Thu, May. 20, 2004
The Seattle Times
They never forget Squiggy.
David Lander pulls his car into the special lot using the yellow badge that says baseball and parks in the closest spot by hanging a blue tag that says handicapped. Grabbing a bag that carries the tools of his job as a scout for the Mariners, he walks slowly to the ballpark with a limp from multiple sclerosis.
The Dodger Stadium gate opens, and he steps straight into 1976.
A man at the press-credential table leaps up to pump his arm with a heavy handshake. Later, an usher will leave her post simply to give him a hug.
Like so many nights at so many major-league stadiums around the country, Lander - better known as Andrew "Squiggy" Squiggman - is in the house.
This is what it's like to be the most annoying television character ever created. Everybody loves you. The Shotz Brewery has been off network television for more than two decades, and episodes of "Laverne and Shirley" are hard to find anymore.
But they remember Shirley lamenting her manless life as her roommate Laverne comforts her by saying, "Don't worry, Shirl, one day your Prince Charming could walk right through that door." At that moment the door opens and Squiggy stands there all mousy, his greasy, black hair squeezed into a point down his forehead and a squeaking voice that sounds like a door in desperate need of oil.
And Squiggy says, "HEHLLO!"
Twenty years later, and somewhere late at night that moment still draws a hundred laughs.
It's all magic when your television show is No. 1 for two years and nobody can get enough of Squiggy and his equally doltish sidekick, Lenny. You're a star, and you're not even sure why it's happening. But good things do happen. Your beloved Pittsburgh Pirates dedicate a season to you in the spring of the year they wind up winning the World Series.
Ballparks always have room for Squiggy. The owner of the Pirates' Class AAA team in Portland asks him to buy 5 percent of the team so they can afford to sign Luis Tiant, and Lander winds up a minor-league sports mogul for two years. His good friend, the Yankees' PR man, can't find a seat in the stands one day in Anaheim but invites him up to the press box, where he sits next to Bill Bavasi, who eventually becomes the Angels' general manager. Bavasi's amazed to discover Squiggy knows everything about baseball.
A friendship is struck, then one night, many years later, the phone rings, and it's Bavasi and Bob Fontaine, the Angels' scouting director. They think because Lander goes to so many games and knows so many players that maybe he should be a scout. You know, not paid or anything, but part of the team nonetheless.
Then after Bavasi leaves the Angels and eventually winds up in Seattle as the general manager this spring, he calls Lander again out of the blue and says, "By the way, just so you know, you've been a Mariners employee for the last two weeks."
Yes, it's all magic indeed.
"He has a great feel for the game," Bavasi says.
And so almost every night, whether it's home in Los Angeles or on the road, Lander puts on a rumpled sports coat, pulls on a baseball cap and grabs his black bag that holds a scorebook and media guides and heads to a stadium. This is not his main job - in fact the most he can expect to get is $234 if he signs a player and that player makes the major leagues. So far, in six years of scouting, he has not signed a player.
It is more a labor of love. Lander is 56, his regular work is in acting and speaking at MS conventions around the country. Bavasi supplies the game credentials and Lander coordinates his MS travels with baseball schedules and reports back anything he picks up in conversations with players and coaches or if he sees something unusual.
A couple of Mondays ago, when word of Lander's deal with the Mariners leaked out, Jim Rome, the acid-tongued host of a nationally syndicated sports talk show, went on a seven-minute rant about the absurdity of Squiggy getting a job in baseball.
"I'm sure the Angels are shaking in their boots knowing that the M's hired SQUIGGY," Rome exploded, apparently oblivious to Lander's five years in Anaheim. "George Steinbrenner has to be concerned, he's probably negotiating with The Fonz right now to get him in pinstripes. All I am saying is you can't have Squiggy as a scout."
Lander has heard about this. How could he not? Everybody, it seems, has told him. And while he doesn't show it, he appears hurt.
"Jim Rome seems to think Squiggy is a real person," he says. "Squiggy being a scout is a pretty stupid, funny idea. I spent 30 seconds having my feelings hurt, and then I thought, 'He must not know the difference between Squiggy and David Lander.'("
Then he smiles.
"I said to myself, 'Do you know Squiggy has MS? Do something on that,'" he says.
Something was wrong, Squiggy was on TV's "Hollywood Squares," and his legs didn't work. Peter Marshall shouted "Squiggy! David Lander!" and as Lander sprinted across the stage his legs turned to Jell-O. Instead of running, he was falling. With everybody watching, he had to do something; he just couldn't go splat. He caught himself and tried to make the whole thing look like a joke, like he was drunk and stumbling. People laughed. But inside he was terrified.
