In Search of the Love of the Game
[A version of this story originally appeared in Men’s Health magazine.]
BRIAN BURRES, lefty pitcher, age 35. Charismatic rascal, pied piper figure, unequaled source of good humor. AKA Burres the Blade. Or just: Blade.
Burres is notable for his long hair (“I think it gives me a little sass”), the way he sweats from his left armpit before every game, and for how hard it can be to tell if he’s joking, viz., his claim that his walk-out song is “Waterfall,” by TLC.
“No he’s dead serious,” a team mate puts in. “That’s actually a serious quote. That’s like the first one of the day.”
“It was between that and Loretta Lynn, ‘Fist City,’” says Burres. “Have you not heard ‘Fist City’?”
“FIST CITY” LYRICS (partial)
If you don’t wanna go to Fist City
you’d better detour round my town
Cause I’ll grab you by the hair of the head
and I’ll lift you off of the ground.
I’m not sayin’ my baby’s a saint cause he ain’t
And that he won’t cat around with a kitty.
I’m here to tell you gal to lay off of my man
if you don’t wanna go to Fist City.
We are in the clubhouse, the heart and soul of any baseball team. Beat-up sofas and Barcaloungers, a fuzzy flat-screen TV, Black and Decker coffee maker on the mini fridge. Inside it, two giant cookies and a single remaining Doggie Style Pale Ale.
The players load gear into duffel bags in preparation for the first games of the season, in York and Lancaster, PA. Currently, Burres is reviewing one of the clubhouse rules: No pooping on the bus.
This rule will make instantaneous sense to anyone who has traveled on a bus on which pooping has occurred. Because the poop in effect joins the team and becomes like the 26th player. Malodorous. Unwelcome.
1. Don’t ever quit while you can still play.
2. Tip well when you can, and take care of your rookies.
3. That said, rookies double up on the bus. Even if seats are available.
4. If you’re gonna drink a beer, bring a beer.
5. No cock in the spread. Translation: Please do not approach pre- and/or post-game spread of sandwich meats with your danglies unholstered. Or, per JO, the team manager: Don’t be a spreadkiller.
6. You can’t say “That’s what she said” to your own comment. Rely on your teammates.
7. Spit all you want in the dugout, but for the love of all that’s holy put the gum in the trash, lest the whole team get cobwebbed on a hot day.
8. You only need two pairs of jeans. One gets mustard on them, wash those and wear the other. Even if you have three, you’re not gonna wear the third pair because you like the first two better.
9. Don’t walk back to the clubhouse alone, because then everyone thinks you have no friends.
10. No pooping on the bus.
We are here in this clubhouse for a very good reason. Because, some time ago, before the baseball season even began, before the first early hopes of inveterate fans began to flicker or the beat writers began forecasting champions, a reporter was dispatched with a very different mission: to somehow recapture, in its purest form, the love of the game.
The reason for this assignment was, to the reporter, not immediately clear. There is, after all, no real story in how the game of baseball is loved. No questing hero. No dramatic rise and fall. The love of the game is what it is.
And who loves baseball anymore, anyway? Once the national pastime, it’s now regarded as a slow, sleepy sport, increasingly out of step with our frenetic times. The ascendent sports these days are competitive gaming, drone piloting, and some ninja deal in which spandex-clad contestants leap around among giant styrofoam blocks.
The reporter could only assume that his editors were picking up on something, one of those invisible currents in the culture that magazine editors are so good at detecting. Something about the love of the game and how we have lost it. And that this loss may in turn be emblematic of a greater loss. A loss that could be corrected, somehow, if only that original love could be recaptured and held up for all to see.
So the reporter went forth in search of the love of the game, a search that led him to an unlikely destination. Not the major leagues. Not even AAA. But a little known independent league operating in the empty spaces between Long Island, NY, and Sugarland, TX, and within it a team called the South Maryland Blue Crabs, AKA the Crustacean Nation.
The level of play is high in the Crustacean Nation. At last count, half the roster had played in the big leagues at some point in their career. Today, however, they are more than a few phone calls away from the Show. Most live in the basements of host families — retirees and empty nesters with a fondness for baseball and bedrooms to spare. Some players have been known to go five to a basement. Like migrant workers separated from their loved ones, they earn somewhere between $800 and $3,000 a month, in some cases as little as 2% of their career highs.
Yet, no one is forcing them to keep playing. So why else would they do it if not for a love of the game?
The question gives pause. Maybe even induces a fleeting vertigo. Because either they are all crazy, and have their priorities backward. Or else the rest of us do. Like maybe the stuff we thought was important (money) is actually less important than we realized. And maybe the stuff we dismiss as trivial (clubhouse rule #10) is actually more important than we thought.
“I’LL POOP on the fuckin bus.”
It’s not the kind of comment a rookie could get away with. But in this case the commenter is Scott Maine, lefty pitcher, age 31. Maine has played with the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. He may also be a bit unhinged. About ten years ago, he crashed his ’03 Dodge Dakota doing 165mph on the freeway. Everything on the Dakota had been rebuilt and upgraded. Except the brakes. Today, Maine has three plates in his head, and seven screws. So one might reasonably wonder if one of them is loose.
