The Coast Bar/Restaurant at the Beau Rivage Casino
TECHNO THURSDAY doesn't drop for another two days, which means the packed crowd inside the casino bar tonight is here for only one reason: Biloxi's first official event of the Shuckers' inaugural season as the Double-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers. But there's a catch. Tonight's event will serve as both a meet-and-greet and a bon voyage.
After relocating from Huntsville, Alabama, at the end of last season, the team faced a string of political, financial and environmental snafus, all of which delayed the opening of the Shuckers' new stadium. In fact, right now the ballpark is little more than a shell, with no seats or grass, and center field is submerged in swampy rainwater. The team played its first four games in Pensacola, Florida, going 3-1. And tomorrow morning, the Shuckers will pile into a 56-seat bus with a spotty entertainment system and a single airplane toilet and hit the highway for one of the most epic, grueling road trips in sports history: a nonstop 58-day, 54-game, eight-city, 2,800-mile odyssey across the Deep South.
After the one-two punch of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, the folks in Biloxi don't need much prompting to throw a party. But before the Shuckers take off, the woman who has already designated herself Team Grandma has some important business to tend to. "I'm going to bake my famous banana bread and brownies for y'all," she says to the players. "Just tell me when you'll be home again so I know when to start baking." The players just stand there in awkward called-third-strike silence, staring at the casino's mesmerizingly ugly carpet.
At this point no one is sure when -- or even if -- the Shuckers will be back to enjoy a little home cooking.
APRIL 15 TO APRIL 24
Biloxi to Mobile to Jacksonville
Games 5 to 14
At 11:42 a.m., under threatening purple skies, the Shuckers' bus lurches away from the massive nicotine-beige Beau Rivage, heading north on I-110. The route takes the team under the casino's electronic marquee that boasts the south's premiere entertainment resort while simultaneously promoting upcoming shows by Bret Michaels and Kenny G. On the elevated highway out of town, the bus passes within 50 feet of the stadium construction site. It's a soggy, deserted mess. The players try not to look.
Because of the bumpy roads and unpredictable sway of the bus, a sign is posted just above the can inside the vehicle's funky bathroom. The sign features an odd stick figure wearing a cowboy hat, urging the "cowboys" who use the facility to, well, sit down when they pee to avoid excess spray. Over the course of the trip, the players ignore the advice, preferring to brace themselves by placing one hand on the low, slanted ceiling of the bathroom, which, they secretly admit, gives them an odd, uplifting sensation of hi-fiving someone while relieving themselves.
Following the Shuckers' team bus is a burgundy Kia minivan, loaded to the roof with kids and animal-print luggage, driven by manager Carlos Subero. "We're looking at this as a test of character, an extreme test of what you're made of as a man, a manager, a player and a team," says Subero, who has spent 14 years in the minors. "The way I'd describe 55 straight road games in baseball terms is, we're all about to face 55 straight Roger Clemens split-finger fastballs, so it's gonna be nasty and probably pretty humbling." Failure is as inherent to minor league baseball as bus trips and bad food, and the players who don't learn to deal with it don't tend to last.
Outfielder Josh Fellhauer, 27, knows this truth better than most. Since leaving Cal State Fullerton in 2009, he has clicked on his phone after every game he's played to read texts from his mom, Julie, back in Rancho Cucamonga, California.
The messages -- Come on Bubba! I can't believe you swung at that pitch! Don't forget: You are living your dream! -- make even the most dreadful day at the plate evaporate. Even in early March, after Julie was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the texts from Momma Felly didn't stop.
"My first thought was, 'Cancer has no chance against my mom,'" Josh says.
At 52, Julie was still playing competitive soccer three nights a week and was the kind of warm, upbeat person who always needed extra seats at Thanksgiving dinner because nearly everyone she met seemed to become a family member, including Shuckers first-base slugger Nick Ramirez, a teammate of Josh's at Cal State Fullerton. But shortly after the team arrives in Mobile for the first series of the road trip, Josh's phone goes blank. After her first round of chemo, Julie developed ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) and was placed in a medically induced coma. When Josh's phone finally does light up, it's 6 a.m., and this time the messages are from his brother Justin. You need to come home.
"I knew something was wrong, really, really wrong," Josh would say later.
