- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It's an hour until game time and John Lindsey is sitting at his locker with a plate of fruit. He's reading, pen in hand, and underlining every once in a while. Homework, not a scouting report. The card game across from his locker is picking up momentum, getting louder with every hand.
All the televisions in the Albuquerque Isotopes clubhouse are tuned into the Los Angeles Dodgers game against the Philadelphia Phillies. The players go about their normal pregame routines but keep one eye on the TVs. It seems a million miles away from here on this 98-degree day.
It's late enough in August that every game the Dodgers play has some bearing on which players in the Isotopes locker room get called up when rosters expand in September. If the Dodgers fall too far out of it, the young guys will probably get the call. If the Dodgers can still see the top of the wild-card standings, the veterans are in line.
Lindsey's head is buried in his studies for an online college course, and he's seemingly oblivious to the noise from the card table and the Dodgers game until Jay Gibbons comes to the plate.
Gibbons was here a week ago. He and Lindsey were pushing each other for the Triple-A Pacific Coast League's hitting Triple Crown before the Dodgers called Gibbons up to see if he could spark their offense while Manny Ramirez was on the disabled list.
Lindsey is still here.
"Let's go, Gibby," Lindsey yells out, his eyes looking up from his book and finding the television screen in the middle of the room. The whole clubhouse stops. The card game takes a break. All eyes are on Gibbons, who is digging in against Roy Oswalt.
Gibbons is in the starting lineup because he went 4-for-5 with a homer and four RBIs in his first two games with the Dodgers. Manager Joe Torre decides to ride a hot bat for another game. But this at-bat doesn't amount to much except a grounder to second.
The noise in the clubhouse picks back up. Lindsey spears a piece of fruit with his fork, eats it, then gets back to his reading.
When we first met back in spring training, his teammates called him "Big John." Now that nickname doesn't stick. He's lost at least 25 pounds. "Basically, just eating less and eating better," he explains.
It's a diet of self-preservation.
Just about everyone John Lindsey started out with in the minor leagues in 1995 has either made it to the big leagues or walked away. He's still grinding: 1,562 games in the minors, 217 home runs.
Lindsey is 33 years old, and if this year isn't his last, best chance to make it to the major leagues, that day isn't far away. He's already played more seasons (16) in the minor leagues without playing in the majors than any current player.
"I just know that if I want to continue to play, I need to do all I can to keep my joints and my feet and my body feeling good," Lindsey says.
"I just really enjoy being at the ballpark every day. ... I don't know how much longer I'll get to do it, so I try to enjoy every second that I'm here and do everything I can to keep playing."
It's not easy to be on a diet when there's always too much food in the clubhouse. Oversized bags of chips and cookies, piles of cheese, bread, lunch meat. Usually a clubbie will stop at one of the restaurants that sponsors the team and pick up a bunch of food. Other nights you just get whatever the stadium catering company sends down. Meat loaf, mashed potatoes, gravy from a can.
Most of the young guys and pitchers on their off days fill up a plate with whatever is in the clubhouse before the game. Everyone else has a routine.
Second baseman Ivan DeJesus Jr., one of the Isotopes' top prospects, always eats a sandwich. He's young, but he gets it, the wisdom of not experimenting with gravy from a can right before the game.
Other guys have cookies or candy to get a little sugar rush going after batting practice. And it's always something like four cookies and two Hershey's kisses or two Reese's peanut butter cups and an orange Gatorade. Rarely just a handful.
John Lindsey eats fruit. Well, now he does.
Baseball, more than any other sport, values its order and traditions. The rhythms of a particular clubhouse may seem unique, but they are well-worn. Only the faces change.
There are the young prospects speeding through the organization on the fastest treadmill, the guys who used to be young prospects who are in danger of topping out in Triple-A, the 30-somethings trying to get back to the majors after an injury or a rough patch, and the guys just playing a few more seasons because someone still wants them and they still want to.
But every so often, something, or someone, genuinely surprises you.
John Lindsey was just supposed to be a good clubhouse guy for the Isotopes this year. Hit in the middle of the order, drive in runs, play a serviceable first base, set a good example for the young guys. Fifteen home runs and .285 would be a good year.
