Grave Story: Eric Show (1956-1994)


Here lies Eric Show, the ace of the Padres pitching staff for several years. He was a number of other things in his relatively short life — a jazz musician, philosopher, conservative iconoclast, participant in one of baseball’s most memorable moments, and one of the game’s biggest enigmas. Show played for the San Diego Padres (1981-90) and Oakland Athletics (1991).

Right up front, I’ll say that I hated Show for years, and it was because of one specific game I attended at Wrigley Field in 1987. This game, from July 7. The Cubs teed off on Show that day, as Dave Martinez and Andre Dawson homered off him in the first inning, and Paul Noce took him deep in the third. Two batters later, Show drilled Dawson in the face with a fastball. While Dawson was sprawled out by home plate, the Cubs, led by Rick Sutcliffe, charged the mound, leading to a wild brawl. Eventually, a dazed and bloody Dawson made it to his feet, and he went after Show too, starting the fight all over. Show was never ejected, but with the two largest, toughest Cubs after his head, he was hastily escorted off the field.

It was easy to write Show off as one of the game’s biggest jerks after that. But as usual, there was more to the story. Show had a verbally and physically abusive father, Les Show, who was intent on using his son as a means to live out his own unrealized baseball dreams. Show, as a boy, wanted to play ball for fun and spend hours playing his guitar. Instead, he was forced to put baseball ahead of music by his father. And if Show wasn’t good enough, he’d get yelled at, beaten, or both. This ESPN article by Tom Friend explores the lasting effects of Show’s upbringing. Show made plenty of poor decisions on his own, but you can’t help but wonder how the abuse he suffered in his youth shaped the adult whose words and actions frequently set him apart from his friends, teammates and family.

Eric Vaughn Show was born in Riverside, Calif., on May 19, 1956. He went to Ramona High School, where he was a standout pitcher and a very good hitter as well. He was named to the All Citrus Belt Team in 1974 as a utility player, as he hit .372 and led the conference with 4 home runs. He was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 36th Round of the 1974 June Amateur Draft, but he decided to go to college at the University of California Riverside as a pre-med major before switching to physics and philosophy.

As a junior in 1977, he threw a 3-hit shutout against Cal State Heyward to give UCR a 6-0 win in the NCAA Division II Western Regional championship game. He struck out 5 and walked 2 in the win. That clutch win was part of the reason that UCR inducted him into its Athletics Hall of Fame in 1986. On the whole though, his college playing career was just average, which could have been due to the time that Show spent searching for a greater meaning to life. In a 1981 interview, he admitted to dabbling in multiple religions, trying witchcraft, chasing girls and immersing himself in rock & roll before he found Jesus and jazz music. “I have a love of the truth and I have searched very hard to find it. I got into some strange things there for a while. I read a lot of Eastern philosophy and I concluded it was a lie. There’s only one truth – Jesus Christ. I did all I could to deny it. I never thought I’d wind up there,” he explained.

The San Diego Padres picked Show in the 18th Round of the 1978 June Amateur Draft. He reported to Walla Walla in the Northwest League and won 5 games to finish off the 1978 season, and then he was a 13-game winner for the Class-A Reno Silver Sox of the California League in 1979. Show repeated his success with a 12-6 record and 3.74 ERA for the Double-A Amarillo Gold Sox of the Texas League in 1980. He made a bid to join the Padres pitching staff in 1981 but failed to make the team out of spring training. He did make an immediate impression on the members of the California sports media, who figured out very quickly that he was not a typical ballplayer. Not too many rookies take time in an interview to trash both Aristotle and John Lennon.

“Aristotle really put the lid on my thinking,” he told Los Angeles Times reporter Chris Cobbs. “He made some incredible errors – such as claiming that matter could be spontaneously created from mud, and he had only a partial understanding of the atom – but at least he didn’t waste time on metaphysics.” As for Lennon, “He added the twist, the mystique and the bizarre to the Beatles. But I pitied Lennon his philosophical concepts.”

Show touched on his relationship with his father. He left out the brutal details but mentioned that his father pushed him to play catch every day – except for the day when Show had to initiate it. When his father came out of the house, Show could see that he had been crying. “We never said anything about it, but we both realized that from then on it was my idea to play ball. That’s why, if I make the team this spring, it will be so rewarding for both of us.”

Show spoke of his love of baseball, calling it “purely American, like a Norman Rockwell painting.” Some of his other statements though, come across as conceited. “Society in general doesn’t take the time to understand my concepts,” he told Cobbs.

Show started the 1981 season with the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders and didn’t get brought to the majors until September. In his first two major-league outings, he held the Cubs and Pirates hitless over 4 innings, and he picked up a save against the Bucs. Padres manager Frank Howard then put him into a game against Cincinnati on September 7, and Johnny Bench broke the hitless streak with a home run. Show took the loss in that game, but he pitched fairly well out of the bullpen. He had a 1-3 record in 15 games but earned 3 saves and had a 3.13 ERA. He struck out 22 batters in 23 innings.

