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Pitch Perfect

Brandon Thibodeaux

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.

 

Winning games has proved easier than winning over fans, especially in a locale dominated by the likes of the Dallas Cowboys, Dallas Mavericks, Dallas Stars and Texas Rangers, along with three other minor league teams. Whether it's the Bush retirement party, a funeral giveaway or Jessica Simpson Day, the AirHogs are doing whatever they can to carve a niche for themselves in one of the most competitive sports markets in the country. With tickets ranging from $6 to $12, reasonable concession prices and a 6,000-seat stadium that packages the sport in a carnival atmosphere, the AirHogs' appeal goes beyond the traditional.

Brian Webb, a Dallas family lawyer, says he took a chance on the AirHogs because he was fed up with the Texas Rangers. "I love coming out to these games because this is baseball in its purest form."

Fans can find players such as Nicholson who are at the end of their careers or those who feel they still have a shot at the Bigs, such as pitcher Jose Cordero or catcher J.B. Tucker, players who come out night after night without multimillion-dollar contracts, product endorsements, and "what's in it for me" mindsets. Players who play for the love of the game.

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In his first at-bat, Nicholson rips a pitch from the Pelicans' Daniel Smith into right field and smells a triple. His 6-foot, 230-pound frame reaches full speed, and there's no hesitation rounding second, followed by a headfirst slide into third. Safe.

He gets up and dusts the dirt off his jersey. It's his second triple in as many nights. One batter later, Michael Conroy singles in Nicholson for the first run of the game.

The next inning, Nicholson takes the field. Normally a designated hitter, he's playing first base tonight—other nights he plays the outfield. Shortstop David Espinosa fields a ground ball and fires over to first. His throw is wide of the base, and Nicholson dives to his left to save the throw, which pulls him off the bag without getting the out.

It's all in a day's work for Nicholson, who plays with the passion and intensity you'd expect from someone 10 years younger. He's only 32 but a geezer in this league.

Tucker, the team's leader in batting average and home runs, says Nicholson is even-keeled and plays hard every day. "Hands down, Derek Nicholson is the heart and soul of this team."

In the top of the seventh with the score tied 2-2, AirHogs reliever Geivy Garcia surrenders a double to the Pelicans center fielder, and a run scores. A wild pitch by Garcia allows the center fielder to score, giving Pensacola a 4-2 lead.

The AirHogs may have lost the lead, but even with oppressive temperatures, they show no signs of losing their fans. Few leave the ballpark; there is just too much to keep them entertained.

Fans entering QuikTrip Park immediately become aware that this is no ordinary minor league venue. Those wondering what an airhog is get their first clue when approaching the front entrance, which was designed to look like an airplane hangar, complete with landing strips lined by runway lights near the gates. AirHogs, a name selected from more than 700 submissions from fans, refers to World War II pilots from Grand Prairie who were known to hog the airspace during their volunteer missions.

The idea to bring baseball to Grand Prairie was born approximately three years ago. Grand Prairie Mayor Charles England says he was looking to add another venue to the city-owned land near Interstate 30 and Belt Line Road where Lone Star Park and the Nokia Theatre anchor the city's entertainment district.

At first, England wanted to bring in a college wood-bat team, which helps college players make the adjustment from aluminum bats to wood. But the idea for a minor league franchise evolved after word spread that Grand Prairie was interested in bringing baseball to the area.

The American Association contacted England, and it wasn't long before the city entered into a partnership with Ventura Sports Group's Mark Schuster and Roger Christoph, owners of what would become the AirHogs. Grand Prairie voters green-lighted city ownership of a new $20 million stadium with a vote to increase the sales tax by one-eighth of a cent in May 2007.

"We knew very quickly that we wanted to be in Grand Prairie," Schuster says. "We weren't even considering other offers out there."

 

Naming rights to the stadium were sold for 10 years at an undisclosed amount to QuikTrip Corporation, which operates convenience stores throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area. England notes that the team owners contributed more than $1 million in equity to the stadium and will share a percentage of the profits with the city once revenues reach a certain threshold. The city also receives a lease payment from the owners, which England says was structured so that the team could be successful.

Construction on the stadium began in late June 2007 and was completed in just 10 months. The ballpark has 4,200 seats in the stands; another 1,800 available in the lawn, picnic and bar areas placed throughout the venue; and 13 luxury suites on the second level.

