Jeff Pearlman

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Ellis Valentine

#109
The former Montreal Expo had, arguably, the strongest throwing arm of all time. Behind the fame and All-Star games, insecurity and addiction loomed. POSTED July 3, 2013

When Ellis Valentine retired from baseball in 1985, he wasn’t the greatest hitter of all time. He wasn’t the greatest fielder of all time and—despite being blessed with a cannon of an arm—probably wasn’t the greatest thrower of all time.

What he seemed to be—to an ugly, gangly 13-year-old kid named Jeff Pearlman, at least—was the absolute coolest man of all time.

Really, he was. First, there was the swagger. Second, the violent swing. Third, the way he wore his baseball cap, casually resting atop his miniature ‘fro. Lastly (and most important) there was the name—Ellis Valentine. Maaaaan, that was cool. Just sounded like a guy who knew where he was going; who could walk into a bar, get his gin and tonic for free and pick up the hottest chick, too.

What I didn’t know, however, was that Valentine was, well, tortured. Throughout parts of a four-team, 10-year career that featured an All-Star Game selection, a Golden Glove and 123 home runs, Valentine battled substance abuse issues that, he says, nearly ruined him. Now clean for more than 25 years, he lives in Texas and works as a counselor for Harmony CDC a non-profit community development corporation. He is the father of three children, and a grandfather. One can follow Ellis on Twitter here, and visit his website here.

Ellis Valentine, let it loose. You’ve been Quazed …

JEFF PEARLMAN: I have lots of questions, but one thing stands out to me from your career—your arm. When did you know you had a great arm?

ELLIS VALENTINE: It had been there from early childhood, actually. My first experience with organized baseball was at the age of 7, when my mom and the neighbors got together and decided to see if there was a place where I could play baseball or do something because I was continuously breaking their windows and harming their houses and things … throwing rocks in the neighborhood. This is in Los Angeles. Back then organized baseball started at age 9, and I was 7. However, I was as big as every 9-year old, and I was able to … they were able to maneuver some things and get me on a team. I got a chance to play with the Southpark Braves, and that’s how I started to realize I had a good arm. Because he started me out pitching. I was a pitcher all the way up through high school, and when I was drafted by Montreal it was actually as a pitcher and a first baseman. That’s a whole other story.

J.P.: How fast were you clocked on the radar?

E.V.: I don’t think they clocked back then. That’s something that’s seemed to come along in the last 20 or so years. Putting guys on the radar. I don’t really know. All I know is that, at the end of my career, the Texas Rangers and California Angels tried to put me in the bullpen because I had a good arm still. My arm was still wonderful, but I just couldn’t keep my legs under me. Because they were so bad from playing in Montreal, and my injuries continued to plague my career. They tried to put me in the bullpen before everything was all said and done.

J.P.: And you were open to the idea?

E.V.: Absolutely. I loved pitching. I would have probably pitched with Montreal if I hadn’t broken my leg in high school. The summer between my junior and senior year I broke my leg and Dr. Robert Kerlan had to put a rod in my leg from my knee to my ankle. That stopped me from pitching my senior year in high school. I didn’t play my senior year in high school football because of the injury. But I did play baseball—they moved me to first base, and when the season was over the Expos drafted me in the second round. They moved me to the outfield because they didn’t want any contact on their second-round draft choice’s leg, because I had this pin in my leg and I went to right field.

J.P.: I know it’s been a long time—you’re this kid at Crenshaw High School, and you hear the Montreal Expos have drafted you. Are you like, “Uh … I’m moving to Canada?”

E.V.: I didn’t have the awe factor, because I was always good. I was tremendously blessed all my life as an athlete. I wasn’t like some of these guys who really have to work hard to get a position on the team. That’s part of the reason I was kind of lackadaisical with my career and I wasn’t really able to manage my career from a personal standpoint. Because baseball and athleticism came so easy to me. That when you got to pro sports and you’re playing against other guys who are very good, and you’re having contract negotiations, and live on your own and travel and meet people—I wasn’t very good at that. I didn’t know what to do. I was still really a very young man. A kid, to be real honest. I never had those types of responsibilities. I didn’t grow up hungry. I didn’t grow up needing anything. My family did well. I mean, we weren’t rich. My father, Ellis Valentine, Jr., actually worked for the city of Los Angeles. He worked on the trash trucks like most black men did back in the day. My mom was Bertine, and she was a beautician—she had her own beauty salon right in the corner of our home.

