Outsider Baseball

The spring-training stadium nobody wanted hosts the league nobody knows

On a Thursday morning in late April, Jerry David is sitting in the last row above home plate at the Homestead Sports Complex (HSC), stealing a little shade while he watches his son, Toby, pitch for the Pennsylvania Road Warriors. Near the first-base dugout, Jessica Luce, the only other fan in the 6500-seat stadium, roots for the opposition. Nothing personal against David. It's just that her husband, Rob, will be pitching for the Somerset (New Jersey) Patriots.

The game, an exhibition contest played in an almost completely empty ballpark three weeks into the current major-league season, may not appear to hold much significance. But don't tell that to anyone in the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB), here for ten days of spring training.

"This is the future," says Joe Klein, executive director of the four-year-old league and a former general manager with three major-league teams. He's emphatic. "There are more independent leagues now than there were a decade ago. Major-league teams don't want to support five or six minor-league [farm clubs] anymore. They're looking for ways to cut their developmental costs."

Thus, leagues like the Atlantic, an eight-team circuit with clubs in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. The league's 225 or so players, if not exactly free agents, are nevertheless available for purchase to any of the majors' 30 teams, an event that, according to Klein, occurs with some regularity. "We've sold 87 players back to the majors in the last four years," boasts the veteran baseball man. "Twenty-seven last year alone."

The league, Klein is quick to add, also has had success reviving professional baseball in blighted urban areas like Camden and Newark, New Jersey, and Bridgeport, Connecticut; cities long since abandoned by both the major and minor leagues despite large populations and historic links to the sport (Newark, for example, was the site of the New York Yankees' top farm club in the Thirties and Forties). In all three cases, brand-new ballparks built to minor-league specifications were unveiled to accommodate Atlantic League play.

Appropriate, then, that the ALPB should bring professional baseball to the HSC, a once pretty, but quickly dilapidating pink-and-teal confection of a ballpark originally built as the future spring-training home of the Cleveland Indians. The complex has sat empty since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 turned Homestead, and the Indians' plans to relocate their camp there, upside down. Which is what makes the park such a perfect setting for this ten-day exhibition of outsider baseball: Like a lot of the players here, the HSC is looking to the Atlantic League for help hanging on to its once-promising future.

"This is a huge opportunity for Toby," says the elder David, who flew down from Spokane, Washington, for his son's start. "This is double-A, maybe even triple-A, caliber ball." David, who was released by the Florida Marlins last year after playing one season with the team's single-A affiliate, is hoping another big-league club will notice him.

David isn't really a Road Warrior. He's under contract to another of the ALPB's teams, the Long Island Ducks, but, hey, it's only the preseason, and as his father explains, "I guess [former major-leaguer and Long Island part owner and manager] Bud Harrelson thought [Toby] could get a little more work in [as a "loaner"] with the Road Warriors while they're down here."

As the game between Pennsylvania and Somerset gets under way, Jerry David fidgets noticeably in his seat, clutching his disposable camera harder, perhaps, than he is aware. When his son gives up a quick double to a Patriot batter after no balls and two strikes, David shakes his head. "He had him down, didn't he?" he asks, sounding very much like an exasperated fan. Then, sounding more like the father he is, he sighs. "Well, he's only 23. Just a baby. Most of these guys are men."

Indeed. The average age of players in the Atlantic League is 27, old for a prospect. But young enough for guys who still dream of getting to the majors, or, in some cases, getting back. "The league means different things to different players," explains Klein, who is also taking in the game from the stands. "Increasingly, we're getting players with some major-league experience. This year we'll have about 75."

Occasionally, even really big names make an appearance. Last year José Canseco played in the Atlantic League long enough to prove to the Chicago White Sox that his famously fickle back wouldn't go out the first time he took one of his prodigious hacks. The Sox signed him.

For the most part, though, the league remains a last resort for damaged goods and long shots, players who have yet to be signed or who have been released by major-league organizations following injury -- players like David and Rob Luce, David's counterpart in today's game, real-life versions of the Kevin Costner character in Bull Durham.

Luce's wife, Jessica, a pretty, slim blonde in a blue sleeveless top and khaki shorts, watches the action from her seat, occasionally flipping through a book she's brought along: Smart Couples Finish Rich. "Rob pitched at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas," she says, mimicking the language on the back of baseball cards, "and was signed by the Seattle Mariners." That was five years ago, before he hurt his arm. The past few years the righty has bounced between independent outfits. "He played in the Western League last year," Jessica explains, "to be close to home." The Luces live in Phoenix.

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