News » Features

Road to the show

The odds are slim, the competition fierce, the road long and treacherous. But for these Missoula ballplayers, there’s no other game they’d rather play.

comment

It’s a typical dog day of summer in Missoula, and the mid-afternoon heat hangs in shimmering waves over the modest ballpark. Scattered around the spotty-grassed, uneven outfield is a group of teenagers, the unmistakable thwacks of horsehide meeting leather floating in the haze as the young men loosen their arms in rough, parallel lines of long-tossing.

This is a scene that plays out on thousands of baseball diamonds all over the country on any given fair-weather day, driven by the desire of untold numbers of aspiring ballplayers, all with stars in their eyes and dreams of playing in the majors in their hearts. The difference between this particular group of athletes and the average assemblage on a Little League or high-school diamond is that these players are genuine major-league prospects, having been signed to professional contracts by the major-league Arizona Diamondbacks and assigned to the Missoula Osprey, the Pioneer League affiliate of the D-Backs.

As one of the initial stops on the road to the majors, the Pioneer League restricts the age of its players in such a manner that the rosters read like an average college class; the oldest player on the Osprey is 23 and the youngest is 17, with the majority falling between 18 and 21. And with the notable exceptions of free will (all the players were assigned here by the D-Backs) and ethnic diversity (nearly half of the Osprey hail from locales like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic), the college-student model is an accurate one to describe the maturity levels and behavior patterns of the players.

The nature of the minor leagues is such that stasis equals career death. Advancement, to bigger and better leagues against bigger and better players, is the name of the game. So unlike the majority of Missoula residents, who sacrifice much in the way of economic opportunity to be here, Osprey players would just as soon put our little burg in their rear view mirrors as soon as possible.

During their time here, some take advantage of the unique natural resources that define this place. Osprey Manager Chip Hale, in fact, has had to warn several of his young charges this season that early-morning trout fishing is not conducive to sharpness on the playing field, especially when combined with a lack of sleep.

But for many of the players, Missoula could be anywhere. Their working hours are roughly from 1 PM–when stretching, weight lifting and early batting practice begin–until 11 PM, when the games have concluded and a bleacher full of autographs have been signed. Then it’s off to dinner–they frequent chain restaurants that stay open 24 hours, for convenience and continuity–and to bed, most in the homes of local host families who house the players.

If it’s a weekend night, or the night preceding a rare off-day, many of the players will head down to a local watering hole—they seem to like the ones with dance floors, strobe lights, and thumping music–often accompanied by the opposing players against whom they just battled. There, they are surrounded by hordes of admirers; young men who envy their charmed life, young women intoxicated by their handsome faces and the faint glow of stardom that surrounds them like a corona. Yes, there is a minor leagues for groupies, too.

They are professional baseball players, and this is what they do seven days a week.

The horsehide training grounds

The complex, hierarchical minor league system of baseball is unduplicated among grooming processes for any of the major sports industries. The closest the National Football League has to a minor league, for example, is NFL Europe, an amalgam of American football teams across the pond that is as much a public relations move for the NFL as a developmental stop for budding athletes; the overwhelming majority of NFL players move directly from college teams to the pros. Similarly, the National Basketball Association finds a few of its players on semi-pro teams from leagues like the newly-extinct Continental Basketball Association, but the lion’s share of NBA hoopsters move straight from college—or even high school—to the big time.

The reason behind the extended apprenticeship in baseball is as simple to explain as it is difficult to accomplish: Despite the fact that baseball requires the least overall athleticism from its players among the major sports (three-time Philadelphia Phillies All-Star John Kruk was known to snarf three or four hot dogs and several cigarettes on the field before games), the combination of mental and physical acumen required to perform the fundamental acts of hitting and pitching on a consistent basis is so rare in young ballplayers that only the tiniest fraction make it to the majors without spending considerable time in the minors. In other words, the level of competition in pro baseball, in relation to the ability of its young athletes, is exponentially higher than any other sport. Becoming one of the best baseball players in the world is an almost Herculean task to accomplish.

