You know things have taken a hard left when even the corpses are conspiring to further screw up your life. Sadly, I never needed help from the living or the dead. For nearly four decades, I had done a grand job all by myself.
The forces that conspired to keep me trapped in Steubenville, Ohio, in the summer of 1989 were not of my devising. For once, I was not guilty of the stupidity and poor decisions that had defined my entire adult life.
It was solely the fault of that festering, bullet-ridden corpse.
My guilt or innocence aside, I became the primary suspect in his murder. For those of you unfamiliar with the justice system in this country, that is very bad for a guy who has just walked out of a federal penitentiary. I quickly became what law enforcement officials like to call a “person of interest.”
All I wanted was to put the Ohio River Valley in my rearview mirror and start my pathetic life over some place where they had never heard of Johnny Earl. But I couldn’t.
When I was six, my mother bought me a hamster at J. G. McCrory’s five-and-dime in Steubenville. I named him Herman, and that little guy was the first thing in my life that I loved more than myself. I carried him around the neighborhood in the pocket of my sweatshirt and played with him for hours. Mom bought a hollow plastic ball in which I could put Herman so he could run around the house on our hardwood floors.
I took him outside in his plastic ball one hot afternoon to let him run around on the garage floor. The kids next door were playing Wiffle Ball, and I went over to get in the game, forgetting about Herman. The poor little guy rolled himself off the driveway and got stuck in the grass, where he cooked to death in the afternoon sun. I was devastated.
I thought of Herman often that summer of 1989. Not unlike Herman, I was trapped in a ball, the metaphorical heat coming in from all sides. If there is a God in the universe that cares about small animals, this was Herman’s revenge.
It was never my life’s ambition to be a cocaine dealer. My goal in life, from the time I was old enough to hold a baseball bat, was to play in the major leagues, make a boatload of money, and be inducted
into the Hall of Fame. When I was in high school I would practice my induction speech by standing in front of the bathroom mirror holding a hairbrush for a microphone. I became a cocaine dealer by accident. Unfortunately, I was every bit as adept at dealing cocaine as I was at hitting a baseball, and I was the greatest baseball player to ever come out of Steubenville, Ohio. That’s a fact. The biggest difference between the two is this: To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever been sent to a federal penitentiary for booting a ground ball.
I’ve really screwed up my life. That’s also a fact. I had it all. I mean, so far as Steubenville was concerned, I was the king. I was the best-looking kid in our school. I’m not bragging—just telling you the way it was. I’m bald now, which I hate even more than the idiotic tattoos I allowed a white supremacist to ink into my biceps with a sewing needle while I was in prison. But in high school, I had thick, dark hair that I parted in the middle and feathered back over my ears. My eyes are pale blue, I have a little cleft in my chin, and I had the most perfect set of teeth you ever saw. They’re still nice, except now I have a partial plate that fills the gap where that black son of a bitch, Andre Edwards, a psychopath who should have been in permanent lockdown, smacked me with a piece of pipe and knocked an incisor and an eyetooth down my throat.
There were probably some girls in my class who would say that Jimmy Hinton was better-looking than me. His family owned the big dairy and cattle farm out on County Road 724 near New Noblesville, and they had, as my dad liked to say, more money than God. Jimmy always dressed up for school—never wore blue jeans or sneakers like the rest of us—and he drove a very cherry, midnight blue ’55 Ford with blue lights under the wheel wells. He wore nicer clothes than me, and he had a much sweeter ride, but no way was he better-looking. He was a pretty boy—curly blond hair, a baby face, and sleepy eyes. Hell, I always figured he wasn’t interested in girls. After all, he played the clarinet in the marching band, for Christ’s sake.
I also dated the most beautiful girl in the school—Dena Marie Conchek. That’s another fact. If you want proof, look at my senior yearbook. She was the head cheerleader, she was the homecoming queen, and she had the most incredible ass in Jefferson County. I was tapping that action every Friday and Saturday night and getting head on Sunday afternoons when her parents were visiting her grandmother at the nursing home. Since we weren’t married, Dena Marie thought it was sinful to have intercourse on Sundays but apparently didn’t think God had a problem with oral sex. It was typical Dena Marie. She was as crazy as she was beautiful, but putting up with her lunacy was a minor sacrifice in exchange for such great sex, especially when you’re eighteen years old and sporting a perpetual boner.
