By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Mike Carter Field sits off Front Street, just past the convention center and the rose garden. Across the way is the football field where Earl Campbell played during high school. Earl's old haunt, much like Tyler, Texas, has seen better days, idling in a state of disrepair, a fading memory to a favored son.
There's a lot of that here--rundown factories and abandoned offices that offer testimonial to what the town once was or what it aspired to be before becoming another forgotten East Texas hamlet. What remains are car dealerships and diners--greasy spoons that serve fatty food with spotted silverware--motels and fast-food franchises. Trains hustle by now and again; a refinery blows pungent smoke skyward, where it merges, unnoticed, with threatening, gunboat gray clouds. It's middle America with a twist, a lonely, isolated Rockwell painting crafted in drab colors.
This isn't to say that Tyler is a twister away from oblivion--in contrast to hovels like Wichita Falls or similar points, it's a booming metropolis. Rather, this burg of 85,000-or-so is what it is: a throwback to a time when patriotism was a given and people traveled at a pace slow enough to suit the locals and confound visitors. That, of course, is its underlying charm. There is no rush here, and so most stop for a quick chat or, at the least, to flash a warm smile. That's the thing, the mysterious camaraderie between those who know each other and, remarkably, those who don't.
All of which--the town, the people, the reception he and his ilk have gotten--is fine by Bill Rossell. The mix is about perfect, and damn if that contentment doesn't manifest itself on his crinkly, beaming face. This is the way minor-league baseball should feel, the way it should look, he repeats. This may not be your dream, he insists, but it's hisand theirs, and that's good enough. Rossell is assistant general manager of the Tyler Roughnecks, the newest independent league club to call the Rose City home.
It's been a wild ride thus far for Rossell, who lives in Dallas and owns the Lakewood Landing near Skillman Avenue and Live Oak Street. A crazed trip blurred by countless tasks. Developed so fast, he's still unable to fully grasp the reality. This can't be happening to him, can it? Then again, as he'll attest, he's a lucky bastard, so why not?
Baton Rouge is here tonight, he gushes, as though the Yankees were on the way to the Ballpark in Arlington but at the last moment decided to detour down Interstate 20. The Blue Marlins are a member of the All-American Association--a first-year start-up league with three other teams in Fort Worth, Albany, Georgia, and Montgomery, Alabama--and will help the Roughnecks usher in their home opener. The first opening day in, well, let's see...a good while now. There hasn't been any baseball in Tyler since the WildCatters, another independent league club, disbanded years ago.
"1997, I think," offers a ticket taker, tentatively. "I think. Is that it? Gawd, it feels a whole sight longer." In fact it was '97, so the very return of hardball passes for a big event in these parts. The Roughnecks (the name was chosen months ago in a write-in contest; for some reason, more than one citizen suggested the moniker) made the front page of today's Tyler Morning Telegraph, not to mention the two stories in sports and the player bios and pictures.
Perched near the top row of bleachers, down the first-base side of Mike Carter Field, Rossell works through a crowd equally freckled with friends who have made the trip from the Landing to lend moral support and those he's never met. No matter. Some pressing of the flesh and a show of genuine concern for the patrons are all Rossell needs to engender a relationship. He swears he's shy and would prefer to slink into the background, which is, if nothing else, a romantic notion for a man so firmly fixed in the forefront. And so good at it. Rossell--along with his best friend, General Manager Charlie Chitwood, and a sparse but determined front office staff--is every bit the team's identity at this point, yet another irony considering where they all were three months earlier.
"Man, I can't believe it's almost time," Rossell says, looking uncharacteristically nervous. More fans shuffle in; some wear black-and-red "T.R." hats. Others don Roughneck shirts and quietly talk baseball, but, for the most part, the stands aren't as filled as they'd hoped. The heavens aren't helping. Rain spits on them as the wind kicks up. There's a bit of chill in the air--or what East Texans consider a chill, anyway. It's not the ideal atmosphere, far from a perfectly penned script.
"It's hard to believe that we're all here and the game is about to start," Rossell continues, taking a long, comforting drag from a cigarette, then exhaling a cylindrical stream of smoke. "It went so fast, I just...I don't want to say anything, but this is almost magical."
Rossell isn't a baseball man. Not in the traditional sense. He's more Horatio Alger than Sparky Anderson, a Joe who'd fantasize over a cold pint, taking comfort in the cool shade his distance from any decision-making capacity afforded him. What a life it would surely be, but it was never more a possibility than, say, blasting across the alkali flats on a jet-powered monkey-navigated go-cart, so he settled for a different path. The kind the rest of us lead by default: passive-aggressive adorers. Fans.