Greg Larson is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing-Nonfiction at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He is a nonfiction reader for the Barely South Review, and his work has appeared in Proximity Magazine, Ruminate Magazine, Switchback, and others.
The Boatload Mentality
They say the true fireballers throw so fast that when a batter fouls it straight back he can put the bat up to his nose and smell the wood burning. This only happens when the hitter just misses crushing the ball—it spins so ferociously that the momentary friction of the leather and seams against the maple grain of the bat creates a burn. On July 3rd, 2012 Enrico Jimenez didn’t light any bats on fire.
Enrico came off the mound to a chorus of boos from the record-breaking crowd of 6,904, most of whom were only in attendance to see the post-game fireworks, given the IronBirds’ 5-10 record and history of futility. The Baltimore Orioles’ Short-Season Single-A affiliate had, in its ten-year history, nine losing seasons. The team had failed to live up to the standard of greatness set by its owner, lifelong Oriole Cal Ripken Jr., who holds one of baseball's most hallowed records: 2,632 consecutive games played. The feat granted him the nickname Iron Man. The IronBirds were named in honor of Cal and his tie to the Orioles (nicknamed “the Birds”) as well as a nod to the Aberdeen Proving Ground just east of Ripken Stadium on the Aberdeen Throughway, where the fighter jets are nicknamed iron birds. The team logo was a cartoon airplane with eyes, a mouth, and a number 8 on its fin in honor of Cal’s number when he played for the Birds.
I had the postgame meal spread out on blue tables below the IronBirds logo painted on the cement wall of the clubhouse. The meal was chicken, green beans, and mashed potatoes, all leftovers from the hot buffets in the Club Level seats, which I always acquired with a palm-greasing twenty to the teenagers in food services. The quick clicks of cleats on the concrete outside signaled the flood of players coming in after the game. This was always the most nerve-wracking part of my day because I never knew if I would have enough food to feed the whole team. As a clubhouse attendant, the majority of my income was based on dues and tips from the players. If the food sucked, or if we ran out, they would be less likely to tip and more likely to dodge the dues in general.
The game was a blowout in favor of the IronBirds, 21-7, but the crowd was more concerned with the bright bursts of pre-independence day fireworks than the score of the game.
“Pants and jerseys in the carts before you eat!” I shouted.
“Take a shower for your hands!” Rivera, another pitcher, yelled in imitation of his American teammates, who always insisted that the dirty Dominicans learn how to “shower” their hands before eating.
The hiss of hot showers echoed through the bathrooms. The stink of sweaty, dirt-stained jerseys climbed up my nostrils as players threw them into the carts before dishing up. Enrico Jimenez came lumbering in from the field, not eager to eat like his teammates. He had pitched 2 innings, given up 3 hits, 2 walks, and 3 earned runs, raising his ERA to 5.40. He pulled his number 26 white home jersey with blue numbers and orange trim off of his body and hurled it into his locker with more speed and accuracy than any of the pitches he just threw. He screamed “Fuck!” as the lefty punched his solid wood locker cubby with the most valuable asset on his body. The outburst startled me enough to look up from sorting through the dirty jerseys—Jimenez was 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, and I was still green and fearful of players’ tempers. Nobody else seemed to care about his outburst, as they went on eating and disrobing around him. Some grabbed a plate and stood outside the clubhouse to watch the fireworks barefoot, shirtless, and with their pants undone. Rivera turned on the speakers above his locker and blasted his fast-paced, heavy-bassed Spanish music. The other Dominicans immediately danced their naked bodies to the beat, as a few Americans shook their heads—some with smirks, some without.
