Alan Wiggins left this world too soon, and I wonder if he ever made his peace with it.
The news of his death was, of course, surprising -- he was 32 -- but not shocking. He was a three-time drug loser, after all. And, if his days with the Orioles are any guide, Wiggins was consumed with a rage he could barely contain. His life was a deadly dance with demons that seemed never to leave him and ended in a Los Angeles hospital after a losing battle with a respiratory infection.
He was dismissed by the Orioles near the end of the '87 season after two suspensions -- one after a fight with a teammate and the other for failing a drug test. When he went home to San Diego, Wiggins simply dropped out of sight.
I have many memories of Wiggins -- who was, despite it all, a very bright man who must have found life somehow too complicated or too hard -- but a few images endure.
There was the night he was suspended by then-manager Cal Ripken Sr., when Wiggins stood outside the stadium, tears running down his cheeks, telling a few reporters, "They're setting me up."
And there was this: A day in Miami during spring training when he was spotted fishing on the Key Biscayne Bridge. All by himself. That wouldn't be significant except Wiggins was alone so often. His teammates didn't like him. He didn't get along with management. He didn't seem to have a friend in the world. For the media, he offered at one point -- Kadafi style -- a line of death, which he ordered reporters not to cross.
This was the Alan Wiggins we knew, although we can't be sure it was the real Alan Wiggins. I do know, though, that he became a symbol, however unfairly, for the bottoming-out of the Orioles, a process that began sometime after the '83 World Series and ended with the 21-game losing streak five years later.
When the Orioles traded in 1986 for Wiggins, a known risk and only a minor talent, it was the last of a series of high-priced moves that were too often failures. The vaunted Orioles farm system had collapsed, and the free agents they hired as a stopgap weren't sufficient to keep the team a contender. It is often said -- though wrongly so -- that signing free agents led to the downfall of the Orioles. What's closer to the truth is that signing free agents failed to save them.
In any case, Wiggins, who was supposed to be the speedster the Orioles needed, provided more trouble than anything else. Although he might deny it, Eddie Murray's disenchantment with the Orioles focused, in large part, on Wiggins, or players like Wiggins, who Murray perceived to be not the kind of Oriole he wanted to be.
It was Wiggins who failed to cover second on a double play and it was Wiggins who was picked off with a hidden-ball trick and it was Wiggins who heckled Jim Dwyer in the batting cage until Dwyer attacked him, screaming, "I'll kill him. I'll kill him." And he might have too, had he not been pulled away.
Wiggins didn't fit, and he may not have tried. He was an angry young man searching for answers that he never found -- or hadn't, as of 1987. They weren't to be found on a baseball field, anyway. It was life that interested Wiggins, and it was life that he couldn't seem to handle, although if you let him know you were interested in a genuine exchange of ideas on the subject he was happy to oblige. Several reporters, myself included, would occasionally engage Wiggins in long conversation ranging from race relations to world affairs. If nothing else, Wiggins was never boring.
When he came to spring training in 1987, he said he was the new Alan Wiggins, ready to get along with people, even his manager, and willing to play the game the way others thought he should. He was Mr. Positive, Mr. Hustle. But one day, he took a reporter aside to say something like, "You don't believe all that, do you? It's the same old me."
Sadly, it was the same old Wiggins, although he may have been kidding when he said it. Wiggins' jokes never seemed to click with his teammates. He was just kidding when he suggested that the batting-practice pitcher, who had been wild, hit Dwyer in the head. Hearing that from another player, Dwyer might have laughed. From Wiggins, though, they were fighting words.
Dwyer attacked Wiggins, but it was Wiggins who was suspended. He didn't understand that. He thought he was being set up. He didn't understand that no one wanted him around anymore. Finally, with years left on his contract, the Orioles told him goodbye.
HTC Wiggins left, and I don't think anyone understood him any better than when he arrived. He left, and now he's gone. I, for one, will miss him.