HOMESTAND

Looking for the Heart and Soul of Baseball in the Minor Leagues

 

By Tom Robotham

 

I see great things in baseball. It’s our game—the American game. ~ Walt Whitman

 

 

It’s all over now. Harbor Park is as quiet as a church, the Norfolk Tides having left town this morning  for a two-game series in Louisville. I’ve chosen to come here again today, just the same, to reflect on the eight days I spent with the team during their homestand against the Ottawa Lynx and the Columbus Clippers.

In many ways this homestand was like any other. Each day, groundskeeper Kenny Magner, who has missed only one game in  23 years (he was attending his daughter’s graduation ceremony), tended the field with the quiet dedication and solid expertise of a master craftsman. Each afternoon, with the exception of Thursday, when the Tides played a day game, the team took batting practice. And each evening, the vendors, ushers and administrative staff went through their familiar pre-game rituals in preparation for the arrival of several thousand fans.

But within this framework of familiarity, the homestand was full of surprises for players and fans alike. There were moments of pure elation—Mark Johnson’s 10th-inning, game-winning shot into the picnic area comes to mind—and there were moments of pain and bitter frustration.

Such is the nature of baseball. It is a game of rules and routines that have been in place for well over a century. And yet each day brings with it its own curiosities, its own setbacks, its own moments of grace.

Each day, above all, brings new opportunities. This point is driven home to me as I sit here now, in the last seat of the last row of the last section of Harbor Park’s leftfield upper deck and gaze out across the empty field. At the moment, the scoreboard still shows the results of last night’s game. Soon, though, all the numbers will revert to zero, creating a fresh, blank slate, as it were.

It was with this sense of hope that the Tides came to their first homestand following the all-star break. They carried that same sense of optimism with them, I think, as they left town. The team’s mediocre first half notwithstanding, they continue to believe—to know—that they can win. At the same time, they continue to dream—each one of them—that they will one day make a name for themselves in the majors.

My own goal is decidedly less ambitious, but important to me, nevertheless. I’ve set out to acquire a deeper understanding of baseball, which may no longer be our national pastime but which retains, for millions of fans and players, a deep and mysterious resonance.

MONDAY JULY 15: Back to the Fundamentals

I begin the homestand four hours before game time, in the same place that I will end it—in seat 27, row R, section 317. I’ve chosen to sit here for the moment in part because of the panoramic view and in part because it reminds me of the cheap seats I used to sit in at Shea Stadium when I was a boy.

The peace and quiet of the park is disturbed somewhat by the whoosh-and-hum of the Interstate traffic behind me. Nevertheless, as I look around I’m struck by how beautiful the stadium is.

“It’s a major league park,” several Tides will tell me as the week unfolds. Or as Tides president Ken Young puts it, “it’s a mini-major-league park. The only difference between this stadium and a major league stadium is 30,000 fewer seats.”

Indeed, when the 12,000-seat facility opened in 1993, replacing the old Met Park near Norfolk Airport, it was praised by many insiders as the finest minor league stadium in the land. Today it retains this stature, partly because of the beauty of the original design and partly because of the first-rate work done by the maintenance crew. Each afternoon, workers power-wash the stands, and each day Magner and his field crew put in eight or nine hours mowing and raking and watering.

From where I sit, the payoff of this effort is glowingly apparent. The closely cropped Bermuda grass remains a brilliant green, in spite of the recent drought, and the infield dirt appears as smooth as finely sanded top-grade lumber.

The scene is so relaxing that for a moment I forget why I’m here. After a while, though, I decide to wander down to the field itself, where the first players are arriving for batting practice.  Among them are Andy Tracy and Jorge Valendia.

It’s hard not to notice Tracy. I say this not because of his size—although at 6’3” and 225 pounds, he’s one of the biggest players on the team. What really makes the Tides’ third baseman stand out are his broad grin and good-humored banter. I’ve been here only a few minutes, and already this Ohio native reminds me of any number of guys I knew in college—jocks, mostly—who loved a good joke and brought a charge of positive energy into every room they entered.

Valendia, born and raised in Venezuela, is far more subdued as he prepares to take his turns in front of the portable backstop. It occurs to me that this may be due to cultural barriers—although he speaks English well—and that it may also have to do with problems Valendia is having with his swing. I’ll learn later that these problems are related to an injury he suffered earlier this year.

