Chasing rainbows: Love of game, belief they can help keep Triple-A veterans going
Web Posted: 07/08/2006 12:25 AM CDT
Express-News Staff Writer
Sometimes, when they're trapped in another interminable airport layover, or hunkered in a dingy Triple-A clubhouse, or hanging out in somebody's cramped apartment, Brandon Larson and his teammates on the New Orleans Zephyrs will talk about life after baseball.
It's not a topic that comes up in Rookie ball, or Class A, or even Double-A. The 22-year-olds, the up-and-comers at Triple-A, aren't included. It's the baseball equivalent of whistling past the graveyard for guys on the opposite side of 30, such as Larson and Micah Bowie and Jesse Garcia and Mike Coolbaugh.
It's talk about what happens when they no longer can do what they have been doing their entire lives. It's talk about an end to dreams — or the realization that they achieved their goals but are hanging on for one more shot, one more day at the highest level of the sport.
And almost invariably, the discussions end the same way: with the same flippant line, the same laughs, and the same segue into something far less substantial, like the good-looking girls behind the dugout the night before.
(Tom Uhlman / Associated Press)
Brandon Larson, playing for the Reds in 2002, slides safely home in front of Padres catcher Tom Lampkin. "We'll be sitting there saying, 'What are we doing here?'" said Larson, who turned 30 on May 24. "But then we start to talk about it, and we'll laugh, because we're getting money to play a game.
"There's nowhere else where you can get paid to play a game and love it, instead of going out and getting real jobs."
Bowie, who is 31, tells a similar story — but not in front of his wife anymore.
"We say, 'Hey, who wants to get a real job?'" he said. "My wife gets mad when she hears me say that, because it really is a pretty tough job. It's tougher than most day jobs — you're away from home and your family for 270 days a year, you're working 10 to 12 hours a day, every day, with no weekends or holidays off."
Baseball has a firm and cruel grip on athletes at Triple-A, trapped just below the major leagues — trapped because there are higher-paid players ahead of them, or there isn't a need for their skills at the moment, or the organization simply needs somebody to play right field every night on the Triple-A team.
Older players talk about a future after baseball because they finally can see it. But their focus, as always, is on the present — the next pitch, the next at-bat, the next call from the dugout to the bullpen. As much as the game grips them, they are gripping back, knowing their lives after baseball can begin with a single phone call.
"I'm at a point now where I know I'm not going to play my entire life," said Coolbaugh, who turned 34 on June 5. "But it's tough to give it up. I'm going to play until they say I can't play anymore."
Coolbaugh, drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 16th round out of Roosevelt High School in 1990, has seen the cruelties of life in the minors up close. In 1997, he led the Southern League in home runs (30), RBIs (132), extra-base hits (69) and total bases (308) and also hit a career-best .308 — and was out of a job that fall. Eight years later, he was having another monster season, this time for Triple-A Round Rock. Going into a game in Nashville on Aug. 19, he was among Pacific Coast League leaders in RBIs and home runs, and his name had been mentioned for a call-up to the light-hitting Astros when teams were allowed to expand their rosters on Sept. 1.
But that night in Tennessee, a fastball broke a bone in his left wrist and ended his season. His major-league service time remained at 44 games. Including this season, he has appeared in 1,638 games in the minors.
Coolbaugh went to spring training this year with the Kansas City Royals, scheduled to be the third baseman at Triple-A Omaha. Instead, an errant fastball in his first intrasquad game cracked a bone in his forearm.
The Royals kept him around, allowing him to rehab from the injury. On June 22, he made his season debut with the organization's Rookie ballclub in the Arizona League, playing with 18- and 19-year-old kids and doing what he has done for 17 summers — keeping a positive outlook.
"You know, there have been years when I had great stats and didn't get to the big leagues, and years when I had what I thought were average stats, and I got called up," he said. "All you can do is try to work every game, every year, to get a little better."