Jimenez, after sulking against his locker for minutes, finally got his clothes off and walked toward the shower. His birth certificate said he was born on February 7th, 1989, which made him 23 at the time. Sure, 23 was ancient in low-level minor league baseball, but I couldn’t help but notice the way he walked with an arched back that cartoonishly stuck out his pot-belly. His mouth was framed on either side by a deep wrinkle that led up to his high, perpetually sweaty cheeks. If he were a position player he would probably walk around using a baseball bat as a cane. As it was, though, he was a pitcher and had no need for bats. I had even heard the coaches hypothesize that Jimenez was one of the Dominicans who had forged their birth certificate when they first signed, the better to increase their potential value to a team. Our manager, Muggsy, had estimated his age at being somewhere around “forty-fuckin’-years-old”, give or take. Jimenez walked into the showers, head down, distraught after an unsuccessful pitching performance in an IronBirds win that set team records in margin of victory and runs scored. We could hear the boom of fireworks through the concrete of the clubhouse, and outside the smell of sulfur dominated the air. It was July 3rd, and Enrico’s American dream was falling through his fingers like powdered rosin.
Although July 3rd was the beginning of the end for Enrico Jimenez, for many young baseball players just like him down in the Dominican Republic, early July is a time of hope and anticipation. July 2nd of every year is the day that Major League Baseball opens up its international signing period. Unlike American players—who are selected in the 40-round, 1200-player draft—international players are signed exclusively as free agents, most of whom are from the Dominican Republic. The island nation is home to only 10 million people, about 3% of America's population, yet Dominican players made up more than 11% of major league rosters at the start of that 2012 season and more than 25% of minor league rosters. This discrepancy is due in large part to MLB’s more lax rules regarding Dominican players. Whereas Americans have to wait until they’ve turned 18 and graduated from high school to sign with a major league team, Dominicans can sign as young as 16-years-old—sometimes for millions of dollars, sometimes for just a few thousand. A Colorado Rockies executive named Dick Balderson once said, “Instead of signing four American guys at $25,000 each, we sign 20 Dominican guys for $5,000 each.” This is known as the boatload mentality: sign a bunch of cheap Dominicans for less than they’re worth, that way even if only one or two of them becomes a major leaguer, the team’s investment has more than paid off.
These rules that allow teams to sign 16-year-olds starting on July 2nd have created a Dominican talent-scouting environment much different from America’s. They’re called buscones, and they hunt the island in search of children, sometimes as young as 13-years-old, who they think could someday be a star. These buscones (from the Spanish buscar, to search) are men who have no affiliation with any Major League team. They give young boys instruction at fields that often use busted-lace baseballs and tied up car tires that boys chop against for batting practice. Buscones may even give the boys equipment, food, and transportation if they need it, all in the hopes that they will sign a contract with a Major League team on the July 2nd after their 16th birthday. Then the buscones wind up taking a cut of the signing bonus, sometimes as high as 30% (as compared to about 5% with most American agents). Or, if a player does not develop as the buscones had thought, they may drop the boy like a bad habit, and he must hope to be picked up by someone else. These boys often drop out of school at a young age in order to chase this dream—sometimes as young as 2nd grade, which was the case for a few players in my clubhouse over the two seasons I worked there.
But unlike other major American sports, players who sign professional baseball contracts do not go straight to the highest level: they go from being the stud at their college or high school to being a nobody toiling away for years in the minor leagues. For Dominicans, though, coming to America is like jumping straight into Las Mayores: bright lights, clean water, air conditioning, and the shot at a dream. It’s a dream that, unfortunately, most of them won’t achieve.
Jorge Rivera’s scouting report said he was a 6-foot tall, 200-pound lefty. Under the “school” category it said Dominican Republic. “Deceptive lefty who sits 90-94 mph and can touch 95 on his good days. Average breaking ball. Good arm speed. Effectiveness will be based on command of fastball and control of secondary pitches.” What his scouting report didn’t say, however, was that Jorge Rivera was stealing baseball bats. My job as clubhouse attendant included doling out equipment, all of which I kept in a walk-in closet-sized room toward the back of the clubhouse—jerseys, caps, pants, belts, baseballs, and, yes, bats. It turned out that Rivera (cap size 7 ¼) had been pilfering bats from the team bag during road trips. Trek, our trainer—who walked with a lurch and only consumed hot dogs, Diet Mountain Dew, Budweiser (which he called Bud Heavy), and Grizzly Wintergreen chewing tobacco—he was in charge of equipment during road trips whenever I didn’t travel with the team. But he was more focused on treating injuries and staving off hangovers to worry about how much guys were stealing from the equipment bag.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” I said as he sat in his training room office, “how’d we use so many bats this last road trip?”
