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August 23, 2006 August 23, 2006

Posted by atlanticleaguenews in Uncategorized.
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Road Warriors: Becoming A Road Dog
(Online Version, HCD version will be different)
by Mike Ashmore

In my first tryout for an Atlantic League team, one of my first pitches got past my catcher and hit Somerset Patriots manager Sparky Lyle in the foot.

I can always tell my friends that a Cy Young Award winner noticed me on the mound, even if I don’t always tell the entire story.

But long before I got the idea to try out for the Somerset Patriots back in April, I’d been picturing myself in gray. After all, that’s the only color uniform the Atlantic League’s only traveling team wears.

The aptly named Road Warriors are in their fourth year of existence, brought back from the dead after the Nashua Pride bolted for the Can-Am League after the 2005 season. The team has used 99 pitchers during that four-year stay in the league, and I was there to make it an even 100.

Hoping I’d get noticed for the right reasons this time, I arranged a tryout with the team after pestering league officials and Road Warriors manager Jeff Scott for a few weeks.

Wanting to make a good impression on what were sure to be my new teammates, I arrived at Commerce Bank Ballpark at 1:45 PM, more than five hours before game time. Following Scott into the clubhouse, I was surprised to see that a handful of players were already in front of their lockers. Most were glued to the small television set nestled on top of the soda machine, with ESPN’s coverage of the MLB trade deadline keeping them fixated to the tube.

With all the tiny lockers already claimed, and the three lockers in the coaches office full, my “locker” was a small spot on the floor next to Scott’s. “Scotty” reaches into a narrow cardboard box, pulls the tag off of a hat sporting the Road Warriors logo, and hands it to me. Seeing how my team-issued shirt doesn’t have a number on the back, I decide to write nothing on the underside of my cap. But that doesn’t matter, as that very cap puts me one step closer to making the move from the press box to the playing field.

After introducing myself to some of my teammates and watching some of the trade deadline show, I notice a few of the players are heading over to what’s known as “the spread.”

Today’s spread is laid out on a folding table, and consists of jelly, peanut butter, marshmallow fluff, two loaves of bread, fudge stripe cookies and a bag of potato chips. I hover around it, not sure whether I should take the plunge.

“You’re not a Road Dog unless you have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” said first baseman Mike Huggins, noticing my dilemma.

Trainer Erin Hughes suggests I try the fluff, since Somerset is the only place that provides it. But it’s what hitting coach Ryan Minor said that got me eating.

“PB&J,” he said. “The steak sandwich of minor league baseball.”

I proceed to get a plate and pluck out two pieces of bread, one of which is an end piece. Oh well.

I drop a few globs of jelly onto one slice of bread, then daintily spread some peanut butter on the other. Apparently, the rules of the road are a little different than what I’m used to.

“This is how you get the peanut butter out,” said pitcher Chris Steinborn. Steinborn grabs a plastic knife out of a box of utensils and jams it into the peanut butter, going so deep into the half-empty jar he nearly sticks his fingers in it.

He emerges with more peanut butter than you’d ever imagine could fit on a knife, and makes a layer so thick that it looks like he’s eating three pieces of bread.

With fingers sticky enough to make Gaylord Perry proud, I think about whether the PB&J ball could revolutionize baseball before I reluctantly wipe them off.

A glance into the coaches office shows my new skipper is filling out his lineup card already, and I notice that my name isn’t listed on the bottom with the other 13 pitchers. And I have competition already. Darwin Soto, another pitcher just acquired from the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the Northern League, walks through the door. This did not do wonders for my confidence.

Here’s a guy who’s been to Triple-A with the Padres, and all I’d ever done was strike out 12 batters in five innings once for my Little League team 11 years ago. The more I thought back to that day, though, my confidence started building back up.

It was perfect timing, because it was just about that time to start heading out to the field. I looked at the clock in the clubhouse, but it wasn’t working. It didn’t matter, though. I could sense that it was time to go.

With a few minutes left until my scheduled 4 o’clock appearance in the visitor’s bullpen, I head into the coaches office and grab a ball out of a bag nestled in the corner. I go into my “locker” and reach for my Reggie Jackson model glove, the same one I’d used back in my days as a star pitcher in Little League. I was hoping it brought me the same luck now that it did then, if for no other reason than “The Straw That Stirs The Press Box” just isn’t a very cool nickname.

My “Mr. October” mitt in tow, I take the same trek to the field that players like Rickey Henderson, Dante Bichette and Juan Gonzalez have done so many times. The path to the field from the visiting clubhouse is one that the Road Warriors know all too well, but it’s also a short one.

