PADECKY: Dreams won't fade for local baseball diehards
Published: Friday, June 14, 2013 at 8:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 8:20 a.m.
They must feed their addiction because, well, that's what happens when they grip the baseball as a kid and it keeps gripping back, past Little League and high school and college and the days they weren't drafted and the games in which they weren't paid. They can't break away. They don't want to break away. They hang onto the ball as much as it hangs onto them. Because it would feel like being pulled off life support if they were to detach.
“It's my drug of choice,” said Robbie Wright, a restaurant cook from Stockton who drives up to six days a week from Sacramento to Sonoma County to play catcher for the Santa Rosa Rose Buds. It's Thursday and the Rose Buds are about to play the Healdsburg Prune Packers, two amateur baseball teams who play what they call the “Highway 101 Series.”
If the Rose Buds are a name that doesn't click with recognition, the 20 players on the team would like to change that. Even though they do not get paid, do not have a home field and will play 52 games somewhere on the road this summer, the Buds want to join the professional Pacific Association in 2014. The four-team Pacific Association wants to expand to six to become economically viable, and the Buds are playing this year on a trial basis.
Show that you can field a roster, that's what the Buds have been told. Show that when you schedule a game, you'll show up to play that game. Show that you'll have financial backing. Show that you can be competitive; this ain't beer league softball. Show, in other words, that you are stable and not cream puffs on the field.
That indeed is a long laundry list, one that amateur teams all across the United States would like to fill. If the dream of a 20-something is to play baseball well into manhood, then the dream to play it for money is like making it to heaven and sitting at the right hand of Babe Ruth. And if that dream were to go even further — to be signed by an MLB team from an amateur independent club — it wouldn't be a dream any longer. It would be a hallucination in which the subject would refuse therapy.
“All it takes is the right pair of eyes,” said Rose Buds pitcher Jarrod Dumont, 27, who once threw for Sonoma State.
All things being equal, players who get paid attract more interest from MLB scouts than ones who do it for free. And players who do it for free, and you might be surprised by this, they are everywhere. For example, the Sacramento Rural League has teams in Modesto, Stockton, Oakland, Novato, Vallejo and Healdsburg. Yes, baseball love is spread far and wide, thriving in amateur ball but, unfortunately, rendering many of the participants faceless.
If you're a baseball scout, with so many players out there in amateur ball, add this to make the task even more daunting for bird dogs: The Santa Rosa Rose Buds aren't called the Rose Buds when they play in the Redwood Empire Baseball League. They are called the Braves because every REBL team must have the nickname of an MLB team. Those very same players are the Rose Buds when they play outside the REBL.
I went to a NASA analyst to explain that last paragraph.
“It's confusing, especially when we call ourselves the Rose Braves,” said Rose Buds manager Mike Miller, 29, a left-handed pitcher who played at Maria Carrillo, Shasta College and for one year at SSU.
That's why the Rose Buds would like to hook up with the Pacific Association. The Buds would experience increased visibility, less confusion and, oh yes, money. Players in that league get paid from $700-$2,000 a month. Two of the four league teams are based in Hawaii. Next Monday the Rose Buds will fly to Hawaii to play six games in eight days against the teams in Maui and Hilo. A large part of their expenses will be borne by the Hawaiian teams.
And now we arrive at the critical talking point, the one that has sunk so many otherwise well-intentioned men's leagues.
“What do you do,” asked Don Noriel, an assistant coach on the Rose Buds who coached Maria Carrillo for nine years, “when there's a better ball player available and you have to tell your friend he has to go?”
Noriel, 66, was once a Rose Bud long ago. But he has seen this particular dynamic replayed over and over for decades. Many times amateur teams form because friends aren't willing to give up the game. Friends want to play with friends. Fine. No problem. Logical. Makes sense. But for sustainability, for the idea to become more than a one- or two-year fad, for some rich dude to sink money into it, for the team and the league to survive, teams have to get better. It has to be more than neighborhood baseball.
“Would you be willing to cut yourself to make room for a better pitcher?” I asked Miller.
“Absolutely,” Miller said. “I want the team to get better.”
Will it? Can it? Can the dream grow for some, while disappearing for others, without bitter, disruptive feelings? Can some still play it with no huge upside other than that RBI single against the Prune Packers? It's a reality even the most ambitious dreamers eventually will face and accept. Miller has.
“When I was 13, I pitched for the U.S. Junior Olympic team in Beijing,” Miller said. “I'm 13 and I'm already doing that? I was sure I would be pitching in the big leagues one day ... and then I stopped growing.”
At 5-foot-9, his dream squashed by reality, Miller still wants to be out there. He still finds baseball fun. There are worse curses in life.
You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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