In the Game of Love, Steve Garvey Plays the Artful Dodger
03/13/1989 at 01:00 AM EST
For two decades, adulatory sportswriters have strained for metaphors to describe the moral fiber of baseball star Steve Garvey. "He's so clean, he squeaks," wrote one. "A laser beam should be so straight," said another. True, his storybook marriage to college sweetheart Cyndy Truhan had a tabloid ending. But their acrimonious split in 1981 after 10 years of matrimony did little to erode his public image as the very embodiment of the boy next door grown up wholesome and handsome. A mainstay of the Los Angeles Dodgers and later of the San Diego Padres, he always had time to sign an autograph or visit a sick child. He was considered such a perfect role model that Lindsay, Calif., named a junior high school after him. But now Garvey's milk-and-cookies reputation has gone decidedly sour: Fresh from a second trip to the altar, Garvey, 40, has run into major-league woman trouble.
The first strike came from a San Diego woman in her early 30s who disclosed she had given birth on Feb. 15 to his child, "a healthy, very beautiful baby girl." The revelation came less than a week after Garvey's marriage to Los Angeles interior decorator Candace Thomas last month. Though the San Diego woman has not so far filed a paternity suit and is refusing to speak to the press, the smooth-talking Garvey has shown no such reticence. Appearing on San Diego TV, he admitted that he might be the father and said he would gladly support the child if tests indicate that he is.
But there was more bad news to come. Garvey's chattiness prompted his former fiancée, Rebecka Mendenhall, 33, to go public with her own tale of woe. After a 2½-year, long-distance relationship, she says, the slugger gave her a two-carat solitaire diamond ring last Nov. 25, only to break off the engagement in January. Alas, reports Mendenhall, an assignment editor with Cable News Network in Atlanta, she too is pregnant by Garvey.
The back-to-back revelations seemed to give new meaning to the nickname Iron Man, which Garvey earned for his remarkable endurance, playing in a National League-record 1,207 consecutive games during an 18-year big-league career. Ten times an all-star first baseman, he was wrapping up a five-year, $6.6 million contract when he retired after the 1987 season. Since then, he has crisscrossed the country to play in celebrity tennis tournaments, served as chairman of George Bush's Committee for the Presidency, done baseball commentary for CBS Radio, and set up his own public relations firm, Garvey Marketing Group. He was readying the launch of Tickets to a Dream, syndicated TV specials about million-dollar lottery winners—with Fawn Hall as his co-host—when the storm hit.
"I have no desire to take people's hero away from them by speaking the truth about Steve—after all, Steve was my hero too," says Mendenhall. "But this is such a terrible thing. Part of me wants people to know what he's done. My life will never, ever, be the same."
As Mendenhall looks back on her entanglement with Garvey, she ruefully describes herself as a "a smart idiot" blinded by love. She met Garvey in the summer of 1986, when he was interviewed at CNN. They dated for a year, she says. "Then, in August 1987, Steve told me he had fallen completely in love with me. That's when our relationship became very serious. I thought we had become monogamous; we discussed it. Steve called me three times a day, always saying, 'I love you.' He sent letters and flowers. He was very romantic."
In April 1988 the couple began talking of marriage and children, but by fall Garvey's passion, if not his protestations, seemed to have ebbed. "There were weekends that Steve and I weren't together, and I wondered why," says Mendenhall. "He would tell me he was seeing his daughters or friends or playing golf. He still called me daily, although sometimes his calls seemed rushed."
Rushed indeed; Mendenhall later discovered that Garvey was a very busy paramour who was still carrying on a long-term love affair with yet another Californian, businesswoman Judith Ross, 34. Angered by what she regards as his recent attempts to "sugarcoat and trivialize everything" about the other women, Ross decided last month to tell all about her own involvement with Garvey. She says she met the Dodger star in Los Angeles in 1981 and set up house with him in San Diego two years later. Garvey said they would marry, Ross says, after they first saw how she adjusted to being a "baseball wife."
It was in November 1987, when she stumbled upon a card Mendenhall had written to Garvey, that Ross discovered she was being two-timed. "Then I found photographs of Rebecka taken at Deer Valley, Utah—Steve's love hideaway," she says. Shortly afterward Ross moved back to Los Angeles, but Garvey wouldn't let go. "In 1988 he was still trying to pursue me and talking about marriage," she says. "He sent me 34 red roses for my 34th birthday in May. He was a very loving, kind and romantic person."
