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Steve Garvey and when a childhood idol becomes the lesser man

Steve Garvey played baseball for the LA Dodgers and San Diego Padres, and is now CA Senate Candidate
Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images; Mario Tama/Getty Images

Fifty years ago, Garvey became a superstar and a personal hero, and 50 years later he is a major disappointment.

It's the opening day of the 2024 baseball season (well, at least here in the U.S.), and it has always been one of my favorite — and most anticipated — days of the year. And it was 50 years ago this year, when my favorite (former) baseball player, Steve Garvey, rocketed to Major League Baseball fame.

First, Roberto Clemente has long been a hero to me. He tapped my head at the Pittsburgh airport when I was 5. I’ll never forget that. Clemente died when I was 8. He was killed in a plane crash on his way to Nicaragua to help survivors of a devastating earthquake on December 31, 1972.

Garvey was my childhood hero, because Clemente died before I became an obsessive baseball fan, which happened when I was 10, the year Garvey became a star. He was the National League’s Most Valuable Player that year. He was a write-in starter in the All-Star Game that July, only the second write-in starter ever, and he was the game’s MVP.

I can still recite his numbers for that year. He had 200 hits, 21 home runs, 111 runs batted in, and he hit .312. I can promise you I didn’t Google that! I also remember he was born in Tampa, Fla., on December 22, 1948. He went to Michigan State. There wasn’t anything I did not know about him.

I met Garvey for the first time in 1974. Tom Walker, who was a pitcher for the Montreal Expos, was married that fall at my church, St. Teresa’s in Pittsburgh. I served the Mass, where Garvey was the best man. I was in awe. That was the first time I got his autograph (and Walker’s, below). I ended up with six. Some in my autograph book and several in a scrapbook I kept on Garvey during my teenage years.

I learned a few things about him at that early age. He was a devout Catholic, like my dad, so that endeared him to me. I heard that he was what was called a daily communicant, which means he went to church every day. I did the same thing, starting in college and for most of my adult life, until fairly recently when I realized that church didn’t accept me. I didn’t go every day solely because of him. There were other reasons. But I’ll never forget knowing that about him sometimes while I sat through weekday Mass.

When the Dodgers would come to Pittsburgh to play the Pirates, I tried to go see him each time. I remember standing outside the players’ entrance, waiting for him to come out. He’d come over and say hi, sign my scrapbook, and then hurry off and go get on the team bus. You have to remember that Garvey was one of the best players in the game at that time. He was a superstar, and I felt so special, particularly in the years I’d see him after my father died.

As I grew older, Garvey became less relevant to me, but he remained special nonetheless. I always kept up with what he was doing. He left the Dodgers, and in late 1982, he signed a huge contract with the San Diego Padres. Garvey retired in 1987, the year after I graduated from college.

It was a few years later that I reunited, so to speak, with Garvey. I was working on Capitol Hill, and a mutual friend set up a time for me to meet Garvey while he was in town and staying at the Hyatt. Here I was, I thought at the time, this little boy who grew up to be a press secretary working in Washington, D.C. How impressive I must have been to him – well, so I imagined.

The meeting was brief, but this guy I idolized all my life was standing before me, and I suddenly felt like that little boy again, and to be honest, I didn’t like it. My years following Garvey were also years spent with untold abuse and intense unhappiness, so the thought of going back to being that little boy was unsettling. I did recall how much happiness he brought to my life via his success, so there was a sentimental element to seeing him as an adult.

The meeting didn’t last long, and later I moved to New York and lived a full life. I was a gay man. It was what God made me to be. My life went in a completely different direction than I ever thought it would, Garvey became a distant memory. Until now.

His name has resurfaced, of course, after he decided to make a run as a Republican for the U.S. Senate from California. And earlier this month, he finished second to Democratic U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, and the two will face each other in the general election in November. (In California, candidates from all parties compete against each other in the primary, and the top two finishers advance to the general election.) Garvey will be front and center again. But this time, it’s a different story.

I can recall reading about Garvey’s marital issues and trouble with women for a time – he’s been happily married for 35 years now — and also some issues with his financial situation. I’d see his name on the sports pages here and there. It was usually around the argument about why he should – or shouldn’t – be in the Baseball Hall of Fame (He is not.). I remember Googling him a few years ago and discovering he was a Republican. I wasn’t surprised by that, and it didn’t bother me at the time, since it was before Donald Trump’s rise.

But now I’m seeing a different Steve Garvey. Most distressing is that he voted for Trump not once but twice, and that really bothers me. I’m guessing that it’s because of Trump’s “pro-life” stance. Garvey, as a Catholic, is firmly against abortion but has said he doesn’t support a national ban – that’s supposed to make him sound moderate.

Supporting Trump is backing someone who has zero respect for life – the lives of immigrants, people of color, transgender individuals, prisoners of war, those killed in combat, etc. etc. etc. Garvey’s full-throated endorsement of someone who pretends to be pro-life is duplicitous and hypocritical.

Garvey has cast himself all his life as the all-American guy, so why would he be supporting someone who is as un-American as Trump? Garvey has refused to blame Trump for January 6. How does that qualify you as “all-American”?

More personally, as a California Republican, Garvey inherits an extreme party platform. As an editorial about him the Los Angeles Times pointed out last October, when he announced his bid, “Less than two weeks ago, moderates in the party hoped to tone down the state GOP’s extreme platform during the fall convention by removing official opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. It was voted down.” The Times then quoted Charles Moran, chair of the LGBTQ+ group Log Cabin Republicans, as telling Politico,’ ‘They refuse to let us be competitive. They want to fight about battles that the Supreme Court and the legislature have already fought.”

Now, to his credit, Garvey apparently liked his gay teammate, Glenn Burke, back in the 1970s when they were teammates on the Dodgers. That was a time, obviously, when being gay was tantamount to being a criminal. Regardless, it's easy to like someone who is gay, but also work behind their back to take away their rights. In Christian terms, it's called loving the sinner but hating the sin.

Unless he says otherwise, we’re to assume that this is Garvey’s position too, and as he’s a devout Catholic, I can’t imagine him supporting marriage equality or my very existence. These are things forbidden by our mutual church, where Garvey still worships. And that saddens me almost as much as thinking about that little boy who took such happiness rooting for Steve Garvey.

It’s funny the way life works. Garvey has always been this monumental figure in my life, from my past. Yet now as a man who approaches 60, I see the 75-year-old Garvey not as a hero but as an old man with dated beliefs, narrow-minded, someone who has gone to the dark side. Is it possible that I, as a loving gay guy, grew up to be the bigger man?

John Casey is a senior editor at The Advocate.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.