In early 2012, Arden Zwelling traveled to Mexico to report on its Pacific League in Sinaloa — the home state of current Toronto Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna. And while the characters have since changed, the song remains the same for veterans trying to earn a salary off their arms and bats, and the prospects who ply their trade there with the hope that, one day, they’ll get their shot at The Show.
If not for the crime and atrocity, Mazatlán would be just wonderful. It sits on the west coast of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, surrounded by vast empty terrain lined with tremendous, rolling mountains that look like waves frozen in time. The canyons give way to an extensive, mostly low-class city dotted with convenience stores and humble street vendors selling food and bracelets and drugs. A beachfront strip of hotels and restaurants curves inward at the water as if the ocean was pregnant, wave after wave of warm tide crashing into the sandy wall of its belly. It’s December, which means today is blindingly sunny and a dry 30 degrees; the same as yesterday and the same as tomorrow. Whatever paradise looks like, this must be close.
But every so often there is a not-so-subtle reminder of why this is the last place you want to be. Mazatlán is Sinaloa Cartel territory, controlled by Mexico’s largest organized crime syndicate, widely considered to be the most powerful drug tracking operation in the world. They dominate this land like Theodosius ruled Rome.
In 2010, suspected members of the Sinaloa Cartel kidnapped a rival Juárez Cartel member, killed him, dismembered him and stitched his face to a soccer ball, which they left outside the city hall in neighbouring Los Mochis. Last year, two men were gunned down outside the swanky Las Flores Resort, located in Mazatlán’s hotel-heavy Golden Zone, which is meant to be a safe haven for tourists. In October, gunmen opened fire on a group outside a liquor store in central Mazatlán, killing five. Sometimes it feels like this is the most beautiful and the most horrendous place in the world. Which is a lot like how it feels to play baseball here.
Cartel-ravaged Sinaloa, of all places, is home to the Mexican Pacific League, one of the Caribbean leagues collectively known as winter ball. From October through January, eight teams along the Pacific coast play a 68-game season and a three-round playoffs to determine the Mexican champions, who will represent the country at the Caribbean Series, the biggest baseball stage in the region. Teams dress 29 players per game, including a maximum of six who can come from outside Mexico. The level of competition is equivalent to somewhere between double-A and triple-A in the United States.
In the past, winter ball was a desirable place for major leaguers to go. It was a rite of passage for young players and a comfortable retreat for veterans. The pay was decent — anywhere from $7,000 to $12,000 per month, all tax-free, all cash — and players were mostly left to their own devices, and they relished the relaxed atmosphere.
Most considered it a paid vacation where you have to swing the bat a couple times every day. Several of the MLB’s best players played winter ball: Roberto Alomar, Ricky Henderson, Tony Gwynn, Pete Rose, Jim Rice, Rick Burleson, and on and on.
Today things are different. In the U.S., player salaries and endorsement revenues have soared, making the humble winter-league salaries seem like peanuts to those with a major-league contract. Top prospects now command high salaries straight out of high school and feel entitled to a full off-season away from the game. And with much of the region awash in political and social instability, many players question their safety playing in the leagues.
Winter ball now attracts either veterans who have worn out their welcome in the big leagues or minor-league journeymen who need the money. In other words, those who don’t have a choice.
And a player without a choice is a player helpless to the system. These teams are businesses more than anything, and to be successful, this particular business needs people to show up to the stadium and buy beer. But the fans in the Caribbean leagues, who shade more toward the lower-middle class end of the social spectrum, don’t shell out pesos to watch a loser. When seats are empty, management is not patient.
The Venados de Mazatlán — like all Mexican Teams — expect immediate results when they invest in an import player. Those who don’t perform at a high level can immediately lose their jobs within days of arrival. With just three months to make the playoffs, GMs don’t wait around for players to break out of slumps — there are plenty of other baseball mercenaries to take their place. That pressure is palpable. Ball players used to go to winter ball for fun. Now they go to play for their lives.
Peace and quiet are elusive in Mazatlán, a city with seemingly more cars than people. If the constant traffic doesn’t rattle you, the endless music and occasional gunfire probably will. Those who prefer a tranquil moment simply take what they can get.