At the end of the right field concourse, kids can enjoy the Wild World of Parks, a 17,000-square-foot area complete with picnic tables, two baseball-themed playgrounds, a Wiffleball park, basketball hoops, two climbing rocks and a six-hole miniature golf putting green. Near the park area is the gated pool, which protrudes into right field and is only available for private parties. A cigar bar sits behind left field, an area so popular that it already has been expanded.

England, a smoker himself, says he hasn't received any complaints about the cigar bar and sees it as a marketing tool. "In the real world, there are a lot of people who like drinking a beer along with a cigarette or a cigar."

Next to the cigar bar in the left field corner is Whiskey Charlie's, a sports bar with 34 flat-screen TVs and a regular hangout not only for fans, but also for players after the game.

Attendance has averaged approximately 3,000, or half of capacity. Things are looking up, says Schuster, as attendance doubled from June to July. Schuster says he and his partner, who also own the El Paso Diablos, expect the numbers to be "significantly better" next season. The Diablos are also in the American Association and have been battling the AirHogs for a playoff spot in the Southern Division. When the two teams face each other, Schuster says, he isn't rooting for either team to win.

"For us, it's really not about the wins and losses," he says. "Our job really is to make people have a great time in our stadium and have them leave with a smile."

No doubt the team's zany promotions have kept fans smiling. The AirHogs first grabbed headlines when a $10,000 funeral was given away at the June 3 game against the Diablos. Fans registering for the prize were selected at random to become one of 20 to participate in a series of contests, including a pallbearer's race, a mummy wrap and a eulogy delivery, to determine a winner.

On July 6, General Manager Dave Burke guaranteed an AirHogs victory on Jessica Simpson Day, setting out to prove that Simpson wasn't the jinx many Cowboys fans thought she was. Those fans attributed last season's 10-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles as well as quarterback Tony Romo's poor performance in the game to the presence of Simpson, who was cheering for her boyfriend in a luxury box while wearing a pink Romo jersey. AirHogs fans who dressed up like Simpson received $1 admission along with a chance to compete for a free suite rental by winning the Simpson look-alike contest. Burke's guarantee came with a promise to give fans tickets to a future game if the AirHogs lost. But the team came through and beat the Pelicans 5-4.

Throughout the season, the AirHogs have featured pre-game concerts and in-game races between people dressed as hot dogs, egg rolls and taquitos. Other promotions included Ultimate Fighting Championship Night, where local fighters sparred throughout the game, Hannah Montana Night, Military Appreciation Night, Inky Bobblehead Giveaway Night and Fan Appreciation Night, which was called the "Hog-a-palooza Luau."

The most successful event in terms of publicity was the July 16 Alex Rodriguez and Madonna Night, which poked fun at Rodriguez's pending divorce amidst rumors that the Yankees third baseman was having an affair with Madonna. Again, look-alikes were given $1 admission to the game, as were couples claiming to share an agent, since Guy Oseary is the agent for Madonna and Rodriguez. The promotion was mentioned in newspapers across the country, including the New York Post, The Seattle Times and the St. Petersburg Times. Schuster says the team's promotions are a collaborative effort between ownership and management. Their circus-like feel, even on a small marketing budget, creates buzz about the team and gets people in the seats.

The novelty of the team, stadium and promotions aside, Schuster says one of the best decisions he made was hiring Pete Incaviglia, who has brought credibility to the organization—as well as a winning record.

————
 

It's the bottom of the eighth. The AirHogs have bases loaded against the Pelicans as Nicholson steps into the batter's box. Incaviglia, leaning against the fence in front of the dugout, watches intensely. Nicholson waits for the perfect pitch to get his team back in the game, and his patience pays off as he earns a walk, scoring center fielder Drew Holder.

The AirHogs are down 4-3 with the bases still loaded, and Incaviglia pops in and out of the dugout, obviously unsettled by the situation. But the AirHogs score another run, and Incaviglia breathes easier. He wipes the sweat from his brow as the game goes into extra innings. When the Pelicans walk AirHogs second baseman Brandon Carter in the bottom of the 11th, Incaviglia pulls aside veteran David Espinosa and tells him to bunt to move Carter into scoring position. Espinosa lays down a bunt, with Carter advancing to second, but no one is covering third, and Carter keeps running. A wild throw to the Pelicans shortstop scrambling to cover the bag allows Carter to score the winning run. It's not the way Incaviglia drew it up, but he'll take the win anyway.

"He's into the game even more than the people playing the game," says catcher J.B. Tucker. "That's part of the reason why we're winning so much: because he doesn't take a second off."