Show started the 1982 season in the pen, but by the end of the year he had forced himself into the starting rotation, where he would remain for most of the next decade. He finished 10-6 with a 2.64 ERA, with 2 shutouts and 3 saves in 47 games (14 starts). And less than a year into the majors, his comments in the press already started to rub some people the wrong way. He was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying, “I’ve paid my dues, I’ve researched my beliefs in life. Most people I’ve met haven’t. They just have opinions.” That brought him some criticism from the team, and he stressed that he wasn’t directing that at his teammates but at “humanity in general.”

Show acknowledged that he had to learn to hold back a little in talking with his teammates. References to Kierkegaard or Ayn Rand aren’t usually a part of locker room talk. “I would say that the distance that is created between myself and my teammates is inevitable, but it in no way affects my relationship to the game of baseball,” he explained. “Let’s put it this way. A conversation with a teammate is usually more along the lines of, ‘Gee, he hit that ball well,’ more than anything else, but that does nothing to diminish their qualities as people.”

To be fair, he also was fully conversant in baseball-speak. When he picked up a win after a 5-inning relief stint early in the season, giving the Padres a team-record 11-game winning streak, he said, “I think everybody’s starting to realize it’s about time to take the Padres seriously.”

Show recorded a novelty song, “Padres Win Again,” during the team’s heyday if the early/mid-1980s.

The 1981 Padres finished a combined 41-69 in the strike-shortened season that was broken into halves. Then they went 81-81 in both 1982 and ’83, which were just the second and third .500 seasons in team history. The 1984 Padres won 92 games and the NL pennant by defeating the Chicago Cubs in the NL Championship Series. Show was a big part of that success. He won 15 games in both 1983 and 1984 and threw over 200 innings each season. When you’re the best pitcher on the staff, you get some leeway.

“I’m learning something from Eric every day. He’s our resident intellectual,” said Steve Garvey in 1983.

Even Padres manager Dick Williams, as no-nonsense as they came, gave Show some latitude. When Show won his first game of the 1983 season against San Francisco, Williams said he could be the team’s biggest winner. “Eric doesn’t even know how good he is. He kept saying tonight he didn’t have shit, but he did. If he wants reassurance, I’ll give it to him. [Catcher Terry] Kennedy gives it to him all the time, but Show tells him he’s full of shit.”

Show was notoriously hard on himself. After getting berated by his father for every bad pitch he threw from little league through high school, he had become his own worst critic. He gave up a leadoff home run to the very light-hitting Johnnie LeMaster in that Giants game, and that was the sort of thing that could send his confidence into a downward spiral. But at least after the game, he was witty about it. “I can serve ‘em up to the guys you don’t expect. Phil Niekro gets a home run about every eighth year, and he lit me up last year,” he joked. “But I don’t think guys like Mike Schmidt, Jack Clark or Andre Dawson have ever gotten one off me.”

One of Show’s best seasons came in the pennant-winning year of 1984. He had a 15-9 record and a 3.40 ERA. He fanned 104 batters in 206-2/3 innings. Though never a strong hitter, he hit 3 home runs and batted .246. He also wasn’t the odd man out on the Padres anymore, as he had made good friends like fellow pitchers Dave Dravecky and Mark Thurmond.

It was also the year that Show’s eccentricities started to become harder to tolerate. He was always up-front about his conservative beliefs and said that President Reagan was too much to the left for his taste. He made it clear just how right he was when he appeared at a booth for the John Birch Society, along with Dravecky and Thurmond, at a fair in Del Mar, Calif. He had been a part of the Society since 1981 but hadn’t gone public with it until then. The John Birch Society formed in the 1950s as an anti-Communist group, but it also has a racist and anti-Semitic bent. All three players were criticized, and Show, being the spokesman, got the worst of it. He remained defiant and unapologetic and denied criticisms about the group’s uglier side.

“The press has sung the praises of empty-headed left-wing jocks far too long,” he said. “We’ve read enough about hairy basketball players sitting in on sit-ins. Why do they write about those? They think like those. Now is a time for a new direction.”

The press immediately went to his teammates and Padres management for their response. His African-American teammates like Tony Gwynn, Alan Wiggins and Garry Templeton downplayed Show’s political leanings or denied he was a racist. Other players made their disapproval known. Padres president Ballard Smith, upon learning that the three pitchers had left JBS pamphlets in the locker room, threatened to ban all political activity from the clubhouse.

Show sits on the mound during the celebration for Pete Rose’s 4,192nd career hit. Source: Los Angeles Times, September 12, 1985.