If I had spent any time at all studying, I would have been valedictorian, too. Maybe. Lanny Chester was pretty damn smart, but I would have given him a run for his money. I was smart. Well, book smart, anyway. Most people would tell you that I never had a lick of common sense, and, given my recent track record as a guest of the Federal Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana, it’s hard to put up a strong argument to the contrary. But I was pretty close to straight A’s, and I never cracked a book. I finished in the top ten in the class—eighth, I think.
Grades were never a big concern, because I was the best athlete in the storied history of Steubenville High School. Again, I’m not bragging—I’m just telling you the facts. You can find people who will tell you that little limp-dick Jimmy Hinton was better-looking than me, and that Lanny Chester was smarter, but no one will argue that I wasn’t the best athlete to ever wear the crimson and black of the Steubenville Big Red. I was first-team all-Ohio six times. Six times! Three times in baseball, twice in football, and once in basketball. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that being all-state in basketball was probably a gift—name recognition from my baseball and football accomplishments. But that doesn’t matter. It still counts. First-team, all-Ohio, six times. You can check it out if you like. Photos of the all-staters hang in the front hall of the school. I’m the only one up there more than twice. At least, I think I’m still up there. After the drug conviction, they might have decided that I was too big of a disgrace and taken them all down.
I was five foot ten, a hundred and ninety-five pounds, and built like a statue of one of those Greek gods. My belly was rippled so tight you could hardly pinch the skin. And I was born to play baseball; I swear I was. I had twenty-three home runs my senior year. No one in the history of the school had ever hit twenty-three in a career, and I hit them in one season. I was a dead fastball hitter. You could sneak sunrise past a rooster easier than you could sneak a fastball past me.
I have always been very competitive. My friend Fran Roberson was at a high school debate competition and a kid from Mount Pleasant High School asked him what I was like. Fran said, “If you met him on the street, you’d think he was a nice guy. But he hates to lose, and he’s an absolute prick between the lines.” To this day, I consider that the highest compliment I’ve ever been paid. It was true. I would do anything to gain the advantage, including getting under the skin of an opponent. I was pretty good at it, too.
My senior year, Jefferson Union had a pitcher named Harry Bantel—a lanky kid who wore horn-rimmed glasses that made him look like Buddy Holly. Before the game, he yelled into our dugout that he was going to challenge me. I yelled back, “Give it your best shot, Buddy.” Everyone laughed, and that pissed him off. He tried to blow the first pitch by me, and I hit it over the bus barn behind the centerfield bleachers. I touched home plate and asked, “Hey, Buddy, when are you going to start challenging me?” Next time I’m up, he gives me a dick-high fastball and I hit it into the tennis courts beyond the left-field fence. I said, “Do your ovaries hurt today, Bantel? You don’t have your good stuff.” Now, he’s furious and I start singing “Peggy Sue” while I’m circling the bases. Next time up, he tries to put one in my ear. I dodge it, give him a wink, then hit the next pitch through a shop-class window. Take that, Buddy. Three swings, three home runs. I laughed all the way around the bases.
The Baltimore Orioles drafted me in the second round. I was pissed because I thought I was a sure first-rounder. Still, any thoughts I had of going to college ended when the Orioles flashed a fifty-thousand-dollar signing bonus in front of me. It was more than my dad made in two years at the steel mill. I went right over to Ohio Valley Chevrolet and bought a new Camaro and drove straight to Jimmy Hinton’s house. I raced the engine until he came outside. “Whatta ya think of this?” I asked.
He shrugged. “It’s okay.”
“Okay?!” I couldn’t believe it. “Better than that piece-of-shit Ford you’re driving. They’re going to pay me a lot of money to hit a baseball, Jimmy boy, which is lots better than shovelin’ shit and tuggin’ on cow tits for the rest of your life.” I laid rubber a hundred feet down County Road 724. Jimmy Hinton was as nice a kid as you would ever meet, and he had never done a thing to me, but I was so scalded that some girls thought he was better-looking that I had to show off.
Admittedly, there were times when I was a first-class horse’s ass.
