A major inconvenience turns into a minor joy
Before I describe the improbable ending to what was supposed to be a fun-filled vacation to see spring training baseball in Florida -- and, especially, my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates -- here’s how it started:
Sitting in the airplane for nearly an hour at John Wayne Airport at 6:45 a.m., waiting for mechanics to clear us for takeoff. A heart-thumping dash five hours later through the Atlanta airport to barely make my connection to Tampa. Discovering in Tampa that my luggage hadn’t arrived, requiring an additional two-hour wait and forcing cancellation of dinner with friends. Noticing while sitting in the terminal that my bank card was missing from my wallet. Calling the bank only to be told my account number didn’t show up in their records. Realizing the next morning in the hotel parking lot, while heading out for the first game of the trip with a friend, that I’d left the rental car lights on overnight and had a dead battery. Hearing my friend say in the next minute that he’d forgotten to get our tickets from his wife, who had just driven off for a day of shopping.
So, yeah, 30 hours into the vacation, I was a little off my game. But with the temperament of the Dalai Lama, I quietly accepted the fact that the trip was cursed. That belief was reinforced a few days later when, visiting other friends, their 3-year-old son was attacked in their yard by fire ants. I explained the curse to my friends, but they graciously blamed the ants.
But then, the final day before heading back to Orange County.
I’d returned to Bradenton (where the Pirates train) and, after a couple “No Vacancy” stops, settled on a Days Inn around dinnertime. Right away, I spotted a couple of familiar faces in the parking lot -- familiar from having watched about 140 Pirates games a year on TV.
I’d stumbled into a Pirates lair. The front desk lady confirmed that about 50 players were staying at the motel.
You’ve got to be kidding. I come to Florida to see the Pirates, my favorite team for 50 years, and now we’re in the same motel?
The curse has lifted!
Calming down and remembering I was no longer 11, I approached a young guy I didn’t recognize and asked if he was a ballplayer. He was, and I gave him my Pirates spiel and asked if, golly gee whiz, some of the guys might talk to me for a newspaper column. His name was Matt Swanson, who pitched in 2006 for the Hickory Crawdads in the Pirates’ minor-league system.
“We’re having a Bible study at 8,” he said. “That usually lasts about 45 minutes, and there’ll be some guys hanging around after that. Stop by.” He mentioned that last season he wrote a weekly column for the Hickory newspaper on life in the bullpen.
A couple hours later, I was sitting around a table with six guys who someday hope to be playing for the Pirates. None is a “name” yet, a fact not lost on them. “People don’t know who Brandon Williams is,” said Brandon Williams, a 22-year-old pitcher who doesn’t know if he’ll be playing this summer in Hickory or State College, both Class A farm clubs. Wherever he winds up, he needs to find an apartment and plan for his wedding this fall. “It’s nerve-racking,” he says.
I tell the guys of my lifelong Pirate loyalty. Fans, of course, want to know that the ballplayers care as much as we do. “I saw Adam LaRoche [a slugger traded to the Pirates in the off-season] hit his first home run yesterday,” Williams says, “and I felt like a 4-year-old kid watching my first big-league game.”
I ask if they love to talk about baseball or want to forget about it when they’re not playing. “We enacted a rule,” Swanson says, smiling, “once we get back to the hotel room, no baseball.”
His roommate, pitcher James Antelo, leaps into the conversation, saying he can’t believe how much Swanson eats and sleeps baseball. “We play 140 games a year, plus 30 spring training games, and he turns on the TV and watches baseball,” Antelo says. “It’d be like a lawyer going home at night and watching Court TV.”
That draws laughs, but all six agree on a few unifying bonds: They love baseball, are all competitive and are aware of the massive lifestyle gap between the minors and the majors. And something else: They all still think they can make the big leagues.
“You start rubbing shoulders with these guys that you’ve seen on TV,” says James Boone, a 24-year-old outfielder, “and you see they’re not as big as you thought they were, not as strong as you thought they were and don’t hit the ball as far as you thought they did.”
The group seems to think the biggest factor in advancing is not as much talent as it is coping with the game’s psychological challenges. In the meantime, they say, people shouldn’t think of them as living the high life.
“People think, ‘You play baseball, you’re rich,’ ” Williams says. “I’m scratching to go to McDonald’s.”
Spring training is no piece of cake, they say. Wake-up time is 6:30 to get ready for a morning of instruction and afternoon games, the reverse of the normal ballplayer’s body clock.
And then there’s that competition. They talk about being, for the most part, the best players on all their teams as they grew up. Then their hopes turn to making a college team. “Before you play pro ball,” Boone says, “you’re just hoping to get drafted.”
When they do, reality sets in. Matt McSwain is a 21-year-old pitcher who’s already had elbow surgery. “In high school, you’re the elite player on the team, even in college,” he says. “Then you get here and you have 200-some guys in spring training, and 40 are competing for your spot and they’ve all got the talent.”
But even as they talk about the realities of baseball uncertainty, the 10-hour bus rides in the minors, the four hours of sleep and the low wages, none is complaining. Yes, they may have 6:30 a.m. wake-up calls to go to work, “but we get to go to a baseball field,” McSwain says. “We do get to rub shoulders with major-leaguers.”
We talk about the casual fan not understanding the pressures of a ballplayer’s life. The salaries of major-leaguers obscure the daily pressures of playing well and keeping your job. Like any group of professionals with unique skills, these young players know that the fans don’t fully understand their lives.
“But don’t think for one second we resent the fans,” Williams says. “I remember as a kid, the buzz you get walking into a major league park. That’s what the game is about. It’s about the fans.”
I thank them for their time -- time I likely never would have gotten with “stars.”
As a Pirate lifer, I like knowing the club has some nice guys in the pipeline. I genuinely enjoy my time with them and, only later in my motel room, realize what any fan would:
I’ll like them a whole lot more in the years ahead if it turns out they can really pitch and hit.
Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.