By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Derek Nicholson throws on a pair of black gym shorts, tucks in a red T-shirt, grabs his iPod and goes for a walk around the ballpark. It's 103 degrees, and the sun is beating down on QuikTrip Park. With three hours left before game time, nothing takes him out of his routine.
In this blistering August heat, the Grand Prairie AirHogs will face the Pensacola Pelicans. But right now, in this newly built $20 million stadium, all is quiet. No fans are in the stands, no kids play in the swimming pool tucked away in right field, no one is puffing away in the cigar bar behind the seats in left.
To lure fans into the ballpark tonight, the AirHogs are throwing a retirement party for President Bush, where a masked Bush look-alike wearing a gray suit, American flag tie and white AirHogs cap will throw out the first pitch. Although the team's front office seems to be taking spectacle to new heights and gaining national notoriety for them, wacky, fan-friendly promotions are the trademark of minor league franchises across the country.
For Nicholson, it's nothing he hasn't seen before.
"I always think it's fun with that kind of stuff because that's what the minor leagues are about," he says. "It's like that old Bull Durham promotion: hit the bull, win a steak."
Nicholson, referring to the 1988 film Bull Durham, is himself reminiscent of Crash Davis, the character played by Kevin Costner. Like Davis, Nicholson is at the end of his career, hanging onto the game he loves, while teaching younger players who might still have a shot at the big leagues.
The silence in the ballpark is interrupted as Nicholson is joined by his teammates who trickle onto the field for batting practice. Music begins pumping through the speakers. The songs offer a little something for each player's taste: rock and roll, rap, R&B.
Nicholson, a left-handed hitter, steps into the batter's box and pulls a few balls deep into right field. He pops up a few, hits several foul, grunting with each crack of the bat. He flashes a knowing smile at another player before heading to the locker room for a pre-game shower.
Nicholson has spent the last 10 years kicking around the edges of minor league baseball, waiting for the majors to call him up. With no wife or kids, he seems married to the game. He lives in an apartment near the ballpark, a benefit given to the veteran players on the AirHogs. In the offseason, he works in the special education department at a high school near his hometown of Redondo Beach, California, where he also coaches baseball.
In 1998, after playing two seasons at the University of Florida, he was drafted in the 16th round by the Houston Astros, which sent him to its Class-A minor league farm team, the Auburn Doubledays. Others around him—pitchers Roy Oswalt, Tim Redding and Johan Santana—would make it to the majors. But Nicholson bounced around from farm team to farm team, playing for squads affiliated with the Astros and Detroit Tigers.
Nicholson reached the highest level of affiliated baseball in 2006 when he played for the Round Rock Express, the Triple-A affiliate of the Astros owned by Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan and his sons. He was just a phone call away from realizing his dream of playing in the majors, but that call never came. Houston released him at the end of the season.
"There were no hard feelings. It could have been a matter of time, place or difference of opinion," he says. "All I ever cared about was getting the players' respect on the baseball field."
Refusing to give up the game, Nicholson decided to sink in the baseball pecking order, signing with the Joliet JackHammers of the Northern League in 2007. The Northern League is one of several independent professional baseball leagues, which are composed of non-affiliated minor league teams and ballplayers who rarely get noticed by big-league clubs.
Earlier this year, Nicholson became one of the first players to sign on for the inaugural season of the AirHogs, which joined nine other existing teams in the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball. He was targeted by AirHogs manager Pete Incaviglia, a former outfielder with the Texas Rangers, who had been the hitting coach for the Erie SeaWolves when Nicholson played for the Tigers affiliate in 2004. Nicholson says "Inky" is the reason behind the team's incredible success as they ready themselves for a playoff match-up with the Fort Worth Cats, who were champions in each of the last three seasons.
"Derek comes to the park each day to teach and play the game at a high level," Incaviglia says. "He's done a great job leading."
The pay in independent baseball is barely enough to scrape by, with the average player making $1,500 per month. Fans contribute when they can, putting tips into hats that are passed around after a home run. Nicholson says he received $280 for his last homer. And while the gray hairs in his goatee are a reminder that his opportunity to make it in the majors may have passed, he jumped at the chance to play for Incaviglia and bring his experience to Grand Prairie.