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On the road again

Pro baseball players usually don't have to dance for dinner.
Four members of the Mid-Missouri Mavericks are jumping next to the glowing menu of the McDonald's drive-thru lane. Turns out there's a reason it's not called the walk-thru lane.
Thursday, August 14, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:46 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

They’re trying to activate the car sensor at the restaurant next door to the team motel in Rockford, Ill., but their efforts are in vain. Broadcaster Jeff Johnson, trainer James Oyler, third baseman Seth Brown and center fielder Jake Whitesides decide to walk around the corner and knock on the first window, hoping to place their orders there because the dining room closed at 10 p.m. It's 11:15. When the manager opens the window, they explain that they just got back from a baseball game (they had beaten the Rockford Riverhawks 2-1), and they didn't have a car. He understands and begins to take their orders.

Minutes later, four cars line up behind them. Someone honks.

Whitesides places his order and then asks for water. He wants a large water, if possible. With a lot of ice. Johnson laughs and cuts in.

"You'll have to excuse him, he's used to getting what he wants," Johnson says. "He's an All-Star."

The manager isn't impressed. "That'll be $5.03."

Whitesides shells out roughly one-third of his daily meal stipend of $16 and heads down to the next window. The Mavs find the whole experience amusing. From the look on his face, the man in the car behind them isn't amused.

Welcome to a Frontier League road trip.

As Johnson grabs his burger, he points out that it's a little different from life in the major leagues. Those guys get $120 a day on the road for meals. That will buy a large amount of McDonald's, which the team visits six times during its three-day trip to Rockford.

These guys aren't in the big leagues. Yet.

Almost famous SUBHED

As the Mavericks load the bus for a trip, you can see they have big-league dreams. Travel bags from major league affiliates are among the well-worn equipment bags. An Astros bag here, a Blue Jays bag there, a Reds bag sitting on the pavement. Many of the guys have been there before. None wants to believe he won't be back.

The Frontier League is much different from the big leagues. The players will be the first ones to tell you that. It's never more evident than when they are on the road.

For starters, they're not on their way to Houston, Toronto or even Cincinnati.

"We're in Rockford," second baseman Adam Rittenhouse says as he talks on his cell phone in the motel lobby.

Then he turns away from the phone.

"This is Illinois, isn't it? I get them all mixed up."

Rockford, Ill., is seven hours away from Taylor Stadium by bus. To put it in terms the players can relate to, that's a Big Lebowski and a Casino away from St. Louis. Those are the movies they watch on this trip.

The team stays at the Sweden House Lodge in Rockford. It's not a bad place, complete with an indoor pool and cable TV, but there's not much to do nearby. Without cars, the players have to rely on places within walking distance for entertainment. Sure, they could always call a cab, but a Frontier League salary of $600 to $1,200 a month only goes so far.

Although Major League players probably have to fight off the crowds at the team motel, the Mavericks players only get one autograph request. That's from Ritten-house's young cousin, who caught a foul ball the night before and happens to be staying at the motel. Even so, the family has to ask to make sure it had the right people.

"Are you all with the Mavericks?" the boy's father asks a table of players and coaches enjoying the motel's continental breakfast.

They sure are.

"Then can he get your autograph? We're Adam's relatives."

They were happy to oblige; it's not every day people treat them like pros.

It's perhaps the strangest part of a Frontier League trip: In an era where athletes are glorified more than ever, no one knows who these professional athletes are. Even when they find out, they don't seem to care.

The McDonald's manager doesn't care. The motel manager doesn't care. As he buys a bucket of balls at a driving range, manager Papo Davila mentions he is with a professional baseball team. The woman behind the counter only smiles and says, "Oh."

The limited number of fans the Mavs have on the road are almost always family members. Rittenhouse had several family members at the first two games of the series in Rockford because his aunt and her family had been traveling and decided to stop in Rockford to see him play.

At the ballpark

It's easy to see that the Mavs miss the comforts of home. On the first day of the trip, there is a concert at the stadium before the game, so the team doesn't get a chance to have batting practice. It doesn't bother putting on workout clothes. About 5:30 p.m., players start heading to the bus wearing their gray and black road uniforms as they walk through the motel lobby. Their rooms have taken the place of a locker room. The bus rolls out about 5:45 p.m. for the 7:05 p.m. game.