But Burres is not to be intimidated.
“No poopin on the bus.”
“If I gotta poop it’s coming out,” Maine counters.
“I would live in the woods if I could. By myself. No tent no nothin just out in the woods. Eat the forest creatures. I’ve eaten a cockroach before. At a bar. I’ve eaten someone’s pet goldfish. He’s like, Hey I’m leavin’, I need these things gone. This was at a party and I ate ’em. Like 12 of ’em. I ate a earthworm right outta the ground. They’re not bad. They’re a little slimy at first but once you get inside’em they’re not too bad. All the girls ran screaming. It’s a good way not to get laid.”
Here another player steps in. This would be Cody Eppley, righty pitcher, age 30. Eppley has played with the Yankees, and is more of a regulation player than Burres, who has a kind of buccaneer swagger. But he’s also host to some classic baseball tics. A highly ritualized sequence of mandatory behaviors governs his performance on the mound, for instance. And he showers at least five times a day.
“Not on the bus,” Eppley says.
“Hey,” Maine says, trying another tack. “I have stomach problems.”
Burres: “Quit makin’ all this stuff up.”
Jon Leicester, righty pitcher, age 37, lets the talk flow over him. Ginger haired, voice low like a boat engine, squint lines at the sides of his eyes, Leicester has a gentlemanly languor about him. In him is contained all the sleepy ease of baseball. But there’s a slyness, too, there in the eyes. Les throws a downright filthy slider. He has no nickname, per se.
“‘Les’ is about as crazy as it gets.”
To the left of Les is Snyder, righty infielder, age 25. Snyder puts you in the mind of a bouncy kid brother who somehow hasn’t yet realized that he’s 6’4”, 240lbs, and bald. Somewhat unnerving on first encounter, the giant Virginian has a straight-up sentimental interior, and quickly grows on you. Usually to be found at first base, he inscribes his grandfather’s initials in the dirt behind him before every game.
“I can’t explain how happy I am to be here. Of course you wanna be in affiliate ball, everyone does. But to have the chance to come here and love the game again, like I do right now? It’s been a complete 180. I can’t wait to get up to go to the field. And be around guys with experience like Burres and Nellie and Freddie. Where you gonna get that experience other than in like triple A? And most of the guys in triple A are just kinda bitter they’re there.”
To the right of Les is Carlos Gonzales, righty shortstop, age 23. Carlos doesn’t speak a lick of English except the one word, Remember, which he repeats as he shows you pics of all the baseball greats he keeps on his phone. Gonzales will be gone in a day or two, traded to the Frontier League, along with the rookie with the 100mph fastball that he can’t control.
Les tries to help Snyder and Gonzales where he can. There are things he knows that most 25 year olds don’t. He’s got what they call salt.
“There’s vet and then there’s salt,” Burres explains. “We’re in the salt stage.”
“We’re salty,” agrees Les. “Way too old to be here.”
Les has played for Mexico, Taiwan, the Dominican Republic, Japan, and Venezuela. His walkout song is “I’ve Been Everywhere,” by Johnny Cash. He’s played the bigs, too. Where most players are still aiming. Not Les.
“Keep your expectations low,” Les will say.
“That’s the salt talkin’,” the players will say. “That is a salty comment right there.”
SALT LIST (Things you can learn from a salty player)
1. Yeti makes a damn fine coffee mug.
2. Memory foam mattresses are the play. When you get a contract, get a memory foam mattress. You will wake up in the same position you fell asleep in. No pressure points. Soaks up the drool pretty good, too.
3. Instead of hitting the bars, stay home and play video games. It will prolong your career.
4. Only buy flags made in the USA. Duh.
5. Don’t blow your per diem playing cards with Burres. Especially Booray, a trick-based game with a $1 ante. He will own you.
6. Do not under any circumstances eat scrapple. Not even to be polite, because then someone will ask if you want more.
7. It’s “hold.” Not “hole.” A player is on deck or he is in the hold. The derivation is nautical.
8. Worst place to pitch: Colorado. The air there is so thin they’ve got special humidors to soften up the balls so they won’t travel as far.
9. If you do pitch in Colorado, wet a little corner of your jersey before you head out. The high altitude sucks the moisture right out of you, and you might not be able to lick your fingers.
10. If you’re a lefty, and you really do need to go 165 on the freeway, don’t wear a seatbelt. It will fuck up your shoulder something fierce when you crash.
Les can advise on most things baseball, like how to get by on an $18 per diem (a roast chicken from the local supermarket will cover two squares), how to negotiate a salary (ask for double what you think your worth), and of course how to pitch.
Les’s pitching philosophy takes shape around a single edict: Stick to your strengths. It sounds simple enough, but as a pitcher there’s always the temptation to over-adapt to the hitter, and get lured away from what you do best. Even if you give up a homer that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a bad pitcher or that you threw a bad pitch. Good pitches don’t always find the glove. Bad pitches don’t always end up in the bleachers.
