Field of Dreams : In the California League, It Isn’t Whether You Win or Lose. It’s Whether You Get the Call.

<i> Kevin Roderick is a Times staff writer</i>

LISA, SHELLEY and Corey--no last names, please--sit at a patio table, shaded from the San Bernardino sun by a red-and-white Coors umbrella, sipping beer and taking in the show. On the baseball field a few feet in front of them, Mark Merchant, a young outfielder for the San Bernardino Spirit, pounds a pitch to the distant fence, runs to second base, and pauses to smooth out his uniform.

“The Merchant of Menace!” Lisa says.

“He’s cute,” Corey says.

The Spirit are thumping their archrivals, the Riverside Red Wave, but the baseball action almost seems a sideshow. The young women cheer as a voice blasts from giant speakers mounted above every section of seats at this old municipal ballpark, Fiscalini Field. “Make a considerably large amount of noise for Brrrryyyyyan Kingggg!” the voice screams as the Spirit shortstop walks up to bat.

Between innings the crowd sings along to high-volume comic Sam Kinison’s version of “Wild Thing,” while a mascot with a huge baseball for a head, a middle-age paunch and a Spirit jersey with his name and number--The Bug, 00--dances atop the third-base dugout. When the opposing manager meets with his team at the pitching mound, the fans hear muttering followed by one intelligible phrase--”Who had the cheeseburger?” Young women called Diamond Girls cool off spectators with huge squirt guns, bring drinks to the umpires and sweep dust off the bases. “Cleaning up after the boys,” the speaker voice observes, “ . . . simply irresistible.”


It’s Sunday afternoon in the California League, a link to the 1940s and ‘50s when creaky buses ferried young ballplayers and their illusions up and down Highway 99 through sweltering San Joaquin Valley summer nights. Then, as now, The Cal, as the league is called, sat near the bottom of America’s many layers of minor leagues. It’s a place where 19-year-old hotshots learn the niceties of professional baseball and 28-year-old has-beens come to grips with their lapsing talents.

This summer, in towns skipped over by the major leagues, 10 teams with names such as the Oaks, the Spurs and the Ports will play 142 games each. They will be accompanied by rock music (mostly old, mostly Motown), the best promotional gimmickry their small budgets will allow and a better-than-big-league vendor menu--mesquite-grilled chicken and ribs in San Jose, steaks barbecued to order in Stockton, Haagen-Dazs ice cream bars in Visalia.

But the crowds will be small and the impact minimal. All last summer, the Visalia Oaks barely sold as many tickets as the Dodgers sell on a good Thursday night. Sometimes no sportswriters show up. Of the 10 teams, only the Reno Silver Sox will air all their games on radio, and then on a Christian station that can be heard from one end of town to the other but no farther.

No one could confuse this with major league baseball. And it’s not just that a mongrel puppy called Bully lives in the Riverside bullpen and darts into the outfield during games. Or that San Jose fans are entertained between innings by Smash for Cash, winning money and testing their arms trying to break the headlights of a panel truck parked in the outfield.

The distinction between California League teams and their big-city, big-league cousins is less obvious. In The Cal, winning isn’t that important. Baseball here is less a team sport than an individual one. That’s because most of the players are being paid by major league ballclubs that are cultivating talent, not looking for a minor league pennant.

The score is almost irrelevant. What counts is who got experience, who shone in the box scores, who performed.


This concept eludes most fans, including Lisa, Shelley and Corey, who look forward to seeing the Spirit in the playoffs in September. “Of course they’re trying to win,” Lisa says. “What do you mean?”

IT’S ABOUT 6 p.m., and the sun is falling behind the tall high oak trees that shade central Visalia, but the April air is still warm, close to 80 degrees. The thwack of ball against bat rings across Giddings Avenue, a quiet street near the center of town. Along the railroad tracks in front of Dollar K Check Cashing--”If we can’t cash it, trash it,” the sign says--two boys on bikes scan the sky to see if an errant baseball is falling their way.

Hidden behind a fence across the tracks, on the deep grass of Recreation Park, the 1989 Visalia Oaks prepare for their first game before the home folks. The team owner isn’t coming, nor is the mayor. But 1,214 people will be there, the biggest opening-night crowd in Visalia in three years.

