March 15, 2005

Life Playing Pioneer Baseball

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You’re on the mound tonight. It’s late June. You’ve traveled 400 miles, on a bus, out to a minor-league ballpark in Montana. It’s your first game, and the opposing crowd is not friendly.

You’re 19 years old. The Major League is a world away.

This is your life in the Pioneer Baseball League. It’s an eight-team “rookie league,” out in Big Sky country and the mountains of Utah. You play in remote towns, like Helena, Mont., and Casper, Wyo. It’s a barren, sometimes desolate world for you and your teammates — all of whom dream about making the big time.

The Pioneer League is a short-season league that plays during the summer. It’s one of only a few rookie leagues in America. In the minor league baseball hierarchy, it’s regarded as the level below Single-A.

MLB teams send some of their high school draft picks out here. They send former college players, and new recruits from Latin America who aren’t ready for Class A. Almost everyone is 22 or younger.

The Pioneer League is tough and exhausting. You make very little money. There’s not much to fall back on.

Maybe you won’t make it. Maybe you can’t hit, can’t pitch, and can’t live with the long bus rides, and cheap motels.

But for now, you’re here and you’re in the game. Maybe one day you’ll reach Triple-A, or even the majors. But for now, you just wait for your chance.

Last season, you might have been Robert Hinton — a 20-year-old right-hander from Florida. He was a late-round draft pick by the Milwaukee Brewers. He pitched for Helena last year, and had a 4-4 record. He did pretty well for someone barely out of high school and he seems to have potential. This year, he might move up to a higher minor league club.

Or, you could have been Hector Arias, a 20-year old outfielder from Bani, Dominican Republic. Bani has produced a lot of baseball players, including Baltimore Oriole Miguel Tejada.

A few years ago, the Dodgers signed Arias, when he was a teenager, to play in the Dominican Summer League. He did well on the island, and they moved him out here, to the American West.

He had a good first season in the Pioneer League. Maybe he’ll get a chance to move up again. Like Hinton and Arias, you’ll want to make a name for yourself. No one knows how you’ll do in the league. But for now, you’re here, and you’re in the game.

For now, you play at small stadiums, in hardworking, blue-collar towns. Most of these ballparks are old, and have seen better days. Some of the local governments want to build new ones — afraid that teams will leave for another stadium, in another town.

Ogden, Utah built a new ballpark, Lindquist Field, in 1997. The local team is a Dodgers affiliate, and draw the best attendance in the league. Last year, it averaged almost 4,000 fans a game. The view from the stands is incredible — the snowy Wasatch Mountains frame the entire outfield. And the sunset, in the early innings of a night game, is one of the most beautiful in the west.

Ogden is lucky, because it has a stable franchise and a nice stadium. The team will probably be around for years. But sometimes, a Pioneer League team will move to another town — looking for more money, or more importantly, a new stadium. Yet, the league goes on, year after year, as it has since 1939.

But you, the new recruit, is not interested in the business details. All you care about, right now, is tonight’s game.

Yet what you really want — what you dream about — is to get to the major leagues.

Pedro Martinez played for the Great Falls, Montana club in 1990. That year, at age 18, he had a record of 8-3. The season after, he moved up to Triple-A. By 1993, he was starting in the big leagues.

Yet for every success, there are many more failures.

You can’t be in the Pioneer League very long. According to the rules of the league, you’re only allowed three years of eligibility.

Most players never have to worry about the three-year limit. Some are called up to a higher level club, and their careers will move along. Others will be dropped from their teams, and give up.

However, you don’t think about that. Because for now, you’re here, and you’re in the game. Maybe you’ll be like Samuel Deduno — the Pioneer League’s best pitcher last year. He’ll move up to a better farm club this season. There’s even a chance he’ll make the majors one day.

You can hope for that kind of achievement. But, tonight, you’re just starting out.

You joined the team a few weeks ago, as a recent draft pick. Before that, you had no idea where you’d be going. You could have gone to Class A, or to another rookie league. You ended up here, and you were lucky, too. A lot of draft picks never even make it to this level. But you did make it, and you’re on the mound tonight. It’s a new season. Maybe you’re two innings into the game, and there’s a man on second. Everyone in the stands is waiting for your pitch.

You look towards home plate, and at the rookie batter. Just like you, he wants a chance at the majors. You deliver the pitch. But things don’t go as planned. It’s a double, and a run comes in. The crowd roars, and you’re alone on the mound.

And yet, for now, you’re here. You’re in the league, and you’re hopeful. For now, it is a warm June night under the western sky. For now, there is always another batter, always another chance.

Archived article by Ted Nyman