“That’s life too,” Les says, liberal with the salt today. “You could make all the right choices and something bad happens. It doesn’t mean your choices were bad. It was just a bad outcome.”
Baseball breeds salts. Because you never stop learning in baseball. There’s a mystique to the game that keeps you groping after it, trying to figure it out. The diamond itself is like great, inscrutable sigil stamped on the green.
ON BOARD the bus Burres is hawking banana bread, as he has been all morning. The banana bread — four loaves of it, wrapped in foil — comes courtesy of his host mom, Desiree, a compulsive baker.
“Shut up with the banana bread,” says Maine. “It’s not banana bread it’s sugar bread.”
“You want some?” Burres says.
“Do we have a knife or are we just breakin it,” says Snyder.
“There’s a knife right here.”
Snyder: “Are we just breaking bread right now??”
Burres: “It’s already as you can see been broken. That’s how we do it.”
Scott Snodgress, lefty pitcher, age 26, skyscraper tall and just as solemn, left behind a Stanford econ degree to play. Snod is kind of the opposite of Snyder, stiff and reserved where Snyder bulges with energy. Now however Snod goes against character and breaks off a sizable hunk of banana bread.
“Oh wow,” Burres remarks, admiringly. “Yeah.”
“Get you some, Snod!” Snyder says, deeply impressed.
“I didn’t know which half he was keeping,” Les observes.
“It’s something that kids enjoy doing. And a lot of us still have that childlike mentality of loving the game. So why would I stop doing that if I don’t have to? I can always go get a job and earn a paycheck. So as long as I still believe that I can pitch in the majors and contribute and fulfill that dream I’m gonna keep playing because that’s always been what I’ve been driven to do my whole life.”
“This stuff is good,” says Snyder, chomping.
“Yeah, she made it last night after dinner.”
“After dinner?” Maine says. “She’s an overachiever, jeez.”
“She…” Burres searches for the right words. “Enjoys baking.”
“Who made this?”
“My host mom.”
“The one who looks exactly like him.”
“We have the same hair,” Burres says.
“Oh, yeah,” says Snyder. “I didn’t realize that. She does have your hair.”
“Yeah,” says Burres, firm on this point. “Her hair is legit.”
BASEBALLER’S ROAD GEAR (in order of price)
1. Playing Cards, $3
2. Silver Sharpie, $7.79 (for signing black bats)
3. Combination Knife — Bottle Opener, $10 (“The knife is for if someone tries to take your beer.” — Burres)
4. Olaf Stuffy, from the movie “Frozen,” $12.79 (the ideal bus pillow)
5. Collapsible Laundry Hamper, $16 (makes all the diff)
6. 20 oz Yeti Coffee Mug, $20 (keeps coffee hot up to 4 hours)
7. Coleman 48 Quart Chest Cooler, $20 (good for beers, icing your elbow, or playing Booray on the bus)
8. Hair Clippers, $26 (great way to make friends)
9. Hot Dog Roller, $40 (that hot, meaty odor perfectly compliments the Ben Gay reek of any clubhouse)
10. Four-piece Tupperware Set, $40 (keep your chicken fresh)
11. Birch Bat, $70 (combines the hardness of maple with the suppleness of ash)
12. Gaming Suitcase, $343 (never be bored at an airport again)
Several hours later the bus pulls up at the York clubhouse and the players pile out. The clubhouse looks much the same as the Crab clubhouse, with open lockers, a few pieces of jumbo furniture, and Catwoman playing on a fuzzy TV.
Currently, Bryant Nelson, AKA Nellie, righty infielder, age 42, is trying to convince Joe Walsh, the 58-year-old volunteer first base coach, to subscribe to what he claims is an all-natural hGH pill regimen.
Joe and Nellie make an interesting pair. Nellie has been knocked around more than most, but his love of the game is such that his greatest ambition remains finding a way to bring it back into the inner city.
A retired FBI guy, Joe has spent a good part of the last 31 years in the inner city, fighting drugs and gangs. Craggy, with a hard Boston accent and a gait that rolls around his titanium hip, he’s 100% cop and 100% ball player. It’s funny how the two overlap. After a while, many of the really ancient ball players, like Nellie, begin to stand like cops. On any given street corner you might not be able to tell the difference.
“You’re going to turn me into a junkie,” Joe says.
Snyder, through a mouth full of banana bread: “No, it’s good for you, I heard it’s really good for you.”
“Dr. Oz did a special on it,” Nellie assures him. “Seriously.”
Les: “He’s a doctor?”
Nellie: “He’s on TV.”
“Nellie’s not capable of telling a lie,” Joe allows, giving Nellie’s shoulder a squeeze. “He’s as honest as the day is long, so. I’ll get you when I come back.”
It seems that everyone here has some kind of crazy money-making idea or backup plan. Burres hustles rookies at Booray. Shaun Garceau, righty pitcher, age 28, recently attended a seminar on how to flip houses. He’s also considering becoming a male stripper.
