MOBILE, Ala. — The famous duck boat sits motionless in the quiet of a shed at the center of the property.
Where cheers and world champion ticker tape once rained down on its triumphant ride through Boston’s streets, on this day there is only the rustling of an icy wind and Claude, the aging Texas Longhorn, grazing off in the distance here at the Southern Falls Plantation in the town of Catherine, population 22.
Two hours south, in Mobile, the rapper Ugly God has just closed out an all-night session in Dauphin Street Sound’s Studio A. Nearly three million Instagram followers need feeding, and three squares aren’t always served at the usual times in this world.
“How late were you guys here last night?” the owner of the recording studio asks Molly Thomas, who was working the overnight shift with her own band, The Rare Birds, in Studio B.
Four this morning, he is told. Maybe five. It was dark. It was late. Who can be sure? Jake Peavy, cup of Starbucks in hand, nods. After a while, it all blurs together. Where today ends and tomorrow begins.
Once, Peavy rode that duck boat like a bronco, soaked in the applause like a rock star and brushed the ticker tape from his shoulders like a world champion. Hell, he was a world champion, twice. With Boston in 2013 and again with San Francisco in 2014. And a Cy Young Award winner (2007), and a Gold Glove winner (2012).
“When you’re in the baseball world, you’re in a bubble,” Peavy says, speaking slowly and choosing his words carefully on this chilly January morning. “You get to where the San Francisco Giants’ baseball game that day is the biggest thing in the world.
“There’s a lot of life going on around you that you can be blind to if you’re not careful.”
Two days into San Francisco’s 2016 spring training camp, the bubble burst: Peavy learned that a financial advisor to whom he had entrusted his retirement savings had siphoned away some $15 million to $20 million in a Ponzi-like scheme. The rest of that season, he was buried under an avalanche of depositions, lawyers and numbers he didn’t fully understand, reeling from the shattered trust of a man he thought was his friend.
Then three days after that season ended, the five-alarm financial fire already raging all around him, he came home to divorce papers served by his high school sweetheart, Katie. It effectively was a lit stick of dynamite blowing apart what he treasured most in this world: family life with his four boys, now ranging in age from three to 16.
“It rips your soul out,” Peavy says.
Forced to the sidelines to pick up the pieces of his once-idyllic life, Jacob Edward Peavy, 36, is regaining his balance, charging into his greatest comeback.
“My friends, people around the league…I’ve had so many reach out and offer support in all kinds of ways,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s a pride thing or what, but I’m so reluctant in a lot of ways to even take somebody’s ear when times are bad.
“It’s not a fun thing to talk about or to put on anybody else’s plate. It’s my burden to carry. I went dark the past couple of years to get back to where we are today: full-steam ahead.”
The divorce became final Nov. 28, with Peavy winning 50 percent custody of his boys (who stay with him every other week). The endless stream of meetings with lawyers regarding what he calls his “financial debacle” appears near the finish line, too: He hopes for a resolution by the spring. Maybe, best case, he can recover half of the money he lost. Maybe.
He is working out, throwing regularly with his old high school team, where No. 22 will be un-retired this spring for his son Jacob, 16. And if Jake has his way, Jacob will not be the only Peavy pitching this year: Jake is gearing his workouts for a showcase for big league scouts sometime around May 1, because Jacob has opted to live with him full time and isn’t out of school until then. Jake’s hope is that he can resume his career and go out on his own terms, not the world’s.
“I’m truly as happy as I’ve been in all my life,” says Peavy, who adds time away from the game has done wonders for him both physically and mentally. “I truly realize that the most important thing in my life is my relationships.”
One of the game’s most beloved players, known from San Diego to Chicago to Boston to San Francisco for his competitive fire and outsized generosity, Peavy has survived these past two years by channeling himself into revitalizing his beloved home city, one to which even his closest family thought he’d never return.
“When he first went to San Diego, he said he would never come back to Alabama,” Jake’s mother, Debbie, says from her kitchen table on the Southern Falls property. “He was only 21. [San Diego] was mind-blowing to us. It really was.
“It’s a beautiful city, but we felt like the Clampetts out in San Diego. It panicked me because I thought, Oh Lord, he’s never coming back to Alabama.”