Visalia’s place in minor league lore was established by a couple of lines of dialogue in last summer’s hit movie “Bull Durham.” Near the end of the film, the over-the-hill minor league catcher played by Kevin Costner tells his girlfriend, Susan Sarandon, that he wants to prolong his baseball life as the manager in Visalia, perhaps a stepping stone to a career as a manager in the majors.

The real Visalia manager is something of a local celebrity. Now 33, Scott Ullger played on the Oaks’ last championship team in 1978 and met his wife here before other minor league stops and a brief visit in the big leagues. Tall and trim in his tailored white Oaks uniform, he looks as strong and fit as his much-younger players. He came back to Visalia last year and took up managing after facing the fact that, as professional baseball players go, he was nothing special.

His charges are 18 Americans from eight states--a mix of college boys and players who graduated from high school into full-time baseball--plus four Japanese, a Puerto Rican and two infielders from the Dominican Republic. The oldest of the 25 Oaks is a backup catcher from the Bay Area, Mike Dotzler, 25; the youngest is a raw, strapping 18-year-old pitcher from rural Japan, Kiyoshi Sagawa, whose American baseball nickname is “Country.”


The pitching coach, Gorman Heimueller, is another 33-year-old “retired” player who spent most of his career bouncing around the minors. He and his wife moved 45 times in his playing days, two moves for every game he pitched in his painfully brief major league stops with the Oakland A’s. The rest of the Oaks entourage includes a trainer who soothes aches and does odd jobs, a coach from Japan and a Japanese interpreter.

Players in Visalia make at least $850 a month--some earn more--but most make the minimum even with wives and children to support, plus $11 a day for meals. Bats, balls and uniforms are free. Some have cars they bought with the bonuses they got for signing to play professional baseball, and the most promising talents get free fielding gloves from the Rawlings sporting goods company. The younger ones think it’s all a pretty good deal. The older ones come to regard it as a sometimes frustrating, sometimes pleasant way to avoid a 9-to-5 job.

All but the Japanese are paid by the Minnesota Twins, which sent them off to the San Joaquin Valley in the hope that talents will ripen in the sun like Tulare County peaches. It’s a mutually advantageous business arrangement known as the baseball farm system. The Twins, which have more than 100 players under contract around the country, need a place for their developing athletes to play with others of similar experience. The Twins supply the players and manager. The corporation that is the Visalia Oaks supplies the ballpark and fans (and, in this case, the four Japanese players under a side arrangement with the Tokyo Giants). The California League provides umpires and suitable opponents for the season that runs from April to the end of August.

Oaks general manager Bruce Bucz would love for his team to win all of their games. He is one of the few people connected with the Oaks whose fortune is tied to the team’s success. If they win, he can sell more tickets and outfield billboards, his father can sell more programs from his booth inside the front gate, and his mother can move more burgers from her concession stand. “Winning is the best promotion,” Bucz says.

But the Twins don’t care if the Oaks make money or keep Visalia entertained. They need ballplayers. So after every game, before he goes to sleep, Ullger dictates a report to a phone machine in Minnesota. The Twins want to know the daily progress of big-money investments such as Willie Banks, the Oaks’ tall, 20-year-old pitching super-phenom from New Jersey, or outfielder David Jacas, a thin New Yorker with an easy California smile who is back for a second summer in Visalia. Ullger reports on the lesser prospects as well--who hits home runs, who strikes out, who doesn’t listen to advice, who is lazy.

Ullger might be ordered by Minnesota to sit an older, more seasoned player in the dugout so a younger, rawer talent can get some experience. A troubled young pitcher may be left in a game to give up 10 runs because, as Ullger says, “Minnesota wants him to get his 100 pitches.” The Cal League is a proving ground, and not just for players. Half of last year’s managers have moved up or out, and even umpires rarely stay two years.


Players who get good reports might move closer to the big leagues. The Cal is at the Single A level of the farm system, three promotions removed from The Show. The best, or the luckiest, Oaks will move up this summer to the Twins’ Double A team, in Orlando, Fla. From there the next step is Triple A in Portland, Ore. But some will take a downward path. Most of the Oaks came to Visalia from another Twins Single A team in Kenosha, Wis., where the competition is easier than in The Cal. If the reports aren’t favorable, they could slip back down the ladder. Or worse, they could be pulled aside one day by Ullger and told to pack: Minnesota no longer thinks they have a future in baseball.

