Every time I see Max Patkin in “Bull Durham” my memory rushes back to 1992, to the time he sat in his underwear in a Fort Myers hotel room and talked to me about his loneliness and pain.
This is how I started my column on him for The Fort Myers News-Press: “Max Patkin was in his underwear, in another empty hotel room, in another city, killing another afternoon, waiting for another performance in yet one more ballpark.”
He was 72 then and had spent virtually his entire adult life entertaining at minor-league baseball games. He opened up to me about that life and the heartache and his cheating wife and the loneliness.
Sometimes I wonder if he did the same thing with a sportswriter in every town in America over the course of his career. Maybe we were his therapists, patiently listening to his stories and commiserating in whatever way we could. Maybe that was our job.
His job was making people laugh. He was in town to perform at a Fort Myers Miracle game, where he certainly made people chuckle.
Max didn’t laugh when I talked to him on that long-ago afternoon. He was a gangly, loose-limbed 6-foot-3 beanpole who in his act would fill his cheeks with water and spit streams of it into the air, which he also did in the movie. Max always wore a uniform with a question mark on the back.
That was his job.
“It’s lonely,” Max said.
While Kevin Costner was the leading man in “Bull Durham,” Max knew all too well he was never leading man material. He joked about his large nose.
“The mosquitoes were so big in New Iberia, La. they thought my nose was a landing field,” Max said.
But he also told me about his ex-wife, Judy, whom he met in 1953. At first, she brought joy into his life and chased the loneliness away. But his job as the Clown Prince of Baseball kept him on the road.
While he was gone, Max said, she started doing drugs and drinking whiskey and slept with some of his friends.
“Honest to God, I used to cry myself to sleep,” Max told me, sitting on his hotel bed. “I was a very troubled man in those days.”
Sports Illustrated and People magazine had documented what Max told me that day, that Judy had tried to kill him with a hammer as he slept. Max survived but needed 30 stitches in his head.
“I hate it when people say, ‘Max, make me laugh,’” he told me in that hotel room. “Why won’t somebody make me laugh? It’s not easy. I’m not going to say I had a tragic life.”
Through his long career in baseball and show business, he had met and worked with some of the biggest names of the 20th century. Bob Hope. Groucho Marx. Jack Benny. Even Sharkey the Seal, an actual seal but one that wasn’t house broken.
Max sat on the edge of the bed and waved his arms in the air and said, “I’ve met them all.”
He also talked that day about appearing in “Bull Durham.” The movie included a scene where he was kissed by star Susan Sarandon, which had to be a lot nicer than sharing a performance with Sharkey the Seal.
Max told me about a scene that was cut from the movie in which Sarandon, playing a woman named Annie, questioned Max about his career.
“She asked me, ‘Max, why do you go on all these years. Why do you keep going on?’ I say, ‘Annie, I love this game of baseball. I have no immediate family and when I die, I’m going to be cremated and I’m going to will my ashes to you. Do me a favor and spread my ashes at home plate and save some of the ashes and put me in a resin bag so I can stay in the game I love.’”
Max died seven years later in 1999 at the age of 79. I never saw him again, except in “Bull Durham.”
This was the headline on his New York Times obituary: “Max Patkin, 79, Clown Prince of Baseball.”
Did anybody in the last seven years of his life make Max Patkin laugh again?