|You're never too old to dream|
By Andrew Ayres
SCRANTON, Pa. -- Standing on the artificial turf among a handful of other baseball wannabes, I have just pitched in the first group evaluated in a nationwide search for talent. The goal: Find one great player with a baseball dream deferred. This dark star search promises to earn one undiscovered player a tryout with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Or, at the least, a chance at reality television stardom.
It's a recent Sunday morning, and we've just finished a short but arduous tryout on the turf and in the bullpens of Lackawanna County Stadium. The gray skies have finally agreed to stop spitting on us. Rock ledge defines the outfield horizon. We've been observed by two cameramen, a small cadre of professional baseball coaches and trainers, and the empty seats in the home of the Phillies' Triple-A team.
The cameramen are from the production company for the baseball edition of "Extreme Dreams," which conducts nationwide searches for talent in a number of different sports and arranges tryouts with big-league clubs for one lucky stiff. And tapes the process.
Reality TV. Isn't that like where a bunch of women gather around some guy giving out roses? A real Rose ceremony would be Pete's homecoming to baseball.
There's an interesting collection of players here in the city whose name gave Archie Bunker one of his best lines. ("Scranton!?" -- a reaction to a suddenly-uppity Edith making travel plans.) There's a pitcher straight out of Central Casting. I believe he said he's 38 years old, and he definitely could be the chosen one. After taking a few throws from him in the outfield, my new, stiff glove is aging quickly. He's The Guy Who Could Strike Me Out From Second Base.
At least I'm a pitcher and won't have to hit against him.
This is Reality TV, but there's likely to be little drama in the future for me. In the coming months, there are thousands more players who will try out at sites around the country. Chances are, this ceremony won't end with a rose.
Will you accept this rosin bag?
I am 37. I'm married with two wonderful girls, 12 and 10. My fastball might get pulled over for speeding, but there's a better chance the cops would let it pass long. Today, it isn't tailgating or flashing its high beams. So why did I get up at 3:12 a.m. to drive from my home in Northampton, Mass., through the falling autumn leaves, to be in Scranton for an 8 a.m. date with destiny -- a destiny of certain failure and the potential humiliation of botching the basic physical tests in front of a camera positioned two feet from my face?
Why? Let's turn to Jim Bouton's "Ball Four":
"You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."
The ball has gripped me. Again. Firmly, and in new ways. I'm in the Quabbin Valley Over-30 League, which has been playing hardball on most summer Sundays in the greater Belchertown (Mass.) area since 1997. What distinguishes QVOTB from hundreds of leagues like it across the country: a steadfast refusal to name a team the Yankees. Our two divisions are called Dana and Prescott, two of the towns drowned in the 1930s to create the Quabbin Reservoir, which supplies much of greater Boston with its water.
Best of all, one of our most accomplished pitchers is female. Guys inevitably strike out and look bad against her, and they're usually the ones who least want to do that.
When it comes to pitching, this league made me what I am. My defining moments include, at age 32, whiffing a dozen rival A's while leading 5-3 in the ninth inning of the championship game. I had to tell myself not to blow on my hand like Calvin Schiraldi. No need to say what happened. But at 34, I recovered and won three playoff games en route to our team's playoff title.
My family attends my games. Early on, they didn't know about limitations of QVOTB players. My wife Marcy began to catch on when we attended a New York-Penn League game in nearby Pittsfield a few years back. "Why are these guys all running so fast?" she asked.
The girls were slower to wise up. A few years ago, they gave me a homemade birthday card including tickets to see "The Rookie," the story of Jim Morris, the 35-year-old science teacher who played with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays after discovering he had lightning in his arm. On a good day, I have a rumble of thunder in mine. But it's partly cloudy most of the time.
"That could be you dad," Eliza said, after seeing the movie.
"Can we go by that speed trap to see you throw?" Addy added.
"You should try out for the big leagues like him," they both agreed.
As Burl Ives the Snowman once said, "Ah, Youth."