His square was in the second row, with a ladder that went up the back. He climbed it gingerly, terrified that at any second he would fall and tumble to the floor. When he finally crawled into his chair he refused to leave, staying for the taping of five shows because he was afraid if he came down he'd never get back up.
Later that day, the feeling came back to his legs, and yet it wasn't right. There had been too many of these falls, these "exacerbations," as he called them. At a rehearsal for a benefit a few weeks before, he couldn't execute a basic two-step dance routine. As he wobbled around, Howard Hessman, the "WKRP in Cincinnati" star, looked at him and said, "Well, Dave, I see dancing isn't your forte."
Soon after, the doctor performed a quick exam in which Lander failed every test, unable to feel a coin running across his feet, or a pizza wheel on his backbone. A spinal tap was ordered. The bad news came three hours later.
They told Lander he had MS on May 15, 1984. The reason he knows this is it was the day before comedian Andy Kaufman died. And the reason he knows Kaufman died on May 16, 1984, is that he died in the next room at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Hollywood.
Lander awoke from the spinal tap to see his doctor standing above him.
"You have MS," the doctor said bluntly, then ran through the list of things he could expect to happen. He would soon need a wheelchair, his eyesight was going to deteriorate, and he might go blind. There was also a real possibility of memory loss.
Left with this sobering news, Lander lay in bed and pondered his future when the phone rang. It was The Associated Press.
"Ohmygod!" Lander thought. "They found out about me already!''
But the reporter was not interested in Squiggy.
"Did you know Andy Kaufman just died?" the reporter asked.
Lander said no. In fact, he didn't even know Kaufman was sick.
"Well, he is in the room next door to you," the reporter replied. "We're trying to confirm it. Do you think you could walk over there and see if he's really dead?"
Here's what an exacerbation feels like.
"It's like your head is nailed to the floor," Lander says.
MS can be hell on its victims, attacking the nerves' protective coating but at the same time confounding the immune system. Unsure what to make of the intruder, the immune system begins fighting the MS, destroying the nerve endings in the process and cutting off communications to the brain. The nerves work to find new pathways to the brain, and these are often only temporary and you can never tell when they are working.
Or as his wife, Kathy, says: "Imagine a frayed electric cord and the light goes off, then you shake the cord a little bit and the light goes back on."
Only it's not an electric cord, it's your legs and arms and eyes and mind, and they are what is going off and coming back on.
Lander might have been left to a life in a wheelchair, wondering when his eyes were going to go, had the steroids the doctor prescribed not worked so well. A day after his diagnosis, he was walking. A day later he was out of the hospital. Over the years he discovered a variety of drugs that were able to arrest many of the symptoms, the most effective being Avonex - whose maker now sends him to speak at the MS conventions.
But even though he could walk without too much trouble and the exacerbations were fewer, Lander did a strange thing. He told no one outside his family about the disease for 15 years. He figured this was self-preservation for his acting career.
"How many parts are there for a 36-year-old Jew in a wheelchair?" he asks.
He knew Hollywood does two things to actors. It typecasts and it discriminates. It was bad enough everyone still thought of him as Squiggy, but Lander knew the establishment would turn its back on him in a second if it was known he had MS.
It became the great family secret. His daughter Natalie's friends would ask, "Why does your father walk funny?"
She'd lie. "Oh, he has back problems."
Eventually people began to whisper. They could see something was wrong. Once in Chicago, while rehearsing for a role in "The Nerd," he was called into the office.
"They said, 'We think you have a problem,' and I thought, 'Oh, God, they know! What am I going to do?'(" Lander says. "Then they said, 'We think you're alcoholic,' and I thought, 'Oh, thank God!' They fired me anyway."
Kathy, once a Hollywood photographer, smiles.
"Everybody knew he had something wrong. People interpreted it as alcoholism," she says. "That was all right. Because back then, who didn't have a substance-abuse problem in Hollywood? They could handle that."
But there was always baseball.
Lander fell in love with the Pirates as a 4-year-old in the Bronx, when his father came back from a game carrying a Pittsburgh pennant. Lander immediately took to the flag and the alliteration, marching around the apartment singing, "PittsburghPirates. PittsburghPirates."
All the seminal moments of Lander's life tend to be measured by baseball. For instance, his MS diagnosis coincided with a Phillies trip to Dodger Stadium. And Lenny and Squiggy were invented in Pittsburgh, home of his Pirates, where Lander had just been accepted to Carnegie Tech.
At the time, he and his friend, fellow actor Michael McKean, developed the characters Lenny and Anthony - parodies of two kids they knew back in New York. When they later wound up as young, poor actors in Hollywood, Lenny and Anthony became a hit in their party circuit.
And when good friends Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall sold the rights to "Laverne and Shirley," they had Lander and McKean do Lenny and Anthony at the party. Marshall's brother, Garry, one of the show's producers, hired them to be writers and perhaps make occasional appearances.