It isn't long before the rest of the team knows it too. On April 18 in Mobile, a game suspended by rain, the Shuckers get the news that Fellhauer, a well-liked veteran clubhouse leader, has been placed on the temporary inactive list by the Brewers so that he can fly home to be at his mother's side.
But on April 19, with Fellhauer's No. 7 jersey hanging on the dugout wall, the players' spirits lift when they see a group of a few dozen fans who have made the 55-mile drive east from Biloxi.
In the eighth, infielder Yadiel Rivera homers down the left-field line, powering the Shuckers to a 6-2 win to complete the suspended game. The small group of fans goes berserk, and the Shuckers, like desert wanderers gifted with a brief rain shower, try to soak in every last second of the illusion of a home crowd.
The only player on the Shuckers' roster who has any real experience navigating the cruel, desolate landscape that lies ahead on this trip is veteran backup catcher Tyler LaTorre. At 32 and after nine years in the minors mentoring countless major league pitchers, LaTorre has developed a calming, magnanimous, untouchable air about him, as if he's wearing his catcher's gear even when he's not. With talented Shuckers catcher Adam Weisenburger getting the bulk of the work behind the plate, LaTorre rarely sees the field. But he's still the first one to the park, the first one to dive while shagging fly balls during BP and the first one to blow a bubble nearly twice the size of his head in the dugout. "There have been a ton of players maybe more talented than me, but I was better at the mental part of the game," he says. "That's why I'm still playing and they're home working at a sales job, out of baseball."
That might have been the fate of the 2014 World Series MVP, Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner, if not for LaTorre. In the summer of 2009, Bumgarner was 19, fresh out of high school and struggling as a one-dimensional fastball pitcher for the Giants' Double-A affiliate, the Connecticut Defenders. LaTorre was asked to help Bumgarner develop his secondary pitches, the same way the catcher had done for Tim Lincecum, Hunter Strickland and countless others.
Bumgarner did indeed develop a changeup and a decent slider that summer (his curve would come later), but he was so intense and competitive on the mound that after giving up a few hits to the lowly Altoona Curve one day, he started shaking off his catcher and reverting back to the fastball on every pitch. LaTorre called timeout, tilted his mask back and walked to the mound with that invisible shield of his. "He's got an intense bulldog mentality on the mound, and he thought he was failing," recalls LaTorre. "I just explained, 'Even though you're getting hit, you're getting better.'"
Bumgarner relented and went back to working on his changeup. He was called up three months later. LaTorre pauses the story for a second and rubs his thick black beard. "Those are the things you remember," he says. "That's what you live for, but no one else ever sees."
Bill Frakes for ESPN
Joe Amon for ESPN
Bill Frakes for ESPN
APRIL 25 TO APRIL 29
Jacksonville to Pensacola
Games 15 to 20
A few hours before today's series opener, the team's pitchers are on the field throwing and running sprints, when out of nowhere the skies turn biblical. The clouds run black. The wind howls through the stadium like a train whistle. The rain hits in buckets. Dumbfounded Shuckers pitchers are told to evacuate and take immediate shelter in the visitors' clubhouse. With the team huddled together in the tunnel, watching and thinking the same terrible thought -- Are we in a f---ing tornado right now? -- the entire left-field fence uproots, cracks in half and blows to the ground. "Craziest thing I've ever seen," outfielder Kyle Wren says.
Then, just as suddenly, it all stops, and the grounds crew patches the fence. What felt like a tornado turns out to be just a 31-minute rain delay. Eventually, the players take the field but can't help glancing over their shoulders toward left, searching for funnel clouds.
The only Shucker who seems unaffected by the extreme weather -- or anything, frankly -- is shortstop Orlando Arcia, a 20-year-old can't-miss future MLB star. After the delay, he leads the Shuckers to a 4-3 win with a double and a homer. The second-youngest player in the Southern League, he's already equipped with major league defensive skills. All he needs is a bit more power at the plate -- like his mom, Lilibeth, a renowned softball slugger back home in Anaco, Venezuela. Confidence and charisma have never been an issue, though. Signed at 16, Arcia is the energetic, fearless locker room yin to the statesmanly yang of LaTorre, even if, as far as anyone can tell, his English to date mostly consists of two phrases: "You suck!" and "I'm Captain America, baby!"
