April 04, 2020

For the Love of the Game Being paid to play a game helps players overcome long road trips

Second of two parts

ORONO; LITTLE FALLS, N.J., and parts in between – They call it the Garden state, but New Jersey seems more like the Sauna State in late July. It’s hot … And it is not a dry heat.

It was a balmy – and in retrospect comfortable – 94 degrees when the Cyr motorcoach arrived in Clifton on a sunny Friday morning. Ten hours of contortionist sleeping postures, face-to-face or cell phone conversations, and movies (“My Cousin Vinny” and “Tin Cup” followed “Fight Club”) were almost forgotten as players climbed and hurdled over outstretched legs to be the first off the bus.

“Now maybe I can get some sleep,” one player quipped as he quickly made his way through the obstacle course aisle.

The hotel lobby went from looking like an airport baggage terminal to almost empty in about 25 minutes once everyone was checked in. Players like Lorenzo de la Cruz, who had his family along with him, had their own rooms while others were booked two to a room and still others (rookies) shared a room with two teammates.

Some players got breakfast, but most went directly to their rooms and flopped into bed before their room doors had even clicked shut, pausing only to first flip on the air-conditioning. Sleep was the prime activity this day, which is just as well since the hotel’s indoor pool was closed for the entire weekend. At least the hotel staff regretted the inconvenience.

Game time was 7 p.m., but the bus left the hotel around 5 p.m. “Kash” time. Bangor Lumberjacks manager Kash Beauchamp sets his watch five minutes ahead and his players and coaches are expected to be on the bus no later than 5 p.m. on his watch or the bus leaves without them. Most players synchronize their watches to avoid being stranded.

Due to their late arrival, the Lumberjacks won’t be taking batting practice this day.

“No swings, just get loose and let it rake,” said Beauchamp as the bus pulled up to an entrance behind Yogi Berra Stadium in Little Falls.

Beauchamp would turn over managing duties to pitching coach-player Kevin Pincavitch and assistant Josh Brinkley this night after drawing a one-game suspension by the Northeast League for getting ejected from Thursday’s game in Bangor.

The 42-year-old Beauchamp almost welcomed the break, as it allowed him to talk and joke and catch up with all the people he knew from his three seasons (1998-2000) as the New Jersey Jackals’ manager.

It would be the highlight of the trip for Beauchamp. Saturday brought another shutout loss in 97-degree heat and Sunday was a fourth straight on a day when the mercury hit 99.

Bangor’s scoreless streak would go five games and 52 innings before finally ending.

Playing games

Whether it was the absence of Beauchamp, the road weariness, the lack of batting practice, or all of the above, Bangor would fall to the Jackals 5-0.

Despite the setback, players were looking forward to a little down time Friday night. Many, like de la Cruz, Todd Brock, and Juan LeBron would spend a night out with friends and family who lived nearby or joined them for the road series. Many of the single guys opted to clean up at the hotel and walk over to a nearby Applebee’s for dinner and drinks.

“Finding a good place to eat can be horrible,” said former backup catcher Mikaela Dworken. “Now that I’ve been in the league two years, I kind of have a routine depending on what city it is.”

After a 15-minute wait, clubhouse manager Jason Carbonneau, lefthanded pitcher Matt Scheuing, infielder Nick Saunders, a NEWS photographer and a hungry writer jam into a booth.

Before the appetizers and drinks even arrive, Carbonneau has already found some women to flirt with.

“Hey, I don’t care. I’ll give ’em my number,” Carbonneau says with a grin. “Maybe they’ll give me theirs.”

One of the women in a party of three just inches away at a table separated from Carbonneau by a glass partition flirts back, but instead of providing her number, she asks if he’ll pay her tab.

“On my salary? I don’t think so,” Carbonneau says.

That’s one of the most surprising things about life on the road for minor league ballplayers, especially in the independent leagues. It isn’t all practice, play, and party.

When meal money is $18 per player per day, there isn’t a lot of budgetary room for a bar tab.

