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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Summer baseball




 Beatrice, Neb. -- High above the "350" sign in center field, a loudspeaker echoes John Mellencamp's "Small Town" under a dark sky of thunderheads.

Well I was born in a small town. And I live in a small town.

The snare drum snaps in cadence, once every second.

Below on the field, Manager Bob Steinkamp gathers his team one last time.

He looks at Hideki Nagasaka, a 5 - foot - 6 Japanese ex - DJ with a 94 - mph fastball and a nasty curve. The little pitcher lives in Coach's basement hoping to get noticed before his visa expires.

He looks at Vince DiMaggio, his 36 - year - old assistant whose cousin planted the baseball seed in him. You know, the DiMaggio they wrote songs about.

He looks at Nathan Warrick, a cocky Texas Longhorn with a charismatic grin and legs that used to fly by defensive backs. Coach might see this kid in Omaha next June.

And at Neil Fuehrer, a small - town Nebraska pitcher who will never again put on a uniform after this night. He's trading in his curve ball for a stethoscope.

Each with a different past and an uncertain future, but brought together for seven weeks in Beatrice -- where you can hit a fly ball higher than the tallest building -- to form one pretty darn good baseball team.

Prob'ly die in small town. Oh, those small communities.

On this chilly summer night, on a diamond in the rough in the middle of nowhere, they dream.

***

Dreams die hard, you see. They drive the little Japanese pitcher to get on a plane and fly from Los Angeles to Alaska because a team playing in a tournament just might hold the open door.

They define you, if you let them. Vince D can't sleep at night, thinking of ways to help the speedy Longhorn hit like Joe.

Used to daydream in that small town. Another boring romantic that's me.

Dreams endure and change. They push the speedy Texan away from football, a game he's loved all his life, because baseball doesn't have many like him.

They force us to make choices. The doctor in waiting gives up a game his peers would do anything to play so he can treat colds and flus and broken bones.

Dreams, more like the dreamers, fascinate us because so many of ours have long ago died. We admire the dreamer's youth and the stories he'll live to tell: "I was a black kid from Lancaster, Texas, playing baseball in white Nebraska trying to help a 68 - year - old widow grow potatoes, " he'll say someday.

So we watch from the sidelines, a bit envious because it's a game they play. And each time they dive headfirst for a foul ball or throw a helmet after striking out, in their determined faces, we see a glimpse of ourselves.

***

These players range from sure - fire major league prospects, journeymen who don't have a prayer of making the minor leagues, and everything in between.

Everything.

Most are here in Beatrice because they know somebody who knows somebody who knows Coach, a man with contacts at the North Pole. Most are here having never heard of the place. But what's a destination without the road that takes you there?

Coach ranks the 2003 edition of the Bruins as one of his best five teams in 34 years, one that went to Alaska last month and came back with a winning record, the first team from the lower 48 to do that in 28 years.

It's a group with remarkable chemistry - even Huskers and Longhorns get along. No bad apples, and Coach usually gets one or two.

Laid - back and dry - witted, Coach rarely smiles. He doesn't yell at players. Doesn't hold practices. Players live with host families and sleep into the afternoon.

"We're in Beatrice, what else is there to do?" says John Segovia, a pitcher from Monterey, Calif.

They carpool to games in towns like Chillicothe, Mo., and Clarinda, Iowa, because buses are known to break down.

I've seen it all in a small town. Had myself a ball in a small town.

"They're still playing in this little town in southeast Nebraska that brings in kids from all over the country, opens its arms and allows them to be better players and better people, " says Frank Anderson, Oklahoma State's new coach and a Nebraska native.

Coach, now a scout for the Seattle Mariners, started the program in 1970 as a 21 - year - old kid who wanted to play. Back then, every town like Beatrice had a team.

At one point, about the time Harry Caray's stepson was his catcher, he bought an old bus for $500 to use on road trips. On the way to Hutchinson, Kan., to play a team with Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro and Pete Incaviglia, it broke down.

"We showed up 20 minutes before the game in a cattle truck."

Their budget is $15,000, all of which Coach raises. The Bruins don't even have the money to play in next month's National Baseball Congress World Series. They finished fifth last year.

"You have to want to do it, " Anderson says. "You're not getting 5,000 people at the games. You're hoping to get 50. You pass the hat and hope you make enough money to keep the lights on and pay the umpires."

***

Coach couldn't pay for the Japanese kid's flight, but yeah, he'd give him a look. So the little pitcher got on the plane and flew from Los Angeles to Anchorage.

