Chapter 20


June 2, 2009 — The Previous Season


We flew back to Vegas on a Southwest-evening knuckleball. Hot desert air ran intoreacted against cool mountain breezes, slapping our jet all over the sky. Nothing so rough enoughas to stop the boys from seducing free booze from the stewardesses, but too much to let you fall asleep without cracking your head against the cabin wall. Sacramento to Vegas was a short trip, and if the boys were to get drunk before landing, they couldn’t let a little thing like turbulence slow them down. Ask any player who’s ever played in the City of Sin and he’ll tell you the best way to endure the onslaught of buzzing casino ads and blitzing light at the Vegas airport is to have a good buzz of your own.

Vegas. Probably the best and worst place imaginable to put a minor-league baseball team.  The brass bit their nails every time they sent a prospect there, because it was a regular blinking neon mecca for trouble. On demand gambling, drugs, prostitution, cathouses, drunk driving, stolen goods, real fights, bar fights, bum fights… If you were a young man with an itch to get crazy—as almost all minor leaguers are—you were a kid in a candy store. In Vegas you could get high, naked, rich, broke, drunk, beat up, and arrested. All in the same night. Case in point, one of our best relievers tied on a white tiger-print headband, got smashed at an ‘80s tribute concert, and spent the night passed out in a shrub outside the Luxor. He woke up when the sprinklers went off—and that was just his Monday night out.

Ironically, for all the ways a player could destroy himself in Vegas, it’s one of the best cities for training future big leaguers in the game. It’s uncanny how many similarities the legendary Vegas charm has with the motivation behind making it to the top of professional baseball. Both offer life above the rules, constant action, and adulation if you’re a winner. Both have an aura about them that compels you to live for the moment. And both can have you playing under the influence of some will-sustaining drug long past quitting time. At least in the in the big leagues, the locker rooms aren’t packed with elderly in Hawaiian print shirts, or foreigners handing out coupons for call girls… Well, not all of the locker rooms.

This big-league training mechanism has nothing to do with Cashman Field, home of the Las Vegas 51’s. That place is a hotbox with a concrete infield, gusting winds, and towering wooden fences for hitters to play racquetball against. No, the real training happensI speak of takes place off the field, starting about a month or so into the season, when the charm fades. The boys start to realize they’re living in Vegas, not one-night-standing it. Disenchantment reveals that the reality of trying to do your job in a place where fantasy is always the hottest selling item isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Locker-room conversations shift from the standard masculine exploits of how much was drank, won, lost, and screwed, to how much everyone hates going out because “the damn tourists don’t know how to act here!” In short, most guys get a taste of the wild side and realize that while it’s fun to escape to every now and then, there’s no way they could live in it forever, nor would they want to.

Most guys. Not all. There are always a few who don’t want the party to stop. Instead of coming back to the standard pace of real life, these guys crank up the dial and force real life into fantasy. The addicts of self-image.

The plane’s in-flight intercom crackled as Brice Jared, a freshly minted big leaguer who started the year with the Jays but was recently busted back  to the minorsdown due to roster shuffling and contract obligations, made an in flight announcement. I recognized the frequency of his voice, even through my noise-cancelling headphones, and pulled them off to see what the fuss was about.

I wasn’t particularly fond of Brice. I didn’t mind him so much in spring training, before he was a big leaguer. Back then he was just a touch cocky, typical for a high draft pick like himself, but he wasn’t overbearing. We weren’t the kind of personalities that would hang together, but we were at least conversational. After he made the big club, however, that changed.

Brice the Big Leaguer was a whole new animal. He’d been to the Show and came back wearing it like a billboard. His wardrobe changed, starting with his suits. In every major league locker room there are catalogues from custom tailoring companies who want to slap their wares on big names. For the low, low price of around ten grand, anyone can wear a big-league suit. Brice got six. Everyone else on the flight was wearing a blazer and slacks, thrown together to satisfy the travel dress code. Not Brice. He looked like he’d just stepped off the runway.

He also got himself a new car, new watch, new shoes, and new sunglasses—which he wore even now, on an evening flight. Big League Brice blew money on ridiculous stuff because he could. Because “that’s what big leaguers do.” And that was the real problem.

It wasn’t just the clothes. When Brice came back from the Show, he could no longer have a roommate during hotel stays on road trips, because, “in the big leagues, you have your own room, and I can’t go back.” Brice couldn’t eat the spread in the clubhouse anymore because, “in the big leagues, they have real food and personal chefs, not this PB&J bullshit.”  He’d also grown a little more liberal with his mouth, chirping at umpires when they didn’t give him the calls he wanted. He bitched about the travel, the clubbies, and the stadium lighting, all the while justifying each and every gripe by making sure we players around him knew, “things are different in the big leagues.”

It was irritating, if not pathetic. Especially since most of the guys on this Triple-A Vegas roster had big-league time; in some cases, several years worth. We all knew players who had more money, experience, and time in the majors than Brice, but didn’t “do what big leaguers do.” And of those players we knew who did all have years of service and high dollar contracts under their belt, if they wanted splash the pot with their wallet and title, at least the service time to back it up. Brice had two months of service and was spending more bonus money than actual big-league earnings. Despite his new look, swagger, and affinity for complaining, he was just another Triple-A player now, albeit with a bad case of Big League Withdrawal.