As bad as the timing was for Coolbaugh, at least the injuries haven't been chronic, like they are for Larson.
The Cincinnati Reds' first-round draft pick in 1997, Larson, a Holmes graduate, has missed hundreds of games with an assortment of strains, pulls and broken bones. His big-league service is 109 games, but none since a fruitless 40 games with the Reds in early 2004.
He is with his third organization in three years, and he just recently came off the seven-day disabled list with the Zephyrs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals.
Larson's response, as it has been his whole life, is to maintain that ballplayer's relentless optimism and moment-to-moment focus.
"Why keep it up? I love to play, man," he said. "I love playing the game. I love the camaraderie, I love the teammates, I love being in the clubhouse. I love the games and the ballparks and the energy.
"Of course, the obvious reason is that I still think I've got enough talent and ability to help out the big-league team. If I didn't think that ..."
His voice trailed off for a moment. He didn't want to think about that, not yet.
It's a difficult thought, quitting the game. Often, players have it made for them, when they are released in the fall and the phone fails to ring all winter. Occasionally, they are able to go out on their own terms.
"Last year, I thought about it a lot," said Brooks Kieschnick, who retired in 2005 after spending most of the season at Round Rock. "I didn't want to be the grandpa just hanging out at Triple-A.
"Thirty-three really isn't that old in the big leagues, but it's kind of old in the minors. There are guys who make a career out of it, who keep playing in the minors at that age, and that's fine."
Kieschnick, who reinvented himself in 2003 by taking up pitching for the first time since he was a three-time All-American at Texas, said he knew the moment had arrived.
"It was a pretty clean break for me," he said. "I hit a home run in my last at-bat in the minors. It was time. It was a good way to go out."
Like most of the older players at Triple-A, Kieschnick got some time in the major leagues — more than most, since he was the Chicago Cubs' first-round draft pick in 1993.
And while the motivation remains to get back to the bigger salary and the better accommodations of the big leagues, many older players at Triple-A, like Garcia, also are reflective enough to know what they accomplished.
"This is my 14th season in pro ball, and nobody ever thought I had much of a chance to play this long, especially if they had seen that 140-pound kid who got drafted," said Garcia, who has 171 games of big-league experience with the Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres.
"I reached my goal, to play in the big leagues. That's everyone's goal, but there aren't that many who get there. You don't realize how special it was until you're done, but then you look back and see that you reached your goal."
Always one call away
Garcia, a Robstown native who signed with the Astros' organization this winter, knows that joining a veteran-laden club in Houston is a long shot — especially after missing a month and a half of Round Rock's season with a broken bone in his hand. "It's not a bad life in Triple-A," he said. "But obviously, everyone wants to be in the big leagues. Sometimes, it's not the best players in the big leagues, just the right players with the right organizations.
"I'm not complaining. I'm just waiting here and hoping to get a chance."
A chance is all the Triple-A veterans want — and Bowie, who had Tommy John elbow surgery in 2004, got it earlier this week when he was called up to the Nationals. The 31-year-old, who lives in New Braunfels during the offseason, made his first big-league appearance since 2003 on Thursday, pitching 21/3 shutout innings in relief against the Florida Marlins.
"It means a lot to me to get up here in my first game back in three years, to throw the ball and help the team win," said Bowie, who is that rare commodity in baseball — a left-handed pitcher who throws hard. "When you get on the field, it's about making your pitches.
"I felt like I could compete at the major-league level again — I was just waiting for the right opportunity."
But like all the players his age, he knows both his second chance at the majors and his career can be over in an instant, for any number of reasons: A freak injury. A young prospect from Double-A needing experience. A simple phone call from the front office and a brief meeting with the manager and an airplane ticket home.
And still, they keep at it, as long as there's a uniform and a paycheck and a sliver of hope.
"Why do I keep playing?" said Coolbaugh, who got another shot at Triple-A when the Royals promoted him to Omaha on June 29. "It's all that I've been, and it's all that I am, playing the game."