I watched the Portland SeaDogs, a Boston affiliate, play the Trenton Thunder, a New York farm club, at Hadlock Field in Portland last night. We sat right above the Trenton bullpen, watching cocky prospects whip 90 mph fastballs at crew cut bullpen catchers. I spent much of the evening dreaming up taunts for the future Yankees, hoping I might make one 19-year-old feel guilty toiling for the most evil enterprise north of Philip Morris.
By the second inning, I was ready. I’d get some poor schlep’s attention and ask him who he wanted to be traded for, Tim Lincecum or Justin Upton. After all, that’s all these guys are, right? They’re trading chips to be tossed aside, like Austin Jackson was, when a veteran like Curtis Granderson is available and the Gothams don’t want to risk starting a rookie in centerfield (even one who would prove to be better than Granderson from day one).
Now I just needed to choose my prey. The Dominican guys might not understand English, so they wouldn’t work. The AA bullpen catchers certainly weren’t prospects, so the joke didn’t apply.
Just as I thought I might’ve chosen a target, a baby-faced, African-American pitcher emerges from under an awning, spots my daughter standing at the fence, grabs a baseball, makes eye contact with me, and tosses it up. I catch it and give it to Joss, who’s not interested, so it goes to my nephew, Noah. He’s not the guy, I think. No reason to heckle the nice fellow who’s charmed by my little girl.
I return my attention to the game for a few minutes, but as Trenton takes a 5-2 lead in the late innings, it seems like a good barb might be the best thing to come of this game. I pick out a dopey-looking white guy and I’m ready to go. Seconds later, the Trenton right fielder picks up a rolling foul ball, tosses it into the bullpen, and the dopey guy has it. All the kids in my section descend on the bullpen, begging for a souvenir. Dopey scans the crowd of snot-nosed brats, zeroes in on Joss in her Red Sox onesie and says “whose guy is that?” Rather than chastising him for missing the pink belt holding up her jeans, I stand up, throw out a hand, and catch another souvenir, this one more appealing to my androgynous 18-month-old. I thank him, and end my crusade.
By this point, it’s sunk in pretty well. I just finished Dirk Hayhurst’s brilliant “Bullpen Diaries”, a career minor leaguer’s account of life in the minors, and I should know better than to hate these guys. They’re ballplayers- good ones, maybe not great ones- just trying to make it. Some are living off multi-million dollar bonuses, others are scraping by on stipends and meal money, facing slim odds of ever realizing their big league dreams. They were drafted or traded and ended up in an organization whose major league team has all the history, all the glory, all the money, all the championships, much of the luck, and most of the a**hole fans in major league baseball. But most of them will probably never get there. If they do make the majors, it’ll probably be as September call-ups for whatever desperate team traded its highest-paid veterans to New York at the deadline to save a few million bucks and rebuild for the future. It won’t be about October glory or bullying the poorer teams to another title only post-Steinbrenner baseball economics could procure. It will be about a talented, young athlete realizing a lifelong dream. A talented, young athlete who saw a little girl (who may have looked like a boy) in a Red Sox onesie and tried to make her day by throwing her dad a ball.
I may never cleanse my heart of all the hate the Yankees have stirred up in me over the past decade and a half, but I don’t have to hate the Trenton Thunder. Thanks for the balls, guys. I hope you realize your dreams.