It's 2008, and I’m on a rooftop at a high-end bar called the Sky Lounge. It’s the chief attraction at the Gaslamp Marriott Hotel, a five-star joint kitty-corner to one of baseball’s newest cathedrals, Petco Park.
There is a line in the lobby waiting to get to it, unless, of course, you’re staying at the hotel—which I just happen to be. For free. It was part of my big league “seven and seven,” or seven days of meal money and seven days of free housing.
A wide-open view of Petco Park is available from the open-air bar of the Sky Lounge. Many of the patrons come to the lounge just to gawk at it. After all, it’s much cheaper to get into the Sky Lounge than Petco. Unless you’re me and you work there. Then it’s free, just like the hotel.
A big league park in a sun-kissed beachside town, that’s where I work now. Mind blowing. It took me 21 years to make it to the bigs. Twenty-one grueling years of faith in myself and beating the odds, and now that towering temple of the game was my home field.
I was staring at it, admiring it, from the top of a five-star hotel, with a smirk on my face, a White Russian in hand and a stack of $100 bills in my pocket.
Somebody pinch me.
The day I got called up, I came into the park in Portland early. I was living with three other guys in a two-bedroom apartment. One of them had his kids in town, two girls, and his wife, all of us crammed in on top of one another.
We had no food in the house. No furniture besides our air mattresses, a lawn chair and an ironing board. No television, no radio, not even Internet access. It was a cell. A holding pen until the next day, when we’d all go into the stadium early because at least the locker room had proper technology and peanut butter and jelly. Sometimes I showed up so early the place was locked and all I could do was sit outside the lockers, waiting for it to open.
Everything I owned could fit into two suitcases. Any more and I’d have to pay baggage fees for it—about three days' worth of my pay for one damn bag. My travel suit was pieced together from castoffs I found at the Goodwill. My dress shoes were given to me by another player. I always shaved at the locker room, never bought what I thought I could trick my agent into buying and owned the cheapest phone with the cheapest plan I could find.
I was a vagabond. A rube. A fake. The only thing of any significance that I had to my name was the lottery-ticket job I had. Some people felt there was honor in the chase, most folks who look at us grown men playing a kids' game and think it’s a self-evident truth of some sort.
But there is no honor in going hungry or asking your family to wait or suffer financially so you can chase long odds. I was broke, adrift, banking on the only thing I knew. I would either make it to the bigs or watch every year I’d leveraged to play these increasingly long odds be burned up, with nothing to show for it except boring stories of glory days.
The second they told me I was going up, it was like scales fell away. My God, the freedom. It was a complete change in gravity. Like being pardoned, reborn or baptized. Yes, yes, it was a dream come true, a punched once-in-a-lifetime experience ticket. And, yes, I’d won that lottery I mentioned.
But—and I’m sad to say this—it was also financially liberating, and that’s what I held on to. I was 27 with six years of pro ball under my belt. I had four years of college next to my name. I’d been published in magazines and newspapers. I made less than I did when I was 15, working the frying station at McDonald's. If I made it all the way through September in the big leagues, I might not have to live on the floor of my grandmother’s house when the season ended.
I was called up as a starter. I’d be a replacement for Greg Maddux, whom the Padres had just traded away. I wasn’t supposed to take over for him, just to fill in the spot until a healthy Chris Young made it back from the disabled list.
On the day of the start, I remember not knowing how to get into the stadium in San Francisco. Where do players enter? I’d never done that before. It was just one of the things I’d have to figure out the hard way. One of many, many things.
I’d never been exposed to so many unwritten baseball rules before. Don’t get on the second bus to the stadium—if there is a second bus to the stadium—because that’s the veterans’ bus. Get on the early bus.
But, really, if you’re a rookie, take a cab because the early bus isn’t really early enough to look like you’re truly committed and thankful for the experience. Optics are especially important for rookies.
Which reminds me, you’ll have duties—not on your start day, but every other day of the week—so you should probably practice and observe so you know what to do on your off day.
You’ll have lots of things rookies are simply expected to do, but you won't know what they are until you are told. The worst part of it all is that you’ll be expected to somehow know those things without being told.
A good rule of thumb is: Do everything anyone with more service time tells you to do, and do it in a way that won’t make them upset. You see, you have to look as if you’re honored to be their little helper, or the larger group will view you as a punk.
Also, you won't know what upsets an older player until you upset them, so be prepared. They will, of course, expect you to inherently know this as well. Good luck.
They say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Your debut, that is. Nothing like it. In fact, my pitching coach at the time, Darren Balsley, called me in the hotel the night before and told me to try and take it all in, slow down, savor it.
Easy for him to say.
Once I got out there onto that big league field, time hit the fast-forward button. It was so much, so fast.
There were towering stands, a massive display board and row after row of seats. I could taste salt in the air off the bay, feel the pulse of the stadium's speakers, the hum of electricity buzzing through the place. You can’t tune it out, and you can’t slow it down. It was a machine, judging and devouring the would-be stars who got caught in its gears.
When I summited that brown agony patch in the center of the diamond to make my first pitches as a real big leaguer, I practically forgot how to pitch. Nothing was familiar. Nothing was natural. It was not the same game. It was now the only game.
