Monday, August 26, 2013

Indie Baseball

The Declaration of Independent Baseball

 "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all ballplayers (except our favorites) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights and Lefts, that among these are the Fastball, the Slider, and the ability to get safely from first to third on hits to the gap."
            It's a springtime Saturday afternoon, tryouts for the Vallejo Admirals and San Rafael Pacifics of the North America Baseball League (NABL).  The cyclone fence surrounding Wilson Park in Vallejo features faded advertising panels from local insurance companies, the Elks Club, Knights of Columbus, the Vallejo Police Officers Association. The outfield grass is thick and uneven but a "sprucing up" is in the cards, promises Pacifics co-owner and NABL organizer Mike Shapiro.
            Either way, it's Showtime. Twenty-to-thirty men of all shapes, colors and sizes – mostly big – are here to compete for jobs that will pay a maximum of $1200 a month, the privilege of dressing in locker rooms that look suspiciously like public restrooms, and living accomodations with other people's families for the duration of the summer. There were earlier tryouts in Fairfield, another is scheduled later in April in San Rafael. But for most of these guys whose parents, girlfriends, siblings and even their own kids watch anxiously from the bleachers, this is their shot at entering professional baseball through one of the widest yet most obscure portals of all – independent baseball. 
What other kind of baseball is there? Think of the first time you played – on a field, a playground, a street, anywhere an imaginary diamond could be superimposed. All you needed was a ball, a stick to hit with, something wadded up to serve as bases, a piece of cardboard for home plate. All baseball not affiliated with Major League Baseball is independent. Little League. Pony League. American Legion. High school. College. T-ball is "Indy ball."
            This game starts without an umpire (umps make a $100 a game at this level, maybe this one's delayed at another job). And though players supposedly have been working out on their own, some clearly haven’t. The Admirals’ starting pitcher sports a noticeable gut and begins pouring sweat early in the first inning. But his compact motion produces serviceable fastballs, and curves that break sharply off the plate. In the bottom of the inning, the Pacifics' pitcher reaches 90 mph on the radar gun. This feels as authentic as any level of baseball. A good curve is still a good curve, after all. A 90 mph fastball is still 90 mph. A line shot bending over the bag, the third baseman scrambling to his feet and gunning a throw that saws the diamond in half to beat the runner by a step is a work of improbable magic in any league.
            It's pro baseball, you just don't know these guys' names – though they hope you will some day.  Jordan Bally, Coley Crank, Leroy Dunn, Tim Espinoza for the Admirals … Zack Pace, Will Wright, Nick Kuroczko, Steven Detwiler for the Pacifics.  One known commodity is 33-year-old Maikel Jova, the Pacifics' rightfielder, who twice escaped from Cuba on a raft (the first time he was captured and sent back) to play American baseball. He finally landed in the Dominican Republic, then climbed through the Toronto organization to AAA in 2006. Though hitting in the .290s, he was cut and has played "Indy ball" for seven seasons. Last year Maikel won the NABL MVP award and led the Pacifics to a championship.
            Another is Tyler Pearson, a 6'3' 205 pound right handed pitcher in his second season with the Pacifics. He throws two effective innings, then sits down to talk baseball. His dream? "I wanna get signed," he says. "I’ve been really working at it – working out, running a lot, throwing bullpen. I went to a tryout for the Diamondbacks last month. I was throwing 92 but I’m twenty-seven [years old]," he says wistfully. "They're looking for younger guys, I know that."
            Tyler was drafted by the Royals his junior year but decided to stay in college. When he didn’t pitch as well his senior year, he wasn't drafted.  He's now a six-year veteran of the Indy league circuit, putting in time with the Amarillo Dillas, Chico Outlaws, Yuma Scorpions, Rockford Riverhawks, Fort Worth Cats, Sioux City Explorers and last year the Pacifics. "I get paid to play a game," he says. "There nothin greater than that."
Tyler works out during the offseason in Ukiah with his dad, who taught him the game. During the season he plans to live with a host family in San Rafael rather than commute. "Like I say, my dream is to get signed," the big right hander confides.  "It can happen. The Chico Outlaws produced Daniel Nava, he’s with the Red Sox playing outfield with Jacoby Elsberg and those guys.  I played with him …"
Driving home I wonder what other sport inspires dreams of reaching the pinnacle at 28, 30, 34-years-old? Not the NFL, where most players are done by 28. But in baseball everything seems possible. Think of the film "The Rookie" ... the improbable ascension of Ryan Vogelsong, the "sudden" emergence of Andres Torres. Baseball is the great democratizer, where a man with a glove and a pair of cleats can aspire to immortality. Forget that “independent” in this case means "unattached" to the escalator to the Big Leagues, and eating PBJ's before games instead of steak. You're on your own. You’re a pro. You’re getting paid to play baseball and nothing's going to stop you – except yourself.  That's what Indy ball is about. 
 Reprinted from the program of the San Rafael Pacifics baseball team, 2013.