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Dawn of a Dream: Reality of the road

Published August 21, 2005 1:51 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho - The best part of a bumpy, claustrophobic, all-night bus ride across Wyoming - the only good part, really - is the end.

Unless you're a rookie-league baseball team, anyway. For the young and inexperienced wannabes, each challenge seems to be followed by another, more difficult, one.



So the Ogden Raptors discover as they tumble out of their charter coach and into a parking lot at 6:30 a.m. one morning, exhausted by the ride and grouchy from being cooped up in one seat for seven hours. The red-eyed players stretch their limbs as they collect their bags, eager to fall into cheap motel-room beds for a few short hours of actual rest.

"My body is about to shut down," complains Jason Mooneyham, falling onto a couch in the motel's small lobby. "I can't sleep on a bus."

Turns out, he won't sleep in a bed for a while, either. A bookkeeping glitch has erased the Raptors' reservation, robbing Mooneyham, his 30 teammates and the team's coaches of their rooms.

The grumbling athletes stretch out wherever they can, on the floor, in the lobby and down adjoining hallways, while the coaches work with the overwhelmed front-desk staff to figure out a solution. Three hours later, the last of the Raptors finally is handed a room key, giving the groggy team time to sleep for perhaps two hours before the players' day begins.

It's going to be a long day - and one that will help Raptors manager Juan Bustabad sort out which of his minor leaguers can excel under difficult circumstances.

"It's all up here," Bustabad says, pointing to his head. "This is your job now. . . . You have to be mentally tough every day."

Glamour is not part of professional baseball's low minor leagues, especially in the vastness that is the Pioneer League. The all-night ride and hotel mix-up in Idaho Falls is merely the midway point in a six-day journey that began with a long bus ride three days ago and will conclude with a long bus ride three days from now. In many ways, the 1,200-mile trek from Ogden to Casper, Wyo., to Idaho Falls and back to Ogden is typical of what it means to be a professional, rookie-league style.

However, some lessons come harder than others.

DAY ONE

Ogden 5, Casper Rockies 3

Jason Mooneyham: 0 for 4

It's 7 a.m. and the bus, comfortable enough with 40-plus seats and a DVD system with small screens throughout the bus, waits outside Lindquist Field.

Eventually, 31 players, three coaches, a trainer, a strength coach and announcer stow their gear, say their goodbyes to girlfriends, wives and host families, and climb aboard.

Most carry the standard small suitcase and an equipment bag. Pitching coach Bob Welch, planning to test the North Platte River, which meanders through Casper, tucks his fly rod into the cargo hold. Pitcher Aaron Klusman carries a small cooler, filled with food fixed by his wife. "He probably eats better than anybody," teammate Cory Wade says, jealously.

The players get one seat apiece, while the coaches and support staff stretch out over two.

Bustabad, Welch and hitting coach Jose Mejia take the front seats. Latino players gather together in the rear. American players, plus Australian David Sutherland, fill the middle of the bus. Pitcher Brent Leach stretches out on the floor.

The seating arrangements rarely change.

"It is important" to the Spanish-speaking players to band together and create a feeling of community as they try to navigate through the beginnings of a career in a foreign country, said Mejia, a native of the Dominican Republic. "It is difficult when you don't know how to speak English."

In any language, however, boredom is the central reality of these frequent cross-country trips. With eight hours to kill, players cling to their iPods, CD players and decks of cards - anything to make the time pass more quickly.

Strength coach Rob "Franchise" Francis organizes a game of spades, though the card players seem more interested in insulting each other than in winning. Others try to sleep while sitting up or leaning against windows, while some players debate what movie to watch on the DVD system.

By 7:45 a.m., the sounds of violence and mayhem fill the bus - but only because "Gangs of New York" is playing on the screens. As the team rolls along the vast prairies of Wyoming, players choose to screen "Bad Boys 2," and then "Friday Night Lights."

