When Chris Hatcher picks up the phone in his Albuquerque hotel room and starts talking about baseball, his caller is braced for the rantings of a bitter old man.
Well, that's not quite true. At age 30, Hatcher, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox outfielder, is "old" only by baseball standards. Minor league prospects, even in triple-A, stop being prospects in their mid 20s.
Yet Hatcher, who has chased his major league dream for 10 seasons, is neither angry nor caustic because he believes his opportunity is still out there.
He is having a solid season, leading the Pacific Coast League in hitting at .350, with 17 home runs and 54 runs batted in through 76 games. And he has been chosen to play in the triple-A all-star game July 14 in New Orleans.
But it's been hard. The Rockies have already recalled 14 players--five of them outfielders and none of them Hatcher--at various times this season. There is no guarantee Colorado will call him up in September, when rosters are expanded.
"The year's only half over and it feels longer than last year," Hatcher said.
Hatcher said his spirits are up even if he is being kept down in the minors.
"I feel I have proven I can do the job at this level. I need the opportunity to learn to play at the next level," Hatcher said.
"It can be a mental battle to keep going. Sometimes you don't feel motivated because it feels like it doesn't matter what you do. But knowing what's out there at the big league level, that I can get some [financial] security for my family, that keeps me motivated."
Hatcher was born in Anaheim but grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he and his wife, Lisa, still make their winter home. She is expecting the couple's first child in October.
Houston selected Hatcher in the third round of the 1990 draft. He played seven seasons in the Astro organization before signing with Kansas City in 1997.
Hatcher could be forgiven for expecting a bigger reward for his tremendous 1998 season with Omaha, Kansas City's triple-A affiliate. He batted .309 with 46 home runs and 106 RBIs, and was named the league's MVP. His 46 home runs were the highest minor league total since Ken Phelps hit 46 for Montreal's Wichita club in 1982. Hatcher also led the PCL in total bases (313) and finished second in RBIs and fourth in hits (150).
"I got to play every day, I was only 15 minutes from my house and played for a manager [Ron Johnson] that I enjoyed playing for," Hatcher said. "I was relaxed and had fun. I focused on winning and the numbers fell in place."
Last September, the Royals gave him his first major league call-up. He made his debut in Anaheim and appeared in eight games. His only hit (in 15 at-bats) came against Seattle's Jeff Fassero in Kansas City.
"It was like being invited to a party and if you showed up, OK," Hatcher said. "I felt the only reason I was called was because of pressure of the [minor league] numbers I put up. That was disappointing for a first call-up."
Hatcher was further disappointed when the Royals decided not to offer a contract for 1999. Colorado did, and Hatcher went to spring training believing he had a chance to make the Rockies as a fifth outfielder.
"I got 11 at-bats in the big league camp," Hatcher said. "I had four hits, including two homers, but I was among the first cuts."
Hatcher speculates momentarily on what has held him back. He said he is average defensively and his 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame is not blessed with blazing speed, although he leads his team in stolen bases with nine.
The more he thinks about it, however, "the more I don't have an answer to why I haven't gotten an opportunity," Hatcher said.
But he's not giving up. And that's one reason he's looking forward to the all-star game.
"The game is more for younger prospects, but it's an honor and I would have been upset if not chosen," Hatcher said.
"Hopefully, I'll be seen by some team that can use a guy like me."
Mike Fyhrie is also waiting on a major league phone call. And the Edmonton Trapper right-hander could be getting one soon.
Fyhrie, who is headed for the triple-A all-star game thanks to an 8-5 record and 3.40 earned-run, average knows the Angels are decimated by injuries and their pitching staff is getting devastated by opposing hitters.
His name is mentioned as a possible replacement so much that friends keep asking Fyhrie when he will be in Anaheim.
"The last week has been especially nerve-racking," said Fyhrie, 29. "I know if they need someone, I can help the team. [General Manager Bill] Bavasi said to hang tight; that they don't need a starter until at least Tuesday.
"I almost made the team as a reliever out of spring training, and I hope they were impressed by what they saw. I just want a chance to show what I can do."
Most encouraging to the Angels is the way Fyhrie has rebounded from a subpar year and is pain free for the first time since 1996.
The Mission Viejo resident, who graduated from Ocean View High and began pitching professionally in 1991 with the Royals, began experiencing elbow discomfort at the end of the 1996 season. He pitched in Japan in 1997 and for the Mets' triple-A Norfolk team in 1998, but the pain persisted. He had surgery to remove a bone spur.
Fyhrie signed with the Angels last fall. After rehabilitating his elbow and adding 10 pounds through weight training, Fyhrie came to spring training determined to show he could still pitch.
Fyhrie said the surgery restored his "out" pitch--the slider.
"When I can spot that pitch, I am a successful pitcher," he said. "It's a combination slider and cut fastball that breaks 8-10 inches. I started throwing it in 1995-96. It made me the pitcher I am. Teams can't just sit on my fastball, and right-handed batters have to respect the inside pitch.
"In a spring training game against Oakland, when I struck out the side, that was the turning point. I knew I was back."
Although Anaheim used Fyhrie in relief in the spring, he is a starter at Edmonton and has 106 strikeouts in 106 innings.
If the Angels do call this week, Fyhrie has his bags packed. If they don't, he'll just wait.
"I can still be patient," he said. "I always tell people that you have to be in the right situation at the right time."