Down and Out in Lancaster

NOTE: This was a piece I wrote for City Paper in 2005. I’m posting it here because it’s a piece I’m proud of and I want to be sure it’s posted somewhere as backup in case the defunct City Paper goes offline, and I also thought some of you might find it interesting. In the meantime, check out our new City Paper tee at Shibe. Free shipping with code “quizzo”. As for Lipso Nava: here’s currently a minor league coach for the San Francisco Giants.

Camden Riversharks third baseman Lipso Nava has the best porn moustache in baseball. Catcher Travis Anderson informs me (and everyone else within earshot) of this fact shortly after I enter the clubhouse. “He’s the Peter North of the Dominican Republic,” the backstop says.

“He’s from Venezuela,” cries a voice in the back of the room.

“I know,” shoots back Anderson. “I was trying to protect his identity.”

Nava laughs. The impromptu introductions continue: “And there you have Mr. Shark.” Anderson is pointing at first baseman Brad Strauss. Brad’s been with the team since its inception in 2001 and works for the Riversharks as a corporate partnerships manager in the off-season. “Or as we like to call him, Senor, uh, Senor what do we call him, Lipso?”

“Tiburon,” says Nava.

“Yeah, Senor Tiburon.” The fact that I’m simply taking notes and not asking any questions raises a few eyebrows. After the introductions, the mood turns a bit tense.

“What kind of story are you doing?” one of them asks warily.

Good question. This adventure had begun, as all the good ones do, with only the vaguest notion of a plan. I had asked the Camden Riversharks, an independent minor league team, if I could hang out with the boys for a day or two, to see what life on the road is like in the low minors. They had given my idea the green light, having no way of knowing that the term “porn moustache” would appear in the lead.

But what exactly did hanging out entail? The clubhouse is a sanctuary for ballplayers, a place where they can cuss loudly and spit on the floor and do all those other things that used to get you two weeks in your room without TV privileges. It is not a place for an outsider. Hell, the manager of the team usually doesn’t even hang around the clubhouse for more than minute or two. Most reporters just ask a few sports questions (“How’s the arm feel?”) and get the hell out. Loitering, trying to be “one of the guys,” just isn’t done.

Former Phillie Brian Hunter speaks up from the couch. “I don’t know how long you plan on hanging around here, but we got a ball game to get ready for.”

With that, I sheepishly slip out of the room and head up to the press box.

The independent leagues are the last refuge for men who still dream of making it to, or back to, “The Show.” Though the quality of play is high, many of the players are castoffs, told by big league clubs that they are no longer wanted on their teams or in their farm systems. Instead of giving up the dream, these players give it another shot, hoping that they can figure out that kink in their swing or regain confidence in their breaking ball. And some do. Twenty-six Atlantic Leaguers have made it to the bigs, although 22 of them had been there before. Former Rivershark Chris Widger is currently batting .282 in limited duty with the Chicago White Sox.

While a former major leaguer with a name (both Rickey Henderson and Jose Canseco have played in the Atlantic League) might make as much as $3,000 a month, the majority of the players are earning somewhere in the range of $1,500 to $2,000 per month. Most of the guys have to find off-season jobs. Left-fielder Richie Barrett even worked during the season last year, waking up at 5 a.m. to help his dad’s paving business, then heading to the ballpark in the evening after knocking off.

The Riversharks lose to the Lancaster Barnstormers, 3-2, tonight. Afterward, I head to the Brickyard to meet up with the team, though when I see a group of about six of them gathered in the corner playing darts, I kind of lose my nerve. So I just sort of hover around, feeling creepy, staring into my beer, wondering why in the hell I am standing in a strange bar in a strange town trying to make friends with a group of ballplayers who like nosey reporters about as much as Nixon did.

Looking up, I see Nava walking past.

“Hey Lipso,” I venture. “I heard you played winter league ball with Bobby Abreu. What’s he like?”