The only person who doesn't appear numbed by the dreary ride is the driver, David "Call Me Frenchy" Brocart. Of course, he's had more experience at this tedium than anyone, having chauffeured the Raptors for the past five seasons.

"The players are fun to be around," says Brocart, a native Parisian who has lived in the United States for more than 15 years. "I know what to expect from them and they know what to expect from me."

Well, not always. There was the time, somewhere between Idaho Falls and Missoula, Mont., when an oil leak ignited, shooting flames like a tail from a rear wheelwell.

"Someone yelled, 'Hey, Frenchy, your bus is burning,' " Brocart relates. "I tried to put it out with the extinguisher, water, Gatorade. Players were jumping out of windows. I told them, 'If you need to go to the bathroom, come over here.' "

No such excitement interrupts this trip, though. After a quick stop at a fast-food restaurant in Rawlins, Wyo., Brocart steers the bus north toward Casper.

The Raptors pull into the hot and windy town by mid-afternoon, leaving the players barely enough time to check in to their hotel, eat and catch the 3:30 p.m. ride to Mike Lansing Field, named for the small town's former big-leaguer.

Once at the park, the players fall into their pregame routine, which never changes: Pitchers run; hitters take batting practice, about 20 cuts apiece, with starters going first.

Bustabad stands behind the batting cage watching his hitters. "This is what I want to do," he says, motioning at his players. "I'm lucky to have a job I love."

Sometimes it loves him back. During the game, Ogden's seventh consecutive win, Bustabad is standing in the third-base coaching box during a Rockies promotion, when a ballgirl hands him a bouquet of flowers.

DAY TWO

Casper 8, Ogden 6

Mooneyham: Did not play

Mooneyham is one of Ogden's jokers, a constantly jovial presence in the clubhouse. But he's not smiling today.

The first baseman and designated hitter got a call before heading to the ballpark from his mother, bearing bad news: Mooneyham's father, Phil, underwent quadruple bypass surgery that morning.

"They didn't tell me until it was over," Mooneyham says.

His first instinct is to head home to Southern California, and the Raptors agree to a three-day emergency leave. But Mooneyham's father convinces him that baseball should be his priority now.

"My dad wanted me to stay," Mooneyham says.

"He's doing fine," Nancy Mooneyham says of her husband, who had undergone an angioplasty, to install a balloon in his heart, in the past. When an angiogram revealed that the balloon had collapsed, the player's parents were faced with a second surgery - and a difficult decision.

"Phil didn't want me to tell [Jason]. He did not want extra pressure on Jason," Nancy Mooneyham says. "I didn't agree with him, [but] he didn't want Jason to worry about anything but baseball."

After all, the parents figured, he has begun hitting well again. After slumping early in the season, Mooneyham has pulled his average up to .295. "Jason is happy as can be," she said. "We're in awe that he's playing more than higher [draft picks]."

So Mooneyham stays with the team, though with a significant change to his routine: "Jason calls twice a day now, instead of once a week," his mother jokes.

Bustabad gives the understandably distracted player the night off. But all around him, the team's day-to-day routine goes on unaltered.

Players show up for morning sessions of weightlifting at the local YMCA, mindful of Bustabad's $25 fine for missing mandatory workouts. They watch TV. Most scatter near the hotel to find something to eat.

With a daily meal allowance of $20, choices are limited; most players eat at Subway sandwich shops so frequently, they joke that the chain and the Pioneer League should become partners.

Francis tries to keep his players on a healthy diet, but, "I'm not on their ass too much," he says. "It's their career."

And anyway, "there's just so much I can do," he adds. "Sometimes the only places that are open are fast-food places. And you can't make everyone eat chicken all the time."

Francis motions toward one Raptor, sitting nearby as he finishes a plate of nachos.

"He should know better because he's older," Francis says. "Because of the games, players eat at weird hours. Sometimes we get peanut butter and jelly before games and pizza after. Still, players usually lose five to 10 pounds during the season. They can't keep the weight on."