Garvey could also be generous: He gave both Ross and Mendenhall, as well as his two daughters, Krisha, 14, and Whitney, 12, the same gift from Tiffany's—a gold triple-X pin that represents kisses. Candace Thomas has one too.
Candor, though, was not one of his virtues. Even as Garvey was insisting to Ross that he was no longer seriously involved with Mendenhall, he was telling Mendenhall that Ross was just a friend. Meanwhile, he had become sexually involved with the unnamed woman. The duplicity—if not triplicity—continued through last Christmas.
But shortly after the New Year, Garvey's juggling act came undone. He called Mendenhall and asked her to postpone their April wedding. There was a San Diego woman, she remembers him saying, who was pregnant with his child. "That weekend I flew to San Diego," says Mendenhall. "It was rough. We both did a lot of crying. But Steve assured me all he needed was time to work out his problems." He informed her he wouldn't be taking her to the Bush Inauguration and Super Bowl as planned. He didn't inform her that he'd be taking Candace Thomas.
Two weeks later, plagued by dizziness, nausea and stress, Mendenhall had lost nearly 10 lbs. when she discovered that she too was pregnant. "I panicked," she says. "I knew this would not be happy news for Steve. I called Steve's dad, Joe, right away, because I didn't know where Steve was. Steve called back later and said, "Becky, I've spent the last couple of weeks alone thinking about it, and marriage is not for me.'
At least not to Mendenhall. The very next day, Garvey telephoned Ross to break the news that he was now dating Candace Thomas and that true love was blossoming. "He wanted me to be happy for him!" recalls Ross. "It hit me hard." After what he describes as a whirlwind courtship, Garvey married Thomas, 30, on Feb. 18 in Deer Valley—leaving Ross with her outrage and Mendenhall with, among other mementos, her custom-made, size 4 wedding dress.
For her part, Thomas, who has made two prior trips to the altar, is standing by her vows and her man. "Steve and I have an incredibly honest relationship," she said. "I don't think I should be any less forgiving than God is, and neither should anybody else. Conceiving children is not a sin. It's just unfortunate for these women because it's hard to be a single parent." In the spirit of charity, Thomas, who has two children of her own, said she and Garvey are willing to adopt the two new babies—an offer that Mendenhall has angrily refused.
All the women have the sympathy of Cyndy Garvey, 39, who in 1985 finally divorced Steve and went public with charges about his dalliance with Ross, which Cyndy claims began in 1978. "The guy is a sociopath," she says of her ex. "He doesn't have the same level of conscience as most men." (Cyndy, who has been a co-host on TV talk shows in Los Angeles and New York, promises revelations of her own about Steve in her autobiography, due out this summer.) When she learned of Garvey's engagement to Mendenhall, she immediately talked with Rebecka to issue a warning. "I told her, 'Run for your life. Get out while you can. This man will destroy you.' " Cyndy says she takes no satisfaction from the fact that her warnings have been borne out. "Look at the path of destruction he has left, and he's still smiling at the cameras," she says. "Steve is now blaming the women involved, and I find that appalling."
Apparently unembarrassed by the charges swirling around him, Garvey insists he's a man of honor and innocence. "I was led to believe I wasn't responsible for birth control," he told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. "It was a communications situation there." Given this obvious failure to communicate, Garvey believes that by pledging to take care of the two children, "I'm doing the right thing. With my Roman Catholic upbringing, I have a set of principles that serve me well in good times and bad." He is optimistic that the controversy will clear without clouding his political ambitions, including a possible run for the U.S. Senate.
At least two voters remain unconvinced. "When he talks about being a good Christian, I become nauseated," says Ross. "Aren't Christians supposed to be moral and honest? I feel used and sad, but I've learned my lesson. You can really get fooled when you're in love."
Adds Mendenhall, who planned to file a paternity and breach of promise suit in Atlanta superior court last week: "If Steve really believes in God, then why isn't he telling the truth?"
—Paula Chin, Kristina Rebelo in San Diego