Now, however, in addition to the recording studio, Peavy’s company owns two bars down the street in Mobile and recently purchased an entire city block—77,000 square feet—for $1.3 million.
“Mobile has given him something to be passionate about,” says Chad Sprinkle, 39, his best friend since boyhood.
Says Peavy: “I lost some people I trusted more than my own family. That happens and, man, it puts you in a dark place for a minute.”
CHRISTIANITY WAS NEVER a question to him, and the irony that a rapper who calls himself “Ugly God” works in his building is not lost on Jake Peavy. Because for much of the past two years, Peavy wrestled with the notion of what the artist in Studio A was named.
Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images
Three years into his career, Peavy says he had saved up $1 million and invested it with a big, well-established investment firm. But as time went on, he never felt like there was a personal connection. So he began searching, and what he found was a financial advisor who appeared to share his values: Christian, charitably inclined, family man. An elder-statesman teammate of Peavy’s at the time, Mark Loretta, used him. So, too, did one of Peavy’s buddies from Mississippi, pitcher Roy Oswalt.
Ash Narayan was deeply involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Peavy remembers that in their first email exchange, there was some reference to a child in need Narayan helped. Perfect, Peavy thought.
Narayan regularly organized Christian-based father-son retreats. In 2007, Peavy joined him as part of a missionary group that traveled to the Dominican Republic. Narayan spent time with Peavy and his family at the Southern Falls ranch.
“Before this happened, if you asked me about the most positive person in my life, it would have been Ash,” Peavy says. “He didn’t speak a cuss word.”
Over in the shadows, though, unbeknownst to Peavy and several other athletes—including Oswalt and NFL quarterback Mark Sanchez—things weren’t as they seemed. And the Feds were hot on the trail. The Securities and Exchange Commission filed suit in May 2016, alleging that Narayan put more than $33 million of his clients’ money into an Illinois-based online sports and entertainment ticket business while portraying a low-risk investment strategy to them. The SEC also asserted that The Ticket Reserve paid Narayan nearly $2 million in finder’s fees to steer that money its way.
“He told me what happened, and I almost threw up,” says Tim Flannery, a mentor throughout much of Peavy’s career both as a coach in San Diego and San Francisco and as a musician. “For that to happen to someone like Jake, who had given so much, who had made enough for himself and his family to be set up…it crushed me.”
The SEC suit played out in a Dallas courtroom throughout the ’16 season. Peavy, who also learned that Narayan additionally had taken out some $5 million or more in loans in Peavy’s name, was required to fly in several times. Sometimes it would be during an off day between starts. At least once, he wound up flying from Dallas to San Francisco on the day of one of his starts. Ultimately, all of the numbers were a horror show.
On the field, Peavy produced the worst season of his career, going 5-9 with a 5.54 ERA and was demoted to the bullpen by season’s end.
In the moment, he says, he thought he did well compartmentalizing things. Looking back, however, he realizes he failed miserably. His mind spinning, he kept thinking back to the hours he spent with Narayan, talking about his family, his future and the best retirement strategies.
“And every minute was complete and utter B.S.,” he says. Narayan eventually agreed to a settlement and was barred by the SEC.
Peavy is not seeking sympathy. He has earned close to $130 million playing baseball. He points out that others have been defrauded far worse than him. He is neither bankrupt nor anywhere close.
No, the worst part, he says, is thinking of all those missed T-ball games and milestone moments he was absent for in his children’s lives while roped to his own baseball schedule, working for their future that isn’t what he thought it would be. He flashes to the time Jacob asked why Daddy couldn’t just skip one game to come see him play, especially on a night when Jake wasn’t starting anyway?
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t shake my faith,” Peavy says.
“In the South, you’re raised in a different manner. Where I live, if a guy looks you in the eye and shakes your hand, that’s his word.”
And Narayan’s false word submarined a retirement plan Peavy had been working on soon after he tore his latissimus dorsi muscle while pitching with the Chicago White Sox in 2010. Doctors told him it could be career-ending. His contract at the time ran through 2012 and, suddenly, the rest of his life needed to come into focus, fast. Through that point, he hadn’t thought much about retirement; he simply did what a lot of those in their 20s do: poured his earnings into cool things that excited him. Once he finally did start setting aside money for retirement, poof, it disappeared.