DAY THREE

Casper 12, Ogden 1

Mooneyham: 2 for 3, home run, double, RBI

It's getaway day, which means that all-night ride to Idaho Falls awaits the Raptors tonight.

It also means the players will have to kill the afternoon somewhere other than at their hotel, since the team is required to check out at noon. (The Raptors do reserve a couple of "getaway rooms" for players to gather in and perhaps catch a nap, but the rest of the rooms are to be vacated.)

As a time-killer, the Raptors arrange a trip to a nearby mall, giving the players and coaches a chance to do some

shopping - something Mejia, the hitting coach, especially enjoys.

"My wife," he says, "yells about the money."

Bustabad proudly displays his bargain buy on the way to the ballpark, an $80 pair of boots he paid $10 for at an outlet store.

Such outings help the Raptors get along with each other. Though they maintain their social circles, there is plenty of positive interaction in the clubhouse, as well as the typical jock insults.

Even Mooneyham and the Spanish players trade what few words each knows of the other's language.

"Mooney wants to learn one new Spanish word a day," Mejia says.

The friendly atmosphere is helped by the fact that the Raptors won the first-half division championship, meaning they have already qualified for the Pioneer League playoffs.

"Everybody seems more relaxed now," infielder Shane Justis says. "Because we won the first half, I think we have no pressure, we just go out and play. Even the team chemistry is a little better."

Justis, a 21st-round draft pick out of Towson University in Maryland, is one of the team's more serious-minded athletes.

"Once you get used to the routine and know your role, you just try to be prepared whenever you're called on," he says. "I have a portable DVD player and I play a little PlayStation, but I'm not really big into DVDs. There's not much time to hang out anyway. I'm usually at the field or lifting weights."

Justis played college baseball for years, so eight-hour bus rides are not new.

"This bus is a little crammed," he said. "A lot of people think the professional baseball life is really glamorous. To be honest, I had better hotels and buses in college. After the bus ride here I was a little groggy, but once you're on the field, you have to be ready to go."

Catcher Juan Apodaca, a Venezuelan signed as a free agent in 2003, has just returned to the Raptors after spending a week filling in with Las Vegas of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

Life several rungs up baseball's food chain was eye-opening for the muscular catcher.

"It was different," he deadpans.

Better than traveling by bus?

"Oh yes."

DAY FOUR

Idaho Falls Chukars 7, Ogden 6 (12 innings)

Mooneyham: 3-4, double, RBI

The Raptors' dawn arrival in Idaho Falls, ruined by the hotel's inability to find the team's reservation, spares one lucky pitcher. Former BYU pitcher David Horlacher's wife is from Idaho Falls, so as his teammates confront the ugly wait for rooms, Horlacher climbs into his in-laws' car.

"I've got a bed," he says.

The rest of the players aren't nearly as cheerful. "Why not go to Ogden and then [come] back for the game?" Mooneyham grumbles, only slightly in jest. "We'll get the same amount of sleep."

The players feel it that night. Brent Leach, a left-handed pitcher and sixth-round pick from Brandon, Miss., was still groggy at gametime.

"I got up at noon," he says. "I couldn't sleep on the bus. It felt like I was on a boat."

Despite the fatigue, not to mention a clubhouse better suited to a wrecking ball, Ogden plays Idaho Falls tough and when Jesus Soto delivers a sacrifice fly in the ninth, actually leads 6-5 with three outs to go.

However, the Raptors eventually let the game slip away.

Mejia somehow retains his cheerfulness in a day that began badly and got worse.

"I love rookie ball," said Mejia, who has been in the Dodger organization since 1998. Mejia could never make it past the Triple-A level, so he knows the odds these Raptors are facing. He also knows he can help them succeed beyond his own career. "The Double-A and Triple-A players already have their routines. Here, you are always working. Trust is important."

He's optimistic about one of his long shot prospects in Ogden.

"Mooneyham? Mooney's got good bat speed," he analyzes. "He's inconsistent. But next year, very good."

