by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he parking lot at Avista Stadium is quiet and almost empty. Twenty or so cars huddle around an idling bus at the south end. A few people mill about, waiting.
Twelve hours ago, this place was packed -- sold out, as 7,000 Spokane Indians fans caught the final game of a home stand against the Yakima Bears. The pressure was on. The Indians had already lost two straight to Yakima -- a rare skid for a team that wins nearly three-quarters of its games -- and a squandered third-inning lead had put this game in doubt, too. The tension in the stands was palpable, but in an odd way. Even in dire situations, Indians fans this season have learned to stick around and wait it out. The miracle turnaround comes as often as not.
Last night, it came in two stages. After hanging close through seven innings, a sacrifice fly in the eighth tied the game. Jason Ogata's double in the ninth sealed the victory. "OH MY OGATA! WHAT A WIN!" the team's news release proclaimed. Histrionic glee from the PR people. For most in the Indians organization, though, the win was expected. The club had played smart, patient, unselfish baseball -- the kind they've played all year. They didn't commit fielding errors. Batters hit to spots; they didn't swing for the fences. No one panicked when the lead deteriorated, and the game took care of itself, the way it should.
It isn't odd, then, that Jason Ogata -- last night's conquering hero -- seems uninterested in reliving his game-winning moment this morning. He's texting lazily, waiting for things to start up again.
It's 9:30 am and the team is about to go back to work, pulling itself together piece-by-piece for a 150-mile jaunt southwest. Their sixth road trip in as many weeks. Soon, the players will get on the bus. They'll fall asleep. They'll wake up pulling into a small, strange town. They'll have a few hours of down time on a strange bed in a corporate hotel.
And tonight they'll play their 46th game in 48 days.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & ark Williams is in charge of strength and conditioning for the club. For the moment, he's also the team bursar and attendance taker. Sitting near the front of the bus, he hands out per diem cash stuffed into little envelopes embossed with the Indians logo. The compact, well-muscled Williams flips through the remaining envelopes occasionally to get a sense of who has gotten on the bus and who hasn't.
There's a pinkish-purple locker room towel draped over his legs. "It's plum," he says, correcting an observation that comes from several directions at once. What's with Mark and the gay pink towel?
Juan Peralta, a 20-year-old Dominican pitcher with a wide, kind face, slides into the seat in front of Williams. Talking over the seatback, Peralta asks in halting English for more money. He wants forty dollars. "You don't pitch good enough for $40," Williams replies.
Peralta thinks about arguing this point, but changes tack, testing out how sensitive Williams is to wage disparity. The plight of the working man. "OK, how much you get?"
"Way more than you," Williams says slowly and with a smile.
The chatter on the bus is bilingual, but there isn't much crossover. None of the American players are particularly good at speaking Spanish. The Latino players have taken weekly English classes since getting here, but it's only been a month and a half, so not much has taken root. As his stack of envelopes shrinks, Williams starts to look worried. Martin Perez, a pitcher from Venezuela and the team's youngest player, isn't onboard yet. "Donde Perez?" Williams asks, mustering a bit of Spanish, "Perez? Donde?"
Conversations between the American and Latino players utilize the kind of pidgin dialect that tends to arise when you put two groups of young men -- teens and early '20s -- from different cultures in close quarters, day-in-day-out. It's mostly English, plus enough Spanish, hand gestures and profanity to make sure every one is clear. Before Williams can get an answer to just donde Perez went, attention is drawn away by a yelp at the back of the bus.
Some jawing has turned into a little scuffle. It's nothing violent or contentious, just diplomacy. There is a disagreement of some kind, and it's being solved. Wrestling, tit twisting and practical joking is understood by everyone here, a lingua franca in a way that English and Spanish are not. After some brief grunts and chuckles, the surrender rings out in both languages.
"Ah! Mother-------! No mas, no mas!"
Order is restored as quickly as it's lost. And, when no one was looking, Perez found his way onto the bus and to his seat.
The languor in the parking lot is destroyed when a metallic gray Chevy slides to a stop near the service gate. Luis Ortiz, the team's batting coach, is behind the wheel, chauffeuring Manager Tim Hulett, pitching coach Mike Anderson and Anderson's 12-year-old son Ty, the team's "video coordinator."