On this Tuesday afternoon, Venados first baseman John Lindsey finds his at the bottom of the ramped tunnel entrance to the home clubhouse at Mazatlán’s 14,000-seat Teodoro Mariscal Stadium. Slouched on a stool wearing long shorts and a bright red Venados training shirt, Lindsey fiddles with a tablet computer. Some 10 metres behind him, the cramped Venados clubhouse rages with players screaming Spanish at each other over loud Latin music and passing around a bottle of tequila.
Two large pizzas arrive about an hour before game time, and the locker room erupts as players fight over who gets a slice. Lindsey isn’t interested in any of it. When you’re nearing 35, the body requires a slightly higher grade of fuel than pizza and booze. Lindsey keeps a loaf of bread, peanut butter and a tube of squeeze jelly hidden in his locker. Earlier, he assembled his pre-game snack using the bench in front of his locker as a table. The clubhouse was only half-full at that point, and Lindsey tried to be covert, but his spontaneous culinary assembly still drew a small yet eager crowd. Soon, Lindsey was handing out sandwiches like he worked at a lunch truck. All he could do was laugh.
Lindsey is an easy man to like. Warm and affable with a toothy, almost cartoonish smile, you can practically see his tail wagging when he’s got a baseball bat in his hands. After being drafted out of a Mississippi high school in 1995, he spent 16 seasons working his way up through the minor leagues, only reaching triple-A at the age of 30 in 2007.
Time and again he was passed over for a big league call-up until 2010, when he had the season of his life, winning the Pacific Coast League batting title by hitting .353 for the Albuquerque Isotopes and finally making The Show with the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was the story of the season for the Dodgers, who were well out of the playoff race and needed something positive to talk about in September.
Lindsey enjoyed a month in the spotlight as the nice guy who proved years of hard work and determination can pay off. Today, slumped on a stool in a weathered dugout looking out over a yellow, sunstained field, that memory seems so distant.
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Lindsey is in Mazatlán for his third season with the Venados primarily because he needs the money, but also because he wants to show scouts and front-office types he can still play after injuries caught up to him the past two years.
Lindsey is as good as he’s going to be at hitting baseballs. He’s now reached the age when health and hardiness, an aging body’s ability to withstand the grind, take precedence over developing skill. Which is one reason why this is a bloody awful time for Lindsey to be battling a throbbing pain in his right hamstring. Best case is a strain, worst is a tear. Mazatlán tells Lindsey they’ll get him an ultrasound or an MRI to assess the damage, but so far those promises have yet to materialize. What’s worse is the Venados de Mazatlán are absolutely reeling.
The Mexican season is split into two halves with teams awarded points for their standing at the end of each. Mazatlán finished fourth in the first half, earning five of the eight-and-a-half points needed to make the playoffs. Finishing anywhere but last in the season’s second leg would guarantee the team a post-season berth. But the Venados started the second half by losing 12 of their first 14 games, averaging less than three runs a contest. This colossal slide is testing the patience of the fan base.
One of the oldest axioms of Mexican winter ball is “win and they will come.” And when they come they will drink. Heavily. Baseball here is good business, but Mazatlán’s loyalty sways dramatically with the performance of its team. Attendance numbers can rise or plummet by the thousand from game to game, based on results. And ownership can’t make money from empty seats.
Counting the pennies in Mazatlán is Grupo Modelo, Mexico’s largest brewing company, which owns the Venados. Modelo relies primarily on admission and beer sales at the stadium to fund the team’s operations and then pockets any profit. Team management feels tremendous pressure to please Modelo, swapping players in and out of their roster like a puzzle with too many pieces. Imported American players, perhaps unfairly expected to be the team’s best, are especially vulnerable when the team is losing. That rug is pulled quickly.
Lindsey, so far, has survived. His friend Kevin Howard, a Blue Jays minor leaguer who served as Mazatlán’s everyday third baseman from the start of the season, hasn’t. He hit a slump in the middle of Mazatlán’s losing streak, and when he showed up to the park Tuesday afternoon, he was handed his release.
“That’s winter ball,” Howard says, lugging his bag out the back of the clubhouse. “If you aren’t doing good, you’re done.” The 30-year-old at least has a job lined up with the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats. There is a degree of certainty in his life. Others don’t have that luxury and need the team to turn things around if they’re going to continue to play in front of scouts.
