http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/sports/bb/6536292.html?FORM=ZZNR4Commentary: His tale goes far beyond cup of coffee
By JEROME SOLOMON Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
July 19, 2009, 10:20AMUpper Deck
Jessie Hollins with the Cubs in 1993.
I was one of the hottest pitchers in baseball 'til I got hurt. Since, my life has been put on hold. It nearly destroyed me when I got hurt."
— Jessie Hollins, in the Orlando Sentinel (June 12, 1994)
Scant details of his death ran in newspapers all around the country, next to and under announcements of minor trades and disabled- list assignments.
In nondescript sections like “In Brief,” “Sports in 60 Seconds,” “Elsewhere” and “Extra Innings.”
“The body of former Cubs reliever Jessie Hollins was recovered Friday from a southeast Texas lake. The 39-year-old, who made four appearances for the Cubs in 1992, apparently drowned while fishing.”
That's what a 10-day Major League Baseball career will get you.
Friends and family will tell you there was a lot more to Hollins than a cup of coffee in the big leagues.
Not one to mess with
They tell larger-than-life stories about Hollins because, well, the Willis native was larger than life.
“My brother would walk into the room and suck the air out of it,” Stacy Hollins said. “It was almost like the building would shake.
“But while he was very large, he was very kindhearted. To be as big as he was, he was a gentle giant.”
Long, lean and muscular, with a Bunyanesque build of 6-3, 235 pounds and 4-percent body fat, Jessie Hollins didn't always come across as so gentle.
Published stories and rumors about him being a bare-knuckle fighter (USA Today, 1993), a competitor in tough-man competitions (The Sports Network, 1997) and knocking out a batter who charged the mound (the stone-cold truth) only served to make him even less the man you would want to mess with.
Catcher Matt Walbeck, who spent 11 seasons in the major leagues, recalled heading to the mound with a bit of an attitude to tell Hollins, then a teammate in Class A ball at Winston-Salem, a thing or two.
“He told me if I didn't turn around, he'd kick my (behind),” Walbeck told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1995.
Walbeck wisely decided against taking on the challenge.
“He was in tough-man competitions,” Walbeck explained. “He used to break bats over his knee.”
“Like Bo Jackson?” the Pioneer Press writer asked.
“Big ones, though,” Walbeck said. “Thick-handled ones.”
The stories just kept coming.
“Another time, he didn't like a guy on the other team, and he knew I was friends with him,” Walbeck said. “He said he was going to hit him with a pitch. And then he told me that if the guy charged the mound, he was going to hit him and hit me.”
Stacy Hollins has a picture of his brother in a bench-clearing brawl, holding onto one guy he had KO'd with a punch and his fist cocked to unload on another player in the frame.
Never met a stranger
Like any country-strong youngster, Jessie Hollins could handle a horse and wrestle a bear. He was tough.
“People think I fight all the time,” Hollins told USA Today in 1993. “I did as a kid to defend myself. It was the mentality of the streets, but that's not what's going to get me up (to the majors).”
While Hollins had a scrape or three growing up in Willis, the look was scarier than the man.
“He was a pretty imposing guy,” said Willis Mayor Leonard Reed, Hollins' uncle. “But he always had a smile for you. Whoever you were, wherever you were from. He traveled a lot, and he didn't meet any strangers.”
They say Hollins always had the look of one who would go places, and athletics would take him there.
He was a Chronicle All-Greater Houston pick as a defensive back in football, and a Houston Post All-Greater Houston selection as a designated hitter in baseball.
The Cubs drafted him in the 40th round in 1988, just after he graduated from Willis High School, but he took his 92-mph fastball to San Jacinto Junior College to pitch for the best program in the country and its coach, Wayne Graham.
Graham described Hollins as a little wild back then — he did have nine walks in one start — but he went 4-1 with a 3.19 ERA and threw a no-hitter and a one-hitter in his freshman season as San Jac won the 1989 NJCAA World Series.
Drafted again by the Cubs, Hollins signed June 8, 1989 and began to work his way to the majors. Within a couple of years, as he began to harness that good-old-boy ability, he was bringing it at about 99 mph and was the top prospect in the Cubs' farm system.