“He’s a really nice guy,” replies the 36-year-old defender of the hot corner. “Really humble.” Lipso chats with me for a minute. As he walks away he gives me a quick pat on the back. I had forgotten what such a minor, friendly gesture could do. I regain my self-assuredness, and when he takes his seat after grabbing a beer, I snag the stool across from him.

In 1997 Nava had reached the Triple A level in the Cubs organization, the highest rung of the minor leagues, a phone call away from the Show. He played extremely well that year. The call never came.

“I have no regrets,” he says. “I have been fortunate enough to play in the big leagues in my country (he plays winter ball in Venezuela on a team that includes several big leaguers), and I’ve gotten to do a job I love for a long time.”

“Estoy estudiando espanol,” I venture, feeling comfortable enough to practice my limited Spanish with the Venezuelan native. He obviously doesn’t feel like listening to really brutal Spanish while he sips his beer, so he responds, “Oh really? Where?”

Guy Lynam wanders over. The South Jersey native had come to the Riversharks after spending a season with the Pennsylvania Road Warriors, a band of gypsies with no home base. They played every single game on the road, spending five months living in Motel 8s.

“Knowing that every day the fans are always gonna be against you makes you a stronger baseball player,” says the 24-year-old. “If you can make it through a season with the Road Warriors, you can play anywhere.”

I pour Lipso a cold one out of my $6 pitcher. In return, he tells me more about Abreu, whom he obviously admires. “I really enjoy watching him play. And off the field, he is a true professional. He knows how to handle himself, and I think it’s an example for the younger guys.” I ask the Venezuelan what he thinks about the heat Abreu takes for being a bit lazy. “I’ve heard that. I don’t understand it. This guy is a five-tool player. Of course he’s going to make some mistakes. But he’s one of the best players in the league, so I don’t know why the fans want to concentrate on the negatives.”

We move to the back of the room, where the rest of the team, about eight guys in all, are standing around. A couple of them flirt with young women, but most of them just chat amongst themselves, discussing the night’s game. Lynam asks me, “Hey man, you’re not gonna make us look bad in this thing, are ya?” Pitcher Mark Ion responds, “Man, nobody cares whether or not some minor leaguers are having a couple of beers.” Lynam taunts the former member of the Tri-City Dust Devils, a Single-A team in the Rockies organization. “Don’t think you’re hot shit just because you look like Brett Favre!” Ion smiles. Lynam turns to me. “Don’t he look like Brett Favre?” I agree with Guy, who then changes his tone. “This guy is a sleeper,” Lynam says of the Packer QB’s doppelganger. “I’m behind the plate, so I can tell you who can pitch and this guy can pitch.”

I spend most of the next day around the underground batting cage. An older gentleman comes down trying to sell bats to the players. I ask Barrett if players fall in love with bats like Roy Hobbs did in The Natural.

“No, you can’t fall in love with a wooden bat. They break too easy.”

Hunter approaches. “This guy’s got an all-access pass, doesn’t he?” the former Phil says to the players around the cage. A lump forms in my throat. “Hangs out at the bar, hangs around the batting cage.”

He addresses me with a quiet but authoritative voice. “You’ve got to understand that this kind of access is just really unusual, a reporter getting this close to the team.” I hadn’t realized that throat lumps could pulsate. Hunter’s tone lightens. “But the fellas tell me you’re a pretty cool guy. Tell me that you know a little bit about baseball.”

Excitedly, I stutter something about how I find it interesting that guys from different backgrounds and with different goals can play together as a team.

“That is kind of interesting. And I’ll tell you something, this is one of the best groups of guys I’ve ever played with. They play hard, and they play together. Not every team is like that.”

We talk for a few more minutes, Hunter telling me that he remembers everything that happened on his first day in the bigs.

Before I leave, I ask Lynam what his goals are in baseball. “I’d love to make it to the big leagues. If you have a uniform you have a chance.” He grins. “And I’ve still got a uniform.”