Tracy, by contrast, isn’t working on any specific problem. Still, he approaches batting practice with the same intensity that Valendia does, smacking line drives to all fields and sending a few into the Tides bullpen. Daily b.p., as the players and coaches call it, is a continual process of fine-tuning.

“You’re always making adjustments,” Tracy tells me as he awaits another turn at bat. “You’ve got to.”

WHILE THE PLAYERS CONTINUE TO TAKE TURNS AT B.P.—each one of them will hit between 50 and 75 balls today, as they do most every day—I strike up a conversation with pitching coach Rick Waits, an affable former major leaguer (eight years with Cleveland, three with Milwaukee) who’s now in his fourth season withthe Tides.

He, too stresses the importance of continually revisiting the fundamentals. The grip, he says, is especially important.

“I’ve really taught myself to go to the grip first,” he says. “Earlier in the year there was one pitcher who was struggling with his change-up. I was looking at his arm, his shoulder, the release point—everything—trying to figure out what the problem was. Finally, I said, ‘Let me see your grip. Sure enough, that was it.’”

 

The resulting grip shift was subtle, to say the least—the difference between placing the index finger between the seams and placing it on a seam—but the adjustment dramatically improved the effectiveness of the pitch.

When I ask him if he’s currently working on any comparable problems with other pitchers, he says that nothing in particular comes to mind.

“Our pitching staff has done real well this year,” he says. “When I think about how many good pitchers have gone up [to the majors], it’s amazing that we still have so many good pithers here. That’s a testament to the Mets farm system. We have good scouts.”

Waits’ primary focus right now is on helping young pitchers like Tyler Walker, who will start tonight’s game, and 22-year-old Pat Strange become more consistent.

“That’s what the minors are for,” he says. “You see a lot of guys who might have good stuff but they can’t necessarily throw it consistently.”

As Waits works toward this goal, he’s got two things in the back of his mind: helping the Tides win more games, and doing what he can to help his pitchers realize their ultimate dream—making it in the Big Leagues.

“I had my dreams,” Waits says as he leans back on the dugout bench. “And I was able to fulfill them. Now I’m hoping I can help [the young players] fulfill their dreams. That’s my motivation. I want them to have that feeling of winning the World Series with the Mets.”

THOSE LOFTY DREAMS LINGER in everyone’s mind here. Later in the week, in fact, when I ask several players whether they’d rather be playing every day in Triple A or sitting on the bench in the majors, they all say the latter—without question.

On the other hand, they try not to think about that goal too much. The more immediate goal—playing well in tonight’s game—is their primary focus.

As the first game of the homestand unfolds that evening, some players do live up to their potential. But in the end, it is a frustrating night. With the Tides trailing by two runs in the bottom of the seventh, outfielder Chris Latham lays down a good bunt and makes it safely to first. When Valendia hits a line drive, Latham takes off for second. Trouble is, Ottawa’s Ron Calloway makes a shoe-string catch, and Latham can’t get back to first.

Two innings later, the Tides stage another comeback effort. With Ty Wiggington on second, first baseman Mark Johnson h it’s a rocket to right field. Everything thinks it’s gone—everyone—but the ball dies in the wind, just short of the fence, and is caught.

Final score: 3 to 1. Walker, who started the season well, is perhaps the most frustrated Tide of all. He hasn’t won a game since June 3.

TUESDAY, JULY 16: ‘THE TOUGHEST THING IN THE WORLD’

ARRIVING AT THE PARK just before batting practice, I go straight to the field. Having enjoyed my conversation with Waits the day before—it was so laid back it felt as if we could have been on a fishing boat somewhere—I am looking forward to a similarly comfortable chat with hitting coach Al LeBoeuf. He turns out to be equally obliging, and just as engaging when talking about the mechanics of the game.

“Hitting a baseball is the toughest thing in the world to do,” LeBoeuf says. “Think about it: You’re trying to hit a round ball with a round bat, and you’re trying to hit it square.”

This truism is repeated often by players and aficionados, but when LeBoeuf makes the point he does so with a sense of wonder that you might expect from someone wo has just recently discovered the fact.

“When you’re doing it right,” LeBoeuf continues, “the ball looks slowed down. All the great hitters say that. When they’re hitting the ball well it looks like a beach ball traveling in slow motion.”

One key to making the ball appear slower, LeBoeuf says, is making sure your eyes are relaxed and making sure you employ the right “visual mechanics.”