“At Thunder Down Under!” says Trish, the trainer, with maybe a bit too much enthusiasm. “It’s all Australians.”
TOP 5 MILLION DOLLAR IDEAS (Straight from the dugout)
1. Custom V-neck tee with built-in chest hair
2. Automated drive-up coffee kiosk
3. Ball picker upper ALREADY DONE
4. Combination lint roller-muscle massager
5. Tapeworm diet pills
Les does not consider stripping an option. “Sometimes you just know what you’re not good at,” he says, saltily.
Les is a car guy. A wrench and radio guy, out there on the driveway. “A car is an infinitely buildable object,” he’ll say. Among his pride and joys was a rebuilt ’63 Chevy Nova Supersport, which he recently had to sell for the meager liquidity. He’s reaching a point where he may also have to sell his ’98 Ford f150, with the bumped-up suspension and roll cage. It’s not street legal, but it’s fun as hell tooling through the ravines and riverbeds around the Salton Sea, two hours east of his home in southern Cali.
Given the sheer yardage of his resume (Les has played with over 20 teams), coaching is always an option, but coaching is a mixed bag. You get to stay near the game you love, but the money’s not great, and you still have to travel. And sometimes being near the thing you love is more painful than being miles away. The last time Les checked in with an old coach to see if he knew of any coaching jobs he was nearly shouted off the phone: Don’t stop playing until they tear the jersey off your back.
“You hear that enough you go, okay, maybe there’s something to that.”
Besides, there’s always the possibility that Mexico might call, like they did last year. In Mexico you can earn triple what you get with the Crabs, maybe even quadruple.
Funnily, the most money Les ever made wasn’t in the majors. It was Japan. But the Japan decision is also his greatest regret. He was a mere six hours into free agency when the Orix Buffaloes called and offered half a million. Les was a bit short in the sodium chloride department at the time, so he went for the easy money instead of risking the open market. Next thing he knew he was on the other side of the world, farther away from the big leagues than he’d been since A ball.
Almost as bad, he didn’t know any of the players. And in baseball knowing the players is everything. Not just because, as a pitcher, it helps to know how everyone hits. But because the game itself is a brotherhood, a network of guys who — regardless of the team they play on — all rely on each other to help make sense of the game. And what’s the point of a brotherhood to which you can’t ever really belong? After wins, the Buffaloes wouldn’t even let Les join them in the traditional Japanese victory lap.
“As soon as I got there I was like, I really wish I’d known my other options.”
Not that Les doesn’t think he still has the chops for the big leagues. He does. But that’s no longer really the question. The question is whether anyone would give him a chance.
JON LEICESTER’S TOP 6 BACKUP PLANS
1. Car mechanic specializing in custom rebuilds
2. Coach with the Elsinore Storms (right down the street from his home in southern CA)
3. Host of a car rehab TV show
4. Medical equipment salesman
5. FBI agent
7. Rallycross driver
“Why would I bring in this guy who has to be on, all day every day,” Les says, channeling scout-think. “And even if he does he’s going to give us, what, a year? Two years? When I could bring in this other guy who’s 26, and if he can just figure it out he could be a hall of famer.”
As the average age of major league players drops every year, older players are increasingly pushed into indy ball. This is what the Crustacean Nation is all about: salty players that the system excludes. Guys that have the talent but aren’t interested in serving as groomers for cocky upstarts who took a $7 million signing bonus right out of high school. Guys who have been jerked around enough that they know they’ll probably never get called up, but despite it all still love to play the game.
AN HOUR before game time — the first game of the year. Just being on the field quickens the heart with an inchoate expectancy. Mist from the pressure washer and lyrics from The Who drift through the early Pennsylvania afternoon. From home plate comes the steady bark of practice balls as the York Revolution takes BP. The stands hold the field in a semi-embrace, blocking out the world. No phones on the field or in the dugout, nor any of the people or things they connect to. What you get is all that’s here. That and a church spire, and the tops of five budding trees. This is what it’s all about. The hollow knock of a solid hit. The ermine scamper of the ball. The yellow sun like a child’s scribble in the sky.
In the dugout a jumbo tub of Dubble Bubble and a bucket of sunflower seeds waits on the bench. The players dribble in and line up along the bar for a long drink of baseball.
HOW TO EAT SUNFLOWER SEEDS
1. Pour a palmful of sunflower seeds into your hand.
2. Pop the seeds into your mouth, and hold them all in one cheek.
3. Move one of the seeds into the chewing chamber and use your incisors to pop the shell.
4. Spit out the shell halves, retaining the seed.
5. Eat the seed.
Note: If the seeds go soggy try starting with fewer seeds.
“Keith where’s your hair?” says Eppley, calling over to the opposite dugout.
“Wait that’s Keith?” says Les. “That’s not Keith.”
“That’s definitely Keith.”
“That’s not Keith. There’s no hair.”
“That’s not Keith.”
“That is Keith.”
“There’s no way that’s Keith.”
