By Scott A. Rowan
How can you not like an overweight, mullet-wearing, Fu Manchu mustache– growing guy who smoked while riding a stationary bike and defended his beer belly by saying: “I’ve never seen anyone on the DL [disabled list] with pulled fat”?
Rodney Roy Beck, aka Rod Beck, aka “Shooter,” was an instant success in Chicago, catapulting the 1998 Cubs to the playoffs thanks to his best season as a closer, during which he notched a career-high 51 saves that earned him an eternal spot in the Cubs’ galaxy of stars. However, like Chicago-bred comedians with bulbous proportions and an appetite for drinking and drugs who died too soon, Beck would leave everyone wanting more.
Chicago icons John Belushi and Chris Farley died from drug overdoses, both at the age of 33. Farley’s death came in 1998, the year that Beck ignited the town with his large personality and belly. Like Belushi and Farley, Beck died from a drug overdose, his coming in 2007 at the age of 38. Coors Light, Kool cigarettes, and fun times were part of the package when you hung out with Beck, who summed up his no-frills approach to the game simply: “I’m old school. I was taught that ice was for bourbon, not for your arm.”74 Beck never became comfortable with the trappings of stardom—as witnessed by the mobile home trailer he lived in for a season.
Beck proved himself to be a solid closer during seven seasons in San Francisco for the Giants before joining the Cubs in 1998. Chicago showed Beck their confidence in his abilities, giving him a $3.6-million contract for 1998 (the seventh-highest salary on the team). Beck responded with 51 saves.
The team reached the playoffs thanks to a magical game with Shakespearean proportions. Tied at the end of the regular season, the Cubs and Giants were forced to play the famous “163rd Game.” This was, in effect, a one-game playoff with the winner advancing to the actual playoffs. Beck’s former club and his current one had one night to see which team would continue playing.
“It was the first year after Harry Caray had passed,” Beck recalled to Chicago Tribune columnist Fred Mitchell a few years later. “Then we had that eerie night of the 163rd game when we had to play the Giants. Then to beat the team that ultimately was still paying me was funny. So they paid me to beat them that night. Dusty [Baker] was in the other dugout, and the Harry Caray balloon was floating in the air. It was eerie.”
It would also be the highlight of his career. When Beck was recalling that game to Mitchell in 2003, he was living in his mobile home behind the outfield walls of the A A A Iowa Cubs stadium, hoping for a second chance at the big leagues. What nobody knew at the time was that Beck was already in a gradual decline that would ultimately lead to his death.
The Cubs made Beck their second-highest paid player in 1999 with a $5.5- million contract eclipsed only by Sammy Sosa’s $9-million deal. Sadly, it was to be the last year that Beck would entertain fans at the Friendly Confines. He then signed with Boston for three years; from 1999 to 2002, his production declined as he notched only nine saves and a 9–5 record with a 3.46 ERA.
Reconstructive surgery on his right elbow forced Beck to miss the entire 2002 season. In the wake of his surgery, no team offered him a major league contract. The Cubs offered him a minor league contract, which Beck signed. Thinking he would only be in Des Moines (home of the A A A Cubs affiliate) for a few weeks, Beck decided to drive his motor home to Iowa and live in it instead of going through the hassle of renting a short-term apartment. Beck parked his RV approximately 400 feet behind the center-field fence, along the Des Moines River.
The pitcher welcomed anyone to stop by and chat, drink a beer, eat a hot dog, or just hang out. It was an unprecedented move by a legitimate big league star. A blue neon sign in the shape of a martini glass was Beck’s signal to the world that he was ready for company. If the light was on, it meant anyone could stop by. “I promise you, that light never goes off,” Cubs reliever Phil Norton told Wayne Drehs for a 2003 ESPN The Magazine article. “I’m not even sure it has a switch.”
All were welcome at Beck’s trailer. Some fans brought provisions, but if the beer was anything other than Coors Light, he’d politely refuse, pulling a silver can from the cooler under his RV instead and offering his visitors a can as well. “I didn’t want to get a liquor license,” Beck joked with Drehs, “so I just give the stuff away for free.“
“A fireman stopped by the other night,” Beck told Mitchell for his Chicago Tribune column while they sat outside his mobile home along the river in 2003, “A state policeman stopped by. At first I thought I was in trouble. But they would just come by and ask for an autograph and hang out. And I’ve had some people come by when they weren’t on duty and have a beer or whatever. It’s been quite the adventure.”
Late in the 2003 season, the San Diego Padres gave Beck a chance while reliever Trevor Hoffman was recuperating from a shoulder injury. Shooter notched 20 saves in his limited time with the Padres. They would be the last saves of his professional career. What none of his baseball colleagues realized was that somewhere between Des Moines and San Diego, Beck had developed an addiction to cocaine.77
Shooter’s life began to unravel. His wife, Stacey, and various friends confronted the pitcher, who resisted at first, but finally admitted to his problem. He went into rehab, then relapsed. Stacey told him he would only be allowed back in the family home if he agreed to get help again.78 This time the Padres were involved and supportive, placing him in a 30-day rehabilitation program that was followed by six weeks of outpatient therapy. But it didn’t stick, and by August, he had pitched only 24 innings in 26 games with a 6.38 ER A. The Padres released Beck, who went back to drugs. Thrown out of his home by his wife, Shooter moved into a nearby house. It was in that home that Beck died on June 23, 2007.
ESPN reporter Amy K. Nelson described the scene that police officers found in Shooter’s home:
Police arrived to a den of cocaine and crack, with pipes in about every feasible place Beck could stash his daily tools of addiction. . . . The baseball player was long gone on that June day, but there were a few remnants of his prolific career, and reminders of who he once was. Among those was a white ceramic plate in the form of a baseball. Atop it lay a rolled-up dollar bill, Beck’s 1993 San Francisco Giants baseball card, and a dusting of cocaine over the plate.
Beck wasn’t the first MLB player to die of a drug overdose, but he is the only Cubs player known to have allowed drugs to take his life. Other players who lost their lives due to cocaine include Rod Scurry (1992), Eric Show (1994), Darrell Porter (2002), and Ken Caminiti (2004). Caminiti is the only one whose fame was on the same level as Beck’s. None of them was as entertaining.
Shooter’s nickname was apt considering the brief, meteoric time during which Cubs fans came to know and love this boisterous pitcher. While we delight in recalling the fun times Beck created and inspired, it would be irresponsible to fail to acknowledge the pain addiction can cause to family and fans alike. Anyone suffering from cocaine addiction can seek help from a number of organizations, including the Coalition against Drug Abuse (DrugAbuse.com) and Cocaine Anonymous (CA.org).
“This is not a game or an occupation; it’s a lifestyle,” Beck told Drehs in 2003. “So if I give this up, what the hell else am I going to do?” Beck was laid to rest in his casket wearing a full Chicago Cubs uniform, making him forever a Cubs player in more than just fans’ memories.
“Scorecard,” Sports Illustrated, March 16, 1998.
Wayne Drehs, “The place to go where no one knows your name,” Ecom, May 20, 2003, http://static.espn.go.com/mlb/s/2003/0515/1554407.html.
Fred Mitchell, “RV home on the range,” Chicago Tribune, May 19, 2003, http://articles.chicagotribune. com/2003-05-19/sports/0305190167_1_winnebago-autograph-triple-a- iowa-cubs.
Amy K. Nelson, “‘Shooter‘ Beck lived as hard as he played,” EScom, October 12, 2007, http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=3060456.
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