I didn't completely stink in my youth. Never pitched seriously before QVOTB. As a catcher, I set my high school's records in total hits and RBI (OK, the school was only eight years old at the time). In college, the now-retired University of Massachusetts coach Dick Bergquist and his energetic assistant coach Dave Littlefield (now the Pittsburgh Pirates' general manager) were busy bringing in some pro-level talent. That wasn't me. Batted .307 on the JV as a freshman. One day in fall practice when I was a sophomore, I went to the bullpen to warm up a future major-league pitcher, Dave Telgheder, with only one contact lens in my nearsighted eyes.
I survived. But I never had what it took. Ultimately, I was probably what some scouts would call, a "bad body guy." I knew this in high school when the future mayor of Cambridge, then a fellow catcher, spied me in a brown-and-gold sweatpants attire and deemed me "Winnie the Pooh." However, now that I am off the Bottomless Cup Of Nestle Quik Diet, I am in better shape now than at 17 or 27 ... although lately I have been putting on my, ahem, "winter weight," which did not help me in the sit-up test here in Scranton.
Sidd Finch never did a sit-up test. I believe there's hope for those who don't throw 160 mph. A contemporary of Stu Miller, a soft-tossing All-Star pitcher with the Giants in 1961 who grew up in Northampton, still grumbles that Miller wasn't even the best pitcher in town. And my best friend in third grade went from an average high school pitcher to a standout college closer when he converted to submarine style.
I believe in my gimmicks, I reminded myself when we were first called on to the field. The training staff led us on a brisk run twice around the field. Springy artificial turf is good for something. After some thorough stretching, the tests began: timed test for push-ups (19 before collapsing in a heap), sit-ups (32 before DQ'd for bad form) and a stretch test in which you keep your legs completely flat, then reach with ones far past the toes. I'm flexible, at least.
These numbers count toward our evaluation. But we were told it was our pitching that mattered most. We headed over to the fenced, covered bullpen, where two catchers waited, one manning the warmup mound, the other on the evaluation mound. After loosening up in the outfield, we were called in by our assigned numbers to throw.
The Guy Who Could Strike Me Out From Second Base was the most impressive of our group. He was asked to throw two-seam and four-seam fastballs. Curves. He was hard to catch, never mind hit. I stood outside the cage, marveling. My time was coming. I was hopping around, bouncing the ball on the turf like Pete Rose. Usually, a pitcher is pumped to run on the field, not the bullpen.
"No. 51 ... you're up."
That's me. I sprint to the warmup mound. It's claustrophobic in this pen. I come out firing. I'm ready to pitch. I've got to catch my breath when it's time to take the evaluation mound.
My chest is still tight from the push-up test. I deliver overhand, sidearm and submarine pitches. The overhand curve is coming with good downward movement. The sidearm curve is dropping over the corner. It's the full QVOTB package. My pitch count reaches 15 or so. Bring on Sosa, dammit.
I hear no requests for specific pitches like the more accomplished arms. Not a great sign. I bring my best for the last two, and trot out of the cage. I'm not told my top speed, nor did I ask, although in recent years I've hit the mid-70s on speed-pitch booths at the local fair. The local newspaper reporter outside the cage does not request an interview. Apparently, craftiness does not register on a radar gun.
I clap the red bullpen dirt out of my cleats. Taking in the view from the Triple-A dugout makes me believe something redeeming could come of this reality show. Strong, sincere passions are interesting television. I sit in the dugout, and listen.
"They got me at 88 (mph). I can throw harder. I'm 30, and a coach wants me to play (at a small college). I could enroll in the spring. They could get me on scholarship," a pitcher says hopefully.
In the end, the Scranton evaluators really can't put a number on my best El Tiante hip twist and my assortment of junk. Or maybe they can. I really don't want to think about that. I don't think I'll ever push the radar gun needle to an acceptable level.
At least Addy and Eliza think I'm great.
It's time to go home.
The ball's grip is firm. Roses wilt.