Rockies Review: Field of Dreams

Good evening, Rowbots. It has come to my attention that a little thing called a Thongbino walkoff homer took place today, giving a team of irredeemable CHEATERZ their tenth win in a row. While this all may be voided once BUD comes along to drop the banhammer on us, in the meantime there's still plenty to celebrate. With the down-on-their-luck Padres limping into town after coughing up a timeshare of first place to the Gints, now is the perfect time to live up to our name as the Colorado Zombies and promptly eat their BRAINZ. (Why didn't we do this to the Giants the last time we played them, you say? Well, for us to eat BRAINZ, there must be BRAINZ. QED.)

I have to say, I have no idea how the team can possibly do this September after September. I don't know if the pixie dust is in a time-lock safe or what. But it's pretty crazy, and absent all the terrible things they do like losing to the Pirates and being groan-worthy in general on the road, they are definitely one of the most unpredictable and exciting teams in baseball. Search me why they can't play like this all year, but whatever it is about the leaves falling, the Rockies go nuts. I can't think of a team that has consistently been this magical down the stretch run, and if it does end with a postseason berth, they will have made it there in three of four years. Not too bad for a bunch of LOSERZ.

As you may or may not have noticed, I have been absent virtually all summer. This is because I have had time to follow the team only on a cursory level -- checking box scores, maybe an inning or two on Gameday -- and because of that, I felt that it was rather counterproductive to offer my low-rent insight when you lot would already have it diagrammed six ways from Sunday (literally). For example, I wasn't even aware that CarGo was a contender for the Triple Crown until just this past Reds series. While my purple passion is undimmed, real life is harshing my buzz in a major way right now, bro.

Nonetheless, as you may also recall from my last Rockies Review (posted on July 4) there have been plenty of awesome things about this summer as well. If you'd like to come back to Asheville with me and look at the tales and travails of a Single-A club, then join me after the jump.

About halfway through the month of August, the glamorous, high-exposure battle for Southern Division Champions of the South Atlantic League became a two-horse race. On one side, the manly, valorous, well-mannered, and nicely groomed heroes, YOURRRRR Asheville Tourists, and on the other, the hunchbacked, evil, and bad-breathed villains, the Greenville Drive. (It is no coincidence that the Drive are the Single-A affiliates of the Boston Red Sox.) Hanging around in the dust were the Augusta GreenJackets, but they, like their parent club in San Francisco, eventually choked and fell flat on their faces.

Playoff baseball is the one time in the minor leagues when you don't remember that your success could lead to one of your friends being outsourced to flip burgers at McDonald's. That's the thing about life in the trenches: the bond with your teammates is what keeps you sane, but this is an environment with even less job security than, say, AIG. As Dirk Hayhurst, Blue Jays reliever and author of the terrific Bullpen Gospels, says, "Otherwise they'll find a younger guy to do your job better, and there's always a younger guy." Or words more or less to that effect.

On the Asheville Tourists, where the average year of birth is 1989, the fear isn't quite as present. On a Single-A team, it's still kids who are likely to be moving up next year, who haven't played out the string and aren't the Crash Davis types clinging to one last hope at stardom. But by now, they've been in a farm system long enough to know what they're getting into. The horrible pay (it works out to the equivalent of $6.07 an hour) the endless bus rides, and the, shall we say, conspicuous lack of glamor when you're renting a house with six of your teammates and all sleeping on air mattresses. Being all young, athletic guys, they're a bit more resilient to this mistreatment than your average Joe, but it still takes a thick hide.

This is why a sense of humor is an essential defense in the bush leagues. More properly, a sense of kooky, often rather black humor. The playoff race between the Drive and the Tourists produced one such example. After the Drive announced that they were selling "Asheville Tourists playoff tickets" in what was clearly a transparent attempt to jinx their northern rivals, the Tourists wasted no time in firing back:

For Drive fans looking to watch playoff baseball on a budget, the Tourists also have created a special 99-cent Greenville ticket package. By presenting their South Carolina driver's license, for less than one George Washington, Drive fans can enjoy the view of the September 8 contest from the Memorial Stadium bleachers above McCormick Field. Included in the package is a bag of soggy boiled peanuts to make Greenville fans feel at home. The Tourists have also arranged for an English professor from UNC Asheville to be on hand to address the group on the usage of "drive" as a noun and a verb.

Believe me, I wish I could take credit for this.

