By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Aside from the alarming lack of alcohol, it is the quintessential bush league experience--a lazy, quaint outing bereft of pro ball's egotism and commercialism. It's also the fulcrum in nearly all of these players' careers. This is an opportunity--for some, the last. Many have already been with "an organization," a term they throw around to acknowledge time spent with a major-league outfit or its affiliates. (Independent leagues are just that, independent from Major League Baseball, but they frequently sell individual contracts to a major-league team if it's interested in a particular player.) Some arrived here because of injury, others due to being one or two tools short. All are hoping for a shot, a chance at being discovered, or rediscovered, and bucking the long odds to places higher on baseball's evolutionary ladder than Tyler. Make no mistake, they're happy to put on a uniform, thrilled to play baseball and get paid--the average salary is between $700 to $1000 a month, no expenses--but each has a burning desire for something more significant. What they may lack in skills is trumped, overshadowed by a common trait: passion.
Efren Canchola is one of the believers. He's also one of the few who has options. He's only a year away from a degree in criminology. He could pack in the dark of the night and head for his native Sacramento, leaving for something more secure. There would be no shame, especially considering this is his first stint in pro ball. The trip to an organization, they say, is much shorter if you've already hacked down some of the weeds. Canchola hasn't. Yet. It's the "yet" that keeps Canchola--a left-handed pitcher with dark black hair, a caramel complexion and a lighthearted temperament--here.
"It's a dream," he says, staring into the distance. "I know there are a lot of guys out there who want to do the same thing. But I'm not going to give up or hang 'em up until I feel it's time."
Maddock, the manager, knows the itch. Lives it. Bounced around sundry independent leagues in various roles, from the Northern League to the Frontier League to the Texas-Louisiana League, even Australia. He's 30.
"We haven't been here long, but the town has been great to us," says Maddock, who, despite his bristly thick goatee, looks young enough to be playing high school ball or popping pimples. "Hopefully, this can be a stepping stone for most of us. It's a tough jump from here, definitely, and the odds are against us more than they're for us, but if I spent the rest of my career in an independent league, I'd be fine with it. I wouldn't be sad at all."
No doubt there's an allure to this level of play, though you'd be hard-pressed to find many more like Maddock. If there's one among them who wouldn't immediately trade cold showers and cramped bus rides for the pampering of an organization, he didn't show himself.
"Man, I haven't been on trips that long since A-ball," Rich Turrentine says, chuckling, referring to the recently completed six-game road swing. At 30, Turrentine is one of the vets, having exhausted 13 years of his life in a uniform. A right-handed hurler, he made it as high as Triple A with the Mets two years ago. Spent spring training with the big leaguers and was all set to pack his bags and head for Shea Stadium. Until he suffered "injuries."
"I had a really good shot, a legitimate shot. Everyone expected me to go up..." he trails off, thinking pensively for a moment before continuing, "but I love playing baseball. There's nothing tough about it. The people have been so nice; the guys get along. And, you know, I haven't seen this in a while, but everybody has this enthusiasm."
If you try, you can almost hear Robert De Niro, in that accent from The Untouchables, telling his band of thugs that a man must have "en-toozee-asims." A few years ago, four to be precise, Rossell didn't have many entoozeeasims other than his daughters. No, that's not quite right either. He had one outside his daughters: the Lakewood Landing.
It's not the type of bar that fits into the pretentious landscape beloved in Dallas. It doesn't have neon, or palm trees, or a roof you can shake your ass on until the wee hours of the morning while sucking down watery shots with the beautiful people. It's the antithesis, actually, a throwback to your grandfather's local establishment: dank, dark setting; worn, wood-grained décor; the aromatic smell of sloppy greaseburgers mixed with stale smoke; people, real people without collagen injections, out for booze and an easy time. The sign outside says it's an "upscale dive"--and a glorious one at that--though it could just as easily read "warm embrace" or "second home."
Rossell used to dream of owning the joint just as he dreamed of hitting the field next to his pal, Billy North. For a while, a long while, the probabilities seemed about the same. He'd worked in the restaurant/bar business his entire adult life, moving from waiting tables to management. He was good at it and enjoyed it. The next step would be to have his own place, though making the leap would be daunting if not impossible. He didn't abandon his lust, but he did store it in the back of his mind. Way back, where the rest of us harbor nudie pics and yearn for celebrity.