During his playing days, Incaviglia was known as one of the strongest men in baseball, standing 6-foot-1 and weighing 230 pounds, with biceps the size of a man's thigh. He's put on weight since he stopped playing in the majors 10 years ago, but Incaviglia remains Hulk-ish.

Before the season started, players urged him to take some swings during batting practice. Incaviglia, 44, says he was "feeling frisky" and accepted the challenge. It wasn't long before he crushed a ball deep into left field, breaking a window at Whiskey Charlie's. The next day a net was installed to make sure that didn't happen again.

Incaviglia's journey to the majors began after establishing himself at Oklahoma State as one of the best college players in the nation, setting NCCA single-season records for home runs, slugging percentage, RBI and total bases.

Selected eighth overall in the draft by the Montreal Expos in 1985, Incaviglia refused to be sent to its minor league affiliate and was traded to the Texas Rangers. Although he became one of only a handful of players to go straight to the majors, he looked like he belonged, leading the Rangers with 30 home runs as a rookie in 1986. Incaviglia had four more productive seasons playing in Texas, but he was released by the team just days before the 1991 season.

Nine days later, he was signed by the Detroit Tigers and spent the 1992 season with the Houston Astros. He struggled for both teams. After signing with the Philadelphia Phillies as a free agent in 1993, Incaviglia bounced back with perhaps the best season in his major league career, hitting .274 with 24 home runs and 89 RBI, and helping his team advance to the World Series, which he describes as "the most enjoyable time in my baseball career."

He later played for the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees, where in 1997 he got his first exposure to affiliated baseball with a demotion to New York's Triple-A team. After brief major league stints with the Tigers and the Astros, he moved on to play independent baseball with the Nashua Pride and Newark Bears of the Atlantic League in 2000 and 2001.

Because he has been through all the ranks of baseball—major league, affiliated and independent—he can identify with his players who refer to him as "a players' manager."

"He played the game; he knows how we are feeling," says pitcher Jose Cordero. "He's the best manager I've ever had in my life because he talks with the players."

Incaviglia's first step toward being a manager was as a hitting coach for the Erie SeaWolves, the Double-A affiliate of the Tigers where he coached Nicholson. After he had spent three seasons there, however, the entire coaching staff was fired in September 2006.

He took a brief break from baseball in 2007, helping former teammate Lenny Dykstra manage some business ventures in California. Six months later, he received a phone call from Chris Carmanuchi, director of player personnel for the AirHogs, to gauge his interest in becoming the team's first manager.

It seemed like a perfect fit for Incaviglia, who has lived in the Dallas area for the last 22 years and moved to Argyle eight years ago when he remarried.

Soon after his conversation with Carmanuchi, a meeting was arranged with AirHogs owners Schuster and Christoph at an airport snack shop in Pensacola. Within an hour, Incaviglia had the job.

 

"There was just something about Pete and the way he carried himself," Schuster says. "Regardless of what he does, he does it first class and wants to win."

Incaviglia and Carmanuchi collaborated to fill out the 22-man roster, early on deciding upon Nicholson, for whom the decision to play for Incaviglia came easy. "He genuinely cares, and he's not out here for self-promotion, which is rare in this game," Nicholson says.

Two AirHogs have already beaten the odds and signed contracts with big-league clubs, which is a testament to Incaviglia's ability to sniff out top talent. Pitcher Scot Drucker now plays for Erie in the Tigers' organization while pitcher Kieran Mattison went to Jacksonville, an affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

When Schuster hired Incaviglia, he told him that he'd never be fired for losing games. His job was to find players who were as good on the field as off.

————

Jose Cordero takes the mound at LaGrave Field, home of the Fort Worth Cats. LaGrave, rebuilt in 2002, has seen the likes of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson, but if Cordero is intimidated, he doesn't show it. At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, Cordero is the one doing the intimidating this July night. He whizzes 94-mph fastballs across the plate, utilizing the torque from his powerful legs.

He tells Incaviglia that one day's rest is all he needs before he can pitch again. Incaviglia says Cordero's arm is never sore, and the 25-year-old works like "a maniac," earning the nickname "El Caballo," which means "The Horse."

"He would pitch every day if it weren't for me," Incaviglia says. "I have to watch out for him because he won't watch out for himself."

Cordero has earned the respect of his manager and teammates not only for his pitching, but also for his commitment to baseball, which caused him to risk his life for the sport. Frustrated with playing ball in his native Cuba, Cordero and five other Cuban players secretly devised a plan in 2004 to flee to the United States and realize their dreams of playing in the major leagues. Cordero only told his uncle about his plans, fearing that either his mother or the government would try to stop him. Cordero was closest with his grandmother, who died shortly before he decided to leave. "I always said when my grandma passed away, I'd go to a better place."