The exchange is mostly between Les, Burres, and Eppley. The question is whether a player in the opposite dugout is or is not Keith Castillo, AKA the Nightstalker. The Nightstalker played with the Crabs last year, and was known for his unwholesome mullet and Captain Morgan’s mustache. The “Nightstalker” nickname derived from the cologne he wore. Which wasn’t called Nightstalker but something kind of like that.
The current confusion stems from the fact that a player for the Revolution throws like the Nightstalker, but doesn’t have the mullet. What’s more, he also has a full beard. It’s almost as if the Nightstalker’s mullet had somehow scuttled around and settled on his chin.
Eventually, the game gets underway. Garceau pitching. Not terribly well, it must be said. (“Fuck my life,” he is later heard to mutter.) The players stand at the bar and season the dirt with tobacco juice and sunflower seed shells. They quote baseball movies.
TOP 5 BASEBALL MOVIE QUOTES
1. “Why does he keep calling me meat?” (Bull Durham)
2. “You’re killing me, Smalls!” (The Sandlot)
3. “I shoulda been a farmer. Since the day I was born I shoulda been a farmer.” (The Natural)
4. “Has anyone ever told you that you look like a penis with that little hat on?” (League of Their Own)
5. “Forget about the curveball, Ricky. Give’im the heater!” (Major League)
The Keith question resurfaces, ensnaring several additional players, including Joe.
“It’s the Nightstalker,” Les is saying, newly convinced.
“Are you sure that’s him?” says Joe. “No that’s not him.”
“He’s right there with the shin guards on.”
“Maybe if we wave he’ll wave back.”
“That’s not him.”
“That’s not him with the ski cap on?”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes it is.”
“I don’t think it is.”
“Yes it is. That’s him.”
“Joe would I lie to you?”
The discussion is cut short by a soaring York homer.
“Aieeee,” says Les.
Eventually the talk resumes, like spring peepers after the bark of a dog.
“Hey I wanted to ask you,” says Navary Moore, righty pitcher, age 25, “did you and your host mom style your hair the same?”
BEST BASEBALL MOVIES (PER JON LEICESTER)
1. The Natural (Unlike the others, there is no disputing this. Sorry Burres.)
2. League of Their Own
3. Mr. Baseball
4. Bill Durham
5. Major League
WORST BASEBALL MOVIES
1. Major League 3
2. Mr. 3000
3. Summer Catch
4. Love of the Game
5. Bad News Bears (the remake)
The third out is won. The players rattle in from the field. Snyder steps up to the plate and sends the ball loping over a small white cloud. When it goes some little piece of you goes with it. There’s an intake of breath, a lightness in the chest, and the hope that it might fly just a little bit further than most people think possible.
The game is always opening outward. You never know what’s going to happen. Unlike, say, basketball, where the ball always ends up in the exact same place. Les recalls with something like horror the last basketball game he went to, ten years ago in Arizona.
“I thought I was going to have an epileptic seizure,” he says. “They’re playing music the whole time, they have the scoreboard going all around the whole court the whole time. The backboards are clear, you can see right through. So how do you even pick out that little orange ring?”
Basketball and baseball. They’re about as different as two sports can get. Baseball is a game of precision and balance. Stepping onto the field is like stepping onto a vast scale. Altering a single detail can have far reaching consequences. Like the stitching on the ball, which for some reason changed from red to alternating red and blue sometime last year. Since then hitters have had a harder time identifying fastballs, usually denoted by a red blur.
The York Revolution wins this game, 9–0. “We had’em till we didn’t,” Les says.
Back on the bus, the air is hot, and Nellie is handing out Yuenglings. Les tucks a cold Bud behind his neck.
“Is there any way we can get some air please?” Burres calls out. “There’s not a breath of air coming out of this side.”
BEST BASEBALL BEERS
1. Allagash White
2. Yuengling Summer Wheat
3. Port City Optimal Wit
4. Blue Moon Belgian White
5. Guinness Blonde
6. Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy
7. Mirror Pond Pale Ale
“You don’t feel nothin’?” says JO, from the front.
“Yeah, that side I hear working, this side’s not. Is it working on that side?”
“No,” says Garceau.
“So, it’s not. It’s snot.”
Four or five players, grown men all, take turns saying the word.
The bus rolls on, Lancaster bound. Hopping from one little island of green to the next. York comes to an end at the train tracks, where a chain of empty tanker cars are succumbing to the weeds. The shadows grow long and blue.
YOU CAN TELL how old a guy was when he broke into the big leagues. Because he is basically arrested at that age. Thus the highest accolade you can receive in the bigs is a pie in the face from your teammates.
This is Les’s favorite memory. He was in Anaheim with the Orioles. The game had gone long. Greg Maddox was in the bullpen so Les was pretty sure he wasn’t going to play. But then the call came and he pitched the 13th, 14th, and 15th innings and got the win. His teammates pied him in the clubhouse. Just some shaving cream on a paper plate.
“I was like, sweet!”
