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.
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.
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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."