Minor Teams, Major Dreams
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
The dream is never so pure as in the heady, spartan days of rookie ball, where the high-school hotshots and wide-eyed foreign players arrive believing they can buck the nearly hopeless odds against their advancement.
The dream is never so desperate as in the cutthroat environs of Class AAA, where careers on the decline converge with those on the rise in a perennial tug-of-war for survival.
And the dream is never so savored as in the decadence of the major leagues, where players are pampered with the extravagance of some feudal ruler. The luckiest ones become heroes, millionaires, cultural icons. And the rest keep dreaming.
In the Puget Sound area, a mere 80 miles separate these extremes of the professional baseball existence, a straight shot down I-5. Safeco Field is the axis of the polar extremes - the Everett AquaSox of the Class A Northwest League to the north, and the Tacoma Rainiers of the AAA Pacific Coast League to the south.
The three venues are close enough that one can drive them in about five innings of an M's game. And yet they are worlds apart, a corridor of nearly constant danger - injury, sloth, poor performance, bad timing - that can undermine a career at any point.
Tacoma pitcher Melvin Bunch, who served two stints with the M's this year, mused about the difference between the two levels.
"I guess, in comparison, from here to there," he said, "it's like heaven and, pardon my French, hell."
In a 48-hour span last week, we focused on three players who reside at those various stages of their baseball dreams:
-- Everett's Aquilino Lopez, a 19-year-old Dominican pitcher making his first trip away from home, carrying his family's dreams for a better life.
-- Tacoma's Bunch, a 27-year-old who has had four stints in the major leagues with Kansas City and Seattle and can't quite stick. "Being young is great," he said. "You're a prospect. Being my age, you're a suspect."
-- Mariner outfielder Ozzie Timmons, 28, very likely the 25th man on the Mariners' 25-man roster, trying to extend his major-league stay while never forgetting how lucky he is.
Here are their stories.
Aquilino Lopez: Looking to climb
A dazzling view of the Cascade mountains surrounds Aquilino Lopez as he sits on the back porch of his host family's sprawling country home in the Lakewood section of Arlington. Two Latin teammates from the Everett AquaSox, who also live in the home, listen to merengue music in the living room.
The climate and topography, Lopez says, remind him of his hometown - Villa Altagralia, just west of the capital city of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
"I like it here (in the United States) because there is not a lot of corruption," Lopez said, speaking through an interpreter. "It's hard to get away from it in the Dominican. You have to work hard and move ahead. Sports is the best way."
Lopez comes from a background of extreme poverty. He is the youngest of Primitivo Roa and Ana Lidia Lopez's seven kids, one of whom, a sister, died of alcohol poisoning after moving to the United States and "falling in with the wrong crowd."
Aquilino is single-minded in his determination to avoid such "corruption," a word he uses frequently and with disdain.
In the Dominican, baseball is a religion, and the competition for a professional contract is fierce. The potential benefits of a baseball life are readily visible in the mansions of stars like Sammy Sosa and Pedro Martinez - Aquilino's hero - that stand amidst the squalor.
"There's a lot of competition, so you have to be just a little bit better, and you have to be able to leave the island," Lopez said. "You have to have talent and someone has to give you an opportunity."
Aquilino's opportunity came two years ago when a cousin, Felix, steered him to the Mariners' summer-league program. He was impressive enough that M's scout Ramon de los Santos offered him a contract, three weeks shy of his 17th birthday.
Lopez played last year on the Mariners' Dominican Summer League team and earned the next step on the ladder to the big leagues - an invitation to spring training in Peoria, Ariz., where he arrived in March with lavish dreams but almost no knowledge of English.
Now he is in Everett, and on this day, Lopez and his buddies are dragging. The bus coming back from Everett's game the previous night in Southern Oregon didn't arrive in Everett until 9 that morning. Their next game, at home against Yakima, is just a few hours off. Lopez will be on the mound for the AquaSox, making the 13th start of his professional career.
So far, his fledgling career is going well. He will bring a 5-5 record into this start, but he leads the Northwest League with 76 strikeouts and is among the leaders with a 3.88 earned-run average.
"He's a strike thrower with stuff, and that's a good thing to build on," said Terry Pollreisz, Everett's manager.
