With sports on this continent still at a standstill, the urge is to look back. Most channels have been running classic games as some portion of their schedule. Maybe your local RSN has run your favorite team’s greatest moments. “The Last Dance” was 10 hours of pure nostalgia and not much else, garnering huge ratings for ESPN. Old debates and arguments have been rehashed. In that style, today is a day worth celebrating.
It is the 50th anniversary of Dock Ellis throwing a no-hitter on acid.
By now, the details are known to most fans. Ellis was actually in Los Angeles the morning of his start, thinking he wasn’t pitching until the next day, and could therefore dose to his heart’s content. He found out from a newspaper that he was scheduled to start, and only arrived at the stadium 90 minutes before first pitch.
He was wild, walking eight and hitting another while striking out six. Diving out of the way of soft grounders vaguely in his direction.
Sure, the stories of his hallucinations entertain all, but that doesn’t really get to the heart of the true triumph at hand. Because being on acid is more than just seeing stuff. It’s not just making an abstract art museum out of wherever you happen to be.
Anyone who’s been on LSD will tell you that your sense of time on the drug is completely changed. You experience the 10 seconds behind you and the 10 seconds in front of you at once. It’s not just visual trails, but auditory and sensory ones as well. Ellis could have very easily been seeing the pitch he’d just delivered at the same time the ball was being thrown back to him. He could have heard the crack of the bat while the runner was already heading back to the dugout after being thrown out. He probably was diving out of the way of those softly-hit grounders because the ball would have just been on him. He would have never seen it approach, and yet would have seen it approach two or three times simultaneously. Where did he find the stability to focus on what was actually happening?
Because the harder you focus on just one thing, the more you lose control of everything. Perhaps Ellis could have tried to piece it all together, one at a time. Staring hard at the catcher’s signal, and then focusing solely on throwing the pitch. But it wouldn’t have worked that way. It would be like trying to focus on a bird overhead while floating in the middle of the ocean and being attacked by sharks who are also singing K-pop songs loudly.
Throw in the fact that he was trying to strike out Jimi Hendrix, with Richard Nixon umpiring to a catcher whose very existence was uncertain, and you get a sliver of the idea about what an achievement this was.
Ellis conducted a Beethoven symphony in the middle of a burning house while the land around him fell into the Earth.
Perhaps Ellis benefitted from needing a step-ladder to scratch his ass (h/t Kinky Friedman) that day. He didn’t deal with the normal pressure and tension of carrying a no-hitter through nine innings. He was just too focused on getting through the whole thing without being eaten by the bear in the batter’s box. Certainly it would help distract him from the history he was trying to create. The tense dugout atmosphere normally at play during a no-hitter would have been unnoticeable to Ellis.
And maybe the wildness benefited him as well. It’s an extreme stroke of luck that his lack of control — that led to eight walks and one HBP — didn’t also mean a few pitches got lost in the zone and crushed. Every no-hitter has a slice of luck, but perhaps the utter terror of stepping into the box against a pitcher who is clearly on drugs — with little grasp of where the ball is going, or whom it’s being thrown to — stopped hitters from squaring up whatever mistakes Ellis did make. Maybe the batters were just happy to not piss themselves.
It should be mentioned that Ellis himself wouldn’t have wanted this anniversary to be marked, certainly not celebrated. After retiring from baseball, he became an activist and a counselor for those with substance abuse problems. He helped countless people, especially those incarcerated, to get clean. He was a constant driving force for progress in baseball’s labor issues, and a vocal opponent of institutional racism.
Only presidents, it seems, get to choose their legacy (which is how the aforementioned Nixon somehow ended up with glowing eulogies when he thankfully kicked off this mortal plane). But the whole picture should be painted. That oft-celebrated night in San Diego is part of the story, but probably far too big of Ellis’s whole story. It certainly gives more definition to his great work after he was done playing. The no-hitter is only one piece of a complete arc.
But as times change, perhaps we view drug use a little less like one end of the spectrum, and the wrong one at that. Hell, psychedelics in recent studies have shown they might, might aid those with certain mental illnesses.
It’s a too-slow process, but with the continuing legalization of marijuana throughout the country and the growing view of drugs as more of an economic and health issue, we see it less as a criminal pursuit to be hidden and shamed. Society is not there yet, but it’s inching that way.
And once we stop deriding the drug use, then Ellis’ accomplishment should stand out even more. It’s less and less of a “freak show,” as time moves on. It’ll always be at least partially cartoonish, because how could it not be? We see it more and more as a quirk than as a defining characteristic. And yet the physical task and achievement...it will never be topped.