Stay Golden, Indie Boy

The GBL wasn't around long, but it helped fulfill dreams, even if the dreams changed (via Mark Mauno).

The GBL wasn’t around long, but it helped fulfill dreams, even if the dreams changed (via Mark Mauno).

In 2005, the inaugural summer of the Golden Baseball League, each team played 90 games. At the time I was in high school and lived about five minutes away from one of the GBL’s eight teams, the Fullerton Flyers. The Flyers played 50 home games that year.

Actually, every team played 90 total games and 50 home games in the 2005 Golden Baseball League — every team but one. The Japan Samurai Bears were a cobbled-together gang of Japanese players (and two guys named Wes Yazzie and Charles Sciutti) and they did not have a home stadium. They flew to America for the summer and proceeded to play an uninterrupted 90-game road trip, with their would-be home games getting redistributed among all the other teams. Things like this happen in the indie leagues. It’s just how it is.

Eventually I saw the Golden Baseball League make its way onto SportsCenter. Rickey Henderson was, at the age of 46, a San Diego Surf Dawg, another of the GBL’s inaugural teams. He was still fast enough to play center field and still sharp enough to steal 16 bases against two times caught stealing. He still worked walks like a maniac, earning 73 of them in 307 plate appearances, good for a team-leading .456 OBP. He played 73 of the season’s 90 games — probably the uppermost limit that his old bones would allow.

The photo that accompanied his profile in the New Yorker (it can be seen when you scroll down), published in the waning embers of that season, shows Rickey staring at the ground, alone, in a quite forlorn-looking dugout. That dugout is in Fullerton. I suppose compared to the major leagues it’s a pretty forlorn spot to be. But, much as the portrait appears to be taken from the economically depressed edge of the world, Goodwin Field is quite a sunny and cheery stadium. It’s on the campus of Cal State Fullerton, with Disneyland and the beach (and Angel Stadium) all about half an hour away.

The article continually emphasizes the supposed depravity of the GBL, calling it “the bottom of the bottom” and saying of Henderson that “the defiant mind-set that had made him a great base stealer had, in many ways, trapped him in the Golden Baseball League.” This being some time before Moneyball truly permeated the popular culture, Henderson’s mediocre batting average is proposed as something of comeuppance for his selfish ways. The prolific OBP is not mentioned.

From the outside it’s easy to see this sort of thing, a future Hall of Famer’s participation as a Surf Dawg, as some sort of “stunt.” But there’s really nothing at all stunt-like about it when it’s a 90-plus degree matinee and scattered hundreds are lazily looking at the game between conversations and trips to the lone concession stand and Rickey is still out there, his skin stretched and tanned into something leathery and indestructible, still hurling himself into the dirt in iron pursuit of the eternally precious extra base. I saw this happen. The Surf Dawgs were the last team that Rickey Henderson ever played for, ending a streak of consecutive summers playing professional baseball that went back to 1976, when he hit .336 for the Boise A’s as a 17-year-old.

If you’ve heard about the Golden Baseball League, chances are that you heard about it because of Jose Canseco, who joined the league as a Surf Dawg in 2006 — before demanding a trade to the Long Beach Armada after a single game. (Actually, you might have heard about it from these very same pages of The Hardball Times.) I never saw Canseco play, but I heard the news from SportsCenter, whose anchors gleefully dumped on the GBL from comfortable Bristol, Conn. They said something to the effect of the GBL being a few dugout beers away from a good-ol’ after-work rec league.

Canseco’s approach to the indies was quite dramatic, especially compared to Henderson, who lived a daily, head-down monasticism and couldn’t really help it if opposing teams scheduled promotions in his honor when the Surf Dawgs rolled in. The difference is obvious enough just from the stat sheet: in 2006 Canseco appeared in just 22 games, hitting .169 and striking out 32 times in 87 plate appearances, quite obviously in naked pursuit of the four home runs he managed. There is also the game that he started as a pitcher: 4.1 innings, three runs allowed, one strikeout, five walks, four hit batters.