“Here, let me show you something,” he says, picking up a ball and cocking his arm in throwing position. “Now look at this and get ready to catch it.” Sitting just a few feet from me on the dugout bench, I fix my eyes on the ball in his hand. When finally tosses it, I catch it—but I can feel my body tense up as I do.

“Now look over here somewhere,” he says, pointing to his immediate right, “and don’t look for the ball until I throw it.” I can still see his hand with my peripheral vision, but I’m not focused on it.

 

After he’s thrown the second ball, he asks, “OK, now which one seemed slower?”

The second one did—no question about it. It’s an optical illusion, to be sure, but one that has obvious value for a hitter. LeBoeuf says, in fact, that 90 percent of hitting slumps are due to the fact that the batter isn’t picking up the ball fast enough.

Still, there’s more to hitting than good visual mechanics. LeBoeuf is also constantly on the lookout for problems with physical mechanics.

Velandia’s season provides a case in point. While he remains superb at shortstop, he has struggled at the plate. Everyone, including Velandia himself, agrees that the problem is at least partially due to bad habits he picked up after he broke his middle finger—for the second time.

“He’s trying to get that power back somehow, and he’s doing it with the wrong body parts,” LeBoeuf says. “He needs to use his lower [body] more—that’s what gets the bat to the ball.”

When I catch up with Velandia later on, he observes that he’s been hitting the balls hard; but, more often than not, they’re “right at somebody.” Still, he says, he’s managed to retain a positive attitude.

 

“If you’re working hard,” he observes, “good things are going to come around.”

 

THAT EVENING, VELANDIA stays focused on the fundamentals. Standing on deck, he picks up a miniature bat the size of one of those souvenirs on sale in the gift shop. This one, though, is made of solid steel and weighs several pounds. As Velandia takes his on-deck swings with this thing, moving in slow-motion like someone doing Tai Chi, I’m struck once again by his intensity, his determination to break out of his slump.

Tonight, though, it’s all for naught. He goes 0 for 5.

The one bright spot that evening is the pitching performance by Satoru Komiyama. Earlier in the day, Waits had told me how Komiyama, who signed on as a free agent last December, needed to be “stretched out” as a starter. Tonight, Waits says, he imagines “Komi” will go 7 innings, throwing 85-90 pitches.

“That would be a good night’s work,” he says.

In the end, he exceeds those expectations, going eight innings and allowing just three hits. Ottawa’s starter, Britt Reams, however, is equally brilliant, and at the end of the ninth inning there’s still no score. Same story through 10. Finally, in the top of the 11th, Ottawa breaks out for four runs against reliever Justin Brunette. Yet another defeat for the Tides: 4-zip.

It’s a tough break in more ways than one. In the stands, a dozen rows or so behind home plate, is Mets General Manager Steve Phillips, in town to take a look at some of the Tides’ top prospects.

 

WEDNESDAY, JULY 17: Like Family

SITTING IN THE TIDES DUGOUT, awaiting the start of batting practice for the third day, I’m reflecting on a conversation I had with Brunette the day before. For some reason I had assumed that all pitchers would prefer a starting role, given the option. Not so with Brunette.

“I like coming to the park and having a chance to play every day,” he says. “I don’t think I could handle sitting around for four or five days between starts.”

These recollections come to an end when a well-groomed young many carrying a faux-leather portfolio approaches me.

“Have you seen Mr. Phillips? he asks.

I tell him I have not and inqure whether he is also working on an article about the Tides.

“No,” he says. “I’m hoping to get into the business, and Mr. Phillips was going to give me some advice.”

The young man’s name, I soon learn, is Jake Ciely. He grew up in Virginia Beach and recently graduated from ODU, summa cum laude, with a degree in marketing. Last year, he interned with the Tides. He’s hoping that these credentials—and the fact that he’s a die-hard Mets fan (“I bleed blue and orange,” he says) will help him make a good first impression on the team’s general manager.

“I’m looking for a job in player personnel, starting out as a scout. Ultimately, I want his job,” Ciely says, referring to Phillips.

LATER, AS THE GAME IS ABOUT TO START, I catch up with Phillips myself. He is sitting in the same seat as the night before, with hot dog and soda in hand. I ask him if he might spare a few moments for me, and he says, “Sure. Meet me in the clubhouse after the game.”

