YOU RESTORED MY FAITH IN BASEBALL

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, $11 a day in meal money? How far does that go?

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

But I believe in luck, guys, and I think 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 guys taught me about luck. DeSilva, you can’t even pitch a game without first playing your lucky pinball for an hour. 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 guy 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, yet, I liked my five days with your team. 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 whether it was true.

Here is my verdict: Bull who?

For one thing, I didn’t see many groupies, and I certainly didn’t see any

Susan Sarandon look-alikes. Oh, you told me about a girl who hangs around Fayetteville. But you said she looked like — what was it now? — “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 for 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.”

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 waiting. There’s the pool halls. And Taco Bell. And the card games on the bus. And I’ll never forget sitting 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 mud fields back there — 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 a 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 in the last five days. Some people think it means the glamorous life of a pro athlete. 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 Mike 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.”

“Shoot.”

“(Clap) Like that.”

“You want another margarita?”

“Yep.”

And then, there was the 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 thesaurus.”

“A what?”

“A thesaurus.”

“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 bused to the bank to cash your paychecks (nobody has cars, so you ride the bus or walk). And then you persuaded 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, kid.

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 three 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, while most of you are pretty young, not all of you came straight out of high school and put on the cleats. A number 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 “myths” are true. Like the way you get your lucky shoes or lucky socks. Or the times 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 get only 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 tobacco.

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 Bristol 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 your bags. Shoot, they got buses that take you right to the airplane, and

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