FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Dear Boss,
I suppose you’re wondering what I’m doing down in the minor leagues. The manager here had the same reaction. Especially when we opened the door to his office, and he was in the middle of pulling on his pants.
“Hey, Gene,” said Matt Perry, the man who was escorting me, “I want you to meet . . . “
“Hang on a minute, will ya?”
We stood there watching as he pushed a bare foot through the blue stretch nylon. The room was small, with several wooden lockers against one wall and a bathroom with its door open against the other. In the corner was a canvas sack, packed with dirty baseballs. Through the window, you could hear the sound of rain, which brought a concerned glance from the manager.
“Gene Roof,” he said, finally, as the elastic snapped around his waist.
“Now, what brings you here?”
What did bring me here? I came to rediscover baseball, I guess. I came to get away from lawyers and agents, and Jose Canseco gossip, and all that Rose vs. Giamatti courtroom baloney.
The minor leagues. Here, I figured, they still played baseball for the love of the game, for the dream of one day, some way, a summer in The Show. Well. That’s what I thought. Actually, what they mostly dream of is a ride to the ballpark. I’m not kidding. Maybe one or two of the players here have cars, and the rest have to bum lifts, every day, every game, back and forth. And some live 10 miles from the field.
I discovered this Monday night, after the rain that I mentioned turned the red clay around Riddle Stadium to a gooey lake. Game called. Everybody go home.
“You want, you can ride the bus with us to Columbia tomorrow.” Roof had told me before leaving. “We leave at 9:45 a.m. You’re not there, we leave without you.”
I said OK. Meet at the stadium. That’s where the team plays, by the way: J.P. Riddle Stadium. Take a right out of Fayetteville airport, go up the highway, and turn left at the Pig-n-Chicken restaurant. Don’t ask me what they serve at the Pig-n-Chicken. I don’t want to know. Just take the left, go a few blocks, and there it is, surrounded by a paved parking lot that is rarely filled. Riddle Stadium. Home of the Generals.
Uh, that’s the Fayetteville Generals. Single-A. Eleven dollars a day in meal money.
Play ball. Anyhow, I was about to drive away from the stadium, when a thinly muscled player in a blue sweater tapped on my window.
“Excuse me, sir. Are you headed out towards the trailer park where we all live?”
I looked at him. His head was dripping. “Sure,” I said, “hop in.”
“HEY, Y’ALL. THIS GUY’LL GIVE US A LIFT.”
In two minutes, I had four ballplayers, six bags and mud all over the rent-a-car. Off we went.
“Thanks for the lift,” said a short-haired guy with a funny accent.
“Yeah. We woulda been stuck there.”
“How do you get here on other days?” I asked.
“We find somebody.”
“One week we rented a car.”
“Yeah, but that was real expensive.”
“This other time, we couldn’t find anyone to take us. Finally, some truck driver stopped. All four of us squeezed into the front cab with him. By the time we got to the stadium, my legs were numb.”
“Yeah, and we were late.”
“We tried sneaking in the back way, but somebody squealed.”
“Gene called us in. He yelled at us. But we told him it wasn’t our fault. We couldn’t get a ride.
“Yeah. So he said, ‘Aw, then, that’s OK.’ “
I watched them through the rearview mirror, finishing each others’ sentences. So young. So wet. They looked like campers after a tough day of Color War. Maybe you think the minor leagues are filled with guys on the way up and on the way down. Old and young. “Bull Durham” material. Not really. Not here in A-ball. This is the land of fresh meat. Rookies. Their names were unfamiliar: John DeSilva, Mark Ettles, Anthony Toney, Mark Cole. I wondered whether one of them was the next Alan Trammell.
“Hey,” the one named Cole said, leaning forward, “you been to Tiger Stadium? . . .” So anyhow, boss, we talked for a while. They told me about playing every day, and the long bus rides and how sometimes they get so tired, they actually pray for a rainout. They told me about their season, which wasn’t going so well with losses to teams like Gastonia, Charleston, Savannah and Greensboro. They talked about missing their families (none of them was from anywhere near Fayetteville) and how they had all developed into dedicated letter-writers.
“Man, when I was in college,” said Cole, who attended Oklahoma, “I never wrote a letter. I had friends all around me. But here, it’s like, you write
’em so you can get ’em. We get our mail at the stadium. And if they give it out and you didn’t get a letter, you’re like bummed for whole day.”
Ettles, the kid with the funny accent, had an even better story. He’s from Australia. Australia? Yep. Came on a college scholarship. Got drafted by Detroit. “I talked to my father down in Australia the other day,” he said.
“Our phone bill for the last two months was over $2,000. I keep waiting for him to tell me to stop calling so much.”
You know what, boss? It doesn’t take but a day to figure this out: Life in the minors is all about making phone calls and writing letters and trying to beat the boredom as you wait for your glory. Or your ride, as the case may be. And here we were, headed down All-American Highway in Fayetteville, toward the trailer park where the guys live. No condos here. No high rise apartments. Four to a trailer. One hundred and twenty-one dollars a month, per guy, not including the TV rental.
“Wanna see it?” Ettles asked.
We walked in. The air was sticky. The carpet was an off- green. A ceiling fan spun slowly, doing little. It was quiet. The kind of quiet that depresses you and makes you wish you were somewhere else.
“Well,” I said, “I gotta go.”
“Yeah,” said Toney, “I’m going to the store. Get some chips and Coke for dinner.”
“I’ll go with you,” said Cole.
“Me, too,” said DeSilva.
“That’s dinner?” I asked. “Chips and Coke?”
“Hey. I got fined 50 bucks last night for missing a base,” said Toney. “We only make $950 a month. Gotta cut back.”
I waved good-bye and drove off as they headed for the store, which was sort of like a 7-11, but not as nice. About a mile down the road, I turned the car around.
“Hey,” I said, entering the place, finding DeSilva with a frozen pizza in his hand. “Forget that stuff. Let’s go to dinner. I’ll pay.”
His eyes lit up. He threw the pizza on a shelf. Toney dropped the potato chips. In 30 seconds we were all back in the car, heading for a Mexican joint.
. . .
What happened next, boss, I’ll have to tell you in another dispatch. That way when the bill shows up on my expense account, you won’t pull your hair out. Then I’ll tell you about the mud-jeep races after dark. And the way the players attacked the San Diego Chicken during the fourth inning. And the —
Never mind, There’s time for that. The point is, I’m here and I’m gonna stay for a while, OK? I like it. I like seeing guys without agents, guys who talk about how great it would be to have people cheering you in a big league stadium. There’s something down here that we’ve lost in big-time sports. And I’m gonna see if I can find it.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bus to catch. If they leave me here, I may have to eat at the Pig-n-Chicken. Talk to you tomorrow, Mitch