COLUMBIA, S.C. — Dear Guys:

I’m leaving you. Actually, by the time you read this, I’ll be on a plane back home. I appreciate your letting me wear the uniform and sit in the dugout

the other night, just like a real player. And thanks for letting me hang out with you after the games at the Steak-n-Egg. Not that there was much to eat. I mean, let’s face it; that steak was still moving. But, hey, eleven dollars a day in meal money? How far does that go?

I appreciate your filling me in on the secrets of the minor leagues, I really do. Like how to chew raw tobacco. And what seat to grab on the bus. I also now know to never switch lucky bats in the middle of a hitting streak.

And that’s the point. Luck. I believe in luck, guys, and I believe mine is working against you. In less than a week since I showed up to examine life in Class A ball, the Fayetteville Generals have lost three in a row and had one rained out. I call that bad luck, don’t you? Heck, you were the guys who taught me about luck. DeSilva, you can’t even pitch a game without playing pinball for an hour that afternoon. And Erickson? You get a hot bat, you do everything but sleep with it. Cole? You told me if you have a good night, you’ll walk to the plate in the exact same steps the next night and the next, until you cool off. And Steve Carter? Weren’t you the trainer who told me “The Generals are 9-0 when we visit shopping malls the day of the game.”

Until I showed up.

We went to the mall Wednesday.

You lost, 15-2.

So it’s time for me to collect my notes and my box scores and my pizza-stained T-shirts and get lost. Not that I’m crazy about leaving. Oh, it’s true, I never really liked the South, and I’m not wild about hot, humid weather that makes the hair on your arms frizz. And there’s not much appeal in empty ballparks, and motels that smell like cleaning fluid and tell you that you can’t make a long-distance call because “all our long-distance lines are done used up.”

And, yet, I liked my five days with you guys. I can’t explain why. Maybe it’s the smell of pine tar and tobacco juice. Maybe it’s those ballparks, hot summer nights, where they play a scratchy recording of the national anthem and everyone sings along. Maybe it’s watching the manager, Gene Roof, waving his arms and yelling: “Back up, dummy! Back up!’ And the rightfielder can actually hear him. Remember that, D–

Uh, never mind.

I’ll tell you this: You can have the gnats. I’ve never seen gnats like that. What do you have behind that dugout? A swamp? I must have smacked myself in the face a dozen times trying to kill those things. Hey, guys, ever hear of a Shell No-Pest Strip?

Gnats? They didn’t show gnats in “Bull Durham.” But then a lot of that movie was fantasy, wasn’t it? So many people saw it and came away saying, “So that’s what the minors are really like.” In fact, maybe that’s part of the reason I came to live with the Generals. To see if it was true.

Here is my verdict: Bull who?

For one thing, I didn’t see many groupies, and I certainly didn’t see Susan Sarandon. Oh, you told me about a girl who hangs around the park in Fayetteville. But you said she looked like — what was it now? — oh, yeah:
“Someone tried to put a fire out on her face.” Gosh. She must be swell.

As for those “Bull Durham” radio broadcasts, with the guy making sound effects in the booth — cracking wood, banging on cabinets? Come on. It’s the minor leagues, not Time Tunnel. The station may broadcast only from the press box to the Dunkin Donuts, but it’s real radio.

Remember the night I asked you to tell me the biggest lie in “Bull Durham”? Mark Ettles, the relief pitcher from Australia, didn’t miss a beat.

“The biggest lie in that movie is that a guy can go from A ball to the major leagues in one step.”

When he said it, you all nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, Mark.”

“Amen.”

“You got that right.”

It was then I realized that waiting for your chance is the hardest part of minor league baseball.

Not that you guys don’t have a good time in the interim. There’s the pool halls. And Taco Bell. And I’ll never forget sitting on the bus with Duane Walker, the muscular outfielder from Tampa, as he told me about Mudslinging.

“We only do it after it rains. We drive a jeep back behind the stadium — there’s these dirt fields back there and when it rains it turns to mud — and we start whipping around in the jeep, bouncing all over, spitting up mud from the tires.”

“This is fun?” I asked.

“Yeah. It’s like a roller coaster. Or it was, until we got stuck last night. The jeep hit some sort of ridge, and we couldn’t move it. We had to get out and push, all of us, knee deep in mud, with mosquitoes eating us alive.”

“Sounds great,” I said.

“Yeah,” he laughed, “life in the minor leagues.”