Most everyone in Steubenville was real excited when I got drafted, with one notable exception—Dena Marie Conchek. The day I signed with the Orioles, she wouldn’t stop crying. Ultimately, though, I asked the question to which I already knew the answer. “Dena Marie, what’s wrong?”
“If you leave, we’ll never get married,” she blubbered.
“Dena Marie, I never said we were going to get married.” That was a fact.
“You don’t want to marry me?”
“I want to play in the major leagues.” The wailing began anew.
A week before I left for my minor-league assignment, I said, “Dena Marie, we need to break up.” She was still bawling when I left her house, and I didn’t talk to her again for more than eight years.
Here’s another thing, and it’s a stone fact. When I got to the Orioles’ rookie league team, I learned very quickly that there are a lot of guys outside of Steubenville who can play the game. I was a fastball hitter and that was great in high school, where you get a steady diet of fastballs. That wasn’t the case in the pros. They had the most unbelievable breaking balls I had ever seen. I flailed away at curveballs and missed so mightily that it was embarrassing. And here’s another thing: Once word gets around the league that you can’t hit a breaking ball, and you can trust me on this, that’s all you see.
I was basically a career minor-leaguer. I hit some mammoth home runs, but my average was about two-twenty, and I struck out seven times for every home run I hit. For those of you unfamiliar with the statistics of baseball, that is not good. The Orioles were patient, but I only made it to double-A ball, and after six years I was traded to Pittsburgh. In the middle of my second season in the Pirates organization, the left fielder at their triple-A affliate got hurt and I got moved up. All of a sudden, for reasons that I cannot explain, I started hitting the ball like Babe Ruth. It looked like a cantaloupe coming in there, and I was spraying line drives all over the park. That was the year I got the call to the majors. It was an end-of-the-year call-up, a cup of coffee, but it still counts. I, Johnny Earl, was a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates and a major leaguer.
My claim to fame was hitting an off-the-wall triple off of Nolan Ryan. That’s right, the Nolan Ryan, and I rocked his ass for a threebagger. A big crowd from Steubenville had come up in a couple of charter buses to see me play, and they were all on their feet, cheering. I was standing on third, grinning, all proud of myself. That’s when Nolan Ryan looked over and said, “Enjoy it, rook. It won’t happen again.” And it didn’t. The next three times up, he struck me out on three pitches.
I thought I had finally gotten the hang of professional pitching. The Pirates thought it was a fluke and traded me in the off-season to the Detroit Tigers. My agent said they wanted to unload me because they thought my sudden ability to hit a curveball had been an anomaly. Unfortunately, they were right. By the time I got to spring training, I was again floundering, flailing away at curves like a blind man at a buzzing fly.
My career ended on a damp evening in July of 1979 in Toledo. I sent a loopy fly ball down the right-field line and blew my knee rounding first. I crumpled into a heap ten feet from the base. The pain was excruciating; I felt like I’d been shot and my leg was on fire. The right fielder threw the ball to the first baseman, who leaned down and said, “Sorry to do this to you, pal,” putting the tag on me as I rolled around the infield. That was the last time I ever stepped onto a ball field. I had reconstructive surgery and went back home to rehabilitate and consider my future.
In a little more than eight years, I went from signing bonus to sayonara. At age twenty-six, the only thing on my résumé was 158 minor league home runs and a major-league triple off of Nolan Ryan. I was depressed and humiliated by my failure. When I was in high school, you couldn’t have told me that I wasn’t going to play in the major leagues. If you had, I would have laughed in your face. I was Johnny Earl, goddammit. You get a distorted view of the world growing up in a place like Steubenville. I had had such great success in my little pond that I thought I couldn’t fail.
But I had.
Excerpted from A Welcome Murder by Robin Yocum (Seventh Street Books, 2017). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Robin Yocum is the author of the 2017 Edgar® Award-nominated A Brilliant Death He is also the author of the critically acclaimed novels Favorite Sons: A Novel and The Essay: A Novel as well as Dead Before Deadline: …And Other Tales from the Police Beat (with Catherine Candisky). The president of Yocum Communications, a public relations and marketing firm in Westerville, Ohio, Yocum is well known for his work as a crime and investigative reporter with the Columbus Dispatch from 1980-1991. He was the recipient of more than thirty local, state, and national journalism awards in categories ranging from investigative reporting to feature writing.