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SARASOTA, Fla. -- The feel of the black Colt .45 is foreign. It's been placed in my hands by its owner and is fully loaded and ready to be fired inside the Take Aim shooting range, where the smell of gunpowder is acute and a poster on the wall reads: "Ladies Shoot For Free!"
I'm staring down the barrel at a poster of Osama bin Laden. Luke Scott is the owner of the .45, and he senses my nervousness. This is the first time I've held a gun. He tries to put me at ease and is smiling and calm while expertly breaking down shooting mechanics.
|Luke Scott with teammates Felix Pie, left, and Pedro Florimon, right, after shooting practice at a Florida gun range.|
The reason I'm even here at this shooting range in late February during baseball's spring training, holding this gun, is that Scott is the left fielder for the Baltimore Orioles, and I'm trying to understand him better. Scott is one of baseball's most complex characters. His questions about President Barack Obama's U.S. citizenship put him in headlines during an otherwise-quiet offseason. He speaks bluntly and with heavy opinions. He's fluent in Spanish and loves Latin culture, but in the clubhouse, he'll make potentially inflammatory comments to a Latino player who is his best friend -- throwing plantain chips at him to keep him in line. He wears religion on his sleeve.
Given all that, the simple assumption is that Scott is a right-wing nut, a borderline racist and a loudmouth redneck ballplayer who should keep his mouth shut.
But it's not that simple. Luke Scott will require a deeper line of thinking.
Googling "Luke Scott" before December would have netted standard results for a 32-year-old baseball player who's never been a star but who has always been consistent. That all changed after Scott spoke to a Yahoo! Sports blogger in December at Major League Baseball's annual winter meetings.
Most topics were about Scott's love of guns and hunting. But then the discussion turns to politics, and blogger David Brown asks him about President Obama.
"Obama does not represent America. He does not represent what our forefathers stood for," Scott told Brown.
Scott went on to say that Obama was not born in America and referenced socialism, Cuba and Russia.
"People who tell the truth, they're very easy to their actions prove it. Something as simple providing a birth certificate. Come on. There needs to be accountability for the truth. I don't care if you're the president of the United States, you need to be held accountable."
Scott is certainly not alone in those views, and he received a lot of support for expressing his opinion. But negative reaction cascaded, too, with some bloggers saying that evidence Obama was born in Hawaii is overwhelming and that Scott must be a racist or a moron, or both.
The political comments were no secret to those who have shared a clubhouse with Scott. But when third baseman Mark Reynolds was traded this past winter to Baltimore from Arizona, he wondered what Scott would be like and why a player would say such things. Then he says he got to know Scott, and he appreciates his honesty.
Knowing Luke Scott is the key to understanding Luke Scott, I'll hear again and again.
"He doesn't hide it," Reynolds says. "He doesn't talk behind people's backs about anything. A lot of people have those opinions and don't say anything. Did I think he needed to go to the winter meetings and say all those things? Probably not. But he'll give you his opinion.
"He's a patriot. He loves America. He's one-of-a-kind."
Neither the Orioles nor Scott's agent seem aware that Scott has invited me to go to the shooting range with him and two players in February and for a visit to his offseason home in March. But as the trip home nears, his agent expresses concern about the arrangement to Scott. The Orioles are also concerned. The team had distanced itself from Scott's Obama comments and had a conversation with Scott and his agent asking Scott to refrain from sharing his views while representing the organization.
|Scott with his father, David, center, and extended family.|
A longtime family friend who is Scott's financial adviser will wind up supervising the house visit, for the most part keeping watch but at least once pulling Scott aside to quietly remind him to take care when he discusses other races.
During a three-hour drive from a spring training game to the home in De Leon Springs, Fla., just north of Orlando, Scott talks about politics, race and religion. His tone is professorial, but the new mandate has had an effect: Scott says he can't talk about anybody by name, that he doesn't want to cause a distraction to his team.
Still, he talks.
"I felt tremendous about what I said, and I was proud of it," Scott says of the Obama comments. "If I could rewind and turn back the clock and go do it again, I'd say the exact same thing. I'd go home and put my head on the pillow and feel wonderful about myself. But certain things were taken and twisted."
Scott says that his overall message about accountability was missed, and it's all quite simple: He lives his life by certain principles, and chief among those is accountability. He believes in people working hard for their lot in life; he was raised very poor with little means. His family worked hard for its money, living off the land and not accepting any government assistance.