J.P.: So you weren’t the cliché narrative of the inner-city Los Angeles kid who came from nothing?

E.V.: Exactly. I had a car in high school. We had clothes on our backs and food on the table and a roof over our heads. My parents went to work and I didn’t realize how much I’d taken for granted until my career was over. That’s why I do what I do today—because I want to be able to help people if I can.

I didn’t jump for joy when I was drafted. I felt I should have been drafted No. 1, to be honest. I broke my leg, and people were nervous to take a risk and draft a kid with a pin in his leg. So the Expos waited until the second round and snatched me up.

J.P.: This is random and out of order. When you came up in the 1970s, did you feel that African-American ballplayers still had to overcome a certain perception that if they were’t playing well, or if they weren’t giddy over being drafted, that there was a perception of arrogance or laziness?

E.V.: Uh, I don’t know if that was a perception. At that time I think people were very highly influenced by the Jackie Robinson era. And they kind of—there might have been that perception; it might have been rather covert. But during that era they had to draft African-American ballplayers. And they did. That soon dissipated over the years after that era played out its course. And you have to look at the era—we struggled as African-American players back in the day because we had very little support. There were no black coaches. We had very few mentors back then. So after the game it was really tough. I can really take my hat off to Larry Doby. Larry was my batting instructor in Triple A. And also briefly in Montreal. And for the first time in my career I had an African-American I could relate to after the game, other than a player.

And I would sit, and Doby would school me on some things. However, he wasn’t around long enough with me to mentor me through a lot of my own personal things. And first of all, I didn’t realize I had personal things going on. I was totally oblivious to that. I was kind of out of touch with my emotions, with my person, with my reality. Because I was so gifted, and I used to live on a statement my mother told me all along—she used to always say to me, “Son, if you play baseball everything is going to be fine.” So that’s what I did. I listened to my parents, and Mom told me, “Just play baseball and everything is going to work out.” And so, I trusted her in so many ways. In everything. And my first agent embezzled $60,000 from me in less than four months. My mom became my financial manager. A lot of stuff happened, and a new dynamic formed. That’s a whole other story. But going back to Doby—Larry Doby, he was one of the best things that ever happened to me in my baseball career.

The first best thing that ever happened to me in my baseball career, from a professional standpoint, was my relationship with Karl Kuehl. Karl Kuehl was our Triple A manager, and this guy [Jeff’s note: Here, Ellis gets very emotional, and needs some time to regroup] … in Memphis in Triple A this guy told me, “I’m going to get you to the Big Leagues next year.” And he took me from a singles/line-drive hitter who occasionally hit a home run to a long-ball threat. Along with everything else I had going.

J.P.: How did he do it?

E.V.: We went to the ballpark every day in Memphis. It’d be 90-plus degrees, humidity over the top, sweating, grinding it out. And he stood about three feet in front of the mound on the grass, behind a pitching screen, and he pitched to me. And he worked my hands, and I became the hitter that you saw in the Big Leagues. And I don’t care if he was sick, he had family problems, he had organization problems with the team. Whatever was going down, he showed up every day for me prior to our team batting practice and pre-game workout. And we hit for an hour. And he said, “No matter what happens, when you get to the Big Leagues you’re not gonna miss this pitch.” And he was right.

Ellis with the Quebec Carnavals in 1974.

J.P.: It is amazing how one person can make a difference in a life …

E.V.: Like I said, I took a lot of things for granted, growing up. And a lot of it didn’t come to a head until it all came crashing down after my career was over. And my life changed at that point.

J.P.: I always jump around in these Quaz interviews … I’m the son of a substance abuse specialist, and my whole life I’ve heard about drugs, drugs, drugs. I was surprised, reading up on you, that your troubles started later in life, no?