Cordero and the others spent 15 days hiding in the woods, preparing for the boat ride to Florida. Dressed in shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of sneakers, he walked for days in swamp water, slept near trees or not at all, battled mosquitoes and other insects, and tried to stay alive without much food or drink. Ten days into his escape, he sent word to his uncle to tell his mother about his plans so she wouldn't worry.

Just 45 minutes into the boat trip, says Cordero, he and the others spotted sharks, which bumped the boat. "Everybody was scared, but what could we do? Nothing."

It was also October and hurricane season. The 12-to-18-foot swells turned his stomach and made him vomit. After two days, the boat landed near Key West. Everyone survived, with Cordero 15 pounds lighter.

"We were happy," he says. "We were crying, doing everything. All of the feelings came at the same time."

Eight hours later, the 38 Cuban defectors were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard, who gave them food and took them to Miami, where they spent seven hours in an immigration jail before they were released and taken to a hospital.

In Miami, Cordero stayed with one of the smugglers who forgave his usual $10,000 fee for each of the six ballplayers in exchange for a cut of what they would earn if they were signed by a major league team.

Cordero says he stayed with the smuggler in Miami while exhibition games were organized and played in front of scouts. In June 2005, the Minnesota Twins drafted him in the 44th round. Three of the other players were also taken in the draft; Yunel Escobar, a childhood friend of Cordero's, currently plays as the starting shortstop for the Atlanta Braves.

Cordero spent the 2005 season in affiliated baseball with the Gulf Coast League Twins and Beloit Snappers, where he worked on his mechanics and went to school two days a week to learn English, helped along by his teammates.

He played for Beloit during the 2006 season, pitching in 23 games as a starter and reliever. But the Twins released him in March 2007, and he began playing independent baseball with the Laredo Broncos of the United League before joining the Sioux City Explorers of the American Association at the end of the 2007 season. Cordero was signed May 23 by the AirHogs to bolster their bullpen after the team struggled out of the gate with a 5-8 record. When the AirHogs lost their two star pitchers, Drucker and Mattison, to affiliated teams, Cordero was permanently moved into the rotation as a starter.

 

Although the pay is low, Cordero says, it's far better than the $15 per month he was receiving to play baseball in Cuba. It also helps that he lives with a host family in Grand Prairie, and the team often pays for his meals. That way he is able to send most of his paycheck to his mother in Cuba and his wife and daughter in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he lives in the offseason.

Incaviglia says Cordero will be back in affiliated ball "sometime in the near future" and may even make it in the majors. But for now, Cordero is focusing on helping Grand Prairie in its run for the championship of the American Association.

In his July start against the Cats, Cordero pitched a shutout until a brief hiccup in the bottom of the fifth inning enabled the Cats to score two runs. But after pitching eight strong innings, allowing only five hits and three walks while striking out four batters, Cordero led his team to a 7-2 victory over its rival.

"Right now, everybody is scared to play against us," he says.

————

The AirHogs began the season losing six of their first seven games, but they finished the month of May even, with an 11-11 record. The team started catching fire, posting a 16-10 record in June and then going 18-8 in July, including an incredible three-week stretch when the team won 18 of 20 games. Incaviglia says the team's success has been a surprise, with his three-year plan suddenly becoming a one-year plan.

With a playoff berth secured, Grand Prairie will take its rivalry with Fort Worth to the next level in a postseason match-up unlike those in the majors. The Cats, winners of the first half of the season in the Southern Division, will host the AirHogs, winners of the second half of the season, in a best-of-five series beginning August 25. The victor earns the right to play the winner of the Northern Division for the American Association championship beginning September 1.

Incaviglia says the AirHogs-Cats rivalry is great for the metroplex though it may have taken the Cats by surprise. "They probably thought we'd be a doormat in the league for a few years until we found the right pieces and the right group of people."

For Incaviglia, a couple of AirHogs championships could lead to an opportunity to manage in the majors, though he says he's happy right where he is. "It's Christmas every day for me to come out here and put the uniform on."

For Nicholson, a championship might not result in much—other than giving him a few more seasons to play baseball beyond what he had imagined for himself. "I wouldn't change one thing in my whole career. I'm really lucky to have played this long," he says. "That's the thing I'll miss most—being around the game."


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