At the home opener tonight, the Oaks starting pitcher is Bob Strube. A rarity in The Cal, he has been stalled in Visalia for three seasons, long enough to become acquainted with San Joaquin Valley vegetable growers who sell to his father’s produce market in Chicago. His introduction draws a loud cheer. “They know me in Visalia. I don’t know if that is good or bad,” he says later, laughing.

Strube doesn’t strut any major league stuff tonight. After an inning and a half, Modesto leads, 4-3. The game takes more than three hours to finish, in part because of 13 walks and five errors. But the Oaks hang on to win 9-6. The fans go home happy, the players return to their cramped apartments to wait for tomorrow’s game. Ullger calls in good reports on Jacas, the young outfielder from New York who had three hits, and catcher Lenny Webster, a stubby Southerner who may be the team’s best prospect.

FOUR WEEKS later, on a cool May night, the Visalia Oaks’ bus winds through the dark streets of Stockton, bound for home after three games on the road. The Oaks won tonight, and a little after 11 p.m. the bus stops in front of a mini-mart and gas station next to Highway 99. Dinner time.

About 10 Oaks in postgame jeans and sweaters--including all the Caribbean and Japanese players--queue at the drive-up window of a Taco Bell to stock up on burritos and tacos. “They won’t open the doors,” Ullger complains. Another group invades the mini-mart, filling their hands with doughnuts, chocolate milk, Cokes, potato chips and microwaved sandwiches. “I don’t even want to know what they’re eating,” says trainer Rick McWayne.

Bob Strube’s wife, Lisa, a small blond woman with a degree in biology, leans against her car. She and another wife drove more than 150 miles from Visalia that afternoon to see the game, and now will follow the bus three hours back home. Lisa has held odd jobs in Visalia, clinging to the belief that this life is temporary, that the call will come. But after three years here, Bob has a record that is still not the kind that makes for invitations to the major leagues, and she sounds tired of the life.


“They told Bob he was going to go to Orlando, then they sent him back here,” she says. “They tell him he won’t be here very long. But, I don’t know--at the end of the year he needs to re-evaluate.”

For the Oaks, the day began 16 hours earlier at the Stockton Inn. Jacas got up early to collect the team’s dirty uniforms and $1 from each player. He went off in the team bus to find a Laundromat, a chore usually done by McWayne, who pleaded illness this morning.

Jacas is a thin outfielder with short hair who seems to cope with minor league life as well as anyone, but he came back from the laundry unhappy. His teammates had tried to sneak in extra pieces without paying, he complained. They in turn groused that Jacas didn’t do the uniforms right. The griping heated into an argument--and almost to blows--before Jacas left to sit alone on a parking lot curb and cool off reading a book.

At midday the entire team checked out of their rooms and crammed their equipment and themselves into a couple of “layover” rooms. They lay around on beds and the floor, watched soap operas and game shows, and spilled into the motel corridor, waiting for the bus to leave for the Stockton ballpark about 4 o’clock. Relief pitcher Rob Wassenaar, a clean-cut, spectacled Stanford economics graduate, worked crosswords. The Japanese devoured Cokes and stuck to themselves, their only communication with teammates through interpreter Acey Kohrogi, a young Gardena native who helps them handle American landlords, waitresses and coaches. The Oaks spend more time waiting than playing baseball. Waiting for the bus, waiting in the dugout to get called into a game, waiting for that call from the Twins.

Throw together 25 young athletes with time to burn, and anything might happen. This afternoon, someone kidded Carlos Capellan, a 21-year-old Dominican with strong Caribbean features, calling him “Duck Lips.” In the roughhousing that followed, Capellan ran hard into a fire extinguisher. His right shoulder swelled visibly, and the fun was over. Cappy has major league talent and had to play tonight or Minnesota would want to know why. His teammates helped wrap ice on the shoulder.

When the bus finally departed for Stockton’s Billy Hebert Field, the Oaks left behind nearly a cubic yard of potato chip wrappers, soda cans and newspapers. They were wearing their practice uniforms--blue hand-me-downs from Minnesota that say Twins, not Oaks.


For the next three hours, the Oaks and Stockton Ports enjoyed one of baseball’s more exquisite leisures. They wandered between the field and the adjoining clubhouses behind the center-field fence, taking hitting and fielding practice, loosening up arms and hamstring muscles. In the Stockton clubhouse, players in stages of undress played cards. Outside, four Ports hit an old, empty baseball cover with a splintered bat, a game they might have used to while away summer afternoons as 10-year-olds.

