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Nine innings with Greensboro’s Boys of Summer

by Brian Clarey

Baseball is a game of drama.

It’s late in the game at First Horizon Park, the tail end of the eighth, and the hometown nine lag behind by two with a score of 3-1. It’s the first night of a three-game home stand against the Tourists of Asheville, a Colorado Rockies affiliate and the Grasshoppers’ cross-divisional rivals in the South Atlantic League.

The Hoppers have been fighting their way out of the basement of the North Division since they landed there a couple of weeks ago, but they’re only about 10 games back and there’s a lot of baseball left to play. A good showing against the Tourists will give them some staying power as the season approaches its final six weeks.

But the Tourists jump ahead by three runs in the second inning on a combination of big bats and savvy baserunning. Greensboro answers when their third baseman, an up-and-comer from Tampa, Fla. named Steve Gendron, singles in the bottom of the second and scores on an RBI double.

It’s hot like a pretzel factory out on the field; the digital thermometer in right-center registers a consistent 96 degrees. The temp flashing on the roof of the Jefferson Pilot Building, high in the sky off the right field corner, reads a few shades hotter. The Greensboro nine holds the Asheville squad scoreless through the doldrums of the middle innings, yet they are unable to send any more batters of their own across the plate.

Things start to happen in the seventh when Brian Cleveland, the Grasshoppers’ scrappy shortstop, hustles out an error to reach first, driving in a run. Another goes on the board when Gendron connects with a fastball and sends it over the wall in the eighth.

With the score knotted up like an extension cord that’s been in the back of the garage too long, the game rolls into extra innings while the thermometer readings remain unchanged.

In the bottom of the tenth Grasshopper outfielder JT Restko sends a game winner over the wall. He makes a curtain call while the crowd roars, tipping his hat and then signing autographs in the tunnel to the locker room. Cleveland and Gendron, along with the rest of the team, gather their bats and helmets and head through the tunnel to the clubhouse, each one bathed in the euphoria that accompanies a big win.

Baseball is linear.

First you’ve got to get up to the plate, that’s the first thing. Once you’re there you go through the progression of the count, balls and strikes, until hopefully you’ll reach base. You’ve got to get to first base before you touch second, and then third, and then finally home.

On the field the defensive side is trying to record outs, three of them, which come by way of a K (strike one, strike two, strike three you’re out, one at a time, pitch by pitch) or a caught fly ball or a double play, which is in itself a linear process, following the forced runners as they move around the base paths.

Occasionally a grand slam or a triple play will clear the decks all at once, but plays like this are pretty rare.

The situation on the field is allegorical to the Major League system itself. In most cases players get drafted out of high school or JuCo or college. They spend perhaps a season with a rookie league and then pass through single-A ball, double A and then triple A before they get to the majors. Occasionally a player will ascend through the ranks very rapidly or even leapfrog some of the minor leagues on his way to the majors ‘— Derek Jeter did it after leaving the Greensboro Bats in 1993 and wearing a Yankee uniform by 1995 ‘— but these things happen with even less frequency than the triple play.

The vast majority of them don’t make it to the majors at all.

Brian Cleveland and Steve Gendron are both 23 years old. Both came to the minor leagues through the SEC, Gendron a Mississippi State Bulldog and Cleveland a Tennessee Volunteer. Their college squads played against each other every other season, and they were aware of each other before they became teammates last year on the Jamestown Jammers, a squad in the NY-Penn Rookie League.

‘“I wouldn’t say we hated each other [in college],’” Cleveland says, ‘“but he was the other shortstop and I wouldn’t admit to how good he was.’”

They played against each other during one series in the SEC, in 2004.

‘“He had this bat,’” Cleveland says, ‘“an Easton Black Connection ‘—’”

‘“That was the best bat,’” Gendron interrupts.

Cleveland remembers that Gendron had a walk-off walk in the last game and that he hit a home run in the second match.

‘“I hated him,’” Cleveland says, and they both laugh.

Gendron says he was probably the best player on his high school team, Berkeley Prep in Tampa. ‘“College is different,’” he says. ‘“I don’t think I was ever the best player in college.’”

‘“I was one of the best in high school,’” Cleveland says about his days on the Santa Teresa team in San Jose, Calif., ‘“but I wasn’t the best JuCo player.’” Still he was drafted by the Dodgers after his freshman year at San Jose City College. He decided to go to Tennessee instead of through the Dodgers’ farm system..

At this level of the game, everybody is good. Everybody can hit a curve, turn a double play or pitch one to the outside corner of the strike zone in the 90s. And everybody is looking to move upwards and onwards. It is a time of hope and optimism for the guys, a time to hone skills and put up numbers, a time to question their motives and their abilities. And it is a time of uncertainty: any of them could be somewhere else in three weeks, either pulled up to a more prominent league or sent back home like a castoff on ‘“Survivor.’” But most of all it is a time to immerse themselves in the game, to play and think baseball and in doing so to get closer to their goals.

