SI Vault
Once He Was an Angel
Pat Jordan
March 28, 1994
In this SI Classic from March 1972, bon vivant Bo Belinsky muses on the pitching promise he wasted, and the fun he had doing it
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March 28, 1994

Once He Was An Angel

In this SI Classic from March 1972, bon vivant Bo Belinsky muses on the pitching promise he wasted, and the fun he had doing it

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A few months after his 30th birthday—and four years before he would retire unnoticed from baseball—Belinsky began realizing that his future was no longer promising. He was struggling toward a 3-9 record with the Houston Astros. His career had collapsed, he believed, under the weight of too many fines, suspensions, trades and banishments to the minors—not to mention the weight of his own personality. Each setback seemed to have been visited upon him just as he was about to reach his peak. At 30 there were no more peaks in sight. He knew that the public, which once had found him an entertaining young man, had grown increasingly weary and annoyed with what it felt was his unstable and self-destructive behavior. As an aging and unsuccessful playboy, Belinsky had become a parody of himself. When asked how he felt about being 30, he replied with a smile, "It's no fun knowing that in every home in America your birthday is celebrated as a day of infamy." An exaggeration certainly, a delusion of grandeur perhaps, for it is doubtful that anyone in America, including Belinsky, had celebrated the birthday at all.

However, the remark was telling. It was characteristically cute. It seemed to have been delivered more for its effect than its truth by a man more concerned with style than substance. It was tossed off, discarded really, with that ironic smile of disavowal—as if it were nothing but the surplus from a warehouse of such remarks, remarks he must unload whenever he felt the occasion deserved not truth but wit. Yet the annoying suspicion remained that Belinsky felt the remark contained more truth than wit. Whether this feeling was nothing more than the overblown self-pity of a too shallow man or the heightened perception of a too sensitive man was not clear. It was certain only that Belinsky had dissipated a promising career, that people had grown tired of him, and that most of his difficulty could be traced to his personality. He did not have the knack of later athletes—the Namaths, Harrelsons and Sandersons—of cultivating his personality precisely up to, but not beyond, that point at which the public becomes bored with it.

Belinsky is now 35. He leans forward in his armchair to better examine the picture of himself holding that no-hit baseball 10 years ago. With the tips of his lingers he displaces a lock of hair from his forehead. It is an exquisite, almost delicate gesture done in slow motion. His hair is black. He wears it long and shaggy rather than slicked back and gleaming as he did when the photograph was made. He remains darkly handsome, although his skin is no longer tight and sleek. There are lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth. He is wearing a cream-colored bathing suit with Bo embroidered in script on the left leg. Despite added flesh spilling over at the waist, despite the tiny stubble of beard and the lines and the look of aging, somehow Belinsky looks better than he did 10 years before. He looks truer, more substantial, as if the lines and added pounds had forced upon him dimensions and substance he did not have then, and which he had not consciously cultivated since. He seems less slick, less glossy, less conscious of his external self. He no longer possesses that pampered, satisfied look that gave one the impression that if you tried to grab hold of him, your hands would slip off from the grease.

After his no-hitter his mother told reporters that her son worked out every day in a gym. "Bo just loves his body," she said. Today, a hot summer morning six months after his retirement, Belinsky no longer exercises. As is his custom, he will do nothing more strenuous than sit for hours in the living room of this spacious ranch home tucked high into the Hollywood Hills overlooking Los Angeles. Possibly, he will work out his horoscope. He is a Sagittarius. ("A very flexible sign in the universe," he says. "A Sag gets along with everyone.") But it makes little difference what his day's horoscope suggests (a long hike in the mountains?); his routine will not vary. He will sit until noon in the shallow of the chimney, centered in the living room, so as to best avoid the sunlight pouring through the sliding glass doors to his left. He will sip steadily from the glass on the coffee table beside his armchair and, to amuse himself, perhaps watch a morning quiz show, or just gaze at the many paintings, poems, artifacts and photographs that hang on the walls. Most of the photographs are of his friends, some in cowboy suits, with drawn guns and pixie smiles. Belinsky will pass the time in small talk with those same friends, who drift in and out of this room over which he, the orchestrator of the day's unfolding, presides.

It is nine in the morning, and the room is occupied by seven or eight people in various states of sprawl. All are strangely quiet, self-contained, as if this huge room were a universe and each person in it a planet, spinning in an orbit entirely his or her own. Most of them, including Belinsky, have yet to sleep after last night's party, which concluded only minutes ago.

On the other side of the coffee table sits a pudgy, gray-haired man in his 50's, his face buried in his hands. He is wearing striped bell-bottoms and no shirt. His name is Phil. He works for a company that makes locks and burglar alarms. He is moaning softly. Beside him, folded like a jack-knife on the couch, is a tall, slender girl in a flowered bikini. Bonnie is 18. Her chin is resting on her raised knee so she can best paint her toenails. She is totally absorbed, though occasionally she will look up, wide-eyed, and blow a kiss in Belinsky's direction. He will smile back. ("A stray," he says. "I found her last night on the Strip. She wants to stay.")

Another girl in a bikini moves slowly about the room, collecting glasses, emptying ashtrays, dusting. Linda has pale blue eyes, bright red hair and, at 30, a fleshy but attractive body. ("Linda's a good chickie," says Bo. "She's got her share of patches.")

Standing in front of a mirror is a lean man in his late 30's. He has fine, straight features, unblinking eyes, a long ponytail and gray muttonchops. He is studiously fluffing out his sideburns with one hand; with the other he adjusts the cartridge belt slung over one shoulder. His name is Chris. He is a prophet. Every afternoon at lunchtime he walks down to Schwab's drugstore, climbs onto a soapbox and preaches to the passersby. Today he will warn the crowds that if they continue to worship material things, they will never perceive the spiritual. "Dead things are for blind people," he will say. And then, "The jackals of hell will lick your blood from the streets." Later he will walk back to the house, prepare an organic lunch for himself and his dog and watch The Dating Game on television. (Of Chris, Bo says, "He's all right. A little freaky, maybe, but aren't we all? He's got his little act, so what? Everybody's got a little act.")

Alongside the glass sliding doors that overlook a tear-shaped swimming pool one story below, a skinny man in a white bathing suit sleeps on another couch. This is Lennie, the owner of the house. Lying there, Lennie is making it difficult for a painter to reach the wall behind the couch. The painter has been working on the same wall for six days. Often he pauses and glances down at the swimming pool where two girls are sunning themselves, both lying on their backs and wearing only the bottoms of their bikinis.

Belinsky puts down the picture of himself and sits back in his chair. "What was I thinking then? I was thinking, Man, a no-hitter, that's nice! I wonder what happens next? I mean, a no-hitter, it's nice but it's no big thing." He picks up his glass, takes a sip and returns it to the table. "Sure, I would have liked to have had a career after that. But I never thought I would. I knew there was always someone waiting around the corner to take a shot at me. Besides, there's no way I could have lived my life differently. Can a leopard change his spots? You can shave all the fur off the poor beast, and he's still got his spots, right? Who can explain it? Why does a mad dog howl at the moon? Why did I do the things I did?" He smiles and drains his glass. He motions with it toward the redhead. "Heh, Babe, some more Wheaties?"

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