Next to the Oaks dugout, pitching coach Heimueller chatted with Rob Wassenaar’s father, Carl, who drove two hours from the Bay Area hoping he could see his son pitch tonight. He’d hoped to say hello, but Rob--the resident Oaks brain--was in the tiny clubhouse, still working crosswords. Carl wouldn’t intrude. “Never,” Carl says. “This is his job now.”

Only about 1,000 fans turned out to see the Oaks and Ports. It was a Thursday night, which means cash for every Ports hit. Before each batter a new lucky number was called. The fan with the number printed in his score card got $10 for a single, $20 for a double, $30 for a triple and $50 for a home run. “It’s an old promotion,” says Stockton general manager Don Miller. “I just brought it back.” (Miller also lured Morganna the Kissing Bandit, the woman known for planting kisses on players at televised sports events, to visit Stockton later in the summer. “This is her first minor league appearance,” says Miller, who cut his teeth in the promotion business as road manager for the famous San Diego Chicken. “I’m pretty happy about that.”)

Carl Wassenaar watched the first few innings from a seat behind the Oaks dugout, then paced. Fans don’t appreciate the minor leagues, he said. “They should watch the players more, not care so much about wins. There are some good players out there.”

In the seventh inning, Rob took the mound for Visalia with the game tied 1-1. In the eighth, he faced as fearsome a hitter as there is in The Cal this year, John Jaha, a thick-muscled first baseman. Jaha is the Ports’ only .300 hitter, and he leads the league in home runs and crushed a home run earlier in the game. Wassenaar struck him out. “It was the classic confrontation, and he beat him!” said Carl proudly, his jacket zipped against the cool, moist air here on the edge of the San Joaquin River delta, a cup of coffee in hand.

Wassenaar went five strong innings and the Oaks won 2-1. Father and son embraced by the dugout and talked as the stadium emptied.


Ullger’s report to Minnesota included praise for the right hander. “He should be a starter,” Ullger says later. But that’s not his decision to make. Minnesota, which traded big league veteran Bert Blyleven to get Wassenaar from the California Angels farm system last winter, still wants him in the bullpen so others can start.

THE WHITE limousine swings right off Giddings Avenue and stops in the parking lot of Recreation Park. Out steps Don Drysdale, the famous Dodger pitcher and new owner of the Visalia Oaks. Drysdale started out in the California League 35 summers ago, a 17-year-old giant from Van Nuys. He pitched 15 games for Bakersfield, and remembers open-air dressing rooms and “the biggest mosquitoes in baseball.”

This pleasant June evening, Drysdale has taken the night off from his job as a Dodger broadcaster to make his first visit to Visalia since buying the Oaks last spring. In an hour the California League All-Star game will be played at Recreation Park. Drysdale came to sign autographs, enjoy cocktails with other California League owners and be introduced to the fans.

His purchase of the Oaks--with a Japanese partner--is a sign of changing times in the California League, just as the outfield fence billboards for divorce lawyers, chemical dependency units, flavored seltzer water and computer stores reflect the transformation of the towns where The Cal plays.

There was a time when Cal League teams were owned by local people who regarded their stewardship as a civic contribution. Nobody made much money. The Oaks were even owned for a time by the city of Visalia. But when Drysdale bought the Oaks, they became the fourth Cal League team to change hands since last season, the sixth since 1987. Last time the Oaks were sold, in 1982, two local businessmen paid about $20,000. Drysdale paid more than $500,000.

Prices are climbing because demand is high for minor league baseball teams. Between dream-struck baseball fans and investors looking to cash in on what’s become a desirable commodity, there are more potential buyers than there are teams. “It’s almost like a rare painting,” says Stockton general manager Don Miller. “A lot of people want to own a baseball team, and there aren’t that many to go around.”


In recent years, buyers have included actor Mark Harmon, who acquired the Ventura Gulls and moved them to San Bernardino (changing their name to Spirit) after trying unsuccessfully to buy the Oaks. “Harmon handed me a cashier’s check for $325,000, but we turned him down,” says Stan Simpson, the Visalia insurance broker who sold to Drysdale. The Stockton Ports are owned by prominent political liberals from the Westside of Los Angeles--including attorney Geoff Cowan, District Attorney Ira Reiner and former Democratic Party leader Mickey Kantor. The majority owner of the Palm Springs Angels is Bruce Corwin, a Democratic activist and chairman of Metropolitan Theaters.