Facing Yakima, Aquilino's fatigue shows through. Before the game is three batters old, Lopez has already committed three errors, bobbling a grounder and making two wild pickoff attempts, letting in a run.
But on a pleasant night at Everett's Memorial Stadium, where a man on stilts greets fans and a pig brings balls to the umpire, Lopez settles down to blank Yakima for the next five innings, earning victory No. 6.
Lopez has yet to venture the short distance to Safeco Field, and yet in the abstract it is the focus of his existence.
"Everything I do is playing baseball, and all I want to do is make the big leagues so I can help my family," he said.
Already, Lopez is sending part of his meager salary of approximately $1,000 a month back home, but in his dreams, he is able to provide security and comfort for his father, a laborer at an orange-juice factory, and his mother.
It is the same dream that drives hundreds of Dominican youngsters, most of whom never see them realized as baseball's natural selection process takes over. But others, such as Sosa and Martinez, become beacons of hope.
"They went through the same thing we did," Lopez said. "They went through the rookie league, and they were poor, too. In order to get where they are, they had to work hard. Nothing got in their way."
Melvin Bunch: One more chance
The distinctive twang of Texarkana, Texas, still resonates in the voice of Melvin Bunch - and by his own admission, he loves to talk, and talk loudly. He is at the center of the Tacoma Rainiers' clubhouse culture, wise-cracking, needling, cajoling. "He's got a lot of personality" is the way Manager Dave Myers puts it.
In Kansas City, during a previous life as a top Royal prospect, Bunch thoroughly charmed media and teammates with his down-home humor. Reliever Jeff Montgomery dubbed him Melvin Gump, though Bunch told reporters to call him L.L. Cool Mel. After he earned his first career victory with six shutout innings against the White Sox in August 1995, a 23-year-old kid with equal measures of stuff and spunk, he was quoted as saying, "It's not a big shock to me. Hopefully, I'll win 299 more games before I get through with baseball."
But none of that persona was apparent when the Mariners called Bunch up on two separate occasions this year, his return to the majors after a four-year absence - still 299 wins short of 300.
In five games, he rang up an 11.70 ERA. He scarcely made an impact on or off the field, and that eats at him.
"I think I'm a little bit cockier down here than what I am up there," he said. "If I ever get that chance to get back up, I'm just going to be myself."
Getting back up, of course, is the unspoken mission of everyone who plays for the Rainiers. Tacoma is just a heartbeat away from the majors, but 9,600-seat Cheney Stadium has a decidedly minor-league feel. The home and visiting dressing rooms, separated only by a hallway, would fit into one small corner of the elegant Mariner clubhouse at Safeco Field.
"After you travel with us a couple of times, you realize there's only one team that travels correctly, and that's the big-league team," Myers said. "The rest of us just make do."
Bunch is making a strong case for a return trip to Seattle when rosters expand next week. Having developed an exotic new pitch - a split-fingered changeup - Bunch is 9-1 for the Rainiers. He led the PCL in ERA until a poor outing the previous night against Colorado Springs, in which he gave up seven runs in six innings, bumped it up to 3.27.
His wife, April, and 3-year-old daughter, Ashlyn, joined Melvin at his Tacoma apartment after the All-Star break in July. Before the move, they had stayed back in Texarkana as April studied for her degree in registered nursing. The separations are getting increasingly tough for Melvin, who turns 28 after the season.
In fact, after three meandering seasons in the minors from 1996 to '98 that even included a demotion to AA in '97, Bunch told April that this year was going to be his last shot, that he would retire if he didn't make it back to the big leagues.
"I've told some guys that, too," he said. "They're like, `You're 27 years old, you're still young.' I guess most guys start maturing when they're that age, and that's when they get back to the big leagues."
But that's also the age that many pitchers start getting shunted aside for younger arms, brighter prospects.
Bunch was one of those bright prospects back in 1995 when he came out of nowhere to make the Royals' Opening Day roster, having made the jump from Class A. His future, it seemed, had arrived.
That led to the emotional moment when he called his father to tell him he was going to the majors and heard him break down in tears. Melvin's dad, regional manager at a bread company, was renowned in Texarkana for his fastpitch softball ability, which once earned him a tryout with the Texas Rangers.
"He's living a dream through me right now," Melvin said.
Bunch eventually fizzled with the Royals and wound up back in Class AAA Omaha. Now it's AAA Tacoma.
