Drive east on Interstate 10 and then southeast on Highway 80, directly into the wild blue yonder, and you will find a rickety old ballpark with some lively baseball, played between guys down to their last at-bat in a game they love but does not always love them back, guys desperate to squeeze one more pitch out of their talent, guys willing to subsist on $50 a week and maybe a nice meal or two, just to get one last shot chasing the dream.
This is no fantasy for the Bisbee Blue.
On a fun Thursday night in June in the middle of the Pecos League season, they will host the visiting Roswell Invaders — and yes, that is an alien in the middle of the R in the logo because of course that is an alien in the middle of the R in the logo — and they will play in front of about 37 fans ... and they will do it because this beats the alternative.
You play independent league baseball at 25 years old for 50 bucks a week because you are trying to prove something to someone, and as Bisbee manager Sean Repay has told the team, it’s not to prove anyone else wrong, it’s to prove yourself right. That all you need is one right swing, in one right game, in front of one right scout, and you will get your chance at the dream.
So what if this may be the last chance, and so what if the dream is just more of this, a life of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sore backsides?
Hitting the road
You have got to see the bus.
At some point, it may have shuttled people from an airport to a hotel, but now it has taken the Invaders up to Warren Ballpark. It’s only a minor upgrade on the van that carried the Blue out to New Mexico for a recent road trip, the one standup comedian Doug Stanhope bought off Craigslist that has “Be Drug Free” painted on the side, the one that broke down somewhere in New Mexico and stranded half the team. The gas meter didn’t look empty, they’ll tell you, but then they were stuck somewhere on the way to Alamogordo for 1ƒ hours, and the rickety van — “It’s a chatterbox,” outfielder Daniel Aldrich says — barely makes it out.
Aldrich tells the story with a permanent smile affixed to his face, his eyes peeking from a Bisbee cap that barely contains plumes of vanilla-colored hair, and then he tells you his own story, and you wonder how that smile got there, and you listen a little longer, and you learn exactly how it got there.
Aldrich was a superstar for the College of Charleston, named the national freshman of the year by several publications in 2011 after leading all NCAA freshmen in home runs (22), RBIs (73) and slugging percentage (.739) with a .347 batting average. He won the College Home Run Derby that year, too. His numbers dipped a bit as a sophomore, but a .287 average with 11 homers and 46 RBIs is certainly draft-worthy, and he was draft-eligible after receiving a medical redshirt his true freshman year.
Didn’t matter. He went undrafted, then tore up the Cape Cod League after being spurned, and he was signed by the Yankees as a free agent. In 39 games from Rookie ball to Single-A, he batted .200 with two home runs and 13 RBIs but struck out 57 times, and he was released by the Yankees organization in December 2013. He signed with the River City Rascals of the independent Frontier League soon after his release, but he never played a game with them before being released in May. Stuck in O’Fallon, Missouri, but unwilling to give up without a fight, he sent out feelers, and Repay was the first one to respond.
Aldrich headed west, 23 hours, and made it to Bisbee in time for a come-from-behind, 9-8 win in the season-opener over the Douglas Diablos, the Pecos League’s other new team.
He calls this an adventure, and that’s a good way to describe the Pecos League as a whole. The league, which was featured in a documentary-style, six-episode Fox Sports 1 show featuring the Trinidad (Colorado) Triggers, formed in 2010 after the folding of the Continental League. It dots the Southwest, with teams in Colorado, Texas and all over New Mexico.
Bisbee was a natural addition, a quirky team in a quirky town with a quirky ballpark, one where the adobe still shows. “Mayberry on acid,” is what Bisbee historian and sometimes announcer Mike Anderson calls it, and he’ll tell you 1,001 other things about Bisbee and baseball and Warren Ballpark, which was built in 1909.
He wrote the book on it, literally, and he can tell you tales about the legends who have played and coached in the tiny Arizona hamlet, like Honus Wagner and Tris Speaker and John McGraw. And about the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, when almost 1,300 miners were rounded up by nearly 2,000 vigilantes and forced to either recant their support of striking colleagues or be packed up in trains and hauled, penniless, before being dropped off in Hermanas, New Mexico.
You’re not going to find a better setting for rough-and-tumble baseball than this, not on a pristine summer evening cast against burnt sienna mountains cutting into an azure sky filled with dancing clouds.
“I always think I’m going to try to explain this to friends and family after I’m done in Bisbee, try to explain this place to them, but they’re not going to get it,” Aldrich says. “You can’t get it unless you’ve been here.”
