Swinging for the Fences

A baseball can take funny bounces. So can a professional baseball career. Nobody knows that better than the Tennessee Smokies.

A couple of hours before the Tennessee Smokies start their 7:35 p.m. game against the Carolina Mudcats in Zebulon, N.C., Gustavo Chacin is wandering around the visiting team's clubhouse. A rickety one-room aluminum trailer just a few feet outside the right field baseline, this clubhouse is the most inhospitable facility in the Southern League. Chacin, a 20-year-old left-handed pitcher from Maracaibo, Venezuela, walks over to the tiny window in the front door and looks outside; some players have complained that it always rains when they make this trip, and a light gray cloud cover hangs over the left-field side of Five County Stadium.

Chacin is the number two starter in the Smokies pitching rotation. He has an efficient delivery, a good fastball, and a nasty change-up pitch. He made the Southern League All-Star team this year, his first full season in AA baseball, and Baseball America lists him as the 23rd-best prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. His coaches say that if he develops a good curve ball he'll be a reliable starting pitcher in the major leagues.

Chacin sits down in a metal folding chair in front of his cubby hole locker. Someone has scribbled his name and number, 14, on a strip of masking tape above the locker. While the rest of the team changes into their warm-up uniforms and goes outside to stretch, Chacin stays inside the clubhouse, still wearing a black T-shirt and khaki shorts, listening to salsa music on a portable CD player and clearing his head for tonight's game. He whispers briefly to the team's batting coach, Hector Torres, in Spanish.

His broad face, normally split by a boyish grin, is fixed in a cold, expressionless stare. The rest of the team leaves him alone. He goes over the Mudcats lineup in his head, trying to remember how he got batters out the last time he faced them. But mostly he tries to find that Zen-like level of instinctive concentration he needs to throw well. Too many pitchers think too much when they're on the mound, Chacin says.

When Chacin finally emerges from the clubhouse, he delivers an outstanding performance: three hits in seven innings in an 8-1 rout of the Mudcats. He strikes out eight, matching his career high. He throws like a machine, his compact 5-foot-11 body tightening in the wind-up and exploding off the mound on release. When the ball hits the catcher's mitt, the pop echoes like a gunshot off the tall outfield wall. His curve is particularly effective tonight, consistently fooling batters with its precipitous drop out of the strike zone. Pitching coach Craig Lefferts, who threw for 15 years in the big leagues, says it's the best breaking ball Chacin has thrown all year.

Chacin is a very good pitcher. He performs at a level most of us can't fully appreciate, throwing the ball with a combination of velocity and accuracy that only comes when a ferocious talent is tamed with hard work and discipline. The chance that he'll move up to AAA, the level just below the major leagues, gets better almost every time he pitches. Asked if he thinks he's going to make it in the big leagues, Chacin smiles shyly and nods. "Yeah," he says, his halting English a small impediment to his confidence. He believes it, and so do a lot of other people.

But the odds are against him.

Baseball is a hard luck game. A pitcher can toss seven or eight top-notch innings, only to watch from the dugout as the bullpen gives everything away. It's a well-known baseball fact that after a runner is thrown out at second base, the batter behind him will hit a double. A hitter can break his bat and get a single, or he can hit a line drive right to the third baseman for an out.

But one bad break on the field is nothing compared to the protracted hardships of minor league baseball—the long late-night bus trips, the lousy pay, the endless fast food and hotel rooms and long-distance phone bills, the months away from home, the slumps and bumps and sore muscles that go with a five-month, 140-game schedule. And no level of minor league ball has more capacity for heartbreaking capriciousness than AA.

The minor leagues are a formal feeder system for major-league teams. Each minor-league team is affiliated with a big-league club, and the system is set up so players can move up—or down—according to their development. The Blue Jays have farm teams in Dunedin, Fla. (the A Blue Jays), in Charleston, W.Va., (the A Alleycats), in Auburn, N.Y., (the A Doubledays), in Syracuse, N.Y. (the AAA Skychiefs), and the AA Smokies in Sevierville. All the players at AA have the physical talent to play in the big leagues; it's here that they prove they have the heart and the mind to do it.

"You learn it on 12-hour bus trips, like we do now," says catcher Josh Phelps.