Two days later, with an 8-2 win in Pensacola, right-hander Tyler Wagner becomes the first pitcher in the Southern League to reach four wins. He doesn't look long for Double-A, which is unsettling for the Shuckers. Sure, they'd hate to lose his arm and grind-it-out leadership. But the team would be even more devastated to lose Wagner's PlayStation.
APRIL 30 TO MAY 15
Pensacola to Huntsville to Pearl to Jackson
Games 21 to 35
When right-hander Jorge Lopez finds out he's starting on May 10 in Pearl, Mississippi, he strolls down to the computer in the hotel lobby and Googles: How to concentrate better. Lopez, a native of Cayey, Puerto Rico, and the Brewers' second-round pick in 2011, has struggled in his first few Double-A starts. These days his mind, sometimes even on the mound, is on his son, Mikael. Since his birth in 2013, Mikael has suffered from a mysterious, painful intestinal disorder that has required the use of a feeding tube. Despite numerous tests and long stays with specialists in Ohio, the word in May from Lopez's wife, Karla, is that there still isn't a definitive diagnosis. "I am scared for him," Lopez says.
On the morning of his start, Lopez kneels at the edge of his hotel bed, his elbows sinking into the soft white comforter. My son has a lot of sickness, but he keeps fighting, so I will keep fighting. My son is tough, so I will be tough. My son won't stop, so I won't stop. Everything is gonna happen positive today, for him, for his mom and for me.
"What I do now is I pray and I think about my son," he says, "and then I put that to the side and go to work."
Soft-spoken and always smiling away from the park, Lopez flips a switch on the mound. Able to spot his fastball on both sides of the plate and armed with a low, indecipherable changeup and exquisite command of his curve, Lopez mows down 14 consecutive hitters and carries a no-hitter into the sixth inning. He even adds an RBI single in a 2-0 masterpiece (the third of seven straight wins for Lopez) that manager Subero proclaims is "as good of a pitching performance as you'll see on this level."
Meanwhile, almost 2,000 miles to the west, in California, Josh Fellhauer can feel himself going numb as doctors inform his family: If anyone needs to see Julie or to say their goodbyes, "today's probably the day." Julie, though, has different plans. Still in a coma but off sedatives, she's fighting. Her blood pressure stabilizes and an EEG comes back positive for brain function. For the first time in eight years, instead of being on the road at a baseball game, Josh is able to spend Mother's Day with his mom. At home the next night, though, the Fellhauer men are making dinner when the hospital calls. She just coded, says the voice, you need to make your way down here. "I think she wanted to get to that day and then say, 'I made it, I'm ready to go,'" Josh says. Later that night, Julie dies. It has been less than 100 days since her diagnosis -- a thought that leaves Josh unsure where the strength for his next breath will come from. "She was competitive, and she beat us all to heaven," Josh says. "I try to think of it that way, and that helps, because honestly, I got nothing else to go to when I try to make sense of it all."
The Shuckers drop three of their last four to the Braves in Pearl and drag themselves back onto the bus. Half an hour into the 300-mile trek north on I-55 to Jackson, Tennessee, Brent Suter, a Harvard kid, somehow convinces his teammates that there is only one possible antidote to their mini-slump: Pitch Perfect. A chorus member at Cincinnati's Moeller High School, Suter tried out for Harvard's prestigious a cappella group but didn't make the final cut. So he decided instead to focus on how to pitch, perfect. "I say this in all seriousness," says Chris Harris, the team's media relations director, radio play-by-play man, website manager and occasional grounds crew assistant. "Brent Suter has the legitimate voice of an angel."
Arcia's English to date mostly consists of two phrases: "You suck!" and "I'm Captain America, baby!"
There is some grumbling resistance to the movie suggestion at first. But slowly, quietly, up and down the bus, teammates unburden themselves of their secret admiration for the Barden Bellas and the Treblemakers. "We have guys of all ages, at all different points of their careers, from all different kinds of backgrounds and from all over the world," Suter says later. "Yet everyone realized they genuinely like each other, and maybe it was at that moment that we all started to realize this trip wasn't a disaster or a nightmare but a once-in-a-lifetime thing happening."