"Our forefathers got it; they got it, man," Scott says. "They took godly principles and they put them into action, and they developed our Constitution -- the land of freedom where each man is accountable and responsible for his actions. By the sweat of his brow and the effort he makes he can mark out his future, regardless of opportunity.
"Like me, I come from -- I didn't have the best baseball equipment, I didn't play in travel ball leagues. I played for Winkler Concrete and Martin Fernery, but I worked hard at what I did, and I gave God all I had."
Scott identifies himself as a constitutionalist politically, noting that he has concerns with both major political parties. And the Tea Party?
"I think what the Tea Party movement is -- I'm all for it; they're out there fighting for our rights, fighting for what our forefathers stood for," he says.
Scott talks about these basic principles -- honor, integrity, accountability, hard work -- and says they all trace back to the founders of this country. He espouses them frequently, especially to his teammate and close friend, outfielder Felix Pie. The day before going to the shooting range, I mention to Scott that I want to explore his relationship with the Dominican Republic-born Pie, because it's a part of his life that few outside the clubhouse seem to know about.
|The basement of Scott's offseason home. The hanging Gadsden flag has become a staple at Tea Party gatherings.|
"Felix is my friend," he says. "I give him a hard time. The reason why I give him a hard time is because there are certain people you deal with and you go up and talk to them, and it doesn't work. They don't understand.
"I tell him about some of the ways he's acted: 'Look, you're acting like an animal, you're acting like a savage.'"
Scott turns to his locker and pulls out a bag of plantain chips.
"So I throw bananas in his helmet. Here are my banana chips to remind him that whenever he acts like an animal, 'Hey, that's what other people are thinking. They're just not telling you, but that's what they're thinking about. And I'm telling you so that you're aware of that so you can make a cognitive decision to not behave like that.' I would want someone to tell me that instead of letting you making a jerk of yourself."
Why would Scott choose potentially loaded words like "animal" and "savage" -- and how can they not offend either his friend or anyone in the locker room who overhears? Most teammates asked about it laugh or smile. They cite it as part of the two players' playful relationship, part of life in a big league clubhouse -- there are things that fly in there that wouldn't in the outside world.
Adam Jones, who is black, says it doesn't bother him because he knows Scott is a good person and the words do not come from a bad place. If it bothered Pie, who is a dark-skinned Dominican, it might be a different situation.
"He's not a redneck racist; his beliefs are his beliefs," Jones says. "Their relationship is uncanny, and Pie ribs him just as much. I don't think Luke means any racist thing by it. Trust me, if I see racism, I'll say some s---. Quickly.
"I've told Luke there are some things you should and shouldn't do that might offend if he crossed the line I would have already said something."
Everyone seemingly has a similar refrain: From the outside it seems offensive, but if you know Scott, it's harmless.
Joe Inglett and Scott were teammates with the Cleveland Indians' Class A Kinston team in 2002. He says Scott was always opinionated, mostly about religion and guns. He doesn't remember him being very political. Willy Taveras was with the Indians then, too, and Inglett remembers Scott using similar words.
"That's how they talk to each other, you know, how friends talk to each other," says Inglett, now with the Astros. "It's not in a derogatory way, though. I will never, ever take anything he says seriously. He's an A-plus dude."
Pie laughs when asked about the names Scott calls him.
"Like 'Bogeyman?'" Pie says. "Luke is my friend. He's like a brother. It doesn't bother me because I'm the kind of person [where] you're going to know when you do something that bothers me. This is my friend. He doesn't hurt me, people know that. If you met him you can see that, too."
One Orioles team source explains it like this: "He's not John Rocker. He took the time to be bilingual; he spends more time with his Spanish teammates than Americans. This ain't John Rocker, but he says some John Rocker type s---. My question is, why?"
On the February day before heading to the shooting range, Scott's world consists of me, Pie and infielder Pedro Florimon, who is also from the Dominican Republic. I'm trying to follow along, as the three players speak mostly in Spanish. We're at Scott's rented condominium, where the players are gathering guns and ammunition.
|Pie holds one of Scott's many guns -- this one, Scott says, is his mother's favorite.|
I watch Pie, wearing a bright red Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan jersey, sit on Scott's green, gingham sofa holding an unloaded Sig Sauer 556 -- a semiautomatic rifle -- and aiming through the crosshairs.
"That's my mom's favorite weapon right there," Scott says. "She loves to shoot it."
