Field of Aches

Starin' at the stands: This batter is unlikely to park one
Michael McElroy

You know, it was that whole pants thing that almost broke me.

As I stood in the vast 8 a.m. shadow of the Stadium Formerly Known as Joe Robbie, Soon to Be Formerly Known as Pro Player two Saturdays ago, I came within a split second of chickening out of this whole trying-out-for-the-Florida Marlins deal -- not for any of the logical reasons, which included my generally mediocre physical condition and the fact that I had last faced live pitching during the waning days of the Carter Administration.

I almost turned tail and ran because I was intimidated by the competition. It wasn't that the 450 or so other aspiring big leaguers were bigger, stronger, and faster (though they mostly were) but that the vast majority of them were wearing baseball pants, whereas I sported the baggy shorts I wear when I mow the lawn.

So what was it that made me screw up my courage and file through Gate H, my spikes joining those of the other hopefuls in a quiet hailstorm on the concrete? Well, I figured I needed a baseball story. No, not for this paper. The financial plight of the Marlins, the team's Kafkaesque quest for a new stadium in Miami, the absurd threat of the pseudocommissioner of baseball to maybe, possibly, put the team out of its misery: All of these travails have been well documented. I needed a baseball story for myself. I come from a long line of Chicago baseball fans, from my grandfather rooting for Rogers Hornsby, to my dad pulling for Nellie Fox, to me living vicariously through Ryne Sandberg. And both of my predecessors had played enough amateur ball to amass at least a few war stories of their own.

Me? Fragments of two seasons in Little League and a couple of less-than-stellar, co-ed slow-pitch softball campaigns. Hardly the stuff of legends.

Thus, onward I trudged -- into what might be the only chance for a nonplayer like me to play in front of a real, live major-league scout. The Marlins hold tryouts all the time, but most of them are strictly limited by age. The team's Website touts nearly 20 such cattle calls this summer, in locations from California to Maine, none of which is open to anyone older than age 25; they figure if they haven't heard of you by the time you turn 26, they ain't missing much. This was the team's first-ever "open" tryout at the big-league park, meaning that anyone 18 years or older could give it a go. Though I did see a few potbellies and gray hairs among the "prospects," I guessed most of the people were in their mid-to-late twenties.

Between the spiraling ramps that lead to the upper levels of the stadium stood several columns, each of which had been hung with a sign denoting a different position. I queued up in front of the one that read "Second Base." At about 6 feet tall and 180 pounds (a soft 180 pounds) I was of about average build for my position; to my left loomed a forest of intimidating first basemen. When I got to the front of the line, they gave me a sticker with a number to fasten to the front of my cap: 3022. I peeled off the paper backing and stuck it over the logo of the Portland Sea Dogs (the Marlins AA affiliate). My wife and I then trudged up the ramp and into the field-level seats on the third-base side of the field.

Most of the players in the assembled throng were wearing some kind of uniform. I spotted a few Miami-Dade Community College jerseys, as well as logos from local high schools including South Miami and North Palm Beach. The chatter around me came in many languages. In addition to the familiar English, Spanish, Spanglish, and the amusing dialect of white and Hispanic kids referring to each other as "nigga" and "dawg," I also took in a bit of Japanese from a serious-looking pair of beisuboru players with visions of Seattle Mariners sensation Ichiro Suzuki dancing in their heads.

We all sat and watched as the khaki-clad grounds crew set up the batting cage, along with the pitching and outfield screens. A staff member then fed the first ball into the pitching machine, and we watched as it shot out in a white blur and listened as it hit the rubber pad at the back of the cage with a demoralizing whop! I looked around: From the smiles and murmurs, I could tell that I wasn't the only one spooked by that sound.

Still, I'd gone to the batting cages the night before and had made good contact against 70-mile-per-hour fastballs, which I figured would be about batting-practice speed. This machine looked like it was set pretty fast, but it couldn't be that bad, right?  

Then the teal-shirted scouts lined up facing us along the third-base line. Al Avila, the Marlins' director of scouting, described the day's events over a portable public-address system. The outfielders were to hit, while the infielders shagged flies. Meanwhile the pitchers and catchers were instructed to go to the two bullpens. We'd each get about eight swings in the cage, he added, and then he dropped the bomb: "The pitching machine is set at about 80 to 85 miles per hour." A ripple of sound -- groans, hisses, nervous laughter -- passed over the players. As for me, well, if I'd been wearing baseball pants, I would have soiled them.

After the outfielders and infielders switched places and the infielders had batted -- and run a 60-yard-dash along the right-field warning track -- the outfielders would get to make throws to third base and home plate. Once they were finished, each infielder would take four ground balls. I looked over the size of the crowd, and I realized not only was I in for a long day, but my wife, who would be sitting in the stands the whole time, was in for a really long day.

But when I went onto the outfield grass to shag flies, I knew it would all be worth it. I knew I'd have my own tale to rival the one my father told me about my grandfather:

My dad coached my Little League team. At the end of the season, all of the coaches and dads got together to play a baseball game. Now, most of the guys were in their late thirties, maybe early forties. My dad was in his fifties. On the day of the game, none of the other dads wanted to play catcher, so my dad agreed to do it. I'd never seen my dad actually play baseball, and I knew he'd never played organized ball, so when he went five for five with a single, three doubles, and a homer (all of them ropes), I couldn't believe it. He caught all nine innings of that game, too. It was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen.

When my kids tell my grandkids my story, they probably won't go into all the minutiae, like when the first broken bat of the day skittered to first base, drawing an ovation from the players and their fans. Or when a screaming foul ball hit a TV camera -- inches behind the cameraman's head. Or when a 150-man outfield turned its head as one to watch a rare line drive bounce in front of the Teal Tower in left field. And they will definitely leave out the fact that one of the players there, a right-handed pitcher out of Hollywood named Patrick Frawley, was actually good enough to get himself signed to a minor-league contract. No, the story they'll tell will go something like this:

Your grandpa tried out for the Florida Marlins. He got to shag flies in the outfield of a Major League park and spotted a huge swath of sunflower seeds in right field -- likely from a visiting player, because all the Marlins' regular right fielders prefer chewing tobacco. He was supposed to give the balls back once he caught them, but he pocketed one of them, which had "The Official Ball of the Arizona Fall League" printed on it in blue ink. He played catch with one guy who played in a local amateur league and another who DJ'd at several prominent adult-entertainment establishments in Broward County.

He watched the machine mow down batter after batter. Maybe half touched the ball, and fewer than half of those put the ball in play. Only a very few hit with any authority. So when he took his five pitches in the batting cage and swung as fast as he could at something he couldn't see, he didn't feel so bad when he missed three and fouled off two.

He did feel pretty bad about 40 yards into the 60-yard dash, when his legs tried to explain to him that they couldn't remember the last time they'd done anything remotely resembling "dashing."

After a couple more hours of sitting around on this sweltering, partly cloudy South Florida day, he lined up with all the other middle infielders at shortstop -- which made him nervous, because the whole reason he'd signed up as a second-sacker was to avoid making the throw from short. But when he took his four ground balls, he fielded them cleanly and tossed four weak-but-accurate one-hoppers to first.

Then he jogged into the stands, where your grandma informed him that, according to her calculations, the seven hours she had spent watching Middle Infielder No. 3022 mostly stand around and do nothing would cost him exactly three Julia Roberts movies.  

OK, so it ain't Field of Dreams. But it'll do.

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