Still, some disasters can't be avoided. Most minor league clubhouses fall into a narrow range when it comes to quality and comfort. The best ones are a step or two below a high school locker room. The bad ones are a step or two above a serial killer's lair. Take the clubhouse in Jackson. It's painted cinder block, with coffin-low ceilings and no windows. It's steamy from poor ventilation and a permanently moist, thin layer of cheap carpet -- it might have been green once, but it's impossible to be sure -- laid over concrete that oozes and bubbles around your feet as you walk. It smells of mold, urinal cakes, rust and feet. Everything, from the hair gel to the coffeemaker to the towels, is mismatched, generic, gently used or held together with athletic tape. The showerheads are rusty, and the urinals stagnate to the point of coagulation. The more time you spend living and breathing inside spaces like these, the more your vision squeezes, narrows and stretches, as if looking at your baseball dreams getting farther and farther away through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.
On the lower left-hand side of the doorway to the visitors' clubhouse entrance is a mysterious indentation about the size of a serving platter; at first glance it looks like the work of an industrious woodpecker. For several minutes, a group of baseball neophytes stand and stare at the strange marking, trying to come up with a hypothesis. And then Nick Ramirez leans out of the doorway and, with his right hand, slams his dirty cleats against the wall and into the indentation.
At 7:08 p.m., just a few moments before they take the field, most of the Shuckers are singing along to "Everything Is Awesome," which is playing on the stadium speakers.
Another feature of the Ballpark at Jackson: a popular smoking section located down the right-field line, right above the visitors' bullpen and just below a kids play area. When the wind blows east toward the outfield, as it does tonight, it feels a bit like warming up in a cigar bar. To avoid the smoke, the Shuckers' staff retreats to the far, deep corner of the bullpen, just under the foul pole sponsored by the local Harley-Davidson dealership. There, before too long, Austin Ross and Suter are begging reliever Jaye Chapman for a little story time from the bigs.
It's a delicate request and a test of just how much the 24/7 close confines of the road trip have accelerated the friendships and trust among players who were strangers just 20 days ago. To some, talking about the dream of a call-up is like speaking about a no-hitter in progress -- you just don't do it. What's more, Chapman, a mature, approachable Florida native with Thor-like shoulder-length blond hair, doesn't want to be seen as bragging or, worse, endlessly reliving his 29 major league glory days at every turn. But when he looks around at his eager younger teammates huddled together on folding chairs, trying to escape the smoke and, at the same time, hold on to a dream just as ephemeral, he relents.
"So I'm in the Nationals' bullpen," Chapman begins. "I look down at my shoes, and I am so scared and freaking out ... "
Armed with a fastball in the low 90s and a split-finger changeup, Chapman was called up by the Cubs on Sept. 4, 2012, while the team was in Washington, D.C. Expecting a day or two to acclimate, Chapman hadn't bothered to tie his cleats when the bullpen phone rang. Panicked, he hurried to the rubber and started throwing, his laces still loose. His feet and his pitches slip-sliding all over the place, Chapman was living out a pitcher's version of the show-up-to-school-graduation-in-your-PJs nightmare.
Nearly two weeks later, he was on the mound at Wrigley freakin' Field. After the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo hit a grand slam in the sixth to put Chicago up 10-9 against the Pirates, Chapman was tapped for relief duty. He allowed a triple to Starling Marte and struck out Andrew McCutchen, then got out of the inning with what might have been the last legal execution of the third-to-first pickoff move outlawed by major league baseball a few months later. The Cubs went on to win 13-9. "The crowd at Wrigley went absolutely crazy," he tells his teammates. "It was so cool."
At spring training the next season, a pair of sore hips and decreased velocity sent Chapman to the team's doctor, who discovered that he had a genetic bone-growth condition called femoroacetabular impingement in both hips. So he had both hips repaired, sat out the entire 2013 season and has been steadily working his way "back from the dead" and into major league form ever since.
Right now, though, it doesn't look like anyone on the Shuckers will beat Arcia to the big leagues. The left-field fence in the ballpark in Jackson is 25 feet high, and Arcia, the shortstop, all of 165 pounds, clears it by 20 feet with a blast in the seventh to extend his hitting streak to seven games. A moment later, the skies open and the game is called. "Eat. Shower. Pack. Let's go," Subero says.