If ever this team needed a win, it’s tonight. But on this night, the first of three games against the Guasave Algodoneros, everything keeps falling apart. Adam Heether, another minor-league journeyman, who was signed this morning to replace Howard, opens the bottom of the first inning with a slap single into left field. Two pitches later the slow pace of the Mexican game gets to him and he is picked off at first. Mazatlán musters just three more hits in the game. They do score two runs — one on a wild pitch with Lindsey at the plate and Heether scurrying home from third — but it isn’t nearly enough as Guasave cruises to a 6–2 victory.
Lindsey, his hamstring screaming with every step, goes 0-for-4, fighting off high inside pitches all night from pitchers who have clearly read his scouting report. Lindsey doesn’t run well but still swings the bat like a sledgehammer, trying to turn the tide in a game, and a season, that has fallen off the rails. If not for the team’s sake, then for his own.
An hour-and-a-half before Wednesday night’s game with Guasave, Venados manager Miguel Ojeda leans back in his chair and lets a round, viscous glob of tobacco-tinged saliva roll off the end of his lower lip and into a Pacifico Light cup. His inquisitive eyes dart out above the rim of the Modelo-sponsored vessel as he surveys tonight’s lineup sketched on the back of an old notepad. His office is bare save the small TV in the corner currently playing cartoons on mute, a locker behind him propping up a portrait of the Virgin Mary and a half empty bottle of brandy staring back at him from his desk.
Ojeda draws a thin line down the side of the lineup with his pen, pondering his choices as another splash of dip drops like a brick into the beer cup. Managers always struggle with whether to make drastic changes or stay the course when their teams are slumping. Occasionally a lineup juggle helps; sometimes players simply need time in a particular spot to get comfortable. Ojeda anguishes over these choices, falls asleep thinking about them. Some decisions are harder than others. One of his easiest is penciling his own name in at catcher.
Two months ago, the 36-year-old never thought he would be in charge of this team. Venados GM Andres Cruz made a splash in the off-season, hiring his close friend and Mexican Pacific League legend Homar Rojas as manager.
Cruz and Rojas grew up in Mexico playing against each other, a bond that extended into their professional careers. But halfway through the season, Rojas lost the clubhouse. The reasons for the mutiny differ depending on who you ask. Some say Rojas was too strict and disciplined, others say he did not communicate well. All that really matters is that 47 games into Rojas’ tenure, Cruz called a late-night press conference to announce he had fired one of his best friends and replaced him with the team’s starting catcher.
“Homar is a great guy, a great manager,” Ojeda says, sitting where Rojas did just a week prior. “But he was too quiet. If you don’t trust your players and you don’t let them play, then you’re going to end up getting fired.”
Both Cruz and Ojeda have deep ties to the Venados organization. Cruz, a mechanical engineer until he took over management of the Venados in 2010, pitched for Mazatlán in the ’90s when he was a double-A prospect in the Kansas City Royals organization. He won a Mexican league title with Venados in 1992–93, earning the right to play in the Caribbean Series, which was held in Mazatlán that year.
Ojeda just missed playing with Cruz, joining the team in 1995 when he was 20. Ojeda played four years in the majors, bouncing from San Diego to Seattle to Colorado and finally to Texas, serving as a backup catcher at each stop. He hasn’t missed a season with Mazatlán since 1995 and is on the cusp of becoming the team’s all-time leader in home runs. “The guys, they have all the respect in the world for Miguel. He handles everything so well,” Cruz says. “I don’t know if anybody else can do what he can.”
Ojeda, tall and strikingly handsome with thick, black hair and a young man’s goatee, has always been a master of the game’s cerebral side. But being catcher and manager simultaneously is like trying to pilot an airplane and coordinate air traffic at the same time.
On a micro level, you manage the pitcher, calling every single pitch he throws and devising a plan to attack each hitter. On a macro level, you manage the entire game, calculating endless situations with an absurd number of variables. What inning is it? What’s the count? Who’s on deck? What does the other team have left on their bench? What about in their bullpen? Do I have a pitcher in my pen with the right combination of rest, confidence and ability to get this next guy out?
And then he has to hit. Baseball players spend entire careers trying to figure out how to hit the damn ball. For Ojeda, hitting is just the game within the game within the even greater game. “Sometimes it drives me crazy,” Ojeda admits in a rare unguarded moment. “I have the game situations very clear in my head. I program that the night before. But the things that happen day to day, that’s something you can’t plan.” In the cards for Ojeda tonight are extra innings, and one more ball than the renaissance manager can juggle.
