It's emblazoned on their uniforms-the home whites, anyway. On the road grays, it reads "Nashua," the New Hampshire town (pop. 86,605) that this Atlantic League team represents. But home or away, it's always on display. You can't play Independent Ball without it. Pride.
The caliber of play is decent-somewhere between Double-A and Detroit Tigers-but the Indies get little love. The Pride share their Holman Stadium parking lot with the local Little League diamond, and some nights the kids outdraw the pros. "You learn to motivate yourself," says third baseman Clyde "Pork Chop" Pough. "You never know who might be watching."
Here in Nashua, hope survives by example. Jose Lima began the year with the Newark Bears, an Atlantic League rival; now he's the ace of the Kansas City Royals. Rickey Henderson also played in Newark before the Dodgers gave him another shot. And one day in May, the Pride of the Pride became the Pride of the Yankees. That would be Curtis Pride, the 34-year-old outfielder who got a cup of coffee in the Bronx-even hit one out against the Red Sox-before melting back into Triple-A.
Rusty Meacham, a 35-year-old righthanded pitcher who's played parts of eight seasons in the majors, looks around the cramped clubhouse as his teammates polish their own shoes and polish off a pregame spread of PB&J, American cheese and jelly beans. "Everybody in here has a story," he says.
Like Garrett Larkin, a 28-year-old infielder who left a six-figure computer sales job in Atlanta to play for a couple grand a month in New England. "I didn't even give my bosses two weeks notice," he says. "Hey, someone thinks I can play." Or Melvin Nieves, who hit 44 home runs as a Tigers part-timer in 1996-97, but was out of the bigs in '98. Or the pen full of pitchers who'll gladly show you their many and varied surgical scars. Or manager Butch Hobson, who used to be a ladykilling third baseman-and later, a whipping-post manager-for the big club down Route 3. "I wish there'd been Independent Ball when I was looking to hang on," he says. "For a guy who loves the game and who's told he's done, a guy who's got so much "
Hobson doesn't finish. But as he stares off into the distance, you know where his sentence is going. The last word is written across his chest.
There's no more popular player in Nashua than Chop, who's in his fourth season with the Pride. The nickname doesn't hurt, of course. (He got it from a youth coach because another kid on his team shared his original nickname, Pokey.) But there's a sweetness to this 33-year-old journeyman who's made it to Triple-A in three different organizations-the Indians, Red Sox and Royals-but has never made the Show. "Omaha, 1997," he begins his story, wistfully. "At one point I'm like fourth in the league in hitting, they're talking about calling me up. Then the Royals fire Bob Boone and trade for Dean Palmer. Many times I've asked, 'Is it just not meant to be?' I'm a grown man. I've got a sweet pad in Orlando and I'm living half the year with a host family here." Then why stick it out? "I still love the game."
PAXTON CRAWFORD, RHP
"If I just get out of here," Crawford says, "I'll be fine." There's no joy in his voice and certainly none on his face. He is too young-just 26-to be here with all these hangers-on. Crawford was 5-1 in 11 starts for Boston in 2000-01, just getting started. Then one day, he was stretching in the outfield when a nagging lower-back pain suddenly turned crippling. He missed most of 2002 while he recovered from spinal-fusion surgery, and then the Red Sox dumped him. Oakland invited him to spring training this year but, he says, "took one look at my back and said pfffft." Crawford lives in a Sheraton now. And although he won seven games in the first half, he doesn't know if anyone cares. "I'm throwing six, seven, eight innings every time out. I'm competin'. But I don't know who to call." He flashes the saddest eyes on the team. "Got any contacts?"
BUTCH HOBSON, MANAGER
For Hobson, there's a particular joy in managing the Pride: he can do the job and still spend time with his sons, K.C., 12 (pictured), Hank, 10, and Noah, 6, while preparing for Baby No. 4 with wife Krystine. As a player, it wasn't so easy to be there for his first wife, Allen, and their daughters, Allene, Libby and Polly. "I wonder if I even want to go back to an organization," he says, then quickly adds, "not that I wouldn't consider it." A toughguy Fenway cult hero in the late '70s, (he would actually rearrange the bone chips in his elbow while playing third base), Hobson let the limelight get the better of him. "Paid for it later," he says. In '96, while managing Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre in the Phillies system, he got busted for cocaine possession. "All I can do is be a man about it, tell people to follow my example of what not to do," he says. And, yes, the year-round Nashua resident is still a citizen of Red Sox Nation: "I think this is our year."
RUSTY MEACHAM, RHP
As if making a final plea to big league ears, Meacham bares his right arm and brags, "Never been cut on." So why is he here, a guy who made, by his own account, about $2M in the Show but who hasn't gotten a sniff since 2001? "The balks had something to do with it," he says. Balks? "I was pitching in Italy earlier this year, and I got called for 10 balks in 58 innings. Their umpires don't know the rule. I argued and got the equivalent of a yellow card in soccer. The next time I snapped, and here I am." Meacham, 35, lives with a host family in Nashua while his wife and two sons await his autumn return to Stuart, Fla. "They believe I can get back to the majors." If he doesn't, he's got his eyes on a high school coaching job. "I've got no interest in coaching pros," he says. "When I can't pitch anymore, it's bye-bye to this life."
GLENN MURRAY, OF
"ESPN The Magazine?" Murray asks in disbelief. "In Nashua? Hold on. If you're taking my picture, I gotta shave." The most prolific slugger in the five-and-a-half-year-old Atlantic League, Murray, 34, recently hit his 100th career home run. Which tells you two things: 1) He can crush, and 2) No one thinks he can do it in the majors. "I've been talking to Butch about becoming a manager," says the 6'2", 220-pound Murray, who got all 97 of his big league ABs (2 hrs, a .196 BA) with the '96 Phillies. "What keeps me going here is what happens every night at 7:05. I'd love to get a chance to play in Japan or Korea, but I know time isn't on my side. That's okay-I'll figure out a way to stay in this game for a long, long time."