Commentary

The minors' contradictory culture

Striving to reach the bigs, hopefuls are living a dream -- sort of

Updated: December 17, 2010, 1:35 PM ET
By Marty Dobrow | Special to ESPNBoston.com

Editor's note: "Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream" by Marty Dobrow reveals the double-edged culture of camaraderie and cut-throat competition in minor league baseball through intimate portraits of six players striving to make the big leagues.

In the following excerpts (reprinted with permission of the University of Massachusetts Press), Dobrow relates the first professional game of Brad Baker, a first-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 1999; illustrates the friendship between Manny Delcarmen and Charlie Zink on the 2005 Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, and chronicles Zink's major-league debut with Boston in 2008. For more information, check out martydobrow.com and you can order the book from Amazon.com.

The first step

The roster of the Gulf Coast Red Sox provided some culture shock for Brad. There were nine guys from the Dominican Republic, four from Venezuela, two apiece from Japan and Korea, one from Guam, one from Mexico. The American kids hailed from buoyant-sounding places like New Market, Tennessee; Spring, Texas; and Independence, Louisiana. The players were all in their late teens or early twenties. Many had received little or no signing bonus. The cost of their lodging at the yellow stucco Wellesley Inn and Suites was taken out of their bimonthly checks, meaning they cleared $212. No one complained. The sense of possibility hung forever in the citrus-spiced air. Ramon Martinez, brother of Pedro and onetime 20-game winner with the Dodgers, was down in Fort Myers on rehab. He drove to the ballpark every day in a black Mercedes.

[+] EnlargeBrad Baker
US PresswireMaking his pro debut before a crowd of 17, Brad Baker's goal is to avoid a worklife of "pounding nails all the time."

Life at the City of Palms Park was pretty much devoid of glamour. The players arrived early in the morning by van, driving past places like Larry's Pawn Shop and Another Chance Finance Inc. After running and workouts, games began. There were no tickets and no concessions. People came if they wanted to watch baseball games played at noon in mid-summer in Florida. On August 9, Brad Baker's professional debut, there were exactly 17. The crowd included Tom Gardner, the 78-year-old bus driver for the Bradenton Pirates, who fought in Iwo Jima; 85-year-old Eddie Popowski, who had served more than 60 years in the Red Sox organization; blonde teenagers Kristin and Tracy Tatum from West Palm Beach, draping long, tanned legs over blue seats on the first-base side and attracting plenty of interest from the dugout; and Kim Hall, mother of Brad's teammate Andrew Cheek, focusing the zoom lens of her Canon on the action, saying, "He's dreamed of this since he was 2 years old."

With a "B" on his cap, and "Red Sox" across the chest of his No. 67 jersey, Brad threw a fastball for strike one to begin his career. On a strict pitch count of 40, he lasted an inning and two-thirds, allowing no runs on one hit and striking out three. Back in the hotel that afternoon he made his first call to Uncle Jeff, then to Ashley, then to his parents. At dinner that night, at the Olive Garden, he talked about how he missed his Sony PlayStation, and how some of his teammates lived in mortal fear of the $25 fines for offenses like wearing cleats in the clubhouse or eating more than one pack of sunflower seeds in a game. He was intrigued by the way his Dominican and Venezuelan teammates liked to sing in the clubhouse, while some of the Americans liked to splurge at Rita's Italian Ices and flirt with the help. He tried to envision the road ahead. "I never wanted to work like my dad, pounding nails all the time," he said. "Watching him, I knew that was something I didn't want to do. He was working seven days a week. If everything works out perfect, I will never have to work like he did. And so far everything's worked out great. There's always that chance that something could happen, injuries or whatever. It's all what God put you on this earth to be. Hopefully, it's to be a major league baseball player. I'll just find that out in the next couple of years."

Late that night a phone call awakened Brad and his roommate Garett Vail, a pitcher who had just graduated from Harvard with a degree in mechanical engineering. It was Jim Masteralexis on the phone: "Brad, it's been a dream all your life to pitch in a Red Sox uniform. How was it?"

"Jim," said Brad through a yawn, "it was awesome."

Early the next morning Brad was down in the hotel lobby spooning some Raisin Bran into a Styrofoam cup and reading the sports section of USA Today. The top story was about Braves rookie Pascual Matos winning a game with his first major league hit. A skinny catcher from the Dominican Republic, Matos had played eight years in the minors before getting his chance. "If I die tomorrow," Matos said, "that's OK."

Developing a bond

In the fog, in the April chill, on the spongy green grass of Hadlock Field, young men play catch. It is a meditative rite of spring. Back and forth. The ball snapping between them. Pop-pop-pop.

They throw in pairs, strong-armed young men who have all sipped the sweet bubbly of success on other fields in other towns. All have been stamped for greatness, been told they could truly believe. And now they are all the way up to Double-A, within range of the goal, though even among this select crew, the majority will never play even one game in the bigs. Who will ultimately get the call? Talley Haines? Conor Brooks? Jonathan Papelbon? Marc Deschenes, still plugging along at age 32?