The Venados take a 1–0 lead into the eighth inning on the back of the team’s 35-year-old ace, Walter Silva, who allows just four hits over seven innings. But in the eighth he’s pulled in favour of imported Minnesota Twins reliever Anthony Slama, who surrenders a leadoff double which eventually comes around to tie the game. The contest soldiers into extra innings, the players all slaves to a game without a clock as Wednesday slowly becomes Thursday.
An opportunity presents itself in the bottom of the 12th when Mazatlán loads the bases with one out. Ojeda wants desperately to put on a suicide squeeze and go for the win, but there’s a minor problem: he’s standing on second base after singling earlier in the inning. He tries to flash the squeeze sign into the dugout from 120 feet away, but it isn’t seen or maybe it gets lost in translation. Either way, the batter strikes out and the man behind him flies out to end the threat.
Guasave goes on to take a one-run lead in the top of the 14th and seals the win in the bottom of the frame when Ojeda grounds into a double play. Cruz, watching from his field-level box next to the dugout, pounds his fist into the table in front of him and leaves in a hurry. He will return to the stadium the next morning with another roster shakeup in mind. After a loss like this one — Mazatlán’s fourth in a row — the players can sense it. Like watching a tidal wave bearing down on a ship, you know it’s going to hit; all that’s left is to see who goes overboard. That’s the feeling they sleep with tonight in beautiful Mazatlán.
John Lindsey III, a smaller, chubbier version of the Venados’ cleanup hitter, absolutely refuses to sit still. Lying across his father’s lap in an ocean-view resort suite so many miles from home, he squirms under his dad’s massive hands, rolling repeatedly from his back to his side, demanding to be released. “He doesn’t really want to be let go,” his father says knowingly. “He’s just restless.”
The four-year-old John — one of more than a dozen Johns in the sprawling Lindsey family — started pre-school in Mississippi this year, getting used to the routine of spending his days with other children of similar size and interests. But when your dad is a baseball player, away from home for 10 months of the year, nothing is ever routine. “It’s tough,” Lindsey says. “Right now he’s accustomed to going to school every morning and then all of a sudden he’s up and gone for a month, [to a] country where none of the kids understand him. His attitude gets a little out of whack every once and while.”
No one understands that better than Christa, who signed on to the baseball life nearly eight years ago when big John Lindsey asked her to marry him. She spends the bulk of her time at home while Lindsey lives out of a suitcase in some far away hotel. Christa visits her husband on the road when she can get time off work, like here in Mazatlán, where she has brought John III so everyone can be together for Christmas. But the family still relies on her income to supplement Lindsey’s high-five-figure salary.
Christa works at a U.S. military training facility in Mississippi, posing as a civilian in a mock town built to mimic Afghanistan as troops engage in battle-scenario training. She gets a jarring reminder of her work life in Mazatlán, where army convoys often rumble by, four Humvees deep, a half-dozen soldiers in each, dressed in heavy black from head to toe and carrying M4A1 carbine assault rifles, a weapon designed specifically for urban warfare. “I guess I’m a little used to it, but not to this extreme,” Christa says. “When I first saw it I was terrified.”
Christa was in Houston with John III for Lindsey’s first major league at-bat against the Astros on Sept. 9, 2010, and for his first major league start two days later. Lindsey still has the lineup card with his name on it. But since that day, his priorities have shifted. He wagers he has about five years left in his legs and wants to make each one count, taking the most lucrative offers that come his way, hopefully in Japan, where minor leaguers get paid like major leaguers.
Meanwhile, Lindsey has been taking online courses through the University of Phoenix, working toward a business degree that he hopes will set him up for a job post-baseball. The way he sees it, he can go in one of two directions: either find a front-office job with a major-league team and experience life on the other side of the desk, or pursue his true passion, teaching.
For the Lindsey family, baseball is no longer about dreams. This is business. And at winter ball, in Mexico especially, the business side of the game lurks around every corner. By the end of the series with Guasave, Lindsey has sat out two straight games as the team mulls over what to do with him. He feels healthy enough to at least be the team’s designated hitter, and he marches into Ojeda’s office daily to tell him he doesn’t need a perfect hamstring to swing the bat. But Ojeda and Cruz keep stalling. They tell him he is irreplaceable and will not be a casualty of the team’s prolonged slump. But in Mexico, words are worth about as much as the currency.