Instead, he's having the best season of his career.
For most of the season, he led the Pacific Coast League in batting average and slugging percentage. At the All-Star break, he was hitting .402. Though he's cooled off a little recently, he was still hitting .361 with 23 home runs as of Aug. 29.
"It's the middle of August and the guy's hitting .380," says Isotopes pitcher Jon Link. "You see short-season guys doing that, but they've only got 100 at-bats. John's got, what, 300? And he's hitting for power? That's a joke.
"If there's anybody that deserves to get a chance to play in the big leagues, it's John Lindsey. Honestly, as much as I want to go to the big leagues, as much as I want to get called up to the big leagues in September, if it were between me and him, I'd say take him because he's earned it.
"He's 33 years old, he's never had a taste, ever. I've had my taste, and I'm still hungry for my taste. I'm still hungry to be a major league guy. But I'm going to tell you right now, to get that guy an at-bat, a call-up for a game or whatever ... I'd give John a day. I'd give John my spot for a day, or even for a month, for September, just so he can have that taste."
You hear words like "deserves" and "earned" whenever you bring up John Lindsey's name in the Isotopes clubhouse. The game is self-governing, not random, they figure. There's a justice to it. A higher order that makes sure good guys who do things the right way and hit .380 one year finally get their call-up.
It's why a guy will eat two Reese's peanut butter cups and drink an orange Gatorade before every game. Some call that superstition. To a ballplayer, that's a religious ritual.
I once had a coach tell me that if I respected the game, the game would pay me back. I suspect a lot of coaches have said that. It's the kind of thing that sounds good right after you hit a screaming line drive into the glove of the third baseman.
And yet, John Lindsey says he's at peace with whatever happens.
Every afternoon around 2 o'clock, he walks into the Isotopes clubhouse. Manager Tim Wallach's office is on the left. Lindsey's locker is down the hall. Before he makes the turn, he takes a quick look inside.
"I picture it, you know? I walk into the locker room. I see Wally," Lindsey says, "and he's smiling at me. He says, 'John, come on in. Today's the day.'"
He laughs out loud, totally unselfconscious and tickled by the thought. We're finishing lunch at the El Pinto restaurant in Albuquerque. The manager recognized Lindsey on the way in and thanked him for coming. He has already signed a baseball and a score sheet that hangs in the restaurant's trophy case, and I get the feeling if he asked for a couple bottles of salsa on the way out there'd be no charge.
"But John, what if it's just for one day?" I ask.
"Ah man, that'd be so awesome," he says. "That'd be perfect. I mean, I could tell my kids, 'Your daddy played in the major leagues.' I've been playing 16 years. This [the minor-league life] is all I've ever known. But that's the goal I've always had. It wasn't the plan to take this long, but I did get there."
He's had this vision a million times. Maybe even more so lately with the kind of year he's having.
I want to ask more, but his expression has already changed. It's a short indulgence. There's another game in a couple of hours.
"All you can really do is control what you can and don't let the events of the game steal your passion and love for it," he says. "I know I can play in the major leagues. Every week I see a pitcher get called up and I'm like, 'I hit a homer off that guy the other day.' So I know it's just about getting the opportunity.
"If you look at it any other way, it'll drive you crazy."
There is, as far as I can tell, no frustration in his voice. He's smiling, actually, and deciding whether to have one more warm sopaipilla with honey before we leave. He lost those 25 pounds by avoiding food like this and I can see him trying to talk himself out of it. But you gotta enjoy life while you're in it, right?
"Last one," he says, grabbing the buttery, fried sweet bread and pushing the rest of them away.
Before a recent game, Lindsey did get that call into Wallach's office. Only it was to tell him USA Baseball had called and wanted him to come play for them. Starting in September, when major league rosters expand from 25 to 40 men.
It was, at first glance, an impossible choice: Sign on with USA Baseball and pass on a chance for a September call-up to the Dodgers, or pass and risk being shut out of both opportunities. Lindsey calls his agent to ask for advice, but this is a decision only he could make. To make it, he needs to hear it directly from De Jon Watson, the Dodgers' farm system director.