Hulett hops out, all smiles. He has an easy way about him, a dry wit and an air of authority that doesn't need backing up with undue shouting. He relays a few directions and busts a few balls. People are eating McDonald's. He finds that annoying but normal. The schlub reporter -- the interloper -- is wearing flip-flops. Also annoying, and a direct violation of team rules. "We don't wear flip-flops," he says, his smile a completely unreadable synthesis of irony and good humor. "That's a $50 fine." Hulett lets it go this time, but he'll be watching.
Boarding the bus, he sees Williams with the per diem envelopes and remarks that this year's prospects are cheap as hell. In more genteel times, he says, you'd see outpourings of largesse, a player paying for the entire table at some all-night diner somewhere, but not this crew. "I haven't seen anyone," he says with a resigned smile, "not one time, pick up the ticket." This also exasperates him a little bit. He briefly ponders making mandatory generosity a new team rule.
With Hulett, Ortiz and the two Andersons aboard, the scrum of profanity and slander begins to quiet itself. The engine starts. People pull out their iPods, magazines and laptops. The bus pulls away from the gate at Avista Stadium and eases onto Havana Street. Hulett dons a pair of massive, silver, over-the-ear headphones and Williams falls asleep underneath his plum towel. By the time we pull onto I-90 westbound, the bus is silent.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Indians have taken a long, roundabout course to get to the top of their league. They've wended their way between regional hubs like Vancouver and Boise all summer with stops in puddle-jump bergs like Salem, Everett and Eugene. Today they head to the Tri Cities, three towns that grew up in farm country at the confluence of several highway systems and best known for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
As much as professional baseball is about bright lights and big contracts and the lifelong march toward that beguiling abstraction called stardom, it's also about this: Young players and long stretches of bare open road, crisscrossing the country without seeing much of it. Hotel, bus, stadium, repeat. A midnight Shari's run. A hike to a crappy mid-town casino. The drive time, the workouts, the warm-ups, the icing of sore tendons taking up just enough of the day so that there's very little time to do anything but sit around doing nothing. Nothingness and baseball.
"It's a grind every day," says third baseman Matt West, a second-round draft pick out of high school. "It's the same thing every day. Nothing changes."
In other words, the game is becoming work, a transition that some find harder than others.
The Indians are a farm team in the Texas Rangers system. Everyone who plays for the Indians is, in a sense, the property of the Rangers. Chris Gorosics, the team trainer, has been asked by someone in the organization to write short, year-end assessments of each player. Employee evaluations. They want any information Gorosics might have on the guys. Everything from how well a player takes care of his body -- whether he eats well, stretches well and does his exercises or just eats fast food and looks to be iced up after games -- to how well he's liked, how often he gambles, gets hammered or has "altercations." One player, whose name has scrolled out of the top of the screen by the time I see it, seems to get high marks in both the preventative-maintenance and drunkenness-leading-to-"altercations" categories.
From here, no matter how big these men get, or how soon they quit, baseball will be a job. It will never again be just a game. Luis Ortiz knows that as well as anyone.
Incredibly eloquent and built like a Mack truck, first-year batting coach Ortiz put in a ton of time at all levels of the game, including a four-year stint in the early '90s with the Red Sox and the Rangers, followed by eight years moored at the AAA level and in Japan.
He left baseball in 2004 and opened up a business, turning down several offers to return in a coaching capacity while he built the business. He returned eventually, but on his own terms. "It needed to be the right opportunity," Ortiz says. Baseball is baseball. It will always be a love of his and a passion. Since leaving the game, though, he's proven to himself that it needn't be his job. "My biggest priority is providing for my family," he says. "If baseball can do that, then great."
Pictures of fish and bicycles and children flash across Ortiz's laptop screen as we pull into Kennewick, the most urbane of the Tri Cities. (There's a Target and a Barnes & amp; Noble.) Ortiz has spent most of the ride working his way through lessons on Rosetta Stone, an industry-standard language-learning software. A native of the Dominican Republic but a resident of Dallas, Ortiz isn't trying to get a better grasp of English; he's teaching himself Japanese. As long as he's trying out this career in coaching, he figures he ought to be as marketable as possible. "Baseball has become so global," he says, "it would be a good tool to have in the shed."
The bus pulls down Columbia Center Boulevard, a thick, six-lane scar of tarmac named after the mall that houses the Barnes & amp; Noble, and into the parking lot of the Red Lion. People get their room assignments and go their separate ways. Wilfredo Boscan -- an energetic 18-year-old with a gun of an arm that's made him the ace starter on a team packed with great pitching -- knocks on a few room doors, then disappears inside one. Ryan Schlect -- owner of the strangest delivery you've ever seen -- is fiddling with a first-generation iPhone that he insists isn't "old" but "Classic."
