Doug Linton, the unlikeliest of phenoms, sits in the cramped, darkened dugout and awaits freedom. For 12 long, thoroughly unenjoyable innings, Linton has sat near the two plastic water coolers, wanting nothing more than a merciful, quick end to an awful baseball game.
So far, Linton, a former pitcher at Canyon High School and UC Irvine, has witnessed 28 hits, 5 errors and 8 runs. He has seen his Myrtle Beach Blue Jay teammates wrestle away the lead from the Spartanburg Phillies, only to allow them to tie the game with just six outs remaining in regulation. He has heard the home plate umpire scream profanities after a foul ball finds an unprotected hand. Now he feigns interest in a game that could have, and should have, been over shortly after a two-run homer by Blue Jay catcher Francisco Cabrera in the bottom of the sixth.
The play-by-play, as recited by intern Matt Newsome of radio stations WLAT (nearby Conway) and WGSN (North Myrtle Beach):
" . . . and here's the pitch. Cabrera swings and it . . . it's a home run over the center-field fence. That ball made it all the way to the tennis courts. (Dramatic pause) So, the Blue Jays get a 3-2 lead and Frank Cabrera gets a large seafood platter. Next up is . . ."
More than seven hours have passed since Linton arrived at Coastal Carolina College, a smallish campus tucked neatly among the pines and palmettos. The Class-A Blue Jays, an affiliate of the major league Toronto club, lease the school's baseball facilities, such as they are. Tonight, the field's scoreboard has malfunctioned, providing the fast dwindling audience with crazily flashing inning-by-inning scores. A recent lightning storm, say Blue Jay officials, struck the scoreboard and caused a short circuit, though no one is entirely certain how to fix it.
Beer vendors plead with spectators--a whopping 68 by the start of the 13th inning--for business. One vendor, his tray filled with lukewarm Labatts, approaches three gentlemen.
"OK, three cold ones for you folks?"
"No, we'll pass."
"Oh, I get it. All three of you are on the wagon. Fine."
And then he leaves, in search of a paying customer.
Near midnight, strange-looking, exotic insects appear from the darkness. Moments later, a foul ball shatters a car windshield. Children make mad dashes through the glass for a chance at the South Atlantic League baseball.
In the press box, Newsome, a student from Davidson College who has volunteered his voice and evenings in exchange for air time and a demo tape, jokes with regular announcer Bill Durstein. The public address announcer joins in.
"And up steps Tom Quinlan," the PA announcer says to those in the press box. "Tom is 0 for 23 tonight."
"And by the way," says Durstein, "you listeners--and there can't be many--can hear me on the morning show which begins, I believe, in just a few short hours."
Meanwhile, Linton waits. And waits.
Then it happens: Spartanburg scores a run in the top of the 13th. It leads, 5-4. Linton is unsure of his allegiances. He wants the Blue Jays to score and perhaps win the game, but not if it means spending more time in this forsaken concrete dugout. He chooses: Win the game, but do it this inning. No ties or he might unleash several of the Spanish curse words taught to him by his Dominican teammates.
The Blue Jays fail to score. Game over. Linton gathers up the two plastic coolers and carries them to the team's clubhouse, a tiny cinder-block building located under a nearby football stadium. Inside, in a makeshift office adjacent to the dressing room, is Manager Barry Foote. Foote, who once played for the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs, fills out a report on the game and each player's performance. Once finished, it will be sent to the parent club in Toronto.
An evening earlier, Foote wrote about a Blue Jay victory, not a loss. As has become the custom in many of the Blue Jays' wins, he wrote about Linton.
Linton, 22, had helped dispose of the Phillies in considerably less time than tonight's debacle. It was his 12th victory in 14 decisions, a record easily among the league's best. He completed six innings (the first game of a doubleheader; minor league teams play seven-inning games in such cases) and allowed no earned runs. He also struck out six Spartanburg players, noteworthy because it gave Linton 135 strikeouts in 110 innings. Even more impressive was his 1.73 earned-run average and only 23 walks.
