On Monday, after losing a day game with the Bees, we packed up and hopped a flight to Colorado Springs, home of the Rockies’ Triple A team, the Sky Sox. Sky Sox Stadium is the highest-altitude park in baseball, even higher than the infamous Mile High Stadium that houses its parent team, where ERAs commit suicide upon eye contact.
Like Salt Lake City, Colorado Springs offered gorgeous views of towering mountains. However, unlike Salt Lake, there were no pretty girls, or warm weather. We sat down the line on an unforgiving, bun-freezing aluminum bench. There were a couple of plastic lawn chairs, but only enough for the older guys who rested upon them like thrones.
The Sky Sox provided the pen with an oil-burning heater that looked like a miniature jet engine. It pumped out enough heat to melt our lawn chairs or set our uniforms on fire. Though its intensity was significant, its area of effect was limited, and we had to take turns standing in front of it to get warm, but not so close as to combust ourselves.
“Goddamn,” said Ox. He was bending over, letting the heater warm his ass. “This feels tremendous. I might have to get one of these for the house.”
“Careful, big man, or you’ll melt a hole in your drawers.”
“These fucking pants deserve to be melted. Besides, there’s no one here to watch this game,” Ox said, gesturing to the stands, which were virtually empty.
“Why people build stadiums in towns with weather like this, I’ll never know,” said Bentley.
“They say if you want to make a small fortune in minor league baseball, the best way to do it is to start with a large one,” I said, standing up and taking a turn in front of the ass heater.
“Has anyone seen Zarate?” asked Hamp.
We all looked around. “No.”
“Wasn’t he just out here?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember. He’s like a ghost,” said Fish.
“Did he get sent down?” I asked.
“No, he was definitely on the plane. I know because Reek has to help him out with all the English stuff.”
“I don’t think he speaks much English,” I said.
“I don’t think he speaks much Spanish,” said Ox.
“I think he’s part Aborigine,” said Bentley.
“Maybe we should talk to him in clicks and pops?” offered Hamp.
“I never see him eat spread either. I don’t know how he survives,” said Bentley.
“He’s probably out behind the stadium hunting feral cats with blow darts.”
“Who gives a shit?” said Dallas. “He’s a strange fucking bird. Yesterday, I saw him spray his armpits with fucking hair spray thinking it was deodorant.”
“Yeah, but if the pen phone rings, he appears out of nowhere, like he was always there,” said Fish.
“It’s his witch doctor magic,” I said.
“You think if we whistle for him, he’ll show up?”
“He’s not a dog.”
“Just scream his name or something.”
“Z!” screamed Fish. “Z!”
There was a rustling in the tree line just behind the bullpen fence. A dark navy jacket broke through and Z appeared, looking at us with wild eyes.
“Uh, Abby was looking for you.”
“Ahbee?” said Z.
“Yeah, he wondered where you went,” lied Fish.
“Ahh.” Z nodded his head but there was no way of knowing what he had heard.
“What the fuck were you doing?” asked Dallas.
Z held up a couple of waterlogged baseballs he had found. Probably batting practice balls struck over the fence but never retrieved. He made his way to the pen with his new clutch, hopped the fence, and joined us again, showing us his collection.
“That’s great, Z. You found some fucking baseballs. We got a whole bag of ’em right there,” said Dallas.
Z nodded appreciatively at Dallas and sat down. We all sat down as well, exchanging Twilight Zone looks like we were sharing a roster with some alien. We half-expected Z to sit on the balls and try to hatch them when, instead, he picked up a long metal tarp spike, usually used for holding the bullpen tarp down during bad weather, and proceeded to bang the ball into the sharp end of it.
We all watched him as he worked the ball onto the spike, pounding it over and over again.
“Five bucks says he makes a shish kebab and roasts it on the heater.”
“I may take you up on that bet,” said Bentley, staring at Z.
“If something living comes out of that ball, I’m done. I quit,” said Hamp.
We were all wrong. In the next strike on the ball, Z missed his mark and stabbed himself in the hand with the spike.
“Ieeeee! Coño! Coño! Diablo! Mamma—heuvos!” He grabbed his hand as blood gushed forth.
“Speaks Spanish about as good as any other Latin guy I know,” said Ox.
“What a fucking dumb-ass,” said Dallas.
“Z, go see the trainer. Comprende? Trainer?” said Fish.
“No, no,” said Z. “Iz okay.” He started wiping large splotches of blood on his pants legs, then sucking on the wound.
