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The Road to Milwaukee Starts in Stockton

MCCLATCHY NEWS SERVICE

Baseball and Bo Dodson have had a thing going for a long time. The game has picked him up by the lapels and backed him against a wall, and Bo wouldn’t have it any other way. He loves it, and it loves him. This is not a platonic relationship.

Dodson is a ballplayer, and the evidence is everywhere. His license plates read “Bo D 1B.” His movements around first base are exact and purposeful, his swing concise and powerful. It is clear he didn’t just stumble blindly into these talents and decide, on a whim, to give them a try.

He is 19 years old, and baseball is his job.

A graduate of Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, Dodson is the first baseman for the Stockton Ports, the Milwaukee Brewers’ affiliate in the Class-A California League. The Cal League All-Star Game is Tuesday night, and Dodson will start at first base for the Northern Division.

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“I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet that this is what I do for a living,” Dodson said. “I thought it sunk in last year, but I realize now it didn’t. It’s still kind of hard to believe.

“I don’t have a worry in the world. None.”

It’s a pretty convenient set of circumstances for a guy just one year removed from Tuesday afternoon high school games. He is playing pro ball about an hour’s drive from his parents’ home in West Sacramento, giving him an off-day sanctuary, a regular core of fans and convenient laundry service.

“It’s a nice setup,” he said. “I just had to make sure everybody knew I couldn’t be talking to them during the game and stuff.”

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Still, the youngest member of the Ports has to have some worries, such as whether he will be able to sleep on the bus ride from San Bernardino to Stockton. Or whether Salinas is going to throw some little lefty junkballer (known by the trade name “thumbers”) and screw up his swing for a week. Or how to best stretch that $11 per day meal money on the road.

But he says those have become mere obstacles, small baby steps to take before breaking into a full sprint. Life in the minors is a series of inconveniences -- cramped clubhouses, sweaty bus rides, August in Visalia -- but a guy wearing a major-league seal of approval learns to live in the present and depend on the future.

“I know what I have to do,” Dodson said. “I want to hit .300 this year and move up next year.”

Dodson struggled early, hitting around .140 during the first month of the season. He ended the first half of the season hitting .283 with three homers and 28 RBI.

One of Dodson’s homers came against Don Robinson, the San Francisco Giants’ right-hander who pitched briefly for the San Jose Giants on a rehabilitation assignment.

The low power numbers are not so much a reflection on Dodson as they are on Stockton’s Billy Hebert Field, an expansive, wind-swept edifice that serves as a cemetery for home runs.

“Bo’s definitely a top prospect in the organization,” Ports manager Chris Bando said. “I look for him to play in the major leagues someday. There’s not much doubt.

“He’s very mature for his age. He’s getting more disciplined at the plate -- that comes with success. He’s learning this game, and he’s approaching it the right way.”

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Minor-leaguers learn to rely on baseball’s version of the Doppler effect: The closer you get to the target, the clearer it is. From Stockton, Milwaukee is a rumor. The view gathers focus in Double-A El Paso. There are direct sightlines from Triple-A Denver.

“I think about making it every day,” Dodson said. “When I was in high school, I couldn’t wait to get to pro ball. Now I can’t wait to get out of the minor leagues.”

Apartment 204 was a monument to restless energy. There were four Stockton Ports. It was hours before game time. There was nothing at all to do.

Dodson manned the remote control as the television flicked from the Brady Bunch to pro wrestling to MTV. There’s Greg, there’s Vince McMahon, there’s Van Halen. Back, forth, back again.

Bob Kappesser stood next to the refrigerator, crouched in his batting stance, staring out at an imaginary pitcher somewhere beyond the living room.

Steve Diaz was in another room, on the phone. Every few minutes someone, usually Kappesser, picked up the receiver in the kitchen and waited to be told to hang up. It was good for a few laughs.

Rick Stiner was the only calm member of the group. He sat reading the newspaper and savoring his victory in the war over the refrigerator’s last remaining Diet Pepsi.

It is 2 p.m. on Friday, May 18. The game against the Bakersfield Dodgers starts at 7:30. There is time to kill. It is turning into a massacre.

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“This is it,” Dodson said. “This is what we usually do. We might get a couple games of Nintendo in, go to the mall, maybe the store. Mostly just wait till it’s time to go to the park.”

“Not much goes on,” Diaz said, “especially when you sleep till noon every day.”