"Amazing," a fan says later.
Linton grins. "Yeah, it is."
It doesn't stop. Four days later, in a game against the Gastonia Rangers, Linton would add 7 more innings, 10 more strikeouts (no walks) and a 13th win in this, his most unforgettable season.
Surprisingly enough, the numbers could have been even better. Had a strained shoulder not blotted out the month of May, Linton would have made about eight more starts. Modest projections might have included four wins, perhaps 48 innings and at least 30-40 strikeouts.
"You hate to make a judgment when you see a guy in spring training," Foote says. "But we looked at him as a fill-in guy who was drafted late."
Linton was selected in the 43rd round of last year's baseball draft, which is late going on afterthought. A 43rd-round selection usually ensures you of another year of school, a job in aluminum siding, a broken heart and an empty billfold. Rarely does it produce 13-2 records, sub-2.00 ERAs, 145 strikeouts and fewer than 25 walks.
Exceptions are few. Keith Hernandez was a 40th-round selection by the St. Louis Cardinals. You have to look hard for others who have made it past such odds.
"He is probably the best pitcher in the league," Foote says. "You don't expect that out of a guy in the 43rd round. And you don't look for a tough kid out of the college he came out of. It's an academic college."
By the time the Blue Jays contacted him, Linton had spent nearly three days by the family phone. His expectations, at draft's beginning, were modest.
"I didn't expect to be picked during the first day," he says. "The second day I hung around the phone more and still nothing. The third day, I started getting desperate."
Finally, the phone rang. It was Toronto scouting supervisor Steve Minor.
"Congratulations, Doug, we took you in the 43rd round."
Replied Linton: "Uh, Steve, was I the last player selected?"
Forty-five minutes later, the Yankees called. Understand that the Yankees were Linton's favorite team. A Ron Guidry poster was tacked to his bedroom wall. Pinstripes were his favorite design.
The Yankees wanted to know if Linton had been drafted. If not, they wanted to sign him as a free agent. Almost apologetically, Linton told the Yankees of the Blue Jays' choice. Never mind, said the Yankees.
Linton was a very good high school pitcher. He was named Canyon's most valuable player. His ERA and strikeouts placed him among the county's leaders. But he only was 5-feet 7-inches and 165 pounds. Puny, really. No major league organization drafted him after high school.
So Linton went to UCI, one of the few schools that recruited him. It was an odd stay. On occasion, Linton could appear overpowering. He would beat UCLA or USC, but then lose to say, University of the Pacific. In three seasons, Linton had a 14-17 record and only a dim hope of a professional baseball career.
But between his junior and what would have been his senior season, pitching coach Rob Driesler and head Coach Mike Gerakos taught and encouraged Linton to throw a slider. Without the new pitch and his coaches' help, Linton says he would most likely be just another college pitcher headed nowhere.
Instead, Linton took the pitch to the Alaskan League and prospered. He still didn't know exactly what to do with his new-found slider, but he learned. Batters started seeing a pitch thrown near the outside corner of the plate and tailing away. Strikeouts came easily. A Toronto scout noticed.
Though he had been drafted, Linton says he planned to return to UCI for a final year. The Blue Jays understandably had offered no signing bonus and didn't appear in a hurry to do so.
When he returned from Alaska, Linton was asked by Gerakos if he'd like to play in a tournament in Michigan. Linton said yes. Once there, he pitched well, prompting a phone call from a Toronto scout.
"I don't know how he got my phone number, but he wanted to talk to me," Linton said.
The scout took Linton to dinner. Shortly after they sat down, Linton says the scout offered a $17,000 signing bonus. Linton wanted $17,500, "but it was just so close that I took it."
The signing, just weeks before the start of UCI's workouts, left Gerakos with one fewer starting pitcher, a predicament that caused some awkward moments. Linton apologized for the inconvenience, credited Gerakos and Driesler with reviving his career and hoped all was forgiven. "It was a wrong time for (UCI), but it was something I always wanted," Linton says. "It came at a right time for me."
