One Good Day

The siren call of the baseball diamond still lures hopefuls looking for a shot at the Bigs.

So, kid, you want to be a ballplayer, play a part in the Show? Then step out here onto the real field of dreams. Oh, not what you expected? A diamond of green velvet, sure -- but next to a highway heading south out of Parker to nowhere? Probably only a few months removed from a cow pasture. No screaming crowds, either. Just a handful of parents dotting the hill behind the dugouts, willing to drive a few miles to sustain their kids' fantasies.

But this is where it starts. Line up for BP.

"It's the dream, right?" says Brad Engle, Ponderosa High School '98, about to start his senior year at Mesa State. "To play major-league ball. One shot, man. You havin' a bad day, you can't do nothing about it. But one good day..."

"The more looks a guy gets, the better chance he has," adds Scot Sealy as he eyeballs the boys taking some cuts. "Just takes one set of eyes, man."

Sealy ("Like the mattress: I always told the girls, 'You ain't slept 'til you slept on a Sealy'") knows the drill. As regional scout for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he's expected to find every promising schoolboy ballplayer in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, parts of Montana and West Texas. Today he's put out a call for auditions at Ponderosa High School.

As of last week -- hell, as of mid-September -- the Rays were professional baseball's worst team, out of the AL East pennant race a week after opening day, or so it seemed. But do you think that matters here? Not to the hundred or so young men who have driven from points in Colorado, Nebraska and Utah to show their stuff to a real live professional scout. On this, the final day for pre-playoff trades in the Bigs, on an ex-cow pasture in the middle of Colorado, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are the absolute center of the universe.

Sealy holds about five such tryouts a year, across the region, open to any guy sixteen to twenty-five who thinks he has what it takes to get noticed by a major-league scout -- the speed of a college sprinter, an arm like a steel spring and reflexes like a kung-fu master, that's all. It's community theater with cleats: Everyone wants to get on stage, but finding an actor ain't always easy. "If you get a hundred kids and get a follow on three or four, you've had a real good day," he says, "a real good tryout."

Actually, that number is wildly optimistic. On any hot summer day there are about five million kids playing baseball (Little League counts about 2.4 million, double it for school ball and other leagues), on diamonds, in parking lots, backyards, parks, school yards. Conservatively speaking, it's safe to say that at one time or another about 99.6 percent of them dream about playing major-league ball. But kids grow up -- somebody's got to be an accountant -- and only 750 can make the Majors (thirty teams, 25-man rosters) at a time. That's a dismal fifteen-to-10,000 reality-to-dream quotient.

Still, sometimes you have to try to know for sure, just so you can get on with life. "I thought I'd give it a shot," says Tony Sanders, just out of college and working at the Arapahoe County Justice Center. "I mean, what the hell, right? Maybe I'll play some ball."

Maybe. If you're an entry-level scout, you live for that Moment, when a what-the-hell wanders in and the dusty nugget flashes gold. Your attention has wandered, or it's late in the day and you're tired, and then suddenly you hear a stupendous crack, like a ponderosa pine tree struck by lightening. You look up and there's some long-limbed kid who's driven his pickup in from Tumbleweed, Nebraska, and he has just cannoned the ball 400 feet straight away. And you hold up your arm to stop the pitcher from throwing his next ball, and you say, nonchalantly, "Where do you go to school, son? Really, only a junior?" And without moving your eyes away because he might just disappear, you nod to your assistant to pull the kid's card out of a thick pile he has on his clipboard...

It can happen, you know. Last year Sealy is holding a tryout and this twenty-three-year-old out-of-state guy who happens to be visiting a buddy decides to stop by. He steps up to start throwing pitches, and there is a loud slap, like a deer rifle shot, ball to leather, and Sealy glances at the screen on the back of his radar gun, and it says 95, meaning miles per hour. That was a nice Moment. (He quickly signed the kid up for a Devil Ray Single A team out of St. Petersburg, though he was released this year.)

Or even just yesterday, up in Greeley: About 120 kids show up, and they're taking BP, and one of them is this big kid who has driven up from Thornton because...well, because it's the majors and anyone can dream for a morning. But this kid, he steps up to the plate -- and starts pounding the ball. "Just hitting the crap out of it," says Jeff Thompson, Sealy's assistant. Turns out he's just out of Northglenn High School, at loose ends -- not even signed up for junior college ball! So you get his phone number, tell him you know a coach at a nice junior college in Arizona who's always looking for a guy who can hit, and you start setting it up.

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