There should be no illusions about AA baseball: These are grown men being paid to hit, throw and catch a small hard white leather ball, playing what was, at one time, considered a game for boys. Since high school, they've been celebrities in their home towns, winning high school championships and going to powerhouse college programs. They made the front pages of local newspapers after they were drafted. They're gifted and driven. They're all closer than almost any of the rest of us to being the best in the world at something.

But when it's the middle of the season, and you still have 50 more games to play before you can finally go home to Venezuela or Ohio or Texas, and you're on a bus headed to eastern North Carolina at 3:30 a.m., you can feel just as far away from making the major leagues as any regular chump with a desk job.

"Nobody wants to be a career minor league player," says Smokies right fielder Ryan Fleming. "But the sad reality is that's what most of us are going to be."

The Smokies board the team bus to North Carolina at 1 a.m. on July 6, just three hours after beating the Huntsville Stars 8-2. It was their first win at Smokies Park since June 11. The bus picks them up at Smokies Crossing, an apartment complex in Sevierville where most of the players live during the season. Up close, dressed in shorts and T-shirts for the six-hour trip over the mountains, they don't really look like professional athletes. They all look athletic, of course—tall and broad-shouldered and heavily muscled—but they more closely resemble college students, fraternity boys with headphones draped around their necks, clutching opened bags of Doritos and travel pillows and bottled sports drinks. They are almost exclusively white All-American golden boy types, clean-cut and polite, but with a collective streak of adolescent boisterousness left in them. Left fielder Reed Johnson, a 24-year-old California native, has just given himself a buzz cut and left a spiky mohawk down the middle.

Craig Lefferts is near the front, his burly frame curled across a row of seats. Manager Rocket Wheeler, who's been with the Toronto Blue Jays organization since it started in 1977, sits across from Lefferts. Wheeler, 45, is somewhat short and wiry, with leathery tanned skin and gray hair over his collar. He wears sunglasses almost 24 hours a day. He's spent nearly 25 years in pro baseball, as a player and coach, and never reached the big leagues. But he wears a large championship ring on his left hand, a token from the Blue Jays' World Series win in 1992 to commemorate the contribution of minor league coaches in developing big league talent. He has a second ring from the Blue Jays' 1993 championship.

Second baseman Orlando Hudson, one of only two African Americans on the roster, flips through the selection of movies for the bus VCR. "White boy movie, white boy movie, white boy movie," he mutters disappointedly. The next night, Hudson will be called up to the Blue Jays' AAA club in Syracuse.

The team's energy seems unbounded for the first hour or so on the bus. The team trainer, Jeff Stay, puts a copy of Meet the Parents in the VCR, but before the credits have finished it's been replaced by the teen sex comedy American Pie. There's a cry from the back: "I want to see Nadia's tits!" Before the bus moves out of the parking lot, a small group has started a card game in the back. The team demands a rendition of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" from Jarrod Payne, a pitcher who was just called up to the team the day before from A Dunedin, as a good-natured initiation rite.

But the party doesn't last long. By 2:30 a.m., most of the seat lights are off, and the legs of fitfully sleeping Smokies are sprawled across the aisles. A few sleep in the floor; American Pie is followed by The Art of War, with Wesley Snipes, but almost no one's awake to watch it. The card game continues in the back.

The bus enters Raleigh just before 7 a.m. The players, a little grumpy and quieter than they were when they got on the bus, unload and go to their hotel rooms. A handful make it into the hotel dining room for a complimentary breakfast of bagels and toast and cold cereal, but most of them go straight to bed.

It's a tough trip. Everyone's stiff and sleep-deprived, and the schedule for the weekend—a 30-minute drive to the stadium in the afternoon, warm ups, a two-and-a-half hour game, then back to the hotel—is enough to throw off anyone's normal biological rhythms. After the game, the players generally go back to the hotel and to bed. A few go out to play pool, but none of the usual vices of road life—mainly alcohol and women—are evident on this trip. It's a job, and they treat it like one.

Minor league baseball players follow this grueling pattern month after month, from spring training in March to the end of the season in early September. The Smokies make road trips to every other city in the Southern League: Birmingham, Orlando, Huntsville, Jacksonville, Mobile. Some are 12 days long, stopping in three cities before the team ever makes it back to East Tennessee.

