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A Specialist In Flying Objects
Ron Fimrite
June 02, 1986
When he's not launching baseballs into space, Darrell Evans of the Tigers watches for a visiting team
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June 02, 1986

A Specialist In Flying Objects

When he's not launching baseballs into space, Darrell Evans of the Tigers watches for a visiting team

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Darrell Evans had scarcely pulled his car into the driveway of his house in Pleasanton, Calif. on that June night in 1982 when he saw his wife, LaDonna, beckoning to him agitatedly from the deck above. LaDonna is a vital, enthusiastic woman under the mildest of circumstances, but this salutation had an urgency that, considering his mood and needs of the moment, did not sit at all well with him. Evans had just finished another evening on the bench in frigid Candlestick Park and was looking forward to a restful few moments reclining on the warm, moonlit deck of his hillside home in the suburbs before turning in. Such are the vicissitudes of weather in the San Francisco Bay Area that temperatures may vary as much as 30° in 30 miles. The Stick had been cold. Pleasanton was balmy. LaDonna was definitely overheated.

"You've got to see this," she said in a breathy whisper, urging him toward the very deck he had hoped to occupy in blissful forgetfulness of his apparently declining fortunes with the San Francisco Giants. The team had recently brought up from the minors a 21-year-old youngster, Tom O'Malley, to take his place, Evans had reason to fear, at third base. And the veteran Reggie Smith was playing first, Darrell's other position. Evans, at 35, was stricken with the chilling realization that he, in every sense, was the man left out in the cold. But now his dear wife was gesturing animatedly, saying little, steering him toward...what?

It was an extraordinarily clear night, and the Evans home of that time was situated on a steep hill that commanded a view of the valley below. The house was only a few miles from the municipal airport in Livermore, so the Evanses were accustomed to the sight of small planes flying in the night toward that modest facility. They were equally familiar with airliners thundering overhead on a westward course to the sprawling Oakland and San Francisco airports. Both of them were veteran sky-watchers. LaDonna had been a stewardess before she married Darrell in 1975, and he had been an amateur astronomer since he was 12 years old. But nothing in their years of searching the heavens had prepared them for what they saw hovering noiselessly, perhaps only a hundred feet above the deck of their home.

"It was shaped like a triangle," La-Donna recalls. "The lights were bright and white, not at all like the lights on an aircraft. The fuselage was charcoal gray, kind of opalescent. It looked like steel. The fuselage sloped down to a window-less dome. There was no sound at all. Usually, our dogs, Kelly, the shepherd, and Bridget, the cocker, would react to something like that, but neither of them moved a hair."

"LaDonna wanted me to get a camera, but I said no, I just wanted to watch," says Darrell. "It was so strange. It was as if they wanted us to see them. It was as if they had singled us out. At least, I wanted to think that. I guess I'd always hoped there'd be something like this, something that would come in peace. I think we knew from the start what it was."

"It would be vain of us," says LaDonna, "to think there was no one else in the universe."

The Evanses marveled at this celestial apparition for perhaps 20 minutes, waiting for some message or sign. Evans is not only a student of the stars, he is also a passionate reader of space literature, and not just paperback science fiction. His library, which also includes in its eclectic shelves everything from Tolstoy to Sidney Sheldon, bulges with the works of such as Carl Sagan and Ray Bradbury. He inherited his interest in space from his father, who was a supervising mechanic at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Evans has communicated with J. Allen Hynek (who died April 27), the academician who once headed the Air Force's UFO investigative unit and who coined the expression that Steven Spielberg popularized, "close encounter of the third kind." Evans is by any definition a sensible and intelligent man, a leader in both baseball chapel and Players Association undertakings. He is also happily blessed with what he calls "a sense of wonder." He was so awash with wonder on that June night in '82 that he neglected to capture the UFO with his camera. When he finally decided to get the camera, the visiting craft first moved tentatively forward into the night and then disappeared altogether as Evans futilely ran outside to see it off.

The Evanses confided their experience to only a few close friends. They were, as far as they knew, the only people in their neighborhood to have seen this wonder of the night, not surprising considering that the visitation occurred after midnight, an hour in Pleasanton when only ballplayers returning from night games could be expected to be up and about. They did not go public with their revelation until almost two years later. As pillars of the community, they had no wish to be identified with the dingbat element. "That's not the sort of thing you bring up to people you've just met," says Evans. But there is no question in their minds that what they saw was a spacecraft from elsewhere. They do not joke about it. They do not preface their recollections with giggling disclaimers on the order of "You'll probably think we're crazy, and I don't blame you, but...." No, they saw what they saw. They know it. And that's that. "We have used that experience to gain perspective," says Darrell of a commodity notably lacking in the game of baseball.

It would be frivolous, of course, to suggest that somebody up there likes him, but the fact remains that after the UFO dropped by his house, things looked up for Darrell Evans. He finished out the year, in which he didn't expect to play much, by appearing in 141 games and improving his sagging batting average to .256, while the Giants, who were floundering in June, recovered to contend for the division title right up to the last two days of the season. In 1983 Evans had his best season in a decade, hitting 30 homers. He then became a free agent and that December signed a three-year, $2.25 million contract with the Detroit Tigers, who promptly won the World Series, the first Evans had ever played in. Last year, at 38, he became the oldest player to lead the American League in home runs, with 40, and the first Tiger to do so in 39 years. He also became the first player to hit 40 or more homers in both leagues (he hit 41 for Atlanta in 1973). He has settled LaDonna and their three children—Stacy, 8, Nick, 5, and Chad, nine months (his oldest son, Derek, 15, lives with his mother, Evans's first wife, in Southern California)—in a spacious Colonial-style mansion alongside a golf course in ritzy Grosse Pointe Farms, a neighborhood also inhabited by folks named Goodyear, Stroh and Ford.

Yes, the years since that heavenly visitation have been kind to him. They have also been cruel. Evans has had to employ all the perspective at his command to ward off the outrageous slings and arrows that have come his way these past four years. He became a free agent after the '83 season because the Giants didn't want him. They further advised him that, despite his 30 dingers, no one else was much interested in old infielders. Evans was beginning to believe them when, vacationing at Lake Tahoe, he received a phone call from his agent, Jerry Kapstein. "Get a pencil," Kapstein instructed him. "Then," says Evans, "he started reading off the names. It was incredible. Eighteen teams drafted me!" He finally signed with the Tigers 1) because they were a contender, 2) because the right-field fence at Tiger Stadium was conveniently situated for lefthanded hitters and 3) because the team seemed unsettled at first and third, his positions. Besides, Detroit manager Sparky Anderson had called Evans personally to tell him how much he wanted him. Sometime between that call and Opening Day, Sparky must have grown disenchanted with his newest Tiger, for he used him in only 131 games, 62 of them at the amorphous and, for Evans, unfamiliar position of designated hitter. Evans was versatile enough to have filled in at shortstop for the Giants, so sitting around took some getting used to.

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