He smirked. “Greg, I don’t make them turn in their broken bats to get a new one,” he said, referencing my policy. I’d take the broken ones and sell them in the gift shop for a cut of the profit. “If they need a new bat, I give ‘em a new bat. This is baseball. You need bats and balls to play.”
At the time, I had no idea Rivera was the one stealing them, I just knew my supply was being depleted. It was mid-July in 2012, and the IronBirds, too, were fading fast and tensions in the clubhouse were building between the American and Dominican factions. The disagreements went as deep as music choice—whether to play Dominican or American music seemed more important than wins and losses.
Relief pitcher Alex Schmarzo, my best friend on the team, came to me during the afternoon of a home game as I threw a load of towels into the wash. (Schmarzo was picked in the 48th round of the 2010 draft, a round so late that it no longer existed in 2012.)
“Hey, man, you don’t happen to have a screwdriver do ya?”
I reached into my fanny pack and pulled out a Leatherman. “This work?”
“Fuckin’ A, G, what don’t you have in there?”
“Probably a decent fastball.”
“Shit,” he said, “that makes two of us. I’ll bring it right back.”
“Anything I should be worried about?” I called after him as he walked away.
He clicked his head to the right. “We’ll see.”
I slammed the door of the industrial washer and turned the latch.
On July 22nd, the IronBirds were 11-22 and in the middle of an 8-2 loss to the Hudson Valley Renegades, when, after not pitching for seven days and amassing an 0-2 record with a 5.63 ERA, Enrico Jimenez walked out in the middle of a game. He came in from the bullpen, put his jersey in his locker, got dressed, and left. Alan Mills, our pitching coach, had made a call to the bullpen to get another lefty loose to go in the game. That was the breaking point for Jimenez, who was a lefty himself. He made the short walk from the bullpen behind the right field fence to the clubhouse. Rivera followed his friend and came back to tell the rest of the bullpen that Jimenez was packing his shit up to leave.
“Whatever,” they said back to him. “Where’s he gonna go?”
The next inning, Alan Mills made another call to the bullpen. “Get Jimenez loose.”
“He’s not here right now,” the backup catcher Scott Kalush said.
Mills hung up, probably assuming Jimenez was in the clubhouse taking a dump or something.
The next inning another call came from Mills. “Get Jimenez loose.”
“He’s still not here,” Kalush said, fighting back laughter.
“The fuck you mean he’s not there? What’re you talking about?”
“Dude, he left.”
Mills hung up the phone and stormed up the right field line toward the bullpen in the middle of the inning. Hometown fans who’d watched Mills in his years as an Oriole begged for his attention as they all bathed in the electric light of the Aberdeen evening.
“Mr. Mills! Can I have a ball?”
Usually eager to talk to anyone, Mills continued walking, occasionally turning his back to make sure he wasn’t hit by a ball in play.
He opened the padded-fence door of the bullpen. “Where the fuck is Jimenez?”
Schmarzo, ever the diplomat, spoke on everyone’s behalf. “He’s gone, Millsy, he left a couple innings ago.”
“How the fuck you lose someone, meat?”
Everyone tried to stifle laughter.
“We didn’t lose him,” Schmarzo said. “He’s just gone. He left. Pulled a Mota.” Jose Mota, a Dominican, was Schmarzo’s old friend and roommate in the Orioles organization who had escaped in the middle of a game before he knew he would be released.
Mills leaned in close and whispered to the pitchers. “Listen. If the Orioles start hearing that I’m losing pitchers I’m gonna get my ass fired. I know y’all don’t like me, but you can’t go pulling this shit when I need pitchers to pitch in the fuckin’ game.”
“I mean, let’s be frank,” Schmarzo said, “the only guy you should be mad at just left.”