If winning gives a player more leeway, losing eliminates it. In the postseason, Show pitched badly, with an ERA well over 10 in the NLCS and World Series. In Game One of the NLCS, he gave up 3 home runs in 4 innings, including one to opposing starter Sutcliffe. In the World Series, Padres manager Williams kept Show off the mound until starting him in Game Four. He was knocked out of the game in the third inning, having allowed 4 runs on 4 hits, including two homers to Alan Trammell.

Show struggled to maintain a winning record throughout the 1985 season. He ended the year 12-11 and had a fine 3.09 ERA, but he was overshadowed by the pitching of Andy Hawkins and free agent signee LaMarr Hoyt. Also, his antics on and off the field got to be too much for his teammates to take.

Then came September 11, 1985. That’s the day that Pete Rose lined a single off Show for hit number 4,192, surpassing Ty Cobb’s total and breaking one of baseball’s “unbreakable” records. Everything came together at once – Show’s occasionally baffling behavior, his head-scratching quotes, his deteriorating relationship with his teammates.

Pregame: When asked about the moment, Show told reporters, “When time passes, Lord willing and assuming the earth continues to exist as we know it, I might be a trivia question. But in the eternal scope of things, who really cares?” As he went to the batting cage, Padres teammate Kurt Bevacqua pointed to him and chanted, “You… You… You…”. Tim Flannery said, “Eric, you think everyone in the world’s against you. Well, tonight, they are.”

First Inning: Rose hit his historic single, and play stopped for a long ceremony. Show went to first base to shake Rose’s hand, and then he returned to the mound and sat down. For every photo of a jubilant Rose that ran in the next day’s newspapers, there’s one of Show with his arms wrapped around his knees, waiting for the game to restart. It’s not a good look, and according to Friend’s ESPN article, his teammates ripped him for it later.

Third Inning: With one out, Rose walked, and Dave Parker hit a pop fly that dropped in front of left fielder Carmelo Martinez. Rose advanced to third base and scored on a grounder by Nick Esasky. That was the first and deciding run of the game, as Reds pitcher Tom Browning threw 8-1/3 scoreless innings for a 2-0 Reds win. After the third inning ended, Show told coach Galen Cisco that Martinez should have caught the fly ball. Martinez heard it and immediately challenged Show to a fight. Dravecky intervened after a couple of shoves, and Martinez went to bat. He struck out and pointed to Show as he returned to the dugout. “Anytime you want to fight, let me know?” he said.

Postgame: Show dressed then went to his hotel without talking to reporters, and his teammates hung him out to dry. “He should be here, he’s part of history,” Martinez said. “He expected me to catch the fly ball, maybe he expected me to do his talking, too.” Flannery said, “Eric was complaining that he thinks every ball should be caught. We’ve heard it all year and never said anything about it. I’ve heard it myself, and I’m tired of it. When something goes wrong, he quits. That’s why runs aren’t scored behind him. Guys don’t want to play for him. It’s gotten to the point where it’s sickening. I’m not putting up with it anymore. And one guy [Martinez] just got tired of hearing it.”

Even Tony Gwynn, who was as professional as they come, admitted, “I think it’s gotten on a lot of players’ nerves… He doesn’t always say anything, but he hangs his head. It’s been happening for a couple of years.”

Source: Times-Advocate, April 3, 1981.

That public airing of grievances almost never happens in baseball, where “What happens in the clubhouse, stays in the clubhouse” is practically gospel. Show seemed to realize that he’d gone too far and came back in 1986 to blame the media for misconceptions about him. “Unfortunately, my experience with the media has been that they really aren’t very competent in reporting anything I say,” he said. “Even comments that I’ve made, very simplistic concepts, have been misquoted and put out of context.”

Meanwhile, his on-field performance was suffering as well. He had a 9-5 record for San Diego in 1986 with a 2.97 ERA, but elbow problems caused him to miss much of the second half of the season. He lost 16 games in 1987, and the beaning of Dawson that I described earlier put the glare of the national spotlight right back on him. The pitcher issued a written apology and stated he didn’t intentionally hit Dawson, but most of the Cubs weren’t hearing it. “Show says he’s sorry, huh? Sorry, nothing. Sorry didn’t hit Andre in the mouth,” said Shawon Dunston.

Ironically, the pitch scuttled a trade that was brewing between Chicago and San Diego. The last-place Cubs were looking to deal, and the Padres would have sent them Show in exchange for Dunston. It might have been the best thing for the pitcher, too, because he continued to feud with his teammates, exchanging verbal jabs with Gwynn about his perceived lack of run support. Even his manager, Larry Bowa, stopped defending him after a point. “I played behind one of the best left-handers in the game [Steve Carlton] and when a guy made an error, he got doubly tough,” Bowa said on a radio show. “I haven’t seen that in Eric yet. What if all the infielders threw up their gloves every time he gave up a home run?”