For some owners, just being part of baseball is the lure. Burton Boltuch, an Oakland labor lawyer, is the lead partner in the Modesto A’s. He regularly drives an hour east from Oakland to see his team play. As a youth in New York he had been a hawker at the old New York Polo Grounds and at Yankee Stadium. He shopped for a team through a broker who specializes in matching teams with fans who want to become baby-baseball moguls. Reports that he and his partners paid about $700,000 for the Modesto A’s are about right, he says. “I’ve been looking for a number of years,” Boltuch says. “It’s been a lifelong passion.”

For some, the California League itself is the attraction. The league, a fixture in the San Joaquin Valley since 1941, is highly regarded for its competitive level--many of baseball’s biggest stars passed through The Cal. Cities even compete to lure Cal League teams. When the Fresno Suns, the league’s oldest team, was sold after last season, Salinas beat out Ontario as the club’s new home. The Cal would still like to move a team into Ontario, where city officials believe it would help their convention business. “We think it would add another attraction,” city manager Dennis Wilkins says.

But for Drysdale, a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, owning the ball team is all business. He had scoured the minor leagues for a team to buy, but he has yet to even see the team play.

“I hope that it’s an investment,” Drysdale says. “We were looking for anything that would be a good investment.”

WILLIE BANKS HAS as much of a future as anyone in the Oaks dugout. In 1987 at St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City, he blew the ball by hitters his own age, striking out two for every inning he pitched. That June he was the third player taken in baseball’s national draft of new talent, the highest pick ever from New Jersey. He was a dominant pitcher last year in Kenosha. But this season in Visalia he got off to an awful start. Banks throws hard, maybe the hardest in The Cal. But he walked almost as many batters as he struck out the first six weeks and won only once. He was worried about moving up, about what they thought of him in Minnesota, he said later.


“I like Visalia better than I liked Kenosha. But I came in here thinking, ‘If I have a good first month, I’ll get sent up,’ ” says Banks, wearing a large gold-colored pendant with his nickname, Big Daddy, spelled out. The coaches counseled patience, and, being no dummy, he listened. “So now I don’t think about it. I just take it day to day,” he says.

One night in May, Banks put it all together. In his 47th game as a professional starting pitcher, Banks became the youngest California League pitcher ever to throw a no-hitter. His next time out, Banks allowed a hit, but only one. No one scored against Banks either game, or in his next game. Willie Banks had settled down.

Most Cal League players are like Banks: eager and hopeful. But if Visalia and Stockton are where dreams gain strength, Reno is where those dreams cling to life. Reno’s Silver Sox is full of men who know that even when it’s almost hopeless, the vision of playing major league baseball is a hard thing to put behind you. It tugs at the heart and leaves you blind.

Pitcher Mike Warren, 28, has been on a slow slide since 1983, when as a major league rookie he pitched a no-hitter for the Oakland A’s. Within two years his arm began to ache, and since 1985 he has been on a desperate journey across baseball’s map of last chances.

On a cool, drizzly May night in Reno, a wedge of geese flies north into a blowing mist, and Warren stays dry and warm, watching the game through a window in the Silver Sox clubhouse. He is pitching tomorrow, so tonight Warren is out of uniform, noting on a chart the pitches made by Reno.

Warren is coming off the worst chapter of his baseball life, a brief stay last winter in Aguascalientes, Mexico.


“I was the only American,” he says. “I was lost. I didn’t speak the language. I missed my family. . . . I don’t want to play somewhere where I can’t see my family for four months. I can’t have any of that noise. So I went home to Garden Grove.” In April he found his way to Reno, the farthest point north on the Cal League circuit.

Reno is where the extremes of Cal League life collide. California teams love to play there because the casinos offer the best late-night diversions and cheapest good food they can find on the road. The coffee shop at the Peppermill Hotel and Casino, visible behind the left field fence at Moana Stadium, serves the most popular meal in The Cal: all the steak and eggs you can eat after midnight for $4.95. But no one wants to play for Reno, the poor cousins of the California League.

Reno is an independent team, one of only four in the minor leagues. Last season the Sox lost their contract with the San Diego Padres, in part because the Padres didn’t like their young hopefuls playing in the decrepit Reno park. So instead of receiving 25 players, a manager and a coach free of charge, Reno is stocked with castoffs from other minor league teams.

