This is true of The Association, the annual documentary series on NBATV that follows one of the league’s 30 teams. This is true of Hard Knocks, the annual HBO-produced miniseries that follows a particular NFL team throughout its preseason. Preseason! It’s true of documentaries about sports that I don’t usually care all that much about, like the excellent Venus & Serena. All that I ask is, unlike Dream On: The Journey of Wembley F.C., that producers don’t futz around with reality in reality-show-type ways.
Accordingly, I loved The Pecos League, a six-part mini-series released by Fox Sports this spring. I loved it even though–or maybe because–the Pecos League is janky enough to make my hometown Golden Baseball League look like a supremely profitable operation. I watched all six episodes, no joke, in a single sitting.
The Pecos League is an indie league in the Southwest United States that, just like all indie leagues, is toeing a tightrope situated over a black hole of extinction. It could so easily vanish tomorrow, and the only evidence it ever existed would be a few too-colorful web pages, some lighter wallets around the commissioner’s office and now, of course, these half-hour episodes broadcasted on a cable sports network.
The Pecos League has gone from six teams in 2012 to eight in 2013 to 10 in 2014 but, you know, what does that mean exactly? Teams in indie leagues have about as much permanence as a dandelion in a windstorm. This being their fourth year of competition, the Pecos League probably has already outlived the life expectancy for any league planted in that red, arid soil.
The series was filmed throughout the 2013 season and doesn’t focus on any other team except the Trinidad Triggers–Trinidad here being not the Caribbean island but rather the town of 8,000 folks in southern Colorado. As somebody a comfortable half-hour away from a totally polished and marketed-out major league stadium (and the retractable-roofed Safeco Field at that), it felt pertinent for me to remember that there really is a Wild West still out there, both baseball-wise and otherwise. The Wild hasn’t exactly gone away, even though we’ve invented Wi-Fi and the iPad and PITCHf/x.
The characters on the periphery of the Triggers, the residents of Trinidad, retain the same blend of self-serious purpose and zany ways of making a living as the obtuse characters in a Thomas Pynchon novel. Start of Episode 1, as the scene of Trinidad is set via interviews with so many of its residents, we see a couple who are presumably husband and wife:
Husband: A lot of people live in Trinidad because they came to town and their car broke down.
It turns out that the couple is married, and that they run the Mullare-Murphy Funeral Home, which doubles as the set of the weekly Triggers-centric talk show, hosted by Bill and Bobby, that airs on a local public access channel.
It also turns out that co-host Bill is a felon: “What better way to get your community hours than by doing it for the baseball team?” I mean, great point! Later in the season, Bill pridefully shows the documentary crew the story about the Triggers in the local paper, in which Billy is pictured above the fold, doing his show. Bill also points out to the crew that his son also is featured on the front page of the same newspaper on the same day: below the fold, a story about an area man getting stabbed. Bill’s son was the one getting stabbed. But Bill’s not all too concerned about it, more like just amused at the cosmic coincidence of the presses.
Makes Ken Rosenthal’s rotating bowtie collection feel a little bland, eh?
But, yes, the Triggers themselves! Our boys are managed by J.D. Droddy, who has no prior baseball experience but once went to Harvard Law School and is now a playwright from his trailer. This is real! Droddy’s transition from access-less outsider to professional manager remains, as so many things are in Trinidad, unexplained. His expectations going into the season are, at least, realistic: “All of them want to be Major League Baseball players, but most of them know they’re not going to be.”
Droddy is a bumbling dad prototype, frequently starting exasperated arguments with umpires between the frequent team meetings about how the team can’t argue with umpires anymore because they are role models around Trinidad, plus their umpire-directed expletives can be heard loud and clear by all the kids on account of there being very few people in the stands, et cetera. (There is, perhaps, some slight interference on the part of the producers here.) There is also, just maybe, some very effective team-building chemistry going on here, on account of the players being passive-aggressively united against Droddy.
One of the more problematic umpire-antagonists is Andrew Azzoparti, a 29-year-old catcher who has come all the way from Australia for his first season of professional ball. The editors of the series are able to string together an embarrassingly long montage of Azzoparti slamming bat, glove, helmet, and any other nearby equipment into ground, bench, and dugout wall in rage.
Considering Azzoparti managed a .394 on-base percentage with the Triggers, and also considering that he played in a mere 40 games with the team, it sure does feel Azzoparti greeted each of his outs with a temper tantrum, a rather obvious deficiency in his game to scout even from the brief moments of the Triggers’ season that we are shown. He is traded to the Taos Blizzard midseason for being a malcontent more than anything else.