Life in the minor leagues. I’ve used that phrase a lot this week. I think it means this: Sleep till noon, watch some TV, get some lunch, wait around till 4 o’clock, bum a ride to the park, stretch, warm-up, play the game, pray you get a hit, pray that somebody is watching, shower, eat some fast food before the last place closes, call home, talk to Mom and Dad, tell them that any day now you might get moved up. And go to sleep.

It is not what I call glamorous. It is not what you call glamorous. They can make all the movies they want: four men to a trailer, with pale carpeting and a overhead fan? Let’s see Kevin Costner live in that for a while.

Listen, guys. I want to admit something. I collected some of your conversations. Had a few favorites, too. Like the time Mark Cole and Anthony Toney were eating Mexican food and talking about everybody’s dream, getting called to the major leagues.

“When Mark Schwabe got called up? I heard it took him 20 minutes before he believed they were serious.”

“Shoot, you wouldn’t have to tell me but one time.”

“You got that.”

“I’d be gone like (clap) that!”

“Ha ha!”

“I wouldn’t be sitting there goin’: “Really? Really? Are you kidding?”

“No way.”

“Be gone like (clap) that!”

“Like that.”

“Yeah.”

“Which way’s the plane?”

“Yeah.”

“Shoot.”

“(Clap) Like that.”

“You want another margarita?”

“Yep.”

And then, there was the following conversation on the three-hour bus ride from Fayetteville to Columbia:

“Hey, Duane, what you reading?’

“Stephen King.’

“Lemme see. . . . Damn, this is big! You readin’ this or just carrying it for weight?”

“I’m reading it.”

“Wow! . . . You need one of them pesauras things with this, right?”

“Huh?’

“What do they call that, a pesauras? A sauras? What the hell they call that?”

“A thesauraus.”

“A what?”

“A thesauraus.”

“Yeah. One of them. Whatever. You need one?”

I’ve seen a lot of interesting baseball the last five days. I didn’t know there were so many ways to overthrow the first baseman. And then there was the game you lost when Leo Torres threw that wild pitch with the bases loaded. Poor Leo. The look on his face when that ball sailed over the catcher’s mitt.

But that’s what the minor leagues are for, right? Learning. Working out the kinks. There were some good moments, too. Like when Anthony stole three bases in one game and everybody congratulated him. That kid can fly.

There was all that time in between games, too, like when we bussed to the bank to cash your paychecks (nobody has cars, so you ride the bus or walk.) And then you convinced the driver to take you to the local shopping mall, so you could spend some of that $225 a week? Hey, Cole. Remember when you tried on that sweat suit, then took it off, then tried it on again, then took it off, and kept looking at the $100 price tag.

“Hey, Mitch,” you finally asked me, “is there any way you can like, you know, put this on your expense account?”

Good try, Mark.

I don’t think so.

Then there was the night that a buzz went through the dugout because one of you was being moved up to the Lakeland club. Who was it? Who did they pick? It was Mickey Delas, the big, broad-shouldered catcher with the Cheshire-cat grin.

“Didya hear?

“Mickey’s goin’ up.”

“Yeah. Why him, man?’

“Yeah?”

I caught up with Delas that night, as he was heading to his room. He could hardly stop smiling. “When Gene called me in, I thought I was in trouble. Then he said to me, ‘You’re going up.’ I couldn’t believe it! I’m two steps away now from the big leagues! This is what you dream about!”

It was 11 p.m. Crickets chirped. The motel was quiet. A man with a car was waiting in the parking lot, and he and Mickey would drive back to Fayetteville, get there about 3 a.m. Mickey would pack up his things, and a few hours later, fly to Florida.

The following night, he’d be with a new team, new dreamers.

And meanwhile, the Fayetteville Generals would get up in the morning and get some coffee and wonder when, if ever, their turn will come.

I’ll do you all a favor when I get back, guys. I’ll dispel some of the myths about the minor leagues. Such as:

1. Everyone is a bonus baby.

2. You stay in rented houses.

3. You all drive fancy sports cars.

4. The crowds love you.

5. You all have shoe, bat and glove deals.

Also, I will testify that not every one of you came straight out of high school and put on the cleats. A number of you went to college and are just beginning in the minor league system. Like Pat Pesavento from Notre Dame, or John DeSilva from BYU, or Randy Marshall from Eastern Michigan.

Of course, some stereotypes are true. Like the way you get your lucky shoes or lucky socks. Or the time you prayed for a rainout. “At this point in the season,” Dan Raney, the first- baseman from Triangle, Va., admitted,
“You’re thinking a lot about getting home.” Sure. What do you guys play, 140 games in five months? And you only get four days off the whole season? That’s unbelievable. A five-game series against Augusta, followed by a five-game series against Myrtle Beach, followed by a five-game series against Charleston
. . .