I didn’t see Jimenez leave; I was busy doing laundry in the back and cleaning up the dishes from the standard pre-game meal of cold cuts and orange slices. After the game, when the position players had caught word of Jimenez’s disappearance, the clubhouse was abuzz with gleeful laughter from some of the Americans and a certain solemnity from the Dominicans. I was busy hustling around the clubhouse cleaning and getting postgame laundry into the wash. Muggsy, our manager, stopped me dead in my tracks as he walked out of his office toward me—always on a straight line, always upright, always pissed. He was all mustache and beady, penetrating blue eyes. He had a five-year major league career that ended with a .221 batting average and he had gone from being a bench coach for the Orioles to managing the IronBirds.
“Were you in here when Jimenez left?” he said.
“Yeah, but I was—”
“You see that happen again, you come down to the dugout and tell one of us.”
Again? I thought.
“He’s gonna hop on a train up to New York and disappear. Then the Orioles will be out a visa.”
Muggsy was making an outdated reference to the limited H-2B visas that minor leaguers from the Dominican Republic used to need to play ball in the US. Now international minor leaguers can use a P-1 visa just like the Major Leaguers, which allows teams to give out as many visas as they want. Either way, losing a player did not look good for a coaching staff that had just turned their record to 11-23.
I heard a couple guys joking about Jimenez as they got ready to shower.
“Does he even have a car? Where the fuck’s he gonna go?”
“No, dude, he’s a Dominican. He’s probably gonna try to bike back to the DR.”
My car was nicknamed The Boat: a 1997 Cadillac Deville that had almost 200,000 miles on it and no longer had air conditioning. I drove it down to my parents’ house in Fort Myers, Florida after I graduated from Winthrop University in 2011 with a degree in English. The Florida heat was hell on my skin and I had to start getting moles lopped off one-by-one like the dermatologist was picking chocolate chips off the top of a cookie. I was jobless, aimless, and living in my parent’s retirement community spending the days watching the stock market and playing golf. After almost a year in my parents’ condo, I started applying for baseball jobs prior to the 2012 season. I grew up with dreams of being a Major Leaguer myself, but certain unforeseen circumstances kept me from achieving that goal, the most prominent of which was how bad I was at baseball. My freshman year of college, I tried out for the team at Hamline University, a Division-III school in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I was cut before the season started. Division-III sports teams don’t make cuts. I felt hurt by the game, my dreams dashed: I had imagined being drafted out of college and working my way up the minor league system for a few years before eventually making it to the Majors. So, rather than try out again the next year, I left the game completely and transferred to Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Three years later, as a senior, I finally came back to the game and started working as an equipment manager for their Division-I baseball team. When I graduated, it was the only job experience I had. As a baseball lover and desperate college graduate, I accepted the position of clubhouse attendant for the 2012 Aberdeen IronBirds, the only job offer I got that spring.
The Orioles’ spring training complex was just north of my parent’s condo in Florida. On my drive up to Aberdeen, I stopped at Ed Smith Stadium to meet Jake Parker, the Orioles’ equipment manager who used to have my job in Aberdeen. I was told to meet him at the stadium and he would give me the ins and outs of my new job. Ed Smith Stadium operates all summer with Orioles rookie ball teams that are (almost unbelievably) even worse than the IronBirds. Lowest on the totem pole is the Dominican Summer League team that operates out of the Orioles’ academy in Boca Chica, DR. Players in the Dominican Summer League live in dorms that often cram eight to a room and have entire wings without air conditioning. The players in rookie ball at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota live with a single roommate in a hotel near the complex.
Jake was wearing a black Under Armour Orioles shirt when he grabbed me from the entrance of the stadium. He was muscle-bound, had spiked hair, and was attentive (polite, even) despite his seeming brusqueness. He moved with a speed that was referred to as the clubbie walk, an exaggeratedly fast gait that clubhouse attendants (A.K.A. clubbies) adopted as a necessity to move between places to get things done. Before the end of June (and forever after) I would start using the clubbie walk myself.
“You look just like your videos online,” he said as we walked. It was downpouring and players and coaches alike were all indoors, bored. I wondered how many of them were Major Leaguers.
“Oh? Which ones did you watch?” I said.
“Stand-up routine. Said Winthrop University, I think.”
“You were kinda funny.”
We walked into his “office” which was nothing more than a cluttered desk up against the wall of a classroom-like space. He told me everything I would need to know for the job: how to keep the stadium beer supplier geared up so I could get free beer for the coaches, how much food to put out for pregame meals so that it looked like a lot but would still yield leftovers.