The first day he ate a salmon steak and threw a five - hit shutout. Oh, to see their faces in the ninth inning when he hit 94 on the radar gun. Or the first time his change - up dropped as if the force of gravity had suddenly tripled.

"If he were 6 - 3, 220 pounds, he'd be worth $1 million with his stuff, " Coach says. "(But) name me another 5 - 6 pitcher in the major leagues. There aren't any."

The little pitcher loves it on the mound. He just didn't like Japanese baseball. Coaches don't let you talk in the dugout. You have to stand at attention in front of them. One time a coach punched him in the face. He quit and became a hip - hop DJ for three years. Didn't even pick up a ball.

Somewhere during that time, though, he decided to give it another shot. He came to America on a tourist visa and pitched for an independent - league team in California. That's where one of Coach's contacts spotted him.

Now he's on another $1,000 tourist visa that runs out Sept. 11. The little pitcher has to get signed by a professional team in the next six weeks, difficult considering he's recovering from a torn triceps muscle. If he doesn't, he's going back to Japan.

Teammates watch the little pitcher warm up in the bullpen, shaking their heads.

He gave up just one earned run in 28 innings with the Bruins. In Coach's basement, he doesn't go to bed until 4 a.m., staying up to study English from a textbook. He struggles to understand it.

He's 24 years old, doesn't have much money, and his family worries, but he wants to stay in America.

"This is my business, this is my life."

The little pitcher threw one inning in last Tuesday's season finale and came back to the dugout limping slightly. His right foot bled through his shoe from a blister.

Teammate Paul Howey looked at the little pitcher's worn - out cleats and walked away.

***

Vince D sits in the dugout in his New York Yankees shorts and apologizes for his "50,000 - word answers" to simple questions.

The man talks like a car salesman. About baseball history, strategy and his players, whom he adores. He lies awake at night thinking about their swings. Blame his fatigue on his passion for baseball. He wants to be a Division I coach someday.

"This game's everything to me."

Blame that on Joe DiMaggio.

Vince grew up in Monterey, Calif., in the 1970s, 30 years after Joltin' Joe captivated a nation with a 56 - game hitting streak.

The DiMaggios are a close - knit family of fishermen, but like Joe, Vince D can't stand the seas. When he was young, Vince spent time regularly with Joe, who taught him to get that front foot down before the pitcher releases the ball.

"The things I learned about the game from him, those things have never left me, " says Vince, whose great - grandfather was a brother of Joe's grandpa.

He always wanted Joe to come to his games, but even leaving the house drew unwanted attention to the American icon. Joe, then in his 70s, did make it to one of Vince's junior college games. He sat in his car in the parking lot so he wouldn't be seen.

***

The crowd in Clarinda, Iowa, for the Bruins - A's game on a sweltering July night could cram into a dugout.

"Another sellout, " jokes Howey, a 23 - year - old from Abilene Christian in Texas.

A Little League game on an adjacent field has drawn five times as many as the 21 who have come to the ballpark where Ozzie Smith and Chuck Knoblauch once played summer ball.

It's no different back home.

To promote the season finale, pitcher B.J. Wierzbicki helped pass out fliers around the one - McDonald's town of 12,496.

"We've never heard of you, " a few people told him. "Where do you play?"

Christenson Field, where a home run ball to right gets lost in a bean field. Where pitchers on their days off man the admission gate. Where a long washboard gravel road -- "Car sounds like it's going to fall apart, " Wierzbicki says -- is the only connection to civilization.

Where the smell of sprinkler water and freshly cut grass mixes with chewing tobacco and worn - out batting gloves.

No, I cannot forget from where it is that I come from. I cannot forget the people who love me.

Christenson Field, where a 71 - year - old gray - haired widow they call Miss Lois watches every Bruins home game.

She subscribes to Baseball Digest and is disgusted when her Kansas City Royals lose.

"I'll wake up in the morning, and she already has SportsCenter memorized, " says the 6 - foot - 7 Wierzbicki, Lois Kammerlohr's host son this summer.

When Tim Moss, the former Texas second baseman, met Miss Lois three summers ago, he was a well - mannered black teenager from Lancaster, Texas.

He could count on one hand the number of blacks he saw that summer. Yet Miss Lois, who isn't 5 - foot tall or 100 pounds, made him feel at home. She had a garden in her backyard, and one day Moss asked to help her with the potatoes. When he walked out to the garden, Moss didn't see any potatoes, though.

"Well, you have to dig for them, Tim, " Miss Lois said. "They're under the ground."

