Billy Hands III is always active, whether performing a poem or his duties as a father and husband, pumping gas or fixing cars. As a young boy growing up in New Jersey, he spent his summers following his father, a major league baseball star, rather than lolling around the Jersey shore. He’s never been typical, but he’s sure a romantic. His biggest dream to date is getting lost somewhere, anywhere, with his wife, Janet.
Q: What inspires your writing?
A: My grandfather. The titles of both my books are things he used to say. “Marry a girl with money,” is one of them. “You’ll learn to love her,” he’d say.
Bill Hands Sr. was a philosopher and a musician who also worked in the bakery business delivering vanilla to German bakeries in Bergen County, N.J. I did deliveries with him on Saturday mornings.
Q: What was your life like as a child?
A: My father, Billy Hands Jr., was a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers, so my two sisters and I had an interesting upbringing. We’d go to school in New Jersey in the winter, then move to Chicago or Minnesota in the spring and spend the summer there. When you’re a struggling artist or professional, eating bologna and mixing Kool-Aid to stay alive, your significant other is your biggest rock. That’s how it was with my parents, it was Bill and Sandy in the spotlight, until he became famous in 1969, the year the New York Mets won the World Series. My father was a 20-game winner and the Cubs finished second in their division. As my father made a name for himself, my mother, for whatever reason, took two steps back.
She was the glue that held the family together until she died on March 10, 1990 from alcoholism. She was 47.
Q: What is like being the son of a professional baseball player?
A: When you grow up with a certain lifestyle, it’s all you know, so it seems normal. I think I’m more enamored by the professional baseball lifestyle now that I’m older and understand it more than when I was actually the son of a professional athlete because it’s all I knew, it’s what we did.
With professional baseball, you had a tendency to stick to your own. My father always roomed with his catcher, Randy Hundley, when he went on road trips, so naturally his son, Todd Hundley, and I became good friends. Todd was three years younger than me and I think he still holds the national league record for most home runs as a national league catcher. He caught for the Mets.
Q: When did you begin writing?
A: I started writing in 1977, when I was in 7th grade. I had the best English teacher ever, named Bill McGuire. One day, we walked into the classroom and the lights were out. He had his pants, flannel shirt and boots on the floor with the overhead projector shining on them and next to his clothing was a note and pencil that said, “I don’t know what’s happening. This strange force is coming over me. I think I’m going to…” and then scribbles. He came walking into the classroom five minutes later, threw on the lights, shut off the overhead projector and said, “Everybody sit down and finish the story.”
I wrote a poem called “The Wandering White Bird” in his class and a song called, “Where has it gone,” for an album we recorded in class. That’s where everything started.
I always thought about going back to see him. When I found out from my younger sister and her friend that Mr. McGuire had died, I was devastated.
Q: Did Mr. McGuire encourage you to keep writing?
A: No, when I graduated high school in 1981, I knew I liked writing and baseball. Rutgers wanted me to play fall and spring ball. It was a state school, so it would have saved us a lot of dough as Jersey residents, but I was scared to death. That’s a big school and I was good, but not great and not very big. My father and I didn’t have the father/son relationship at that time, but his words of wisdom were, “I think you have a better chance at being the next Edgar Allen Poe than being the next Glenn Beckert (second baseman for the Cubs when I was growing up).
He knew what kind of lifestyle baseball would bring and the stress it brought on my parents’ relationship not being together for months at a time. I ended up going to Southampton College because I liked the area and I’d gotten a writing scholarship.
Q: And then you married?
A: After graduating from Southampton College, my wife Janet and I put out resumés. She landed a job on Plum Island and worked in the old 2-5-7 building, the one the book was written about.
She got pregnant in 1990 and lost the baby in the first trimester, which is normal, but we asked her gynecologist if working on Plum Island had anything to do with it because she worked with a lot of chemicals. He said, “I’m not saying it did and I’m not saying it didn’t,” so we decided then if we wanted a family, she had to leave Plum Island.
We got married outside the old village schoolhouse in Orient in June 6, 1987, so we’ve been married 25 years now and we have a son who graduated Greenport High School last year and is pursuing an automotive career, a daughter who was recently appointed to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis and Shannon, the youngest, goes to McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead. She believes in love, is a free spirit and writes a lot.
They’re three very different kids and you’d think they had [all] different parents.