"At the end of the day, that decision will be up to [general manager] Ned [Colletti]," Watson says, summarizing what he told Lindsey.
"It'll be based on his vision of our big league club and whether he thinks there's a role where John could help the club win games. ... I can't guarantee we're going to call him to the big leagues and I can't guarantee that if we don't call him, the USA thing will still be there. It's just one of those tough life decisions you have to make.
"I can't answer what [he should do]. But I certainly think he's played himself into a position that he'll definitely be considered."
Lindsey listened hard to what Watson said. Not so much to the words, but the way he said it.
Watson's job is to do what's best for the organization, to make baseball decisions that make business sense. He's good at it, but he's also a baseball man. You don't sign up for a job that keeps you on the road, pointing radar guns at 20-year-old pitchers and scouting A-ball hitters, unless the game is in your blood.
Men like Watson have their own set of beliefs about the game, about how it should be played and the people who should play it.
Watson is the guy who keeps wanting Lindsey around.
"He is unbelievable for our young guys," Watson says. "He shows what it takes to persevere in this game. He's just a quality human being with a great work ethic and integrity. You want those type of people around your young guys that are on their way to the big leagues so they don't forget what this game really takes, what kind of character it really takes, what kind of resolve it takes to come in every single day and keep grinding away.
"This guy has been grinding away at it for years. He's still there every morning, he gets his early work in.
"I'm not going to say he'll hit .300 up there [in the big leagues], but he'll definitely have some success. His power will play up there. Those same guys that are there [in the majors] have come through the PCL and he's hit a lot of them.
"But again, there has to be a role he can fill for us. That'll be up to Ned."
I waited as long as possible to ask Colletti about Lindsey's chances of a September call-up, knowing his answer could be different on Aug. 15 than it would be on Aug.27 or even Sept. 1.
Finally, the last weekend in August came and I could wait no longer. Colletti still could.
"We'll see where we are and where he is upon the completion of the Triple-A season," Colletti says. "Just like with any potential call-up."
Tim Wallach's job, roughly speaking, is to get the players on his team ready to play in the major leagues. Winning is nice, but secondary. It's much more important for a young prospect like outfielder Xavier Paul to get regular at-bats against lefties, or work on dropping down sacrifice bunts with a runner on first, than it is to take three of four from the Portland Beavers.
Guys like Lindsey make his job easier. He doesn't have to worry about what they're doing or how they're acting. They wouldn't be here if any of that were ever a problem.
They come early and stay late. They talk to all the young guys. They learn new positions if they have to.
If Wallach were a different type of person, he might simply leave guys like Lindsey alone. Let them do their thing and spend most of his time with the younger prospects. Plenty of Triple-A managers do.
But you get the sense Wallach also has a set of ideas about how the game should be played and which people should be playing it.
"John is personally one of the nicest guys you've ever been around," Wallach says. "He's been in the minor leagues; he has no bitterness to the fact that he hasn't gone up to the majors. He just loves to play and he respects the game.
"He has no visions of all of a sudden being a star in the major leagues. He'd like to get a shot, and I'd love for him to get a shot, but he's just a great example for these guys."
Every day before the game, Wallach spends time with Lindsey at first base. Teaching, coaching, pushing him to improve defensively. It's time he could be inside in his air-conditioned office, scouting the other team's pitcher or cooling off after throwing batting practice in the dry summer heat.
If there has been one easily identifiable reason Lindsey hasn't gotten a call-up at any point in his 16 minor league seasons, it is because his defense was lacking. No one doubts his ability to hit. National League teams just had a hard time seeing him holding down first base for them.
Lindsey has heard all of that. It's partly why he tried to lose all that weight this year, to get quicker and more agile. Wallach took it a step further.
He'd like to see Lindsey get his shot, too.
"As well as he's swung the bat this year ... I know they've thought about [calling Lindsey up]. I know they're still thinking about it, probably in September. It's certainly in their thoughts because they still ask about him."
It occurs to me, after watching John Lindsey hit home runs in back-to-back games, that his career may have turned out completely different if it had taken place in another era. If he'd started out 10 years earlier or 10 years later, either before steroids turned 165-pound second-basemen into power hitters, or after the game tried to clean itself up.