Through the open door came pitcher Dave Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-7 left-hander who has been spending a considerable amount of time backing up bases recently. In his last start, he lasted less than four innings in a 27-15 win over San Bernardino.

Someone inquired innocently about arranging rides to the park.

“I can’t help,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t have to be out there till 6:30.”

“You pitching tonight?” Kappesser asked.

“Yeah.”

The silence was palpable. Kappesser stopped swinging. The television landed on a soap opera and held. Stiner peered over the paper.

In a world where teammates change daily and first names get lost in a sea of nicknames, predicting individual temperaments is at best inexact. Usually the verbal needle is acknowledged to be an unrestricted weapon, but it seems special consideration is given to struggling pitchers.

So time, the enemy, stood still, waiting its turn.

“Yeah, I’m pitching,” Fitzgerald finally said. He paused for effect. “So everyone be sure to wear your cup.”

The room broke up. It’s a lesson best learned early: Those who laugh survive.

It was 25-Cent Beer Night, an open invitation to pandemonium. Much beer was consumed. Much beer was spilled. The stands were slowly filling with liquid. Small rivers of beer flowed from one aisle to the next as Billy Hebert Field was transformed into one big University of the Pacific frat party.

The Ports fell behind 9-3 early, with Fitzgerald once again getting in several wind sprints from the mound to behind third base. As the score turned lopsided, the fans turned rowdy. The beer lines grew in exact proportion to the bathroom lines.

Dodson struck out leading off the fourth, and a drunken college student stood up, searched the vast recesses of his creativity and roared, “Bo knows strikeouts.”

“That stuff gets old,” Dodson said.

In the middle of the third inning, the public-address announcer said: “We’d like to wish a happy 21st birthday to Carrissa Guerrero, wife of Ports outfielder Mike Guerrero, celebrating her 21st birthday at 25-Cent Beer Night at the ballpark.”

The bottom of the fourth, as always at Billy Hebert Field, is time for the “Beat the Walker” contest. The rules are simple: Some guy named George stands at second base and racewalks to home plate. At the same time, some lucky individual starts halfway up the first-base line and runs around the bases, hoping against hope that he will send George (69-0) reeling to his first loss of the season. It never happens.

“The entertainment is part of minor-league baseball,” Bando said. “The players get a real kick out of it. That kind of stuff gives you a lot of memories you can’t get anywhere else. It’s an education in its own right.”

There were those who cautioned Dodson against accepting the Brewers’ $75,000 bonus and turning pro out of high school. You’re sacrificing an education to chase a dream, they said.

“I have no regrets,” Dodson said. “I knew if I went to school, baseball would have been my top priority. That’s the way it’s always been with me. I figured if I went to school, I’d be cheating myself out of an education.”

Besides, Dodson is reasonably sure those who lobbied for education never saw 25-Cent Beer Night.

Or Captain Dynamite.

“That guy was amazing,” Dodson said.

Before a Rookie League game last year in Helena, Mont., Captain Dynamite positioned himself at home plate and climbed into a wooden box. He lit a fuse and blew himself up.

“He got up out of the box afterward and kind of stumbled around the infield,” Dodson said. “I couldn’t believe it. Pieces of the box went everywhere.”

Life in the bushes. Everybody should try it, according to Dodson, who subscribes to the theory that even Visalia is tolerable as long as there’s baseball.

“It’s actually a little more glamorous than I thought,” he said. “All I heard were horror stories: The bus trips are the worst, the stadiums stink, you’ll have rats in your apartment. Really, it hasn’t been that bad.

“The worst thing is the travel. The hardest thing is to play day in, day out. That’s tough to learn, but I’ve gotten use to it. I love it.”

Jose De la Cruz, one of the Dodson loyalists from high school, sat in the stands and watched his friend take batting practice.

The Bakersfield Dodgers were clustered against the right-field wall, stretching in foul territory.

“I wouldn’t be there,” De la Cruz said. “Not with Bo hitting I wouldn’t.”

Dodson lifted a drive over the wall with his third swing, then hit a shot down the line that sent the Dodgers scurrying like soldiers avoiding a live grenade.

De la Cruz laughed. “Told you,” he said. “They’ll learn.”

Dodson hit two more balls over the wall. Several Dodgers stopped stretching to watch, out of curiosity and self-preservation.

“It’s gonna be fun when Bo gets to the show,” De la Cruz said. “Yeah, that won’t be bad at all.”


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