It was only a few days after his first outing. Which hadn’t gone quite so well. The first player Les faced was Scott Rolen of the Cardinals. Who was hitting like .450 at the time. To his own astonishment, Les strikes him out. He’s feeling pretty good about himself when Jim Edmonds comes to the plate. The first pitch he throws up and in. The second Edmonds sends on a voyage to parts unknown.
But the most painful part of this memory is that ESPN caught a really nice close-up of Les doing the whip. The whip being that comic head twist you do to follow an outbound ball. Like, wha? And then the anchors at ESPN thought it’d be funny if they just kept replaying it.
Lesson learned. Salt acquired. When the ball is hit that hard, you don’t look. Usually you can tell if it’s gone by the sound. At 60’6”, a home run makes an unmistakable sound.
“I didn’t know the sound, my first inning,” says Les. “And then I found out.”
“Sometimes though it’s not bad to see how far it goes,” Burres observes. “Or you just watch the replay: Like, Oh. I hit the catwalk.”
Burres’s first inning in the big leagues may have been even more memorable. He had just been called up, arrived at the hotel, and a couple other players invited him out for beers.
“I was like, No. Not going. It’s my first day, not gonna do it.”
Cut to: Burres, at the bar. The Yankees are in town — the ’06 Yankees, all superstars — and Burres is mingling and pounding beers like a teenager.
“I got way too into it. Like, Yeah! I’m here! I wanted to be here my whole life! So why not ruin it!”
Gets up the next morning. Still shitfaced. Gets to the field. Starts slamming coffee. Throws a bullpen and somehow doesn’t miss a spot. “Control guy, huh?” the pitching coach says.
So he’s feeling a little better despite feeling awful. And he keeps slamming coffee. Then it’s the ninth and it’s: Get Burres.
“And my heart is going as fast as it’s ever gone in my life.”
The first hitter is Sal Fasano. Backup catcher, always been around, slower bat. Burres throws him a cutter, hangs it a bit, and Fasano, just missing, pops up to left. One down. Feeling good.
Then Burres feels this trickle coming from his nose. Blood. Both nostrils, folks. Like he’s so amped to finally be playing in the big leagues, and his blood pressure is so jacked from all the coffee, and his nasal membranes so desiccated from the hotel air that his blood just starts squirting all over his jersey, which is, mercifully, black. He’s pretty sure the batter can’t see it but the TV cameras sure as hell do and zoom in for a good look.
What happens next is a bit of a blur. Burres gives up an infield hit to a fast rookie who beats it out to first. The next guy is a veteran first baseman. And with three million people gawping at his bloody debut it’s all Burres can do to deliver one fastball after another right down the middle. Until of course boom. Two-run homer.
“After that first outing I honestly thought I was never gonna play the big leagues again.”
SHOUTOUT LIST (Big league players who treated their rookies well)
1. Jamie Walker: Bought custom Elevee suits for all the rookies on the team.
2. Carlos Silva: Bought iPads for all the rookies on the team.
3. Aubrey Huff: Took the rookies out for dinner at Tao.
4. Brian Wilson: Bought Rolexes for everyone in the bullpen.
5. Glendon Rusch: Took Les to Joe’s Stone Crab the day after Les got sent down, and then out for a night on the town.
Every player comes from somewhere. And usually they’re not too happy at the thought of going back. As Nellie puts it, “You wanna go back to being an intern again? You want to go from making $30,000 to $2,000? Excuse my language: Fuck no.”
Burres still remembers getting busted for taking too many meatballs at a post-game spread when playing for the Norwich Navigators. And we are not talking about particularly large meatballs, here. Like maybe 1/2” diameter, tops. But the manager had done the math and allotted each player three.
Les remembers the skin infields from his low-A days — all dirt, so you couldn’t even tell where the mound was. Put your head down and you’d lose it.
Snyder remembers a clubhouse in Bakersfield, CA, that consisted of two doublewides. The water in the shower went up to your ankles, some dude’s sandal floating around in it. No door on the shitter, and a banana in the urinal. Just random stuff.
From there, the big leagues are a whole different world. In the big leagues, you throw off your jersey and it never touches the floor. In the big leagues, you get the Robb Report in the clubhouse, instead of some lame-brained fitness magazine.
Les’s lowest point was probably Clinton, Iowa. He was with the Lansing Lugnuts — “The Nuts” — and earning maybe $1,000 a month. They were playing the Clinton LumberKings. It was the middle of summer, hot as a motherfucker, and so humid you could barely breath. They didn’t have Underarmor in those days so your shorts were just like a dishtowel. Naturally, the clubhouse didn’t have AC, so guys were putting chairs under the showers and just sitting there.
Worst of all was the smell. Because there was a Purina dog food factory nearby. Anyone who has ever played there remembers. Like Garceau.
“It smelled like straight ass,” he says.
And the smell would just hang there in the back of your throat. It was like you had just walked into a fat man’s belch, one of those big meaty ones that smells like the inside of a hot dog. And you can’t wave it away. It’s like you have literally taken up residence inside the belch.