It's occurred to Lindsey too, but he doesn't seem to dwell on it. Just another thing he doesn't have control over that will drive him crazy if he thinks too hard on it.
"Growing up, I always just trusted in my abilities. Plus, I mean, growing up, I was like, 'I'm Big John. I don't need something like that,' he says.
"The thing is I really didn't know it would be that much of a help. I was just like this big country boy who thought, 'Well, if you're good you're good, if you ain't you ain't.'
"When I first signed, my scout told me, 'John, if you hit 20 homers and bat .275, if you do that every year, then you've got a good chance of making it to the major leagues.' Then, all of a sudden, you started getting second basemen hitting 15-20 home runs.
"I remember going to my first year of spring training and I was hitting balls farther than anyone. Just popping them out of the yard. Then, two years later, there were guys hitting the ball just as far as me and I was like, 'Man, look at that. How'd that happen?' But you know, going through it, I never thought about it that way."
Albuquerque is a nice town. Not pretty like Santa Fe, but not ugly, either. Nights are quiet and cool. Minor league baseball has been played here during the summer since the end of World War I. For most of that time, the team was known as the Albuquerque Dukes. Tommy Lasorda managed here. Davey Lopes, Charlie Hough and Ron Cey became stars here. But in 2000, the team's owners sold the franchise to a group in Portland and the Dukes were no more. It took three years to bring baseball back to Albuquerque, when the Calgary Canons relocated and became the Isotopes.
The new team's name was voted on in an online survey of readers of the Albuquerque Tribune. Officially, there is a tie-in to New Mexico's history with nuclear energy, but really it's about the episode of "The Simpsons" where Homer goes on a hunger strike to prevent the Springfield Isotopes from moving to Albuquerque. There are life-sized figures of Homer and Marge around the main concourse, a mural of Homer in the 'Topes clubhouse and all sorts of other whimsical things around the ballpark.
The Isotopes pay Lindsey well. Nothing like what the Dodgers pay their players, but it's enough that he can send money home to Mississippi for his wife, Christa, and 3-year-old son, John III, and put some into savings every month.
He makes more in five months with the Isotopes than he would in an entire year as a teacher back home in Mississippi. Add in what he makes in the Mexican League every winter, and Lindsey is doing just fine. Close to six figures, before expenses.
"I've played so long and I've made so little money," he says. "Now that I'm doing OK, it feels crazy to walk away from the game."
It takes some getting used to after all these years of living simply. He could afford a rental car in Albuquerque, but it's easy enough to catch rides from teammates.
A couple of hotels in the area give players and coaches a break on extended rates during the season. At night, Lindsey stays in and works on the online classes he's enrolled in. When the Isotopes go on the road, he checks out of the hotel.
"One bag," he says. "That's all I need."
It's late, 11:15 p.m. or so. The Isotopes lost to Portland in extra innings, but the clubhouse is upbeat. Young star outfielder Xavier Paul and veteran catcher J.D. Closser are sitting at a table in the center of the visitors clubhouse eating a postgame meal and studying a printout of the box score.
"That last guy was throwing heat," Closser says.
"Yeah, probably 95," Paul says. "He had some nice sink, too."
DeJesus Jr. walks by with an ice pack on his left leg, just above where his leg was violently broken in a collision at home plate during spring training last year. He's just now starting to feel 100 percent again.
Late in the game, DeJesus Jr. ripped a double to the right-center-field gap.
"He threw hard, but if he leaves one up, like he did to you, you smash it," Paul says as DeJesus walks by. "Up there, [in the major leagues], all the guys coming out of the 'pen throw 95. You see it all the time and it doesn't look like anything. Doesn't matter what they throw, you can smash it."
Paul's been up and back to Los Angeles three times this season. He's tired of it. He wants to stick. But he gets why it's happening and is trying to make something positive out of the time he spends in Triple-A.
"Look," he says, when I ask about the last Portland pitcher. "You have to say things out loud over and over. You say it enough, you'll just know it. It sinks in. That's how you have to be."
He and Lindsey are as close to best friends as a 33-year-old man and a 25-year-old man can be. They grew up, and still live, an hour away from each other: Lindsey in Hattiesburg, Miss., Paul in Slidell, La.