Thanks to that arm and a mild physical resemblance (both were tall and black), he was billed as the next Lee Smith.
“He was on track to be the man — a man amongst men,” said Stacy Hollins, who followed his brother to San Jac before spending nearly a decade in the minor leagues as a pitcher. “He was going to be the next great thing.”
Hollins was 3-4 with a 3.20 ERA and 25 saves in Class AA ball for Charlotte in 1992, earning a late-season call-up to the Cubs, where he shared the clubhouse with Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg as the Cubs played out the string.
Nerves got the better of him, though. In his first appearance, he was pulled after just two-thirds of an inning, having walked three batters and thrown a wild pitch that cost him a run. Sandberg saved him from the loss with a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth.
Coincidentally, Smith, then with the Cardinals, took the loss.
Two days later, Hollins allowed four runs — three singles and a bases-clearing double. In his third outing, he went two innings, giving up two runs — a homer by Moises Alou —to the Expos.
Settling in by his final appearance, Hollins allowed only a single in an inning of work against the Pirates.
Sept.19-28, 1992. Ten days.
Jessie Hollins would never pitch in the majors again.
Point of no return
Hollins' lively fastball — he struck out 73 batters in 701⁄3 innings in '92 — had the Cubs excited about the possibilities. So much so that he was one of the 15 players the Cubs protected in the expansion draft when the Rockies and Marlins entered MLB that November.
Around that time, while dominating in the Arizona Fall League — “He'll pitch in the big leagues,” Cubs manager Jim Lefebvre said at the time. “It's just a matter of when.” — his hands started to go numb.
“It started with a muscle that pushed against an artery to shut off the blood flow,” Hollins told the Chicago Sun-Times. “When I raised my arm over my head, there was no pulse rate. It just stopped.”
His problem was similar to what led to the stroke suffered by Astros great J.R. Richard. While doctors were working to figure out how to deal with that, they subsequently discovered a fraying in Hollins' rotator cuff.
The following June, Hollins had surgery to repair the rotator cuff. The Cubs carried him on the major league roster for two more years (until April 1995) hoping he could return to form.
He never did.
The Rockies invited him to minor league spring training in '97, and he hung around through extended spring before being released that May.
‘Little help here'
From the time their father passed away when Jessie was 8 and Stacy 6, big brother took care of little brother.
Big brother tended to try to take care of anyone who needed help. A selfless giver, Stacy says.
“He was pretty much a perfect role model for his sons and a lot of other young people around the city,” Reed said. “He went a lot of places but never forgot where he came from.”
Stacy Hollins loves the baseball stories about his brother and laughs at the wild tales of knockout punches and bare-knuckled brawls.
Perhaps what he loves most are the fishing stories. Jessie Hollins, who in recent years worked alongside his brother as a journeyman utility lineman, absolutely loved to fish.
On July 9, the Hollins brothers, each with a son in tow, were fishing on Lake Livingston when Jessie spotted another fisherman whose lure was caught up in the water.
Always willing to offer a helping hand, Hollins took on the strong current to free the stranger's line.
Stacy advised against it, but Jessie, not realizing it was a life-threatening situation, was undeterred.
“Man, I got it,” he said.
Much of what happened after that is a blur to Stacy Hollins.
He remembers seeing Jessie's ever-present straw hat floating away and his brother going under.
He remembers Jessie speaking softly — not shouting or screaming — despite the dire situation.
“Little help here …”
On Saturday they came, hundreds of them, to West Conroe Baptist Church to say goodbye to Jessie Hollins.
The larger than life former baseball phenom, whom they will be telling stories about for years to come.
Like how he once left tickets at Wrigley Field for Janet Jackson.
How he married Karla Spencer, the first girl to ever play in the state baseball tournament.
How he was the father of four, who loved to smile.
How he could set 'em up and knock 'em out — with a punch or a fastball.
How he died doing what he loved and what he was often compelled to do — simply lending a helping firstname.lastname@example.org