He breaks into that smile again and shakes his head. He and a teammate are being hosted by Stanhope, and if that’s not worth 10,000 stories for the folks back home, what is?
“A lot of people do wonder, ‘You’re not getting paid, what are you still doing this for?’ Aldrich says. “The way I see it, that life is always going to be there. At one point, you can’t play baseball any more. You’re 40 in the MLB and your body gives out, or, for most people, high school or college is their last chance. I’ve played against the best, I’ve played with a lot of people who are living the dream right now, guys my age. I’ve played with a lot of top people, and I think I still belong. I know it’s a long shot, but it’s why I’m still here.”
Labor of love
Repay gets it — he’s not making much more than the players, and he’s the manager — and reliever Dan Bartlett gets it, too.
If Aldrich is your classic South Carolina good ’ol boy, Bartlett’s got New York on point. The Long Island kid, a product of Caldwell College in New Jersey, looks like Mike Piazza straight out of a 1993 Upper Deck card. His parents are in town for the first time to watch him pitch in Bisbee. They flew into Phoenix earlier that day and drove in, settling in at the Bisbee Grand Hotel. They picked the Hollywood Western Suite.
“It’s like John Wayne!” Susan Bartlett says. “Right off the bar. Our little living room, the front window is the street!”
“I gotta close the curtains in there!” John Bartlett says with a laugh.
This is a labor of love for their son, who’s doing his own labor of love, instead of laboring back home in the family heating and air-conditioning business.
Dan Bartlett has the attitude and accent to match — “I was playin’ base-bawl at Cawld-well Caw-ledge in New Cherzey” — and his story is not unlike Aldrich, and probably all of the other 20-plus members of the team. They were all either great or very good at one level and then great or very good at the next. They’re all trying to get better and to get seen. They’re willing to live on $50 a week, on a wing and a prayer, on a bus that causes ringing in the ears, on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or …
“I have a great host mom: She makes us five-star meals every day for lunch,” Bartlett says. “But there are times after a game, 11 o’clock at night, and we’ll drive to Taco Bell.”
Bartlett can reel off the menu as if he’s listing his baseball stats.“It’s usually a Cheesy Gordita Crunch, maybe a Quesarita, a Beefy 5-Layer. Gotta go with those,” he says.
Life is pretty bare-bones these days, certainly not like it would’ve been back home.
“He must love it here — he loves toys, and we have a boat and jet skis, and they’re sitting there and his Mustang is in the driveway just sitting,” Susan says.
“This is my life,” Dan says. “I’m doing it because it’s been a dream since I was 4 years old, trying to move forward, and I’m doing it because of him really, my dad.”
And for another, as he points to his right arm and reveals two tattoos, both dedicated to his recently deceased grandfather, with whom he shared a tremendous bond over baseball. Family means a lot to these folks, and Dan beams as his parents are interviewed.
“He’s so excited when we come to the games,” John says. “It’s like, Dad! Look!” I’m here! I’m doing this!”
For a while, at least.
The Bartletts have had discussions about the road and where it may lead and when it may end. Dan may deal in dreams, but his folks are dealing in reality.
“He’s gotta come here and play and give it a year or two, but if nothing’s gonna happen after that — and I think he feels the same way — then he’s going to have to start to look for a job,” John says. “But he has to get this out of his system. If he doesn’t get it out of his system and he regrets it …”
It helps to have a coach like Repay, who knows what these guys are going through; just 28 and only a couple years removed from his own playing career, including a stint in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, he doesn’t have to look too far back. Like Bartlett, Repay has the blessing of his family, with his wife and kids joining him in Bisbee. She actually pushed him to take this job.
“Why?” Repay asks, rhetorically. “I mean, everybody’s going to go, ‘Why?’ You make $50 a week playing. Why? Some of these guys have families. Why? I’m not making a ton of money doing it either. Why? I can speak for these guys because I know where their heart and mind is, because one day of doing this is worth it. If you’re a passionate baseball player, and it’s inside of you, the hardest thing to do is give it up. If you can play at any level, even if it’s one at-bat, one pitch, it means the world to these guys.”
There’s a scene in the iconic movie “Field of Dreams” in which Burt Lancaster, portraying Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, talks about his one wish, for just one at-bat against a major-league pitcher, for a chance to look “at a sky so blue, it hurts your eyes just to look at it,” kind of like the one in Bisbee. There is a look in his eyes as he tells the story, a wistfulness, and you can see it in the eyes of Aldrich and Bartlett and Repay.
But that was a fantasy.
Maybe this is, too.