For the second time this year the team I was on ended up in the finals and we came away empty handed. For the 2007 Surprise Rafters, the AFL Championship just wasn’t our day. Ironically, my outing in the championship game was my longest of the entire year, and while I walked away somewhat unsatisfied with the loss, I was personally excited about the steps I had made in the AFL as a pitcher. On a personal level I was a little down about the fact that I will probably never get to play with most of my teammates from the AFL again. They were a great group of guys and made the time I spent in Arizona that much better.
But being that it was the end of an extra long season, as we packed up our gear, said our goodbyes, and made some plans for down the road, that air of excitement started to creep back in to our locker room. It was the excitement that can only come from free time to spend with your family and friends and away from the worries of professional baseball. I think most players miss the game, at least a little, during the offseason, but the chance to live a normal life for a while is quite appealing. For me, that time still hasn’t quite come.
As everyone else headed home I headed south, even further from my loved ones and that normal lifestyle that comes with the offseason. My 2007 season contained one more stop: Mexico.
I struggled with the decision to come to Mexico. I had a lot of questions not only about the situation but myself. Would I be able to play at my best for another month and a half? Was I putting too much distance between me and those who I cared about the most? How would my body react next season to such a long year? All of these questions went through my mind as I considered the offer to play just across the border in Mexicali.
I eventually turned back to everything I had to gain. The Mexican Pacific League was a chance at more exposure, great competition, a chance to test my own mental toughness, step out of my comfort zone, and to be honest as a struggling minor leaguer who has student loans to pay, there was a financial aspect as well. The league held a lot of promise for a player like me, so I took the offer and crossed the border. I think it is safe to say that I wasn’t fully prepared for what I was jumping into.
The game itself has the same equipment, same dimensions, and same rules. Everything else is different. From the fans to the strategy to the front office, it is a wholly different situation. The fans show up late and stay late, probably because the games last an average of four hours. After the fifth or sixth inning it is a rarity to see a lefty face a righthanded hitter or a righty face a lefthanded hitter. My first game featured seven pitching changes, just by my team. And while the fields are as others have mentioned before not exactly American in standards, every game has an incredible amount of passion. No one is mailing it in. Even the superstars down here are willing to lay one down if it puts the go-ahead run in scoring position. To be honest, it’s a little refreshing in pure baseball innocence.
Off the field it has actually been what I expected. I am picking up Spanish better then I thought I would, even though I’ve been trying to learn for years, and I can now do most simple tasks myself. For instance, I went to a bank to change some dollars into pesos the other day, understood the rate, paid the quick fee, and walked out cursing the American dollar like every American abroad does right now. Except, I did it in Spanish. Other issues, like food, are easy. I know most of the words and have three or four staples that I can order in just about every restaurant. I know that the camarones (shrimp) are great in Culiacan and that across the street from the hotel in Guasave there is the most incredible hole-in-the-wall restaurant I’ve ever been to. It’s literally three tents set up in the front yard of this ladies’ house where they smoke meat all day and serve it on plastic plates for almost nothing. It’s incredible. And while I heard a lot about the water issue, I have had no problems finding bottled water everywhere we’ve gone.
The other foreigners, called “gringos” but meant without offense down here, are really good guys. Some are like me just trying to get in some extra work against good competition, some are former big leaguers playing for their next contract and a spring training invite, and a few have decided that they like Mexico better and play here year round making good money and not worrying about the politics of American baseball. It’s an eclectic group but we have fun. We’ve also had our share of interesting “cultural” experiences as well.
Last week at a beachside bar in Matzalan, a resort town on the Pacific Coast, my teammate Dana Eveland and I witnessed a dance-off between two Mexican teenagers that would have made Britney Spears cry. The song they were dancing to; you guessed it, ‘Baby Got Back.’ Three days later, Dana had a brief stint at a hospital for salmonella. Back in Mexicali, the team puts all the foreigners up in a hotel just across the border in the U.S. It’s a decent setup except on Sunday night when it takes at least two hours to get back into the States crossing the border. Luckily, we were serenaded in line by a guy singing a Spanish love song about going to the bathroom for every bit of those two hours. Definitely an eye-opening experience. All in all, the off the field experience has been different and has forced me to leave my own comfort zone.
On the field it’s been a roller coaster. My first outing saw me get only one out and give up two runs while taking a loss. It wasn’t that pitched badly, they actually didn’t hit a ball hard but they did take a different approach. The hitters were content to take a bloop single over the second baseman instead of trying to tie the game with one swing. It took me three hitters to realize that they were going to swing every time I threw strike. So I started making adjustments and my last two outings were much better. Nothing left the infield (although I gave up two infield hits) and I helped hold close leads for my team. After a week, I felt like I was a great part of my team and hoping to help turn around what has been a rough season for them so far. Then the Mexican League threw me a curve ball.
As I sit here now, I am on the inactive list here in Mexico. It had very little to do with my performance, as I said I actually was getting some crucial outs for them in the eighth and ninth innings, and everything to do with the rules of the Mexican League. Since you can only have six foreign players on your active roster, I had to sit down when they signed Pete LaForest to replace our Mexican-born catcher who broke his hand. For the next ten days, I am inactive. I’ve asked to leave but been told that they will not pay me if I leave and risk being banned from the other Caribbean Leagues for three years if I leave on my own. Much like in the States, the team holds my rights, and I don’t have much say in the matter.
While it hasn’t been the most enjoyable experience it has taught me a lot about patience and what it must be like for foreign players in the United States. Baseball in Mexico is different in many ways, but just like in America it is still a big business down here.
My offseason is being delayed again. However, at this point, I think I am actually ready to take a break. I love baseball, as I think my travels proved this year, but I also crave a little normalcy. So this time when I get to pack up my gear and head home to my loved ones, I’ll finally be ready to call it a year.
You can reach Randy at [email protected].