I walked the first batter I faced on five pitches. My catcher came out, handed me the ball and then gave me the most profoundly useless chunk of advice any catcher has ever given me in a moment of penultimate need. “Hey, throw strikes.”
Yeah. Right. What was I thinking?
For my first start, I opposed Barry Zito. I felt good about that, actually, because I knew he wasn’t the Zito he used to be. The problem was I threw right-handed, but I hit left-handed.
There is some kind of etiquette about tapping the catcher’s shin guards when you come to bat the first time. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was supposed to do. I wanted to look cool, but I think I just kind of poked the catcher with my bat head. “Take it easy on me,” I said, “it’s my first time.”
The catcher said nothing. I swallowed. Zito wound.
Usually, the first pitch from one pitcher to another in a swing-away situation is a fastball, sometimes referred to as the courtesy fastball in case you’re the type of pitcher who feels like swinging and usually ending the at-bat on the first pitch. After that, it’s all breaking stuff, because ESPN highlights look better when the strikeout total next to your name is higher.
I took the first pitch. Courtesy or not, it’s remarkably easy to lay off pitches when you know you can’t hit any of them. That doesn’t mean they can’t hit you, though. Lefty-on-lefty is scary as hell.
Zito’s arm angle had me edging farther and farther away from the plate on each pitch, but when he uncorked that huge hook of his, I bailed out completely. I thought for sure it was going to decapitate me, but when I opened my eyes and looked to the catcher, it was caught just out of the zone for a ball.
I was certain I would see his hook again after my reaction, but it didn’t come. Zito fell behind on me, and then, as fate would have it, he walked me.
I blanked. I was not prepared for this contingency. I stared stupidly at the umpire because ball four did not compute. It had been years since I’d been on first base, and I had no idea what to do there.
Out of instinct, I actually took a step toward the dugout before it registered I was going the wrong way. I tried to play my error off like I was just going to give the bat back, forgetting they had people who collected them. Then, instead of cutting my losses and heading to first, I stepped back into the box and looked dull-faced at the umpire again.
“First base is that way,” said the umpire, gesturing with a tilt of his head.
“Yeah, r-right. Thank you, sir,” I said. I dropped my bat and jogged awkwardly down the line.
I actually made it all the way to third base, but I didn’t score. When I arrived there, the umpire asked me when I last found myself at third base. I said I didn’t know. He laughed. Then he told me which direction was home, in case I got lost again.
On the plane ride out from San Fran and back to sunny San Diego, I sat in the back near Trevor Hoffman, Brian Giles and Jake Peavy.
I wasn’t supposed to be there, but they directed me to a seat on account of my aimless wandering, looking for a place to sit and being rejected. The plane would have taken off with me standing. Computers, cellphones, seat belts, seats—those things didn’t matter. It was a private jet, you could do whatever you wanted.
You could eat whatever you wanted, too. Trays of sandwiches, cookies, crab legs, fruit, kabobs, beers, wines, gum, crackers, cheese…it was a catered party for a puddle jump from San Fran to San Diego. I don’t know why, but I felt the urge to steal some of it and save it for later lest I never see it again.
Halfway through the flight, it became apparent that one of the guys was drunk. Whether he’d brought a bottle of Jack Daniels on the flight or just drank from the endless supply onboard was not clear. What was clear, however, was he was climbing over seat backs, smacking rookies in the back of the head. No one said a word. Not even when he started kicking and punching holes in the overhead cabinets.
“They’ll just send him the bill for it. They always do,” said the veteran player next to me.
A bus picked us up on the tarmac, next to the plane. It took us back into downtown San Diego and right into the belly of Petco, where we parked. There were fans there. God knows why. It was at an odd hour and we weren’t even going to play, just get in our cars—those of us who had them—and leave. Besides, we were awful, and we didn’t deserve fans during off hours.
One of the guys, wasted from the trip and holding a beer while standing up and looking out the bus window, said, “What a bunch of losers.” He smacked the glass with his free hand, “Get a life.”
They all waved and cheered back at him, clueless about what he was saying.
Our luggage showed up after the bus. It came in a moving van. A legion of clubhouse attendants were there to unload everything for us. They yelled out the bags by number. Mine was 57.
“Number 57!” called a set of mischievous relievers. I went up to the van to get my bag. Nothing but snickers. I went back to the pack of the players. “Number 57!” This time in a different voice. I went to the front of the line again. No bag, only snickers.
This went on for about 15 minutes. I suppose I should have learned my lesson.
Back at the Sky Lounge, I finished my drink, set it on the railing overlooking Petco and made my way back to the elevator. I rode down to my room, went in, put out the "Do Not Disturb" sign and locked the door. I pulled off my travel clothes and threw them in a pile, then collapsed on the bed.
I stared at the ceiling for a while, replaying it all in my head. I’d only been a big leaguer for 48 hours. It was all so much, so fast. Did I deserve it?
A teammate once told me that we deserved all of it. That we beat the odds and made it to the only league that mattered—the big leagues.
Whatever the powers that be wanted to give us for showing up should be taken. The world was an unfair, crazy, what have you done lately place. Lately, I’d become a big leaguer. How long that would last was anyone’s guess. It didn’t make a lot of sense, but, then again, it never really did.
Just hold on as long as you can. You can figure it all out when it’s over.
And it will be over far too quickly.
Welcome to the big leagues.