I make a mental note to do so, then leave him to his ballpark dinner and take my seat a few rows behind the first-base dugout.

It’s a good crowd tonight—upbeat but not rowdy. As Tracy steps up to the plate in the second inning, a fan behind me yells, “Come on, Andy.”

For some reason I find this amusing—this tendency among certain fans to act as if they’re on a first-name basis with the players.

But in this case, I soon learn, the air of familiarity is justified. The fan is John Bowman, 66, of Ocean View. Our conversation begins with a case of mistaken identity.

“So,” he says as he leans over and looks at my notebook and stat sheets, “who are you scouting for?”

I’m tempted to roll with it, telling him I’m with the Red Sox organization or some such thing. Instead, I own up to my real reason for being there. Then I ask him how long he’s been a Tides fan.

“How long’ve there been Tides?” he says with pride. He explains that his loyalty extends back to the Norfolk Tars, the Tides’ predecessor, and that he’s been going to games regularly ever since. “We have season tickets,” he says, “so we come to almost every homestand game. We closed down the old Met Park, and we helped open Harbor Park.”

When I ask him about the difference between the two facilities, he says it’s like “comparing a desk lamp to the Statue of Liberty.”

Tonight, Bowman is here with his 84-year-old mother, and he tells me that in a few days they plan to celebrate her birthday, right here in this spot.

“When you come here all the time,” he says, “after a while it becomes a little family. You get to know the people around you. Lately, though, it seems like a lot of them have passed away.”

Still, Bowman keeps coming. “I’m just an old retired firefighter who likes to come out here and enjoy the game,” he says.

Tonight’s game turns out to be especially enjoyable for Tides fans—although it doesn’t get off to a very promising start. With no outs and Ottawa center fielder Endy Chavez on second, shortstop Anthony Medrano hits a sharp grounder back to Tides pitcher Jae Seo. Seo throws to third, apparently catching Chavez in a rundown. For a moment it appears as if Medrano will be caught as well. No such luck. Chavez eludes the tag while heading back to second, and when Velandia throws back to first to get Medrano, Chavez breaks for third. Mark Johnson, the Tides first baseman, then makes a wild throw to third, allowing Chavez to score. The whole incident is reminiscent of a Little League game—but I realize that’s only because, most of the time, the players at this level make it all look so easy.

In any event, Johnson redeems himself, going three for four, driving in the tying run with a double and scoring the winning run after hitting a triple.

Also contributing to tonight’s victory (the Tides end up winning 5 to 4) is Marcos Scutaro, the team’s hottest hitter. Along with catcher Jason Phillips, he was chosen to go to the All-Star game.

I had been paying special attention to Scutaro all week, whenever he stepped up to the plate, not only because of his success as a batter but because of his unusual stance. Most guys stand with their feet about shoulder width apart, or even a little wider. Scutaro’s feet, by contrast, are so close together as the pitcher winds up that he looks more like a putter than a batter. As he goes into his swing, of course, he steps into the pitch. Nevertheless, it’s a reminder to me that each player has his own idiosyncrasies. Sometimes they’re a hindrance. But if they work consistently to the player’s advantage, no coach is going to mess with them.

After the game, I track down Phillips in the clubhouse and talk with him for a minute or two. He’s come here not to see any particular player, he tells me, but to see the team as a whole. He implies that he’s especially interested in seeing all the starting pitchers and that he plans to catch up with Pat Strange and Tyler Walker, the two he’ll miss during this homestand, on another visit in August, or on the road.

“I try to not talk about specifics,” he says, “but I think there are a number of players here who could help us in the right situation.”

Two days later, one of the Tides will be called up to New York. But it won’t be a pitcher.

 

THURSDAY, JULY 18: A Debt is Paid

IT’S ONLY 10 A.M., but already the heat is oppressive. I can only imagine how blistering it will be when the Tides take the field around noon for their last weekday game of the season. Not that this bothers most of the players. As Brunette will tell me later, it’s a lot better than playing somewhere in upstate New York, early in the season, when the temperature is in the 20s.

The heat doesn’t seem to bother a young woman named Jennifer, either. She’s the first person I encounter at the park this morning.

“You got a pretty good seat,” she says, approaching me as I relax with my feet up on the end of the first base dugout.

I tell her who I am, and add that I am actually planning to watch today’s game from inside the dugout.

“I’m a ballgirl,” she says. “It’s great. I get paid to watch baseball.”