Rain? I’d be praying for an earthquake.

Chewing toboacco.

I don’t know about this one. You guys chew an awful lot for young kids. It seems like everyone has a tin of Red Man or whatever. Still, this new guy, Casey McKeon? He takes the cake. He arrived Thursday night, up from the Bristol club to replace Mickey, and I guess he was trying to make friends in the dugout, so he asked, “You wanna try some really good chew?”

He pulled out this plastic bag that contained a long, twisted tobacco plant. It looked liked a miniature tree. And he yanked about four inches off the end.

“We been curing this in my uncle’s barn for about a year and a half,’ he drawled. “It’s the real stuff. Here, try some.”

Now, personally, I don’t like to eat anything that looks like a tree. Not without salt, anyhow. But a couple of you tried it. Stuffed it between your gum and lower lip and let it juice up.

And then you spat it out.

Poor Casey.

A year and a half in the barn?

Then there was the time I asked Gene Roof, your fearless leader: “What do you tell these kids about the major leagues?”

Remember that, Gene? You’ve been there. You’ve been in The Show. Sure. Maybe it was only 48 games. But that’s 48 games more than a lot of guys get. You played at Busch Stadium. You played in Wrigley Field. You made that catch off the ivy that they showed on TV around the country. Bobby Bonds, right? Bases loaded, two out, bottom of the eighth?

I’ll never forget the look in your eyes when I asked you that question. What do you tell them about the major leagues? You sort of glazed over, you leaned back in your chair, I don’t know, it was like the look you get when remembering a long-lost uncle who used to play catch with you as a kid.

“When I tell them about the major leagues,” you said, your Kentucky drawl thickening your words, “I tell them to think about all good things. That’s what it’s like. All good things. You go up there, and, hell, there are people who cheer you during batting practice. People asking for your autograph. Nice hotels. Someone to carry you bags. Shoot, they got buses that take you right to the airplane, and when you get on that airplane, they have food for you.

“You’re playing baseball in beautiful parks. You’re making real money. The announcer calls your name when you come to bat and it echoes all around the stadium.

“All good things. That’s what I tell ’em. Just think of all good things, and that’s the major leagues.”

Gene. I wish you could talk to Willie Hernandez.

Here’s something I’m going to remember: When I met your team’s general manager, Matt Perry, his pants were dirty. Red clay. All over his shoes, too. I asked him what happened.

“Oh,” he said, “I had to pull the tarp on the field.”

Guys. Up in Detroit, the GM doesn’t pull the tarp on the field. He also doesn’t cook hot dogs and fill up the pop corn machine, and he doesn’t count the money at the end of the night and put it in a little bag and have it driven to the bank. I give a lot of credit to Perry for doing that and for, in essence, saving the franchise. The guy is only 28 years old, a neat, trim, business school grad from Ohio State. But he’s out there hustling, working the

phones, rousing up the local business in Fayetteville, and hiring post-game attractions like Captain Dynamite, a nut who actually blows himself up in his
“Coffin of Death.”

And thanks to that, the Generals, who were on the brink of failure last November, have turned it around at the gate.

“You’re sort of the Bill Veeck of the minor league?” I asked Perry, after noticing his calendar of Video Rental Night, and Dime-A-Dog Night, and Cellular-One Cushion Night, and The Famous Chicken night.

“Well,” he said, grinning, “I don’t think I’d bring in a midget.”

Oh, good.

The Elvis sign? I have to bring that up one more time before I close this letter. Guys. I have seen a lot of things in sports. I have seen Olympic Games and Kentucky Derbies, I have seen Bourbon Street on the night before the Super Bowl.

I have never seen a giant billboard of Elvis Presley holding out a donut
— like they have in the Columbia Mets’ stadium. In right-centerfield. And if you hit the ball through the hole in the donut, what do you win?

“Five hundred dollars,” one of you told me.

“A dozen jelly donuts,’ someone else said.

Too much.

Elvis, buddy, your legend lives.

Take care, guys. Ettles, from Australia, I hope you make it to the big leagues, just so you can pay off your phone bill back home. And Erickson, Donnie, the California Kid at third base, I don’t know about that tattoo you’ve got on your wrist. “Lucky 13”? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? I do give you credit for the best line of the week. After you popped up a few times on Tuesday, you sat in the Steak-n-Egg and said, “Man. If hang time were batting average, I’d be batting 1.000.”

