Fantasy League

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 his and 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.

The love affair started the way most do, innocently and as a kid. Rossell lived in Quincy, Wisconsin. The Cubs had a Single A affiliate there. Vida Blue passed through, a quick stop on his way to stardom. Rossell thought Vida Blue was great. Rossell thought Billy North was a god.

The ballpark was just around the corner from his boyhood home, and Rossell's older brother, Rob, used to take him on the regular. Those were the days, he says, a nostalgia-rich time when the sun bathed everything in a lion-colored glow. Rossell would spit sunflower seeds or chew gum and watch, wide-eyed, from just outside the left-field wall. That's where North played. North, an average hitter, wasn't exceptional except in the hold he had on young Rossell. To a stocky 12-year-old, numbers simply weren't important.

"Nah, Billy was my buddy," Rossell, 42, remembers fondly. Rossell isn't much taller now than he was then, about 5-foot-8 with a mostly slender frame that supports the moderate belly worthy of a bar owner. "I used to poke around there so much that Billy started remembering me. Eventually, he let me play catch with him. Man, that was so cool for a kid. All those guys were just so great to us. They would talk to us and sign autographs--real down to earth. Billy would ask me, 'OK, did you bring the gum today?'

"I would bring my friends to the park and tell them, 'See that guy, he's my friend,' and point to Billy. They said, 'No he isn't,' and they didn't believe me at first. Then he'd talk to me or play catch in between innings--I'd get to throw with him sometimes instead of the other players--and my friends just couldn't believe it. I think I still have one of his home run balls. Hell, that was so cool."

Didn't stay that way. Age changes all. Rossell left Quincy when he was 24. Set out for Dallas to meet up with Rob, find work, make a go of it. Sounded great--his brother talked it up some, and it didn't take much to sell Rossell on the idea. Then his brother, in what can only be described as a unique brand of fraternal love, moved away three months later.

"He got a job in Atlanta," Rossell laughs. "He left me."

Rossell started waiting tables at Andrews, a little bar/restaurant off McKinney and Hall. That's where he met Chitwood, who, like himself, was a waiter and more concerned with grabbing a beer or chasing tail than anything so serious, or far-fetched, as running a baseball team. They stayed in touch. Rossell's daughters think of Chitwood as one of the family. They call him Chuck.

"He's my best friend," Chitwood says. "I've known him for 18 years. Damn, that's a long time. When I was putting the Roughnecks operations together, I knew I wanted him to be part of it."

Chitwood just didn't know in what function. Initially, the Roughnecks brought Chitwood in to do public relations and marketing, some play-by-play and newspaper stories, too. All areas in which he was well-versed--he was a stringer covering minor-league ball in Shreveport, Louisiana, for a time and did some PA announcing there. To some degree, he's more interested in those jobs than anything else, which is fortunate considering he still does all that, serving as broadcast director, director of media relations and general manager. Multitasking is inevitable in the bush.

In planning a baseball team from the embryonic stage, Chitwood realized something: He knew how to market a team or cover a team, but he didn't necessarily know how to run a team, which is where Rossell entered. He had business acumen, and if running the Landing wasn't running a minor-league club, well, how much different could it be?

"When I told him [about the assistant G.M. gig], I don't think he believed me," Chitwood recalls. Unlike his friend, who is clean-shaven, Chitwood's bespectacled face is outlined in a thin beard, which is gray in spots and hides freckles in others. "I got right to the point. I told him I needed him but that it would be five months of ball-busting work. I didn't lie to him--hell no. But I still don't think he believed me at first."

Driving along, probably on his way to the Landing or to pick up his children--this story has done Rossell a great disservice by not mentioning the kids at length until now; he is a proud father of beautiful twin girls, 11-year-olds Gabrielle and Eastin, and, like a proud father, he has a tough time going long stretches without talking to or about them--Rossell got a call from Chitwood extending the offer to come aboard. Rossell had to pull over.

"I told him he better not be messing with me," Rossell says. "I made him tell me a few times because I wasn't sure I got it right."

It's been three months since the genesis of the Tyler Roughnecks--or, for most sports franchises, roughly the amount of time required to order stationery and, if they're diligent and attentive, toilet paper. That's three months from front office to field level, excluding manager Steve Maddock, who was hired five months ago in order to procure "extra" scouting time. Nothing like slow and steady.

As excited as he was about the proposition, Rossell didn't accept it at first--he talked it over with the girls and with his ex-wife, Marci, with whom he's still close--but, once he did, he dove headlong into a business he knew exclusively from television and the backs of old, fading baseball cards. (He had a Mickey Mantle rookie. It was his favorite. But, like most kids, affection for his cards didn't guarantee their safety, and they eventually vanished.)