“Hell-ooooo everyone,” Brice began. “Thanks for flying Southwest, the official airline of your Las Vegas 51’s.” It came out in a drunken, but-trying-oh-so-hard-not-to-show-it slur. He might have gotten away with it, if he hadn’t started laughing hysterically at himself after he spoke. Two flight attendants stood by his side with nervous looks on their faces. Before acting on any notions of backing out of their arrangement, Brice was slurring again. “Hey,” resumed Brice, breathing heavy into the mic, “we got a new guy on our team… Ffff-irst timer here in Triple-A, and we have a special way of intro-ducting”—he made quotes for that word—“them. Rookie’s gotta sing Karaoke, y’all!”

“Uncle,” said my seatmate, fellow reliever and friend, Bryan Bullington. Like me, he had slid off his headphones and was watching this spectacle unfold. We took a quick survey of the plane to see where the coaches were sitting, and if they were going to do anything. They were low in their seats, trying not to let anyone know they were affiliated with the performance.

“Aaaaand this is really going to happen,” Bully said, letting his head fall into the seatback.

“This guys is a ten-year big leaguer in his own mind. Dude,” I said, nudging Bully, “you’ve got more time than him, and you were a first rounder. Why don’t you tell him to rein it in a little?”
Bully shook his head. “Other guys have said something already. It doesn’t help. Just makes him bitter. He’s got it bad, maybe the worst I’ve ever seen. Someone up there probably encouraged this out of him. And now he’s our problem.”

Like Bully, I let my head fall into the seatback. I didn’t have as much time in the big leagues as Brice or Bully did, but I’d seen transformations like Brice’s before. Some guys go to the Show and they come back different. They succumb to the myth that they are as big as the league they’re in purely because they are there. Worse some of them stay up there. A cycle starts. Young players who don’t know how to act show up in the Bigs, look to an older player to show them how to behave, and wind up following the lead of some established, veteran jackass. A high-dollar prospect already into digging himself is perfect candidate to continue the tradition of unchecked jackassery. When the two meet, it’s like the uniting of a Sith Lord and a devoted Padawan. The majors has plenty of oversized egos, but you don’t learn the kind of swagger Brice was throwing around unless you have master around to help you hone it.

At Brice’s command, one of the younger pitchers who’d just joined the club appeared from behind the galley curtain. He was a country boy: shy, quiet, and not ready for flight-attendant work. Ironically, he was probably a bigger prospect than Brice. The difference was Brice had been to the Show and Shy Country hadn’t, and service time means everything in baseball.

A group of relief pitchers close to the action—those who’d been testing their alcohol tolerance at high altitude—snickered at our country rookie like a pack of goons about to run someone’s underwear up a flagpole. Bully and I, as annoyed by Brice as we were, chuckled as well. Even the coaches, who probably needed a drink more than anyone else on the jet at this moment, were laughing. It was, despite what Brice might think, the minors, a place of irony and over-the-line gags. To take any of it seriously would be the real sin. If it made Brice feel better to think he was living the Big League Life on a cattle-car flight where drinks came in a plastic cup courtesy of a gay attendant who sang the pre-flight safety instructions to the tune of a Broadway hit, so be it.

“Tell the audience what you’re gonna be singing for us tonight.” Brice pushed Shy Country out into the aisle.

Country gingerly placed his hands on the microphone and told the audience, “Friends in Low Places, by Mr. Garth Brooks.” The goons in front applauded heartily while the rest of the plane offered a meager, out-of-sync clapping of hands from the coach passengers.

What followed was a real mess. A jet plane’s intercom is not built with a CD player, or an mp3 hookup jack, or the ability to stream music from iTunes. In all our other rookie hazings, which we did in the outfield with a boom-box and a microphone, rookies at least had musical accompaniment. Poor Shy Country had nothing. He had to stick in an ear-bud from his iPod and sing a capella. He sounded like a baying dog in need of euthanizing.

“Jesus, where’s an air marshal when you need one?” I said. “If this isn’t an act of terrorism, I don’t know what is.”

“No kidding,” Bully said. “I’ve heard this song sung a million times by a million different drunk guys and this is the worst rendition yet.”

The music trolled on long enough for Shy Country to hit the chorus. When he did, a few of the white-haired passengers—soon to be clogging buffet lines and slot machines—sang along. Then, one of the attendants, probably feeling he’d kept up his end of the bargain, cut the music off and ushered everyone back to their seats. At this, the first universal round of applause was issued.

Following the performance, the voice of the plane’s captain came on and instructed everyone to take their seats for landing. Everyone did. Except, of course, for Brice. One of the flight attendants had to walk him back to his seat, and when the pair passed by Bully and me, Brice said, “In the big leagues, you fly private jets and can stand up when the plane takes off or lands. It don’t matter.”

“That’s nice, sir,” said the attendant, “but this isn’t the big leagues. This is Southwest Airlines.”