E.V.: I had troubles during the time I was playing as well. But mostly the later part of my years in Montreal, that’s when it was really becoming a problem. I’d always dabbled around with a few things in high school, like most other kids. That was the era—we’d smoke a little pot, drink a little wine, play a little rock and roll. But when I got to Montreal things grew. They escalated. I made more money, and you do more things, blah, blah. It got a little out of control. The year my injury happened in 1980—that was the season I really started to intervene on that behavior. And I made some changes. It was self-discipline, and God had a presence there. I didn’t know at the time, but he did. Then I had the injury [Jeff's note: On May 30, 1980, Ellis he was hit in the face with a pitch by Roy Thomas of the Cardinals and was out 40 days with a fractured cheekbone. He famously returned with half of a football facemask across his batting helmet]  and I wasn’t the same hitter any longer. I wasn’t the same athlete any longer. I’d become a different person because of it. I prayed over it, and I realized getting hit in the jaw wasn’t fun. From a guy who throws the ball over 90-plus miles per hour. I just couldn’t move. I couldn’t get out of the way. There have been other players that have been hit—Ron Cey, Dave Parker, Dickie Thon, Art Howe, Andre Dawson. My life had just started to change, and I prayed about it and I asked the Lord, “God, give me five more years to get my finances straight, take care of my parents, take care of the things I have—and I’m out of here.” Because standing at the plate as a righthanded hitter, facing righthanded pitchers, just changed.

When I got out of the game, five years later—a year after I got out I went back into using and I spiraled out of control because for the first time Major League Baseball went to spring training without me. That was my choice, because the Rangers invited me to camp. But I went for some help, and I got the help I needed after three different treatment programs within a nine-month period of time. Three different programs. And I turned my life around.

A year after cleaning up and being sober, a friend of mine asked me to volunteer—to come in and sit with him and talk to his kids at a youth program at St. Luke’s Hospital in Phoenix. And I did it. A couple of weeks later he offered me a job. I said, “Wait a minute—what are you talking about?” I decided not to take the job, but a light came on. And I thought, “Hmm, somebody’s offering me a job.” I’d never held a job other than baseball my entire life. I had some money, I was still doing OK.

So I was working at Avis, driving rental cars from the airport to the parking lot, parking lot to the airport. This was in Phoenix. I went to work out of humility. I needed to know what it was like to have a real job. I didn’t need the money. I had a Mercedes outside. I was the only guy working there like that—even my boss had a Mercedes. People knew who I was. And so I’m driving this big blue 450SEL to a job where I was making $4.25 an hour. And the year before I made almost $400,000 playing Major League Baseball. You following me?

J.P.: Yup.

E.V.: I needed the humility, I didn’t need the money. I didn’t know what it was like to go to work every day. So that’s what I did. Soon, when you’re working at the airport in Phoenix, there are lots of different jobs. You can do baggage claim, you can do food services, you can fuel jets, you can do all these different things. There’s a whole world at the airport. And this guy I met through a young lady I was in school with. I was going to a construction school to learn construction at the same time I was working at Avis. See, I had to become a person; I had to become a human being after my career was over. Because the pro athlete is not. You’re so sheltered from reality within this pro world, you’re just so out of touch. And I was. I had to learn how to use an electric saw. I had to learn how to swing a hammer. I had to learn all these things because that just wasn’t my world growing up. So I learned this stuff. And this young lady I was in school with … her brother ran the fueling operation at Sky Harbor Airport. He offered me a job there. I went from $4.25 to $5.50. Oh my God! I was moving right on up. I’m excited now. I was growing. I did the fueling thing, and I loved that job. I’d get there at 5 in the morning, I was done by 1 … it was wonderful. I had my route—I’d fuel seven or eight jets in the morning. And I went home. And it was great. Bottom line—I wasn’t in it for the money. I was in it for the life skills.

But during the time I was there, I was planning on moving back to California, which was my home. I stayed in Phoenix for to years to get my recovery together, because that’s where I went through recovery—at the Meadows. After my treatment I went home, packed up my stuff, went back to Phoenix, bought a house and stayed with my aftercare group for two years because I wanted to get better. OK, I wanted to change my life. Or I wanted to have a life–put it that way.

I finally moved back to California, and I got an apartment. And I started attending 12-step meetings and started running meetings, and in less than a month’s time a guy named Joe Treadway, who ran a sober-living house, came up beside me after a meeting and said, “Let’s go have some coffee.” So we did. And he offered me a job as his program manager. That was 1988—two years after I’d gotten clean. I’ve been in the field of 12-step and behavioral intervention … substance abuse counseling, for the last 25 years.