The Pioneer League, in which the Osprey play, was formed in 1939 and carries the official title of Rookie Advanced ball. The Pioneer League sits above the straight Rookie ball and below the various levels of single-A, double-A and triple-A baseball. The rosters of Pioneer teams consist chiefly of newly-signed draft picks and free agents.

If this Osprey team holds to form, perhaps two or three of these young men will eventually feel the rush of stepping onto a field as a major-league ballplayer.

Which comes first, the player or the team?

In a sense, every minor league team is a contradiction of itself. From an organizational standpoint, the players are there first and foremost to hone their skills and become an asset to the major league team that signed them. Minor league clubs are the rough equivalent of organ farms for the parent club; when a team higher in the hierarchy loses an arm or a leg, it reaches down to the team below it to fill the need. As a result of this constant player shuffling, the rosters of minor league teams are nascent and indefinable from one season to the next, and even from one part of the season to another. Emphasizing the development of the individual over the good of the whole runs against the grain of every notion of teamwork, and yet the players are expected to compete as a unit during the time they exist as such. Chip Hale, the manager of the Osprey for the last two seasons, says that the Diamondbacks take a healthy approach to integrating individual and team development.

“It’s very important for these guys to learn how to play within a team environment and learn how to win as a team, because that is not the same as excelling as an individual,” says Hale, who himself made the jump from the minors to the Minnesota Twins as a 24-year old in 1989 and played big-league ball for seven seasons. Hale is a young manager, two years into his second baseball profession, and he manages like one: enthusiastic, tuned to his players and with the spirit of playing still rich in his blood.

“Some organizations work just the prospects and give them all the extra swings and attention, but we don’t turn anybody away,” says Hale. “I came up in an organization like that, and let me tell you, it got old.” Hale believes that the melting-pot nature of minor league ball is key to the overall development of his young players.

“Ethnic diversity is a real good thing for these guys, especially the American kids,” he says. “We try to mix rooming lists so guys have to room with different people on the road so they can get to know each other, their cultures and languages.”

Although all first-year players earn the same meager monthly stipend, players receive signing bonuses upon first committing to the team, which can range from zero to several million dollars. But despite such wide gaps in income, Hale notes that the harmony among his players extends across financial as well as ethnic boundaries—a notion seconded by team members themselves. “I haven’t seen one case this year, in the clubhouse or anywhere else, where money has been a factor, or even mentioned,” says Osprey shortstop Scott Hilinski, a 23rd-round draft pick for the D-Backs.

The team concept has clearly been absorbed by this version of the Osprey. After a horrendous start to the season in which they lost their first six games, the Fish Hawks rebounded to challenge the Billings Mustangs for the first-half title in the Pioneer northern division. Though Billings prevailed, the Osprey ran roughshod over the rest of the league for the remainder of the season, earning them the best overall record, the second-half title and a spot in the playoffs.

Learning to fail

Baseball is a game that is predicated on failure. The act of connecting the round barrel of a bat squarely with the round surface of a ball moving at close to 100 mph has been deemed by physicists the most difficult feat to perform in all of sports. A hitter who carries a batting average of .300–the benchmark of greatness in the major leagues–still fails seven out every ten times he comes to bat. So a huge element of a successful ball player is not only the physical ability to minimize inevitable failure, but also the mental ability to compartmentalize that failure, to learn from it and then tuck it away before the next opportunity arises. To be a good winner in baseball, a player must first learn to be a good loser.

Enduring the ups and downs of a long season is a crucial element in fostering an individual as well as a team mentality. The 76-game schedule played by Pioneer League teams, though less than half of the big league’s 162-game season, represents a significant leap in the number of games played for almost every player at this level. Baseball is, after all, a game of cyclical rhythms, the very embodiment of the virtues of endurance prevailing over the flash of short-term pyrotechnics, and rookie ball is where young players begin to get a sense of what it takes to persevere over the long haul.