The bus leaves again in three hours. Anything that's going to get done -- a catnap, some reading, a few games of Pai Gow -- needs to happen fast.
Tim Hulett is incredulous. A short road trip. A good locker room. The reporter is going to draw the wrong conclusions. "This is not a true representation of minor league baseball right now," Hulett says, looking around the visitor's locker room of Gesa Stadium. There's a couch, for God's sake. "This is way, way too nice." Ty Anderson, looking for a place to charge his video recorder, counts two -- no, four -- electrical outlets. "This is high-tech," says Luis Ortiz, and he's only half-joking.
The ease, the sheer luxury of his surroundings, puts Hulett in a reflective mood. He has a problem. It's not a bad problem, per se. But when your team wins three games for every one it loses, you start to worry about odd things. "They" -- the players -- "don't understand how good they really are," Hulett says.
A few years ago, Ortiz explains later, the Rangers handed down a new organization-wide decree that their developmental clubs should subtly change their thinking. Where they'd previously been responsible for developing players, they'd now be charged with developing winners. Players who weren't just good, but players who knew how to gut it out and get victories. That's what Hulett, in his second year with the Indians, has been trying to foster. That's what the long-suffering Rangers need in the pipeline. This group, though, was all winners right out of the box.
It's great, says Hulett, but also scary. "Baseball is a game of failure," he says. "Those who learn to deal with failure have success." Those who don't, at some point, stop having success.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & G & lt;/span & esa Stadium sits on a half-developed stretch of farmland south of Burden Boulevard near I-182. In summer, the sky is cloudless and the sun unrelenting. It's bad enough that the Dust Devils -- a team that draws maybe 1,400 fans a night -- built a massive wall behind the first-base bleachers to shield the stands. It's a big, expensive, ungainly-looking white structure the fans take an ironic sense of ownership in. Dust Devil fans never simply point out the sunshade. They claim it, then they tell you how much it cost. "That's our ... million ... dollar ... sunshade," they say, drawing things out for emphasis.
Even Anderson's son Ty, a cerebral 12-year-old raised under the low-hanging sun of Austin, Texas, is having a hard time coping with the heat. "I don't know what's wrong," the kid says. "I can't handle it."
Ty earned his grand-sounding title of "video coordinator" for doing a job that consists of sitting in the stands for three hours every night, videotaping the pitching and batting mechanics of every Indians player. His job is not to make a record of the game action; his camera doesn't follow the ball as it leaves the pitcher's hand or cascades off the hitter's bat. It stays trained on the man, recording the follow-through. He tapes the motion, not the sphere.
Ty's footage will be put into a computer. The computer will determine whether or not each pitcher and batter is tossing and swinging properly. It'll help Ortiz and Ty's dad determine what to fix, and in what sort of increments. This is a development league, but development doesn't mean overhaul. Hulett and his staff don't believe changing too much too fast. "A lot of teams will bring a guy in and immediately start messing with his stuff," Hulett says. "When you're competing at a high level and you change a bunch of things, it causes a lot of problems. Mental anguish."
They choose instead to tinker only as much as nescessary. It was been a lot of tinkering with Neil Ramirez, unfortunately, who'll get shelled tonight -- absolutely creamed -- in his first game back from an inflamed shoulder that had him out three weeks. But they've only messed a little with Ryan Schlect, who has mild tendonitis, and ends up pitching two more-or-less perfect innings (no hits, a walk, two strikeouts) in relief. The relievers buy the Indians time, scattering two runs over the next eight innings, allowing the offense to blow past with 10 of its own. Final score: Indians 10, Tri-City 5.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he weird thing about baseball at this level is that everyone's here for a different reason and under different circumstances. Tomorrow's next great starting pitching might be used in middle relief here. It's often hard to tell who's going to be the clubhouse hero, but it's almost never the guy who hits the walk-off homer. Choosing among Ramirez, Schlect and Matt Nevarez, who pitched four innings of one-run ball to earn the win, pitching coach Mike Anderson thinks it's Ramirez.
"We want to develop winning-type players," says Anderson, explaining, "but you don't sacrifice development for winning." They knew Ramirez might get shelled or throw a ton of wild pitches and they'd probably be in the hole early. Getting behind is a problem, but Ramirez is a starter. You start starters. Baseball is a game of failure and success. You let players fight their way through failure until they find success.
