08/09/09 3:00 AM ET
Independent leagues offer different path
Players of all ages use unaffiliated ball to show their skills
By Rhett Bollinger / MLB.com
It's just that now his surroundings have changed. A lot.
Instead of pitching at state-of-the-art ballparks across the country, he's pitching in stadiums with capacities no larger than 10,000. Often there are just a few hundred fans in the stands when he pitches. And instead of sitting in a plush clubhouse, he sits in an old locker room with a single piece of white tape above his locker that reads: "El Mambo Lima."
That's life for a ballplayer in an Independent League.
Instead of throwing against the best hitters in the world, Lima is now pitching in the Golden League, an Independent League that features the likes of the Yuma Scorpions and the Calgary Vipers. Until being traded to the Edmonton Capitals last week, Lima spent this summer pitching for the Long Beach Armada.
Pitching in the Golden League, though, hasn't changed Lima's colorful antics on the mound.
Case in point, after a routine popup ended the eighth inning in a recent game against Yuma at Blair Field in Long Beach, Calif., Lima extended his arms at the mound and looked up to the sky.
It was gestures such as those that made Lima a fan favorite over the years during his time in the Majors.
Now, however, the 36-year-old Lima is not just trying to impress the fans, but instead he's trying to impress big league scouts and executives as he tries to get back to the Majors one more time.
"I'm just waiting for that phone call," said Lima, who had a 3.30 ERA and a 6-5 record with the Armada. "I know that break is coming. A lot of teams need help and I have experience."
And while Lima's confidence and quirkiness is certainly unusual, his story is actually a common one in the independent leagues, which are littered with former Major Leaguers and Minor Leaguers trying to get back into affiliated ball for another chance at making it to The Show.
Another Armada pitcher this summer has been former Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu. The 40-year-old hurler had a 5-3 record and 3.58 ERA (sixth best in the league) in 10 starts, with 66 strikeouts in 65 1/3 innings. While his goal undoubtedly was to get back to the Majors, he announced on Friday that he will be joining a Japanese team.
"It's real unique here because you get a blend of everything," said Armada manager Garry Templeton, who played 16 Major League seasons. "You get college guys that are good. Low-A ball guys, rookie-ball guys, Double-A, Triple-A. Guys like Lima and Irabu. So it's a pretty good mix."
"Irabu was very impressive for us and I believe he can get hitters out at the top levels in Japan," Templeton said. "He's throwing in the 90s, has excellent control, an assortment of pitches, and is in great physical shape."
Currently, there are eight prominent Independent Leagues operating in the United States that are not affiliated with Major League Baseball -- the American Association, the Atlantic League, the Canadian-American Association, the Continental Baseball League, the Frontier League, the Golden Baseball League, the Northern League and United League Baseball.
The main difference with the leagues, other than location, are the rules. Some leagues have salary caps, age restrictions and player-experience caps, while others don't.
For example, leagues such as the Frontier, Northern and American Association require a certain amount of rookies on their roster to make the league more developmental like the Minors, and they limit the amount of veteran players with three or more years of experience.
But leagues such as the Golden League and the Atlantic League have more relaxed veteran rules and as a result have had many more former Major Leaguers in their leagues, such as Jose Canseco, Rickey Henderson, Irabu and Lima.
The real differences, however, are between the Independent Leagues and the Minor League teams that are affiliated with Major League Baseball.
There's simply much more structure in the Minors with players being groomed into potential Major Leaguers, says Templeton, who coached affiliated ball for four years in the Angels organization.
"During the season, there's more work involved in trying to develop the players in affiliated [leagues]," Templeton explained. "Here it's not so much you're trying to develop kids, as much as you find kids that are already fine-tuned."
Templeton's son, Gary Templeton II, who was a Minor Leaguer in the Angels system from 1999-2001 and is now the Armada's hitting coach, had a similar explanation.
"In affiliated ball, they try and develop guys and give them as many at-bats as possible, but here in Independent ball, it's win now," Templeton II said. "You have to have guys that can help you right away. There's not as much time for development."
As a result, it's up to the players in the independent leagues to work hard to get back into affiliated ball, according to Armada center fielder Josh Womack, who reached as high as Triple-A in the Mariners organization and whose claim to fame now is as a youtube sensation because of a bat trick where he swings without using his hands.
