SAN ANGELO, TEXAS—It’s 7 a.m. on a Friday in west central Texas.
Most people are about to wake up, go to work and celebrate the weekend. The San Angelo Colts have been on the road for three hours, headed south to Edinburg, less than 20 miles from the Mexican border, for a four-game North American League series with the Roadrunners. It has been nine hours since San Angelo squeaked past the Rio Grande Valley White Wings, 7-6.
In order to save money and not spend an extra night in a hotel, the team bus left at 4 a.m. This means players either went home to bed for four hours after last night’s game, or out to the bars with plans to sleep it off on the bus. Either way, the first game of a road series can be a tough one.
“I’m petrified in that front seat,” said Colts manager and former major league catcher Doc Edwards. “It’s just something you grow used to. You very seldom hear me complain about anything.”
Edwards has managed for 32 seasons. Fifteen in affiliated ball, 14 in independent leagues and three for the Cleveland Indians. Add it up and that’s three years of big league plane travel and 29 years and thousands of miles on minor league buses.
“I don’t know how Doc does it,” slugging first baseman Daryl Jones said. “I hate the bus rides. They are terrible.”
The men on this bus consist of eight-year veterans and fresh-faced rookies. Twenty-two players, three coaches, a trainer, a broadcaster and the driver, Mac. Only 13 of the players have been around long enough to make all eight road trips this season. The rest have been signed, released and traded as many as four times since May.
“We always have guys leaving and new guys coming in, and it’s especially tough when you’re friends with a bunch of them,” rookie utilityman Davis Page said. “It’s something everybody has to deal with.”
This is the life of most independent league baseball players. They live season to season, working odd jobs in the winter to stay afloat financially. Jones has worked at a gas station and a sporting goods store, Page at a steakhouse and overnights at a hotel, and center fielder Ronnie Gaines used to tend bar.
“Used to” because late in the season Gaines accepted a job as a teacher and coach, so he was not on this trip. The Colts veteran plays in home games only.
“I played 10 years in the minor leagues and I’ve never seen a better team leader than Ronnie Gaines,” coach Bobby Brown said. “Guys come in here straight out of college or straight out of a lower league and he treats them like veterans.”
Choosing whether to continue to chase the major league dream is one reality independent ballplayers must face. Another is that if a player gets injured in independent ball, there is not a long-term disabled list.
That was the case with Gaines’ co-captain on the team, third baseman Jason Crosland. The two had been with the Colts almost exclusively for the past four seasons, an eternity in independent ball, but an oblique injury knocked Crosland out for the season and he returned home to Idaho. Suffer a season-ending injury and you’re off the roster.
It happened to another Colt in the second game of the series in Edinburg. Second-year catcher Trey Carter was involved in a play at home plate. When the ball arrived, Roadrunners third baseman C.J. Beatty lowered his shoulder and plowed into Carter.
Carter held onto the ball, but stayed on the ground clutching his dislocated shoulder. Four days later, he left San Angelo and headed home to get his shoulder checked out.
With the injury to Carter and the playoffs less than a month away, Edwards beefed up his lineup. By the fourth game of the series, San Angelo had added three new players: Beatty, designated hitter Brian Nichols and catcher Matt Redding.
“You need somebody in every league who sees people come through,” Edwards said. “So you can call and say, ‘My second baseman went down today,’ and they can give you a guy’s name.”
Despite the hardships that come with independent baseball, like San Angelo’s 16-game stretch without an off day, men like Edwards and Brown keep these leagues going.
“I firmly believe that guys can develop in this league,” Brown said. “There are not enough jobs (in organizations) for the quality of players there are.”
Edwards says he comes back year after year because too many indy managers care just about adding a championship to their resumes and not enough about the players.
“I care enough about them that as long as I can get by physically, I want them to have someone who cares about them,” says Edwards, the 74-year-old skipper whose resume also includes managing Triple-A Rochester (and Cal Ripken Jr.) in the longest game in baseball history.
Having the players’ best interest in mind, Brown said, means letting them go if an opportunity for advancement arises.
“All these guys, they’re playing for that one shot at the big leagues,” he said. “And if we can further their career, we’re never going to hold anybody back.”
Chris Blake is the broadcaster for San Angelo.