That, in Anderson's mind, is what Ramirez did in one messy inning. He found a degree of success. In a sense, Ramirez was throwing against two different opponents, the Tri-City Dust Devils and his old habits. He'd had a ton of success with his old habits. They got him player-of-the-year honors in his home state of Virginia. In 2007, they got him drafted in the first round of the supplemental draft. Lately, though, they'd been shredding his shoulder too.
Anderson used the two weeks needed to get Ramirez' inflammation down to fiddle with his arm, giving him a throwing motion that wouldn't put so much strain on the shoulder. It's still a little awkward. "I knew I wasn't going to have my best stuff," Ramirez says. "I was just trying to do what we'd been working on and try to throw strikes." He threw strikes fine on Sunday, and the Dust Devils hit them. Anderson likes that Ramirez stuck to the plan, didn't fall back on old stuff, and gutted his way out of the inning. "Change is not easy," says Anderson, "especially when you're trying to compete."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & tanding near the bullpen the next afternoon, near where he just signed autographs for a couple children, Yoon-Hee Nam says there's exactly one place worth playing baseball. America. The relentlessly friendly 20-year-old is adamant about this. He explains that being drafted into South Korea's pro league meant very little to him, so he and his father came to America to sit down with some clubs and see what could be done about getting Nam in the farm system here. He speaks haltingly at times, but works hard to get his point across.
He's quieter than the average American prospect would be. But where many of the players without much English slink from eye contact, Nam seeks it out. His dress, like everyone else on the team, is modern American suburban, a pastiche of the preppy and the urban somewhere between J. Crew and Sean John. Looking at him, the only thing that pegs him as definitely not from this continent is the blue Peugeot cap, which advertises a car company so rare in America it might as well not exist.
Once he starts talking, the native of Seoul says he doesn't consider America home yet. But, largely because his job is here, he's starting to come around. He talks about being homesick the first time he came to America a year and a half ago, and how working crappy restaurant jobs in Seoul made him long for the States soon after he got back home.
Our conversation stands out because it was just us. One on one, Nam and the reporter, no middleman. That's not the way it works with the Latino players, whose confidence on the field and in their peer groups masks a painful shyness around English-speaking strangers.
Because there's only one of him, Ortiz believes Nam has been forced by circumstances -- his love of baseball and his isolation in the best country for it -- to embrace American culture and language. It's a blessing and a curse, then, that the league has so many Latino players. Pro baseball has helped hundreds of kids break free from overwhelming poverty in places like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. There's such an abundance of Spanish speakers, though, that once here there's no real imperative to learn English.
David Paisano, a bull of a guy, cheerful and a hell of an effective hitter, becomes evasive, even scared when asked, in English, something as simple as how he likes America. He looks at Ortiz, terrified. Ortiz doesn't offer any help, saying, "It's good for him to do that." All Paisano manages is a contrite, "It's good." The players sitting around him, Boscan and Pimentel, walk away before any questions can be directed at them.
Pride, says Ortiz, keeps many Latino players from even trying to learn English. "These are successful athletes," he says, "and proud men. They don't want to seem weak. They don't like being made fun of." So, in many cases, they don't try.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & anguage is only one of many little schisms that help form a big gulf between the American players and those from Latin America. Players from the States, says Ortiz, are generally older, college-educated and immersed in a culture they've grown up in. The average player from Venezuela or the Dominican Republic is much younger, probably hasn't graduated from high school and is almost definitely stepping outside his country for the first time.
Speaking later in a safer environment with Ortiz acting as interpreter, Boscan, Perez and Paisano each also tell harrowing tales of poverty growing up in Venezuela, all centering on baseball as one of the few sources of joy in their young lives. They'd make balls out of socks, mitts out of milk cartons. They'd sneak onto buses to get to games or, on days when they'd pay for bus passes rather than eating, they'd sometimes pass out from hunger.
They tell funny stories, too. Although they grew up in different parts of the country, each knew kids who were atrocious ball players but rich enough to be able to afford extra mitts. These kids were always allowed to play.
The players keep in touch with their families regularly. Paisano says he calls his mother every day. Every time they talk, he says, she tells him, "If you don't hit a home run tonight, don't call me tomorrow."
Baseball saves a lot of young lives, but very few take full advantage of the fresh start. Ortiz is a living illustration of that fact. He remains the only Dominican who has played in the major leagues and earned a college degree. Ever.
