I first met Bo Belinsky by the pool of the old Desert Inn in Palm Springs, Calif.
It was the spring of 1962. Belinsky was a 25-year-old southpaw the Los Angeles Angels had selected from the Baltimore Orioles in the minor league draft the previous December.
He had yet to throw a pitch in the major leagues, but he already had a reputation as a cocky, pool-playing wise guy from New Jersey, a kid who had dazzled scouts in the Oriole minor league system but whose discipline didn't always match his talent. He had reacted to the opportunity the second-year Angels were presenting by staging a contract holdout -- "I can make $6,500 shooting pool," he said of the club's offer while demanding $2,000 more -- and arriving late at his first big league training camp.
Imagine. With his young club hungering for a charismatic personality, with eager Angel reporters having already unearthed some of the wild anecdotes from his untamed years in the Oriole system and salivating at the thought of hearing from the real thing, there he was finally sitting by the Desert Inn pool, wearing shades to deflect the sun, a drink in his hand, perfectly at ease in the sparkling environment, as if he was already the toast of the town and this was just one more introductory news conference.
Emerging from that surreal setting, little could we anticipate the extent to which Belinsky would become the toast of the town.
Little could we anticipate how his, the club's and our own lives would change as we tried to keep pace with his dizzying odyssey under the neon lights of the Sunset Strip and his escapades on and off the field.
Little could we anticipate that he would begin his rookie season with a 5-0 record, including a no-hitter against his former Orioles, or that he would soon be dating Mamie Van Doren, Juliet Prowse, Tina Louise, Connie Stevens and Ann-Margret, among other Hollywood actresses, or that Walter Winchell would be flying out to report on his activities as he toured the Strip in a candy apple red Cadillac.
Nor, of course, could we anticipate then how quickly it all would end, how the early promise would dissolve in all the late nights, how the Angels would fine him, send him to the minors, ultimately trade him, and he would end up pitching for five big league teams, winning only 23 games after that 5-0 start, losing 51, and how, when we wrote about him in succeeding years, as we often did, it would be in the context of how the magic turned to illusion, of how the neons faded but the memories of that far different time and a far different era still remained vivid.
As Belinsky himself often said, "I've gotten more mileage out of winning 28 games than most guys do winning 200."
Now we write in the context of an obituary. Belinsky died Friday in Las Vegas, his home for the last dozen years.
He would have been 65 on Dec. 7, but bladder cancer, heart disease and hip replacement took a toll in recent years.
He died peacefully on the couch, his television on, a long way from the bright lights and champagne of his no-hitter, but regrets? A wasted life and talent? Should that be the context?
Maybe it's more important to know that Belinsky salvaged his final years, that he came back from the degradation of a derelict's existence to throw away the brown bag and deal with his alcohol and drug abuse, that he found God in his later years, became active in the Trinity Life Church, was productive in promotional work for the Findlay Management Group in Las Vegas and made several unsuccessful attempts to reunite with his three daughters from failed marriages to former Playboy centerfold Jo Collins and Janie Weyerhaeuser, heiress to the Weyerhaeuser paper and building materials conglomerate.
On Thanksgiving night, Belinsky had visited a good friend, Louis Rodophele, and his family before returning to his house.
"The real Bo is not the guy everyone envisions 35 years ago," an emotional Rodophele said.
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