LOOKING UP : Trappers Battle Opponents, Themselves for Chance to Answer Call From Majors
This is where the fun stops. This is where the young ones up from double A learn the not-so-subtle difference between team spirit and supply and demand. This is where veterans see every year of service as a year against them. This is where the men sent down from the big time brood.
Packed with players just a torn muscle and a phone call away from the major leagues, triple A is a kind of baseball purgatory--arrival is good, a long stay is nearly unbearable.
Unlike the minor league’s lower levels, where a fraternity atmosphere of camaraderie reigns, triple A is a mesh of ages, high hopes, dark thoughts and pressure, always pressure.
It’s not uncommon to hear a player who has been in the majors say he feels more pressure playing in triple A. Of course, it’s not uncommon to hear major leaguers say they feel more pressure playing in the league championship series than the World Series. In both cases, the pressure comes from the desire to simply get there .
The major leagues are the singular goal that ties triple-A players in Buffalo and Albuquerque and Louisville and Edmonton together, but unlike their counterparts, the Edmonton Trappers play about 400 miles north of the American border and know that though the big time might be within their reach, it’s not within a direct flight.
And it doesn’t help matters that playing baseball in Edmonton--a hockey town, Great One or no Great One--means being an interesting distraction at best.
Of course, someday, perhaps soon, professional baseball may only be a memory in Edmonton. The franchise, like its players, is itching to get out.
But unlike the players, the franchise would only like to get away from the stadium.
Edmonton is a great place to visit, a great place to live, but baseball?
Tom Kotchman, the Trappers’ manager, is standing ankle deep in a snowdrift that covers right field in John Ducey Park, home of the Trappers, the Angels’ triple-A affiliate. When the snow postponed a May 19 game Kotchman and pitching coach Chuck Hernandez decided to make a videotape to lighten team spirits, not the least of which were their own.
“Hey, I don’t know where the guys are, Tom. The only guy that’s shown up is him. His name is Freddie Flintstone.”
F. Flintstone is a six-foot snowman built by Kotchman and Hernandez, each of whom call Florida home. The snowman is wearing a Trapper cap and an Angel T-shirt. Kotchman and Hernandez go about playing in the snow--Kotchman does several belly slides. They send best wishes to the folks in Anaheim--”Hope the weather is as nice as it is here”--and then they run inside.
This is Kotchman’s third season as Edmonton manager. He managed in the Detroit and Boston organizations and now is in California’s. Three times manager of the year--twice in the California League and once in the Appalachian League--Kotchman managed a Class-A team in 1984 that had Jack Howell, Devon White and Mark McLemore and compiled the best record in professional baseball that season, 91-48.
But last season, the Trappers went a combined 61-80--minor league seasons are broken into two halves. This year, during the first half of the Pacific Coast League’s Northern Division, the team finished fifth--that’s last--and is in fourth place as the season draws to an end today.
The fact that he has not been able to win up here bugs Kotchman no end, as it does the front office. The players? They have their own problems.
Most players, after being drafted by a major league club, are sent to play rookie ball in some out-of-the-way place.
It’s fun, a bunch of young guns away from home for the first time, looking to make that jump to Class A.
Most of them make it after that first year and Class A is just as much fun; so is double A. You’re moving up the company ladder with a lot of your friends moving with you.
“You’re young, you don’t feel much pressure because even if you don’t make it, you can still do just about anything with your life,” said Dante Bichette, Trappers outfielder.
Then the player gets to triple A. He walks into a clubhouse and sees disgruntled former major leaguers trying to get back up. He sees veteran free agents hoping to impress a scout. He sees triple-A veterans who are desperate for a shot.
All of a sudden he realizes that the opponent at this level is not the other team but the guy sitting next to him on the bench.
If you’re part of the front office in Edmonton, the bench itself is an opponent because it’s part of a stadium that’s more than 50 years old and deemed by the Edmonton brass as unlivable, and unplayable.
“The place is so ancient that sometimes we’ll plug a toaster in the concession area and blow the fuses for the whole stadium,” said Mel Kowalchuk, Trappers general manager.
John Ducey Park seats only 5,000--a typical triple-A facility usually seats about 15,000--which is why the franchise wants out.
“If this park had only 10,000, we’d lead the league in attendance easily,” said Al Hood, the team’s director of operations.
In fact, it was only a few years ago that the franchise was in the embarrassing position of owning a rookie league team in Utah that played in a bigger stadium, 10,000 capacity, than the Trappers.
“We indicated to the city four years ago that something was going to have to be done,” said Dennis Henke, Trappers public relations director. “The reason we stated that far in advance was to give them time, so that something could be done in the near future. However, we’re getting close and closer to the near future and nothing’s been done.”
The Trappers’ management--the team is owned by Peter Pocklington, who also owns the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League--has proposed moving the team to a 15,000-seat football stadium but has been turned down by the City Council. The Trappers proposed sharing the stadium used by the Edmonton Eskimos (of the Canadian Football League) and were turned down. They’ve proposed knocking down John Ducey Park and building a larger facility on the premises and were turned down.
The city has said it will put some money toward refurbishing John Ducey--paint and the like--something Kowalchuk thinks is nothing more than a Band-Aid solution.
“If we have no new facility or barring a miracle, they can refurbish this place to make it a decent facility, I don’t believe we’ll be here three to five years from now,” Kowalchuk said.
Which would be fine as far as the players, coaches and Angels are concerned. Edmonton is the northernmost team in the minor leagues. Kowalchuk estimates that the team spends anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 more than the other teams in the PCL in travel expenses.
There are no direct flights from Edmonton to any of the PCL cities. The team’s home-away-from-home is the Salt Lake City airport terminal.
