CHARLESTON, S.C. -- It's Bible Belt Buckle Night in Charleston and appropriately, in addition to a silver belt buckle the size of home plate, the River Dogs are giving away the wrath of God.\n \n You know how the Weekly World News occasionally prints a cover of a menacing thunderstorm with the face of Satan photoshopped among the dark clouds and lightning bolts? They wouldn't need to photoshop this one. The storm clouds beyond the right-field corner are the color of the Yankees' batting practice jerseys and the wind is howling so hard you expect to see Dorothy, Toto and Al Roker blow across the infield. The storm roars so quickly into Riley Park that the umpires don't give the grounds crew enough time to get the infield tarp down. By the time the crew of 20 is allowed to drag the tarp on the field, they are fighting a 40 mph wind, and the best they can do is throw their bodies on the tarp to keep it from blowing away.
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Jim Caple is currently on a modified version of the South Atlantic Circuit trip.
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Head groundskeeper Mike Williams is lying on the tarp, trying not to drown and thinking about his life in general. About how he had recently been a groundskeeper in the major leagues with the Mets and Devil Rays. And how he now is in the low minors of the South Atlantic League, working for a team that will hold "Talk Like a Pirate Day" the next afternoon, trying to pin a tarp to the field while lightning crackles all around, white caps form on the infield and rain falls so hard that it hurts.
And how he couldn't be happier if he were chalking the baselines at Yankee Stadium.
"This is the best year I've ever had as a groundskeeper,'' Williams says. "It's A-ball, low A-ball, and it's the most fun I've ever had. I spent two years out of baseball, looking out windows and staring at my watch and thinking, 'I'd be doing this on the field at this time.'
"Baseball is a lifestyle. You either understand that or you don't."
Trust me, I understand. I'm on a tour of South Atlantic baseball towns for ESPN.com's Travel section, and I'm experiencing every aspect of the minor league lifestyle other than sleeping with Annie Savoy. At least, not so far. But the Durham Bulls are my next stop.
What's the minor league lifestyle? It's Chelsea Romo laying her 6-month-old son Rilen in a stroller by the Augusta (Ga.) GreenJackets bullpen so the two can be just that much closer to her husband, Sergio Romo, a pitcher with the team. Chelsea just flew into Augusta from Mesa, Ariz., where she goes to college. She and Rilen have been separated from Sergio for two months. "The distance is the hardest thing," she says. "Being so far away from him and him being so far away from the baby."
Sergio grew up in Brawley, Calif., a small agricultural town near the Mexico border. "When I got drafted, it was like everyone in town congratulated me," he says. His father Frank also was a very good ballplayer, and he loves the game so much he would drive into Mexico to play semipro games. Sergio went, too. "Dad never got the opportunity to play in the minor leagues," Sergio says. "Grandpa didn't give him the chance to chase his dreams. He always had to work."
Thanks to a strong right arm and lots of help from Sergio's parents and in-laws, he is getting the chance his father did not. "I know he'd like to be in my shoes for just one day so that he could see what it's like to be a pro baseball player."
What's it like? The minor league lifestyle is the two-bedroom apartment GreenJackets pitchers Taylor Wilding, Buck Cody, Joe Martinez and Bryan Millikan share in Augusta for $1,000 a month. Cody gets one bedroom to himself because he provides the four with a car. Millikan and Martinez share the other bedroom and Wilding sleeps in the living room.
But at least they have beds. Some minor leaguers save money by buying air mattresses from Wal-Mart and sleeping on those all summer.
The minor league lifestyle is the Kannapolis (N.C.) Intimidators clubhouse, an international mix of players from North, Central and South America. "It's the United Nations here and I'm the ambassador," manager Omer Munoz says. "I'm in charge of all the flags and the languages."
It isn't easy playing minor league ball, but it's harder when you don't speak the language. Munoz grew up in Venezuela, and he says the first English word he learned as a minor leaguer was "same" so he could order whatever the teammate ahead of him ordered at a restaurant. When the team checks out of a hotel, the hotel manager will occasionally pull him aside to say, "Ummm, Mr. Munoz, this kid has a bill for calls to Venezuela."
Kannapolis outfielder Anderson Gomes played in the Futures Game last week in Pittsburgh, which is quite an accomplishment. For one thing, he was a pitcher a couple years ago until needing Tommy John surgery. For another, he spent the previous four seasons playing in Japan, where he signed when he was 16. And for yet another, he's from Brazil, where baseball is not exactly the national pastime.
