The Last Chance League

BY A FEW MINUTES past 7 on a warm summer night, the confluence of sunlight and shadow has cast a dreamy glow over Pasco Stadium. Wind, brisk and steady, plows down the Columbia River Basin, sweeps in from the right-field corner and starches the American flag behind the left-field fence, 379 feet from home plate.

About 1,800 fans, nearly half of them children, are scattered on aluminum bleachers and in shallow rows of $10 box seats. The Tri-City Posse mascot, a 9-foot-tall cowboy pig, prances on the home-team dugout.

The Posse has taken the field while the Sonoma County Crushers, from Northern California and featuring rotund ex-Seattle Mariner Kevin Mitchell, come to bat.

On the mound is Scott Baker, a lanky left-handed pitcher. With his short strawberry-blond hair, light freckles and pink tint, Baker resembles Sunny Jim, yet he is all business. He winds up and fires a strike down the middle. The team's sound-effects man presses a button on his console, sending a "Hoo-Waw!" blaring from public-address speakers.

The fans find this mildly entertaining, but to Baker and the rest of the players, it is the beginning of another chance. Up there in the stands might be a scout who will notice someone and rekindle a career.

Across the country and throughout the summer, obscure minor-league games like this are played in places like Pasco, Allentown, Greenville. But this isn't just minor-league baseball; it's independent baseball, and for a player prospect, this is the outer limits.

There are five independent professional leagues operating outside Major League Baseball's extensive, structured farm system. Independent leagues include teams with names such as the Paints, Rascals, Jackals, Roosters, Arsenal and Mudcats.

Baker spent 66 glorious days with the Oakland A's in 1995, then kicked around on the periphery of professional baseball from Akron to Grays Harbor to Korea. Now, at 30, he finds himself on the mound in Pasco and part of the Western Baseball League.

The Posse, like the league, is a stew of $600-a-month rookies, mid-career prospects, big-league flameouts and journeymen just hanging on. Each player has been passed over or given up on and they find themselves straddling the line between a sunny optimism that the game breeds and harsh shadows that signal the end of the line.

At this level, the baseballs can get lumpy, bats are rationed, the stadium lights are a few bulbs too dim. And, in the Posse's case, the bus rides to out-of-town games can be 21 hours long. The pay is so poor that Posse boosters put the ballplayers up, rent-free, in spare bedrooms and basements around the community.

And if the WBL is a last-chance league, the Posse is a last-chance team. After this season, the lone independent pro baseball team left in the Northwest will fold or move, probably to the Southwest.

The city of Pasco, which owns the 4,000-seat stadium little more than a Mark McGwire homer away from Interstate 182, is bringing in a Class A farm team with the Colorado Rockies next season. The new team, a member of the Northwest Baseball League, will have a natural rivalry with the Yakima Bears. It also will be bankrolled by major-league money and stocked with hustling rookies.

Far more emphasis will be placed on developing prospects and protecting pitchers' arms than on winning.

In contrast, independent baseball - the brand the Posse plays - is ripe with desperation, hurt feelings, lottery-style hope and clinging love of the game. There is no room for prima donnas, bonus babies, grumblers or sore-armed pitchers. The players want a shot and the franchises seek to survive.

In the case of the lame-duck Posse, it means a shoestring budget gets cinched tighter.

BAKER'S SECOND PITCH, a mid-80s fastball, also finds the strike zone. Up two strikes and no balls, he looks like another Jamie Moyer, but then he throws three straight balls, forcing a full count. Before he can throw again, the home-plate umpire sends the batter to first base, declaring that Baker committed a balk by putting his pitching hand to his mouth while standing on the mound.

Posse manager Wally Backman leaps from the dugout to argue. He was a fiery major-league second baseman, starring on the New York Mets' 1986 championship team and ending his career in a brief stint with the Mariners in 1993. Less than a minute into the debate, and without an out yet recorded, the umpire banishes not only Backman but Posse pitching coach Floyd Youmans.

The crowd sits quietly, baffled by it all, until the public address announcer fills it in: "Ladies and gentleman, Backman and Youmans have been ejected from the game . . . before the sun even sets."