Much of what is fuelling the boiling panic in Mazatlán is the fact that no one here seems to know how to deal with this situation. The Venados simply do not miss the playoffs. Mazatlán has won 13 league titles, including three in the past seven years. Over that recent stretch, the team played in the Mexican league final six consecutive years. In 2005, they hosted the Caribbean Series and won it with a nearly perfect record. They filled the stadium and then some, with a recorded 14,000 people taking in each game, although anyone who was there will tell you they crammed in many, many more than that.
The stadium was electric and incredibly drunk as the crowd held on to every pitch. Relics of that time still exist today, like the extra outfield bleachers the Venados had installed in order to boost the stadium’s capacity. The expectation of winning still exists too. “You don’t have time to make mistakes here,” says Cruz. “If we cannot win games, we need to make more changes.”
Cruz seems trapped in a Catch-22. He needs to show fans he is doing everything he can to make the playoffs — that way they will come to the games and spend money. But every time he makes a move he spends more money on players, which puts him further in the hole.
If Cruz ends up slightly in the red at the end of the season, Modelo can foot the bill. But a long stretch of unprofitability isn’t acceptable. The Venados spend about $300,000 a month on player and manager salaries, expenses Cruz tries to cover with sponsorships at the stadium and the team’s lucrative television contract. But nothing compares to winning.
Beer at the stadium is cheaper than water, and no one is ever cut off. When the team is winning and in the playoffs, the stadium is packed and Cruz can raise prices on his captive market. But when the team loses, the fans simply don’t show. For his part, Cruz openly accepts the team’s deal with its fickle fans. “The thing is they are mad, and they have reason when you lose like we have been,” Cruz says. “You need to play for them. If we make the playoffs they will come back.”
None of this means anything to the North American players Cruz tries to bring in for the winter, but it is why so many get chewed up by the system. The cutthroat business of winter ball is actively contributing to its decline. “Every year it’s getting tougher and tougher to get guys to come down here,” Cruz says defeatedly. “We rely on Latin players now more than ever.”
Cruz scouts intensively from February to September, combing the American minor-league ranks and the Mexican summer league, which features some of Mexico’s best players who haven’t caught on in MLB organizations. In terms of non-Mexican imports, he’s fishing for a very specific brand of player, usually targeting washed-up veterans at the tail end of their careers or out-of-work younger players who need exposure to scouts.
Chris Nowak is the latter. After bouncing around the minor-league systems of Tampa Bay and Milwaukee for the past eight years, the tall 28-year-old found himself entering this off-season without a job. When his agent contacted him in early December about an opportunity in scout-heavy Mazatlán — scouts apparently enjoy the beach — he jumped at it. Sweetening the deal was that Cruz told Nowak they would use the month of December as a type of audition and that if Nowak played well enough they would bring him back next year.
But just five games and 21 at-bats into that audition, Nowak was let go. Cruz, still simmering from Wednesday night’s loss, claimed third baseman Marshall McDougall off Guasave’s roster early Thursday morning through a loophole in the Mexican-league rules, jettisoned Nowak in the process. He called McDougall at his hotel and told him that when he arrived at the stadium that afternoon, he would be changing in the home clubhouse, not the visitor’s. He never did call Nowak. “I showed up for the game and he called me in. He just said it was nothing I did. It wasn’t because of my play or anything like that,” Nowak says. “He said the opportunity to get Marshall was a big deal to them.”
The unfortunate thing about being a baseball player is you don’t get to write your own resumé. When scouts and major-league executives look at Nowak’s stats and see a guy who could only stick with a Mexican team for five games and hit just .238 in that time, it doesn’t bode well. “I would’ve loved to just get 20 more at-bats and then I would’ve been fine with them doing whatever,” Nowak says. “I had a couple bad at-bats, but it’s my first time seeing live pitching in two months. And they knew that.”
Of course, the management in Mazatlán has other concerns. Tuesday’s attendance was noticeably thin and by Wednesday the members of the sparse crowd who did show up were passing around paper bags to cover their faces. You can’t drink a beer through a paper bag.
With a handful of home games remaining, the team needs to show its fans it is doing everything it can to make the playoffs. Swapping Nowak for McDougall — who is playing through a bad knee injury — may not make the most baseball sense, but it is excellent PR. “Chris might say it wasn’t fair, what we did to him. And it’s totally understandable. But he should know that when you’re a foreign player, you have to do great things to keep your job,” Ojeda says. “When you take the guy’s job away from him, it’s tough. I know he’s got a family. But it’s baseball. If you don’t do well, you’re going to be removed.”