Scott's eyes are big, and he's smiling wide while standing in the kitchen. Scott, who has legally carried a concealed weapon since he's been 21 years old, tells Pie and Florimon in Spanish that he has 114 guns at his offseason home, which he shares with his parents, brother, sister, brother-in-law and their two kids.
Both players shake their heads and laugh. Scott, wearing a black baseball cap backward that reads "In God We Trust," walks back into the kitchen and tells us he keeps guns all over his house, even in the kitchen cabinets, and always within reach -- you never know when a criminal could strike, he says.
At his offseason home, Scott has a safe room that holds most of his weapons, ammunition, memorabilia and even ready-to-eat meals. When we're there a few weeks later, his adviser won't allow me to see it. Scott listens to him.
"It's a privilege," he says. "You can see my guns at my apartment. The safe room is a special place. It's good to have a safe room in your house. It's storm-proof; we've got food, store supplies, all kinds of stuff."
As we leave for the gun range, Scott stuffs a pistol into the side of the sofa cushion.
Scott grew up in De Leon Springs, which has a population of around 3,000.
On this March day, Scott drives his white SUV through the town's worst neighborhood, filled with small, rundown houses, with people on the street who he says are dealing drugs. He points out his small little league field and the school playground where he was first asked to deal cocaine when he was 14 years old. He refused.
|Scott outside the house he grew up in, with his cousin, Mike.|
Scott and his family say that getting involved with drugs is a common career path here. That path was taken by one of Scott's uncles, and when Scott was around 12 years old, associates of his uncle killed someone over an unpaid debt. His uncle's ties to the men put the family in the crosshairs, so Scott's father, David, taught him and his younger brother Noah how to properly load a 12-gauge shotgun and ran them through drills if their house was ever under attack. Scott says cars would drive by his home very slowly, guns pointing out windows.
"They didn't know there's a scope on them, crosshairs right on them," Noah, 28, says in the family's kitchen, laughing.
David, a bald, mild-tempered man who's extremely fit after years of manual labor, wanted his family prepared to defend itself.
"We did a lot of praying," he says. "Hope that trouble would pass us by and not get in the middle of it. I really thought about having to move and getting away from here because things were getting heated.
"Everybody should be prepared in all facets of life for everything."
David was a brick mason, working hard labor six to seven days a week, while Scott's mom, Jennifer, juggled multiple jobs most often as a bartender and waitress. The family struggled to eat at times. One of Scott's aunts fled a violent relationship, and she moved herself and her three children into an already-full house: Luke, Noah, sister Jackie, their parents and grandparents all lived there. When Scott's aunt and cousins moved in, Luke and Noah slept on the floor in a room adjacent to the living room.
|Scott and his brother, Noah, hunt for grapefruit in the woods near Luke's offseason home, where Noah also lives.|
The Scotts describe their childhood as happy, spent mostly outside, fishing, hunting and playing in the backwoods.
Most of Scott's childhood friends are in prison, he says, or in the military; he would have been a Marine sniper had baseball not panned out. But it did. He was drafted by the Indians in ninth round in 2001 out of Oklahoma State University and later was traded to the Astros before the Orioles traded for him in 2007.
Religion plays an important role in Scott's life. Raised as a Jehovah's Witness, David began reading the Bible. When Luke was around 7 years old, he says, the family converted to Christianity. Luke says that until he was 22 years old he called himself a Christian but didn't practice its principles. One night in the winter of 2000 after a hard night of partying and sleeping with women, he looked in the mirror.
"It was nonfulfilling, a feeling of emptiness," he says of his behavior. "I'm being a hypocrite. I'm going and telling people I'm Christian and I believe in God, but dude, what are you doing, man?"
He was baptized six months later and has taken his Christian faith seriously since. A favorite refrain: "Do what's right when no one is looking."
If Scott loves America, not far from his heart is South America. He grew up around Spanish speakers in Florida, fell in love with the Latin culture after playing in Venezuela in the winter leagues. He grew fluent in Spanish once he became roommates with Taveras in the minors.
He says he feels he has more in common with Latino players.
"That's why I never did well in the minor leagues with my American teammates, because a lot of these guys were high draft picks and got a lot of money and were used to Mom and Dad taking care of them," Scott says. "They'd leave trash everywhere and didn't do their dishes because they were used to someone cleaning up. That's fighting grounds for me. I'm gonna punch someone's face in because I'm not cleaning up after anybody, so I lived with Latins my whole minor league career."