“That money comes out of my pocket?” I said.
“And I use their dues to pay for it?”
“If you do it right, you’ll have plenty of money leftover. What’re you charging, seven a day?”
“That’s a lot at your level—I think guys get 1200 a month there—but you should be good to go. You’ve basically included your tip in the dues, which is fine, but don’t expect any extra on top of it. Plus you’re new. Respect is earned not given.” He eyed my chest. “You look like you might work out. A little bit.”
I shrugged. I stayed in shape but I wasn’t very muscular—about 6-feet, 185.
“You might wanna start lifting weights once you get there—helps to maintain order in the clubhouse. I used to be a teaching sub and you gotta treat these guys just like middle schoolers, because that's what most of them are. Last week I wrestled one of the players because he said he could take me. Was it joking? Sure. But was it a little serious too? Abso-fucking-lutely. These guys have to know you’re not afraid of them. If they come up giving me an attitude, trying to get extra equipment they don’t need or causing a problem in the clubhouse, I cut a fuckin’ muscle in them and let ‘em know who’s in charge.” He flexed his bicep at me and nodded as if to say, “Capiche?”
He took me to the laundry room and I asked him how much he made when he worked for the IronBirds.
He looked around my shoulder out the laundry room door.
“I’m only telling you this because we’re part of the same fraternity now, but my last two summers in Aberdeen I made 19,000 a summer. Net.”
“You won’t make that much, but you’ll still do well. You don’t show it though. You live like you’re fucking poor. The second guys start seeing you’re making hand-over-fist, that’s when the tips go down and you lose the clubhouse.”
He pulled out a pair of surgical rubber gloves and snapped them over his wrist before grabbing a pile of dirty orange and black athletic clothes and throwing them into the washer.
“You use gloves when you did laundry for Winthrop?”
I shook my head.
“Start using them. You don’t know where some of these guys have been. Especially the Coños.”
“Coños,” he said. “Dominicans.”
I hated the way my hands would get sweaty inside the rubber gloves. The load of laundry was done, so I opened it up and threw the wet towels into the dryer and hit start. It turned out I should have been worried when Schmarzo came in asking me for a screwdriver. When I had gotten to Aberdeen, I set up the lockers according to Jake’s suggestions. I could have never known that putting Jorge Rivera next to a fellow pitcher by the name of Mark Blackmar would be a problem. Apparently, the Americans had gotten so fed up with listening to Rivera’s music that Schmarzo finally unscrewed the electrical outlet above his locker to put an end to it. Schmarzo got his degree in Economics—which was ironic in itself considering he was a minor leaguer living on $700 paychecks—and not Electrical Engineering. I was happy he didn’t kill himself trying to put an end to the music. How Rivera eventually got the outlet working again I had no idea, but he did, and so he turned up his thumping Spanish music even louder than before. His locker neighbor, Mark Blackmar—a 16th round draft pick with dark stubble, a double chin, and black eyebrows—finally had enough. He reached up to the outlet above the locker and yanked the plug out of the wall.
Rivera screamed something in Spanish, his anger betraying the boyishness of his face, red accentuating the dark freckles on his light skin. He unfolded his metal fold-up chair (which had his name “Jorge” written in permanent marker on the bottom) stood on it, and plugged the music back in, bass thumping. He got down off the chair and stared down Blackmar.
“No,” Blackmar said, “no more of this.”
One more round of unplugging and plugging back in.
“Hey,” Rivera said, “you turn it off again—”
Without hesitation, Blackmar yanked the cord out for a final time. Rivera’s face turned even redder and he dug into the bag in his locker to pull out a bat, rearing it back to go after Blackmar. By this point the whole clubhouse was watching, even perpetually injured catcher Pedro Perez, who had anticipated his friend’s move. Pedro quickly limped up from the couch, just a few feet away, and made two hops before tackling Rivera into his locker.
“I hope you hit me, Jorge,” Mark said as Pedro wrestled the bat out of Rivera’s hands. “I hope you hit me and go to jail.”
