Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2008-9

 

Infielders in the Basement


Our Run as Minor League Landlords

Gary R. Robe

illos

Itís mid-September and Our Team is in a hot battle in the pennant race. They are in a critical game with the team chasing them and Our Team’s aging center fielder just ripped his ACL the day before. There’s a new kid called up from AAA to take his place. Top of the first inning he becomes airborne and snags a screaming fly out of the air three feet over his head and fires to second to turn a double play. Then in the ninth the home team is trailing 5-4 with two out and a man on second. The kid has struck out four times that day, but now he’s up for the last time. On a 3-2 count the pitcher hangs a curve over the plate and the ball seems to freeze. The kid blasts his first major-league dinger over the center field fence. The crowd goes wild as the kid makes his trip around the bases, waving his hat to the stands. In the pandemonium that ensues the fans collectively ask, “Where’d that kid come from?”


Now imagine that you turn and ask a different question. “Remember when we made him a PB&J sandwich for lunch on the day before his first game as a pro?”


That’s a question that actually gets asked at our house.


Everyone knows that at a step below The Show there’s AAA and so there must be AA and A as well, right? What you may not know is that there are several levels of sub-basements in the Major League Baseball training system that hide below A-League. We live in Kingsport, Tennessee, a community of about 40,000 tucked in the hills of the extreme northeast corner of the state. We’re not a big enough market for Class A ball. We’re not a big enough market for Class C ball. What we have is a short-season rookie league team, The Kingsport Mets or K-Mets for short. As the name implies the K-Mets are at the entry-level for new recruits and draftees for the New York Mets’ farm league system. Seven other teams in the northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and southeast West Virginia towns comprise the Appalachian League or the Appy League as it is affectionately known.


The Appy League is not a place for big egos, big salaries, big crowds or big admission prices. It is a place for big dreams and big opportunities. For 80% of the ones who play here it is the end of the dream. Few players return for a second year. They either move up or drop out. It is a young player’s one chance to start the climb up to The Bigs. If you’re good you won’t be here long; impress The Man in the right way and you’re up outa here in four weeks. Impress him in the wrong way and you’re outa here just as fast. Period. The season starts in mid-June and runs through the end of August. You have 10 weeks to show you’ve got something.


As you might surmise the Appy League is a no-frills operation. That’s not to say it is squalid. MLB does have standards for the local facilities and will pull a franchise if a host city does not provide adequate accommodations. It is, however, difficult to get a 10-week lease for rental lodgings and long-term stay hotels are expensive. This problem is solved by turning to the community to provide host families. In return for free admission to all league games and a modest weekly stipend the families provide lodging for the players for the season. We started going to K-Mets games in 1992 and instantly fell in love with the atmosphere and intimacy of the games. There’s a special thrill about questioning the ump’s visual acuity as well as observing that his prehensile tail is growing back, and knowing without a doubt that he heard you because he’s only 15 feet away. When the K-Mets moved to their new home in 1994(1) we began paying a whopping $8 for reserved-section seats at the field level behind home plate. What we didn’t know was this is the semi-official hangout section for the host families. At the start of the season in 1998 we overheard the lady in front of saying that she didn’t know where she was going to put the new players arriving that night.


We discovered that this was Peggy Lozier, the housing coordinator for the team and that there were four new recruits arriving that night for whom there were no accommodations available. Corlis and I winked at each other and then explained that we had two basement bedrooms with a full bath, laundry, and independent entryway. Could we help her? That’s how we got our first pair of K-Mets staying at our place. They were Andy Sides (pitcher) from Missouri and Tom Wilson (catcher) from California. Andy was the closer for the team that year and was impressive in that role. Over the rest of the year he continued to play in other leagues in the Mets organization, but injured his pitching arm at some point and never recovered. Tom was a solid catcher on defense but never hit very well and was not re-signed the next year. That was the pattern we saw repeated over they years. They were all strapping young men just out of high school or college who got to play professional baseball for a summer, if only at the lowest level.


Most of the players we housed were pitcher-catcher combos with a sprinkling of outfielders and utility infielders. At least three of these we never got to know very well because they were good enough to get promoted out of the K-Mets by the second week of July. Often we would have breakfast with a player in the morning and find that he had moved out by the afternoon when The Call came. Later that evening we would pick up the sullen kid who had been sent down to Kingsport to make space for the one promoted that morning. These kids never kept much more than some clothes and personal equipment with them because they literally never knew from day-to-day where they would be by the end of the day. For example, one of our catchers got the call at 11 am to be on a 1 pm flight to New York. The catcher for the Brooklyn Cyclones, the A-league team the K-Mets feed into, had been injured the night before. He literally packed his kit while the taxi was on the way to our house. He was met at the airport and went straight to the field and played that night with his new team.


It is absolutely true that these guys are getting paid to play a game, but they are also being paid to train and improve their game. Many nights the players would get home at near midnight, after a post-game celebration. They then had to be at a local gym by 9 the next morning for weight training or physical therapy. They all had to be back to the stadium at 2 p.m., rain or shine, for practice, followed by a game at seven. Most of the away games are in towns within an hour’s drive from Kingsport so they just ride the bus back home at night after the game. For games with the Northern Division they take a bus to the host city and stay in a motel until the away stand is completed. With my work schedule I saw our players on the field more than I did at home.