“It’s changed my perspective,” Peavy tells B/R over a dinner of Gulf Coast seafood and cheeseburgers. “It’s shaped me in a way I truly believe I needed to be shaped, if that makes sense.”
In the end, Jake’s faith was shaken but not broken.
Echoes from Ugly God somewhere off in the distance, Peavy quotes the words the late American poet and essayist John Perry Barlow wrote years ago for the Grateful Dead:
“One more thing I just got to say
I need a miracle every day”
“That’s the God’s honest truth,” Peavy says. “I need a miracle every day.”
AS HE HOWLED his way through 377 career starts and 152 wins, as emotional and demonstrative an ace as you’ll ever see, he found part of the secret in a tube of Icy Hot.
Roger Clemens lathered himself with it from head to toe before starts and once told Peavy it was because he never liked to take the mound feeling too comfortable. Peavy was all ears.
“He told me to take a little and put it on no-man’s land down there,” Peavy says wryly.
So over the next 12 years, you might say, Peavy regularly pitched with his balls on fire. Yep, it kept him uncomfortable. Generally, it kept the hitters he faced more uncomfortable.
LENNY IGNELZI/Associated Press
That’s Peavy: always one part ultra-competitive, one-part off-kilter and three parts generous to a fault.
Last summer, when Jacob’s baseball team of 16-and-unders he helped coach won an Alabama state championship, he purchased 35 bottles of champagne after obtaining the parents’ permission. “If we’re going to be champions, we’re going to act like champions!” he told the kids before they popped the corks and sprayed each other down just like real, live World Series winners.
In the spring of ’16, he sprung for a dozen tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert in Phoenix, inviting a bunch of young Giants teammates because he thought it was something they should experience, watching a master at work.
Late in the 2013 season, the Red Sox were scheduled for a Sunday Night Baseball game in Boston against the Yankees followed by a Monday night contest in San Francisco. The team sent Peavy, Jon Lester and David Ross west a day ahead so they’d be rested. Knowing how tired and grumpy his Red Sox teammates would be upon arrival at AT&T Park that August Monday, Peavy was looking for something to rally around as he walked to the ballpark when he saw a big, wooden American Indian in a gift shop.
Told the figure wasn’t for sale, Peavy changed the shop owner’s mind with a dose of Southern charm and $500. “I threw it over my shoulder and brought it to the clubhouse and made a spectacle of who he was and the healing powers he had,” Peavy says.
“That dude went everywhere the team went [the rest of the year].”
Though far from a politically correct symbol, the statue fit in the strange subculture of a major league clubhouse. Peavy even has a photo from the Red Sox’s victory parade of himself, his brother Luke, their father and the wooden statue, which he nicknamed “Chief,” together on the duck boat. Today, Chief resides in a place of honor at his Southern Falls ranch.
Then there was the time he gave Flannery a $5,000 1934 Gibson guitar a few years ago, over Flannery’s strong objections, because he never forgot it was Flannery who gave him his first guitar.
“Heart of gold,” Flannery says. “His generosity’s always been over the top. It’s probably why he trusts so many people and has gotten himself in a little trouble as well. He’s done so much, and not all of it’s been told. He’s helped a lot of people without anybody knowing.”
The largesse has extended to a variety of charitable causes, from helping wounded military veterans in San Diego to poverty-stricken kids in Mobile to terminal children in San Francisco. Most of it channels through the Jake Peavy Foundation, and some of it he does on his own.
And then there’s his ranch, located in what former Alabama Governor Robert J. Bentley in 2014 called the nation’s poorest county. At one point as he was building out the property, Peavy employed more than two dozen local construction workers. He used local builders, local artists, the local hardware store. Sprinkle tells of a man known as Mr. Ben, 70, who was living in a house on the property when Peavy acquired it several years ago…and Jake continues to allow the man to keep living there today.
“One day this winter, Mr. Ben came to Jake and said, ‘Boss man, Santa Claus didn’t come see me this year,” Sprinkle says. “So Jake gave him $100 and bought him groceries.”
When a pickup truck recently died on an employee at the ranch, Jake put him in another one. When a sponsor pulled out of a local home for children with special needs, Peavy and his foundation stepped in.
