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April 24, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

A Week in Wilmington

by Jason Parks

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When I travel I like to fall in love. That’s not to suggest I’m out on the road looking for lust, or creeping on any unsuspecting female that happens to find herself in my environment. Love for me is intrigue and inspiration, finding someone with a certain aesthetic quality that I can focus on without the tether of intimacy or even the necessity of communication. I am forever in a search for a diversionary muse, a person or thing capable of deflecting some of my thoughts away from the central task at hand. When I travel, I tend to overload the docket with baseball and baseball-related tasks; I think about the game on the way to the game; I watch batting practice and infield and then I think about batting practice and infield; I watch the game, I think about the game, I write about the game, I think about what I wrote about the game, and then I await the loop to reach its clasp and start all over again. Inserting a muse into this cycle grants my mind the freedom to dream, a distraction from a focus that at times can consume me. When I travel I like to fall in love. On the Greyhound bus from New York City to Wilmington, Delaware, I fell in love with a girl made of plastic.

I was standing at gate 75 in New York City’s Port Authority bus terminal, waiting for the clock to strike 11 am so I could board the bus to Wilmington and scout some Carolina League baseball, when an elderly Asian woman with more bags than body parts to carry those bags told the restive queue at gate 75 that the bus had already boarded at gate 68. This is why people hate life. This is also why people have cars. I rushed to the new gate, deposited my bag in the belly of the beast, and stepped onto the bus to locate a seat. I first noticed the girl made of plastic when I anxiously walked the aisle looking for an open seat, which was a panic attack with every step, much like finding a seat in a crowded junior high cafeteria when you aren’t cool or a movie theater fifteen minutes after show time. All eyes were on me and I felt like the last kid picked for kickball. I spot two open seats in the entire bus, one next to a man with substantial girth and a face and a smell that didn’t suggest kindness, and the other next to a girl who looked like a toy, complete with hardcover shell and a color palate designed to stimulate the eye of a child. She was in the window seat, with a translucent handbag resting in the free seat to her immediate right; her open-toed shoes and articulately painted pink nails accompanying the bag, acting as a deterrent for those seeking a place to sit. It was perfect.

Her reluctance slowly gave way to acceptance, and I went from standing over the empty seat to securely planted in it. I was wearing comfortable travel attire and was listening to Massive Attack through the magic of my headphones. Confidence was high. She was dressed like a futuristic doll, wrapped in a shiny, synthetic fabric that was shaped into a sundress. Her figure was noticeably pleasant, but I wasn’t overly concerned or involved with the appreciation of her figure. I was fascinated with her face, which was alien, with high cheek bones, sunken eyes that were the color of pleasant sea water, alarmingly pale skin that appeared to have the texture of cold milk, and lips that were painted pink, the same exact hue that was found on her toes. Her hair belonged on the head of a fantasy fairy, complete with speckles of glitter or some other powdered product that reflected light. She sat in silence, except for the occasional chirping noise, which allowed my mind to step away from baseball and investigate the story behind this noise for the duration of my journey to Wilmington. I initially deduced that she was eccentric based on her appearance, but after a few minutes spent listening to the undirected chirping noises, it occurred to me that she was a few steps beyond that classification and my fascination was at a full boil. This is exactly what I was looking for in a travel companion. Was she chirping because that was her preferred method of communication?  Was she chirping because she had a form of Tourette’s syndrome that encouraged the afflicted to chirp? Was this girl taking the Bjork act a little too far? I thought on these realities for over two hours, at times staring at the subject like a piece of object-based art in a gallery. This might have been a performance piece and I was the both the audience and the antagonist. We never spoke. She gave me the image of her face and the sound of her eccentricities, and I gave her a spectator that didn’t touch the painting. We were perfect for each other.

With a muse in place, I went about my journey and proceeded to my hotel on the outskirts of greater Wilmington, a lifeless building tucked behind a highway and a road to the airport. The accommodations were very nice and the staff seemed to care if I thought the accommodations were very nice, and I might have been the only guest staying in the hotel. Of the hundreds of rooms in the building, I saw more employees than guests, and I can’t confirm that those guests weren’t really hotel employees in civilian camouflage. I spent most of my time secluded in my room, going over scouting notes, prepping for the next game, and trying to solve the chirping puzzle so that the girl in plastic would love me unconditionally. The days drifted along.

