"You played professional baseball? That's so cool!"
I hear that a lot. I usually smile and nod. But then my back twinges when I think about the long nights spent sleeping in cheap bus seats on an overnight road trip across the Midwest or fixing a broken van while trying to make it down the East Coast.
Anyone who knows a minor leaguer—or takes two minutes to Google horror stories—understands how rough life can be when you're working for a shot at the dream you've had since Little League. What many of them don't realize is there's a step below that: the independent leagues.
After breaking my foot during extended spring training in Arizona, my options for the minors were pretty sparse in 2013. Seeing as I knew I just needed some time with the ball in my hand to prove I could still do it, I figured I'd jump in with an independent league to log some innings and raise my stock with the MLB-affiliated organizations. Given that the only league in Arizona was sputtering at the time and I had no connections for independent leagues in SoCal, I decided to go somewhere I'd never been before: the Pecos League in New Mexico.
Eight hours; six long, boring freeways; and two green-chile-soaked meals later, I met my teammates at our home field—it wasn't a stadium by any means—in the mountaintop resort town of Taos. From a scenery perspective, it didn't get much nicer. It resembled the kind of place where you could see a moose going for a swim or an elk wandering the streets. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that our team's housing wasn't in Taos, but about 90 minutes away in Las Vegas.
Not that Las Vegas—much to the disappointment of many confused international tourists. Touring the country with a glove on one hand, I've seen what small-town America looks like in just about every region. But I've never seen anything quite like Las Vegas, New Mexico.
There's probably a nice part of town—I just never found it. What I saw was redneck crackheads and working-class Mexicans. It seemed as if its entire population of 13,000 people would head to the local college's library—it might've been the only place in town with wifi—which made it more like a junkie swap meet and less of a learning institution. According to the elderly waitress at the burger place down the street, Las Vegas is a historical place in the "Old West." She had to chase a druggie out of the restaurant before she could finish telling me about it.
The team's housing was actually an empty storefront with a loft above it. There was one working bathroom for about 16 guys to share, and if you were lucky, you had a plywood wall or a sheet separating you from your neighbors. It was only slightly worse than the minor-league accommodations I was used to.
During our next road series, my air mattress in Las Vegas made the church-turned-hostel in Roswell seem like a Marriott and the semi-abandoned motel in Ratón the Ritz-Carlton. But it was after the final game of our series in Ratón that the backup catcher shared a crazy idea with me.
"What if we went up to Trinidad [Colorado] and a few of us split a hotel for a night?"
I hadn't seen a professionally cleaned bathroom or bed sheet in so long I'd forgotten what they looked like. We barely had enough money to eat and cover gas on a weekly basis, but it was payday, so we all had tiny amounts to play with in our checking accounts.
"There's a Holiday Inn for a little over $100," an eavesdropping Texan outfielder mentioned while struggling to get the Internet to load on his iPhone.
"We're not balling like that," the catcher said. "That's two games' pay. The Quality Inn the teams stay at up there is, like, $80 a night and just as nice. We'll split it four ways and pay $20 each."
I translated to a Dominican pitcher what we were doing. He was down, but only had $15 to spare. I told him that was fine if he was willing to make due in a chair or on the floor with some blankets since I hadn't had my own bed—other than a deflating air mattress—since entering New Mexico. He agreed. I told my other two teammates I'd need $5 in gas money from each of them. For a $15 night alone in a real bed, I was willing to be the baseball Dean Moriarty through a mountainous forest in the middle of the night.
With a night game the next day, we'd even be able to take advantage of the free continental breakfast and indoor pool the hotel promoted while still getting to the field for our 3 o'clock call time. We loaded our gear into the trunk of my Civic and took off up Interstate 25.
Surrounded by huge trees and bigger canyons, we didn't see another car on the road for the entire drive. My teammates pounded beers as I thought about everything I could do with the hotel's free wifi. With the stars providing the only other light for miles, it was one of the most peaceful trips of my life.
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Until my headlights spotted a massive elk casually standing no more than 50 feet in front of our speeding sedan.
I jerked the car onto the other side of the two-lane highway as my passengers screamed. Two of my teammates were too busy drinking—yet somehow didn't spill a drop—to see the animal, but the Dominican happened to have his arm out of the passenger-side rear window, and his hand actually brushed across the elk's backside.
About 10 minutes later, our hearts were still racing as we pulled into the hotel's parking lot. The catcher and outfielder went in to pay for the room—four twentysomething dudes sharing a room always seems to cost more than two—while the other pitcher and I waited in the car to be let in a side door. I think my teammate was still so freaked out that he forgot I spoke Spanish.
"I let you drive any time," he said. "Those white boys? They no drive like that. That's Dominican driving."