After seething in his office for an inning, Backman edges back toward the dugout, finding a place to roost 10 feet down the dark clubhouse hallway, closer to the game than an ejected manager is allowed. On a folding chair amid a clutter of batting helmets, rakes and boxes of balls, he smokes a Marlboro and grumbles that the umpire has a grudge against the franchise.

Backman doesn't look like much hiding behind a stack of empty crates, but he was a major leaguer and a world champion. That makes him royalty with his players.

A Northwest native, he's passed up chances to coach or manage within major-league organizations because he likes shaping his roster as he sees fit rather than taking players the organization gives him. He likes winning (and the Posse won the league championship last year) more than developing prospects.

Accordingly, his 22 players - who collectively can't be paid more than the league's $25,000-a-month salary cap - span a spectrum of age and experience.

Out in center field, is Chris Powell, the team's best player. At 31, he has played seven years of independent ball, logging time in places such as Fargo, Winnipeg, Sioux Falls. He has a .300 career minor-league batting average, is hitting .350 this year, and was voted to the 2000 WBL all-star game. He's fast, is a standout fielder and hustles so vigorously he's nicknamed "Psycho."

Yet no major-league franchise is impressed enough to want him in their system. In fact, despite once making the all-star team at the College World Series, Powell wasn't even drafted. Now, he thinks about getting a real job soon, like the better-paying one he had at Costco during last off-season.

"I don't think I'll ever get a chance," he said. "I'm 31 and outfielders are a dime a dozen. I've put a lot into this game and I haven't really gotten a lot back. Breaking even is a good season, but I've gotten paid for doing something I love. That's rare."

The Posse's shortstop is James Lofton, a speedy leadoff hitter who, unlike Powell, is in his prime at 26. He was stuck in the Cincinnati Reds' lower minor-league levels for three years and when he didn't progress, was cut to make room for other prospects.

Out in right field is Danny Lewis, a former third-round Houston Astros pick who squandered talent with reckless living. Now, at 32, he lectures younger players to act professionally and prays someone will notice he's grown up.

Utility player Devon Glover, 23, is fresh out of tiny Benedictine College in the Midwest. He's just happy to be be playing pro ball no matter how long the bus rides. For him, it's a beginning.

There are two ex-Mariner prospects on the Posse. John Thompson, a former Spokane high-school star whom Seattle turned into a pitcher, still throws over 90 mph, which the M's liked, but is also a little wild, which led the organization to give up on him. Catcher Alex Sutherlund was one of the Mariners' top prospects before he hurt his knee; he roomed with Alex Rodriguez during the shortstop's brief stay with the Mariners' farm team in Appleton, Wis.

The Posse leader is Nelson Simmons, a 37-year-old designated hitter who has played 20 years, including 100 games with the Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles. He is still a clutch hitter, nicknamed "The Cleaner."

While the rest of the team is on the field, the muscular Simmons, dressed in a gleaming-white, tight-fitting uniform, sits in the tunnel, near Backman, and puffs on a cigarette. As he leans back in his chair and blows smoke rings toward the ceiling, out on the mound Baker strains and sweats his way through the Crusher lineup.

AFTER GIVING UP two first-inning runs, Baker settles down and shuts down the visitors. Simmons comes through again, knocking in a run in the bottom of the seventh inning to give the Posse a 3-2 lead. Thompson pitches the ninth and after walking the potential tying run, strikes out Sonoma's best hitter to preserve the win.

Posse co-owner and team president John Montero, standing his usual spot between the bleachers and box seats just to the third base side of home plate, smacks his hands together in relief.

After accepting congratulations from fans herding out of the stadium, he heads to Backman's office to discuss the latest list of players just released from major-league farm clubs. Someone might want to play for the Posse. In independent baseball, you have to strike quickly because the 90-game season goes quickly.

The Posse finished second in its four-team division during the first half of this season, but in the Western Baseball League, the slate is wiped clean for the second half. The Posse can still make the playoffs and go out in a blaze of glory.

