Rockies Review: Life Backstage

Good evening, Rowbots. I am finally permitted to address you again, as the Internet Gods have decided, for the moment, to rule in my favor. However, we will be going a slightly different direction tonight. While there is, as usual, no shortage of material to dissect (Ubaldo and Tulo are going to the All-Star Game, is Uball finally turning into a human, can CarGo go too, Olivo wuz robbed blind, I hate the Giants, damn yo that was pathetic even though we won, I really hate the Giants, etc etc) I have decided to take you on a trip with me. Through the looking glass, so to speak. Tonight, instead of looking forward, we're going to be looking back. The topic we will be examining tonight is the road to the Show. A few entertaining stories. Some scurrilous gossip, appropriately censored. In short, a look into what it's like in Single-A ball during a hot summer in Asheville, where the dreams run high, but the performers are still waiting in the wings.

Join me after the jump for your in-depth tour. It's long, but worthwhile.

Asheville, North Carolina, is a city of contrasts. A ribbon of concrete interstate, 240 or 40 depending on which way you're coming, slices through the Blue Ridge Mountains and unfolds downtown like a roll of wrapping paper. It's home to what was the first skyscraper in America, a host of coffee shops and microbreweries, and a lot of hills. In fact, it's pretty hard to find flat ground around here, and in the morning fog lies thick on them, quickly burned away by the damp heat. We're located in the Piedmont, the mountains, which means that we have it easy compared to the poor suckers in the flatlands. The weather changes quickly, but unimaginatively. It's clear and hot, or it's cloudy and hot, and in the afternoons it will often unleash a brief, torrential downpour before the world is restored to equanimity. Contrasts. There are a lot of them.

Downtown is hippie central. Specimens in flower-power T-shirts, draped in ivy, will stroll barefoot along the sidewalk and induce barely a second glance, congregating on Lexington Avenue with all the alternative-lifestyle groceries and boutiques, where you can buy a crystal to improve your energy flow or a book about how to grow your own organic food. (Organic food is huge around here.) It's the bumper sticker capital of the world. Dreadlocks are the preferred hairstyle, laid-back the preferred attitude, and pot is the preferred vice. But just a few miles out, the demographic will tilt back sharply red. You have your wrong side of the tracks. You have Confederate-flag tattoos and drawls thick enough to crack pecans. You have people who smile at you and try to help you, as compared to the usual New Yorker attitude of "it ain't my problem." You feel welcomed. You walk home in the evenings and watch the fireflies pin back the warm darkness.

You have two jobs. It isn't glamorous. It's hard work. You work sixty or seventy hours a week. You don't own a car, so you have to bike or take the bus everywhere. When you are riding your bike home late at night, uphill, you usually swear like a sailor. This is the backstage life. But you don't complain. Because there's one thing that Asheville also has, and which you understand, which is the principle that makes your life make sense:

Baseball.

***

Historic McCormick Field, as you will only ever see it referred to, has plenty of history to its credit. Professional baseball has had at least some kind of presence in Asheville since 1897, and there's a laundry list of glitterati who honed their craft here: Babe Ruth (erroneously reported to have kicked the bucket here in 1925 after another mammoth hot-dog-and-beer binge) Ty Cobb, Cal Ripken Sr (the manager of the Tourists squad in 1972) Cal Ripken Jr (the bat boy on said squad) Dave Concepcion, Willie Stargell, and the later incarnations, including the 20 former Tourists currently on the Rockies' 40-man roster. (Let's not forget Crash Davis, who came to Asheville to set the all-time minor-league home run record. Hey, if it happened in Bull Durham, it's gospel. It's our claim to cult fame and enables us to sell "Davis 16" retro T-shirts in the gift shop.)

The Tourists have been Single-A for the Rockies since 1994, before which their services were put to use variously for the Rangers, White Sox, Reds, Pirates, Phillies, Brooklyn Dodgers, Cardinals, and Red Sox  -- spanning back to 1934, when they first became an affiliate. Most of these connections lasted barely a year or two. Their previous longest tenure was with the Astros, who engaged their services from 1982 to 1993. At going on 16 years, the Tourists/Rockies connection is almost old enough to be given the car keys. Let's hope they're more careful than Dinger.

The players are in their very early twenties. Most of them fresh out of high school, flush with signing bonuses but still having to sleep on air mattresses. (Seven of them rent a house together. They have no furniture. I know this because I met Angelys Nina, Eliezer Mesa, and Nolan Arenado's host brother; they and one other player lived with his family when they were in Casper. That makes eight boys, counting the four of the host family's, under the same roof. I imagined they ate their host parents out of house and home.) They've all got talent, but they're still raw. They throw from their back from the hole to beat the runner by a step, and then they take giant hacks and come up empty on 89-mph fastballs. They still swagger. They still spit. They still jaw at the umpires, who aren't much older than them. Some things don't change.

Historic McCormick Field is tucked into the side of a hill. Thick green trees writhe just beyond the outfield wall. The right-field segment of said wall is variously described as forty-two or thirty-eight feet high. Point is, there are a whole lot of home-run-turned-doubles hit in that direction. There is an ad on it which reads: "Asheville Radiology: Umps' heads examined free." It's 297 down the line. Maybe 330 to dead center. The roof over the grandstand is weathered blue metal and bongs loudly whenever a ball is fouled off it. The scoreboard has "Visitors" on one line and "Tourists" on the other. Back in the eighties, the logo was of a bear wearing a Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses, and a camera. Now it's just a fancy "A," which could be defensibly mistaken for that of the Atlanta Braves. There are a lot of Braves fans. Dale Murphy Night, meet and greet the man himself, sold out the house.

