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A TALE OF TWO PITCHERS
BRUCE GARDNER

 

The story of Bill Bordley and Bruce Gardner has all the key elements of Shakespearean tragedy. Gardner became a case study in melancholia, ending in suicide. In Bordley's case, all his negative energy was turned into something positive, and today he is with the Secret Service.

Both were left-handed All-American pitchers at the University of Southern California, separated by 17 years. Both played for legendary Trojan baseball coach Rod Dedeaux on National Championship teams. Both men were considered "can't miss" professional prospects, and both had those careers destroyed almost before they started by awful arm injuries. Both men were damaged goods before their collegiate careers were over.

What they did with their lives after baseball defined the fundamental differences between the two.

Gardner was a phenomenal talent at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. By his senior year, 1956, he was considered one of the top pitching prospects in the nation. He threw extremely hard, had great command of his stuff, and was a bulldog competitor. The pros came calling, and Gardner was all for signing. Those were the days, before the Major League draft, when teams would participate in bidding wars for top high school players. Although it does not seem like a lot of money by today's standards, players of Gardner's stature could demand and get $100,000 bonuses. That was more than big leaguers like Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle were paid in salary, because the Reserve Clause was still in force, thus depriving them of free agency.

Gardner, being an LA kid, was no less prone to the Trojan mystique than anybody else, but he faced a tug of war with his emotions, for reasons that most young athletes might not relate to. Gardner was Jewish. He had been raised by his single mother in modest surroundings. His Mom was convinced that the path to success in America was through education, and she dreamt that her son would make a good lawyer or doctor. She was not enamored with the successes of Joe Di Maggio or Ted Williams, and with very, very few exceptions, Jews were virtually non-existent in sports. The idea that Bruce would be a successful professional athlete was not real to her; it held no promise. She knew little if anything about Bruce's athletic prowess. That her son could throw a 90-mile an hour fastball was an oblique concept. That people cheered for him and that men with stopwatches showed up to see him pitch was not something she could compare anything to. There was no value to such things. Being a doctor, now that had was something of value!

Along with the pro scouts came Dedeaux, a gregarious, wisecracking guy who bleeds Cardinal and Gold. USC was the one school that could entice a hot prospect away from bonus riches. They had won several National Championships already, and if you were a great high school baseball player who wanted a college education, you're three best choices were USC, Southern Cal, or Southern California!

Dedeaux was a master recruiter. He knew how to get into a player's mind. The best way to do that was to get into their home, and in this case he knew that Gardner was basically a mama's boy who yearned to please his mother.  He knew that Gardner felt guilt about letting his mom down, and he knew how to manipulate that guilt. Dedeaux spent more time with Gardner's mother than he did with Gardner. He sold her on the value of a USC scholarship, which over four years, if one factored in tuition, books and housing, matched the six-figure enticements of Major League teams.

Bruce liked the idea of playing for Dedeaux, alright, but he had a shy side to him, and was a little self-conscious about the prospect of being Jewish at a rich, frat-society school like SC. This was still the "Gentleman's Agreement" 1950s. Mom would have not of it. Mr. Dedeaux is a nice man without an anti-Semitic bone in his body, she told him. He would watch out for him. The campus was only 15 minutes from their house, he would never have to be homesick. He would meet a nice girl there, he would make contacts with important people who could influence his life. USC was the American Dream.

Bruce wanted to sign, but he lost. He could never win that kind of battle with his mom, he was like the Anthony Harvey character in "The Manchurian Candidate", and Dedeaux had proven to be her insurmountable ally. He entered the University in the fall of 1956. He never had a chance.

At USC, Gardner was everything he was supposed to be, a flame-throwing all-everything who garnered all the awards there were to win. He played with other stars like Ron Fairly, who would be a star with the Dodgers. He helped Troy to victory in the 1958 College World Series, and spearheaded the '59 team which went 59-6 but was denied another national title because they were on NCAA probation. In 1960, he won his fortieth game, a record that still stands at SC, and was named College Player of the Year. He also hurt his arm.

 

Gardner's arm problems seemed minor at first, but the irritation caused him to lose speed on his fastball. Being a control artist with good breaking stuff, anyway, he continued to be successful. He knew how to pitch, and how to win. The scouts, however, saw something. Radar guns were not invented yet, but these guys had been watching him four or five years now. Gardner had thrown a ton of innings at Troy, and now, in his early 20s, he was not the fresh new phenom that he had been at Fairfax High. His stock, which seemed high to the average fan, went down in the eyes of the real investors, the scouts.

The Chicago White Sox signed him to a paltry bonus and stuck him in the low minors. The agonizing personal descent of Bruce Gardner had begun.