Jennifer, who prefers that I not use her last name, tells me she’s been a fan since she was a little kid. “My grandfather was a big Cubs fan,” she says, “and nobody else in the family would watch baseball with him. So I started doing it when I was about five, and I just fell in love with the game.

“Of course this isn’t my official job,” she continues. Jennifer explains that she is a technician in a sleep disorder clinic. She’s also going to college and dreams of going into sports management or sports medicine—anything that will allow her to be close to baseball.

NINETY MINUTES LATER, as Jennifer takes her seat down the left field line, I take mine at the outfield end of the Tides dugout. On the mound today for the Tides is Aaron Heilman, the Mets 2001 first-round draft pick.

Fans in the know are excited about this. When Heilman was in college at Notre Dame he went 43 and 7. Now there’s already talk of him going up to the majors—although Phillips told me the Mets probably would not call him up until next year.

Good thing. As today’s game unfolds, Tides fans get a glimpse of his extraordinary potential, and several I talk to later express their hope that he’ll be with the Tides for a while.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Today’s game is another close one. The one run given up by Heilman comes in the fourth inning on a couple of singles and a ground out that drives in Ottawa left fielder Luis Ortiz.

The Tides, however, are struggling at the plate—and as the game progresses, the tension in the dugout is palpable. One by one, frustrated batters come back to the bench—after striking out or hitting an easy grounder right at an Ottawa infielder—and angrily toss their helmets while cursing themselves.

Johnson is among them.: What am I doing? he grumbles to himself after lofting yet another ball to short right field. Johnson takes the bench, then quickly stands up again, gets into his batting stance, pretending he has a bat in his hands, and looks intently into the middle distance. He appears to be visualizing a pitcher and a pitch, although when I ask him later what he was up to he tells me it was much more instinctive than that. He was trying to get back into the zone that all athletes seek.

After another frustrating at-bat, Johnson does it again. And again.

Also frustrated today is Jorge Velandia. In the seventh inning, though, the shortstop hits a beautiful two-out double to left with runners on first and second. With the score 2 to 1 going into the ninth, it’s looking like the Tides might rack up another win. But with two outs against them, Ottawa scores another run on a single, followed by a double.

Another extra-inning game—but not for long. In the bottom of the 10th, with the score still tied at 2, Johnson walks to the plate for his fifth at-bat of the day. With the count 2 and 2, the 6’4” left-hander hits a shot into the picnic area.

“This place owes me a few,” Johnson tells me as he walks toward the clubhouse. “I’ll take this one. We were out there a long time.”

In the next day’s Virginian-Pilot, sportswriter Rich Radford notes that for casual fans Johnson’s homer was undoubtedly the biggest thrill of the day. For more serious fans, he says, Heilman’s performance was the most noteworthy aspect of the game.

Perhaps that makes me a casual fan. Still, after watching Johnson in the dugout, trying again and again to regain his focus after each failed at-bat, and seeing the effort pay off, I couldn’t help but be impressed. It’s an image that will stay with me for a long time.

FRIDAY, JULY 18: ‘Now it’s a matter of how bad we want it.’

IN THE WAKE OF YESTERDAY’S victory, I can’t help wondering whether the mood at b.p. this afternoon will be more upbeat than usual. I turns out to be pretty much the same. The players work hard, day in and day out, through streaks of all kinds, winning or losing. They take turns at b.p. They stand in leftfield across from each other in pairs, tossing the ball, just as Little League teams do before each game. And they struggle, inside their own heads, trying to stay focused.

“I think 90 percent of baseball is mental,” Tracey tells me when I ask him about this.

Rob Stratton, who’s been on the disabled list for a couple of weeks because of a broken thumb, expresses the same sentiment in more specific terms. “We have the talent to win this thing,” he says, referring to the division race. “Now it’s a matter of how bad we want it.”

The element that Stratton doesn’t mention is the impact of injuries on this young team. Stratton went on the disabled list after a ball ricocheted off his chin and hit his thumb. His chin was fine—“I’ve been punched harder than that,” he says—but his thumb was fractured.

In early August, he says, he’ll go to New York for an MRI, and if all is well he could be back in the lineup by the middle of the month.

“I’ll play with pain,” he says, “as long as the bone is healed.”

Playing the waiting game as well, at least for a few days, is catcher Jason Phillips, who had been having a productive year at the plate. In Thursday’s game, during a play at home, he twisted his ankle.