"We just spent eight days on the road, then we were home for two days. You have just enough time to get used to being back home, and then you have to pack your bag and hit the road again," says third baseman Glenn Williams.

For this, they get paid about $2,000 a month during the season. After the season's over, their salaries stop and they go home and find part-time work. Their rent at Smokies Crossing is taken out of their paychecks, leaving most of them with about $1,200 or $1,300 a month. Some received signing bonuses after they were drafted and live off of that money. They get $20 a day for meals, but some of them will cheat by hoarding food from the clubhouse spread—cold cuts and fruit and crackers. The hoarders are called "savages" by the rest of the team.

"But it's all worth it, if you get your final goal of making the big leagues," says Reed Johnson.

The geometry of baseball—the green expanse of the outfield, the trajectory of a sinker ball, the majestic arc of a well-hit fly ball—takes on even greater dimension when you're on the field. Television has reduced players to characters in a video game; even from the stands, the players are anonymous, their faces hidden by their hats and helmets. But when you're right next to them, even during batting practice, it's impossible to ignore that they're real people performing amazing athletic feats. These guys are doing what many of us grew up wanting to do, and it's hard to tell if they fully appreciate their own talents.

An hour before the last game of the series, the pitching staff, dressed in gray T-shirts and electric blue shorts, is in the outfield. The 10 pitchers—except the starter, Mike Smith, who's still in the clubhouse—are paired off, tossing balls to each other from ever-increasing distance. Their motions are deceptively easy; by the end of the drill, they're about 75 yards apart, tossing the ball effortlessly all the way from center field to the baseline.

The Smokies have won two out of three so far in the series. The players are loose and relaxed, wrestling as they stretch and cracking jokes in the dugout. It's hotter today than it has been all weekend, and muggy. Their gray T-shirts are dark with sweat.

The position players rotate in and out of a cage set up around home plate, each taking 10 or 12 pitches from Wheeler, who's standing behind a chain-link shield in front of the mound. Some players keep the ball down, bouncing it forcefully into the outfield; others smack it deep, off or over the outfield wall. Catcher Josh Phelps, who played in one game for the Blue Jays at the end of last season, hits the ball especially far. The rangy catcher has 19 home runs so far this year, the most in the Southern League. The back-up catcher, Paul Chiaffredo, tells Phelps he would have loved playing in college. "You missed out, Phelps. The aluminum bat—you get a good pitch and jack it, and just stand there going, 'Wow.' I can't do that anymore."

Ryan Fleming is taking one-handed swings into a net behind home plate to fine-tune his mechanics. Batting coach Hector Torres, sitting on a folding camp chair, lobs a ball softly into the air, and Fleming whacks it into the net. Each swing looks exactly like the one before. He has the same hitch with his right leg, the same compact down- and-up motion with his left arm. He makes the same grimace, bunching his nose and drawing back his upper lip, every time he connects with the ball.

Fleming is clearly frustrated with his performance in the second half of the season. He made the Southern League All-Star team and has been one of the best hitters in the league. But he's struggled since late June, going 0 for 10 in the first three games of this series. His batting average has dipped below .300, the lowest it's been all year.

If the odds are against Chacin, the deck is stacked against Fleming. At 5-foot-10, he's shorter than major league scouts like for an outfielder. He's already 25, about the age when most career major leaguers are getting called up. He was a middle draft pick, selected in the 18th round by the Blue Jays after playing at Dayton University in Ohio. He's got a good, not spectacular, arm. Players like Fleming and left fielder Reed Johnson, guys who play smart and hit for average and advance their teammates and hold opposing runners on base, are essential to any team.

"We're not six-foot-three gazelles," Fleming says. "But there are intangibles in the game that allow someone like us an opportunity. For us, we've got a shot, and that's all we wanted."

Last year, in Dunedin, Fleming, Johnson, and Phelps all played together. Third baseman Glenn Williams was there, too. Now the four of them are all playing in East Tennessee.

"This is my second year with the organization, and I played with all three of these guys last year," Williams says. The four are among the best hitters on the team: Fleming and Johnson seem to have a knack for getting on base, and Williams and Phelps knock them in.