Montero was a successful Sonoma County restaurant and nightclub owner when he purchased half-ownership just before the Posse's second year in 1996. A sports fanatic whose moods rose and fell with the fortunes of the San Francisco Giants and 49ers, he became intrigued when he heard the Posse franchise was for sale. He was persuaded when he saw the brand-new stadium.

The Tri-cities have a long history of minor-league baseball, but had been without a team for nearly a decade until Pasco built the new stadium right next to a convention center (complete with indoor rodeo arena) and acres of softball and soccer fields.

In its first year, the Posse led the Western Baseball League in attendance with nearly 2,200 a game. It peaked two years later. This year it averages a little more than 1,600.

Montero, 44, is decisive and detail-oriented, a self-described "high-energy guy." Each morning during home stands, he hops on a John Deere mower and cuts the stadium grass. In the afternoon he helps his 16-year-old son, Jake, tend the infield. He also hires stadium help, orders supplies, fixes things, greets fans and occasionally drives the team's 1974 bus, The Posse Express.

As with other minor-league teams, promotional gimmicks are crucial. On Bladder Buster Night, beer was half-price until the first drinker went to the bathroom.

Keeping a tight rein on costs and supplies, something that served Montero well in the restaurant business, is also essential. Each time a foul ball lands in the stands, he sees $4 added to the expense side of the ledger. Minor league teams affiliated with organizations are furnished equipment, a luxury independent owners don't have.

As tight as the margins are, the Posse has lasted longer than most franchises in the league. In fact, Pasco and Sonoma are the only original members left in the six-year-old league. The WBL used to have teams in Grays Harbor, Surrey, B.C., and Bend, but those teams have all moved south, leaving the Posse on a northern island. It's closest rival is in Chico, Calif., a 10-hour bus trip.

"I'm not the type of guy who quits," Montero said. "But if I had known then what I know now, I probably wouldn't have gone into this. It's hard, but it's been fun."

What Montero relishes is finding and dealing for players. He and Backman had been working the phones earlier in the day, trying to track down John Tsoukalas, a third baseman and Everett native, who had just been released from the Giants organization. They finally found a relative and left word they were interested.

Backman also took a call from a young man from Montana who had been released from a Cincinnati Reds farm team. "I can't promise you anything and the pay's not great either," Backman said. "But if you want to drive out here, we'll give you a look."

Last year, when the Posse made a late-season charge to win the championship, it made 47 roster moves, the last one when Montero saw the team's former closer, Ned Darley, sitting in the stands. He had just returned from a season in Taiwan and was checking out his old team. Montero signed him on the spot.

While players come, they also go.

By the first of this month, some of the Posse's best players had already left the team. The original closer joined the Oakland A's farm system. Four had bolted for better-paying Mexican leagues, where the Posse's top power hitter commanded a salary three times more than in Pasco. While players don't show loyalty, neither does the team. In a 90-game season, a 15-game hitting slump is too long for the team to endure.

The part Montero dislikes the most is handling players who think they're too good for independent ball.

"Sometimes a player who has been released is mad and bitter. You sign him because you're happy to have him, but his attitude is that this independent baseball isn't like organized baseball. And it's not. Long bus rides. We don't kiss their butts on every little thing. We do what we think we need to do."

PLAYERS COME to Pasco from across the country and Latin America to keep the dream alive. Most are willing to accept break-even wages and less-than-ideal conditions.

They don't get paid during their two-week spring training. They must buy most of their own supplies, such as gloves, socks and shoes. They are issued two bats and don't get replacements until they break those. In batting practice, center fielder Powell uses cracked bats that he keeps together with white athletic tape or nails.

The players grouse about a lot of things: the bats, the balls and having to move batting cages, but they complain most about the bus. Some secretly call the Posse Express the Posse Pig because it can't go much past 10 mph up grades, will overheat if the air-conditioning is turned on and seems to break down once a trip.

One of the two coaches, Chris Catanoso, pulls long shifts as the bus driver. He used to be a long-haul truck driver and can't sleep on the bus so he figures he might as well drive it. A New Jersey native, he pulls shifts for his brother's Seattle moving company in the off-season, but managed a pro baseball team in South America last year and hopes to go back.