After what I assume was a rather unbalanced conversation with my wife Arden, it was decided that I would venture down to the hotel restaurant/bar and enjoy a meal outside of the isolation of my room. She suggested being around people might help take my mind off the chirping girl, which I told her had been helping take my mind off the intensity of the baseball, for which she said to go have a conversation with someone other than myself and the memory of a stranger’s audible outbursts. That’s keeper material.

The lobby was made to look luxurious and elegant, except the building material was cheap and the faux furniture wasn’t helping the place escape any nouveau labels. I spotted one life form in the establishment, a bartender that should have been named Chet. I don’t like sitting on bar stools because I like to lean back and I don’t like to fall, but the big screen television behind the bar was showing baseball highlights and Chet was the only other human on the planet, so I pulled out a stool and plopped myself down. Chet was friendly and wasn’t overly verbose, so he and I got along. I ordered a turkey club and a Diet Coke, which he approved of. We continued to get along. In relative silence, I ate my 50-grade turkey club that was a little too heavy on the mayo and bread, but featured bacon so I was whisked away to a salty euphoria where life is good as long as bacon is present. As I finished the meal and requested another Diet Coke, I became more focused on the baseball highlights behind the bar, which encouraged Chet to show more attention to both me and the highlights, which in turn lead to Chet talking about the highlights like he was on the set of Baseball Tonight. Chet played a little baseball in high school, but didn’t elaborate on his triumphs other than to say he was pretty good and he regretted not pursuing it beyond that particular level of schooling. Chet’s faucet of play-by-play went from an occasional drip to a steady pour, leading up to a highlight that featured Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. At this point Chet was unaware that I was associated with baseball in any form, seeing me as just a guy eating a club sandwich, drinking a Diet Coke, and occasionally making a chirping noise while I watched baseball highlights on the television behind the bar. I am a method thinker.

Anyway, with Jeter on the box behind the bar, Chet took the opportunity to fire a few shots his way, suggesting he was overrated in every way and one of his least favorite players in the game. He asked my opinion on his comment, and I said I thought he was rated appropriately, all things considered. This opened up one of the better conversations I’ve ever had in a bar, with Chet eventually claiming to have better shortstop skills than Jeter. [Insert Jeter defense joke here__________]. Chet said he was in his late 20s, and even though he claimed to be quite the athlete, my scouting skills disagreed with that evaluation. I shifted from a virgin Diet Coke to a cocktail with more late life in the zone, and Chet sold me on his defensive skill set. He was 100% serious that he could play better defense than Derek Jeter; his face held the affect of complete and total belief. I was having a lot of fun. My wife was right to suggest this form of human interaction. The conversation reached its apex when I told Chet that not only could he not play shortstop at the major league level, but that he couldn’t play defense on any level in the minor leagues, including complex league ball. I slowly went over the physical characteristics necessary to execute at the professional level, and Chet listened like the words coming out of my mouth were chirps, which they might have been. I explained that even though Derek Jeter is a below-average shortstop at present, which is relative to the talent at the major league level, he is still far superior to the majority of all shortstops playing organized ball. Chet must have been listening at this point because he quickly interjected that the shortstop on his softball team is definitely better than Jeter with the glove. I ordered another drink.

“Chet, I like you, man, I really do. We are nothing alike and this conversation is going to pickle my liver, but I like you. As bad as you think Derek Jeter is on defense, you have never met anyone or played with anyone who can come anywhere close to his ability. The difference between a major leaguer and an average Joe (no offense, Chet) can’t be explained without some form of humiliation or emasculation taking place. I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, Chet. Earlier today I watched a very promising shortstop prospect over at the Blue Rocks stadium, and this kid is better than anybody you’ve ever met or played with as well, and I’m not sure he has the requisite talent to stick at the position at the major league level, and that assumes he can even get to that level in the first place, which isn’t a given by any means. The talent that you watch on television is light years ahead of everybody else. They are elite. Common people (no offense, Chet) can’t compete on the same level. You couldn’t play Division One baseball right now, much less handle a premium position in the majors. To insinuate that you could is insulting to the profession.”

