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The long road. Minor league baseball players and their families make major sacrifices -- for big dreams

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 1986

New Britain, Conn.

YOU'D think we were married to football players,'' whispers Lisa Wade to the two shivering women sitting next to her on the cold, green-painted wooden bleachers. It should have been a pleasantly warm evening in May. Instead Mrs. Wade, along with Leslie McInnis and Terri Marzano, huddle under a blanket eating hotdogs, sipping hot chocolate -- watching their husbands play professional baseball.

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Minor league baseball.

Only 130 miles away the glamour of the major leagues, the much brighter lights of Fenway Park, and the Boston Red Sox beckon. For leftfielder Scott Wade, right fielder Bill McInnis, and catcher John Marzano, the chance to play for the class AA New Britain Red Sox is a big step in that direction. Depending on how well each does this year, next year may take them one level higher to the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox -- just one rung below the majors.

Yet, the glory and mystique of being a pro are noticeably distant.

Many amenities are missing. Salaries are small. Travel and accommodations can be primitive. And the players accept such conditions as a means to an end -- the majors.

Their wives have to make similar adjustments. Marriage in the minors is not a piece of cake.

``I work all day. I see Billy from 11 at night until 7 in the morning,'' says Leslie McInnis. ``When I get home at 6, he's already gone to the park. I see him after the game, then we go home. . . . I don't remember the last time I cooked a dinner.''

Hours before leaving on the bus, the team's numbered shirts hang drying in the breeze behind home plate. A little later, a few players wander in to get changed in a New Britain locker room about the size of someone's laundry room.

Six-foot, 8-inch pitcher Steve Ellsworth takes the tight quarters in stride, settling gently onto the tiny wooden seat by his cubbyhole next to two other hefty athletes. Players climb over one another looking for stretch socks, bats, pine tar, athletic tape, and turtleneck shirts to fight the cold.

Minor league players have to put up with a life style that makes the standard nine-to-five job seem cushy, and certainly doesn't begin to approach the plush comfort of their big-league counterparts. Though big leaguers are paid a minimum of $65,000 and sometimes make millions, the minimum scale for a first-year single-A player is $700 per month during the season. An average wage for a NB Red Sox player is around $1,500 per month. And that's only during the five-month season.

There are other concessions. Scott and Lisa Wade were married in January, a time of year that is fairly popular among baseball couples.

``She wanted to have a summer wedding, or June wedding, and that got put off because that's the start of the season,'' Scott says.

``So, now you've got to have a wedding in the middle of the winter and worry about if it's going to snow. It's a little thing that other people all take for granted.''

With such sacrifice there is irony, in that even if a player does well here in AA baseball, the chances are only slight that he will ever get to play in the American or National League. Fewer than 10 percent of the 600 to 700 who sign contracts each year will ever play in the major leagues.

Even here, however, there is adulation. A little girl in a dress scrambles after a broken bat tossed behind the NB Red Sox dugout. A little boy wants the team's autographs on his baseball, so the players pass it around the dugout. A clump of children race along an outfield fence after a long foul ball that landed in the woods.