"One time, after a 14-hour ride, the bus overheated so close to the stadium where we were headed that you could see it," said Catanoso. "Everyone got out so crusted over it looked like they just got out of a cave. Players were kicking tires and cussing. There's a saying in independent baseball for times like that: `You've gotta love the game.' "

One breakdown in Arizona proved fortuitous, though. While waiting for the engine to cool, someone consulted a map and noticed they were headed in the wrong direction.

Backman resigned last month, complaining that the team's miserly ways made it hard to compete. He said Montero's decision to take the unreliable bus to Arizona instead of flying was symptomatic of the season.

"Wally's a major leaguer; money doesn't matter to them," responded Montero, who disputed that financial worries were hurting the team. "But at the end of the season, I'll walk away with the bills."

To help players make ends meet, the Posse arranges for them to stay rent-free with boosters. There have been horror stories of players coming home drunk and bringing women with them, but mostly it's been a smooth program and friendships have been built.

The booster club holds fund-raising garage sales and car washes to pay for snacks and the videos it furnishes players on long road trips. For their generosity, they get box seats behind the Posse dugout.

Sandra Nicholls spent a stint as president and gets teary-eyed when she thinks of losing her boarder for three seasons, shortstop Lofton. They keep in touch during the off-season and have talked each other through tough times. Lofton taught her 12-year-old son, Logan, how to throw a sinker and sometimes plays catch with him on the Posse field before games.

Nicholls also hosted Glover, the rookie, this season. He went undrafted after hitting almost .400 his senior year at Benedictine. He attended the WBL's spring tryout camp in Arizona and was signed for $600 a month.

"This is more than a summer job to me," he said. "I have goals like anyone else."

Whether he or any other member of the Posse will realize the ultimate dream is a long shot to be sure. In six years, three players from the WBL have made it to the big leagues.

The WBL bills itself as Class AA-level caliber, two levels below the majors, citing all the older players and former big-leaguers on the rosters, like ex-Mariner pitchers Jim Converse and Paul Menhart.

As different as the backgrounds and talent levels are, Posse players seem to share one trait: They never got a satisfactory answer as to why they they were released or passed over.

Roger Jongewaard, vice-president of scouting and player development for the Mariners, says sometimes it is a matter of time and numbers.

"Let's face it, this is a performance business. If your stats aren't good you better have a lot of talent or another reason for us to stick with you. I know that sounds cold. Sometimes, the player you're releasing may be better than the player you're bringing up, but maybe not better in the long run.

"Age counts against them sometimes. There are always young players behind them, trying to take their place, pushing them out."

What keeps independent-league players going is that, occasionally, the Mariners and other organizations are proven wrong.

IN THE SECOND of three games with the Crushers, Posse pitcher Ray Ricken, 27, (who has since bolted for the Mexican leagues) looked like the player the New York Yankees thought he would be when they drafted him in the fifth round several years ago. More important to fans, the powerful right-hander struck out the first hitter of the third inning, which, according to a team promotion, meant soda was half-price for 15 minutes.

He trailed 1-0 going into the ninth, but the Posse again rallied, scoring a run to tie the score.

The ubiquitous Pasco wind had turned frigid by then, whittling one of the season's better crowds to a few hundred die-hards. Even Montero took refuge in an open-air skybox atop the grandstands, looking for a windbreak.

Lofton opened the 10th inning with a single, stole second and moved to third on the catcher's throwing error. He stood on third base with no outs. Crusher Manager Jeffrey Leonard, yet another ex-Mariner, did the smart thing. He walked two hitters to get to the kid, Glover, an unproven hitter whom Backman had inserted late in the game because of his defensive prowess.

Glover drilled the first pitch he saw over the left fielder's head, driving in Lofton, his roommate, with the winning run.

He was mobbed by teammates, who slapped him on the back and exchanged high-five smacks, but there was hardly anyone left to witness the heroics. Virtually no one else will remember it, especially since the Posse, itself, will soon be a distant memory. But Glover will remember. A game-winning hit in the 10th is pure professional baseball gold, no matter where it's struck.

Richard Seven is a staff reporter for Pacific Northwest magazine. Mark Harrison is a Seattle Times staff photographer.