Unlike teams with a major league benefactor, Reno has to pay for everything out of ticket and ad sales and the dwindling resources of the investors. “We have no trainer, no rubdowns, no massage,” Warren says of the benefits typical elsewhere in baseball. “All we have is a physical therapist. He could probably do a good job, but he doesn’t get here until the fifth inning.”

Players in Reno all make less than the $850 minimum paid to the Visalia Oaks. Independent teams may pay as little as $300 a month. “I don’t have the heart to pay anybody $300,” general manager Jack Patton says. “But I’ve got a few players at $350.” Warren made $5,000 a month in the Milwaukee Brewers farm system after leaving Oakland. Now he gets a tenth of that, and his wife, Mary, and children, Ashley, 3, and Tyler, 2, stay home in Garden Grove to save money. He sees them on road trips down south.

No one comes to Reno planning to stay the summer. Most hope to have a few good weeks and get noticed. If the Visalia manager likes what he sees on a trip to Reno, he might mention something to Minnesota that will trigger some interest. But Visalia isn’t interested in Warren. “He’s just a shell of the pitcher he was,” says Ullger. “He has to start thinking about what he wants to do. He’s almost 30 years old, he’s still in Single A ball, and he has an 80-mile-an-hour fastball.”

Warren thinks about quitting to apply at the Orange County fire academy, but for now he stays. “I feel like I’m throwing as well as ever,” Warren says. And, forgetting for a moment the alienation of playing in Mexico, he adds, “I’d like to go to Japan. I wouldn’t want to make it a 10-year career, but I’d like to see what it’s like for a year or two. I’m throwing as well as ever--maybe not as fast.”


Warren’s fellow pitcher Rubio Malone, a quiet, rail-thin left hander from Compton, turned 30 on that misty night in Reno. The Cal’s oldest player, Malone was working at the Arco refinery in Carson, living in Long Beach motels and playing in Los Angeles park leagues when the season began. After playing last year in Cancun he was going to forget baseball. But this spring “the itch” got him again.

“I feel I can pitch with anybody in the majors,” Malone says. “All I need is that one break to get there. Right now I feel I’m in my prime.”

But even the teams who see promise in his pitching don’t agree. The Montreal Expos called Reno to ask about him but backed off quickly when they learned his age.

For some, however, there is life after the Silver Sox. In April, the Milwaukee Brewers asked if a young Reno left hander, Tim Fortugno, could pitch against their Stockton farm team. Against Stockton, Fortugno struck out 13, and Milwaukee phoned Reno with an offer.

Patton tried to get $4,000 to help pay some bills but finally sold Fortugno for $2,500 and 12 dozen baseballs. The pitcher was trying to support two children on $500 month, and, Patton says, “he really wanted to get out of here. I could have held out for more. But there’s things that are more important than baseball.”

Most often, Reno is where the last wisps of the dream dissolve. Doug Carpenter, a blond Florida beach type, was bound for spring training one year with the New York Yankees when he was hurt in a car wreck. Three teams have now told Carpenter to get lost, but he wrote a letter to Patton this spring and eventually signed on as Reno’s player-coach for $650 a month, the top salary on the team.


“I came to the California League because I’d never been there before,” Carpenter says. “Weather was a consideration. The caliber of ball is good; there are a lot of fans.”

But when the Silver Sox took a road trip through California in May, Carpenter went home to teach at the Bucky Dent Baseball School in Del Rey, Fla. Before he left, the manager took sick and Carpenter managed a ball team for the first time. The Sox stayed in the game until the last of the ninth inning before losing. For Carpenter it was end of game, season and career.

At about the same time, as mid-season approached, Minnesota began shuffling players, sending some down to Kenosha. Infielder Vince Teixeira was cut loose and went home to Newhall before being picked up by the Salinas Spurs.

Then, in June, the Oaks promotions began. Lenny Webster, the squat, hard-hitting catcher with a rifle arm and poise to match, went to Orlando, the first to move up. Star hitter David Jacas and lefty pitcher Doug Simons followed. And finally, the call came for reliever Rob Wassenaar, too--they wanted him in Orlando, and as a starting pitcher. But Bob Strube decided that three summers were enough to spend pitching in Visalia and gave up baseball, going home to the produce business in Chicago.

At least part of Silver Sox player-coach Carpenter accepts that the call will never come for him. “I’ve had my shot,” he says. “I like teaching kids. And I’ll make in a week there what I make in a month here.”

But then he falls silent and reconsiders for a moment. “If somebody called and offered me a Double A job,” he says, “I might do it.”