Outsider Baseball

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

Rob Luce initially looks good during his scheduled two innings of work. Then, like David, he runs into trouble. A double down the right-field line with a couple of Road Warriors on base produces a run and leaves him in a jam: men on second and third. "Well, at least it's only spring training," mutters Jessica, grateful for the knowledge that her husband's spot on the team is secure.

"Have you seen The Rookie?" she asks the reporter watching the game along with her. "That's the team Rob was playing for when we met."

Nobody could blame either of the Luces if they thought they were starring in a movie of their own, given the venue. The stadium at the HSC was recently altered to facilitate the filming of the pilot episode for an HBO series titled Baseball Wives. Hence the crown-shaped scoreboard in center field and the painted letters below the press box, announcing this is the home of the fictional "Miami Kings."

It's one of the few practical uses Homestead officials have found for the ballpark at the corner of SE 16th Street and 28th Avenue, built at a cost of almost 20 million dollars in 1991 and repaired at an additional expense of 9 million dollars following Hurricane Andrew. With the HSC generating little money in its ten-year history, maintaining the facility has proved to be a challenge. Paint flakes off the walls of the stadium. Outside, large sections of dry grass separate the half-dozen or so practice fields that ring the ballpark. In the middle of it all, a two-story watchtower intended to provide a 360-degree view of the complex sits virtually boarded up.

The $46,000 in rent the city is receiving from the Atlantic League will help, with almost half that money going toward emergency repairs at the HSC. Still, once the ALPB heads north at the beginning of May, the complex will again sit empty, a perfect candidate, some believe, for the wrecking ball. Or as a commercial developer who recently toured the property told the Miami Herald: "Florida's running out of open land. There's not much left." (A $4.5 million purchase bid for the 138-acre property was recently submitted to the city.)

All of that, however, is in the future. For now -- today -- it is perhaps enough that the stadium finally is playing host to big-league hopes, distant though they may be in some cases. "The one good thing about being out of the Marlins' organization," Toby David offers, sitting in front of his locker, stripping off his sanitary socks after his two-inning stint, "is they got a lot of good, young pitchers at every level. That's a lot of competition for just five [big-league starting] jobs. This way every team can take a look at me."

Certainly, he'll tell you, he's not playing for the money. "Nobody's making bank up here," says the young hurler, who looks a little like the actor Brendan Fraser, "that's for sure." The average salary in the Atlantic League hovers around $10,000 for the season or, roughly, $500 a week.

Back out on the field, Rob Luce, his day now officially over as well, breathes a frustrated sigh after getting the third out in his final inning of work. Jessica waves to him as he makes his way back toward the dugout. He doesn't see her. "You know," she says, packing up her how-to investment guide, "I run into a lot of wives I used to know whose husbands are out of baseball." She smiles. "My husband will never quit. He'll pitch with his toes if he has to."

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