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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Still, little bits of glamour are easily canceled by life on the bus. Sleeping, eating, playing cards, telling jokes, listening to music -- doing anything to pass the hours.

One recent Thursday night the Red Sox played the Phillies in Reading, Pa. (a six-hour bus ride away), and arrived home in New Britain Friday at 4 a.m. Patrick Jelks, a promising outfielder with three years' experience in the minors, has been in New Britain a month, but hasn't found an apartment. He slept on the floor of another player's apartment. Jelks and the rest of the team were in uniform and back on the bus by 4 p.m.

Minutes after a game ends, the players are on the bus ready to go. The wives leave in separate cars.

``I work during the day and he has the [game] to play at night,'' says Mrs. Wade. ``So we never see each other till after a game.

``But the time we get to be together now is just a hundred times more that we ever used to . . . seeing just what I see him now is worth it and is so much better than the last four years,'' she says, contrasting her life as a minor league player's wife with the years when they were dating.

There is also a feeling among married players that their spouses have helped them handle the pressure they're under. The competition on all farm teams is so intense that minor league players must daily impress coaches and scouts with their batting, fielding, and throwing abilities in order to play regularly, move up, and avoid being cut next season.

Neither Wade, McInnis, nor Marzano has a college degree. But each of them has college credits and is close to getting a degree. All say they are working on it in the seven-month-long off season.

When summer ends, John Marzano will find work, possibly as painter. Bill McInnis will try to finish his degree and work for his father-in-law's garage-door-opener business.

Many of the single players who make up the majority of the team say it would be much harder to carry on their sports-nomad-by-bus life style if married.

``We're all surviving. I'm single. I don't have any problems surviving,'' says pitcher Dana Kieker.

In the off season Kieker has worked for General Mills, not far from the Fairfax, Minn., farm where he used to get up early to feed his father's hogs.

But Kieker also says he sees an advantage in being married. ``There are ups and downs and it's helpful to have someone. It can be a lonely life if you let it get to you.''

For Hector ``Tito'' Stewart, it's his fourth year in the minors and away from his home in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Marriage, the major leagues, and pitching well in the next game occupy Mr. Stewart's thoughts.

``My girlfriend [in Puerto Rico] is the one person I really miss. One thing the married guys have is their wife to support them when they are really down,'' he says.

``Marriage depends on how I do this year. She's very patient. We had some long talks about it. She wants to get her degree in business anyway before we get married.''

Sunday afternoon the NB Red Sox again play the Waterbury Indians. Late in the game Tito Stewart comes in as a relief pitcher to stop the Waterbury attack. For two innings he pitches excellent baseball, allowing only a couple of runners and no runs. The Red Sox win again.

``Not making it is always a thought that's in back of your head. But every time I pitch well, it's a step closer to the majors,'' he says.

``I tell you -- it will be a great experience for me the day I walk into Fenway Park.''

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