Out in right center field, beneath the fence with an inflatable LL Bean boot and the lighthouse that rises after every Portland Sea Dogs home run, two model-handsome characters throw the ball back and forth with some animation. Charlie Zink puts the knuckle of his index finger on the ball, digs into the hide with the long nail of his middle finger, and lets fly. The ball sails without spin through the moist air. At the last second, it darts down and smacks Manny Delcarmen in the shin. Hopping mad, he picks it up, and fires back at 95, aiming for the grass right in front of Zink. "Don't get your panties ruffled ..." Zink shouts, and the two howl with laughter.

They share a loft in a green condo at the Junipers of Yarmouth apartment complex 10 miles north of the ballpark, right off Interstate 295. Downstairs in separate bedrooms live their two other roommates, a couple of laid-back lefties, Kason Gabbard and Jon Lester. The apartment with four pitchers is ballplayer spare: nothing on the walls, dirty laundry piled in the corner, an Xbox with DVDs scattered around the floor, open cans of Bud Light, a few tins of Copenhagen snuff, plastic bottles of Aquafina water filled with brown pools of tobacco juice. They play poker and spend hours with MLB 2005, the one with Manny -- Ramirez -- on the cover.

After games, Manny and Charlie like to go to the bustling Old Port, hitting the bar circuit at places like Gritty McDuff's and Liquid Blue. They usually wind up on Fore Street, snickering at the store called Condom Sense (with its displays of penis pasta and candy bras) and making their way to their favorite joint, the Fore Play Sports Pub. There they play fierce games of pool, with pretty young ladies surrounding the table, the beer flowing, paying sporadic attention to the last inning or two of the Red Sox game playing on 24 screens. When they dismount from Charlie's Yukon Denali at the condo in Yarmouth, the Maine night above them is cold and quiet.

Going big time -- for a day

Fenway Park opens to fans two hours before the first pitch. They hustle past the signs that read "Be Alert: Foul Balls and Bats Hurt" and stream down to the railing with their cameras and Sharpies. They gawk at batting practice and beg for autographs. Tonight they are buzzing about the trade Theo Epstein has just worked to acquire starting pitcher Paul Byrd.

At 5:15 two smiling friends walk down that same right field line, heading for the dugout and the Boston Red Sox locker room. Manny Delcarmen is wearing his sunglasses. Charlie Zink holds his glove in his left hand. Sunlight splashes all around them.

Not long after, a group of fans gathers in Section 21, Row NN, behind the plate. Steve McKelvey, who had spent the day working on his syllabus for a sponsorship event class, walks in with Jim Masteralexis. Jim tells Steve that he left a message on Charlie's phone about the first inning, when he will be facing three All-Stars right away: Ian Kinsler, Michael Young and the mighty Josh Hamilton, who put on a legendary display in the home run-hitting contest at Yankee Stadium last month. When Hamilton comes up, Jim advised Charlie, "Look him in the eye and say, 'I'm Charlie [F------] Zink, and here comes my knuckleball!'"

[+] EnlargeCharlie Zink
David Butler II/US PresswireCharlie Zink's outing at Fenway Park, to date his only big league appearance, wasn't an artistic success but it hardly mattered.

The agents chat with Madeline Munroe and her mom and stepfather, who are both wearing red T-shirts that say "Think Zink." They are introduced to some of Charlie's friends from the Savannah College of Art and Design, who have descended from distant points. Two have arrived from Savannah: Wes Gunn, a construction supervisor with a video and film background, and Randy Rodriguez, the art director of a design press printing department. Then there is Sean from California, and Tony from Connecticut, and the guy they all call Junior, Luis Tiant's son, who had really done most of the coaching back in the day. (El Tiante would not be in the house on this night; it was his 37th anniversary, and he and his wife, Maria, had plans to celebrate in Connecticut at Foxwoods. The night before, though, when Charlie checked into the hotel in Brookline, he saw Red Sox scout Felix Maldonado in the lobby on the cell phone, which he handed to Charlie. There on the other end was the hearty, soulful laughter of his college coach, and the biggest, warmest congratulations.)

Marya Milton, now a corporate lawyer in Oregon, had gotten the news from Joyce Zink the day before, saying that Charlie might be getting called up. She told Joyce to let her know as soon as she heard. Marya was getting her hair done when the phone rang and Joyce shouted, "He got the call! He's going to pitch tomorrow at Fenway!"

Marya flew in on one red-eye, not sleeping at all, chatting up all the stewardesses about how she was going to see her good friend make his major league debut for the Red Sox. Joyce flew in on another, far too keyed up to sleep. They met at Logan Airport and went to the Marriott in Brookline. There they met Madeline Munroe and, after some hesitation, woke up Charlie, then went out to get some burritos at Baja Fresh. And now here they are, taking their seats as game time approaches.

Joyce looks out over the field, her expression frozen in wonder, disbelief and fear as the national anthem is played on a saxophone. She says that Charlie's dad is looking down on the game, overcome with pride.