Where Azzoparti’s trade veers towards the tragic is the unforeseen consequences that it has on his host family–namely, the prepubescent son Jeremiah, who has become the Triggers’ bat boy if for no other reason than to be closer to Azzoparti, whom Jeremiah regards with wide-eyed near-idolatry. News of the trade just about does in poor, young Jeremiah, who tearfully collects a farewell autograph from Azzoparti in the family’s living room. It’s during this scene that we see that Jeremiah has shaved his head into Azzoparti’s signature wide faux-hawk.
I don’t know if this storyline is a comedy or tragedy.
On the one hand, there is a definite wacky imagery in seeing somebody deliberately ape the hairstyle of his favorite baseball player. And I think there is a certain relatability to having your favorite baseball player be a player who is not all that good. But there is a viciously biting irony behind how Jeremiah also picked the guy who had to be the very worst role model on the team as the player who would be his role model. One can practically envision a scene in which Jeremiah spills a glass of water or something and, in faithful mimicry of Azzoparti when life has tossed him a misfortune, lets out a tentative, “Fuck this shit!” to the shock and horror of his mother.
Via natural selection, The Pecos League also produces dudes who are supremely low-key, easy-going, and who are generally just champs of the minor-league lifestyle. Not only are these the players most prominently featured in The Pecos League, but they are also, perhaps paradoxically, the team’s best players.
An attitude of humility and generosity keeps these guys pursuing the dim dream, and they pursue it without any self-inflicted bullet holes in their feet. While a frustrating day could turn into a rapidly counter-productive week for somebody as volatile as an Azzoparti, the guys with more emotional ballast are able to deliver at their best throughout the entire season.
Sam DiMatteo slashed .349/.419/.598 on the year and, at age 26, carried a vaguely haunted past of cuts and second-places and forced nomadism around the baseball world. In the first episode he artfully articulates exactly where his career sits as he prepares to suit up for the Triggers:
I feel like I’m on the other side of it right now, you know. I feel like I’m on the side where it’s like, people are like: ‘Why are you still doing this. I can’t believe you’re still doing this.’ It used to be the other way.
Outfielder Jacob Fabry (.306/.368/.462) is versatile enough to be class clown, Pecos League All-Star, and genuinely sympathetic (and grown-up) character all at once. In the first episode, Fabry utilizes a rain delay at a Triggers practice as an opportunity to strip all the way down and slide around on the infield mud; in the last episode, he sits at the season-ending banquet with his host family’s two daughters–probably ages seven and four–by that time a beloved goofball older brother. The presence of DiMatteo and Fabry is a helpful injection of fun into the sometimes-dreary season.
My favorite character in The Pecos League is the rarely seen radio voice of the Triggers, Billy D. (Billy D is an entirely different person than Billy, the Triggers pundit/felon.) Like Sam Elliott lurking in the background of The Big Lebowski, Billy D seems to transcend time and place and also any sense of frustration when the Triggers lose, the red Southwest dirt practically baked into his broadcasts. It’s the kind of situation where I bet nobody in Trinidad knows a name for Billy D that’s anything other than Billy D.
Billy D is my favorite not just because of his welcoming, campfire way of calling a ballgame, but also because of the important narrative function that he serves in The Pecos League. Unlike other immersive team documentaries, The Pecos League has no baritone-throated narrator; there are only excerpts of Billy D’s calls from his one-man booth to give shape to the action.
This is crucial to the success of The Pecos League as a show: while Billy D is capable of letting us know that, gee, the Triggers have given up a three-run lead against Roswell here, Billy D can’t also give play-by-play on anything that happens off the field, which makes up a good percentage of the show. As a result, all of these moments are allowed to simply be themselves, without coming at the audience pre-labeled.
This is important, because there are arcs in the show that totally escape easy definition, storylines that you will need to make your mind up about. Sitting in a cleared-out clubhouse at the end of the year, Manager Droddy overflows with genuine tears that the season has passed and the team will be disassembled, feeling that the players were, in some small way, surrogate sons of his. It’s a moment that is entirely at odds with the micro-manager calling his fourth team meeting about not complaining to umpires. Even if Droddy was not an excellent motivator, he still approached his job with a big, giant heart: it’s a nuanced paradox that we maybe don’t have time for when covering the majors, when conflicts must be rapidly pushed through a whirling news cycle.
The absence of a formal narrator will be important for the players, whenever they, in civilian life, review this well-produced relic of their youth. Their eyes rolled at Droddy, their shouts at blown calls, their compassion shown towards their teammates–it will all be there, waiting for them to see how they looked as people when immersed in the momentum of the season. Much like this first season of the show, a season playing ball in the Pecos League is a long, strange, destination-less trip that nonetheless rewards you for your participation.