"I try to explain what I do to my friends in Brazil," Gomes says. "I say, 'I live in the United States and I play baseball.' And they say, 'What the hell is baseball?' They think it's football. To become a pro soccer player is very hard in Brazil -- 95 percent of the people play soccer. But I don't like soccer. I like baseball. It's an intelligent sport. In soccer, all you do is run and run."
I'm not sure, but I believe Gomes could lose his Brazilian citizenship for that statement.
The minor league lifestyle is umpires Joe Rackley and Karl Best rubbing down five cases of baseballs with river mud. Like the rest of minor league umpires, they spent the first two months of the season on strike with such extraordinary pay demands as an increase in salary from $10,000 per season to $10,500 per season and an increase in meal money from $20 a day to $23 a day. The greedy pigs. Some of them made more money umping high school games while on strike than they do umping in the minors.
Travel isn't easy in the minors, but at least the players have an apartment or house somewhere, even if they sleep on a Wal-Mart air mattress. Umpires are on the road every day for an entire season. The league occasionally puts the umpires up at a Marriott but they prefer more budget hotels such as the Red Roof Inn that offer a free breakfast.
And by the way, the majors haven't added a full-time permanent umpire in seven years.
"I started umpiring with my dad when I was 15. I was three weeks into umpires school when he passed away," Best says. "Every day I walk onto the field I feel like I walk on with my father. Every season on opening day I go to the box office and I buy a ticket for my dad. And then I take it home and I put it away to keep."
Think about that the next time before you curse the umpire for missing a borderline pitch. The minor league lifestyle is Savannah (Ga.) Sand Gnats mascot Terri Foote, who aspires to climb the evolutionary ladder to become the Baltimore Orioles' mascot. "My grandfather was an usher for the Orioles for years, and I used to go to the games with him. The Orioles Bird was one of the big reasons I love the sport so much," she says. "The Orioles told me I didn't have enough experience to be the Bird, so I'm going to prove them wrong."
The current Sand Gnat costume replaces a meaner version with six-pack abs and long fangs that frightened children. The new version is much friendlier. Still...
"I get kicked and punched and beat on -- and that's by adults. The kids are rough, too," Foote says. "I have to go to the chiropractor every week from the weight of the costume and the abuse I take. The head alone weighs five to 10 pounds. It gets hot in there. Sometimes I have the umpires throw me out of the game so I can take a break."
The minor league lifestyle is Willie Smith Jr., 67, who has been watching games at Savannah's Grayson Stadium since he was forced to sit in the "colored section."
"I've been coming here to every game for 60 years," he says. "The only time I miss a game is on Sunday. I was raised that there was no baseball on Sunday, and I guess that's stayed with me. I watch it on TV, though. People say to me, 'If you watch it on TV on Sunday, why don't you just come down and watch it here instead?' I don't know. I figure as long as you don't go out of the house it's OK."
You could cover a fair amount of baseball history from Smith's seat. His father was from Cairo, Ga., where Jackie Robinson was born. Smith grew up in Savannah watching baseball from the blacks-only section of the stadium. And his son, Willie, grew up to pitch briefly in the major leagues for the Cardinals. The Sand Gnats honored Smith a while back with lifetime season tickets and mounted a name plaque on his customary seat some 25 rows behind the backstop.
"I could sit anywhere -- I could sit in those box seats down there -- but I like it here," Smith says. "My wife says I'm home when I'm here."
The minor league lifestyle is lived by thousands of players, coaches, umpires, concessionaires, ticket sellers, front-office workers and groundskeepers who put in long hours for very little pay from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, from Chattanooga to Rancho Cucamonga, from Rome (Georgia) to Jupiter (Florida).They do it because they love the game so much they can't imagine doing anything else.
Which is why Mike Williams and the River Dogs' tireless crew returns to the ballpark at 7 a.m. after the Old Testament rainstorm to remove the tarp and prepare the field. Following an afternoon of field work and what has been a 19½-hour rain delay, the game resumes in the third inning at 4:05 p.m.
And five minutes later it starts raining again.
Williams returns the tarp to the field with the help of a mascot in a giant dog costume.
Welcome to the minors.