“Guys sometimes have their girlfriends with them, but you don’t have a lot of cash to burn and go partying,” said pitcher Jerry Long. “Most of the time you hang out at the hotel and watch TV.”

A third straight shutout loss, a postgame fireworks show, and 24 hours later, that was exactly what many of the players were doing as Carbonneau and his two roommates, Long and Saunders, lounged on beds or sat on the floor while clicking between ESPN and Cinemax, and waiting for pizza, subs and soda to arrive. Think frat party without females, beer … or partying.

The domesticated life

Whether you’re single, married, or somewhere in between, life on the road can be tough on relationships.

Todd Brock, one of only four position players still on Bangor’s roster, has managed to maintain a seven-year relationship with his girlfriend despite playing for four different teams in five different cities over four years.

The trips to New Jersey are highlights of his season.

“My girlfriend lives in Delaware and my family and friends come and visit when we’re here,” Brock said. She comes for at least a week to visit me no matter where I’m playing. That keeps me sane.

“She’s a teacher, so she has summers free to visit me on the road. I always see her when we come to Allentown (Pa.) and New Jersey.”

How do they deal with the miles between them?

“We talk on the phone a lot and I see her in the offseason all the time,” said Brock, who is a substitute teacher, waiter and coach in the offseason.

It must work. The couple is getting married next month.

Brock isn’t the only player bridging the mileage gap. Mark Burke has played in three different leagues this season, but girlfriend Chrystie Fitchner managed to see all his games before having to return to her native Winnipeg, Manitoba, to teach this month.

“We’ve done really well. This year’s a lot different because I’m not working this summer,” Fitchner said. “Money’s tighter, but we’re together and that’s what makes us happy.”

Fitchner said it’s actually easier for them on the road because their apartment in Orono isn’t as nice as the hotels they stay in.

“I started off in the Central League, then I ended up in the Northern League, and now I’m here,” said Burke, who met Fitchner at a game against the Winnipeg Goldeyes.

“My heart really goes to hockey because I grew up with it, but I love baseball because I played it,” said Fitchner, who helps Burke by taping his at-bats with a camcorder. “The worst thing about being on the road is having to always have to pack and live out of your suitcase. You never feel like you’re settled.

“Even worse, it’s expensive. His meal money barely covers him plus there’s me and we need to pay for gas … And I’m not working this summer.”

Still, she has enjoyed seeing parts of the United States for the first time, from the west coast, to the Midwest to the Southwest to the Northeast.

It could be worse…

Almost every player and coach has their own favorite horror story when it comes to road trips.

“I played in the Texas-Louisiana League [now the Central League] for Greenville [Miss.] and we would play in Arlington, Texas,” said Brock. “We would have to drive all the way to basically Mexico on an 18-hour bus ride, we’d get done around 10 p.m., and drive 18 hours to play that next night. Travel there is ridiculous. It’s one reason I got out of there.”

“Anyway, our very first trip there, the AC went out on the bus when it was like 110 on the heat index and the clothes were off and everybody was just gasping.”

Beauchamp remembers the good, the bad, and the ugly.

“When I was in Florence, South Carolina, the bus broke down after we screwed up two plays in the game and we pulled in a grocery store parking lot,” he recalled. “Our manager had us doing bump plays in the parking lot with pickoffs and other things for hours.”

Even the bad trips can’t detract from the overall benefits of playing pro ball for the ones who really love the game.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have baseball take me to all 48 continental states,” said Beauchamp, who played against the Maine Guides in Old Orchard Beach. “Another great part is taking in the scenery from a bus. It’s nicer than a long flight with a lot of layovers. I’d take an eight-hour bus trip over a five-hour flight with two layovers any day.”

Even with the travel woes, there are worse things you could be doing.

“You’re playing baseball and as opposed to the alternatives, the bus and all ain’t bad,” Beauchamp said. “Some of my offseason jobs were the worst. When I worked for a veterinarian, I’d have to put my hand up cows butts to see if they were pregnant. I put insulation on trucks and load rolls of insulation in these 125-degree semis and itch and sweat all day, so I’m not bitching about getting paid to be in baseball and travel on an air-conditioned bus.”

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