J.P.: I have to assume, based on the era, cocaine was a big part of it. It was a drug that doomed so many from your era. How do you explain the pull of cocaine? Why don’t people use it twice and walk away?

E.V.: Well, it works—that’s why. The only reason people do drugs is because it makes them feel different. Anything that makes you feel different, you can become physically and emotionally addicted to. If you take the drug out of cocaine; if you take high out of the marijuana, they won’t smoke it. I mean, you take the active alcohol ingredient out of Jack Daniel’s, people won’t drink it. It’s nasty stuff. But there’s a reward. That’s why you see people who smoke weed—they’ll take a hit off of it, cough for 30 seconds and then they’ll say, “Good stuff.” The only reason they put up with the pain of the coughing is the reward of the feeling. So we become addicted to the feeling. The feeling from where you were prior to using it to the feeling it takes you to after you use it. And the more you want to get away from who that person was sober, and become that person under the influence, that’s where the devastation comes in. Because some people want to avoid who they are. They want to run away from who they are so desperately.

J.P.: And that was you?

E.V.: Absolutely, that was me.

J.P.: You were a famous, rich baseball player. Why run away from yourself?

E.V.: I didn’t know myself. That’s the whole thing. That’s why people talk about suicide—most people who want to kill themselves have never truly learned who they are. So I always tell people, “You’re gonna kill the wrong person.” People have called me and asked me to go on suicide calls. “Ellis, you’re a counselor—go help them!” No. I’m not going. If he don’t give a damn about himself, you know damn well he doesn’t care about me. You know what I mean? Man, you must be out of your mind.

We are so predisposed to avoid our feelings. Most of us grow up not being taught about our feelings. They teach you about math, they teach you about English, about cars, about sports, about all these things. But not feelings. When you ask someone how he feels about something, most of the time he’ll tell you what he thinks, not feels. Because most people aren’t in touch enough with their feelings in order to eloquently offer an answer. They’ll tell you what their thoughts are, they’ll tell you who’s the problem, they’ll blame other people—no, no, no. I asked you how you feel about that.

J.P.: Could you have played a lot longer had you not used drugs?

E.V.: I don’t know. That’s a difficult question. Possible? Yes. But I don’t know. God gives us all what he gives us. From a spiritual standpoint. Not religious. From a spiritual standpoint—if you don’t believe, that’s OK. But I believe God gives us what we need in our lives, and it’s up to us what we do with it. This is what I’ve chosen. I’ve had two real jobs in my life. I’ve been a baseball player and I’ve been a counselor. I love this. I have more joy from this, because when you’re involved with another person and you help another person change his life, it’s just something to it. I could hit home runs. That was fine. That was for me, and for the team, and that whole stuff. But I really didn’t even know how to be a teammate at the time. I was just a kid.

J.P.: So you enjoy this more than baseball?

E.V.: They’re so different. I will say I wasn’t in touch with my baseball career as much as I’m in touch with my recovery career. In other words, my baseball career was just something I could do, but I wasn’t in touch with it. I didn’t even know how to manage it. I didn’t know how to manage my athleticism; I didn’t know how to manage my life at that time. I had no clue. I’ve been very, very successful doing this. This is the third home my wife and I have purchased since we’ve been together. And we’re doing well. We’ve raised three kids, we have a grandson. I can go home every night. I don’t have any of the emotions I had when I was playing—shame, guilt, anger, sadness, loneliness. I don’t allow those types of emotions to control me any longer, because I’ve worked on them, worked through them, worked with them. I love this. I truly do. Because people know when I open my mouth and I’m sharing with them, it’s coming from my heart and I truly care. And they know what I’ve gone through to get to this point. I’ve very transparent, and that makes people feel safer.