***

Everyone says that it's been an unseasonably hot summer in Asheville. For a while in the middle of July and August, it was like walking through a washcloth: heavy, damp, horribly enervating heat that reliably had every single person that entered the gift shop informing me of how lucky I was to be working in the air conditioning. It would still be hot when I was biking home at night, the crickets shirring madly and the haze of summer stars just beginning to show through the streaks of fading cloud. The stadium lights show in the distance until I am halfway up the Biltmore Avenue hill. The fireworks send off concussive blasts which echo well into the historic Montford neighborhood, where I live in a second-story apartment in a rambling old Victorian. By the time I got home, it is 10:00 at night and I had worked for approximately fourteen hours. I was usually drenched in sweat, and had time only to scarf a sandwich and take a shower before falling into bed and setting my alarm for 6:30 the next morning. I understand the lack of glamor perfectly.

***

I am not that fond of my day job, and am currently attempting to find another one. But I do like my regulars. One of them is an old lady who has become very fond of me, and I of her. We chat about lots of things, especially our shared love of reading and English history. But one day she asks me why I've come to Asheville, and I explain as best I can. I mention the Tourists. Her eyes light up. She's lived here all her life. She says that back when her husband was alive, she used to go to plenty of games with him, and keep score. Among others, they saw Willie Stargell play here.

"That was back when we were still fairly segregated,'' she says. "I was terrified that someone in the bleachers was going to yell something at him. But it wasn't. It was a respected businessman, who was sitting in the box seats one row ahead of us. He was the only one. I never forgot that."

It turns out that she's only been to one major league game in her life. "We were in New York, and we went out. And that was the game that Larson -- Don Larson -- was pitching."

"Oh, wow," I say. "1956 World Series?"

"I don't remember," she says. "But it was definitely a long time ago."

"Oh, man," I say. "The perfect game?"

"Yes, that was the one."

She is extremely flattered by the fact that I am so impressed. After this, although I can't imagine never being able to go to another major league game, I understand. How in the hell do you top that? Answer: You can't.

***

Within the course of a few months, I have already acquired a reputation as a baseball encyclopedia: aka if I don't know it, it's probably not there to be known. I am not entirely sure how this came about, but I have said nothing to dissuade them. I floored one of my customers by guessing (correctly) that he was wearing a Lehigh Valley IronPigs hat, Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. Apparently, I was one of only two people ever to guess this. I think what it shows is that either I need a life, or I really need one. Or that I already have one, and that it's baseball.

I somehow got through an entire season working for the Tourists without ever seeing Tyler Matzek pitch (although I did meet his entire family and get to talk to his dad for three days during a late-July home series). CURSES.

The Tourists have enjoyed robust attendance, innovative promotions, and plenty of can-do spirit this year, which is what makes them fun to watch. They never quit even when down by six or seven runs, and are also similar to their parent club in the fact that "When in doubt, swing" appears to be their offensive motto. When I'm on my breaks, I like to stand along the first-base line and soak in the atmosphere, as I mentioned in my last piece. There isn't really a bad seat in the house, and it's always amusing to listen to the Single-A diehards who can usually be found down by the dugout, yelling, "Come on baby, come on!" to every hitter. You'd miss things like little old grannies dancing to the YMCA and the wide-eyed wonder of the kids who don't give a crap that this isn't the pros. Or the scouts sitting in the stands, one of whom befriended my sister; they keep in touch by email. McCormick Field plays small, in more ways than one. The current stadium opened in 1992, replacing the original from 1924, but the dimensions are still wacky. You need to give it a legit ride to get it over the monstrous right-field wall, and a homer hit to left, at 370, or center, at 373, is more or less a real one. But it still regularly shortens doubles to Jason Giambi singles as a matter of principle, and taking third on a hit-and-run is done at your own risk. Nonetheless, it happens a lot. There are a lot of dirty uniforms. There is a lot of playing hard. The guys with radar guns are right behind home plate. They're not going to miss it if you screw up.

***

My boss comes into the store and takes a red wooden mini-bat off the shelf. "I always get on the kids for doing this," he says. He loads up and takes a giant swing. My boss is strange, but I love him anyway. Except for the fact that he's a Braves fan. That's a mark against him.

"I'll make you a deal," he says, a few nights hence. "Sell four backpacks before the end of the season, and I'll give you... a martini glass."

"Nice try," I say. "I don't drink."

He looks around. "Okay. Sell four backpacks before the end of the season, and I'll give you... a baby bucket hat."

"And who's gonna wear it?" I say. "I don't have kids."

He grins. He thinks. Inspiration strikes. "Sell four backpacks before the end of the season -- that's seven more games, with the doubleheader on Tuesday --  and I'll get you a bat signed by the whole team."

"Oh yeah," say I. "You're on."