Scott Hairston is a prime example of a relatively unseasoned prospect getting a taste of the view from the bottom of a steep learning curve. Hairston, a third-round draft pick in 2001, is an immensely talented 21-year-old second baseman out of Central Arizona College. The Hairston name is a baseball legacy; Scott’s father, Jerry, was a mainstay in the outfield for the Chicago White Sox from 1973-1989, and his brother, Jerry Jr., has played second base with the Baltimore Orioles since 1998.

At a glance, Hairston could be perceived as having mastered ball at the rookie level; as of the regular season finale on Sept. 2, Hairston ranked in the top five of nearly every offensive category in the Pioneer League. According to Hale, though, those numbers are more a result of Hairston’s natural ability than his seasoned approach to the game. Hairston often becomes visibly upset when umpires make what he feels are bad calls on balls and strikes, and that frustration is compounded when his at-bat ends in failure. Hale says that Hairston needs to learn how to handle that natural tendency towards frustration if he wants to continue his success at higher levels of baseball.

“Scotty, obviously, has all the tools you look for in a hitter. He hits for power and average. But the thing with him, more than anything, is his mental approach,” says Hale. “I don’t understand the whole frustration thing with him, because he comes from a baseball family and should know that the game has its ups and downs. But then again, I know his father real well and he was a pretty high-strung player, and his brother is the same way.”

Hairston is an affable young man, courteous and open in one-on-one conversation. He lives with local psychologist Bill Hahnstadt, who calls the host family-player relationship “a very rewarding experience.” Hairston provides game tickets for Hahnstadt and his 14-year-old son, Grayson, and kicks in to help cover the cost of groceries. More importantly for Hahnstadt, though, is the example of commitment–Bill marvels at the 100-hour work weeks logged by the players–displayed by Hairston.

“He’s an ideal role model for my son,” says Hahnstadt. “He’s really shown Grayson what being a pro ballplayer is all about.” The spark in Hairston’s eyes when he talks baseball is unmistakable, and the competitive fire that drives him burns just below the surface of his calm demeanor.

“People don’t realize how badly I want to win,” says Hairston, “and I take this more seriously than anything in my life. This is my job, it is my life. I want to make it to the show.”

Both Hale and Osprey hitting coach Hector De La Cruz, a former player with the Toronto Blue Jays, feel that Hairston is a legitimate major league prospect.

“He’s going to be unbelievable when he learns to go the other way,” says De La Cruz, referring to his effort to get Hairston to hit outside pitches into right field, one the most difficult tasks for a right-handed power hitter to master. “He could be another Bret Boone–he’s exactly that kind of player,” he adds, referring to the diminutive second baseman, and MVP candidate, with the Seattle Mariners.

Lino Garcia is another Osprey player that Hale, De La Cruz, and the D-Backs are convinced will be an impact player in the majors. The 17-year-old Venezuelan center fielder began the season with a bang before being sidelined for a month with a hand fracture, delivering a string of ninth-inning clutch hits that won several games for the Osprey as the team emerged from its early-season swoon. “This is a guy, incredibly young and from a foreign country, getting into clutch situations and just thriving,” marvels Hale. “You can’t teach that kind of stuff. It’s almost like a pedigree.”

Garcia struggled much of the second half as he came back from the injury, and he ended the season with a modest .243 batting average. But as Hale points out, timely hitting doesn’t always show up in the stat sheets.

“If a guy goes one-for-four, does he get that hit with nobody on base and the team up by five, or does he get it with two outs, men in scoring position and the team down by one?” notes Hale. “That’s the mark of a good hitter.”

Baseball scouts who have seen both Garcia and Juan Gonzalez (the Cleveland Indian’s hulking power hitter and two-time MVP) at the same stage in their careers draw close parallels between the two. While that seems unlikely looking at Garcia’s six-foot-three, 180-pound frame, it’s easy to forget that he is younger than most high-school seniors.

Garcia grew up playing baseball in the streets of Apure, Venezuela, a city he compares to Missoula in size. The young boys made bases out of cardboard squares, and on the frequent occasions when they couldn’t find a ball they’d make one out of rolled-up socks. When socks weren’t available, they’d simply use bottle caps, and Garcia credits his ability to hit curve balls to the hours he spent trying to connect with the crazy, swerving pitches of bottle cap ball.

