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Life in Single A baseball

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  • Life in Single A baseball

    Nice article about the travel life of not yet/quite major leaguers.

    ADELANTO — Darren Clarke is a California League travel expert. The reliever, in his second year as a Modesto Nut after one season as a Visalia Oak, has specific criteria about what makes for a comfortable stay.
    "A good road trip begins with good curtains and close food," Clarke said. "That also is the key to life, especially in minor-league baseball. Then you don't have to worry about anything else. I've stayed in every hotel in the league. San Jose (the Pruneyard Inn in Campbell) is by far the nicest. Good beds, good pillows, good sheets. Great curtains."

    Simple things.

    The only thing baseball players at the California League level want on a road trip is decency: a decent place to play, a decent place to sleep (often until noon), and a decent place to eat within walking distance.

    Such accommodations are not a given in the low minors.

    Every team in the California League plays 140 games, so 70 are on the road. By league rule, if two ballparks are 100 miles or more apart, the home team must furnish lodging for the visitors after every game, unless it's the final game of a trip.

    Since Stockton (32 miles) and San Jose (91 miles) fall within that commuter distance and account for 26 road games, the Nuts will spend 40 nights in hotels this season. Three came last week in the most isolated outpost of the league — High Desert.

    Baseball in the Mojave

    Adelanto, on Highway 395 in San Bernardino County, incorporated in 1970 and had a bright future as a bedroom community for George Air Force Base. But in 1988, Congress ordered the base closed. It was decommissioned in 1992.

    Even so, Adelanto excavated a few acres of the Mojave Desert and opened its $6.8million ballpark in 1991 — the first of the modern southern California League parks. A regional grocer bought the naming rights and calls it Stater Bros. Ballpark.

    Beyond the outfield fence looms the desert, with only scattered Joshua trees to give any indication of perspective.

    High Desert led the league in attendance its first two seasons. Last Wednesday, for a businessman's special starting at 1:05 p.m., a paid crowd of 878 was announced, although only 250 or so were in the park.

    No suitable lodging choices exist in Adelanto, so the Mavericks send visiting teams to the Ambassador Hotel, eight miles away in Victorville. It's a six-story structure that made its debut as a Hilton in the 1960s but is on its fourth management group.

    It certainly is clean and cheap enough for the California League. It has a restaurant — a plus — that closes too early for after-game meals — a minus.

    When in San Francisco to play the Giants, the Colorado Rockies — the Nuts' parent club — stay at the Westin St. Francis, where the nightly parking fee is $64. In Victorville, parking — plus a full, hot breakfast — is free.

    First impressions are good. The staff is friendly, the lobby clean. The elevators creak and moan too much for comfort, but the room is clean, with curtains that will pass the Clarke test.

    Baseball players quickly learn a clean room on the road isn't always guaranteed.

    "The worst thing is when you open the door to your hotel room and you see ants crawling all over the floor," said first baseman Michael Davies. "You leave your shoes on at night so you don't make the mistake of stumbling out of bed barefooted. You could complain, but they'd just send you to another room that's just as bad."

    Outfielder Chris Frey agrees.

    "If you don't find any living things in your room, that's a good sign," Frey said. "I have found some live things in rooms, in my shower, that I wasn't too excited to see."

    But again, these players aren't expecting a concierge.

    "It's 'A' ball, so you know you're not going to stay in the best of places, and you take what you get," said outfielder Doc Brooks. "I don't do much on the road except play Xbox, and the televisions in this hotel don't have the right hookups, so that's bad. I have to make do with something else."

    An Xbox is a minor-league staple, and Brooks wasn't too happy about not being able to play his new copy of "Hitman."

    Players ride the team bus on all road trips and thus don't have personal cars. It limits choices, and when they aren't at the ballpark, they're sleeping, hanging out in their rooms or trying to find food. It's not glamorous.

    This particular stay created a unique challenge. The Wednesday afternoon game was followed by a Thursday night game, which gave the players almost 24 hours of free time. The lobby of the team hotel has a rental car office, and with Las Vegas three hours away, the temptation was there.

    Instead, several players set up card games in their rooms, with quarter-ante Texas Hold 'Em the game of choice.

    Without cars, there must be food within a short walk, and the restaurants must stay open late to be of any help to the players' post-game pangs. Nuts manager Glenallen Hill sets his comfort threshold at one-eighth of a mile. In Victorville, a Del Taco, Coco's Restaurant and Yoshi's House of Sushi are within that radius.

    Players get $20 per day for food and incidentals, so many tacos were consumed on this stop.

    "The worst is when you're at a hotel where there's no place to eat," said infielder Jeff Dragicevich. "You'd like to just be able to walk across the street. In Visalia, I ate at Togo's five times in three days. You have to deal with the limited options."

    The California League, the players agree, isn't bad. Most have seen — and eaten — worse. The biggest challenge comes on getaway day, when the team checks out of the hotel before the game. After the final out, it's a quick shower and back on the bus for the ride home.

    That happened Sunday for the Nuts, who after their game at Lake Elsinore boarded the team bus for their longest ride of the season — 6½ hours back to Modesto. With that, of course, comes the possibility of stopping for a quick meal at any of a wide range of restaurants along Interstate 15, Interstate 5 or Highway 99 — as long as they're open after midnight.

    Visitors' clubhouse

    Pitcher Humberto Cardenas proudly notes that his height is listed at 6 feet on the official roster.

    But on this hot evening in Adelanto, he disproved it in one move. In the cramped hall that passes for the visitors' clubhouse, he chose to sit inside his wood-paneled locker.

    "It gives me more room," said Cardenas, looking very comfortable and 5-9ish.

    At the other end of the narrow room, legitimately 6-3 pitcher Ryan Mattheus had no such choice. He wasn't about to fit inside the locker, and since his corner of the clubhouse served as the athletic trainer's station, he really couldn't stretch out.

    For the players, the clubhouse must be clean and cool with an adjacent shower room. Anything beyond that is a bonus.

    Nearly every clubhouse has separate rooms for players, coaches and trainers, but all are together at the home of the High Desert Mavericks. So near the center of the clubhouse was one unhappy camper, whose designated spot was marked by a desk.

    "This is not a good clubhouse situation, and Bakersfield's is worse," Hill said. "Modesto's visiting clubhouse is adequate. It's small, but it functions."

    Hill has a point. For players, the road clubhouse is a place to change, shower, grab a quick snack and relax for a few minutes before the game.

    But for the manager and trainer, it must serve as an office. There are reports to file, lineup cards to fill out, players to address on an individual basis. And no trainer wants to be cramped into a corner while doing his job, as the Nuts' Chris Strickland was here.

    But such is life in the low minors, where no one should ever get too comfortable, too hungry, or discount the value of good curtains.

    "There aren't high expectations when you go on the road, and sometimes I think it's this way for a reason — to make you want to get out of here," Mattheus said. "It definitely motivates me."

    Some prima donnas in the bigs should be reminded of these days once in a while.