Pushing open the clubhouse door, I turn left and head towards the entrance to the tunnel to the field. I make a right through the open door, and immediately want to return to the air-conditioned clubhouse. With temperatures approaching 98 degrees and rising, this was my first hint that doing this every day might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Fighting the temptation to turn around, I head out to the field and begin to stretch to get my arm loose.

“The pitchers are on their own,” said pitcher Chris Eickhorst. “We don’t stretch with the rest of the guys, so you can pretty much do whatever you need to do.”

Eickhorst, an Immaculata grad and converted catcher in his first full season as a pitcher, currently leads the league in losses with 11. But he also knows a lot more about what he’s doing than I do, so I take him for his word and get in about ten minutes of loosening up my arm.

Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I look to the scoreboard and see that it’s about time for me to start heading towards left field. I meet my photographer for the day, Patriots intern Allison Stadtmueller, and we make the trek down the left field line. At that point, I realize that I need to add something else to my list of goals for the day: Don’t get your photographer killed.

Almost at the bullpen, my mind quickly turns back to baseball. Things start suddenly getting very real, this is finally my chance to become a Road Warrior. I’m halfway to the pitching rubber when my train of thought is derailed.

“Here, use my glove,” said Rob Corrado, a fellow pitcher.

This throws me off. I bring Reggie with me whenever I play, there’s no way I can’t use him. I quickly call up my knowledge of Corrado and come to a quick realization.

“He got drafted by the Yankees in the fourth round,” I thought. “And I was picked where?”

I take the glove.

Throwing Reggie onto the bench, I put on Corrado’s glove. It’s large, stiff, and couldn’t really move very easily.

I name it David Wells.

A week after the tryout, I run into the actual Reggie Jackson in Trenton and tell him the story.

“I get to be a little kid again and say it’s cool,” Jackson said of me using his glove. “It’s a compliment for sure, and I feel fortunate.”

I swear I’m not making any of that up. Regardless, sans Reggie, Jeff Scott hands me the ball, and I immediately start to focus in on the glove of my catcher, Derek Barrows.

Barrows is a former San Francisco Giants draft pick, selected in the 30th round just three years ago. Just this season, he was in Spring Training with the Colorado Rockies as a catcher, although he’s played just about every position this year. But whether he could handle the daunting task of catching my self-described “slowballs” remained to be seen.

After a few tosses to get my arm loose, Barrows squats down and it’s go time. My velocity feels like it’s around where it usually is — the low 60’s — but most of my pitches keep tailing off to the right. It’s a good thing that Allison was standing to my left, or else that one stray fastball that rocketed off the tarp might have made the goal of not getting my photographer killed an unattainable one.

Frustrated, I utter a word not suitable for a family paper while Barrows retrieves the ball. At this point, the odds of me throwing a strike seem insurmountable. When I get the ball back, however, Scott pulls me aside and reminds me to take the ball all the way back so that the ball will stop tailing off. He also suggests I change my grip, which is fine, because I’ll try anything at this point.

My next pitch was proof that these guys are getting good pitching advice.

It was a perfect strike, with a lot more zip on it than I usually have. The loud pop in the glove was all I needed to hear to know that this was going to go well.

“Good,” Barrows said, encouraging me throughout. “Just like that.”

And for the majority of the roughly 20 pitches I threw after that, that’s pretty much what happened. I walked off of that mound knowing that I did everything I could have possibly done to set foot on the real mound, which is the only mound left in the place that I haven’t thrown off of yet.

Once I got back into the clubhouse, it seemed like that dream could finally become a reality.

“I didn’t know what to expect, so I let you get loose and get warmed up,” Barrows said. “You threw surprisingly well, you came in and you actually threw a lot of strikes, a lot more strikes than I expected. Nice cutter, you had a nice firm dot on your ball. It was good.”

Even Scott, who has 35 years of service in baseball, seemed impressed.

“Once you adjusted your arm angle and your grip,” Scott said, “you got the ball out in front better, you had better rotation on your fastball, and you had better accuracy and velocity.”

With all those compliments coming my way, I’m just wondering which one of my new friends is getting cut at this point. After I cool off inside, I head back out to shag fly balls with the rest of the pitchers, eyeing them up and trying to figure out which one’s going to be looking for work. But, at that same moment, the Little League experiences I’d looked to for confidence came back to haunt me.

Remember the kid in Little League who they stuck in the outfield because they didn’t want the ball to get hit to him? That was me. I guess the pitchers need something to do, but catching fly balls hurtling at you from 400 feet away isn’t my cup of tea. Looking around, I realize that I’m the deepest of any of the “outfielders.”