In fact, Canseco managed to ramp up the frivolity in 2011, when he signed with the Yuma Scorpions — one of the original eight GBL teams, and a team that in fact managed to outlive the GBL itself. With the Scorpions assimilated into the North American League, the 46-year-old Canseco hit for a .798 OPS and pitched 25 innings. He struck out 10, walked 15, hit 11, and gave up, well, he gave up 32 runs. Somehow, there is also a complete game in there. I have no idea.

The point is, is that when you think of the indie leagues you probably think of some jovial perversion of baseball like this, Canseco and his chemist’s biceps straining at his sleeves, looping one flat 80 mph pitch into one gratuitously large thigh after another — probably a one-man Home Run Derby promotion to follow when the game is done.

It’s true, I saw many perversions upon baseball while watching the Fullerton Flyers. I saw a single defender commit three errors in a single inning. I saw not just the manager but the majority of the Flyers’ coaching staff get ejected in the middle of a game, the whole crowd able to hear each word of the vicious heat they gave the raggedy two-man umpiring crew. The dismissals were awkwardly elongated because the clubhouses aren’t accessible through the dugouts but only down the right-field line, providing ample time for the ejectees to turn around and stick in a last word.

But I never did and never will see a joke when I watch an indie league. Not that I was rooting particularly hard for the Flyers to win. I did prefer to see the team win, but I didn’t really care much about it.

What I did care about was Flyers outfielder Kevin Whiteside. I was desperately hoping he would succeed.

I met Kevin through my close friend, G.D. his parents were usually housing some foreign exchange student or another in their comfortable guest room, and, with Cal State Fullerton on break for the summer, they took up the opportunity to house a Flyer. Part of the compensation to G.D.’s family was four season tickets.

In my mind the summer stretched on for forever, and G.D. and I were constantly at the ballpark, ignoring our assigned seats in the 15th row and assuming new regular seats in the second row because, well, nobody was sitting in those, either. In reality we probably didn’t go to more than half of those 50 home contests. Maybe it wasn’t that many games at all. But it felt like a concrete chapter of my time in high school, to be able to watch so much baseball in such an intimate setting, so close and languid that any belch or peanut shell cracking could quite reliably be heard by the batter, catcher and umpire. Ed, the general manager, would walk the rows and cheerily ask how people were doing, on first-name basis with all the player hosts and season ticket holders, which was almost everybody.

As the games went on, the Flyers slumped further and further down the standings: they would finish 34-56, only one game ahead of the Samurai Bears for the worst record in the league. And also — slowly, without plans to feel this way — I felt the same sort of tension that, I realize now, grips the friends and family of everybody playing professional baseball. Although of course the feelings felt by those closest to the game are many many degrees more intense than how I ever rooted for Kevin Whiteside. For me, Flyers games became more or less intermissions between what G.D and I considered our private main event: Kevin Whiteside’s at-bats.

Kevin was a friendly and quiet dude. In the mornings at G.D.’s house he would usually watch a chat show like Regis & Kelly, or read the one book he brought with him, the Bible. He’d leave for a 7 p.m. game at about 12 or 1, dedicating as many hours of the day as was physically possible to refining his hitting. A tinted Cadillac, thudding hip-hop, would usually pick him up. I know all these things because it was summer and I was usually at G.D.’s house anyhow.

Tinted Cadillacs are not a regular part of indie league baseball. This one was driven by Garry Templeton Jr. (or, as he was nobly introduced over the PA system before at-bats, “Garry Templeton, The Second”), the car no doubt purchased with money saved from Garry Templeton The First’s major league career. The senior Templeton was the Flyers’ manager, but it’s not that Templeton the younger didn’t deserve his spot on the team. Templeton The Second hit for good average and dutifully moved around both the infield and outfield during his three years with the Flyers — no doubt incidentally setting most Flyers’ team records during his artificially lengthened tenure.

Kevin would be back at G.D.’s house soon after the games. The road presented no temptations for him. Especially not when there was so much work to be done.

So Kevin slashed .262/.340/.338 on the season. Other members on the team had higher averages, had more power, but Kevin was the youngest of all the regular Flyers, 23 among 25- and 26-year-olds. Not that any defensive statistics were kept beyond errors and put-outs, but Kevin looked quite comfortable in the outfield as well. I see here he made three assists and three errors on the season.