***

"IT'S THE FROZEN T-SHIRT CONTEST! That's right, ladies and gentlemen, we have Jesse, Daniel, and Josh as tonight's contestants! Each of them has been given a frozen T-shirt! The first of them to unthaw the T-shirt and get it over their heads will be the winner! On your mark... get set... GOOOO!

And we're off! They're taking the hitting the dugout approach... and now they're taking the hitting each other approach! Jesse's in the lead! Whack that T-shirt, Jesse! And here comes Daniel making a late charge... uh-oh, the sleeve is still stuck, and God knows what Josh is doing... Jesse's really rolling now! He's beating that T-shirt! Here we go! Here we go! Josh mounting a challenge, Daniel's coming on strong, can Jesse hold them off! Down the stretch -- one more whack -- and JESSE'S THE WINNER! He's got it mostly over his head, we'll ignore the right sleeve! Thanks for playing guys!"

And later:

"Our special detectives have just finished scouring the parking lot for the dirtiest car. That's right, we are looking for the FILTHIEST car out there, and we have a winner. If you own a royal blue Chevy pickup truck with North Carolina tag VCL-231, congratulations! Your negligence has just won you a $10 gift certificate to Firehouse Car Wash!"

It is just another ordinary night in the minor leagues.

***

Minor league baseball is the story of America. After a summer spent in close company of it, I am more convinced of this than ever. The long hours, the low return, and the power of dreams to keep you moving forward.

One of the most common criticisms leveled at baseball is that it doesn't take a "special skill" to play. That anyone can do it. Well, you try hitting a Ubaldo Jimenez fastball, and then you get back to me on that. But I think that those who denigrate it as an everyman's game are completely missing the point. For those of us who aren't physical freaks who can run a forty-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, or are seven feet tall with a killer jump shot, there's still baseball. Baseball's beauty is that it represents us in a way that football and basketball can never do. I have discovered that I am innately morally suspicious of people who find it boring. As fans, we often jokingly say that baseball is life, but it really is. It's a game for the thinking man. It's not about how many people you can pummel, and how quickly.

Don't get me wrong. I like football plenty. I am one of those people who will happily settle down to watch two college teams I have never heard of play in the MTV.com Eighties Hair Metal Marathon Bowl. But at the same time, I grow increasingly convinced that football's emphasis is on the freakish. Baseball holds a better mirror up to us. There is no one sport that is as innately American as it is. It tells the story of failure and loss and trying so hard but just not making it. It tells as well the story of unexpected windfall and the way your life can change overnight. It has an upper class and a very, very underclass. It's had its fair share of difficulties. It went out of business at times. It had Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco and the Yankees (the mammoth corporation eating up the mom-and-pop businesses, how's that for a parallel?) But for better or worse, we keep on believing in it.

There's plenty to say about why Americans find football so appealing. About how it speaks to our deep visceral fascination for sex and glitz and violence and scandal. But it's baseball that saves our souls.

On August 23, the night before my birthday, I was tired and overworked and worrying about my sister's departure in two days. How was I ever going to manage this by myself? Keep afloat in real life, when I'm already working sixty or seventy hours and barely making it even with her to share the expenses? Find out where I'm supposed to go and who I'm supposed to be?

I arrived for work as usual and had a break in about the fifth inning. I went up. The night was a perfect, balmy temperature and the sky was candy-colored purple. On the field, under the lights, the Tourists were doing battle with the Savannah Sand Gnats (author of my favorite minor league promotion ever: Guaranteed Win Night. If they lost, all the fans got in free the next night). And just for then, it was as simple as catch, and throw, and pitch.

I have rarely been so happy in my life.

***

Several days later, Muzia's in town on the Asheville swing of his North Carolina trip. I get to have a night off and watch a whole game for the first time since June 7, when I went with Squeaky. Nick Schnaitmann started that night, and got blown up. Nick Schnaitmann starts tonight, and gets blown up.

I have a blast.

Before the game starts, my boss spots me at the ATM and pretends to be shocked that I am not working. We give each other good-natured grief.

"Hey," I say. "How many more backpacks do I have to sell?" Damn, but I want that bat. If necessary, I have Muzia in reserve, who has chivalrously volunteered to buy the extra.

My boss grins. "Don't worry about it," he says. "We're getting you a bat signed anyway. For being a hard worker. I've had it down there for two days, though, and Massey and Arenado haven't signed it. I'm going to get on them." He sounds genuinely indignant that the Tourists are not cooperating in this regard. I do not doubt that he will.

***

This isn't a Kevin Costner movie. The Tourists do not get a perfect game from a has-been or a magical visit from Shoeless Joe. After pulling to within one of Greenville and eventually taking over first place, they slip back and lose their last three games on the road -- to Savannah, ironically. They miss the playoffs by a hair.