Williams, 24, was born in Gosford, Australia. His thick accent has earned him the nickname "Mate." His father played cricket and then baseball, and passed the unlikely sport on to his son. Glenn signed with the Atlanta Braves organization in 1993, at 16, and was traded to the Blue Jays in 2000. Now he's humping across the Southeastern United States, hoping to get a break and play at the highest level of another country's national pastime. He spends the five-month off season at home in Australia.

"It's what I wanted to do. It was difficult having to move here and being so young, but I was lucky that I spoke the language, and the two countries are the same in a lot of ways," he says. "Some of the Latin kids don't speak English when they get here, and coming from a different culture, it can be tough for them."

The four are at a table in the hotel dining room the night after the third game, distracted by a broadcast of Jackass on MTV. "This is what keeps us going," Williams says as they all watch Johnny Knoxville slide, bare-chested, up the side of an oiled half-pipe ramp into a lake.

Fleming and Williams room together on road trips; Williams and Phelps are roommates, too. "What it comes down to is you're spending six months away from your family and friends," Williams says. "You're with a bunch of guys—there's usually a nucleus of 10 or 15 guys who spend the whole year together. You move up, and it seems like you move up together...They're like my family. For six months I'm with my friends here. I know every little thing about them. They're more like your family than your real family is."

Fleming is one of the few married players on the team. He and his wife, Heather, have dated since they were 16. In the middle of this road trip, though, he hasn't seen her for two weeks. "I've spent more time with Mate than I have with my wife this year," he says.

For Fleming, life on the road has added complications. He and Heather have an apartment in Sevierville. She rarely goes on road trips with him. Even for home games, the schedule can be grueling—up to 10 hours a day at the ball park, with batting practice and team meetings, usually until 11 p.m. or midnight. After the season, they go back to Columbus, Ohio, then, in the spring, start all over again. It's a precarious spot: Fleming could move up or down the ladder at any time, and most of the details of real life—packing, finding a new apartment, getting a new job—would be left for Heather.

"It's really tough," Fleming says. "Sometimes I feel more sorry for her than I do myself. It takes a special woman to deal with all that. She's put her life on hold for me, for my opportunity in baseball. She comes to games, she listens to me bitch and complain. I don't think if I was in her shoes I'd put up with it."

The success of the Smokies' trip to Carolina comes down to the bottom of the ninth in the fourth game. They've won two of the first three games; a win would make them 7-1 at Five County Stadium this year. A loss and they finish 2-2, a so-so result that will make the bus ride home a long one. If they lose it in the bottom of the ninth after getting an early 4-1 lead, the trip will be even longer.

Johnson and Williams hit a pair of solo home runs in the first inning. Johnson singled home another run in the third. Williams knocked in the final run in the fifth on a fielder's choice. Mike Smith, making just his third start for the Smokies, pitched 5 and 2/3 solid innings but left with a narrow 4-3 margin.

The Smokies' closer, Jarrod Kingrey, the best pitcher on a mediocre relief staff, went in in the bottom of the eighth and got two easy outs to end the inning. But he gave up a couple of hits and a walk to load the bases with only one out in the bottom of the ninth. Then, as if to increase the drama, he goes to a 3-2 count against the Mudcats penultimate batter, setting him up for potential game-winning heroics. A hit would probably drive in the winning run from second; a walk would tie the game and leave the Mudcats with another chance to win.

A group of rough-looking men in the seats behind home plate are alternately cheering on the batter and heckling Kingrey. The mood in the Smokies dugout is tense; the players are all on their feet, leaning on the top step.

Kingrey, 6-foot-1 and a wiry 200 pounds, zips a fastball right down the middle. The batter whiffs at it, but he's too late; the ball's already in the catcher's mitt. He bangs his bat on the ground before he walks back to the dugout. The next batter hits the first pitch weakly to Jamie Goudie, the new Smokies second baseman, making his first start replacing Orlando Hudson. Goudie flips the ball to first base, and the bench heaves a great sigh.

On the bus back home after the game, the players seem relieved and relaxed. They even have a little time to relish the win; they'll have the next two days off for the AA All-Star break. But after that they'll play every night for nearly a month, with two more road trips—one back here to Carolina—and four home stands. More batting practice, more late nights, more long bus rides, more long-distance telephone calls.

"It's the hardest game in the world," Ryan Fleming says. But there's no way he'd give it up.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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