‘“Position players move slower,’” Gendron says. ‘“Pitchers mature faster. Or so they say.’”

‘“To me,’” Cleveland says, ‘“if I’m not moving up every year, it’s not worth it. Guys who make it keep moving.’”

‘“I’m not gonna play low A forever,’” Gendron says. ‘“Once you get to double-A you got a shot.

‘“Like anybody else, I want to get to the big leagues and hopefully stay there,’” he continues. ‘“That’s the plan for everybody.’”

Baseball is a young man’s game.

Both players say they idolize Cal Ripken Jr., the Baltimore infielder who became known as baseball’s ‘Iron Man’ in September 1995 when he broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak of 2,130. Ripken started in 2,632 consecutive games before he was done with his 21-year baseball career, played in 17 consecutive All-Star games (earning MVP honors in two of them), was awarded two Gold Gloves and was named American League MVP twice. He played until he was 41 years old and he wore a Baltimore Orioles uniform the entire time.

The guys know Ripken is something of an anomaly in the business of baseball. The average major league career lasts five to seven years, years riddled with injuries and slumps. There are some players who last into their thirties and a select few, mostly pitchers, who play into their forties.

Most careers in professional baseball do not extend past the minor leagues.

‘“What you need to do,’” Gendron says, ‘“is find out how many guys in single-A make it to the big leagues.’”

‘“It’s like five percent,’” Cleveland says.

When a guy gets called up, they say it happens fast.

‘“They’ll bring him in the office after a game,’” Cleveland says, ‘“and the next morning they’re gone.’”

Baseball is a game of repetition.

Hitting Coach Bo Porter places baseballs on a wobbly tee in the Grasshoppers’ batting cages, tucked into the bowels of First Horizon Park. The batter swings, snapping his wrists as the bat connects, twisting his shoulders with the impact and releasing his pitchers-side hand on the follow-through, describing a perfect wheelhouse every time. Coach raises the tee a few inches, lowers it some, changes its position over the plate. The balls fly to the far end of the tunnel where they become ensnared in the netting over and over again.

Brian Cleveland, number 17, wears all black to batting practice today ‘— his legs swim in his black baggy shorts; his black T-shirt clings to his torso and the ropy muscles of his forearms twitch as he chops through a few practice rips before taking his place in the cage. He’s small for a professional athlete, about six feet and a buck-eighty, but he’s as alert as a grey fox in the wild and full of heart and hustle.

The pitchers groan through conditioning exercises out on the field, and the rank-and-file players take in batting practice from folding chairs or lounging on bags of mound clay and Sodmaster Select which are stacked near the cage. They watch as Cleveland takes his cuts, rubbing their chins, nodding and spitting on the ground. A sign nearby reads: ‘“No Food No Drink No Dip No Seeds.’” But in professional baseball, you can still spit wherever you want.

Coach Porter throws to Cleveland from behind a safety net and Cleveland drops the first few for bunts before swinging through the meatballs Porter tosses over the plate.

Cleveland sends them to the rear of the cage one by one ‘— on the ground, on the fly, on a rope ‘— with a couple of miscues and imprecisions. He’s disappointed when he finishes, lashing out at himself in internal monologue.

‘“I’m probably my own biggest critic in everything in life,’” he says, ‘“baseball or whatever. A lot of guys in this game are like that.’”

Minutes later, Steve Gendron comes to the cage to take his swings.

Gendron, number 8 on your scorecard, is a big infielder in the tradition of Derek Jeter and A-Rod, 200 pounds of youthful muscle and ligament, all moving in perfect synchronicity. His walk to the cage looks like a choreographed dance. Manager Brandon Hyde has dropped behind the net to throw to Gendron.

Hyde has been with the Greensboro organization since 2003; his career as a player and coach in professional baseball dates back to ’97, including a few years with the Chicago White Sox organization. Porter, the hitting coach, played in the majors for the Chicago Cubs, the Texas Rangers, the Oakland A’s and the Atlanta Braves. Porter is 33 years old. Hyde is 32.

Hyde shouts encouragement as Gendron lays six perfect bunts and then unleashes his bat, sending five pitches on ropes into the webbing.

Cleveland stays to watch his roommate and buddy, practicing his own swing in short, sweet chops.

‘“He may have more physical tools than me,’” Cleveland says, ‘“but talent is just a part of the game. The thing that makes me good is drive.’”

Three hours ’til game time.

Baseball is a game of numbers.