Somehow they've managed to play together in Double-A Jacksonville, Triple-A Las Vegas, Triple-A Albuquerque and on two trips to Asia: Beijing and Taiwan as part of the Dodgers' exhibition team.
"We met in Jacksonville back in 2007 and we've been cool ever since," Lindsey says. "We're kind of like a big brother and little brother. If I'm not ragging him, he's ragging me."
If they weren't such good friends, the fact that Paul has been up to the big leagues so many times could be uncomfortable. Lindsey is the older guy. The mentor. But on this issue, Paul's the one with experience.
"There's no doubt John can play up there," Paul says. "I think it's about that time he gets his chance. He's not just knocking on the door. He's banging on the door. He's dang near torched the door down.
"But you know, you can't just tap on the door, you've got to bang on the door like John has been doing, and eventually somebody is going to hear you."
Lindsey is in the back of the clubhouse. He hasn't showered yet and he's balancing a laptop on his knees. Once again, he's left some homework for the last minute. It's busy work. Questions about grammar and language usage. It's due by midnight.
About 10 minutes to midnight, his cell phone rings. He answers. "Dad, lemme call you back in a few minutes, I'm finishing some work," Lindsey says. His father calls about the same time every night to talk about the game. His parents still live in Hattiesburg, but they get Robert Portnoy's radio broadcasts of all his games over the Internet. Afterward, no matter how late it is, his father calls to talk shop.
It's always been like this. John's father, also named John, is something of a local legend. He's the guy at the park all the young kids go to for hitting advice. In his own day, he was a great hitter at nearby William Carey University.
Growing up, John and his father spent just about every day together at the ballpark. They'd wait until late at night when the heat broke, walk over to Vernon Dahmer Park, and turn the lights on.
John Lindsey (the son) was also a football player in high school. A linebacker and defensive end, depending on how big the college recruiting him wanted him to get. Mississippi State, Louisiana State and Southern recruited him. He took a few official visits. But he was always going to choose baseball.
"If Florida would've recruited me, I might've played football," Lindsey jokes. "Kevin Carter was, like, my favorite player ever.
"But you know, baseball's my love. It's my family's love."
None of this works if it isn't. Most guys John Lindsey's age don't want to stop playing baseball, they just can't keep going. A wife gets tired of the grind and wants a more steady life. Parents pressure a son to finish his degree and stop spending his nights on buses across the Midwest.
John Lindsey's family listens to every one of his games over the radio.
They met in a hallway in Oklahoma City. John Lindsey had just taken Geoff Geary deep for the second time in as many at-bats.
Geary pitched seven seasons with the Phillies and Astros. He knows how to pitch and get major league hitters out. No one disputes that. He's in Triple-A to prove he can still be a major league pitcher after surgery on his groin in late 2009. The comeback is ongoing. So when a guy's got his number like Lindsey seems to, Geary wants to know what's up. If he's tipping his pitches, giving something away, missing something in his approach.
"We were leaving, and they were leaving, going out on the road, and I stopped him in the tunnel and said, 'Hey John, what's your approach at the plate?'" Geary says. "I asked John to learn. He may not give me any information, but then again, he might.
"But he says, 'Sometimes it just goes that way. I'm just trying to make contact.' I'm like, 'OK, John. You're so full of [it]. But you know, that's his approach. See the ball, hit the ball. And he's always hit a ton."
It seems strange to collaborate so readily with an opponent. But the longer you're around, the less strange it seems. There's a constant churn in the minor leagues. New faces at the beginning of a homestand, roster moves you only hear about later when a locker is switched out. It creates a bond among players that's hard to explain, except to say they all live in the same unsteady reality and dream about the same things.
Geary showed up in the Isotopes clubhouse on the last night of a series against the Fresno Grizzlies. He'd asked for his release from the Oklahoma City RedHawks, the Texas Rangers Triple-A affiliate, so he could start over with an NL club.
Lindsey recognized him from the hallway in Oklahoma City and asks which hotel he is staying in.
"The Eleganté," Geary says, having fun with the accent on the last "e."