Garcia attracted notice with his play in the Venezuelan youth leagues and later attended several academies established in his country by major league teams. Since foreign players are not eligible for the baseball draft, Garcia signed as a free agent with the D-Backs this spring. Garcia, along with fireball relief pitcher Jesus Silva, another Venezuelan, is staying with the Benson family of Missoula. Emery and Reina Benson are small-business owners who, like Hahnstadt, are delighted to house the young men. “They’re like my own sons,” says Reina, a Puerto Rican native who keeps her young charges fed with food familiar to their palates, such as red beans and rice.

Hale, who played winter ball in Mexico for two seasons while in the minors, says that Garcia has handled the transition to American ball—and American life—very well.

“It’s hard going to a place where you don’t know the language or culture, but he’s done a great job,” says Hale. “He’s really fun to coach, he wants to get better, and he listens and works hard.”

Diamond in the rough

Any marginal sports fan in the area is surely familiar with Jesus Cota, the Osprey’s power-hitting first baseman who absolutely terrorized opposing pitchers in 2001. Cota’s achievements in his first season of professional ball are mind-boggling: He was named the Diamondbacks Minor League Player of the Month for July, he earned Pioneer League MVP honors, and on Sunday he became only the fourth player in modern Pioneer League history to win the coveted Triple Crown (highest batting average, most home runs and most runs batted in).

The 19-year-old Cota, who was born in Hermosillo, Mexico and moved with his family to California at age seven, was a 14th-round draft pick as a freshman out of Pima (Ariz.) Community College for the D-Backs in 2000. Although not completely happy with the D-Backs offer, Cota felt he was ready for pro ball and signed shortly after the college season ended this spring.

The left-handed hitter has an unbelievably quiet, efficient swing: He stands poised and rock-still at the plate, bat resting lightly on shoulder, until the pitcher starts his windup. At that moment, Cota lifts the bat a few inches off his shoulder–the only pre-swing movement evident–and from there the swing explodes in a sudden torrent of natural fluidity.

“Boy, talk about quick hands,” says Hale, “Cota’s got a very short swing for a guy who hits for that much power.” It’s a swing that Cota says he’s had ever since he picked up a bat.

“Nobody ever taught me how to swing a bat,” says Cota, in a manner that’s as understated as the swing itself. “It’s pretty much natural. I’ve been successful since I started playing ball, so I guess there’s no reason to change anything.”

De La Cruz is so jazzed on Cota’s ability as a hitter that he thinks the young man could handle major-league pitching as early as next season, and places a personal prediction that Cota will make “The Show” by the time he is 21 years old. While Hale is as impressed as anybody with Cota’s output and is especially struck by his knowledge of the strike zone, he cautions that Cota must learn the fundamentals of defense and base running before reaching the level of major-league play. “He’s gotten better and better defensively, but he’s still got a long way to go in running the bases,” says Hale.

Going…going...gone.

It’s a hot August night in Missoula, and the Osprey are in a heated battle for the Pioneer League second-half title. Their opponent on this night is the Billings Mustangs, the Fish Hawks’ primary rival, and a stiff breeze is blowing in from right field. The shortstop Hilinski leads off the bottom of the first with a double and is followed by Hairston, who shows good patience by drawing a walk.

Cota steps to the plate and crushes a first-pitch fastball from Mustangs lefty Cleris Severino into the air above right-center field. The ball rockets up into the twilit sky, clawing against the wind. Impossibly, as if in slow motion, the ball carries over the upturned head of the Billings right fielder and clears the fence by a good ten feet.

Later that night, Hairston would say, “Man, I had the best view of that swing. I had my lead at first and I knew it was gone, wind or not. I wish I had a camera with me to videotape it.”

If Cota, Hairston, and Garcia continue to progress at the rate they’ve managed this year, they’ll soon have all the camera angles of their swings they could ever want.

Add a comment