“It’s endless,” Flannery says. “His financial guys were worried early because he gives so much, not only monetarily but emotionally and physically. I don’t think he plans on changing, either.
“He might have learned some lessons but, for me, that’s beauty of it. For him to get stung the way he did, to lose that kind of money, most people will say ‘I’ll never give another penny or trust another person.’
“That’s just not Jake’s way.”
Says Sprinkle: “It’s opened up his eyes, but he can’t change who he is. Much as he wants to put up a wall, he can’t do it.”
SOME NIGHTS NOW, Luke Peavy’s phone buzzes and he picks up to hear his brother Jake’s voice on the other end filled with awe: “I’m home with the boys. It’s just us!”
These days, the biggest thing going is not a baseball game. It’s just hanging out with Jacob, Wyatt, Judd and Waylon. Maybe there is a diaper to change or homework to solve.
Even without a baseball season’s demands, time and boundaries blur into one another. There’s running his recording studio, an annual music festival to help organize and even Silicon Valley CEOs to woo into doing business in Mobile. When Ben Jernigan, 35 and in charge of artist relations at the studio, jokes that he quit his job as a Mobile firefighter and paramedic and ran away to join the circus, he’s only partly kidding.
As packed as his days are, though, Peavy schedules his business around the boys’ soccer practices and music lessons. He says he’s still in the dark regarding reasons for the divorce. Was the financial stress the root of it? A part of it?
“I’ve never been told,” he says. “I guess the stress of what we were going through takes a toll on everyone.
“She was in a relationship shortly after [the divorce papers were served]. I hope she’s happy now. I don’t understand a lot of it. I don’t understand the financial stuff.
“I want to understand why Ash did what he did.”
Several months ago, a band called Needtobreathe recorded a song called “Hard Love” at Peavy’s ranch, right there with Jake singing background. And in another moment of plowing through what his father calls the “bulls–t of the past two years” and his mother refers to as the “heartbreaking” time, he took a minute to sit his boys down and make sure they paid close attention to the chorus:
“Hold on tight a little longer
What don’t kill ya makes ya stronger
Get back up ’cause it’s a hard love
You can’t change without a fallout
It’s gonna hurt but don’t you slow down
Get back up ’cause it’s a hard love”
TO REACH SOUTHERN Falls from Mobile, you take the 65 freeway for many miles to a county road, take that for many more miles until you reach another county road, keep your eyes peeled for mile marker No. 29, turn right when you see the antique farming equipment on your left and then follow the dirt road all the way down. From the ranch, the nearest grocery store is a 30-minute drive. The nearest anything else is even farther.
This is Peavy’s sweet spot. Here, the quiet goes on for miles and the air is medicinal. So crisp. So clean. At the height of the financial mess and divorce, he often found his daily miracles here.
“Growing up in the South, my family belonged to a hunting club, the men,” Peavy says. “The best way I can describe it is it was like a country club membership to play golf. It’s a big way families down here get meat all year long. It’s a cultural thing I end up doing. Weekends in the fall and winter, you go to hunting camp. You’re on the land, enjoying guy time.
“I wanted to build something where our family could come, and the women could come, too, and feel comfortable.”
Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, children…his family alone, it’s as if they stepped from the pages of Mark Twain. Luke, who turns 33 in April, is the first Peavy to graduate from college. His degree is from Samford University in business administration with a minor in nonprofit entrepreneurship. Luke will tell you he veered in that direction because he could sort of see Jake’s future. Jake will tell you his brother is one of those miracles he depends on.
Their grandfather Sonny is a feisty man everyone knows as “Poppa.” He’s 85 and still chews tobacco, regularly walking around with an empty soda can lodged in his shirt pocket as his spittoon and a cold bottle of beer stuffed in the back pocket of his jeans.
Their father, Danny, an expert cabinetmaker who built the beds in the lodge, watched most of his grandson’s state title game from the parking lot last summer. He was ejected from the stands when an umpire blew a crucial call early, got tired of taking an earful, looked at Danny and said, “One more word…” and, well, you don’t challenge a Peavy. It runs in the family: Poppa once was ejected from one of Jacob’s T-ball games.