Nevertheless, those thoughts of retirement have been expunged from Bunch's mind. Getting another taste of big-league life did that, reminding him just what the stakes are.
"That's the thing that keeps me going," he said. "Up there, it's like heaven, because you get everything given to you - but you still have to prove you can pitch."
And Bunch is ready to seize that next chance, maybe the last chance.
"I'm not saying I'm going to go up there and dominate the big-league hitters or anything like that. But I know I can go up there and do a better job than what I've done. I know it."
Ozzie Timmons: Hanging in there
It was that time when careers are forged, when opportunity beckons and performance rises to meet the moment. But for Ozzie Timmons, something went strangely awry.
The Cubs, back in 1995, had ensconced the 24-year-old Timmons as their starting left fielder, pulling him out of a platoon with Scott Bullett, and he responded with a hitting tear.
In one week, he went 11 for 22 with four doubles, two homers, seven RBI and seven runs.
Then, on the seventh day, Timmons rested, but the Cubs didn't. They swung a deal with Houston for Luis Gonzalez, and Timmons moved to the bench, marking the end of Timmons' hopes of breaking into the Cub lineup full time.
"Tony Muser (now the Royal manager, then a Cub coach) said to me, `Man, any other time a guy did what you did when they got a chance to play every day, they'd still be playing every day,' " Timmons said.
After that, Timmons' career sputtered. He hit .200 in 65 games for the Cubs in 1996 and wound up back in the minors, and then was traded the following season to Cincinnati. In two years with the Red organization, he played in just six major-league games. This spring, he signed with the Mariners, and on July 15 was called up to the big leagues.
For the past month, Timmons has known each day could bring a demotion back to Tacoma. In 21 at-bats, he has a .143 average, hardly inviting job security.
"If they're going to send me down, they'll let me know," he said. "No sense worrying about it every night when I go home."
Timmons still lives in Tacoma, deciding it was easier to make the 30-minute commute than get a new apartment. He interacts easily with Mariner veterans like Ken Griffey Jr. and Jay Buhner, who had gotten to know him from spring training. Check out the clubhouse before a game, seeing Timmons play dominoes with Griffey and banter with Edgar Martinez, and you'd think he was an established veteran rather than a journeyman on the bubble.
"They treat you just like they should, like you're part of the team," he said.
Timmons is wise enough to understand that the extravagant trappings of Safeco Field can lull a player, particularly a fringe player, into a dangerous complacency. He tries to avoid the trap.
"Everything is made easier for you, so it's easier to get comfortable and relaxed, to the point where you forget to do what you need to do to stay prepared," he said. "There's such a thing as being too comfortable down here, and the next thing you know you find yourself struggling."
Timmons tries to embrace the career advice given to him by Jim Piersall, then a Cub outfield instructor. Piersall told the Cub rookies that after a day at the ballpark, they should be so tired that all they want to do is go home and sleep.
Timmons is a former fifth-round draft pick out of the University of Tampa, where he used to be greeted in the gym each day by a picture of alumnus Lou Piniella. Timmons works in the offseason as a substitute teacher in his native Tampa, mostly at the junior-high level, when he's not playing winter ball.
His mother was an elementary-school teacher for 35 years, and he liked the fact that former students would come back and tell her how much she meant to their lives.
"When the kids find out I'm a baseball player, they tend to listen a little more, and I try to give them a little advice here and there," he said. "I want to give something back, be a role model. It's something that I love to do."
So is baseball, and despite the uncertainty, the frustration and the roadblocks, he has no plans to give it up.
"It's not all about money," he said. "I've made a little money, but I love the game. It gets in your blood and you can't get it out. Man, you wake up at 12, go to the park and play a game for a living. I'm not ready for a 9-to-5 job, put it like that."
Team: Class A Everett AquaSox.
Ht: 6-3. Wt: 178.
Hometown: Villa Altagralia, Dominican Republic.
Signed by Mariners: July 3, 1997.
Team: Class AAA Tacoma Rainiers.
Position: Pitcher. Age 27.
Ht: 6-1. Wt: 170.
Hometown: Texarkana, Texas.
Signed by Mariners: Nov. 17, 1998.
Team: Seattle Mariners.
Ht: 6-2. Wt: 220.
Hometown: Tampa, Florida.
Signed by Mariners: March 6, 1999.
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