In other words: Kevin was a good player. The best news for any Flyer wasn’t that they had won a game, but that an affiliated scout had seen them play and had liked what he had seen. It’s a long, long way up to the majors but this is the next rung on the ladder, to impress an affiliated scout. It was said that scouts were indeed looking at Kevin. But if they did, all they did was look.

When Kevin came up, usually fifth or sixth in the order, G.D. and I were usually silent. To be sure, we would cheer loudest of all if Kevin got on base, but, with the outcome yet undecided, with the count at 0-0 and the at-bat liable to go in any direction, we maintained a respectful quiet. The last thing we would want to do is divert Kevin’s attention just the littlest bit when the whole outcome of the day relied on these at-bats, these short moments — what? three, four, five combined minutes? — that governed Kevin’s entire day.

That’s not hyperbole. The at-bats did rule the day. Because when you travel from Tuscaloosa, Ala. to Fullerton, Calif. and leave friends, family, girlfriend, maybe even a steady job, leave it all behind for three or four months, the day is ruled by the at-bats. Because how could you, in that situation, stay un-discouraged when you’ve hung around in the morning saving energy for the game, worked all afternoon tuning up your skills, and then go  0-for-4, capped off with a strikeout where you stood statue-still? Or if what would have been a redemptive, two-run triple becomes an improbable diving catch? Or if you’re a tenth of a second too late on a dripping, fat slider and what should have been a home run is just an anonymous foul into the seats?

What else could you talk about when you dial home? What else could reel through your mind when you’re looking at the ceiling of a sweaty Yuma motel room with who knows how many roommates? Kevin was a good player, but being a good player means you experience too many of these days. I saw them, saw Kevin struggle through them.

Yes, I know, one game at a time. Put today’s game behind you so you can be ready for tomorrow. But these are maxims quite easier to live out when your contract is guaranteed and has a duration longer than 12 weeks, no?

When the whole game spins around the axis of one player’s at-bats, time gets stretchy. A chance at redeeming a strikeout seems to never come: the other team puts together a rally or two, then its pitcher mows through the other parts of the Flyers’ line-up one-two-three, and suddenly it’s been upwards of 45 minutes since Kevin’s last time up.

It’s not Kevin’s fault that I can’t remember his specific successes. He really did provide enough of them: in 78 games he compiled 62 hits, 13 for extra bases, and stole 10 bases in 12 tries. What I remember, more than any of his specific plays, is looking at the lineup to see when he was coming up in the hole, or getting on-deck, and then wishing so badly, when the at-bat was in progress, for him to get a hit. The same went for when the Flyers were pitching: a sizzling double from the visiting team could even be cause for (private, internal) celebration if Kevin’s agile retrieval prevented it from being a triple.

Eventually I realized that there was no real reason to root against the other team, either. (This, even though G.D. and I were  guilty of bringing a mutual friend to his first Flyers game, during which he serenaded the visitors for the entire tiny stadium to hear: “Hey, it’s not your fault! First baseman woulda had that if he just remembered to pack his stilts!”) Actually the play that I remember best from any Flyers game was perpetrated by an opponent.

The visitors were the Reno SilverSox — who, looking at the records now, didn’t join the league until 2006, when the GBL was down to six teams and 80 games, when Kevin had already left. The Band From TV was in town, that being a band made up entirely of television actors, led by Hugh Laurie. Tickets to the Band From TV came with a free ticket to the Flyers game, with the concert being held at Cal State Fullerton’s soccer stadium, right next door. The gates to the concert would open during the seventh-inning stretch.

That last detail was perhaps the fatal flaw of the promotion. At first, that game was the best-attended Flyers game I had ever been to. G.D. and I had no shot at our usual second-row seats; we had to actually sit where our tickets told us to. Then came the seventh-inning stretch, and suddenly it was the worst-attended Flyers game I’ve ever been to — and the Flyers didn’t scratch quadruple-digits often. (Although G.D. and I were able to slide up to “our” seats.)

One reason so many people were willing to ditch the game for the Band From TV’s warm-ups was that the Flyers were up on Reno something like 15-1.

