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ELLIS SEES THE LIGHT AFTER HELPING HIMSELF, VALENTINE HELPS OTHERS NOW.

Byline: Chris Cocoles Staff Writer

Ellis Valentine was just 31, an age when many baseball players enter the prime of their careers.

However, he was done. The former Crenshaw High star wasn't in right field throwing out runners with his mighty arm; he was in drug rehab. He wasn't making a six-figure salary; he was earning $4.25 an hour driving Avis rental cars to and from the Phoenix airport.

Gone was his way of life. Gone was his health. And, it appeared, gone was his future.

Then Valentine decided that enough was enough and he made a life-saving decision: He sought help. Now, he lives to save lives: He and partner Sybil Rees founded the nonprofit A.V. Light Foundation of Lancaster, a rehabilitation and counseling center, almost two years ago.

``He is a visionary man,'' Rees said. ``He knows what he wants to do and knows what people need to do.''

The rise and fall

Valentine had five-tool talent, which means he could do it all as a player. He made the National League All-Star team as a member of the Montreal Expos his first full year and hit at least 20 home runs for three consecutive seasons, from 1977 to 1979.

If he had true greatness in him, it was packed into his powerful right arm. He made throws two decades ago people talk about today.

An article in the March 26 edition of Sports Illustrated declared Valentine's outfield arm one of baseball's all-time strongest.

``There's a plateau where you can't throw the ball any harder and you can't be any more accurate,'' former Expos manager Felipe Alou told Sports Illustrated. ``That was Ellis Valentine.''

Valentine, now 47, a hefty 280 pounds and 16 seasons removed from the major leagues, was stunned to read Alou's comments.

``Coming from Felipe, that's an awesome statement,'' he said. ``It was pretty emotional for me to see people judge major-league outfielders by me. I didn't know that was happening. When (Sports Illustrated wrote) `We have found Ellis Valentine in (Texas right fielder) Ruben Mateo', I was like `Whoa'. I would think they'd use Roberto Clemente.''

Oakland A's manager Art Howe believes Valentine is a legitimate standard.

``He threw me out one time at third, and to this day I still can't believe it,'' said Howe, who spent most of 10 big-league seasons with the Houston Astros. ``I came around second and he still didn't have the ball in right field. And I'm cruising into third and somehow the ball beat me. It was just a laser-beam throw.''

Indeed, Valentine had the type of gifts that lead some to the Hall of Fame.

However, his baseball journey would fall far short of the sport's ultimate destination: He soon deteriorated into a platoon player and faded out of baseball after the 1985 season because of injuries and drug abuse.

In 10 seasons with the Expos, New York Mets, Angels and the Texas Rangers, Valentine hit .278 with 123 homers and 474 RBI.

The beginning of the end came in 1980. Valentine had 13 homers and 67 RBI in just 86 games and seemed to be well on his way to his most productive season. Then, on May 30, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Roy Thomas hit Valentine in the face with a fastball and he lost his confidence at the plate.

He never made it all the way back.

``It was important to get right back in the lineup and don't let your mind start thinking about it,'' said Howe, who was hit by a pitch soon after Valentine that year. ``... Obviously, Ellis was never the same. Something happened there.''

Valentine admits he never again was as aggressive when digging into the batter's box.

``Guys get hit,'' he said. ``Some come back, and some of us didn't make it back. I was a good ballplayer, and my career was over.''

Valentine hung around for five more seasons. He was traded to the Mets in 1981 and had subsequent stints with the Angels and Rangers. He mostly was a platoon player as hamstring, knee and Achilles' injuries also began to eat away at his talents.

That led to his retirement at 31 and further problems. He took painkillers to cope with his injuries. Soon, the painkillers were replaced by cocaine, marijuana and alcohol, and Valentine began to spiral out of control.

``When I got out of baseball in 1985, I realized there was a problem here,'' Valentine said. ``And one of the factors was realizing that baseball was gone.

``... The drug use escalated after I found out that drugs medicated some of the hurt I was having. For about eight, nine months, it was really starting to take its toll on me.''

