Down on the Farm League

The semi-accurate journal of a lukewarm baseball dad

HIT AND RUN<br>An Expo batter gets ready to lay some serious aluminum on the ball against the Cubs during a recent (and chilly) Saturday-morning game.

An Expo batter gets ready to lay some serious aluminum on the ball against the Cubs during a recent (and chilly) Saturday-morning game.

Photo By Tom Angel

It all began in January, when baseball is a far-flung prospect at best because football’s Super Bowl is occupying America’s fascination with sports. But two days before he turned 9 nine years old, my son Dugan began the rite of passage that so many youngsters in this country have navigated during the past 60 years.

Jan. 18, signup day for Little League in Chico, was our first real foray into organized sports. Sure, my boy had played soccer years before, but that didn’t really count—girls were allowed to participate, and because of the female tendency for faster physical maturation, they kicked the boys’ butts.

Besides, soccer, by its very nature, is not very organized—at least on the field—and not our cup of tea. Leave it to the hooligans overseas, we say.

But baseball, now we’re talking.

We started with bad information right off the bat that led us to the Roundtable Pizza in the Almond Orchard Shopping Center. Wrong region, we were told. Go to the Elks Lodge on the other side of town. And we did so on a cold and blustery January day.

We arrived at the Elks building and joined a lodge full of kids and parents who learned that it cost $80 each to play in the local Little League. There was an option—sell $40 worth of candy bars and get in for $60 or just slip the officials a $20 and forget having to market sugar to all your friends and relatives.

We signed the papers, gave our money and received the details. As a 9-year-old, you can try out for the minors or just go straight to the Farm League, where the coaches pitch instead of players from the other teams. We figured we’d give the minors a try but were perfectly willing to take our place with the farmers should we not make the grade.

We were told the first day of tryouts was more than a month away. That was a good thing, because the weather by then was sure to be more in tune with baseball.

In the meantime we bought new Rawlings baseball gloves—Dugan’s signed by Cal Ripkin Jr., mine by Derek Jeter. We purchased glove oil to soften up the new stiff leather. We practiced our hitting and fielding when the weather allowed. But it was still cold and just didn’t feel like baseball.

On the day of tryouts, also held at the Elks Lodge, the early morning sky was blue, but so were our fingertips, as the temperatures hovered in the 40s. The idea was to sufficiently impress the six or seven gentlemen holding clipboards and rating the performances.

When it seemed everyone—or at least enough people—had arrived, the players were summoned to left field. One at a time, they tried to shag three outfield pop flies. My son missed all three, falling down in a heap on the last one as he tried to back-peddle.

During the same game, the Expo third baseman runs down a Cubs runner trying to make it home..

Photo By Tom Angel

There was this one kid named Jordan who stood out immediately as a natural athlete. He caught two of three. And he, too, fell on the last one. But he fell with grace.

From the outfield players moved in and tried to scoop up three infield grounders. All three got past my son—one between his legs. But there was Jordan sucking them up like a modern-day Craig Nettles.

From there it was to the pitcher’s mound to throw three strikes or at least try to reach the plate. Not bad here. Dugan did reach the plate and even beyond. Jordan, however, launched something that danced like a split-fingered fastball.

Next came the glory part, the heart of baseball, the reason for lacing up the cleats—taking a sweet cut with a Louisville Slugger. The hopefuls were each offered four pitches from a batting machine. I’d like to say at this point that those machines need adjusting about every fifth or sixth batter, and by the time my boy got to bat, the ball was hitting about two feet in front of the plate. At least it was consistent. No contact.

Jordan, of course, smoked one into left-center that had the six or seven judges shaking their heads, smiling and scribbling notes on their clipboards with fevered enthusiasm. We walked away from the field that day, resigned to Farm League.

Within the next few weeks my son was assigned a team—the Expos. At first he kept referring to the team as “the Hobos.” I liked that better. I pictured caps with a guy in patched-up jeans, a three-day growth and carrying a bat over his shoulder with a red kerchief tied into a pouch hanging from its fat end.

In truth our caps have a scripted “M” on them, which stands for Montreal, home of the big-league Expos.

The first practice was on a cold March day under gray skies. About a dozen young men gathered at the Neal Dow baseball field along with three or four coaches. Positions in the field were rotated while one of the coaches pitched to a batter—eight pitches total, whether you swing or not. And there were no walks because in some cases, at least with smaller boys, the batter’s strike zone was about the size of a toaster.

It was a well-organized and orchestrated effort, with each boy getting to see how well he fit in at shortstop or third or in the outfield. That is, until I heard the second baseman say something about a rat. I thought maybe it was infield chatter, as in “Hey, batter, batter, you can’t hit, you’re a rat.”

Within a few seconds the whole squad, minus the batter and the catcher, had gathered at second base and were looking and poking at the ground right in front of the bag. The coach turned around and yelled, “Hey, what are you guys doing?”

“There’s a rat, coach,” one of the boys yelled.

Turns out it was actually a gopher in a gopher hole. It took a few minutes for the excitement to subside and for the coach to flush the players back to their respective positions.

WORDS OF WISDOM<br>Expos manager Mark Barnhart gives his team a quick pep talk as his players prepare to take their swings.

Photo By Tom Angel

A few weeks later, I was standing behind the backstop at the Neal Dow Elementary field watching the second game of the season. For the first time we had good weather. This was baseball weather. I was joined by a little red-headed girl named Mallory who asked me to lift her up onto the JOBOX, the metal container that holds the equipment like the foul-line marker and the lime that makes up the foul line.

Mallory, who looked like she might be 4, asked me if I thought God spends all his time “up there.” She pointed to the wispy clouds passing overhead.

That’s the thing about baseball. The action is paced to allow for such philosophical conversations between complete strangers.

“I don’t know,” I confessed. “Why?”

“I want him to come down here,” she said.

“What would you want him to do?”

“Sleep in my room.”

I told Mallory the batter was my son, Dugan. She told me the catcher was her brother, Hunter.

I watched as my boy swung and missed two pitches in a row, causing me to voice the greatest clichà in the history of the game: “Keep your eye on the ball!”

A few pitches went by. He didn’t swing. Then a pitch bounced over Hunter’s head. He tried to snag it but it got past him.

“Keep your eye on the ball, Hunter,” Mallory shouted.

Hunter hustled back toward us to retrieve the wayward pitch. It was hard to tell with his face hidden by the protective bars of the catcher’s mask, but I’m pretty sure Hunter flashed his sister a serious “why don’t you just shut up” look.

We staged a major comeback that game and beat Hunter’s team. Mallory didn’t much care.

As of this writing, we are 3–1, I think. Nobody really keeps score here. But, for the record, my boy has turned into a fine Farm League ballplayer. And I couldn’t be prouder.