Show had his last great season in 1988, when he won a career-high 16 games with a 3.26 ERA. He also had career bests in innings pitched (234-2/3), complete games (13) and strikeouts (144). He owned a couple of guitar stores, was working on a debut album and even started to dabble in acting. He also put work into trying to relate more with his teammates. It seemed to work, somewhat. Some of his harshest critics, like Gwynn and Flannery, said that he was a changed man. It was a good thing too, because his friends Dravecky and Thurmond had long been traded away, leaving him alone.

“As strange as it may seem, I have tried to be more a part of my baseball environment,” Show said. “If I’m still off, it’s because I started way off.”

“People thought I got upset over errors,” he said in a 1989 interview. “But I didn’t. If I was upset, it was by other things – missed calls, bad breaks, mistakes by myself. I put an incredible amount of pressure on myself. I thought this game could be perfected.”

Show beat the Reds 4-2 on June 14, 1989, for his 93rd career win. That moved him out of a tie with Randy Jones for the most wins of any pitcher in Padres history. He worked 8 innings, threw 138 pitches and even scored one of the runs himself with an RBI single. “I feel honored to have achieved this somewhat humble milestone,” he said after the game. “It’s important to me, but it’s humble compared with what the record is for some teams… I don’t feel that I have reached my potential at all, but I will. Whatever I am destined to become totally, I intend to achieve it.”

Show would only win seven more games for the Padres. He spent time on the disabled list with back injuries and underwent surgery in August of 1989 to remove a disk. The back pain helped a growing drug habit spiral out of control. Friend reported that Show started on amphetamines sometime in 1988, and the drug helped mask the pain in his back so that he could pitch the highest workload of his career. Unfortunately, the pitching led to more serious back problems, culminating in the season-ending 1989 surgery. By 1990, Show had started using crystal meth, which contributed to a disastrous final season with the Padres. He finished with a 6-8 record and a 5.76 ERA, he was demoted to the bullpen, and he demanded to be traded in August. Relationships with his teammates had once again bottomed out.

On October 3, Show made his first start in almost two months, and he lasted 5 innings in a 7-3 win over the Dodgers. It was the 100th win of his career in his final appearance as a Padre. After the season, San Diego declined to pick up his contract option, making him a free agent. That December, he signed a two-year deal with the Oakland Athletics. In 1991, he struggled through an injury-plagued year that saw him make just 5 starts in 23 appearances with Oakland. He had a 1-2 record with a 5.92 ERA, and he fanned only 20 batters in 51-2/3 innings. During spring training in 1992, Show missed a workout and showed up several days later with lacerations on both hands. He tried to explain it, but police told the team that he ran from police officers and tried to hop a barbed-wire fence, injuring himself in the process. That was the last straw for the team, who released him.

“A lot of times in this game you get what you deserve,” said A’s manager Tony LaRussa. “He didn’t take care of his business for whatever reasons. We took care of setting it up for him, just like we do for everybody else and he didn’t take advantage of that.”

The release marked the end of Show’s playing career. In 11 seasons, he had a 101-89 record and a 3.66 ERA. He completed 35 games, threw 11 shutouts and picked up 7 saves. In 1,655 innings, he struck out 971 batters and had a WHIP of 1.291. He remains the Padres all-time wins leader, and his .535 winning percentage is sixth-best.

Eric Show’s grave in Olivewood Cemetery, Riverside, Calif.

Without baseball in his life, Show seemed driftless. His wife, Cara Mia, whom he married in 1979, asked for a divorce, though they never legally separated. In 1993, he had a run-in with San Diego police and begged for them to shoot him. He stayed at various friends’ houses, including Scott Ruiz, the Oakland Athletics team chaplain. In early 1994, he checked himself into rehab at Rancho L’Abri in Delzura, Calif. He checked out in March, saying that he needed to see his father. A friend drove him to San Diego, where he instead went on one final drug binge. He returned to the rehabilitation center late on March 15. At 8:23am on March 16, 1994, Show was found dead in his bed. He was 37 years old.

Eric Show was buried in a green coffin, with a baseball and his guitar, at Olivewood Cemetery in Riverside, Calif. Dravecky eulogized his friend, saying that Show gave him the strength to cope with the loss of his left arm after a cancer diagnosis. “All I can say is Eric Show has meant a tremendous amount to Dave Dravecky. You people will never know the strength, the courage, the boldness that he has given to me in my walk with Jesus Christ,” he said.

In his lifetime, Show released one album, America… 4/4 to Go. There is some of his other music available online. A single called “Padres Win Again” is on Youtube, and an album of Christmas songs is on Apple Music.

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