Darrell Sinclair, the Mavs left fielder, is on his first trip with Mid-Missouri.

"It kinda sucks to not have (batting practice)," Sinclair says. "But it's not our place, so we can't really control it."

The next day there is a clinic for youngsters right before the game, pushing the team's practice back to early afternoon. It heads to the stadium early, arriving at the field a little after 3 p.m. for another 7:05 p.m. start.

This change in the schedule is especially disruptive for starting pitchers, who don't arrive at Taylor Stadium for home games until shortly before the gates open at 6 p.m. When the bus leaves the motel, though, everybody had better be on it.

On July 28, starting pitcher Lenny Bays lies flat on his back in the clubhouse in a green shirt and khaki shorts while his teammates practice outside in matching Mavericks' shorts and T-shirts. He has about three hours to kill before his prepa-ration begins. And nothing to do.

Justin Stine is put in a similar situation the next day with about two hours to kill. He dons a pair of headphones and has a seat on the floor of the manager's room in the clubhouse.

Things don't necessarily get easier once a game begins. Aside from the usual adjustments one might have to make to field conditions, sight lines and the oc-casional heckler, players are often subject to what are known throughout the league as "K-man" promotions. Rockford is no exception.

When Whitesides steps to the plate in the first inning of the Sunday game, the public address announcer informs the crowd that Whitesides is that night's Arby's K-man. If he strikes out, everyone in attendance will win free food from Arby's the next day. The more he strikes out, the more they win.

That puts the pressure on. Fans who were silent before are screaming. "Eehhhhh, batter, batter... swing batter," is the nicest comment the fans yell.

Sure enough, Whitesides strikes out swinging in the fourth inning, winning free soda for the fans. The crowd erupts with the loudest cheer of the night. This on a night when the Riverhawks win 9-4.

The next night, Whitesides is determined to cash in on the promotion.

"Yeah, it sucks being the K-man," he says. "I think if I'm the K-man again tonight, I'll go buy a ticket. At least get something out of it."

Making do

The Mavericks staff feels the effect of life on the road. Oyler doesn't have the luxury of having the players stop by his office at Peak Performance, so the motel room he shares with Johnson becomes a makeshift trainer's room where players go to get treatment. On this trip, three or four players are banged up, making it a little crowded in the room at times.

"I'm thinking of just putting up a hospital sign on our door," Johnson says to Oyler one morning at breakfast.

Johnson also has to adjust when he is on the road, making do with whatever is available for him to do his broadcast. This week he is lucky; the Rockford press box is large and well equipped. It's not always that simple. Earlier in the season, Johnson found himself broadcasting from the roof of a press box in Hamilton, Ohio, because the box was a little too crowded when the Mavs played the Florence Freedom.

On the road, Johnson says he also serves as a traveling secretary for the team. He hands out meal money, checks the team in at the motel and makes sure someone takes care of the laundry. Marinelli Field has on-site washers and dryers, so the Riverhawks usually make sure the visitors' uniforms get cleaned as well. Johnson says that wasn't the case on the Mavericks' previous trip to Rockford. On the last day of the series, the Riverhawks were leaving the next day for a road trip as well and didn't have time to do both sets of laundry. Johnson and Oyler stayed up until 3 a.m. doing the team's laundry at the motel. The bus left at 7 a.m.

The players also appreciate the amenities at Marinelli Field, especially the clubhouse. The clubhouse, complete with a full locker room, a manager's room, a place to set up a trainer's room during the game and an array of showers, is one of the nice clubhouses in the league, the players say. Of course, they are comparing it to places such as Florence, where there's a trailer without lights inside, or River City, where there's no clubhouse.

It's a good thing the clubhouse is up to par because the Mavs have to spend about 90 minutes hanging out there before a July 28 game because of the youth clinic. Some of the players listen to music and others shoot the breeze.