Pedro took the bat and limped over to his locker to deposit it on the other side of the clubhouse, away from Rivera. Blackmar sat down and shook his head, but before he knew it Rivera had pulled out another bat from his bag and was about to take another swing. Hollars came in from all around the clubhouse.
“Mark, he’s got another one!”
Then one final shout came from Alan Mills, who had stomped into the clubhouse at the right time. “Shut the fuck up!” Everyone froze and turned to Mills, standing there with a bat of his own and his 1990s style sunglasses on his sweaty face. “You think you’re gonna take a swing at him, meat?”
Rivera tried to plead his case in broken English, but Mills cut him off.
In the middle of that night's game, alone in the clubhouse, I climbed up to look in Rivera’s bag. I pulled out one bat. Then another. Then another. All told there were 15 bats up there, which would be a lot even for a position player—someone who would actually need bats to do his job. He confronted me the next day once he realized his stash was gone. I was cornered in my equipment closet, cutting up oranges for the pre-game meal, when he entered with our gentle bench coach, Cesar Devarez, as his translator. Cesar told me that Rivera had gotten those bats as a gift and they were Rivera’s property that I had stolen from him. I knew this was false because the stolen bats were the brittle ash wood Rawlings brand that I issued the team—bats so bad that nobody would be mean enough to give them as a gift.
Cesar put his hands up. “I don’t know if what he sayin’ is true. I just telling you what he says.”
All the while Rivera was staring at me through his eyebrows.
“I—I can’t. He’s a pitcher, you know?” I gestured to Rivera. “Why would he need all those bats?”
Cesar translated what I had said for Rivera, who fumed to him in Spanish and angrily pointed at me until Cesar finally shoved him out of my equipment room. When Jake Parker, the Orioles equipment manager, came back to do an end of the year inventory of the clubhouse, the Americans told him about the music fiasco that led to Rivera’s bat attack.
“If your clubbie had any balls,” he said in front of me and a few players, “he would’ve done something about the Coños.”
“I took Rivera’s bats,” I said.
“So what? These guys don’t care about bats.” He addressed the handful of players. “If he had come in here and said ‘no more music’ you guys would’ve given him a fucking round of applause, wouldn’t ya?”
They nodded. “Yeah, dude. That shit was kinda ridiculous.”
“Tips probably would’ve gone up too,” Jake said.
They nodded again.
I had lost the respect of the clubhouse.
On the morning of July 23rd, one day after he had walked out in the middle of a game, Enrico Jimenez biked to the stadium from his host family’s house. He wanted to catch the bus to Brooklyn, where we had a road series against the Cyclones. He went about his business as if the night before had never happened. As I walked around, marking guys off of my sheet as they paid dues, I heard whispers that Jimenez had a friend in New York. Apparently he was just trying to catch a free ride on the bus so he could escape before the team released him and sent him back to the Dominican. Instead, he was suspended and left in Aberdeen for what turned out to be a week before he was released. I got anxious as I waited to hear his fate: we had some new players coming in and I had to assign them jerseys and lockers. Any given jersey number might be worn by four or five players in a season, depending on who gets released or moved up in the organization. Enrico’s number 26 was a popular size (48) and I needed to know when I could give it away to an incoming replacement.
Rivera stayed with me the rest of that season and the season after, despite his stolen bat escapade, but 2013 would be his last season pitching in the Orioles organization. According to their Facebooks, Jorge is living in Sarasota, Florida and Enrico finally made it to New York—both living illegally, I can only assume; they won’t message me back. When I look up their player pages on the official minor league baseball website, I only see a blank silhouette where their headshots used to be when they were players—nothing left but a shadow.
In a quiet moment, as we folded towels in his training room, I asked our trainer Trek what took so long for the front office to release a player who had walked out in the middle of a game.
“That’s a good fuckin’ question, Greg. Welcome to the Baltimore Orioles.”
I went back to folding towels. “You know where any of these guys go when they get released?”
“I don’t know, Greg. If a guy’s here, I’ll worry about him and give him the treatment he needs.” He stowed a pile of towels and swiped his hands clean. “If they’re not here, I’m not worried about ‘em.”