***

Single-A must be the only level of pro ball where the players and the part-time employees get the same discount at the team store, and the front office is roped into doing everything from leaf-blowing the concourse to dressing up as giant walking packets of hot sauce. (No joke. They were celebrating Ted E. Tourist's birthday with all his mascot friends.) It's an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing. It's casual. The players aren't stars yet, just guys being paid the same peanuts as you. They routinely walk around before games in their shorts and sunglasses. They are usually to be seen at the ATM, which is no more cooperative for them than it is for us. You can hear them coming long before you can see them: in their cleats, they clop-clop-clop like horses. They are very tall in person.

About the hats. The players have to buy their own at the store. Due to this, I have sold new lids to Joe Sanders, Jared Clark, Avery Barnes, Nick Schnaitmann, and someone I believe I am forgetting. Barnes asked me if his hat was too tight and did he look stupid. I advised him to take the next size up. Nick Schnaitmann, for some reason best known to himself, has a giant tattoo of a giraffe on his leg. Due to a desire to protect the reputation of the guilty, I cannot tell you who said the following:

"And I was like, 'So, are you going to come home with me?' And she was like, 'YOU WISH.' .... By the way, who's that little blondie?"

Answer: "[My boss's] wife."

"Damn."

***

Angelys Nina helped me lock my bike one afternoon. Delta Cleary's momma ain't foolin'. Dan Perkins' dad asked me if the 2010 card packs had his son in them. I advised him that they should. Dan Perkins' two-year-old son is adorable and looks just like him. I have met Nolan Arenado's entire family, and flattered his aunt by remembering her name (and Dallas Tarleton's mother by remembering who she was.) I have sold a Sharpie to Tyler Matzek's girlfriend's father, who complained about the humidity and seems like a garrulous, back-slapping sort of guy who you'd like to have a brewskie with. He said he was going to get some autographs. I told him he shouldn't have much trouble getting Tyler's.

***

I have not actually seen Tyler Matzek pitch. This is a thorn in my side. Since I usually have the radio on in the store, I get to listen to the games, and on my break, I don't eat (who needs to eat?) and just go stand and watch for fifteen minutes. There is no clock in the stadium and I am currently without a watch, so I have to ask one of my fellow employees for the time. I can't believe how fast it goes by. I stand along the first-base line and breathe the summer evening. I am renewed. This is why I am here.

***

In some ways, it's like an office. I have one coworker I find disturbingly attractive. I have, or had, one that I found very irritating. I have found out who's gruff on the outside and soft on the inside. I have found out who you need to butter up and who is inside the Ted E. Tourist suit. I have observed all sorts of off-the-wall minor league promotions. Example: the Dizzy Bat Race, which takes place on Thursdays. Thursdays are otherwise notable for the fact that all beers are $1, which requires wristbands for obvious reasons. Anyway, in the Dizzy Bat Race, participants are instructed to take a bat, lean down and put their forehead on it, and spin, for what we tell them will be ten times but is then more like thirty. They are then obliged, as the name suggests, to run a race. Hilarity ensues.

Single-A is anything but glamorous. The bleachers are pretty damn hard to sit on for a whole game. The food is still overpriced and not particularly noteworthy. But I found that employees can get snow cones for free and a hot dog, fries, and soda for $3. And it doesn't matter, to the kids, that the guys are Single-A. They still play baseball. They're still godlike. The boys of summer. Scouts sit behind home plate with radar guns and notebooks. Some of the guys are hyped, first or second rounders. Some are twenty-some rounders. They're competing in a closed job market. Their chances are statistically invisible. How many people in America play in the major leagues? How many ever will? Yet for now, they have their chance. The same as anyone.

It's a place for dreams. Every little boy who comes into the gift store invariably takes a wooden mini-bat and pretends to step into a batter's box. Some of them do imitations of big-league hitters' stances, some just act as if they're swinging for the fences, running the bases. Their moms or dads watch with tolerant gazes. They will buy them a baseball for the guys to autograph. They ask me who are the good signers. They dream too.

***

The fireworks are not minor league. They are incredible. The show goes on for a solid twenty minutes and is a starburst of color and sound. Nor are the fans. There is the grandmother who has had season tickets in the same location for twenty years. There is the old man who comes in to the store to talk about baseball with me, Nationals fan. Excited about Strasburg too. There are the fathers taking their children to their first game. There are the annoying teenagers who try to start the Wave.

On my first day, I was identified by two members of the front office as the "girl with the blog." They knew about Purple Row and read it "semi-often." On my second or third day, I had the chance to talk a little shop with one of the Rockies' scouts, who was waiting for the rain to subside so he could get on the road to Durham. I was familiar with everything he brought up. It was why this job, despite paying nothing, is amazing.

Yesterday I was told by my boss that I am doing a heck of a job. My drawer has not been off by one penny since I started working there. I said that I took pride in my work and loved that I was there. He said that it showed.

Yesterday, I met the father of Kameron Loe's best friend. He was thrilled to pieces when I said "Loe? Wasn't he on the Rangers?" Just ecstatic that that a girl working the gift store for a Single-A team in Asheville knew who Kameron Loe was.

A few days ago, I met an older guy in a cap. Came into the store to buy a pack of cards. "I'm their bus driver," he said. "I haul 'em everywhere."

I said he must have some good stories.

He grinned, then clearly attempted to think of one that was G-rated. "Joe Sanders has a bad habit," he said at last. "Leaves his glove on the bus all the time. I have to run after him, give it back! Hope the next guy remembers."

I asked what he meant.

"Oh, Sanders is leaving tomorrow," he said. "On his way to Modesto. Going up."

It's a reminder for all of us. From here the road goes on.

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