At 10:51 p.m., the Shuckers' bus merges onto I-40 East. The first sign says Nashville 121 miles. As FedEx trucks and horse trailers roar past on the left at 65 mph, blasts of lightning flashbulb on the horizon, showing the outline of huge thunderclouds. The Shuckers are headed right for it. Just a few minutes into the trip, the fuse on the TV screen blows. Then the outlets fry too. Without a movie or the ability to charge their cellphones, players sleep, watch their teammates play hockey video games or stare out the window, counting roadkill. At 1:37 (two dead deer, one possum), they pass the sweet home Alabama sign. At 1:54 (six dead deer, one possum, one skunk, one unconfirmed porcupine), they pass a rest stop featuring a full 363-foot Saturn V rocket. They are not hallucinating. The rocket commemorates Huntsville's contribution to the space industry and is proof that they are about to go where few teams have ever gone before: back to the city they abandoned.
Bill Frakes for ESPN
MAY 16 TO MAY 31
Jackson to Huntsville to Chattanooga
Games 36 to 49
At 2:19 a.m., the bus swings around the exit ramp in Huntsville, where the Shuckers will play the Jacksonville Suns. At this point, the Shuckers have logged 2,122 miles on the road. As they pull into the parking lot of a SpringHill Suites, it's dark, drizzly and deserted; the only living creature awake to greet them is a groundhog waddling across a nearby grassy median.
Less than a year ago, this same team gleefully bolted Huntsville to become the Biloxi Shuckers, so there's little shock over the town's cold shoulder. Attendance for the second game of a doubleheader on May 18 is announced as 116, but the players swear the crowds are actually about one-tenth of that. The stadium here has been empty for a year but neglected and run-down for much longer. Before the first Jacksonville game, goats from the county fair next door are grazing on the overgrown grass that has sprouted through the cracks of the parking lot.
Thirty-five games into the scheduled 55-game tour, Subero senses for the first time that the dead atmosphere and animosity in Huntsville, as well as the wear and tear of the road trip, are starting to get to his players. The next day, he dials back the intensity of the Shuckers' pregame work, giving the team more time away from the park. Instead of sprints, the pitchers are allowed to play Frisbee in the outfield and run football pass patterns for their mandatory conditioning. "Send this film to Calvin Johnson!" left-handed pitcher Mike Strong yells after catching a TD all the way at the center-field warning track.
I don't want to ever do something like this again.
- Carlos Subero, manager
The team instantly responds, winning 10 of its next 14. With a 2 1/2-game lead in the Southern League South standings, the Shuckers head toward Chattanooga, relieved to have Huntsville in their rearview mirror once and for all.
Or so they think.
Sometimes, there is crying in baseball.
Before the team takes the field in Chattanooga on May 28, Subero gathers up players in the visitors' clubhouse for a series of announcements. The first one, he knows, could spark a mutiny. Word from Biloxi is that newly elected mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich has announced that the stadium will not, in fact, be ready on June 6. (Gilich replaced six-time mayor A.J. Holloway, the 75-year-old former Ole Miss football star, who resigned in March a few months after entering alcohol rehab.) It gets worse. One of the possible contingency plans is for the team to return to Alabama and play inside the crumbling, empty former stadium in Huntsville again.
The players' body language nose-dives into a collection of bowed heads and angry faces. Equipment that just yesterday was being placed in lockers is now being thrown. But in a masterful stroke of timing, Subero says he has one more announcement.
"I've never had a Double-A call-up go straight to the bigs," he says, as the room goes still. "But this pitcher will be starting on Sunday in Milwaukee." At that moment, as many as five Shuckers pitchers might be thinking, 'Oh my god, it's me, I'm going to the bigs.' The staff has been that good. But none has been more dominant than Tyler Wagner, 24, who has begun to remind LaTorre of Bumgarner after going 5-1 with a 2.01 ERA in his first nine starts. When Subero says, "... and congratulations, Tyler Wagner," something amazing happens. The room explodes in celebration, and 100 percent of the team mobs Wagner, whose blond beard is soaked in tears. There is no jealousy or envy visible here. The Shuckers have been saying the trip has turned them into a baseball brotherhood. This moment seems to prove it.
As soon as he can, Wagner finds a quiet corner near the clubhouse to FaceTime his mom.
"Whatcha doing on Sunday?" he asks her.
"Oh, I don't know, church and probably some gardening," she replies.
"Well, you better get a plane ticket to Milwaukee, because I'm starting on Sunday for the Brewers."
Now it's her turn to cry.