Mejia is a typical baseball coach, spending up to eight months away from his wife and three children, who live in the Dominican Republic. They speak daily by phone, but probably won't see each other until the fall instructional league begins in October. Mejia hopes to spend a week with his family then.

Until then, he's on a bus through Wyoming.

DAY FIVE

Idaho Falls 3, Ogden 2

Mooneyham: Pinch-hit walk

Standing in the crumbling locker room at McDermott Field - basically, a tiny room with two rusty shower heads and dressing stalls built out of two-by-fours - talk naturally turns to the best and worst facilities of the Pioneer League.

This is one of the worst, all agree.

"Here and Great Falls [are] bad, especially on getaway days," when the cramped room gets even more crowded, says Cory Wade, a right-hander from Indianapolis. "The Orem clubhouse is nice. Small but nice."

Players like Casper, too, though the field is not in top condition. The spacious locker room makes up for it.

But the most popular stop in the Pioneer League, the Raptors say, is Missoula - though not for its clubhouse. It's the crowds of University of Montana students that the players enjoy.

"The best eye candy and other stuff," Justis says with a smile. "It's a fun college town. It's the most fun trip."

That helps make up for substandard facilities.

"There is no clubhouse," infielder Rick Taloa, a 35th-round 2005 draft choice from Anaheim, Calif., says. "It's a trailer with two showers."

And those two showers don't always work.

"We showered at the river," Mooneyham recalls. "We jumped down to the river behind the outfield. It was pretty cold. We wore shorts, [because] you don't know what the hell was in that river."

The Idaho Falls organization is attempting to fund a new park to replace 30-year-old McDermott, which, as far as the players are concerned, can't come soon enough. Players, though, aren't the only ones concerned with ballpark facilities.

"The Helena press box is brutal," says Eric Knighton, the Raptors' radio play-by-play man. "It's one small room, 40 feet above the field, looking straight down. They just put a net in the windows which is supposed to slow the balls down. But the balls will hit the net and come in."

During the team's most recent trip to the Montana capitol, a foul ball smashed into the window frame, shattering the wood and spraying wood fragments.

"I thought was going to die," Knighton says, laughing. "I was freaking out."

Idaho Falls isn't much better, though not quite as dangerous, Knighton says. In the Chukars' cramped press box, "The beat writer is on the left and the scoreboard operator on the right," he says. "And they talk the whole game."

DAY SIX

Idaho Falls 4, Ogden 2

Mooneyham: 1-4

David Sutherland's parents have made their first trip to the United States to watch their son play baseball. A quiet, studious looking 20-year-old from Queensland, Australia, Sutherland wears glasses when he's not playing that only add to the impression.

What's he studying? Baseball.

"He could be batting .450 and not be happy," Sutherland's mother, Glenys, says of her son's dedication to a game he has loved since learning it when he was 5.

At the plate, the slender 6-foot-6 first baseman is a hit machine, pushing his average to better than .400 for the first half of the season. But now, with his parents Glenys and Lindsay in the stands, Sutherland fouls a pitch off his knee and leaves the game.

Still, it's better to be here in person than to huddle around a computer every morning. It's 11 a.m. at the Sutherlands' home in Brisbane when Ogden's 7 p.m. MST games begin, so "we listen to the games on the Internet," Glenys says. Now that the Sutherlands are here, "I get the feeling he's feeling good about himself," she adds.

The rest of the Raptors aren't feeling so good, though. The fatigue of a week on the road shows in their faces, not to mention their play.

"You never get into that deep sleep" on the road, Mooneyham says.

That's a big reason why the Raptors' winning streak, which reached seven on the road trip's first day, has now crashed into five straight losses to end it.

Mooneyham, satisfied that his father is doing well and gaining strength, is on a roller-coaster, too, but it's heading upward. His batting average, which dipped below .200 early in the season, is surging toward .300.

He's drinking in the entire experience, awful bus rides and all.

"I'm getting paid to be here," he says while chomping down on a sandwich. "I'm doing what I love to do."

 

 

 

 

 

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