It was here, in Clinton, Iowa, on a ball field surrounded by chain link fence, that Les began his professional career as a pitcher. He got one out and gave up eight runs.
“It’s seared in my mind,” Les says. “Smell does that.”
IN THE LANCASTER clubhouse, Joe has managed to rope someone else into his ongoing negotiations with Nellie. This would be Bobby Mills, righty catcher, age 25, who, on the basis of his two years of medical school, is expected to rule on whether the hGH pills could have undesirable side effects.
“What do you think, Bobby,” Joe says. “You get a third eye or what?”
“No,” Mills says, scanning the bottle, “It’s just a bunch of vitamins.”
“Your third leg gonna be all right,” Nellie offers.
“All right,” says Joe. “I’ll take one for the team.”
On the way to the field someone asks the clubby for sunscreen.
“We don’t even provide that for our own players,” the clubby says. “Something to think about, though,” he adds.
The players collect in the dugout. No seeds today, no gum. Someone has spotted a scout in the stands.
“He’s got the paper. That’s him. He’s got history written all over him.”
“What’s he reading, Calvin & Hobbes?”
The seats fill in as game time approaches. The Lancaster Barnstormers are running some kind of promotion so the turnout is good.
“So what you’re telling me is there’s fans here today, not a power washer and a leaf blower?”
The sky is cloudless. The flag takes up the wind and gives it a rattle.
“Holy shit let’s go.”
“I need a dip.”
The players line up along the third baseline. An old portly guy with his belt over his belly gets out there and sings a flat anthem to the buzzing accompaniment of a distant Cessna. But he goes after the high notes like a champ.
A day later, after losses in York and Lancaster, the banana bread is gone and the Crustacean Nation returns to its shell. Despite the losses the players are sanguine. At this point in the season they’re just getting a feel for the game. Besides, they play York again this afternoon, and with Les on the mound the outcome could be different.
Meanwhile, in the clubhouse, Burres is claiming that he’s going to cut his hair.
“I’ll be back to 33 in no time,” he says.
As usual, no one is sure whether to believe him, but the question is swept aside by an even greater controversy, currently being championed by Snyder and Lewis.
“If you’re from the real south you say PEE-can,” says Snyder. “If you’re from some bush-ass fuckin bullshit place in the south, pKHON.”
“People in Mississippi,” says Lewis, “they say pKHON.”
“I called my buddy,” Snyder counters, “who is from Milan, Georgia, which is where pecans come from, and he said PEE-can.”
“I gotta say, more come from Mississippi,” Burres puts in.
“I have a tree in my damn yard,” says Lewis, “and then my mom and dad has two in their yard.”
“Yeah but dude here’s the thing,” says Snyder. “I went to Ole Miss, which is in Mississippi. And everyone else there that I know said PEE-can.”
“Because everyone that you know there is from Georgia,” says Burres, “and they pronounce it wrong.”
Lewis: “Thank you.”
“No they’re from Taylor, Mississippi,” says Snyder. “And Oxford, Mississippi.”
“Well I’ll let you know, I visited Mississippi quite a bit,” says Burres.
“And Batesville, Mississippi.”
“And I said PEE-can one time and I’ll never do that again. I got ridiculed. I got laughed out of the house pretty much. It’s pKHON. It’s not PEE-can.”
The locker next to Lewis is empty now. And there’s a new guy in the clubhouse, Kuan-Jen Chen, AKA Mattie, a 34-year-old Taiwanese lefty outfielder who just got in last night. Even in Taiwan, it seems, 34 is too old. Les and Burres know Mattie already, from when they played over there.
Now Les is slouched in the overstuffed sofa in front of the TV. The story of his father’s suicide emerges casually, from a discussion about tattoos. Some players, like Zach Wilson, righty infielder, age 25, are well inked. Les considered getting a tattoo of his father’s name after he died, but ultimately decided against it, given that, after all, his father had always hated tattoos.
Les was 23 at the time. Flew home. Funeral. Then right back to spring training. Thankfully still made the team. He had seen his father just a few days before at a high school alumni game. He had always loved to watch Les play. Always told him he didn’t need to get a job in high school so long as he was playing and getting good grades.
“That’s the sacrifice he made,” Les says.
Les’s father was a carpenter, got started building log cabins up around Mariposa, CA. Later the family moved to LA so Les could attend a good school. But the demand for log cabins wasn’t exactly peaking in LA, so his father found work building sets — a good gig, because you got paid on both ends: putting them up, and then tearing them down. But there was always something empty about it. Nothing he built lasted.
Les’s father wasn’t a particularly good businessman, either. He took care of his guys and paid them well. He wasn’t in it for the money. So the divorce, when it came, didn’t leave him in the best shape, financially.
“His life didn’t turn out the way he wanted,” Les says.
For a long time Les thought it was his fault, of course. But in time he came to see otherwise. His father could have done a much better job keeping the family together, for one thing. He could have been a little more flexible, a little less stubborn.