Humberto Quintero, the Astros catcher, was teammates with Scott in Houston and said he, Scott and Taveras would get three rooms on the road that all connected with Scott's in the middle. He loves Scott, says he helped save his career in 2007 after Quintero needed to lose weight. Scott, a health nut, cut out red meat and taught Quintero how to eat and cook well. Quintero lost 20 pounds. As Scott called Taveras and Pie, he also called Quintero "savage" and "animal," and he, too, laughs when asked about it.
|Scott says he often would get irritated with American-born players in the minor leagues who he felt were spoiled.|
"He's not racist; he's a good friend," Quintero says. "I give it right back to him, too."
Scott still travels to Venezuela each winter to spend time there and work charitable missions. Al Pedrique is the Astros' bench coach and managed Scott in Venezuela. He said that in 2004, Scott was such a local hero that Pedrique took him out of his last game in the late innings so he could get an ovation from the crowd.
"They stood for 10 minutes and gave him an ovation," says Pedrique, who's Venezuelan. "In my 13 years in the winter leagues, I've never seen that. For anyone. A local or international guy."
Scott says he likes traveling to Venezuela to "forget the luxuries of America and having things like this" -- he snaps his fingers.
He ships crates of baseballs and teaching and medical supplies there. And he works with Christian families who take kids in off the streets. Scott considers it God's work and does it with no publicity. He often will seek donations from teammates, and the rest he pays for himself.
"The people really embraced me and took me in and showed me a lot of love and respect, and it's something I really appreciated," he says. "I basically said whatever the Lord has me do down there, I'm open to it."
In Baltimore, people close to Scott point to his relationship with Pie as a guidepost to who Scott really is.
Pie arrived from the Cubs before the 2009 season as a former top prospect who had squandered numerous chances. He was arrogant and not completely committed to baseball.
Scott embraced Pie, stressed to him that he was running out of time in his career and that he lacked the qualities of a person with good character -- the qualities by which Scott measures everyone. So he brought Pie to the batting cages, taught him how to hit breaking pitches better. He brought him into the weight room, stressed the importance of hard work. He stressed running hard on every play, taking his job seriously and being a better person. It worked.
"He turned Pie from this arrogant guy from the Cubs to an unbelievable teammate," Jones says. "It took somebody to get on Pie's ass; Luke was the guy. Now Pie is one of my favorite teammates I've ever had. A lot of people formed their opinions on Pie -- really, how do [they] know he's like that? How?
"They form opinions on what they see rather than what they know. If you form your opinion on what you know, you might be surprised."
It's what some say about Scott.
"I'm changed," Pie says. "Now I know my responsibility; a lot of things I don't do anymore. In the past I was messing around a lot; now I'm ready. He helped me with that."
|Scott in a quiet moment with the family dog, Bud.|
Nowadays, Pie also says he tells Scott to stop talking about Obama and such things, that it's only going to get him in trouble. They're sometimes combative, sometimes animated and often entertaining -- saying their banter loosens the clubhouse.
Buck Showalter, the Orioles' manager who took over in July, wasn't sure what to make of the Scott-Pie relationship and the way they spoke to each other.
"It's an interesting dynamic, the whole relationship," Showalter says. "When I first got here I was like, 'Really?' And I started looking at what's really going on, and my first temptation was to knee-jerk.
"We get so involved with words. Words can hurt, too, but instead [we should be] stepping back and looking at the essence of what's going on, what's in their heart."
Baltimore general manager Andy MacPhail sums Scott up simply:
"I've met a lot of people in this game who will say the right thing every time," he says, "but maybe not act in a manner that is the most laudatory. Luke's the opposite."
Scott doesn't seem worried about perceptions of him, acknowledging that some people will simply write him off as crazy.
"If living by these sets of morals and principles and wanting to help better my land, better my country, my community, my team, my environment and helping the next person help themselves, if that's considered crazy," Scott says, "Then I'm a crazy.
"Am I out-of-my-mind, lunatic crazy? No, I'm a pretty easy-going guy. If I had it my way I'd like to eat drink and be merry, enjoy the fruit of my labor live at peace with everybody and not to have to deal with conflict I'd rather have things that way but I understand it doesn't always work out that way. I prepare for the worst, hope for the best."Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at Amy.K.Nelson@espn.com.