Reno was up and no runners were on. I don’t know who was up to hit, but it was one of these guys. And suddenly, a swing. The question wasn’t whether the ball would clear the fence — the question was whether the ball had yet to begin its descent when it flew over the outfield wall. It was beautiful.

When the guy rounded third base he looked up to see G.D. and me, behind home plate, giving him a standing ovation. I mean why not? As he turned his head back down to the ground, in the humble trot of ballplayers everywhere, there was a relieved smile of a man who — after the miserable 10-hour bus ride from Nevada, after a lonely morning puttering around Fullerton, after his teammates got their collective ass handed to them, after everybody left the game to see Hugh Laurie tune up — saw his day get suddenly and joyfully redeemed. For that guy, on that day, it would be easy to be happy when he made the call to wherever he called home. I hope he holds it as a precious memory, that moonshot that scraped the skies.

While I would never wish failure on any of the Flyers — or the SilverSox, or the Scorpions, or the Surf Dawgs, or even the Armada, whose fans would travel to road games in Fullerton in the GBL’s closest approximation to a rivalry — the thing about baseball is that it’s literally impossible for all or even most to succeed. This isn’t necessarily a cruel feature about baseball. It’s just how baseball is.

On the other side of Kevin’s hits, there was a pitcher who was watching his day — his start, anticipated for the better part of a week — rapidly unraveling. On the other side of Reno’s home run was a Flyers pitcher who was probably long desperate for innings, and then got into a lopsided game and immediately made a mess of his opportunity.

Even if affiliated scouts ogled over all 25 Flyers, signed them all to minor league contracts, there would be 25 Flyers in there the next day, each having just been rudely evicted from their homes in Double-A. It’s impossible to devise a system that fulfills everybody’s dreams because everybody dreams about baseball, and a sport that fulfills everybody’s dreams is something not baseball. Baseball hands its participants crushing, public failure. This is a job requirement. It is, mercifully, not the only job requirement.

Kevin would not come back to the Flyers after the 2005 season. In 2006 he played in Harlingen, Tex., and in 2007 he played New Haven, Vt., both times for indie teams. His year with the Flyers was by far his best statistical season. Kevin’s career is not a story, by strict definition — it just ended when it did, regardless of whether the beginning and middle had happened yet.

I wonder what Kevin remembers from his season in Fullerton, how often he thinks about it, if at all. There’s no way he remembers me. I know my memories of the Flyers have already very well disintegrated, impossible to re-patch together if not for Baseball-Reference. I had no idea that all of this happened almost a decade ago now, until I looked it up. I remember that Reno’s moonshot home run was to left field — but I had no idea which year it took place. I thought the Flyers finished at .500 during Kevin’s year, not in last place. Even though it’s a 50-50 question, I have zero idea if the GBL had pitchers bat, or if they had designated hitters. The Flyers don’t exist anymore, the GBL doesn’t exist anymore — Baseball-Reference and everybody’s own memories are really the only ways to prove that this whole thing ever existed, and memory is fickle indeed. I really hope that all of this is accurate, but I couldn’t guarantee it.

It looks like these days Kevin is a high school baseball coach back in Alabama. That is, he is still paid to go to a baseball field every day. It’s probably not the dream Kevin dreamed when he was a kid, the dream he dreamed when he dominated his Alabama Little Leagues and high school team and could actually see a future for himself in the game. This is not the dream he dreamed but it is still a dream, fully realized.

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Comments

  1. hopbitters said...

    Good stuff. On a side note, I had some friends back in NY who used to (might still) take in the players for the Tampa NY-Penn League (short-season A) affiliate. It sounds like a pretty rewarding experience. They’re mostly eager and eager-to-please kids who are thrilled to get a home-cooked meal now and then and occasionally one of them will make it to the majors for a cup of coffee and you can point at the tv and say “I knew him when…”

  2. Joseph said...

    Once upon a time (that is, May 2010), I went to a Victoria Seals home game with my uncle. I believe it was the second game of the season, a home game for the Seals. I believe it was the team from Hawaii? Bret Boone was the manager for the Seals (for all of five games). It was certainly an interesting experience. I think the Seals lost? I forget.

    The internet tells me that Eri Yoshida pitched in Victoria one time, later that summer. Neat.

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