"In Independent ball, it's more laid back," said Womack, 25. "There are some college guys that sometimes don't have that work ethic that guys who played in affiliated have. You have to police yourself and make sure you get better. It's easy to get caught up in just playing baseball every day instead of trying to get better every single day."
It works both ways, however, as some players with college experience take the Independent Leagues more seriously because they've never even tasted affiliated ball.
"I just took it really seriously, because I didn't know any different," said Blue Jays starter Scott Richmond, who played with the Golden League's Edmonton Cracker-Cats for three seasons. "It's not like I came from affiliated baseball to independent ball. It was the big leagues to me, as far as I was concerned, and the harder I worked there, the better chance I had of getting out of there."
Padres reliever Greg Burke had a road similar to Richmond's as he turned to Independent ball after graduating from Duke University.
"Coming from college organized ball and then getting a first taste of that, it's kind of more like the big leagues," Burke said. "It's real relaxed. You show up to the park. In the Minor Leagues, it's more regimented.
But Richmond and Burke's stories are just a few of the rare lucky ones to make it all the way to the Majors from a start in Independent ball.
Only a handful of current big leaguers used the Independent Leagues as springboard to the Majors, but those that did were certainly thankful for the Independent Leagues giving them a chance outside of affiliated baseball.
"I wouldn't change anything," said 12-year Major League veteran Kevin Millar, who began his career in 1993 with the Saint Paul Saints of the Northern League. "It's the experiences that you go through to get here which allows you to appreciate this level. I don't think there's enough experiences these days. You've got kids that are getting up here at 20 or 21 years old. What have they really experienced to appreciate that this is the highest level? Through all those little things, the independent league, making $600 a month, living in a one-bedroom apartment with four guys, I wouldn't change it for anything."
Like Millar, Mariners right-hander Chris Jakubauskas began his career in the Independent Leagues, but he took a much longer road to the Majors.
Jakubauskas played for several Independent teams such as the Lincoln Saltdogs of the American Association, the Florence Freedom of the Frontier League and the Fullerton Flyers of the Golden League.
But now at the age of 30, he's enjoying his first Major League season after years of hard work and the frustration that came with never getting noticed.
"For the first couple of years it was a very frustrating situation," Jakubausakas said. "But when I decided to just have fun and let the chips fall where they will, that's when everything started to fall into place. Finally, in 2007, at 28 years of age, somebody decided to pull the trigger and here I am. Better late than never."
On the other side of the spectrum of Jakubauskas' journey are top prospects that use the Independent Leagues as leverage in contract negotiations after the First-Year Player Draft.
Major Leaguers such as J.D. Drew, Stephen Drew, Max Scherzer and Luke Hochevar are just a few players who played in the Independent Leagues to stay fresh while their contract negotiations were being handled.
"The business side of baseball is an ugly side and I didn't want to sit out of baseball and go a different path but I had to," said Scherzer, who played with the Fort Worth Cats in 2007 and took nearly a year before signing with the Diamondbacks. "It's a decision I had to make and I'm happy with it. It is a route you can take and you can be successful."
Hochevar took it even further as he didn't even sign with the Dodgers after being drafted in the first round in 2005, and instead played with Fort Worth and parlayed that into becoming the No. 1 overall Draft pick by the Royals in 2006.
"For me, it was a help because of the situation I was in," said Hochevar, who went 1-1 with a 2.38 ERA with Fort Worth. "In my case, it was really big for me to get back out there and get geared up, not only to get drafted, but for pro ball."
Hochevar now mans a spot in the Royals' rotation where Lima pitched in both 2003 and 2005 after he had a stint with the Newark Bears of the Atlantic League in 2003.
So now Lima's back to trying to use the Independent Leagues to prove he's not done for a second time, but it's still anyone's guess if "Lima Time" will once again return to the Majors.
"Lima's thing is that nobody is going to tell him to retire," said Armada reliever and bullpen coach Sean Buller. "He'll retire when he's ready. He doesn't have that 95 mph fastball he used to, but he has movement and experience. He can still get guys out."
Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.