"I stayed there a while," Lindsey says. "You should come over to the Staybridge. It's closer to the airport." Geary nods. It's a good suggestion. Less wasted motion. Veteran move.
Most of the players have gone home already. Some guys are showered, dressed and out the door before the grounds crew is finished dragging the field. Other players linger long after the game, icing down in the training room, playing cards in the clubhouse or laying out on the sofa to watch the late "SportsCenter."
You wonder if they have different DNA, the guys who bolt as soon as the final out is recorded and the guys who linger.
"I don't know if there's a difference," Geary says. "Just for me, growing up with Philadelphia, I always had older players that came to me and said, 'Hey, this is how it works, this is how it's done.'
"I was taught that you get to the field early, stay late, and talk about baseball. Ultimately, it's up to the players and what they want to listen to. I can only offer advice. I pick and choose who I talk to, hopefully wisely, and if their ears open, then that's when I'll discuss things."
There's no right or wrong in this one. The baseball season is a long grind. There's no shame in catching as much personal time as you can. But I notice that for the guys who linger, it isn't really a choice.
"The game is always moving," Geary says. "It changes faces, but it's always moving forward. I always tell people, 'I'm just a pawn in a chess match. I'll be gone at some point. It's just a matter of when, at the beginning of the game or at the end?'
"The only thing you can do is just keep playing. Play hard, and hope that one day you get your chance."
It's weird being back in Portland all these years later. John Lindsey started out here in 1996, his second year in the minors. They paid him almost nothing, but it went far. He shared a room near PGE Park with three other guys that cost $850 per month, rode the free MAX trains all over town, and tried to hit .275 with 15 home runs like his scout told him.
He's been back a few times since, passing through for a few games. Every time, it's kind of weird. He'll walk by a restaurant and swear he's eaten there before, get to a train stop and just kind of know which direction to go and which train to get on.
The Isotopes have a big van to take players to and from the hotel and ballpark every night, but Lindsey doesn't bother. The trains are faster, and you can linger in the clubhouse as long as you want after the game.
Paul and Geary instinctively wait for Lindsey after games. By the time we all walk out, kids are camped out in the outfield, watching a movie on the scoreboard.
"What have we got going on tonight?" Paul says, approaching one of the tents. The kids are fixated on the scoreboard and don't really notice. They're showing the animated movie "Up." And besides, Paul plays for the visiting team.
Lindsey laughs at him. "You thought they'd want your autograph?"
Outside at the train stop, Geary starts talking golf. He shows Paul how to move his hips forward, without twisting. It's tougher for hitters than pitchers. Against the grain.
After 10 minutes or so, the lesson is over. It's been a long day.
"Where's that train?" Geary asks. "How long have we been here?"
He's right. It has been a long time, at least 15 minutes.
"John, did we miss the last train?" Geary asks.
"No man, it'll be here. The trains run until 2 a.m. on the weekends," Lindsey says.
I can't remember what we talked about next. Might've been the story in the paper where Dave Stewart, Matt Kemp's agent, blasts Dodgers coaches Larry Bowa and Bob Schaefer. Might've been about what the Dodgers should do with Manny Ramirez. Doesn't really matter.
Another 10 minutes go by without anyone noticing. A train goes by on the other side of the tracks.
"Is it me, or is that the third train going the other direction since we've been standing here?" Geary asks. "Something's up."
Paul runs to see if the other passengers know anything. Maybe there's a problem on the tracks going eastbound?
Geary runs around the corner to look for cabs on a busier street.
John Lindsey sits on a bench and waits. "I know these trains," he says. "It'll be here."
It's a warm night in the Northwest. The crowd tonight was good, not great. Next year they're planning to convert PGE Park into a full-time soccer stadium. It seems to fit the town better than baseball.
"I can't believe this is my last time coming to Portland," Lindsey says. "This is such a great place to play. I can't believe they're going to get rid of baseball. I love coming here."
He's still calmly waiting on the bench. Geary has wandered off, out of sight. Paul is down at the end of the tracks, checking the map in case we have to walk home. The platform is filling up with people.
Around the corner, two headlights come down the tracks. Our side of the tracks. The conductor blows his whistle.
"See," Lindsey says. "I told you the train would come."
Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.