Not bad.

Hector Barrios, born in Puerto Rico, still goes down there for winter ball. What did you tell me? “This league is nothing compared to that. Down there, we play with some big stars. It’s top-notch baseball. I’m going back to AA ball next year, man.”

I hope you make it.

And Linty Ingram, who got shelled the other night in Columbia? Hey, it happens. Good luck on that Exxon credit card application you were working on.

Did I mention the trainer, Steve Carter? You, cowboy, have got to slow down. Most trainers just sort of hang around and make sure nobody’s knee explodes. But you’re everywhere! Doing the wash, ordering new shorts, wrapping elbows, handing out paychecks, buying aspirin, massaging arms, collecting socks, reading the road map to the bus driver. (By the way, you need to work on that part; the lost tribe of Israel had a better sense of direction.)

“I guess I end up doing a lot of odds and ends stuff,’ you told me. “One time a guy called me at 2 a.m., woke me up. I could hear music in the background. He said he had jammed his thumb, what should he do. I told him what to do and went back to sleep.”

See? Smart, too.

Maybe the whole scene was summed up best by Donnie Rowland, a guy I had circled on the roster before I ever got to Fayetteville. He’s from Michigan, St. Clair Shores, and I figured talking to him would be a good local story.

What I didn’t know was Donnie is on his way out. At 26, he was a little too old. He had made it to AAA ball, Toledo, he was within a breath of the major leagues. “Then I got hurt,’ he told me, ” and that was it. They took another guy up instead. I had to think about where I was going. They came to me and said, “Donnie, we have to be honest with you. We don’t see you playing in the big leagues.’

I remember when you told me that story, Donnie, in the parking lot of the motel as we waited for the bus. I winced when I heard those words. “We don’t see you playing in the big leagues.” How many guys in the minors live in dread of that sentence?

I give you credit, Donnie. You took a lemon and made lemonade. You accepted their offer to be a coach, and here you are, in A ball, working with the kids, occasionally pitching an inning or two, when you have to, but gradually moving into management. One day you may make it to the majors, as a manager.

It’s the next best thing, right?

So long, guys. I may never see many of you again. Duane, remember when you told me, “If I haven’t made it by 25, I’m out of here”? And you’re already 23. Nearly all of you had a similar sort of cut-off point. That’s probably smart. There are few things sadder than a ballplayer who’s stayed too long. Baseball is for the young.

So if you’re gone, if you never make it to Detroit, well, thanks for the week. I liked the smells and the sounds and the tastes. I liked the bus rides, and the gentle cacophony of 20 Walkmans playing simultaneously. Hey, Anthony, you sleep with your mouth open.

Just kidding.

I liked the rhythmic sound of cleats on concrete, and the pop-pop-pop of ball meeting glove. I liked the way you seemed to know what every other minor leaguer had done (“Hey, see this guy? He stinks. He can’t get around on the ball. First-round draft choice. Paid him two hundred grand. My mother swings better than him.”)

I liked looking at the hotel list and seeing “Tillman Murchison” listed as
“coach” and then finding out that Tillman Murchison was the bus driver. I liked walking with you from the convenience store at midnight, along some nameless southern boulevard, eating M&M’s and potato chips while you asked me about Jack Morris, Lou Whitaker, what were they really like?

And what other team would let a writer put on a uniform and sit in the dugout, just to get a better feel for his story?

I liked the whole thing. The parks, the small crowds, the love of the game. Maybe I liked it because I like sports. Maybe I liked it because it was simple and young. As we grow old, those are the two things we miss the most.

But that’s sentimental, and you have no time for that now. Take care. Best of luck. I wish you, as Gene might put it, all good things. The major leagues.

And now that I’m gone, your luck will return. Just watch. Knock the heck out of that donut,

Mitch

CUTLINE: Hit a ball through the hole in the donut Elvis Presley is holding (right), and win $500 or a dozen jelly donuts. The payoff varies, depending on who you’re talking to. The billboard is in the Columbia Mets’ ballpark. Below, Darryl Martin and Mark Cole look on as the Generals’ 15-2 loss to the Mets finally ends. Dan Raley and Jim Murphy work on a crossword puzzle during a bus ride to the ballpark. Darryl Martin and Tim Brader watch TV in their hotel room before leaving for the ballpark. Duane Walker heads toward the Generals’ bus. Mickey Delas packs his bags after being called up.

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