On top of everything else, the draft was still in place, so Gardner found his dreams further interrupted by a stint in the Army. One day, riding on the back of a truck with other GIs at Fort Ord, California, Gardner was thrown to the ground when the truck hit a bump. He re-injured his arm, and when he returned to baseball his already-eroded skills were so far from big league quality that all hope of a glorious career faded away. Gardner's minor league career came to an end pretty much the way it happens for 90 percent of the kids who sign contracts.

After his release, Gardner tried to focus on other things, like everybody else who must re-direct their efforts. He tried his hand at the insurance business, hoping his SC contacts and notoriety as a one-time local sports star would elevate his business, but Bruce's heart was not in it. He resented his mother and Dedeaux for talking him out of signing a big contract out of high school, convincing himself that all those pitches he threw as a Trojan amateur could have been used in the bigs.

He saw another Jewish kid from Fairfax, Larry Sherry, attain heights of glory for the Dodgers in the 1959 World Series.

Gardner, on the other hand, sold insurance.

In 1974, Gardner had a few cocktails, gathered all his trophies, plaques, awards, and memorabilia, along with his USC degree, and went to the pitcher's mound at the brand new Dedeaux Field on SC's campus in the dead of night. He produced a gun, put it to his head and blew his brains out.

The next morning, a groundskeeper at first thought the body on the mound was a drunken student sleeping one off. Then he saw the blood, then the suicide note, which was addressed to his mother and Coach Dedeaux, and said, "This is what I think of your USC education."

Needless to say, Bruce's photo is not prominently displayed at Heritage Hall, his story is not re-told in Trojan press guides. Mention of his name was taboo around Dedeaux. 

Three years after Gardner's suicide, another southpaw graced the pitcher's mound at SC, and he was even better than Gardner was.

Bill Bordley was 16-1 pitching for a CIF-Southern Section championship team at Bishop Amat High School in Torrance in 1975. He was a left-hander who reminded people of Sandy Koufax. After his senior year in 1976, he was selected in the first round by Milwaukee, but turned down their offer to attend SC. As a 1977 freshman, he was 14-0, a First Team All-American, considered the best pitcher baseball…period!

"He was the best pitcher I ever saw," former Pacific-10 Conference umpire Roy Roth, who also worked in the Major Leagues, once said. "Not the best college pitcher. The best pitcher."

"My freshman year was a big step," says Bordley. "Having Dedeaux was the best influence I ever had in amateur or pro ball. I still talk to him. He's successful and a leader at everything he does. I learned even when I was not pitching, and he did it in a fun type of manner. We were never stressed during big moments, he could make you relax, and gave you the feeling that you were King Kong. He's done that his whole life, like in his trucking business, where he's a multi-millionaire. You can go to a suit and tie event, but by the end of it Dedeaux will always have a crowd around him. He used to throw parties at his place in Seal Beach after we'd beat UCLA, and I went to Japan with him, too."

Dedeaux has a "Japan Room" at his beachside home, where he displays memorabilia from his goodwill trips to the Far East, stretching back to the days not long after World War II.

In 1978, Bordley was an All-American again, and the Trojan team that season is considered by many collegiate baseball enthusiasts to be the finest ever assembled.

"The '78 team was the best ever," agrees Bordley. 

Bordley defeated a powerful Arizona State team in the College World Series championship game.

"The second-best college team of all-time was probably Arizona State in '78," asserts Bordley, "yet we were vastly superior to them. I never played on a team that had that kind of talent, plus motivation. Rod never allowed diversions. We were just great, we made one error in five games at the College World Series. We played the game the right way."

Bordley recalled Dedeaux's influence.

"We had the same bus driver in Omaha for two weeks," he says. "The guy had hair down to his waist and a full beard. Rod kept working on him, and by the end of the Series he looked like a businessman."

Bordley skipped on the Alaskan Summer League, and told Dedeaux he was not returning to school. Bordley must have realized that the time to cash in on a pro bonus was sooner rather than later.

"I used to throw 95 miles an hour," he said, "but by the end of my college career I was down around 86-87. I still had enough to dominate college hitters out, but I felt pain from the wear and tear of pitching.

"The scouts were not as aware of my diminished velocity because I had not gone through a showcase junior year. We had financial hardships at the time, because my brother had been in a car accident, and my father had suffered a heart attack. I knew I'd be the number one pick in the country. Bob Horner had just signed for $250,000, so I dropped out of school and enrolled at El Camino JC, making myself available for the January, 1979 draft."

Bordley also may have realized that the cupboard was bare at Southern Cal. '79 was the beginning of a long dry spell for Trojan baseball.

"Bowie Kuhn was the Commissioner," Bordley continues. "It was a big scandal, and I was a big fish in a little pond with all these junior college kids."

The Winter draft is almost exclusively JC players, receives little publicity, and bonus money is minimal.

