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Every day is a winding road for Black Diamonds

Page 2

Dave Winfield reached baseball's ultimate destination Sunday when he walked through Cooperstown's golden doors. He did so having never played a single day in the minors.

Black Diamonds
The Lehigh Valley Black Diamonds can use all the fans they can get.
Meanwhile, one state and a universe removed from Cooperstown, the Lehigh Valley Black Diamonds were in Newark, N.J., for their 85th consecutive road game. Although a great little ballpark, Newark's Riverfront Stadium is not the ultimate baseball destination for anyone. It was merely another stop on a long, potholed-strewn road for the Black Diamonds, another minor-league diamond where they could continue to play, continue to strive and continue to hope.

Of course, all that would be easier with a few more chairs.

As the Black Diamonds dressed before their game with the Newark Bears, stadium workers swept through their clubhouse and removed all the chairs, saying they were needed for a party elsewhere. This left the 25 players with just a dozen small stools.

Errr, make that 11. "You can't count these two," Black Diamonds reliever Mike Martini said, pointing to two stools missing half their seats. "These two are only half-stools."

The stadium workers even cleaned out the coaches' office, a lack of respect that proved too much for first baseman Larry Bethea. "Hey," he yelled after the workers. "Bring the coaches' chairs back! The coaches need something to sit on!"

Welcome to the baseball world far removed from major-league clubhouses and $252 million contracts and $70 per diems. Welcome to the baseball world you never see on SportsCenter highlights. Welcome to the minor-league world Winfield never visited.

Black Diamonds
If you do visit the Black Diamonds, make sure to bring your own chair.
Welcome to the Black Diamonds' world. Just be sure to bring your own chair.

The Black Diamonds are a minor-league team that went bankrupt last year and now are operated as a "road team" by the independent Atlantic League. Without a home stadium and with an eighth team needed to fill out the Atlantic League schedule, Lehigh Valley is spending the entire 126-game schedule on the road.

That's right. All 126 games on the road. The Confederate army didn't wear gray for that long.

The Black Diamonds began in May and are 96 days into the trip. By the time the season ends in mid-September, they'll be so conditioned to hotel life that they'll automatically dial 8 before placing a phone call and shove their dinner dishes outside the front door when they finish eating.

"It's kind of tough at times," said second baseman Harvey Hargrove, who was released by the Mariners organization this spring. "It's hard to stay on an even keel -- which you need to do in baseball because of all the highs and lows -- when you don't have a home stadium and you're changing rooms every three or four days.

"But we're all still chasing that dream. I still want to get to the major leagues. I still want that opportunity."

  Lehigh Valley is spending the entire 126-game schedule on the road. That's right. All 126 games on the road. The Confederate army didn't wear gray for that long.  

They are quite a collection of players, castoffs and dreams, these Black Diamonds. Among them is a 31-year-old former big-leaguer, a 28-year-old former cop and a 27-year-old chain-smoking Japanese pitcher who missed the first two months of the season waiting for a working visa.

What they have in common is a love of baseball.

These Black Diamonds have been on more ballfields than Rawlings, playing for so many teams even Baseball America hasn't heard of them all. The logos on the pile of equipment bags lying outside the team bus serve as bulky, heavy résumés, displaying the many organizations that have released the players previously.

Seattle. Baltimore. Montreal. Florida. They've been let go by the best, the worst and everyone in between.

With no home stadium, the Black Diamonds essentially have no fans, other than an occasional visiting relative. But if ever players needed or deserved support, they do.

While there has been near constant roster turnover, the players who survive the entire season will spend almost five months on the road, changing hotels every three or four days, earning $1,000-$1,200 a month and getting by on $18 a day meal money (the postgame spreads don't last long). They wash laundry in the hotel or the visiting clubhouses (if someone doesn't steal it). If a piece of mail doesn't arrive without at least two yellow forwarding labels, it's an upset.

There are two coaches, manager Bob Flori and pitching coach Gil Rondon. There is no trainer, so the players tape themselves.

See what you missed by not playing in the minors, Winny?

And bear in mind, all that is a step up from last season when Lehigh Valley called an American Legion field semi-home and paychecks sometimes didn't show up.

"I know they're on the road the whole season this year, but at least they're staying in hotels. At least they have a roof over their heads -- we stayed in a campground," said Newark Bears reliever Steve Reed, who pitched for Lehigh Valley last season. "About 70 percent of the team lived in the campground at some point.

Black Diamonds
That postgame spread will cost you $3 off your per diem.
"We would get back from a five-hour bus trip at four in the morning and have to pitch a tent. In the rain. Sometimes it was fun. And sometimes it was a nightmare. At the end of the year, we said, 'At least it can't get any lower than this. This is truly the bottom of the barrel.' "

So compared to that, this 126-game road swing is nothing.

Besides, there are advantages to playing all your games on the road. Like no rent. And ... ummmmm, well ... no rent.

There are good moments, though. The Black Diamonds trailed Newark 2-0 in the first inning Sunday but rallied twice to beat the Bears 4-3 and improve their record to 27-58 and 9-13 in the second half. Bethea, the man who chased after the Newark workers for the chairs, drove home the winning run with a two-out single in the eighth inning.

The Black Diamonds returned to the clubhouse and absolutely attacked the postgame spread of sliced roast beef (at a cost of $3 from their per diem). They showered, dressed and boarded the bus for another trip to another city, another hotel and another evening in front of SpectraVision.

Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame might have remained only a distant concept, but all in all, Sunday was a good day for the Black Diamonds. They had a victory behind them, an off-day Monday on Long Island ahead and -- what do you know? -- by the end of the day, three of the chairs had been returned.

Senior writer Jim Caple is spending this week on the road with the Lehigh Valley Black Diamonds. Page 2 has upped his per diem to $15 a day.

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