"There's a big tug of war inside their heads right now," says Ortiz before the second game in Pasco. Culture shock has given way to a more complex tension. Disparate cultures are fighting for the same brain space. If this new generation of Latino players truly is to thrive here, Ortiz says, they will need to reconcile that conflict, study it. They can't expect America to meet them even halfway. They'll need to put in all the work. They'll need to be able to live and thrive in both worlds. In one of his typically nuanced turns of phrase on the subject, Ortiz says, "It isn't enough to be bilingual. They need to be bi-cultural."
That night, Perez -- the team's youngest player, one of its hottest prospects and, in a way, the poster boy for many of the cultural handicaps Ortiz describes -- gets killed for seven runs and a throwing error in three innings. The relievers hold on, though, scattering two runs over the next six innings, buffering an offensive flurry led by Matt West and outfielder Eric Fry. Though they were down 7-1, after three, the Indians come back to win 13-9.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hile the players change back into street clothes and Hulett's crew works to get the game data sent to the Rangers home office in Austin, a small crowd develops outside the door to the visiting locker room. A really small crowd: two high school-aged girls and a guy with his two young kids.
The man is short, round and extensively tattooed. Though he's in his 30s, he has a child's glint in his eye as he holds a game bat and a black Sharpie. "Sign my bat, bro?" he says to each player in turn, as they trickle out the locker room door. The girls are a little more sly. Sitting cross-legged and turned partially away from the clubhouse door, they shoot the occasional wide-eyed smile over their shoulders. They don't seem to be waiting on anyone in particular; everyone out of the locker room is in play.
The first to bite, though, is the group of Peralta, Paisano, Boscan and Perez. Peralta walks right up and engages the blonde in small talk. Boscan throws a word in occasionally, but his usual swagger is gone and for the most part the three seem content to hover with big, nervous grins on their faces, letting Peralta do his thing.
After a few minutes of cajoling, the blonde takes out a pen, a scrap of paper and hands her number over. Peralta shifts gears. "So ... you like to go to movies or to dinner or ..." he asks, tilting his head, drawing out the "or" into a hanging question. Just then Dustin Brader, a ball of confidence from Selah, Wash., engages in some cultural diplomacy of his own. He walks right up to the brunette -- who may be Latina, or maybe just really tan -- and, with heavy emphasis on the "h," belts out a throaty "Hola!"
Peralta's approach is halting but earnest; Brader's is filled with the swagger of someone used to getting his way. Peralta and crew walk away with the number; Brader is left to make the whole thing look like a big joke.
If any of the Latin players truly engage American culture, it may be because of something as simple as the desire to talk to a pretty girl.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n the end, baseball is a game of ritual. The day-by-day honing of blunt talents into precision skills. "If you prepare every day," Tim Hulett is fond of saying, "the wins and losses take care of themselves."
Neil Ramirez talks about rehabbing his arm. It's a process that happens bit by bit. There's nothing fast about it. David Paisano says similar things about being so far from home. The fear and uncertainty of being in a strange country with an unfamiliar language gets better every day, he says, but only barely.
Most of them won't be here next year. Whether home is the Midwest or the Caribbean, the stakes only gets bigger. Every level they move up, toward that final goal of setting foot in a big-league field in a big-game situation, the stakes will change drastically.
Phone calls to family may become conference calls with agents. Buses may become planes. Per diem cash may become shoe residuals. The scale will get bigger and bigger for each player until they top out. For some, it won't last long past this summer. One or two of these hotshots will rise high enough for long enough that their new life will seem unrecognizable.
At a fundamental level, though, it'll all still be baseball. The ritual. The balls and mitts. The innings a night. The ice afterward. Always a game and also a job.
With most of the team on the bus, ready to head back to the Red Lion on Columbia Center Boulevard for their last night in town, Ryan Schlect -- the wiseass with the "classic" iPhone and the screwy delivery -- bursts around a corner. "You tired yet?" he hollers at the reporter. No doubt. Exhausted. Going home. "Yeah," Schlect replies with that easygoing swagger and lightly superior tone, "we'll be doing it again tomorrow."
Since I traveled with the Indians on Aug. 4, they've posted a thoroughly human 5-7 record. Still, they lead their division, with two home stands remaining in the season: this week versus second-place Boise, and next week against Tri-City. If the Spokane Indians win their division, they will compete for the Northwest League title in a five-game series starting Sept. 4.