I collect my thoughts just in time to hear the crack of the bat and the sight of a baseball headed directly at me. I break back, then I break in, but it’s too late. The ball is rolling on the ground and almost comes to a complete stop by the time I get to it.

“You gotta want that ball,” said outfielder Sheldon Fulse, showing the same fire that made him a prospect in the Red Sox organization last year.

But I didn’t want the ball. Not only that, I didn’t want this life. Already sunburned from a cloudless sky, it was my calves that were on fire from just a half an hour of work. Not wanting to put any of my fellow “Road Dogs” out of a job, I quietly walk off the field. Walking into an empty clubhouse, I announce my retirement to no one in particular and start packing up my bag.

Before I can leave, batting practice has ended and the team makes their way back into the clubhouse and in front of their lockers.

As I start to head out, Barrows walks out with me, noticing that Soto’s “locker” amounted to the chair he was sitting in next to the door.

“Nice locker, man,” Barrows joked.

Disappointed, I slowly saunter up to the press box, realizing my chances of becoming a Road Warrior have come and gone. I pick up a roster, unable to bring myself to look at it since I knew my name wasn’t on it and never would be.

But it was then where I saw my familiar chair and smiled.

This, I thought, is my locker.

This is where I belong.

Picture courtesy of the Somerset Patriots

This is the first in a two-part series on the Road Warriors. The next story, which will run in September, will focus on a day in the life of a Road Warrior, including traveling on the team bus, staying in the team hotel and other trials and tribulations along the way.

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Comments»

1. Cousin Jeffrey - August 24, 2006

You probably mean that the Road Warriors were “fixated” (glued to), not “asphyxiated” (died from lack of oxygen), to the television.

BTW, where can I score a Road Warrior cap?

2. AtlanticLeagueBaseball.com - August 24, 2006

I probably do haha…oh thesaurus, you.

I don’t know if they’re available for sale. I know the shirts are available in Lancaster, but I have no clue on the hats.

-M-

3. Roadwarriorfan - August 24, 2006

I asked the Ducks about hats (the AL directed me there) they said if they are around next year ask again in spring when they order the hats.

4. Roadwarriorfan - August 24, 2006

I think the article was great. The situation that these guys are in definitely deserves some media attention and I glad you gave them some. Can’t wait for the next story!

5. Chuckerd58 - August 24, 2006

I enjoyed the article,you get a brief feel for what it’s like to be a Warrior,albeit for only a short time. You actually had me feeling you might have had a chance after the words of encouragement from Barrows and Scott. Then the realization that it really wasn’t going to be after trying to shag some fly’s,knowing the press box is your real home. Atleast you don’t have to live on the road all year eating pb&j sandwiches every day. You really have to respect how hard it must be for the Warriors. But,it doe’s beat working for a living.

6. Chuckerd58 - August 24, 2006

I wonder if anyone out their can help me out. I’m looking for any tapes of A.L. games over the years. It doesn’t matter what year or team,i only have tapes of a few Duck games from 2005. Since they didnt get a t.v. contract this season,im wanting to see some games. I will pay for postage,blank tapes or whatever else that might need to be done. If anyone can help,you can e-mail me at Chuckerd58@yahoo.com. Thank you for any help.

7. Chuckerd58 - August 24, 2006

Hey roadwarriorfan,good to see other fans of the warriors arounnd here. I also have wondered about their hats. Also,jersies,i have seen a couple of guys wearing them around at the games,i wish i knew where to find the jersies.

8. MelWearingsGhost - August 24, 2006

Great article…. Those Warriors are a lot of fun. Fans should be baking them cookies and bringing ’em to the park as a thank you.

The Bluefish once sold RW jerseys after one season; I know….because I’ve got one. Would like to get one of those hats, too.

Come to think of it, didn’t Camden once have some kind of deal where the team was selling RW jerseys? Someone ought to check with the league…..these are cool items.

9. BoosterBabe - August 24, 2006

Mel’s Ghost is right. The Bluefish Booster CLub was planning to host the RW and Bluefish at a post game cookout over the weekend but the idea was squashed by management. (Though appreciative, it seems that both teams will be heading out right after the game, so it just wouldn’t have worked). No hard feelings, of course. I still would have loved to have done it. And maybe someday, we will.
But you know I’m gonna be baking a few extra cookies this weekend and sending them back to the visiting clubhouse, too. (not just the Bluefish clubhouse).