On the second night of the Grasshoppers’ three-game home stand against the Asheville Tourists the action is subdued until the bottom of the fourth, when a double by Andy Jenkins with three men on base puts the Hoppers up 3-0.

Cleveland is having a great night. He makes a sweet barehanded grab at shortstop to save a hit in the fifth; later in the inning he places a bunt down the third base line and beats the throw to first. He makes two more putouts in the seventh and steals second after hitting a two-out double, his 17th steal of the season.

Gendron holds his own with a big double in the eighth and the Hoppers keep their lead until the end. A 5-3 win.

David Humen gets the win with a stellar performance: eight and two-thirds innings pitched with 13 strikeouts, four hits allowed and two walks. Even in the top of the ninth, with his pitch count approaching a hundred, he still throws heat in the mid-90s

At the end of the game, Cleveland’s batting average stands at .276, not quite Ripken numbers, but batting averages can change dramatically after one or two good streaks. Gendron’s BA hovers in the low .200s, but he’s got a good eye at the plate and has walked 29 times. He also has more than 40 RBIs, one of the most scrutinized statistics in baseball.

And these guys will have plenty of at bats between now and when the season ends on Sept. 5; they’re starters. It’s the guys who don’t play every day who have the most to worry about.

‘“When you don’t play and you get called on,’” Cleveland says, ‘“you put all this pressure on yourself.’”

The season lasts 140 games over six months, with games taking place nearly every day. Half of the games are at home, which means the other half are on the road in towns as far flung as Lakewood, NJ and Augusta, Ga.

They spend the season in Greensboro and then take off to coach, work at baseball camps, play in winter leagues or take classes. Most of them try to make some money, as the pay in single-A is notoriously low.

‘“We all make the same money,’” Gendron says, ‘“about twelve hundred bucks a month.’”

Some of the earlier draftees get huge signing bonuses, but these are as rare as inside-the-park home runs. Most of the guys on the Grasshoppers got a grand. Gendron sometimes gets flack from his teammates because he signed for two.

Baseball is fun.

During the second game of the three-night stand against Asheville a biker-looking guy talks smack from the stands to the Asheville manager, to their third baseman and to each one of their batters. ‘“Nice haircut.’” ‘“Nice socks.’” ‘“You suck.’”

Heckling is part of the game, especially at this level, where stadiums are small and crowds intimate.

‘“You can always hear that one voice in the stands,’” Cleveland says.

Gendron tells a story about a fan in West Virginia, the Toast Man, who somehow brings a toaster and a loaf of bread into the games with him. When a batter gets behind in the count, Gendron says, the Toast Man declares that he’s toast and then pops a few slices into the toaster.

‘“You can smell the toast at the plate,’” Gendron says.

Baseball is a team sport.

After the win, the guys shower and change. Some of them fill their plates with Italian food from a buffet set up in the clubhouse. They watch ESPN and MTV’s ‘“The Real World’” on television sets mounted to the wall.

‘“Where are we going tonight?’”

Cooper’s Ale House is a large bar and grill on West Market Street, near the apartment complex where the players live. They trickle in by the carload, here to celebrate the win but also to send off a teammate, right-handed pitcher Nate Nowicki who leaves the team tomorrow for Florida. This is not as good as it sounds ‘— Nowicki will be undergoing examination as a candidate for Tommy John surgery.

If he goes under the knife, they’ll take a tendon from his leg or arm and use it to replace a frayed or torn ligament in his elbow, threading it through holes drilled in the bones. The procedure has a 70 or 80 percent success rate.

The team takes up a quadrant of the dining room, drinking beers at tables and booths, watching the Red Sox play Tampa Bay on the TV screens. The pitchers all sit in a booth together.

In the Sox game, Johnny Damon makes a big play in the outfield to end the inning and he’s first at bat the next.

Infielder Beau McMillan believes Damon will go yard.

‘“How many times you seen it?’” he says.

Damon takes a breaking ball over the fence and boom goes the dynamite, with the Grasshoppers hooting and hollering and giving high fives around the room.

Cleveland and Gendron sit together at a table.

‘“This kid after the game,’” Cleveland says, ‘“he said, ‘Good game Brian.’ He remembered me.’”

‘“Because you look like a loser,’” Gendron says.

Cleveland and Gendron share an apartment with two other players. They room together on the road. They commiserate about the tribulations of their situation and they celebrate when things go well. They have a lot in common.

‘“He’s one of my best buds on the team,’” Cleveland says, ‘“but in reality we’re competing against each other.’”

‘“We both work hard. We both want to get the heck out of here,’” Gendron says. ‘“This sh*t sucks. I mean, it doesn’t suck, but it sucks.’”

Cleveland sympathizes.