At Christenson Field, the crack of the wood bats and players' not - so - subtle criticisms of the umpires are the loudest sounds on hot, humid nights. The bright western sky makes routine fly balls as tough as running down Nathan Warrick.

Athletics have always been about fanfare and attention for the Texan. High school football games back home in Belton drew 10,000 when rival Harker Heights came to town.

That's just one of the reasons football was all the Sam Houston State recruit ever wanted to do. Then, during the spring of his senior year, baseball scouts saw speed you can't coach.

After school, he would practice defense with the baseball team, dash over to the nearby track, get his conditioning in, then go back and take batting practice.

UT Baseball Coach Augie Garrido came into the picture late that spring and offered a scholarship. The 19 - year - old remembers everything about it, the day he decided to give up football.

"I would've loved it, but I think this is what I was born to do. Do the math. How many 6 - foot, 175 - pound wide receivers are in the NFL? I would've been just another guy who ran a 4.4. In baseball, there's not too many of those."

Caught in a rundown in a game against Omaha Diamond Spirit, the speedy Texan started laughing as the shortstop and third baseman chased after him.

"He absolutely flies, " teammate Fuehrer says. "And he always has a big smile on his face."

But it wasn't enough to play at UT last year as a freshman. He didn't have the attitude. Didn't know if he could do this for a living. Garrido says kids who have played the macho sports tend to be less energetic about America's pastime.

So he sent the speedy Texan up to Coach, just as he's done with the top Longhorn prospects the past four years. This summer was Warrick's time to get serious about a game that has always played second fiddle.

The other Bruins, they've always known baseball. He's still learning.

"Even at the start of the summer, I was one of the last ones at the ballpark. Now I'm one of the first ones here. We had three days off last week, and I hated it."

There are two outs and it's almost time to go back to left field. The public address man announces a discount on popcorn. The speedy Texan looks up at the crowd.

"I might get nervous playing in front of big crowds next year. I've gotten used to playing in front of 50 people."

He thinks back to the football crowds at Belton. "No, I won't get nervous. I love that stuff."

***

The last competitive pitch the future doctor ever threw was a 1 - 1 fastball. A popup to shallow center field.

"That's all she wrote, folks, " he says, plopping down on a chair outside the dugout, a hint of sadness in his voice.

Neil Fuehrer's line: one inning, no hits, 13 pitches.

Coach saw him pitch one inning two years ago at Doane College, liked his stuff and picked him up. The farmer's son from Imperial was a late bloomer, had recently added some muscle and was suddenly a professional prospect.

He's got the talent. You can see it in his 90 mph fastball and his dirty breaking pitches. Last summer, left - handed hitters were automatic outs against the southpaw. He had a chance to join a Northern League club. Could've been playing minor league ball in some town like Beatrice right now.

"Nothing came of it. It's probably for the best."

In a few weeks he begins his second year of medical school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He had one B at Doane and wants to start a family practice in a small town someday.

Vince D tells the 23 - year - old to keep him in mind someday when he's rich. The future doctor wasn't thinking about that when he went to the mound for that last inning.

When his teammates are playing next season, "I'll be sitting in a library 10 hours a day."

***

Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town. And people let me be just what I want to be.

Ice - cold water drips from Coach's head as he visits with fans. He never saw Paul Howey coming with the Gatorade jug.

The next morning, the little pitcher is still sleeping when Howey comes over to Coach's house to pick up his $280 check for working field maintenance. Howey walks out, only to return minutes later, this time carrying a new pair of Adidas baseball cleats, size 9 1/2.

He takes them downstairs, sets them by the little pitcher's bed and drives back to Warrensburg, Mo., his hometown.

They'll leave in different directions. The speedy Texan is off to El Dorado, Kan., the team he'll play for in the NBC World Series. He's never been there, doesn't know where he's living but, well, it's the next step.

It's 11 p.m., a half - hour after the game, and players are saying goodbye to each other one - by - one, reluctant to leave the field.

"It's been a pleasure, " Howey tells first baseman Drew Aguailar. "You've got my number."

The next morning Aguailar will fly back to California. His 8 - year - old neighbor in Beatrice will cry all morning and call him three times before the night's over.

Coach shuts off the lights at Christenson Field and drives back down the washboard gravel road, the same one the little pitcher, Vince D, the speedy Texan and the future doctor have traveled seeking the dream.

Coach sees his in the rearview mirror.

Got nothing against the big town. Still hayseed enough to say look who's in the big town. But my bed in a small town. Oh, that's good enough for me.