Whenever the team returns from a trip, it must clear customs. It’s standard operating procedure for the team to get back into town for a Saturday game at 5:20 p.m., get to John Ducey at 6:30 and wait until 7 for their equipment to arrive. The game is then postponed 45 minutes until 7:45.
The Angels, who say they enjoy working with the Trappers management, have mentioned several times that they wish to put their affiliation elsewhere.
“It’s all about geography,” said Bill Bavasi, the Angels’ director of minor league operations.
It was last year that the Angels called Edmonton at 10 in the morning and said they needed Bryan Harvey that night.
“We tried everything we could, we called anything that had wings, but we couldn’t get him there until the next day,” Kotchman said.
Bavasi has told Kowalchuk that if the team moves 1,000 miles closer, the Angels would gladly sign a long-term deal with the Trappers. As it stands now, the association is year-to-year.
That 1,000-mile move is, of course, a real possibility, considering the Trappers’ many complaints about John Ducey.
Some die-hard fans pass petitions to get the team a new stadium, but most Edmonton fans seem to view the game and team as a pleasant diversion, but certainly nothing to get tense about. Edmonton averages about 4,000 a game, exceptional for a perennial second-division team. “If the Oilers lose three games in a row, they’re ready to burn the building down,” Kowalchuk said. “We could lose 10 and no one seems to care.”
Most fans are just happy to have a hot dog, some peanuts and see a homer and a slick play in the field.
“They want to see good plays and they don’t care who makes them,” said first baseman Jim Eppard. “You hardly ever hear anyone get booed.”
Indeed, the only Trapper to be regularly booed was several years ago when a mascot, during a promotional event on the field, threw a hard slider at a pin-up girl who forgot to duck. The girl was taken to the hospital and the mascot was shown the exit.
“They’re really very nice people,” Eppard said. “They’re just not very knowledgeable about the game.”
Things were a lot worse when the Trappers first showed up in 1981, then the triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Director of operations Hood went about town trying to line up advertisers.
“I was taking to one guy and he said, ‘No thanks, we already sponsor a Little League team,’ ” Hood said. “Another guy asked me, ‘What kind of ball do you guys play?’ I told him triple-A. He said, ‘Oh yeah? My daughter plays triple-A. She’s 12.’ ”
Kowalchuk said: “If this was a minor league hockey club, they would have had a new facility by now because people understand that sport.”
Hood said: “A lot of these people have no concept how close we are to the major leagues.”
Of course, the players do and being so close makes it all that much tougher.
“By the time you get here (triple A), you’ve made up your mind that this is what you’re going to do for a living and you’ve invested a good chunk of your life in it,” said Bichette.
So there’s no turning back. But ahead of the triple-A ballplayer is a bottleneck of traffic waiting to get in to the major leagues. Spots on a major league roster do not open all that often. When they do, the guy with the best numbers isn’t always called up. A lot of it depends on who’s hot at the moment, who’s in favor with the team brass and who can fill a specific need-- “Can he bunt?”
With all those factors, the rumors fly, never so much as this last week as the minor league season winds down and major league teams prepare to expand their rosters to 40.
“You sit in your room and think about it, you sit on the bench and you think about it, you stand at your position and you think about it,” said Pete Coachman, who is in his third season with the Trappers. “You’re thinking more about who’s going to get called up than the game.”
But who can figure that out? Coachman hit .309 in 1987 for Edmonton and didn’t get the call.
“You try to figure what they’re going to do, but you realize you never know and that it’s always out of your control,” Coachman said.
All of which doesn’t make for the brightest outlooks or the greatest team spirit.
“This is a lot more cutthroat, more dog-eat-dog, “ Kotchman said.
And in this atmosphere, the players fill their roles.
There are those who have been with the big team but have lost their spot. Second baseman McLemore had a hard time hitting big league pitching and was sent down. When the Angels signed Johnny Ray to a long-term contract, McLemore asked to be traded.
There are the players on their way up. Players such as Mike Fetters, perhaps the Angels’ top prospect. Things have gone so well for Fetters (12-7 after winning six in a row) that he can talk nonchalantly about the present and the future.
“You have to realize that you’ll get your shot and if you don’t, it wasn’t never meant to be,” he said.
Oh, to be 24 and on your way up. Coachman will be 28 in November. He and first baseman Jim Eppard, 29, and outfielder Mike Brown, 29, are triple-A veterans.
Unlike Coachman, Eppard and Brown have each done some time in the majors. Eppard has been a pro since 1982--his longest stint in the majors came last year when he appeared in 56 games for the Angels.
Brown is one of triple A’s best, having hit .335 or higher in five of his seven seasons at the level. He has played in the Angels, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, White Sox and Detroit organizations.
Like Coachman and Eppard, there was a time when Brown wanted it all: a starting spot on a major league team--he did start for the Angels and Pirates--big money, fame. But years at triple A bring with it diminished expectations.
“I’ll take any role they give me on a big-league team; I’ll give water to the guys if that’s all they have open,” Brown said. “It used to be I wanted to be an everyday player or nothing. But I’m not concerned about that anymore, I just want to get back there and I don’t care what capacity it is.”
Eppard lost the dream of being an everyday player awhile back. Now he hopes he can play a little backup first base/outfield and do some pinch-hitting, “like Terry Francona.”
Kids can dream about being the next Willie Mays, 29-year-old men must think in reachable terms.
ROAD TO ANAHEIMTeam: Edmonton Trappers
Class: Triple A
League: Pacific Coast League
Manager: Tom Kotchman
1988 record: First half, 29-42, fifth
place; second half, 32-38, fourth.
This season: First half, 32-37,
fourth place; second half, 31-37
Stadium: John Ducey Park
Average attendance: 3,805
Edmonton population: 683,000
Elevation: 2,200 feet
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