One thing, though - they had to lose Anthony. There were too many Italians on the show, Garry Marshall said. The replacement was Squiggy, a spinoff character they created whose only redeeming value was to break heads when Lenny and Anthony got in trouble. Who knew it would take off with a single "HEHLLO!"
The bigger Lander became, the more baseball welcomed him. In Portland he took his 5(percent of the team and gave himself a title. He called himself "decisionary consultant."
"That sounds like a baseball title, doesn't it?" he says.
He scores every game he sees, preserving the record not in a fancy, thick scorebook like other scouts, but in an Original Scoremaster with the little diamonds drawn into the boxes like Little League teams use. He keeps each 25-page book and now has 83 Scoremasters lined up like records in a specially-made cabinet in his Woodland Hills home.
After he and Kathy were married on March 10, 1979, they went on a baseball safari, leaving straight from their Beverly Hills wedding for a honeymoon in Palm Springs, where the Angels held spring training. Then it was on to Bradenton, Fla., for the Pirates' spring training. In all, they saw 85 games that year.
Jim Rome should be ashamed. Does Squiggy know baseball? Heck, he knows so much he's actually changed baseball history. Lander says he is the one who persuaded former Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis to admit he pitched a 1970 no-hitter on LSD. For years Ellis tried to cover it up by saying he was drunk.
"It's a much better story if you tell the truth," Lander told him.
As an Angels scout, he recommended the team look at Phillies pitcher Randy Wolf after seeing the left-hander pitch at Pepperdine. Anaheim put Wolf on its draft list but lost out when he was picked before they could take him.
The other day, while on an MS speaking engagement in Baltimore, he spent the weekend watching the Orioles and Indians, chatting up Baltimore manager Lee Mazzilli, an old friend, hoping to glean something he might be able to pass on to the Mariners. This is the way it will be for much of the season, at least until the MS appearances lessen, as they do every year, in mid-summer.
Then he will drive the California League, catching games in places like Lake Elsinore and Bakersfield. He has some players he wants to see. He really likes a shortstop at Visalia. Who knows, he says, maybe one of these could be a "player to be named in a trade."
It should also be noted that the Mariners have 34 full-time scouts and 43 area scouts ranked ahead of Lander on the team's organizational chart. He is not Seattle's definitive authority on talent, just a guy who loves baseball and might be able to help from time to time.
"I told them I shouldn't be a scout," Lander says of that first call from Bavasi and Fontaine in 1997. "I knew what I thought a scout should be, and I didn't think I had it."
And what was that?
"Someone who actually used to play baseball."
David Lander stands behind a podium in front of a crowded conference hall. He places a glass of water on the slanted top of a podium. The glass starts to slide. He picks it up and puts it back. The glass slides again. The crowd titters. He picks it up one more time, looks at it, takes a drink and stares at the audience.
"The podium doesn't hold water well," he says. "I have MS and neither do I."
The room roars.
Twice a month, he speaks at MS conventions, talking for about an hour, then taking questions and helping people get over their fear. The message is the same: it is possible to live with this disease. You might have trouble walking, there might be some exacerbations, but you can also have a normal life. He is aware that he has a less severe form of the disease - some are completely paralyzed by it - yet the point is to bring hope that wasn't there when he was diagnosed.
"There are a lot of celebrities who will lend the name, but what has been so important about David is that he gives of his time," says Arney Rosenblat, the public-affairs director for the MS Society. "That's very special. You can't buy that."
Lander ended his 15 years of secrecy in 1999 when Penny Marshall called and said, "Are you battling MS?" He still doesn't know how she found out. She asked him to be a part of an MS fundraiser and after days of consideration he agreed. He followed with a book called "Fall Down Laughing: How Squiggy caught Multiple Sclerosis and didn't tell nobody."
And while he is relieved to no longer carry the secret, his worst fears have been realized. Once, during a wardrobe dispute on a production, a director yelled at his agent, "You know David should be lucky to have this part; after all, he has MS and is on death's door."
This June he will appear in a movie with Jamie Lee Curtis in which he plays "The Intruder." He accidentally walks in on Curtis while she is sun-tanning and without saying a word he throws his hands up to his face and runs back out the door. That's it. He's The Intruder.
"I know they are trying to be nice, but it's just one more nail in the coffin of my career," he says.
Then he sighs. It is late, another baseball game is behind him, and yet as he drives home, he listens to an Angels game that has gone into extra innings. If he gets back in time, he may be able to catch the final pitches of another game on DirecTV.
Squiggy has MS, Hollywood is ignoring him, but he'll always have baseball.
Copyright © 2004, The Seattle Times