Then there’s Jorge Toca, who had been playing first base until he fractured his lower leg on July 2. Although he visited the team during the homestand, he is definitely out for the season.

In spite of all this, manager Bobby Floyd remains optimistic as I speak with him in his clubhouse office after batting practice.

“I feel pretty good about our group of guys,” he says. “We still have plenty of time to make our move.”

On the other hand, Floyd is aware that he’ll likely lose even more players to the Mets in the coming weeks. He refuses to name names in speculation and insists that any one of the Tides has the potential to do well at the major league level.

Later that evening, one player does indeed get the call. Marco Scutaro, who came to the Mets organization from the Milwaukee Brewers in April, leaves the Tides with a .330 average. The following night, he will get a key hit for the Mets.

As for the rest of the Tides, this night ends in limbo. With their first game against the Columbus Clippers tied at 5, in the fifth inning, the skies open up. After 90 minutes the game is called. They’ll have to finish it the following day.

SATURDAY, JULY 20: Still Baffled

THE PLAN GOING INTO TODAY is to play a game and a half—the completion of Friday’s washout and the one originally scheduled for this evening.

The completion of Friday’s game does not go well. In yet another extra-inning affair, the Tides go down to defeat by a score of 6 to 5. The loss puts the team seven games back in their division. They’ll have to stay there, at least until tomorrow, as tonight’s regularly scheduled game is cancelled on account of more rain.

To fill the void, I turn to some of my favorite baseball books. In addition to Roger Angell’s Five Seasons and Keith Hernandez’ Pure Baseball, I’ve been re-reading parts of Tim McCarver’s Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans. His comments on batting practice are especially enlightening.

“Some players take the wrong approach,” he writes, “and it becomes a homerun derby.” It shouldn’t be just for show. You can definitely tell smart hitters by how seriously they take batting practice. The best way to approach b.p. is to hit the ball from line to line because it helps establish muscle memory for the front shoulder to be locked in. Willie Mays hit to all fields in batting practice instead of just hitting five-hundred-foot homers….The remarkable Tony Gwynn…thinks it’s vital to hit a hundred balls a day in order to build and retain muscle memory. Watching him take batting practice is an education in hitting.”

Reflecting on this passage brings two things to mind. First, I’m reminded of something I read in Angell’s book: “None of the old pros I talked to gave me the impression that he had subdued the game…. We are baffled but still learning, and we keep coming back for more.”

That, I decide, is just what I’ll do. I won’t have an opportunity to watch anyone of Gwynn’s caliber in the immediate future. But I can watch the Tides’ b.p. all the more closely next time I get the chance. The homestand may be almost over, but my education has just begun.

SUNDAY, JULY 21: The Number One Fan

TODAY, FOR THE SECOND DAY IN A ROW, the Tides are conducting a clinic for kids ages 10 to 14. It’s sponsored by Outback Steakhouse. As I arrive at the stadium I notice the kids are just beyond leftfield. A good time to chat with a few of them, I figure. As I’m walking through the stands, however, I hear someone call my name. It’s Ken Young, the Tides’ president.

Young is a busy man. In addition to holding this organization’s top administrative position, he runs Ovation Food Services. It was during negotiations for concessions at Harbor Park, in fact, that he put together an investor group to purchase the Tides from the Mets.

“I’ve always been a huge baseball fan, so that was certainly a consideration,” he says, recalling the decision to purchase the club. “But it wasn’t an opportunity I was looking for. It just fell in my lap. Al Harazin, the general manager of the Mets at the time, told me they were looking to sell the club but wanted to sell it to someone they could work closely with.” He asked Young if he’d be interested.

It didn’t take Young long to say yes. And he’s never regretted the decision.

“It’s been a good investment,” he says. “But more important, it’s been good for me personally. I never dreamed I’d get this close to a community. I’ve lived all over the country,  but I’ve become a big supporter of Hampton Roads.

“The fans are great,” he continues. “I spend a lot of time talking to them, and they’re just so appreciative, always thanking us for what we’re doing here. That makes you feel better than almost anything else anyone might say.”

Because the experience has been so positive, Young plans on staying with the Tides indefinitely.

“At the time of the purchase,” he says, “sports writers asked me whether I was in this for the long haul. I told them it would be at least five to 10 years. Now I’m taking a  much  longer view. If I decide to retire, this is one thing I’d keep.”