J.P.: I’m not a Biblical guy, but it seems like with addiction, the truth sets you free. When you can talk of your past openly, it’s a mighty tool …

E.V.: What I try and do is help people get rid of all of their secrets. All of their shortcomings about themselves. Because one of the things they want to do is they want to protect that from you because everybody that they’ve allowed in in their past has used that against them. So what I’ve had to learn how to do is, in this business you learn the importance of changing your playmates and your playgrounds. I’ve heard to learn to choose healthier people in my life. I had to learn to choose people I could trust. Back in the day I used to hang around with people and let people in my house who, if they asked to use the bathroom, I’d have to stand there and watch them down the hall, and hopefully they didn’t steal the closet. I don’t let people like that in any longer. I choose people differently. The application for a relationship has to include more than do you have a name and do you have a pulse. There’s more questions now. I’ve had to learn this stuff, and it’s made my life better.

J.P.: By comparison to substance abuse, this might all be sort of insignificant. But I want to ask you about baseball and, specifically, the pre-1977 All-Star Game throwing contest with you, Dave Winfield, Dave Parker and Reggie Smith. Do you even remember it?

E.V.: It was pretty big. It was epic, to be real honest. The guys you had out there doing that. We were some of the top players, and to see that display—it was awesome. I remember that to this day. Along with the ball I hit in that game that should have been a home run, but wasn’t. Back in the day the fence was 430. Now the fence at Yankee Stadium is 399. I hit a ball 420 feet and it didn’t go out. I remember that All-Star Game. I always do. And that outing in right field was simply marvelous, for all of us. And a lot of people give me applause on it.

J.P.: So which of you guys had the best arm?

E.V.: I always try and toot my own horn when I get a chance. I thought I did pretty good.

J.P.: Well, who had the second best arm?

E.V.: We all had great arms. Accuracy was the thing that was the most important. All of us had cannons. But who could put the ball where they wanted to, when they wanted to … that’s the key. And that seemed to be the thing that was my blessing over the years. God blessed me with that ability to be deadly accurate.

J.P.: Does it hurt you that Montreal is no longer a baseball city?

E.V.: Oh, it hurts me tremendously. I mean, I think it’s one of baseball’s biggest blemishes. That is a beautiful, wonderful town. That’s the only place I ever lived where I never had to lock the front door. That’s how wonderful that town was. I know there’s still discussion about getting a team back there. There are a lot of pluses—you get the advertise in two different languages. That’s a plus for an investor. The dollar is pretty much even with the U.S. dollar. Safe place to be, wonderful, wonderful fans, great people. I would love to see baseball return to Montreal.

J.P.: Do you think it will?

E.V.: I’m hoping so. You’re talking big money and you’re also talking politics. I don’t know why it left in the first place, except people didn’t so what they were supposed to do. I’m not on any committee, and don’t have any inside information. When it comes to those dollars, that’s way out of my league. I do believe a team will be supported there, especially because they lost a team. You don’t know what you had until it’s gone. So I believe if they get another shot, it would work out pretty good.

J.P.: Is it possible to get hit in the face the way you did and just return to the batter’s box again when you’re healthy and never think of it?

E.V.: No. I’ll give you an analogy—a child is a year old, and he’s walking in the kitchen, and he touches a hot stove. Think he’ll ever go to a hot stove again, or even near a stove if it’s not on? And not think about it? Ain’t gonna happen. Next time he walks past that stove, even if it’s off, he’s gonna flinch. It’s embedded in your psyche, and your mind—regardless of how much you try mind over matter—your brain knows an object is coming toward you. Somebody just flails their arm to you and you turn around and happen to see it, you’re going to flinch, because your brain works this way. See, all these things I know now after going through countless classes of continuing education and working with doctors, mental health professionals … I know this stuff now. I did not know this back then. So my world is at a tremendously different place right now. But think about the hot stove—ain’t gonna happen.

J.P.: I wrote a book about the 1986 Mets, and one of the guys was obviously Gary Carter. It seemed Gary felt he was picked on by others in Montreal; “Camera Carter” and “Lights.” Do you recall him that way? What do you remember about him?

E.V.: That was Gary. I mean, he had a very unique way of doing things. Some of us at certain times just didn’t feel he was very genuine. But that was just Gary. I remember he and I almost getting into it in rookie ball when we first signed. He was mad because I was a second-round draft choice and he was the third. We both came out of Southern California that same year. He literally was mad at me, and he said he should have been No. 1, and if not No. 1 than No. 2. And he wanted to fight! He really did! He was really upset about it. It was kind of a running thing in Montreal. I just found out the other day they named a street for Gary in Montreal—which is really cool. Don’t get me wrong, I believe he deserves it. He played there longer than me, he was a great ballplayer there, he was an awesome guy. But I truly believe … I hit the first home run ever in Olympic Stadium. And I always felt if Gary Carter had hit that home run they would have built a statue outside the stadium for him. Just my feeling. Because he was given so much by the team that a lot of other guys weren’t getting. Some of us were a little jealous of that.