Chris Conti of Barrington, R.I., delivers the ceremonial first pitch as the grand prize winner of the 99 Restaurant Fenway Fantasy Sweepstakes.

At the 99 Restaurant in Greenfield a hundred miles away, Brad Baker pours a beer as the Red Sox game comes up on the flat-screens at either end of the bar. Twenty miles south, Lisa Masteralexis pays the pizza delivery man from Sibies and tells her 5-year-old twins they can't watch Scooby-Doo right now, tuning in instead to the NESN telecast on their new HD television set.

Across the country in California, Charlie's old buddy Ryan Fickle takes in the game on mlb.com, watching with three friends, hanging on every word. The day before he had been making one of his sales stops for Southern Wine and Spirits when his phone rang and he saw Charlie's number. Charlie told him he'd be starting the next night, and when Ryan answered, "Shut up. Get out of here," Charlie responded, "No [s---], son," and they both laughed and laughed. ("We giggled like little kids," Fickle later said. "That's the dream right there, that's the call. For one of us clowns to start in Fenway Park -- get out of here. Who does that?")

The Boston Red Sox jog out to their positions. Kevin Youkilis rolls a grounder to Dustin Pedroia. The game time temperature is 71 degrees.

From behind the pitching rubber, Charlie Zink scratches out the number 16 in tribute to Dave Russell. The Fenway PA system blares the Rolling Stones: "Let's spend the night together, Now I need you more than ever …"

Ian Kinsler steps into the batter's box from the left side. Steve McKelvey mutters, "First pitch strikes," as Maddie Munroe shouts, "Let's go, Tadao!" Joyce Zink stands silently, clutching her camera, trying to hold back the tears.

The first pitch is a knuckleball in the dirt. Three pitches later there is a fly to deep left, but Jason Bay catches it just in front of the Green Monster.

Charlie retires the trio of All-Stars 1-2-3 and walks slowly back to the dugout at Fenway.

The bottom of the first inning proves an absolute bonanza. J.D. Drew walks, and Pedroia singles. David Ortiz then launches the second pitch into the bleachers for a three-run home run.

That is just the beginning. There are hits and more hits, an error, a walk, and then Ortiz is up again, blasting another three-run homer. It feels as if Charlie Zink, who has finally gotten to the mound at Fenway Park after so many years of yearning, might never get back there again. When he finally does, the Sox are leading, 10-0.

His whole career, his whole life, really, had been tinged with the bizarre, and his major league debut almost had to follow suit. So maybe it is no surprise that Charlie is gone in the fifth inning, having surrendered eight runs; or that the Red Sox cough up that entire lead and wind up trailing, 16-14 (thanks, in part, to one of the worst relief appearances in Manny Delcarmen's career); or that they come back ultimately to win, 19-17, in a game that ties a 58-year-old American League record for most runs scored by both teams. With Charlie Zink, that is just how it goes.

It is a long, long night. After the game, Charlie sits by his locker, gladly answering whatever questions come his way. In the first inning, he says, "my heart was pounding out of my shirt." He admits that over the years he has had to ride through a place of deep doubt: "There were definitely times when there wasn't a whole lot of hope." He tells two journalists from Japan that there was a point growing up when he was uncomfortable with his Japanese heritage, when he offered his middle name as "Todd" rather than "Tadao," but that now he considers it to be "one of my proudest parts." The atmosphere at the ballpark was "a new experience for me, something I had never seen. Just amazing, exciting."

Sure, he wishes his pitching line (four and one-third innings, eight runs, all earned, on 11 hits with one walk and one strikeout) could have been better, but he absolutely treasures the experience. "This will be the best memory of my life, still," he says. "Hopefully, there's more to come, but if there's not, this was still amazing tonight."

He speaks briefly with Terry Francona and Theo Epstein.

Shortly after midnight he emerges from the locker room out into the concourse, where all the concession stands are now closed. There is a crowd waiting for him. Manny Delcarmen claps him on the shoulder, and Charlie hugs Ana and almost-1-year-old Manny III, still awake. Charlie whispers something to his agents Jim and Steve, and they all laugh as he hands them the index card that he found on his chair when he arrived in the afternoon: a note of congratulations from another agent who left his phone number.

There are bear hugs from all the friends from SCAD, including Luis Tiant's grandson, who holds up two tiny Wally the Green Monster dolls. Charlie gives a big kiss to Maddie, and saves a long embrace for Joyce. He poses for picture after picture.

Charlie drops his blue and red duffel bag on the concrete walkway. The bag says "Pawtucket Red Sox" with an address tag reading "McCoy Stadium, Ben Mondor Way." He has already been sent back to Triple-A.

But before saying good night, Charlie agrees to go back into the locker room one more time, pushed by his friends. He emerges with a box and begins signing a souvenir for all of his buddies. They are brand new baseballs. Rawlings.

Major league.

Marty Dobrow teaches journalism at Springfield College and is a contributor for The Boston Globe.

Marty Dobrow

ESPNBoston.com

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