ap­pear­ances, he was 7-3 with a 1.70 ERA, end­ing the sea­son with a 172⁄3-in­ning score­less streak.

But he pitched dur­ing a time when mid­dle re­liev­ers were anony­mous. He was lost in the glory of Gibby and Bull­dog and even closer Jay How­ell, even though Holton earned the save against the Mets in Game 5 of the Na­tional League Cham­pi­onship Se­ries while How­ell was serv­ing a sus­pen­sion for pine tar.

“I was kind of over­shad­owed,” said Holton, 57. “They al­ways talk about the stars from that sea­son, and right­fully so, but I’m like, ‘Hey, I also had a pretty good year.’ ”

To­day, he would have been one of those stars. But in 1988, he was lit­tle more than an odd­ity, a charmed Dodgers lifer who, at 28, fi­nally struck gold in his 11th year in the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Then when it was over, it was over. Barely a month af­ter the cham­pi­onship pa­rade, Holton was traded to the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles with Juan Bell and Ken How­ell for Ed­die Mur­ray.

“When I was told about the trade, I cursed and slammed down the phone be­cause I thought it was a joke,” Holton said. “It hurt. We had just won a World Se­ries, and I wanted to get my ring at Dodger Sta­dium, but in­stead I got it in the mail from Fed­eral Ex­press.”

It was a blow from which he never emo­tion­ally re­cov­ered. In two years with the Ori­oles he was 7-10 with a 4.18 ERA, and he never pitched in the big leagues again. He re­turned to the Dodgers for two mi­nor league sea­sons, but was never re­called and re­tired at 32 with a great sense of loss.

“I knew I would miss the game,” he said. “I didn’t re­al­ize how much I would miss the game.”

He missed it so much he got lost in a dizzy­ing ar­ray of per­sonal af­flic­tions and set­backs, and even­tu­ally fell off the grid. The Dodgers couldn’t find him. When track­ing down the 1988 team for an­niver­sary col­umns a cou­ple of years ago, I found ev­ery for­mer player but him. When he was found, Claire was so sur­prised that he taped a mes­sage to play for Holton dur­ing our in­ter­view.

“Hey Brian, Fred Claire … the Dodgers, will never for­get, ever, what you meant to the last world cham­pi­onship. You were huge, you were ab­so­lutely huge. I know what you did, and how many times you did it, in a role that got so over­looked.”

Holton heard the mes­sage in that hos­pi­tal bed in Wis­con­sin and his voice thick­ened.

“Holy cow, that was re­ally Fred Claire, that gave me the goose bumps,” he said. “Best year of my life.”

Holton de­cided to fi­nally talk about his life be­cause, with this year’s Dodgers seem­ingly on an un­stop­pable jour­ney to­ward their first World Se­ries cham­pi­onship since 1988, he wanted to give his po­ten­tial suc­ces­sors some ad­vice.

“I want tell them to slow it down, step back, try to en­joy ev­ery mo­ment,” he said. “Be­cause it goes by so damn quick.”

One minute Holton was run­ning out of the Dodgers bullpen and past left fielder Gib­son, who greeted each of his home ap­pear­ances with the same warn­ing.

“Gibby would shout to me, ‘Don’t screw this up,’ ” he said. “With that kind of in­tim­i­da­tion, how could I screw it up?”

The next minute he was danc­ing in Oak­land, parad­ing through down­town Los An­ge­les, ap­pear­ing on “The Gong Show.”

“I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘So this is what it’s like to win a World Se­ries,’ ” he said. “To­day I’m like, ‘Holy cow, I was ac­tu­ally there.’ ” And then he wasn’t. “I kept chas­ing that feel­ing from 1988, but I just never got it back,” he said. “I was liv­ing my dream, then it came down to the other part of my life, the re­al­ity part, and it wasn’t real good.”

He saved his Dodgers uni­form, never even washed it, keeps it in a plas­tic laun­dry bag with his stained cap, pulls it out some­times, says it still smells like musty cham­pagne. But af­ter be­com­ing ad­dicted to al­co­hol and pain med­i­ca­tion, he lost ev­ery­thing else.

He pawned his World Se­ries ring to stay out of bank­ruptcy. His mar­riage ended in di­vorce. He spent time in a Wis­con­sin jail when he didn’t make child­sup­port pay­ments for his two daugh­ters. He en­tered a sub­stance-abuse pro­gram. He lived in a home­less shel­ter.

He says he tried to make life work. He un­loaded trucks. He worked in a mail­room. He ran a coun­try store. He man­aged a dis­count va­ri­ety store. He sold mulch. None of it could com­pare to work­ing at Chavez Ravine.

“It still seems like yes­ter­day when I was com­ing into the game, I can still al­most smell the pine tar in my glove,” he said, paus­ing, laugh­ing. “Yeah, I used pine tar. What can they do to me now?”

He spent a lot of his time in a drug and al­co­hol haze, bat­tling demons that still con­front him to­day.

“I was de­pressed, drink­ing a lot, tak­ing pain pills, didn’t care about any­thing, my life turned into crap,” he said. “I kept think­ing, there has to be more to life than this. A lot of times I went to sleep think­ing, if I don’t wake up, c’est la vie.’’

He now lives in sub­ur­ban Mil­wau­kee in the home of long­time friend Kath­lene Wells, who is help­ing him re­cover from two knee re­place­ments in re­cent months. He has no job. He is liv­ing off sav­ings and a ma­jor league pen­sion. He be­lieves his life is turn­ing around. He knows it is a daily strug­gle.

”He wants to be back in the past, when he was a great base­ball star, but that’s back there, that’s not here now,” Wells said. “He hit the big time, then he had it taken away. I just hope he’s on the way back.”

He is plan­ning on it. He has a sou­venir Dodgers cap that he wears when he watches their games. He plans on watch­ing all of their post­sea­son games, cheer­ing like a kid, cheer­ing not just for to­day, but for their to­mor­rows.

“Just like them, prob­a­bly, I couldn’t imag­ine in my wildest dreams I would have a sea­son like I had,” he said. “Slow it down. Keep it. It’s magic. And then it’s gone.”

Dou­glas C. Pizac As­so­ci­ated Press

BRIAN HOLTON fin­ished the 1988 sea­son with 172⁄3 score­less in­nings for the Dodgers.

Mark Len­ni­han As­so­ci­ated Press

BRIAN HOLTON hugs man­ager Tommy La­sorda as pitch­ing coach Ron Per­ra­noski, left, looks on af­ter hold­ing off the New York Mets in 1988 play­off game.

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