Players keep their dreams alive in indy leagues
Pro ball's lowest rung offers hope and -- sometimes -- path to bigs
They drive borrowed cars to high school fields while wearing their uniforms and cleats. They sleep in the basements of nearby and sometimes not-so-nearby families. They work random jobs to stay fed because they sure as heck aren't making much money playing baseball.
As the months of the summer progress and they're still trying to get noticed, the men of the independent leagues have to stay awake wondering how far they really are from the Majors and if it's all worth it. Indy ball, as the players call it, is the most minor of all the Minor Leagues because the teams aren't affiliates of Major League clubs.
Players hope that someone in the sometimes smallish crowd is watching -- someone who can help fulfill a Major League dream. And yes, sometimes it happens.
Take a look around the rosters of the big leagues and you'll see them. Their statistics pages show the strange team names: Long Island Ducks, Evansville Otters, Orange County Flyers. The list goes on, and so do the players, doing whatever it takes to earn the chance to wear a big league uniform.
We're not talking about the high-profile guys who show up in low-profile stadiums of the independent leagues hoping to return to the Majors.
While some high draft picks such as J.D. Drew, Stephen Drew, Max Scherzer and Luke Hochevar have played in the independent leagues to stay in shape while contract disputes are being worked out, most of the indy teams are made up of the unwanted, undrafted and unassuming.
George Sherrill is one. The Braves' veteran lefty reliever began his pro baseball odyssey for Evansville of the Frontier League in 1999 after going undrafted out of Austin Peay State University in his native Tennessee. He spent five summers pitching in independent ball, also plying his trade for Sioux Falls and Winnipeg of the Northern League. The most money he made was $1,300 a month for the six months of the season.
In the winter, he loaded and unloaded trucks for the United Parcel Service. And when he was finally signed by a Major League organization, the Seattle Mariners, in July 2003, he had seen and experienced enough adversity to know that he wouldn't be afraid of anything.
A year later, he was in the Majors, and he hasn't left.
"Some people will say they are happy to be here," Sherrill said. "But that's grounds for complacency. I hate that terminology. When I come to the ballpark, I don't take anything for granted."
Sherrill made it to a big league ballpark in the first place because he shined in indy ball and because he was noticed by a man with a sharp eye for talent. That man, Charley Kerfeld, is a former Major League reliever himself and currently a special advisor to Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. While working as a scout for the Mariners, Kerfeld saw Sherrill's power arm and ability to handcuff left-handed hitters and took a chance on him.
"I'm not surprised at all by his success," Kerfeld said. "The one thing that he has is toughness. A lot of these independent guys have been to the bottom. These guys are hungry guys who will kill to get the job."
And they're all over the big leagues.
Kevin Millar, the rambunctious longtime big-league slugger and current MLB Network personality, broke into pro ball with the 1993 St. Paul Saints at the age of 21.
Erick Almonte's name rings a bell for Yankees fans because he was the up-and-coming 25-year-old shortstop who inherited playing time in the Bronx in 2003 when Derek Jeter went down with an injury in Toronto on Opening Day. Almonte filled in for Jeter for the next five weeks before enduring a journey that took him to Triple-A with the Rockies, Japan's Pacific League and the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League.
Almonte, 33, hadn't played Major League Baseball for eight years when he finally made the Brewers' Opening Day roster this year after a sizzling Spring Training. Like many in indy ball, Almonte thought about quitting. A lot. He just never gave in to those thoughts.
"Sometimes you question yourself," Almonte said. "I got a lot of offers the last few years but something told me in the back of my mind that, 'Hey, keep fighting. Never quit.' Now I'm here."
In addition to lots of hits and RBIs (Almonte hit .309 and drove in 77 runs in his 2006 season with the Ducks), the infielder, like any indy-ball player, has his share of colorful stories. He still expresses wonder that one of the teams in the Atlantic League was called the Road Warriors. The team did not have a geographic affiliation. They were just ... the Road Warriors.
"They always play on the road because they don't have a field," Almonte said. "Whenever they had good players on that team, and say our shortstop went down on the Ducks, we would pick him up. Whoever was playing good for that team, they would get picked up by another team. That team was just there to fill the schedule, I guess.
"Some guys play three or four years like that, on the road. I knew some of those guys, so every time they came to play us I had them to my place for dinner and drinks. It was kind of weird for them. The only positive, they said, is they never had to worry about finding an apartment, signing a lease, things like that. But it was tough, playing four months on the road and going from hotel to hotel."
Yes, the independent leagues are different. Very different.
Recently retired big league reliever Brendan Donnelly laced up his spikes for the Ohio Valley Redcoats of the Frontier League one day in 1994 at the team's home field in Parkersburg, W. Va. The right-hander strode atop the mound, looked in at his catcher, and was greeted by the hitter.
"I buzzed her with my first pitch, unintentionally, actually," Donnelly said with a laugh. "I got booed by all 17 people in the stands."
Donnelly struck out that hitter and finally made it to the Majors as a 30-year-old rookie eight years later. He helped pitch the Angels to the 2002 World Series title with scoreless work in five of the Fall Classic's seven games.
"I ended up in that league because I didn't have any other options at the time," Donnelly said. "You do what you have to do to keep a jersey on your back."
Chris Jakubauskas almost tore the jersey off his own back.
"I did quit for 2 1/2 months [in 2006]," said Jakubauskas, an Orioles reliever, currently on the 15-day disabled list, who spent five seasons in independent ball.
"I was in the weight room, working out, and I [heard a song and] was like, 'That'd be a cool ... song to come [to the mound] to.' Then I was like, 'Maybe I'm not done.'
"So I called a buddy who was playing for the Fullerton Flyers [of the Golden Baseball League], who I knew through my college roommate, asked him if they needed any pitchers. He gave me his manager's name and number, so I called him up. Two days later, I signed and pitched that year."
Soon after, he was signed by the Mariners, and he made his big league debut in 2009, capping yet another of the many heart-warming stories that originate on the lonely fields of independent ball every year.
Remember June 12 last year, when indy-legend legend Daniel Nava hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the big leagues -- for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, no less?
How about the success stories of Padres -- and former Helena and River City -- reliever Joe Thatcher, who might still be selling commercial insurance in his hometown of Kokomo, Ind., if not for the left arm that put up a 1.29 ERA in the heat of a Major League pennant race last year?
Who can ignore A's lefty specialist Bobby Cramer, who debuted in the Majors at 30 last year, sporting a resume that included a season with Orange County as well as jobs as a substitute math teacher and a gig with Shell's pipeline division?
And then there's Oakland's Craig Breslow, Milwaukee's Brandon Kintzler, Seattle's Tom Wilhelmsen, the Mets' 37-year-old Tim Byrdak, who began pitching to big league hitters in 1998, and surely more on the way.
"It's definitely not the best way to go about making it to the big leagues," Donnelly said. "But if you don't have any other opportunities and you want to play, you do it.
"You do whatever it takes until you can't do it anymore."