I had hoped the Bluefish Booster Club would “adopt” the Road Warriors this weekend, but it just wasn’t meant to be.

10. BoosterBabe - August 24, 2006

Oh, and for anyone who still cares about Gary Burnham:

He lost his chance to get Eastern League player of the month by virtue of the fact that he got called up to Scranton/Wilkes Barre yesterday. On May 19th, 2006 Gary Burnham bunted into a triple play at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport CT. Today, little more than 3 months later, he started at DH for the 1st Place Scranton-Wilkes Barre Red Barons in AAA. Go Figure!?

Oh, and he now holds the record for most career home runs by any Reading Phillies player (56).

Hey, Mel’s Ghost: guess we just weren’t meant to see him play in CT!!!!! Wonder if they’re gonna be in Pawtucket anytime before Labor Day? That’d be the game to go to….have always wanted to see McCoy Stadium.

11. Chuckerd58 - August 24, 2006

You would think the league would make Warrior items easier to obtain,they seem to have apretty good following. They also have a fairly decent team this season.

12. SharkGirl - August 24, 2006

Great job, Mike! You have most definitely found your true calling. It does beat riding a bus all the time & staying at lousy (mostly lousy) hotels. Can’t wait for the next installment!

13. Roadwarriorfan - August 24, 2006

I bought a Road Warriors jersey at a Camden game this year, as well as a jacket, and of course a t-shirt from the Barnstormers. I don’t think they sold out of the jerseys but I know I got the last jacket. The league really helped me with what I needed so I would ask them.

14. Anonymous - August 24, 2006
15. Lem - August 24, 2006

Very nice job, Mike. Look forward to Part II.

16. lebb - August 24, 2006

Great article on the Warriors Mike….I’ve gone from wondering why teams can’t beat them to really respecting them. They seem like a good bunch of guys and they deserve respect in my opinion. This years team is a tough out no matter what their record is….I need a hat too..Step up Atlantic League…

17. Sumosid - August 24, 2006

Great article. Looking forward to the day in the life of the RWs article.

It’s a shame the way these players are treated, PB&J?!!?. They serve the same cr*p in the lower affilated minor leagues, you see the players buying food at the consession stands. I even saw this @ the NYPenn AS Game.

I really wonder how the players in independent baseball get by….

18. Anonymous - August 24, 2006

Really interesting and well written article, Mike. I have a new found respect for the ‘Warriors’. Thanks for helping all of us get inside their world for awhile!!

19. Chuckerd58 - August 24, 2006

Its great to see so many people respecting the job the Warriors are doing. It’s to bad someone like S.I. or ESPN mag couldn’t do a great story on these guys. It would be better than some of the other junk they print.

20. Roadwarriorfan - August 25, 2006

I totally agree with you chuckerd 126 road games are worthy of much more attention than what they are getting. Although ESPN.com did a good a good series with the old Lehigh Valley Black Diamonds.

21. Anonymous - August 25, 2006

Hey Scott or Mike can you tell me who wore #6 for the Road Warriors in 2004?

22. Anonymous - August 25, 2006

Really enjoyed the article, Mike. It’s nice to see you cover this team. It’s got to be tough playing on the road all the time.. so I will await and look forward to part 2 when we get to see what life is like for the Road Warriors.
I’m hoping the Riversharks are making their move..finally over 500, just swept the Patriots. The series against AC next week will be big.
Shark fan

23. number1surffan John - August 25, 2006

Shark fan – a big series indeed. Since AC just swept the Barnstormers in Lancaster and STILL couldn’t make up that 1/2 game lead Camden has on them currently, the Surf Need to be sure at least that their record stays strong enough to insure the wildcard berth – unless they can take over the southern half.

24. Roadwarriorfan - August 25, 2006

#6 on the 2004 Road Warriors was Orlando Cruz. But he left the team by May. I can’t remember who was #6 after that.

25. Babygirl_Aracena - August 25, 2006

Great article! Alot of people don’t understand what its like to be on the road ALL the time. In hotels, eating out every meal, etc. My hubby plays w/the Warriors so I get to hear all about it.
I look forward to your article in September.

26. Chuckerd58 - August 26, 2006

hI roadwarriorfan,do you know if that article on Leigh Valley on ESPN.com still available online,it would be great to read.

27. AtlanticLeagueBaseball.com - August 26, 2006

It is. Just type in Lehigh Valley Black Diamonds in Google and the Jim Caple stuff should come up.

-M-

28. Chuckerd58 - August 27, 2006

Thank you for the info Mike.


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