Listening to him talk, and noticing how relaxed he is, I don’t doubt him for a moment. Before I arrived he had been sitting by himself in a seat on the concession level behind home plate, gazing out at the empty field. He likes doing that, he tells me—likes coming to the ballpark early and watching it come to life.

That night, after the park comes to life as usual, the Tides manage to take a pair of victories from the Clippers. The first is particularly noteworthy. It marks Tyler Walker’s first win since June 3. The second, though, is equally well played, as Satoru Komiyama allows only one run while watching his teammates rack up three.

MONDAY JULY 22: The Homestand Winds Down

AT BATTING PRACTICE TODAY, the last one of this eight-day homestand, I make a point of catching up with Mark Johnson.

The first baseman has stood out all week for several reasons. His hitting, for one. In last night’s second game, for example, he smashed another game-winning double. Then there’s his focus. (I ask, at one point, if the degree in psychology he got from Dartmouth helps him with his mental game, but he says it’s more a matter of experience.) What really interests me about Johnson, though, is that, at 34, he’s among the older players on the team and appears to be a devoted family man. Throughout the homestand, in fact, his 4-1/2-year-old son Trevor tagged along during batting practice. (All of the players watch out for him, as they do Chris Latham’s son, who was also on hand.)

“I’d love to do it for another five years, but not at this level,” says Johnson as we sit in the dugout. “It’s just too hard on my family. We live in New York, so when I was with the Mets, it was great. But it’s rough being away all the time.”

Johnson spent a fair portion of last season with the Mets, and distinguished himself by leading all pinch hitters in batting average.

Thus it was disappointing, he says, to have to come back to the Tides this year. Still, he says, he doesn’t like to look too far down the road.

“I tend to go year by year,” he says. “I work too hard at this game to be thinking about other things I might do in the future. I just try to stay focused on doing the best I can.”

AS THE LAST GAME of the homestand gets underway, I find myself hoping more than ever that the Tides will win. It occurs to me that all of this could have turned out differently—the players could have treated me with arrogance and the coaches could have greeted me with indifference. But they didn’t. All were more than willing to talk about baseball—about the nuances of the game and the tricks of the trade that they’ve learned through the years.

I’m rooting, in particular, for Johnson—a guy who might be wrapping up his career but who might, on the other hand, be on the verge of several glory years in the majors. In baseball, you never know.

Tonight, though, and for the next four days, Johnson won’t have a chance to prove anything. In the fourth inning, Columbus’ Matt Beech nails Johnson in the back with a pitch. Johnson starts walking toward first, but before he’s a third of the way down the line the two exchange words, and Johnson immediately rushes the mound. Within seconds, all of the players on both teams are on the mound as well, embroiled in the brawl—even Jason Phillips, with his sprained ankle.

Yeah…yeah…, several fans yell. Probably here only because it’s not hockey season, I think. There are a few other obnoxious fans around me as well. They seem to be in the minority, though. Most simply wait patiently for the game to resume.

After 20 minutes or so it does—and it ain’t pretty. The Tides end up getting hammered, 10 to 6.

I WOULDN’T HAVE SCRIPTED IT this way. But then baseball wouldn’t be much fun if it were not for the wrenching disappointments that make the victories, great and small, seem so sweet.

It’s the small victories, most of all, that I’ve noticed this week—the victories and the sense of hope and drive that each player brings to the game.

As I head home, I think a lot about that. I think, as well, about all the bad baseball news—the looming strike, especially.

It’ll kill baseball, some say, just as they did the last time the major league season was interrupted and the World Series cancelled.

But it won’t do anything of the sort. The heart and soul of baseball, after all, lie not in Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa or Roger Clemens. (Definitely not Roger Clemens!) Sure, superstars are an important part of the game. But they don’t define the sport. America’s national pastime—and in some ways it will always be our national pastime—is defined by men like Rick Waits and Al LeBoeuf and Bobby Floyd: men who work in relative anonymity, helping young players develop their potential. It’s defined as well by those young players: Jorge Velandia and Rob Stratton and the rest. And it’s defined, most of all, by the kids—not just the ones who have pro ballplayers as dads, but the ones all across the country who play the game in fields and schoolyards for the sheer joy of it. Generation after generation, they renew baseball. And they’ll do it again next season. Just watch.

 

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