From ground zero, from the moment he met the others and they began assembling office furniture at team "headquarters" in a nondescript building a mile or so from the ballpark, things progressed at a feverish pace. In order to accomplish everything that needed to be done by the home opener, each member of the front office--a core group of five, Chitwood and Rossell included, make up the workforce--had to do more than what his job title might otherwise suggest. Rossell, in addition to his duties as assistant G.M. and stadium operator, hung concession signs and swept trash from the concrete floor of Mike Carter Field just hours before the opener with the Blue Marlins. As it stands, there are no plans to supplement his lengthy title with the words "janitor" or "maintenance." (The "cleanup crew," from the Anderson Center, a group that helps find work for the mentally ill, was late. Not so with the "grounds crew," a chain gang on loan from the county jail. A few weeks earlier, they had proved their mettle by helping install rows of new seats.) Rossell also was sent on a frantic search for the Roughneck game hats, which had been misplaced and were nowhere to be found 10 minutes before the first pitch. He managed to locate them in time--unattended, outside the main concession stand, a few inches from the men's bathroom.

Luckily, Rossell is not alone. Not by any stretch. If he is constantly on the go, and he is, then Deb Forbis and Pamela "Blue" Monday are right behind, in constant, mesmerizing motion. Forbis serves as ticket sales director, office manager and den mother to players and ignorant reporters alike. Monday, forever known as Blue to her friends, is officially in charge of community relations and promotions, though her work between innings with games like "Frisbee throw" and "Who wants to be a Turkish millionaire" is a living tribute to vaudevillians. David McClendon, assistant director of media relations and troubleshooter, is another Roughneck charge. He plays straight man to Forbis and Monday, who have this engaging way of laughing and smiling without coming up for air, and always at the exact moment when everyone else would be tucked away in the bell tower with a sniper rifle and an armory of hollow-points.

Earlier in the morning, eight or so hours before meeting the Blue Marlins and just after completing a 13-hour bus trip from Albany, the players filed in, tired and hungry and cranky, and instantly created one of those maddening situations for Forbis, who, bless her, was the only one in the office available and sane enough to help. The players meant well, but they were in a hurry to get to their apartments and could they please have the keys and directions posthaste? (None of them had been in town long enough to unpack their things and see their new places, which, they would later learn, were completely barren.)

"Those poor guys," Forbis says sweetly, even after dealing with one particularly not-so-polite player and while attempting fruitlessly to eat a Subway sandwich her husband had brought her hours ago. "They have to play later, and they haven't even unpacked. I hope..."

The phone rang then, a shrill and commanding ring, so she scurried off with purpose, looking shockingly composed, and buoyant, considering they'd all been putting in 15-hour days for longer than anyone could remember.

Mike Carter Field, a WPA project created from red brick and iron in 1938, is relatively quiet. Some Roughnecks long toss down the right-field line, spitting tobacco juice and bullshitting. The thwack of bats against batting-practice balls fights for aural dominance with the PA system, which is softly playing some song or another. Billy Joel, maybe? The air smells like summer: freshly cut grass and hot dogs. You can buy the latter here for $1.50, cheap and large. A mere $4 will get you a general admission ticket, and a big spender with $9, the most expensive seat in the house, will be directed by a pretty lady usher to field level behind home plate or one of the dugouts.

During the game to come, concessionaires will walk around hollering "peanuts" or "soda." The rest of the menu is either standard (hamburgers, barbecue sandwiches, nachos, popcorn and ice cream) or frightening (sausage on a stick), though you can't buy beer. Tyler is a dry county, so the stadium taps stay parched, which must be in direct violation of the Constitution. How you watch a baseball game without a brew or nine is a puzzle that may never be solved and one of the few burdens Roughneck fans are forced to endure.

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.

"When I first moved to Dallas, I thought, 'That's the one I want,'" Rossell says evenly, almost quietly, as though a louder voice might undo all his good fortune. "The Landing is a time warp; it's not trendy, but it's my kind of place. I wanted it, I wanted a spot to call my own, but I never thought he'd sell it."

"He" was then-owner Don Webb, whom Rossell used to joke with and bug about selling the bar. This went on for years. Rossell was working at the Tipperary Inn on Live Oak as general manager when everything changed. One night, Webb stopped by and had several libations. Rossell pounced. Sat down next to him, like he had a hundred times before, and asked about buying the Landing. Possibly massaged by too much drink, Webb threw out a figure. Rossell offered another and, before he knew it, he was shaking Webb's hand in a kung fu death grip.

"I called my friend Jim over to witness it," Rossell says. "I said, 'Don and I have a deal here, and I want you to hear it.' Don said, 'Don't worry, you have my word.'"

Five months later, after haggling with banks for a loan, the Landing was all Rossell's, though it wasn't quite the submissive mistress he'd hoped. Took a makeover, and time, to bring people in and keep them there, so he enlisted the help of another buddy, Ted, and went to work. Tore out walls, windows, whatever. Didn't close a day. Kept the bar open until 2 a.m., and then, once everyone had left, he'd renovate as the sun crawled over the horizon. Rossell and Ted took turns--one would work while the other grabbed a cushion to take a quick nap on the shuffleboard table, which used to stand where a couch now sits.

That first day the bar made fewer than $200. He didn't sulk. He worked harder. Soon, the Landing became a spot for regulars, and business boomed. How much he won't say, though he drives a sweet, Marlboro-red colored Porsche. Spreads it around, too. Three years ago, Lucille, a bee-hived waitress at the Landing and a kind woman who dotes on her customers like they're her children, celebrated her 29th anniversary working there. Rossell bought her a brand-new blue Ford Taurus. For her 30th anniversary, Rossell bought Lucille a star on the Lakewood Theater's Walk of Fame. This past September, her 31st, Rossell bought her a Vegas vacation. No word on what year 32 will reap for Lucille, though those in the know suspect something on the order of the Queen Mum's jewels.