Mercifully, Mazatlán finally earns a win Thursday night, the answer to the team’s problems coming in the form of Miguel Gonzalez, a 27-year-old pitcher and former Boston Red Sox prospect from Guadalajara, who decides to take matters into his own hands.
In front of 11,000 empty blue seats, Gonzalez ruthlessly attacks the strike zone and carries a no-hitter into the ninth inning. Cruz watches intently from his box. He was the last pitcher to throw a no-hitter at this park in a 1990 playoff game. He’s been waiting two decades to see someone follow him up.
But after getting ahead of the first hitter in the ninth with two straight strikes, Gonzalez throws a pitch he regrets the second it rolls off his fingers. A slider that was supposed to break down and away from the hitter comes in high, bending directly over the plate. Jose Felix does not miss, crushing the hanging pitch to deep left-centre field. It is the only home run of the series. Cruz slams his fist into that weathered table for the second night in a row. “I think I almost broke my hand,” Cruz says later. “I shouldn’t get so mad. We won.”
Mazatlán’s spacious stadium, like many things at winter ball, lies through its teeth. The park’s walls claim its size to be 325 feet down each foul line and 400 feet to dead centre. But you don’t need a tape measure to tell that the lines are closer to 340 and centre field is more like 425. Add to that the fact Mazatlán sits at sea level with a cool wind blowing in from the outfield on most nights and this becomes one of the toughest parks in Mexico to hit a ball out of.
Friday’s batting practice is no different. Balls hit deep to the outfield elicit cries of excitement that quickly turn mute as they fall helplessly in front of the Pacifico Light advertisements lining the warning track.
Cue John Lindsey, strained hamstring and all, stepping to the plate to take his cuts like he has so many times since he started playing this game in Mississippi backyards a couple of decades ago. He stands stiffly upright next to the plate, balancing himself by holding his bat out in front of him with his left hand while clutching his belt with his right.
He slowly brings the bat back in both hands and pivots the lumber like a paddle up and down repeatedly behind his head as he gives a slight upward nod to let the pitcher know he’s ready. The ball comes in like it should in batting practice: 60-some miles per hour, waist high, out over the plate. Lindsey sizes it up for a half-second before taking a small step in with his left foot and cocking the bat. His hands tighten and with every one of his 250 pounds he pushes his twig straight through the ball, arms tense, eyes closed, head down. It’s one of the rare moments that Lindsey doesn’t smile.
Tomorrow he will show up at the stadium and sit in front of his blue locker with one leg on either side of a bench for a few moments, pondering whether to get changed or maybe make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Before he even has a chance to decide, a coach will pass by, pat him on the back and simply say “I’m sorry.”
Little did Lindsey know, a press release went out earlier in the day announcing he was being placed on the disabled list, effectively ending his season. The promised ultrasounds and MRIs never happened. Turns out, they wanted to bring in an American pitcher, Kip Wells, a 10-year major-league veteran who accepted a handsome payday to make two starts for Mazatlán and maybe fill a few more seats. Lindsey, for all his canine-like loyalty, was simply tossed on the scrap heap. Another casualty of the cutthroat business he’s trapped in.
But today — in Mazatlán, at batting practice, with his arms extended in full follow through, the bat rigid in his left hand like its weightless — he feels nothing at all. You have to experience it to truly understand, but when you really crush a baseball it doesn’t feel like you hit anything. Your hands don’t reverberate; your muscles don’t twitch. Like the knife in a chef’s hand, the bat does all the work.
Lindsey hit that batting practice ball so true he probably thought he missed it. But as he picked up his head, all he could see was a little white dot sailing majestically into the left field seats. “Y’all gotta move them fences in,” Lindsey cracks with a tremendous grin as he heads back to the dugout, feeling validated for just a moment. When he gets there he finds a lineup card without his name on it and stares at it intently, as if he can will the letters to rearrange themselves. He lingers in that spot for what feels like an hour, melancholy personified. He wore it all with that swing. Mississippi, dedication, perseverance, all of it leading him here to the outer track of paid baseball, where so many horses run their last race. All so he could have that fleeting moment when he watched a small white sphere take flight and nothing else mattered. It was just baseball in this strange paradise.
This story was originally published in the Feb. 13, 2012 edition of Sportsnet magazine.
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