“Those Peavys,” Jernigan says, chuckling. “You don’t ever want to get into a fight with ’em. They’ll kill you. They’re cut out of a different cloth of scrappiness.”
The spread here is over some 5,500 acres and includes Jake’s home, his parents’ home, a bunkhouse that eventually will have 22 rooms and sleep well over 80 people, a music room displaying dozens of guitars (including autographed models from, among others, Kenny Chesney, Kid Rock, Toby Keith, Hank Williams Jr., Eric Church, Alabama and the 2013 world champion Red Sox). There’s also a gym that rivals your local 24 Hour Fitness, an amphitheater, a baseball/softball field complete with a replica Green Monster and a fence cut to Fenway Park’s dimensions, a spectacular waterfall and plenty of hunting (deer, coyote, birds, wild boar) and fishing. Recording artists Kid Rock, Church and Chris Stapleton and many of Jake’s old teammates are among those who have spent time with the Peavys at the ranch.
The stand-alone tavern, Mill Creek Saloon, might be the greatest retreat ever. Besides the fully stocked bar, there is a two-lane bowling alley, arcade games like Pop-A-Shot and Skee Ball, World Series memorabilia, Peavy’s Cy Young and Gold Glove awards and a wall of framed, autographed jerseys that goes on forever. Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Mariano Rivera, Willie Mays, Nolan Ryan, Trevor Hoffman and more.
“It makes for fun birthday parties and New Year’s Eves,” Peavy says. Eventually, the plan is to host a summer camp for kids and corporate events for businesses, too.
He wrote a check for $75,000 to purchase the duck boat and had it shipped down from Boston. He also talked publicly about purchasing a cable car from the Giants’ 2014 parade, but “the act of purchasing it proved too difficult.”
Though he hasn’t given up on the idea, a cable car, he says, “can’t be as special as the duck boat. The duck boat is the duck boat.”
It’s already been repainted. Peavy hosted a guys’ weekend in January 2014 that included several Red Sox teammates and, well, as Peavy says, they were “world champs coming in hot off the press,” and as often happens, things got a little out of control.
Pieces of Peavy’s vast array of memorabilia have gone missing after particularly rowdy guys’ weekends over the years, one more example of someone taking advantage of his bottomless generosity, causing one more spark of anger for those close to him.
“It pisses you off,” says Sprinkle, whose family has its own quarters at the ranch, as he shows a visitor around. “When people disrespect the place and walk off with stuff, it hurts.”
His friends zealously have his back because, as Jernigan says simply, “Jake’s spent his life taking care of everybody.” They figure the least they can do is be there for him.
So as a timeout from baseball that’s dragged on longer than he ever imagined continues, they are. Worst-case scenario, Jake says, he figured he would have been back by midseason last year. But life moves at its own pace.
“I just hope he can go back and finish on a good note,” Debbie Peavy says while delivering a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches to her visitor at the kitchen counter, one just like Jake likes them: with a touch of garlic salt. “I think he will. It’s just going to be hard leaving his kids, I know that.” If only all of life’s troubles could be fixed with grilled cheese sandwiches, the world would be a far better place.
Meanwhile, down in Mobile, a handful of musicians and friends gather as they do on most Tuesday nights at the Cedar St. Social Club. This is another joint Peavy owns, and he relishes the time as the drinks pour, the chatter flows and the guitars strum.
His stuff is better than it was when he exited the game because of the time off, he says. He’s been able to rest in a way he never has.
“To go through what I’ve gone through…to be around some of the people you’ve been around, there’s not a chance in the world you feel sorry for yourself,” Peavy says.
“You have to do in your own life what you preach to children in hospital beds or to soldiers with PTSD: You get back on your feet, and you keep truckin’ on.”
May 1 will be here soon enough, and it isn’t the money he’s seeking. He knows he will need to sign a minor league contract and prove himself all over again. It’s just that he desperately wants to write a different ending, a better ending. There are innings left in his arm, he promises, before picking up his guitar and joining three others, who teach him the chords to Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind.” As the freezing rain falls outside and their voices harmonize, it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine warmer times…
“Caught like a wildfire out of control
Till there was nothing left to burn and nothing left to prove
And I remember what she said to me
How she swore that it never would end
I remember how she held me oh so tight
Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then…”
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.