J.P.: Did you come to like him as a person?

E.V.: I never hated him. Don’t get me wrong. I never hated him. We weren’t those types of friends. We were teammates. But I never hated him.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ELLIS VALENTINE:

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash?: No.

Tim Raines—Hall of Fame or not?: I’d say yes. Timmy was very good at his craft and what he brought to the game. I don’t know what the writers are looking for, but he could make it.

• Right now I give you 100 at-bats in Division III college baseball, what do you hit?: I probably have 20 home runs at least. I can still hit. I can’t run—don’t ask me to run to first. I can still hit. I do lessons, go to the batting cage. I can still hit.

• Were steroids at all an issue during your era?: PEDS? No, no, no, no. They weren’t.

• Would you support guys like Bonds and McGwire in the Hall?: Yes. Bonds would have made it anyway—he was already there. When his world started to change … he changed. But he deserves to be in as a baseball player. You have to hit the baseball. There are guys who can take steroids right now and they won’t hit 500 home runs.

• Who was the pitcher you owned?: Odell Jones. He gave away his pitches. Whenever Odell Jones threw a breaking ball, he did something different with his mouth. He’d either stick his tongue out the side of his mouth or kind of bite his lip. He did something funky with his mouth.

• Who was a tougher pitcher to face, J.R. Richard or Nolan Ryan?: Charlie Hough. He threw a rising knuckleball—a knuckleball that doesn’t go down. A knuckleball that goes down mimics a curveball, and most hitters are looking in that area. But Hough’s rose up on you into your hands or away from you if you were a lefthanded batter. I didn’t mind hitting off of Nolan or J.R., because they were one-pitch pitchers. You could sit on the fastball if their curves weren’t working.

• How many baseball games now do you watch in a year?: Games … I’ll only watch a game all the way through in the playoffs. During the season I’ll watch SportsCenter, or if there’s a guy I like to watch hit, I’ll tune in just to see him. But I’m not really a fan of the game the way it is today, because I’m an old-school guy. But I’m a fan of certain athletes.

• How many Ellis Valentine bobblehead dolls do you sell a year?: Hahaha. Well, we’re looking at a few. Not selling a whole lot of them. It’s an interesting little website we have; we’re trying to help guys move things out of their closet. I have an attic full of stuff, but my son surprisingly said to me the other day he wants all my old stuff. It was really flattering. He was born after my career was over. He said, “Dad, don’t sell all your stuff. Your old shoes, spikes, gloves, underwear—I want to keep that.”

• I’ll pass on the underwear: Ha. I would, too.

  • Steve

    I enjoyed this quaz more than others. We share a common childhood era, someone like Ellis is interesting because before the digital age you don’t get access to background stories etc.

    Thanks,

    Steve

  • Pingback: A great Q&A with Ellis Valentine | HardballTalk

  • Gene

    I only remember two things about the first pro baseball game I went to: Some old guy named Yaz hit a home run and a double and Ellis Valentine made a great catch in front of the bulpen at Fenway. This was nice.

    Gene

  • http://www.erikshermanbaseball.com Erik Sherman

    I was at that ’77 All Star Game and remember Ellis’ role in it well. He was a phenomenal talent and had one of the best arms I ever saw. He wasn’t the same player by the time he came to the Mets.
    As for baseball in Montreal again, I hope so. I get up there often and everyone I speak to feels that there team was run into the ground my ownership and politics. When the team was good, they came out in droves to a terrible venue for baseball–Olympic Stadium.

  • John

    Great Quaz. One of the best.

  • Julio Bocher

    Actually was at the game shown on the short highlight video where Ellis threw out Rose trying to advance to 3rd. Still the best throw I’ve ever seen live.

  • Pingback: Ellis Valentine Gets Long Lost Jerseys Back

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

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