The Brewers fly Wagner north the next day. First, he stops by a mall to buy some dress slacks and enough button-down shirts to last at least a week. Wagner takes the mound on Sunday in front of family, friends and 32,000 other Brewers fans. But with his Shuckers teammates watching on a small TV back in Tennessee, Wagner lasts less than four innings, allowing five runs on nine hits -- a heartbreaking debut.
Afterward, Wagner is savoring some perfectly prepared filet mignon in the Brewers' clubhouse when manager Craig Counsell asks to see him. Because the game went 17 innings, the Brewers have already used their starter for tomorrow's game and are now in need of both a fresh arm and a roster spot to place it in. Wagner is back down in the sticks with the Shuckers on Monday with several unwrapped dress shirts. "Emotional-wise, it was a pretty tough 24 hours to deal with, I'm not gonna lie," he says.
The Shuckers finish their series in Chattanooga with an 11-8 win, powered by a home run, triple and four RBIs from outfielder Michael Reed, who will eventually be recognized as the Brewers' minor league player of the month.
"We're playing so well right now, I hope they delay the stadium construction even longer," whispers Shuckers hitting coach Sandy Guerrero. No one wants to admit it, but from a developmental standpoint, Guerrero is exactly right -- the road trip has been hugely beneficial. For players like Texas native Reed, 22, being forced to concentrate on baseball 24/7 has been a big help. The brutal road trip that just a month ago seemed like a colossal disaster in the making is actually turning into something of a dream season. "This trip has definitely given me the time to figure out for myself what type of player I am and want to be," Reed says.
Just as the benefits of this monster road trip are becoming clear to the team, the biggest news of the season trickles into the clubhouse and then spreads like wildfire: An eleventh-hour deal has been struck between the team and the town over additional stadium construction costs. The June 6 debut in Biloxi is back on. Instead of five more weeks on the road, the Shuckers will be sleeping in their own beds in just five days -- as soon as they can get them out of storage, that is.
Joe Amon for ESPN
Joe Amon for ESPN
JUNE 1 TO JUNE 5
Huntsville to Birmingham
Games 50 to 54
Tonight is Fellhauer's first game back in the Shuckers' lineup. Standing at attention near third base, about 10 seconds into the national anthem, right around dawn's early light, Fellhauer's eyes fill with tears. After the song, he turns to infielder Taylor Green and says, "Man, I almost lost it right there. ... I don't even know what to think or do right now."
The first church the Fellhauers looked into for Julie's funeral service had only 300 seats, and they all knew right away: not big enough. So they moved the service to a larger chapel, where the priest told Josh and Justin it was perfectly OK if they weren't up to speaking during the funeral. "But I could just hear my mom's voice so clearly," Josh says. "She was like, 'Uh, you both better get up and say something. It doesn't have to be great or long, but get back up, get back moving -- do something.'" It was right then, at the funeral, that Josh knew how best to honor his mom. "The only thing on my mind was doing what she would want, what she would tell me to do," he says. "And it was: 'Don't you dare sit there and do nothing because of me. Get back up, get back to Biloxi and start playing baseball again.'"
But by the third inning in Huntsville, he's more exhausted than he has ever been. He goes 0-for-3.
After what we've been through these past few months, these guys aren't teammates anymore -- they're brothers now.
- Josh Fellhauer, Shucker
Two nights later, Fellhauer adds a new wrinkle in the box. Before digging in, with his hands near his heart, clasped together in prayer but still wrapped around the bat handle, he pauses for a moment and tilts his face to the sky. "Thinking of her, knowing she's watching and that she never misses a game now, it helps me relax in there," he says. In the second inning, he completes the ritual again and singles to right, bringing in two runners, and the Shuckers go on to win 6-3.
A few hours before the final game of the trip, Subero is taking on all challengers on a pingpong table wedged sideways into the hallway just down from the team's dugout. "Canada! Puerto Rico! Venezuela! I am working my way across the globe!" he shouts, referring to the different nationalities of his pingpong victims. The team is 32-21 with a 2 1/2-game lead in the Southern League South standings. Everyone is loose and happy and practically floating across the infield, especially Arcia, who dances his way around the cage while hitting five homers into the left-field seats during BP. Closer to game time, Subero opens his final speech of the journey by holding up a single finger. "Guys, it's been a long, long trip," he tells his players, "but you have one day left, one, and I just want you to know how proud I am and how proud you should be for what you've done with this trip. Someday, all of our careers in baseball will be over, but what you did the last 55 games -- the memories, the relationships, the camaraderie, the support -- that will last you forever."