“I don’t know. I still think I can play shortstop better than Jeter, and I know my buddy is better. Way better. Can I get you another drink?”

“Just the check.”

After an evening with Chet, my mind was sufficiently frightened and I was able to drift into a tranquil sleep, dreaming of the car accident that would occur if a 29-year-old bartender of limited physical quality and no baseball experience since high school was inserted into a major league lineup and asked to play shortstop. The Donner Party would be considered a better outcome than Chet taking a turn at the 6. I slept well knowing that Chet exists.

Thanks to the girl made of plastic and Chet the wonder shortstop, my attention to baseball wasn’t compulsive, and as a result, my work was crisp and efficient. I tackled my notes and my game preparation with a focused approach, and when I was at the fields, I wasn’t isolated in my thoughts. You couldn’t have scripted this any better. The highlight of this trip was saved for my last day in the great city of Wilmington, and the brief encounter would trump all others that came before it. On a ten-minute ride from the hotel to the stadium, a cabbie gave me a 45-minute story about karate, getting shot with a .357 magnum in the stomach, and the importance of staying conscious when fighting to the death.

The cabbie told me his real name, but that people called him Rocketship because he used to get high before he would drive people in his car. I respected the honesty. Rocketship was around 50-years-old, well-worn, and I do believe I picked up a slight Afro-Caribbean accent hidden under his fast tongue. As we merged onto the highway and hit a speed north of 65 mph, Rocketship asked me how much I weighed. Much like when the girl made of plastic started chirping, I was completely fascinated with what I was witnessing and thankful for the opportunity to participate in this moment. I said I weighed around 185 pounds. He continued. “I used to weigh around 165 lbs., but now I weigh close to 235 lbs. Our metabolism slows down as we age and we put on weight.”  I was hooked on his every word. He was my teacher and I was his student. “I used to work out all the time; I was ferocious. I took karate and I was very good. Do you know karate?” Before I could answer Rocketship’s question he had already moved on to the next phase of his karate tale, telling me that he was once in a life-or-death situation where he used his karate to get the best of an opponent. We were more than halfway to the destination and I was saddened by the thought of departing Rocketship’s cab and company.

“When I was a younger man, this idiot thought he was a tough guy and he stepped to me and I told him I would be forced to use my karate if he didn’t back up.” I thought I was on a hidden camera show. “Did the karate work?” I asked, assuming that the karate did in fact work and that is why he was telling me about it. “Well, the man shot me in the stomach with a .357 magnum.” I’m taking photographs in my head as fast as my mental shutter can function. “I was on the ground, bleeding out of my stomach, trying to stay conscious. I knew my karate training would keep me conscious if I focused and it did. I jumped up, used karate on the guy, and wrestled the gun away from him.” I wasn’t this happy on my wedding day. “Did you call the police?” I asked without thinking. This was a dumb question, but we were now right by the stadium and I didn’t know what else to say. I was reaching at this point. “Hell no. I shot him in the stomach. Eye-for-an-eye, $@$&%@&*%.” This is the first time that I felt legitimately uncomfortable around Rocketship, mainly because he was looking at me in the rearview mirror when he delivered that line. “He couldn’t take the shot and he passed out. He lived, but he’s a punk. I saw him just the other day. Still trying to be a tough guy. He wasn’t tough enough to stay conscious, though. Hahahahaha” His laughter was a prescription for Thorazine just waiting to be filled.

We arrived at the stadium and I gave Rocketship a $20 bill and he gave me a business card for a car service that he apparently owns even though he drives a cab for another company. The card listed Rocketship as his name. I exited the car, thanked him for the conversation, and walked up to the stadium to scout Jason Adam, keeping a bit of Rocketship with me during the game. He taught me the importance of using karate to not only stay conscious after a gunshot wound to the stomach from a high-caliber weapon, but the importance of judging people by their ability to do the same. I hope I never see Rocketship again, or Chet, or the girl made of plastic that chirped and looked like a doll, but they helped me survive another scouting trip, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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