“Z, you need to see the trainer,” persisted Fish.
Z got up, still sucking on the wound. He walked toward the heater, at which we all jerked back for fear he would stick his hand on the glowing red metal part and cauterize the wound. Z kept walking, though, hopping the fence and returning into the forest.
“What the hell?” We traded baffl ed expressions.
Minutes later, Z returned. He’d picked some vegetation from behind the fencing area and was chewing pieces of it in his mouth, and pressing it into his hand, which had stopped bleeding.
“Now I have seen it all,” said Hamp.
“Where do they find these guys?” I asked.
“Iz fine,” he said, smiling at us. “Iz okay. No trainer.”
“I wanna know what he rubs on his arm after he pitches,” said Ox.
After the game, we got our first paychecks of the season. They were sitting on our locker chairs waiting for us to discover them when we walked in from the field. It was a big moment for me since this year’s paycheck would be the biggest paycheck of my player career—the first time I saw a comma in my earnings since receiving my signing bonus in 2003.
I carefully tore off my paycheck’s perforated edging, opened it, and stared at the number. A nauseous surge of anxiety hit my stomach where glee should have been. I turned the paper over in my hands, then looked at it again. Then, in a cold sweat, I spoke aloud to the paper in my hands. “Is this right? This can’t be right.” I spun around to see the other players in the locker room. “Is this right?” I called to anyone who would answer.
Other players were looking upon their checks with wrinkled, angry faces. Heads twisted in confusion before going back to the checks for a second inspection. Fingers traced deduction lines, then silent counting indicative of mental math, then, like me, the desperate search around the room to see if someone was playing a bad joke.
“This can’t be right,” I said, answering my own question, then diving into my check again.
Chip spoke to me from a few lockers down. “Tax in Oregon is harsh, bro. And, don’t forget, you’re missing two days’ worth of pay.” He didn’t seem upset about his pay, of course. His check was that of a free agent. A few hundred missing from a seventy-thousand- dollar-a-season salary is a lot different than a few hundred missing from a salary barely reaching fifteen thousand.
Chip was right about the two days missing, but, even after I factored those days in, my pay was still much smaller than I expected— almost three hundred dollars smaller. That was six hundred a month gone, over three thousand for the season! I sat down and gripped the check so tight I thought it might rip in two. In fact, if it weren’t for my desperate need of the money, I would have ripped the check up in protest and fried it on the bullpen heater. But whom would I be protesting? My own stupidity for not considering the deductions for playing in a major city?
Guys around the room were having similar reactions, especially the first year Triple A players who seemed shell-shocked. Most of them had signed for large bonuses, one of the reasons they made it to Triple A so quickly, so I didn’t feel too bad for them. In fact, I expected their checks to be less than mine, but when I asked them about what they made, it turned out to be more than me.
“How is that possible? How are you making more than me and I’ve been playing three years longer than you?” I asked Frenchy after consulting his numbers.
“I don’t know, man. I don’t know. Maybe there was a mistake?”
“There’s no mistake,” said Luke. “It has to do with the original contract you signed under, how it was negotiated, the way the pay level’s scaled, and so on.” He regurgitated this information in a sterile tone; then, looking at my devastated face, he offered a sympathetic frown and said, “Sucks. Sorry, dude.”
My anger was building. It was my sixth year and this paycheck was less than what some of the third year players were making, and there was nothing I could do about it. What the hell was the point of all this time spent in the minors if you made less as you went up?
I felt like a fool. I didn’t factor in the local taxes, the state taxes, and all the other deductions that get taken out of a paycheck when I blissfully planned out my future in Triple A. My outlook for the future crumbled, falling down on me. Reality set in. I had to pay off Bonnie’s ring. I had to pay the rent. I had to save for a wedding, scratch up airfare, and provide for a wife I hadn’t even proposed
to yet. Where was this money going to come from? How did I not see this? I thought of my poor pitching numbers, my poor earnings, my poor living arrangements. Maybe my parents were right; maybe I had no idea what I was doing.
I meandered drunkenly back to my locker and sat down, collecting my head in one hand while squeezing my paycheck in the other. We were not playing at home and I was glad of it because, if we were, I would have needed some strong Kool-Aid to come to terms with what I was experiencing. When I finally had enough strength to lift my head again, I noticed my cell phone’s notification light was blinking; I had a text-message from Bonnie. The message read, “I found my dress!”
My head fell again.