A few moments later in his office, away from the players, Subero adds: "I don't want to ever do something like this again. But it really was a good test for all of us. I said this was going to be like a Roger Clemens split-finger fastball, but they ended up making it more like a hanging slider. They crushed it out of the park."
But in what will become a recurring theme over the next 24 hours, the baseball gods seem intent on keeping the Shuckers on the road for as long as possible: In the last game of the trip, the Shuckers and Barons head into extra innings.
On the team's radio network, Harris uses the bonus time for a poignant history lesson on Regions Field. A baseball stadium built on this side of town won't help revitalize a thing, people said. No one will come to this place just to watch minor league baseball. And now, three years later, the Barons have just welcomed their 1 millionth fan while construction cranes dot the landscape beyond the left-field fence.
Could the same thing happen in Biloxi? You never know. Moments later, Kyle Wren, 0 for his last 9 in Birmingham, hits a liner to center to put Biloxi ahead in the 10th inning. When the Shuckers hold in the bottom of the 10th, Harris exhales into his mic, "... and the road trip comes to an end."
JUNE 5 TO JUNE 7
Birmingham to Biloxi
End of the Road
The little green digital clock above the bus driver's head reads 11:05 as the Shuckers circle the stadium and then head west on I-20. Two hours later, after crossing into Mississippi, the bus makes a quick pit stop at a Love's gas station. The players climb down off the bus and do that stiff-back waddle across the parking lot.
Half the Shuckers head for the bathroom. The other half head for Arby's. After 54 games on the road, even their gastrointestinal habits are synced up.
At 2:50 a.m., they fly past Camp Shelby, near Hattiesburg, in the pitch-black dead of night, having gone 18 minutes without seeing another car on either side of the road. At 3:11, they pass the Dizzy Dean rest stop on I-49. Closing in on 4 a.m., the bus cruises toward the Gulf, past MGM Park, lit up like a lighthouse and full of workers and construction activity. The bus driver goes to the wrong entrance of the Beau Rivage, but a minute later, after two more right turns, he brings the vehicle to a halt outside the hotel's front door.
The brakes exhale. The door swings open.
At 3:49 a.m., after 58 days, 54 games and 2,800 miles, the Shuckers are home.
The next afternoon, led by the Black Water Brass Band, featuring a bearded sax player sporting daisy dukes, hundreds of locals escort the team down Vieux Marche to the steps of the nearly opened MGM Park. It's something of a miracle in this town: People have untethered themselves from their dog-leash-style retractable umbilical VIP Players Cards and come out of the casinos to watch baseball. The players scale what they think are the final steps of their journey ... only to discover that the stadium gates are locked. Wren pushes his face through the blue metal grates and shouts, "Come on, let us in!" No luck. The Shuckers backtrack down a ramp, through the crowd they just left and around to an unlocked side entrance.
"Awkward," Suter says to the crowd, with a shrug.
An hour before BP, a construction worker in an Atlanta Braves hat hammers down the last pieces of the Shuckers' dugout floor.
Biloxi wins its opener 5-4 over the BayBears with a walk-off single in the 14th inning that scores pinch-runner Suter, who is so excited when he rounds third that he runs behind Subero in the coach's box. The next night, after the second home game in team history, Fellhauer walks to the Beau Rivage in the cool, quiet darkness. The crowd barricades from yesterday's festivities still line the streets, and he uses them occasionally to brace himself when the memories of his mom make him pause in his tracks. The hardest part of his day begins now, when the baseball ends and he finds himself alone, staring at his phone, waiting for the postgame text messages from Momma Felly he knows will never come.
Later in the evening, at least, he'll be with his teammates, watching the NBA Finals. It's hard to fathom, perhaps, but after two straight months on the road together, when they finally have the freedom and opportunity to go their separate ways, the Shuckers do the exact opposite. "Baseball is more important than ever to me now," Fellhauer says. "After what we've been through these past few months, these guys aren't teammates anymore -- they're brothers."
With that, Fellhauer says good night, takes a deep breath as if to brace himself and walks away.
One epic road trip has come to a successful end. Another, far tougher, journey is just beginning.