Linton learned of his minor league assignment at the end of spring training. He knew Myrtle Beach was in South Carolina, "but I didn't know where it was." He did know, however, that Myrtle Beach was better than Toronto's Rookie League site: Medicine Hat, Mont.
The Blue Jays pay Linton $175 a week. That's before taxes and monthly clubhouse dues. His car is at his mother's house in Orange. He can't afford to ship it to Myrtle Beach.
His $75 glove is the same one he has used since his junior season at UCI. Maybe next year, he says, he'll receive a glove contract.
Linton shares a two-bedroom apartment with two other teammates. The apartment building is near the ballpark, but little else. When groceries are needed, Linton and his roommates call a cab (only three Blue Jays have cars) and pay $7 each way for the chance to buy Hamburger Helper. They watch soap operas or ESPN. Each day, a team van takes them to the ballpark.
On occasion, it becomes too much. Not long ago, Linton and roommate Pat Hentgen rented a car. It cost precious dollars, but it was worth it, Linton said. "We just had to go out."
A nearby liquor store has a video game, a popular hangout for bored Blue Jay players. And a local bartender allows the younger players to enter his establishment, but only to play billiards.
"The high life," Linton says.
Myrtle Beach is a resort town. It caters to visitors. The city must own some sort of record for most opulent miniature golf courses. Restaurants and hotels line the streets. Tourists can choose from two amusement parks. All things considered, Linton says he likes it here.
It could be worse. He could play at another South Atlantic League town.
Linton's checklist includes:
Spartanburg, S.C.--"The worst. You're away from everything. You sit in the hotel room all day and watch soap operas. It's an old stadium."
Macon, Ga.--"A close second. The stadium looks like those rundown stadiums that you see in old movies."
Gastonia, N.C.--"There's a Bojangles (chicken restaurant) across the street from the hotel and nothing else. You've got to walk a mile for a Jack-in-the-Box. I take it back: Spartanburg is heaven compared to Gastonia."
Savannah, Ga.--"That was a nice town."
Charleston, S.C.--"That's a nice town too. My girlfriend and I rented a car and drove around there."
Sumter, S.C.--"Not much to do in Sumter."
Linton receives $11 for food when on the road. "That's two meals," he says. By season's end, the Myrtle Beach Blue Jays will have played 140 games and had seven days off. Three of those days came at the All-Star break.
If he had his choice, Linton would prefer to be somewhere else in September, for instance, with a Blue Jay Double-A or Triple-A team. But it's not likely. The Blue Jays are pitching rich, with few openings. When Linton recently asked about a promotion, he was told to be patient.
"Those things will work out," said Wayne Morgan, Blue Jay western regional scouting director.
Fine, said Linton.
"I'm not going to become frustrated," he said.
Added Foote: "If there's a pitching position open (in Double-A) in this organization, I would certainly like to send him there. No question he deserves the opportunity. His intangibles might get him over the hump."
After a recent win, Linton sat in the stands watching the second game of a doubleheader. A fan approached him with three Myrtle Beach baseball cards. Linton was pictured on each one. On the back of the cards, was Linton's weight, height and birth date. No statistics were available. First-year Pro , it read. Linton signed each one.
"I remember waiting at Anaheim Stadium, trying to get Reggie Jackson's autograph," Linton says. "This is fun."
Later, a fan hands Linton a baseball to autograph.
"What's your name, man?"
"Linton," says Linton.
"Well," says the fan, "if you become famous, we'll sell this for $1,000."
A Blue Jay hits a home run, winning for himself, the announcer says, a large seafood platter from a local eatery. Angela's Steak and Pasta owes Linton five dinners, part of a promotion that awards Blue Jay pitchers for second-half victories. Why, considering his financial status, hasn't Linton taken advantage of the free meals?
"No car," he says. "I'd even pay someone a meal if they'd take me there."