The team disbands. McCormick Field is done for the year, and next year will look different. There will be an influx of new faces. None of the game-worn jerseys sold in the gift shop have names on them. Tourists fans have to change their allegiances, favorite players. Watch them move up. Modesto, Tulsa. And if all goes well, Denver.

About a week later, we hold the end-of-the-year employee picnic. It's a gray, warmish, rain-spitting afternoon when I get there, but it melds into a transcendent, sunlit evening. We eat burgers and chicken and peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream. Everyone looks different in street clothes. The general manager is employed to ferry new trays of burgers back and forth, and one of the front office is pulling beers for everyone. Soon a game of beanbags gets underway, with two teams of two guys apiece attempting to put said beanbags through a hole in the board. Trash talk is employed. Cheers and groans. It's a diverting spectacle.

Somebody airmails a beanbag.

"Damn, dude, focus!" groans his counterpart. "You look like Arenado out there!"

I grin. I turn away. Behind me a door is open into a squat cinderblock room. Looking for a restroom, I head through. And just like that, find myself in the deserted visitor's clubhouse of McCormick Field.

To say it's a dive would be putting it nicely. The floors are concrete, the crammed lockers are balsa-wood, and the showers look like Auschwitz. The sinks are dirty and the pipes are exposed. The coach's room is equipped with a rickety folding table and one chair, and the trainer's room is even smaller. A code of conduct is posted on the wall in English and Spanish, warning players to pay their bills on time, not to bet on or throw the game, and under no circumstances attempt to bribe umpires. Just to make sure the point is felt, the largest words on the notice are printed on the bottom, in inch-high letters:

DO NOT ASSAULT UMPIRES.
Respect yourself, your teammates, and the game.

Respect, man.

Respect.

And if you're here, paying your dues, you have to think that when they get to the big leagues, they earn it.

As Dirk Hayhurst also says, if you have a jersey on your back, you have a chance.

***

I head back out. I avoid the increasingly heated beanbag tournament, take off my shoes, and set off at a jog, barefoot, across the outfield grass. I come to a halt in center field, looking at the setting sun splintering through the trees. I take up a position as if waiting for a fly ball. I look at my watch.

It's 7:05 pm.

It's when the game starts.

And I'm here, waiting.

The magic never goes. It's part of me, it's part of them. The hopes and dreams and despairs. The gapper, the bottom of the-ninth blooper that dropped, the pirouette throw from the hole. The caught-looking final out, the blown save, the hanging curve that landed on Jupiter. The exhilarating possibility that The Show is one step closer. And the fatigue of a year closer to that "real job" we so desperately never wanted.

The story, in short, of life.

I don't just make this stuff up, you know.

***

I go back. I find my boss, who's talking with someone else about college football. I wait. The topic of their conversation shifts to baseball, and they, diehard Braves fans both, cavil about the fact that their chances aren't looking quite so bombproof as before.

"And of course," says my boss, biffing me in the arm, "we got this punk over here pulling for the Rockies."

I tolerantly biff him back.

"I may work for 'em," he says. "But the Braves come first."

Eventually, we overcome our differences and head across the field, to his office, so he can retrieve my signed bat for me. He attempts to convince me that there is only one signature on it. Then he says that it was down there for the whole time, and not all of them were good about signing it, so what's on there is on there. This is fine with me.

He gets it for me. "Let's see, who's on here... Paul Bargas, Dan Perkins, Sheng-An Kuo... Delta Cleary, Eliezer Mesa, Arenado... is that Matzek? Either him or Massey. No, that's Massey, so that's got to be Matzek there. And... did Delta sign this twice? He did, haha... Helder Velasquez, Leuris Gomez... who's your favorite player?"

"Avery Barnes," I say. Which is true. I have become rather fond of Mr. Barnes. He's like David Eckstein, but less annoying.

"He should have signed it, he's a nice guy. Hmm... wait, I don't think he's on here. But it's okay. If he's here next year, I'll get it. Or go down to Spring Training and accost him."

I have to say, I am flattered by my boss's willingness to pester the Tourists so much on my behalf.

***

I walk back through the deserted stadium. I bid farewell to my supervisor and the general manager, both of whom I have to interrupt from the beanbag tournament. They both thank me and tell me that they're looking forward to having me back next year. Although I am not a man, my supervisor and I execute a perfect man-hug.

I bike home, once more for old time's sake up the Biltmore hill with the bat sticking out of my backpack. I am confident that no one will attempt to mug me. The year's over. Despite the 14-hour days, I miss it already.

There's no expiration date on dreams.

Hey, Dad. You -- you want to have a catch?

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