Big-League Dreams, Minor-League Fields

TOLEDO, Ohio - Baseball dreams begin on minor-league fields. Sometimes they end there, too.

Ned Skeldon Stadium, on the Lucas County fairgrounds, is fairly typical. It's the field of the Toledo Mud Hens, the Class AAA affiliate of the Detroit Tigers.

As you might expect, most players in the Mud Hens' clubhouse are young. They've climbed through the Tigers' farm system with stars in their eyes. Now they're waiting for the next step, a shot at the big leagues.

Yet, they're not all young. And they don't all have stars in their eyes.

And a few aren't waiting for anything more exciting than the start of this night's game.

Karl Allaire is one of those.

"I'm a journeyman minor-league player," Allaire said. "Even if I make it up there, I know I'll just be a utility player."

Allaire is a 28-year-old infielder. He was drafted in the third round by the Houston Astros in 1984. He signed as a minor-league free agent with the Tigers in 1990.

"There's a lot of stiff competition for major-league jobs," said Allaire, who is batting .263 for the Mud Hens. He never has played in the majors.

But many have.

Gary Pettis sits in this clubhouse. He played 10 years in the big leagues, two with Detroit. But, so far this year, Pettis has been released by Texas and San Diego.

The Tigers signed the 34-year-old Pettis to a minor-league contract last week.

"He's been an inspiration," said Joe McDonald, the Tigers' vice president for player development. "He's playing to get back to the big leagues. He'll probably go to an expansion team. He's there with a very good attitude."

Expansion is talked about a lot in this clubhouse. Two new teams will be added to the ranks of the majors next season: The Florida Marlins in the American League, the Colorado Rockies in the National League.

"I think a lot of guys are waiting for expansion," left-hander Jamie Moyer said. "It definitely creates jobs."

The 29-year-old Moyer pitched six years in the big leagues. He was 0-5 with the St. Louis Cardinals last season. The Tigers signed him as a free agent May 24, and he has compiled a 5-4 record and 3.17 ERA with the Mud Hens.

Other players, like Phil Clark and Shawn Hare, don't know quite what to think. This season seems to be hardest on them. Both have been called up to Detroit this summer; both were sent back down.

The 24-year-old Clark was Detroit's top draft pick in 1986. He was a catcher then. He's been switched to the outfield since blowing out a knee two years ago.

The Tigers called Clark up on May 27, his first crack at The Show. In 19 games with Detroit, he hit .378 with one home run and four RBI. But they sent him back the day Rob Deer came off the disabled list.

Getting sent back down hurt enough. But the stinging words of Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson are likely to haunt Phil Clark far more.

"If a guy can't run, he can't sit," Anderson said. "If he can't run, but he can hit, he has to play. You can keep a guy that can run, because you can use him in so many ways."

The implication is clear: The knee injury has probably cost Clark any chance of playing for Detroit, at least while Anderson is around.

Hare's story is more complicated.

He was called up May 14 and sent down June 29. Hare was hitting .351 with 19 RBI before his callup. He has averaged .333 and belted three homers in his 13 games since being returned to Toledo.

Yet, while with Detroit for six weeks, Hare had only 14 at-bats. He got one hit, a single that drove in two runs.

"I knew I was day-to-day," said Hare, 25. "So, I went up to the plate each time knowing, `I gotta have a hit here.' You can't do that.

"But I'm not giving up. I'm just not ready for a 9-to-5 job, yet."

The dream dies hard.