By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 3
Celebrities and athletes -- more than ever, they're showing the love for each other. More than ever, Hollywood is cranking out sports movies with big stars. More than ever, hip-hop and hoops are schizzle-dizzle. More than ever, we're seeing sideline shots of the stars -- Jack and Spike and John Cusack and Billy Crystal and Robin Williams and -- remember? -- Calista Flockhart. More than ever, actors and musicians and other celebs are talking up their sports cred. And our job, in "How Good Were They?" To separate the cred from the crud. First up: Charlie Sheen.
If you're a fan of "Major League," you know all about Charlie Sheen's role as Rick 'Wild Thing' Vaughn. The wayward Indians reliever, fresh from prison, combined a punk personality and a wicked-quick feral fastball to scare the heck out of opponents -- and even some of his teammates.
If you know your sports movies, you know Sheen also starred in two other diamond flicks, "Major League II" and "Eight Men Out."
And you might remember hearing that part of the musical entertainment at Sheen's 2002 wedding to Denise Richards was a gospel rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." And that his best man, actor Antonio Todd, gave him an authentic Gold Glove trophy as a wedding gift.
In other words, Charlie Sheen loves baseball. Always has. Always will.
But could the actor who depicted both a great reliever and a real-life slugger on the silver screen really play?
Most actors need all the technical help they can get to look like the real deal on the diamond. But Sheen was good enough to convince without any funky angles, soft-focus lenses, jump cuts, or pitching doubles. He could throw 83 or 84 mph and get the ball near the plate.
Which might be why he's been somewhat modest about his accomplishments. "I could compete," he told Time magazine in 1987. "I had a decent arm."
Sheen, currently starring in the TV series "Two and a Half Men," played shortstop and pitched for Santa Monica High School, which fielded an excellent team in the early 1980s. He made the Vikings varsity his junior year.
"Charlie was the first kid I went to as a reliever," said his SaMoHi coach, Jose Lopez, in an A&E; "Biography" profile. "He was a tough kid, a focused kid, and a team player."
Lopez didn't get more specific. But when "Major League" came out, the movie's technical consultant, Steve Yeager, a former Dodger, told USA Today, ''Charlie's 23 and could be a pro player if he wanted to."
Well, maybe. That's a wildly optimistic "what-if."
Sheen did dream of playing pro ball. He told the L.A. Times in 1989 that the University of Kansas had offered him a scholarship. "I don't regret not continuing with baseball," he said, "but I'll always wonder."
Ken Rizzo of the reknowned Mickey Owen Baseball School recalls Sheen's four summers at the rural camp.
"He did have post-high school abilities, There's no doubt he could have played in college. Maybe even at a lower level Division 1 school. He had baseball skills. But he wasn't going to be playing at Arizona State, or Stanford, or UCLA."
And even if he could have reached that level, Rizzo added, big-time Div. I baseball is a long way from even the lowest rungs of the minor leagues.
"I remember sitting there with him on the steps of the dining hall," says Rizzo, "and telling him that I thought it was a longshot that he could make the pros."
Jerry Nyman disagrees. Nyman, the pitching coordinator for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, also worked with Sheen at Mickey Owen.
"He was a good baseball player, among the best at the school," said Nyman in a phone interview. "He might have played pro ball, and if he played pro ball he might have gone on to make the big leagues. If Charlie Sheen had chosen to go that route, who knows what would happen?"
Rob Hampton, then the assistant director of the Mickey Owen School, traveled from his home in Kansas to Sheen's house in Malibu to work with him the summer before his senior year. "He could have played college baseball," says Hampton, who currently coaches at Kapaun Mt. Carmel High School in Wichita. Hampton didn't know of a scholarship offer from the University of Kansas, but said Sheen did have a scholarship offer from Pratt Junior College.
"I'm guessing, and this is a pretty educated guess, he threw low-to-mid eighties and had decent breaking stuff," said Hampton. "But pro ball would have been real tough. He would have had to get a lot bigger and stronger, and worked a lot harder to get to the next level. Could he have gotten there? Possibly."
Sheen still does play a little ball, taking batting practice with a small group of friends, including Todd, every Saturday. Todd grew up with Sheen in Santa Monica, played on the team with him in high school, and went on to play center field for the University of New Mexico.
These days, says Todd, Sheen still has "a good breaking ball." And, Todd adds, he can still swing the bat. "I've seen him hit a baseball 400 feet."
OK. That would have impressed even Happy Felsh, the White Sox slugger who Sheen played in "Eight Men Out." But the true test is one we can only imagine: could Sheen dig in against "Wild Thing," take his cuts, and blast one that far? We'll always wonder.