Turning it around

Fortunately for him, Valentine found the will power to save himself.

His first step: Get out of Southern California. He gave a house he'd bought in Los Angeles to his parents, moved to slower-paced Phoenix in September 1986 and immediately entered drug rehab.

``I'm changing my life and trying to get rid of the past,'' he said. ``I started to change my playmates and my playgrounds, everything.''

Soon he was clean and made a decision that would dictate his future: He would devote himself to helping others.

His new passion took root when he was asked by a friend, a youth counselor at St. Luke's Hospital in Phoenix, to speak to his group. Valentine became accustomed to addressing troubled kids and ill people during community-relation functions as a baseball player. He was good at it. His deep voice and commanding presence make him a convincing speaker.

He eventually took a position at St. Luke's but moved back home in May 1988. In short order, he received a certificate in behavioral-health counseling and then another for chemical dependency. He gained practical experience at a drug-and-alcohol facility in Sylmar and a mental-health unit at Palmdale Hospital.

Then he was ready to go out on his own: He and Rees, a friend and also a counselor specializing in drug and alcohol abuse, decided to form the A.V. Light Foundation, and neither has stopped to a take breath since.

Their office space in downtown Lancaster was donated and started with just an old chair and desk but now is an immaculate facility.

They resolve family squabbles, offer help to those suffering from alcohol and drug dependency and open their doors and ears to anyone seeking guidance. Particularly kids.

Valentine has his own method of operation. First, he's honest with his clients - sometimes brutally honest - and demands they be honest with him, which he believes is the first step toward recovery.

Second, he has his clients look beyond today. He has them envision a better future and then take the necessary steps to realize that vision.

All the while, he describes his own experiences, many of which are similar to those of his patients. Thus, he establishes credibility in their minds.

Valentine doesn't reach everyone this way. Some simply can't be helped. However, he does change the lives of many of his clients, Rees and others said.

He asked that his clients not be interviewed for confidentiality reasons.

``Neither one of us messes around,'' Rees said. ``(Valentine is) at times intimidating. But he's the most caring person I've ever known.''

Indeed, it's obvious his heart is tightly wrapped up in his cause.

Valentine wept after the A.V. Light Foundation was awarded a $13,000 check from the Lancaster JetHawks' minor-league baseball franchise, which raised the money from its golf tournament.

``He's a gentle giant,'' JetHawks general manager Kevin Younkin said. ``You don't see someone of that stature cry like that. But he was overwhelmed by the support. You can see it means a lot to him.

``He's just a special individual. Whatever impact he believes he's made, it is a lot more. He's helping a lot of people in this community. It's his calling, what he was meant to do.''

`The next chapter'

Valentine never will make the Baseball Hall of Fame. His only connection to the sport these days is a few hours of hitting instruction for local players when he can squeeze it in and introducing his 7-year-old son, Jordan, to its wonders.

And his baseball pension pays both his personal bills and those of the organization, for which he feels fortunate.

Beyond that, the major leagues are in his past - a place in which he no longer chooses to dwell.

To help make that point to his clients, he shows them a 10-minute videotape of him throwing baseballs as hard as anyone in history.

``It showed me throwing people out, Pete Rose and Dale Murphy, people like that,'' Valentine said. ``I was able to see how blessed I was after it was all over. In a lot of the seminars and lectures, I use that video to let them see that what was given to you can be taken away. So get all you can now.

``That's where I stopped beating myself up. Because I could sit here right now saying, `Oh, poor me,' buried in a bottle over the fact of what I could have done. There was a lot of stuff I could do. But I feel like moving to the next chapter.''

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Former major-leaguer Ellis Valentine has battled back from substance abuse and now counsels people how to do the same.

(2) Ellis Valentine and son Jordan, 7, share a moment at Valentine's A.V. Light Foundation offices in Lancaster.

Jeff Goldwater/Staff Photographer
COPYRIGHT 2001 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 23, 2001
Words:1594
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