Life in the Minors
Lack of comfort leaves Thunderbolts ripe for the picking
Sitting in a rickety old wooden folding chair in front of my locker as we awaited our game against the River City Rascals this past week, two thoughts entered my mind.
The first was, "God, I hope this chair holds me up for one more day." That old green chair, one of those with the wooden slats held together by two-by-four side beams, had definitely seen better days, I'm sure. Much of the paint had chipped off, and the wood that remained creaked and swayed with each movement I made.
My second thought was that it could not possibly be a good idea to be sitting in a brick building with no ventilation on a day when the temperature outside was near 100 and the humidity was not far behind.
The "clubhouse" at T.R. Hughes Ballpark was much more like a clubhouse sandwich than a typical stadium clubhouse. There was a little bit of this and a little bit of that put inside of it, but in the end it just left us hungry for more.
There was a shower room, which included a huge metal pillar in the middle of it with a few shower heads attached to it, a bathroom area with two urinals and a couple of stalls and a couple of sinks, and five short rows of lockers for players and coaches. There was also a trainer's table at the back of the room and a short table for the Rascals' clubbie to leave food for us to eat, standard stuff like a few loaves of bread and a couple of bottles of peanut butter -- one creamy and one crunchy -- and a few bottles of various jellies.
The problem was that the clubhouse lacked two big things, perhaps the most vital considering the brutally hot and humid summers in the St. Louis area -- functional air conditioning. The other missing component was a window. Sure there was a little room air conditioner stuck into the wall, but hoping to cool a room of that size with an air conditioner that small was like trying to cook a hamburger on a match. It just wasn't happening.
During our six-day road trip through the St. Louis area, the weather was very hot and humid to say the least. Our first stop of the week was against the Gateway Grizzlies, near East St. Louis. While the weather was pretty hot there, it seemed a lot cooler because we were able to avenge a three-game sweep at the hands of the Grizzlies at our place with a sweep of our own.
Traveling across the river to face River City was a little bit of a tougher task. The mercury rose a few ticks and unlike in Gateway, we had no place to cool our jets between batting practice and our game. The Grizzlies had a newly constructed clubhouse, complete with central air conditioning, TVs with satellite channels, refrigerators stocked with all the drinks we needed, and an office for coaches. The coaches' office included our own TV setup, our own fridge, and a separate shower and bathroom as well.
In River City, I felt a lot more like a pizza than a professional baseball coach, as I could almost feel myself baking in that little red brick oven, and it sure did smell like cheese in there at times. The first day, we tried to make the best of it, as a couple of our players took a whack at trying to get more out of that little AC unit. It didn't work.
Next, our all-star reliever, Anthony Rebyanski, ripped off a piece of cardboard from one of our bat boxes, to re-direct the cooler air toward our players. That was unsuccessful as well.
One of our starting pitchers, Eric Fussell, even tried to cool the room by running cold water out of the shower heads.
Working logically, we then tried to beat the heat with the door open instead of closed. While there was a slight breeze coming through occasionally, the breeze was still whizzing in at a not-so-cool 98 degrees or so. As night fell, little gnats started to make their way into the clubhouse, quickly dismissing that strategy.
That first night, our catcher, J.P. Lowen, and Rebyanski both displayed some minor heat-related symptoms. J.P. had minor heat stroke, and needed an ice bath and a day off to recuperate.
Having endured my own bout of not-so-minor heat stroke during my second season as pitching coach with the Dubois County Dragons in 2002, I quickly became very hydration-conscious. That night, I went and bought a full case of bottled water and a few Gatorade Propels to bring to the field each afternoon.
The second day, our hitting coach, Ronnie Deck, got a little more resourceful. Noticing a standing fan in the public bathroom in the stadium itself the previous day, Ronnie snuck his way upstairs on day two of our series and relocated the device to our clubhouse. It helped, but not very much.
By that point, our guys knew we just had to wear the heat and discomfort, which was disappointing, considering the Rascals' stadium was a pretty, 5,000-seat facility with many fan-friendly features.
Sure, minor league stadiums of previous decades featured many situations just like this, and sure, I have even been to several of them that are still in use. But after coming from our park, with our carpeted, air-conditioned, cable TV'd environment, to Gateway and then to River City, it was a letdown. It is, after all, the year 2007. Man has walked on the moon, Hank Aaron's home run record is soon to fall, scientists have cloned an African wildcat, a carp, a dog and a water buffalo, among other things, and you can buy a car on eBay. But somehow, you just can't have air conditioning that works in a ballpark clubhouse.
Showers after B.P. and before the game were a waste of time, because we'd start perspiring again as soon as we stepped out of the shower -- if you even ever stopped, that is. The best strategy was to just sit there and move as little as possible for every moment you had to be in there.
So when it was time to roll out of town following our final game of the series on Wednesday, we were all ready to get the heck out of there. Besides the brick oven of a clubhouse, we also lost two of three there, so the whole experience was just not a good one.
But of course, it is hard to complain about getting paid to do something we really enjoy. Uncomfortable as it may have been, it was still baseball and we are professionals. We have to endure a lot at this level -- long bus rides, night after night spent sleeping in motels, and months and months of takeout food, so I guess three days in a bad clubhouse wasn't so bad. But I know that I will not be spending any time in a sauna soon, and I don't think I'll be ordering a pizza for a while.