Some of the players were early draft picks who had signed with six to seven figure bonuses. Most were playing for standard wages, which covered expenses but not much more. The players didn’t handle much money themselves. Many of those with signing bonuses spent time off browsing auto sale sites but few had cars. Since the next day could bring travel orders they couldn’t burden themselves with lots of possessions. Their lodging expenses were taken out of their salary, as a payroll deduction. Every couple of weeks we got a check from the New York Mets for a couple hundred dollars ($150 per week per player). Those were fun to take to the bank. More than a few tellers’ eyes get curious when they say the team logo on the checks. The team also takes complete care of medical expenses if the players are injured on the job. One of our catchers’ fingers was badly broken in a home plate collision and the next day he was put on a plane to New York for orthopedic surgery by the Mets’ team doctors.


One thing that you have to get used to about having professional athletes living in your house is that they are big and they eat a lot. They bought a lot of their own food and some was provided by the team. For example, some were on muscle-building regimens and had to drink protein shakes for breakfast. Milk, eggs, bread, breakfast cereal, lunchmeat, you name it, anything that doesn’t take a lot of preparation, has calories, and is slow rounding third vanishes like a softly hit foul into the bleachers. We always tried to find out what our guys liked to eat and stock for them, but there’s only room for so many gallons of milk in our refrigerator. The hardest ones to provide for were the Latinos because for the most part they could not abide American style food. They were generally ready to cook for themselves and their tastes were usually simple, running to chicken, eggs, rice, and tomato sauce. They ate a lot, but my wife, Corlis, who is altitude-challenged, always liked to have them around in the kitchen to reach things on high shelves.


So, you may ask, who were the famous ones? Our first “celebrity” minor-leaguer was Tom Pachorek, Jr, son of Tom Pachorek ex Chicago Cub and occasional color commentator on WGN. Junior was not destined for The Majors, but he spent about six weeks with us in 1999 after being sent down from Class A. He was an outfielder with indifferent hitting. The cool thing about boarding Tom Jr was that Tom Sr got in the habit of calling us a couple of times a week. Tom Sr soon found that he could find out more about how Tom Jr was doing from us than he could ever get out of his son. One evening I mentioned that I was not going to be able to do an update for a while because I was headed to Central America for a week. He became interested in why I was traveling and I told him that I would be staying at the Intercontinental Hotel in San José where I liked to watch the baseball broadcasts from the Six Continents Club Lounge. Two nights later Tom Sr was doing a Cubs game and sent me a personal greeting on-the-air.


Another celebrity we got to know pretty well was Mookie Wilson, the Mets player who hit the famous grounder that Bill Buckner missed which allowed The Mets to win the series in 1986. Mookie Wilson became the K-Mets manager in 2004-05. He kept the team in contention all season even when the Front Office stripped the team relentlessly. In rookie league play winning the championship is secondary to teaching the boys to play professional-level baseball and getting a measure of their character. Mookie was excellent in both detecting talent and recognizing problems in his players. He also never forgot that the team was there to entertain the fans as well and managed to carve out winning records even when all the best players had been moved up.


Our biggest star contact to date, however is Lastings Millage(2). In 2003 Lastings was the first-round draft choice for the Mets’ organization, signed as an 18-year old high school phenom. Normally we do not get to see such a lofty creature in Kingsport; they start out at AA or higher. In Millage’s case, however, his contract negotiations drew out for most of the summer and so he started for Kingsport in the last three weeks of the short season before moving up the ladder. We didn’t officially host Lastings, but he became fast friends with the two players we were hosting, so he spent several nights at our house for sleepovers. For several years he held the high score record on my computer for PC Pinball. The first we knew he was staying with us was when he showed upstairs for lunch one afternoon. We fed him peanut butter sandwiches and congratulated him on holding the Mets’ feet to the fire through his contract talks. In August 2008 while we were at Worldcon in Denver the Robe Experience attended a Rockies game. There was Lastings, playing center field for The Nationals! The crowd around us we a bit puzzled when we cheered for Denver for all of the game except when Millage came up to bat. That was fun to explain to the Rockies fans around us!


Housing the players was mostly a lot of fun and we really got to know a lot about the inner workings of minor-league baseball. It was worth it, that was why we kept at it for eight years. Our last year to keep players was 2007 and we probably won’t again. The team changed their housing policies in 2008 and stopped using host families. My wife and I speak fluent Spanish and so we were natural hosts for some of the Latino players who are currently making up more than half of the K-Mets roster. In 2007 we were asked to host a group of three players from the Dominican Republic. These guys were from so far back in the island that they did not understand how to behave in the Big City of Kingsport! They treated us as if we were their staff, not like they were our guests. I was surprised at this knowing how important host-guest relationships are in Hispanic culture.


As the summer wore on we came to understand that these guys were just plain dumb. They might be baseball players, but they were not well educated as were most of the other players over the years. We discovered that several of them were functionally illiterate in any language. The spoke an island dialect of Spanish that even Corlis couldn’t understand. Their housekeeping habits were horrible and they misused privileges to the point that we finally had to complain to the team manager. They ruined a whole set of my cookware and the Internet history on my PC was full of porn site links and they were using my computer to join some unsavory chat rooms as well as downloading a wide assortment of “entertainment”. We were glad to see the season end that year and had decided not to accept new players the following year.


We still enjoy attending K-Mets games and we still sit in the host family section and keep up friendships with the other hosts we’ve come to know over the years. Although I will attend a Big League game if I’m visiting a city, my heart for the game will probably be forever more with the Appy League. It’s just a different, more freewheeling form of the game, even if they do use the designated hitter rule. One of our host family friends put it best as the K-Mets came from behind in the 8th inning 3-9 to win a game 17-10, “It’s The Appy League – No lead is safe”!


(1) Named after then-Kingsport Mayor Hunter Wright – you gotta love a team that plays at home in Wright Field!

(2) Why don’t the big league sports franchises take these boys to a big city name store and buy them real names when they sign them? No wonder they get in trouble when they get named something like Plaxico!

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