Mavs hope for season of rebirth

Tuesday, April 13, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:33 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Spring is a time of rebirth. The grass turns from a dull brown to a vibrant green, the leaves come back on the trees and flowers sprout and bloom as the doldrums of winter give way to warmer weather.

The Mid-Missouri Mavericks hope that is a fitting metaphor for their second season in Columbia.

The Mavericks prefaced their upcoming spring training with a round of tryouts over the weekend, signing 10 new players whom they hope can help the Mavericks improve upon their last-place finish in the Frontier League’s West Division last season.

With a full slate of promotional activities on tap again this summer at Taylor Stadium, it’s easy to get caught up in the thinking that minor league baseball is more about the event than the game. Don’t tell that to the Mavericks’ players.

Last week, I bumped into one of those players, Chris Garcia, a pitcher from Brooklyn, N.Y., who complained that a panhandler was following him around downtown Columbia.

“My first day in Missouri, and already I’ve got a stalker,” Garcia said in his thick New York accent.

“What brings you to Missouri?” I asked.

“Baseball,” he said.

That’s when it dawned on me that these guys put themselves on the line for a chance at their dream of playing baseball.

Garcia is a displaced New Yorker in a strange city who left everything behind for a shot in the lowest level of the minors. He made it through the tryouts and hopes to make the final cut before the season starts May 21.

For many Mavericks players, the Frontier League is their first crack at breaking into professional baseball and realizing a lifelong dream. They come from all over the country, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Atlanta, among others, for a chance to play.

Their pay is next to nothing, and they take up lodging in the homes of strangers when they’re not crisscrossing the country by bus.

If you think they do so because they want fans to see Bugs Bunny and friends and get a free seat cushion you’re dead wrong.

They come to play baseball.

This summer, Simmons Field will become a real life “Field of Dreams” for a number of young men.

For some players, the Mavericks are a second chance, maybe a last chance, to catch on with a Major League affiliate team.

After a disappointing tenure in the Houston Astros organization, Jake Whitesides, who starred at Hickman High, got another chance with the Mavericks last season. Whitesides was a Frontier League All-Star, and the Florida Marlins noticed, inviting him to spring training.

Whitesides failed a physical with the Marlins because of a torn tendon in his right, throwing shoulder, and the team cut him. Who knows whether Whitesides will get a third chance, but if he does, chances are the Mavericks or a team like them will be part of the process.

It’s not only players that get a chance to rebuild their baseball careers in the minors. New Mavericks manager Jack Clark is getting the same opportunity.

Clark, who starred with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1980s and more recently coached in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, wasn’t ready to leave baseball behind. Thanks to the Mavericks, he doesn’t have to.

The Mavericks offer a great opportunity for fans, too.

Not too long ago, local baseball was little more than a memory when summer hit Columbia. The Mavericks have changed that.

By moving into Taylor Stadium, which used to become dormant after the Missouri Tigers’ season ended in May, the Mavericks offer a sufficient version of pro baseball to fans who can’t or won’t make the two-hour drive to St. Louis or Kansas City.

Maybe it’s not the best baseball. Maybe the promotions are better than the on-field product. But the next time you glance at the magnetic schedule you got on Opening Day or use the tape measure from one of the many giveaway nights at the ballpark, remember that the Mavericks offer a second chance for young men who haven’t caught their big break but can’t bear to see their dream end.

Sometimes the second chance comes around, as in Whitesides’ case. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, as in Whitesides’ case. At least the opportunity is there.

For young fans, the Mavericks provide a chance to build baseball dreams and memories.

For players, the Mavericks provide a chance to make sure their dreams don’t become memories prematurely.

For that, we can all be grateful.

Justin Jarrett’s columns appear Tuesdays.

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