Not that Les, too, hasn’t lost relationships along the way. Baseball and romance don’t exactly go well together. Most women can handle dating a player for a year or so. But eventually the question comes: When are you gonna be done with this?
Burres: “Ummmm… never?”
Les met his wife on a blind date at a car show. For their honeymoon they flew to the Grand Canyon, then rented a car and drove from one spring training camp to the next, so Les could show off his wares.
“That’s what makes her special,” Les says, “is that she did that for our honeymoon.”
Encoded herein, high-grade, artisanal salt: Go ahead and do what you love. Like it says on Zach’s forearm, in blue latinate script: seize the day. But don’t let that keep you from seizing the future, too.
IT’S KITE weather on the home field in Crab Country. In their immaculate white uniforms the Crabs spread out on the grass, lazily zapping balls back and forth. Behind them the flag, that great, complicated icon, preens in the freshening breeze.
“Thirty-one years,” Joe is saying, “no caffeine, no nothing, just working my ass off in the gym, and now you wanna destroy this temple?”
“It’s all good,” says Nellie. “I wanna build the temple.”
“The problem is,” says Joe, in an aside, “he’s not capable of telling a lie. It must be good shit.”
Of course Joe also thinks that Nellie doesn’t swear. Which, as has been seen, is patently not true.
“That’s game stuff,” Nellie objects. “I would never talk like that around humans.”
The fans file in. In the stands today is an eight year-old boy who just came from the dentist. Instead of taking him back to school his mom let him come to the ball game. The kid is glowing. Joe plays catch with him for a while before shooing him back to his seat near third base. (As Les says, if you don’t have to move your head, you’re too far from the game.)
As BP winds down the players gather in the cool dugout, and the announcer reads the lineup. Flexing his black Rawlings, Les prepares for his first outing of the year. The glove is basically a size 13.5. It seems to keep growing the older he gets.
“Starting pitcher Jon Leicester, the salty veteran, up now,” Burres says, subbing for the absent announcer.
Les takes the mound and the first batter steps between the white lines. Les gathers over the rubber and needles a fastball down the middle. The catcher snaps it up like a frog. Strike one. Next comes a cutter, fouled backward. Another foul, and then a hit to short stop, the throw to first, out.
“I think he looks really good,” Burres says. “And he’s pitching well, too.”
The second hitter pops up to second.
“He’s going for contact,” says Daryl Thompson, AKA “D,” righty pitcher, age 30.
“That’s his game, most of the time,” says Garceau.
“He’s got so much craftiness in him,” says Burres. “It’s not about the stat line. It’s more about getting the job done.”
Les falls behind and then gives the hitter a cock-shot, right down the middle.
Fourth batter. A big at-bat. Probably their biggest hitter. This guy scored a couple runs the last time they faced him. Now he pops up to center.
The players clack in. The usual talk lifts and scatters, filling up the wide, empty spaces of the game. A styrofoam cup blows out of the dugout and does a little dance between 2nd and 3rd. Trish the trainer farts in front of D, who politely requests an apology. Martinez observes that D was not objecting to being farted on, per se, but rather the lack of apology. Trish denies all wrongdoing.
Now Snyder steps to the plate with a man on first and second and that moment comes, straight from the chest, when you ask yourself: Does wanting help? And you can’t help but answer: Yeah. It’s gotta.
Pops out. Ah well. Maybe try not wanting so much next time.
Meanwhile Burres is trying out his limited Chinese on Mattie, the new Taiwanese player. His vocabulary consists of three phrases: Help me, I am handsome, and Jack off. Different results can be obtained depending on how these phrases are ordered.
Trish farts again.
“C’mon,” says Mattie, a quick study of local custom. “No more next time.”
“I didn’t think anyone heard it,” Trish says.
The shadows of the players lean onto the grass. The moon appears and a distant plane draws a white eyebrow over it. The players take it easy. They ride the game the way a bird rides air currents, as if it could go on forever.
But they all know that it can’t. It was only a few days ago that they learned from the owner that the ball park might be sold to the Nats. The owner was super-excited about this possibility, but didn’t seem to realize it would mean unemployment for the guys he was talking to.
The life of a ball player is an uncertain one, full of risk and rejection. You get pretty good at rejection, as a ball player, Les says. Being rejected, that is. Not giving it. Don’t get him wrong. It hurts. It always hurts. Like the game today, lost 3–2. But that’s the thing about professional baseball.
“We lost that game and it’s like, all right. See you tomorrow. What time is practice. People don’t take it too hard. Because there’s another one… You gotta be able to shed it off. If you go up and down it makes life a roller coaster.”
Baseball offers its own cure for the ups and downs. An abiding love of the moment. Of just being there on a blue day and playing the game. Hearing the sounds. The crunch of cleats on cement. The tssst of spit. The feathery riffle of a fastball. The cold crack of a beer being opened. No one enjoys a beer like a baseball player. No one. Or the ribbing, the pointless arguments, the bullshit.
Or the mystery. Like if it really is Keith. Baseball players are okay with the fact that the answer to that one may never truly be known.