"He's a wonderful man," Lucille offers, staring and nodding so you understand the emphasis and importance.

Susan Williams didn't plan on any of this. All she wanted was to put up a banner outside her apartment complex welcoming the Roughnecks. In the course of trying to do so, she was put in touch with Blue Monday, who was crafty and cajoling and convinced Williams to not only hoist a banner but to consent to running the booster club. And, um, creating one while she was at it. Oh, and on a volunteer basis.

While fans poke around Mike Carter Field, devouring corn dogs and watching the clown make balloon animals for the kiddies, Williams sits by the ticket office and attempts in vain to recruit more people for a booster club with a grand total of one member, albeit a dogged one. She's already organized a bake sale and a car wash for the upcoming months. And, as it turns out, a good portion of the players live in her building, so she doubles as another of their surrogate mothers. Does odds and ends for them, like running to Wal-Mart for essentials: Copenhagen, Skoal, gum, soda, whatever they might need and all out of the kindness of her heart. And her pocket. Today, they also needed a ride to the park, so she selected six and packed them into her Taurus--one in the front seat with her, four sitting in the back, one more lying horizontally across those guys, legs dangling out of an open window.

"We need more support," she says in an appealing twang. "They need us. And they appreciate us. And it's rewarding, too. I know it's not the same, but it almost feels like owning a piece of the Dallas Cowboys. It makes you feel like you're part of something special."

Melvin Tilley understands. Where Williams leaves off, Tilley takes over. He's the Roughnecks clubhouse manager. Had the same role when the now-defunct WildCatters played here. They're all good guys, he says. They just need a little help sometimes, and Tilley is always there to lend a hand. Or, failing that, a story. He was a fighter in his youth, had a steel chin and jackhammer fists. No trainer worth a damn, though, which is why you never heard of him.

"I was Sugar Ray before Sugar Ray, that's what they said," Tilley boasts. Judging by his wiry frame, which still supports a solid amount of lean muscle, there's little doubt this was true. Even now, even though he's about as nice a guy as you'll find, he's got a look that says, "Don't mess." "None of those guys could stay with me. Yeah...almost."

Rain falls intermittently, but they get the game in, and what a game. In the top of the first, little leaguers escort the Roughnecks to their positions for good luck. It works. The first Roughneck batter to ever come to the plate in Carter Field, outfielder Jose Colon--a native New Yorker who'd never made it higher than A-ball--smashes the first Blue Marlins pitch deep to center and over the 12-foot-high green wall that lines the field's perimeter. It gets better. Tyler gobbles grounders and lines more hits. Baton Rouge stumbles and commits errors. It's hardly fair. The good guys get the win, 12-7, which delights the mascot--a fuzzy orange monstrosity that's a disturbing combination of one of the Village People and Animal from the Muppets.

A local television station, KLTV, had a crew here to capture it all. The station will show clips on tonight's local news. Others caught the action on the radio, listening to reports crackle over KZEY-AM 690. The rest, about a thousand folks, came in person to see the Roughnecks climb to a game above .500 (they went 3-3 on that season-opening road trip). But it's early yet--this was only game seven of 72--and no one appears to be planning a parade. One Tyler native, who's nearly hoarse from yelling, thinks it's wonderful to have baseball back. Wonderful and worrisome. "I'm not sure this town will support them," she says. "I hope so, but I'm not so sure."

They're pondering the same question in Baton Rouge and Fort Worth and Albany and other minor-league towns. Some pull it off. The rest disappear into baseball's footnotes.

Rossell and the troops won't admit it, but they've thought about each scenario and which fate awaits the club. After all they've invested emotionally, after all the man-hours, how could they not? Somewhere in their memory, the WildCatters linger as admonition--not that they let the concern consume them. Too much work to do, too many hot dogs to order or tickets to sell or promotions to organize for anything so self-indulgent as pity or fear. Besides, they'll tell you, this is too much of a hoot to allow anxiety to whittle away their time. And the Roughnecks majority ownership, the same group that controls the Fort Worth team, has already committed to next year and has talked openly with the league about expansion.

"I'm not sure what will happen, but I think we'll be OK," Rossell says sometime before midnight, after a splendid, well-received postgame fireworks display. His feet are sore from running around all day, and small bags are forming under his eyes. Originally, Rossell said this was a one-time deal, that he'd help out this season, revel in the moment and then retire to more meaningful pursuits, like vacations with his daughters. Now, he's not so sure. It's all so seductive, so addictive. Instant, lasting euphoria--a type of baseball mainline.

"I mean, I don't know," he says. "I could see myself staying. I don't know. It's definitely a possibility. It would be hard to give up. Look at how great this is. I think it's going really well. But if I don't stay, look at how lucky I've been--some of the things I've walked into. I've gotten to live two dreams: my bar and baseball."


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