‘“The reason they make it so sh*tty in the minor leagues is because they want you to work hard.’”

On the TV screen up above, Boston wins the game 10-9.

Baseball is a game of patience.

You wait for your turn at bat. You wait for your pitch. You wait for the perfect moment to steal a base.

You pay your dues in the minors, patiently working your way through the leagues. You wait for a starter to get injured or traded or old. You wait for the big money.

This morning the guys wait around their apartment on West Market Street until it’s time to go to the field for BP. It’s a three-bedroom place, with two bathrooms and a makeshift fourth bedroom in the dining area for catcher Trent D’Antonio, a switch-hitter from Australia playing in his first year of American baseball.

It’s a standard bachelor pad, with a regulation couch-coffee table-television set configuration, a total lack of art on the walls and curtains drawn against the morning sunlight.

‘“It’s pretty boring,’” Gendron says. ‘“We don’t really do anything.’”

He’s got the remote working between ‘“SportsCenter’” and old reruns of ‘“Saturday Night Live’” as the other guys shower and pack their bags. Tonight, immediately after the last game of the Asheville series, they’ll be boarding a bus for New Jersey, a drive that will take 10 hours or so, time each player kills in his own way.

Cleveland’s got his laptop out in his room and he’s burning a CD he’ll listen to on the road. A copy of the newest Pete Rose book leans against his dresser and a photograph of his girlfriend is tucked into the mirror. His traveling bag is half-packed and lying open on the floor.

In college, he says, he got free shoes, free shirts, free socks and practice pants. Now he’s got to buy most of that stuff for himself, but shopping is something to which he does not devote much time.

‘“Most of the clothes I wear I got in college,’” he says.

At around two in the afternoon they ride out to the ballpark.

Baseball is a game of failure.

Hitting a fastball is hard. The ball reaches speeds in excess of 90 mph; a batter with 20-20 vision can barely see it (Ted Williams said that he could see a red dot on a fastball, but he was reported to have had 20-15 vision). The batter has less than half a second to decide if he’ll swing. The moment of contact between bat and ball lasts about one-one thousandth of a second.

If you can safely reach base more than 30 percent of the time, you’re doing pretty good. Thirty-five percent is Hall of Fame material. Forty percent is unheard of.

Game 3 against the Asheville Tourists starts off auspiciously. Gendron doubles in the first to drive home Cleveland and Brad McCann for a 2-0 lead.

But Asheville matches the two runs in the first and then takes the lead in the fourth with a solo shot over the fence and a two-out rally that leaves the score at 4-2.

Down by two runs in the bottom of the sixth, with two outs and the bases loaded, Cleveland coolly steps to the plate. Early in the count he strikes a hard one to the outfield for an RBI single. JT Restko knocks in a couple more when he cranks a 3-2 pitch for a double.

Going into the eighth the Grasshoppers enjoy a 5-4 lead. And then it starts to rain. Hard. The thermometer mounted on the outfield wall drops 20 degrees in 20 minutes and in the stands the raindrops make watermarks on the concrete as big as poker chips. They’ve played enough innings for the game to stand, but the umps decide to play through the weather, a decision that will prove fatal to the hometown team.

In the top of the eighth, the Asheville bats come alive, driving in three runs before Gendron catches an Asheville baserunner in a pickle for the third out. In the top of the ninth a solo home run makes the score 8-5 in favor of the Tourists.

It all comes down to the bottom of the ninth. Down by three, Gendron gets to the plate with men on first and second and nobody out. He takes the first pitch for a called strike. He swings at the next for a foul ball. Strike two. The next pitch he sends back over the netting for another foul. He tightens his grip on the bat and sets for the next pitch. A hit for extra bases will put them back in the game. A home run will tie it. Gendron watches the pitcher’s release and in the half-second before it crosses the plate he decides to swing.

He misses.

Strike three.

Gendron slumps his shoulders and walks slowly back to the dugout.

The next batter, outfielder Brett Carroll, pops to center and the Tourists get Restko at second for an 8-4 double play.

Game over.

It still smells like Italian food in the clubhouse afterwards, but the mood is tense tonight. Hyde peps the guys and gives gentle constructive criticism. The players clench their jaws and don’t look at each other much while they get dressed. A few of them have words.

‘“You just don’t seem to care. You don’t care about a lot of things.’”

‘“Whatever. Good game.’”

Gendron and Cleveland each sit in quiet reflection in front of their lockers before they get dressed. Each wonders what they could have done differently, what further steps they could have taken to win the game. If they come up with anything, they don’t say what it is.

Out in the parking lot the team bus waits. The guys load their luggage and equipment and then settle into their seats. It’s about ten hours to New Jersey and another eight before the next game. They will try to do better.

To comment on this story e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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