Then there are the card players. Room 114 of the motel has hosted a nonstop game of Spades since the team arrived. Now the game has moved to the clubhouse. Shortstop Cooper Vittitow and outfielder Ric Prussing play against pitchers Lenny Bays and Kelly Martin. By the time they return to Columbia, they will have played to nearly 4,000 points, with Vittitow and Prussing leading by only 11. They have clearly been at this all year and it's almost as if the team has a certain reverence for the game. Of the guys sitting around the locker room, only the cardplayers are talking. They poke fun at one another for their moves and quote lines from movies, a habit that all the Mavs seem to share.

Aside from card games, movies seem to be the chief source of entertainment for the players when they are on the road. They usually watch a couple of movies on each bus ride and a few more in the motel room. Sometimes they will splurge and grab a taxi ride to see a matinee before a game. The bottom line is, these guys have seen a lot of movies. Spend any reasonable amount of time with the players and you're bound to hear an array of lines from comedies such as "Dumb and Dumber" or "Ace Ventura" with the occasional dramatic line from a film such as "A Few Good Men" thrown in.

They have seen how the other half lives, though.

When the Mavericks traveled to Cook County earlier in the season, they played a rare noon game, giving them the evening free. Johnson, Davila and a few others decided to head into Chicago by taxi and catch a White Sox game. After the game, Davila used his connections from his coaching days with the Cleveland Indians to get the group into the Sox clubhouse. Pitcher Bartolo Colon, whom Davila coached in Cleveland, then packed them into his Escalade and took them to his apartment in downtown Chicago, which Johnson says costs him $9,000 a month. The group stayed there until about 2:30 in the morning, eating food Colon's chef prepared.Davila tells the story while eating some Fazoli's lasagna. The restaurant is about a mile from the motel. Davila walked.

As Davila and Johnson continue to reminisce during lunch about that night with Davila's son Hector, who is the team's bat boy, Davila casually mentions that his friend Colon probably won't re-sign with the Sox next year. He wants $10 million instead of the $6 million they have offered.

Someone will give him the money. Maybe New York. Maybe Boston.

Davila then begins talking about the mansion his friend Robby owns and says it's really nice. His friend is White Sox second baseman Roberto Alomar, who paid for his home that is worth millions in cash.

"Things are so much different in the big leagues," Davila says. "It's not just the money. They take good care of you and it's like a family. Once you've made it to the big leagues, that's it. It's so amazing."

Heading home

Once they are showered after a game, the Mavericks produce enough cell phones to build a network. Family members and girlfriends don't have to wait to read the results in the next morning's paper; they're going to find out right away. Five to 10 players can be seen milling around the bus on the phone while they wait for all their teammates to arrive. A few more are on their phones in the bus.

After a loss, the players aren't as bothered as might be expected. They seem to be upset more on an individual basis. If the team lost but a player did well, it's not his problem. But after a loss July 27, several players are visibly upset with their play. They share their frustrations with family members by phone and avoid conversations with their teammates on the way back to the motel.

After a win, though, the mood is up. Waiting to head back to the motel after the July 28 game, Brown and Sinclair engage in some horseplay in front of the bus and chide catcher Jose Carreno and pitcher Luis Reyes, trying to get them to join in.

On the way back, the bus pulls to the side of the road by a Mobile station and some of the players pile out. They want to get some food and drinks to celebrate in their rooms. They're going to be up a little later tonight.

Even after they win Game 3, the Mavs are ready to get on the road. There's one more stop before they head out of town: good old McDonald's.

Of course, the dining room has been closed for about an hour when the bus pulls in about 11, like the one across town that Whitesides and company visited the night before. The restaurant manager comes outside to discuss the situation andapparently frightened by the idea of having 30 baseball players walk through the drive-thru lane, she opens the doors and lets them inside to get some takeout.

Twenty minutes later, it's all over. Luckily, most of the guys are too tired to order as much as usual.

As the Mavs load back onto the bus with their burgers in hand, it's easy to see that some of them are dreaming of big-league steak. It's as simple as a Padres hat, a Yankees bag or a Major League Baseball logo T-shirt. They will have seven more hours to dream. They won't be back in Columbia until 6 a.m.

Then, it's a day off and back to the old routine.


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