"I wanted $250,000," says Bordley. "Buzzie Bavasi of the Angels said he would match that, and I said ahead of time that I would only sign with a West Coast team, so I could be near my father. Cincinnati drafted me after saying they wouldn't, so Kuhn got involved. He fined the Angels for tampering, then did the same thing they had done with Tom Seaver."

Borldley's name was put in a hat, and any West Coast team willing to put up a minimum of $150,000 entered the lottery.

"San Diego was owned by Joan Kroc and they did not agree to the minimum," says Bordley. "The Angels were barred, and Oakland had no money, so it was the Dodgers, San Francisco and Seattle."

 

Milwaukee, the team that had drafted him three years prior, was allowed to participate, but the Giants name came up.

"I went straight to Spring Training," recalls Bill. "They signed me to a Major League contract, which I'm grateful for because this allows me a pension, but immediately they could see that my speed from SC had dropped. I had had a swollen arm at the College World Series."

Bordley went through surgery after the 1980 season.

"It was pain and swelling," he recalls of the after-effects of the failed procedure. Doctors had attempted a "Tommy John" procedure, using muscles from his Achilles and implanting them in his elbow. He endured three surgeries.

"You know the old expression," he says. "I was throwing as hard as ever, it just wasn't getting there as fast. "

Bordley did pitch briefly in the big leagues, and lived in Marin County, where he worked with weights in a program devised by a specialist named Satch Hennessy. Nobody tried harder.

"SI did articles comparing me to Koufax," he recalls. "From my junior year in high school to age 22, I was very confident, I knew that I could win. I was striking out two guys an inning, I was on top of my game. I had the God-given ability to throw a baseball. Plus, being a southpaw helped, and I had a good breaking ball."

But his arm was shot. Joe Torre invited him to Atlanta's Spring Training in1983, but his career was over. 

"Baseball was a positive influence," Bordley says without a trace of regret. "It gave me financial independence, paid for college, and I saw the world. It taught me a great work ethic. I have no problems leaving the game behind, you have to move on. I went back to SC and earned a 3.8 GPA in finance."

Bill was the pitching coach under Dedeaux in 1984 and '85, when Mark McxGwire and Randy Johnson were there. In return for coaching, the school paid for him to complete a Master's degree.

After graduation, he worked in finance in the San Francisco Bay Area. How did he end up in the Secret Service, an elite, ultra-secret organization normally reserved for former FBI agents and military officers?

"We played the Mets at Shea Stadium in 1980," Bordley recalls. "George Bush was the Vice President, and I got to know some of the guys on his detail, I left them some tickets. I was always interested in investigative work. I thought to myself, `Hey, I'd like to look into that.'

"It took two and a half years of tests. I work on polygraph investigations, threat cases, and deal with the CIA. If you know of a death threat, the Service administers a polygraph test to determine if the person is on the level. I've interviewed Charles Manson, who made threats from prison."

On can surmise that Bill determined that allowing Charlie out of prison would be a threat.

Things got very interesting for Bordley when he was assigned to Chelsea Clinton's detail at Stanford University. Naturally, he is unable to give specifics about the detail, or any of the things he has seen while working for the Clinton Administration.

"I was on the President's and First Lady's detail," he says. "I had to testify in the Starr Report, and I know Chelsea. She's a normal 20-year old kid. She goes to a lot of events, and we try to make her college experience as normal as possible.

"What people don't realize is all the other things we do in the Service, like counterfeiting. We're under the Treasury Department, so I travel the world--I've been to 75 countries--where our money is counterfeited."

Bordley was asked about whether he was ever required to sign a document that would not allow him to ever talk about inside Presidential stuff. If anybody has anything on Presidents, past and present, it would be the Secret Service. In recent years, some former Kennedy Secret Service agents disclosed details of White House shenanigans, but for the most part, nobody ever hears a peep out of the non-partisan Service.

"We have top secret clearances," he explains, "and it's pretty much taboo to talk about them. Before we get to the Presidential detail, there's so much screening that it's a virtual certainty that an agent will not disclose secrets. It's also a matter of courtesy. It's taken years for me to get in a position of trust with President and Mrs. Clinton, and with Chelsea. If politicians couldn't trust the Secret Service, it would be very harmful to future public figures. I look at it like a baseball clubhouse, where we went by the saying `What you say here, what you see here, what you do here, let it stay here.'"

Bordley knew the Bruce Gardner story, but found no satisfaction in comparing himself to his predecessor.

"It's an adjustment for anybody," he says, "whether you're Steve Compagno <this writer knew Bordley in the early '80s, and Compagno is a mutual friend of ours who once played in the Yankee organization, before embarking on a successful mortgage banking career> or anybody. You learn a good work ethic and take the same positives that go into being a Cy Young award winner or a 20-game winner, which are valuable."

Bordley still follows the Trojans, and remains loyal to Rod. He lives in San Jose, and plans to retire in the Bay Area.

"I studied finance," he says, "and did well in stocks."

 

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