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Rays of hope



A few thousand fans soak up the sun and breezes that grace a spring training game at St. Petersburg's Al Lang Field. The smells of sunscreen and barbecue smoke fill the air. The crowd chatters more than cheers. Most of them have no clue who is pitching for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the late innings of the meaningless Grapefruit League contest against the St. Louis Cardinals.

But the situation is anything but meaningless to the pitcher, Dave Eiland. He has allowed a sharp base hit up the middle to the lead-off batter, who quickly stole second. In baseball-speak, he is in a jam. If this were Rolando Arrojo or Wilson Alvarez, pitchers entrenched in the Devil Rays staff, such a tight spot would be viewed as a welcome exercise in gamesmanship. But for Eiland, a long shot to make the team, the circumstance means but one thing: Don't screw it up.

At 32, the Zephyrhills native has been a pro baseball player for 11 years. On and off, he has notched nearly three years in the majors, mostly with the New York Yankees. He has won more than 100 games in the minor leagues, but has never been able to stick in the bigs. In the last few years, he has struggled back from injuries, working hard in hopes of returning to "The Show."

This much he has learned: "I know there's someone sitting in a front office somewhere that has my career right here," Eiland says, showing his palm, then slowly making a fist, "and they can take it and squish it and throw it away after one bad game."

He cannot afford to ponder such things on the mound. With a man on second and no outs, chances are good the Cardinals can at least score a run, if not more.

Eiland is focused and calm. He is not a pitcher who blows away batters with 95 mph fastballs. He is a strategist. He snaps off a curveball inside. Crack-k-k, the sound of a broken bat. The ball dribbles to the third baseman, who holds the guy at second with a look and then throws the runner out. Two groundballs to the third-base side later, and Eiland heads toward the dugout. He has coolly pitched out of a jam, but has anyone taken notice?

Invited to major-league training camp because of a sterling season he had last year with the Durham Bulls, the Devil Rays' Triple-A minor-league affiliate, Eiland is among a legion of "arms" that crowd the team's preseason roster. He knows that a lot of things must happen during the weeks of spring training -- trades, injuries, awful performances by other pitchers -- for him to earn a spot on the club when the regular season opens. But he can't fixate on that. He has to take care of business.

Eiland is a willing pawn is a game of politics, hunches, reputations, expectations, salary considerations and a slew of other factors that have little to do with whether, in his own words, he "puts zeroes on the scoreboard."

If the Devil Rays cut him, he'll join more than 5,000 players who grind away in the minor leagues in a web of teams and leagues -- the Orlando Rays, Charleston Riverdogs and Hudson Valley Renegades are among those that supply the Devil Rays -- that serve as a proving ground for Major League Baseball. "The minor leagues are trading in one commodity that's in short supply," says Devil Rays marketing director Mike Veeck, who co-owns several minor-league clubs. "And that's hope."

There's also reality. The rule of thumb is that one of 10 young men who sign rookie contracts ends up playing at least one game in the majors. A smaller percentage manages to stick around. "There's an adage about the minor leagues that says you need eight suspects so the one prospect can play," says Troy Kent, who retired as a third baseman from the Cleveland Indians organization last year at age 25.

The hope is to become a star in the majors, where salaries reach eight figures. The reality is getting drafted in the 35th round, negotiating a signing bonus of $5,000 and the standard starting pay of $850 a month -- and that's for just the five months of the minor-league season.

The dream is to be Kevin Brown, a top free agent who had a dozen private jet flights written into his contract so his family could periodically fly cross-country to see him. The reality is Eiland missing the birth of his second child, Natalie, because his spot on the Yankees was so tenuous he didn't dare leave for a day or two.

The dreamer is Brandon Backe, a 20-year-old utility player from Galveston, Texas, who is beginning his first full professional season in camp with the minor-league St. Petersburg Devil Rays. "The day that I can't play baseball anymore will be a tragedy," he says politely, his soft blues eyes gazing across the cavernous locker room. "I'm not looking forward to any kind of job other than this one. I don't care what level I'm at. I'm gonna play until they release me."

The realist is Kent, who graduated from Stanford University and was drafted by Cleveland in the 14th round. After a strong year with the Kinston Indians of the Carolina League -- where he hit .274 with 14 home runs as a second baseman -- he was unceremoniously moved to third because the organization had drafted two hot second-base prospects. After seeing his playing time all but evaporate, he retired after last season and now works as a data network consultant for AT&T in Atlanta.

"The reason my decision was maybe easier than some guys is because I had a degree," he says. "I wish I could go and talk to these high school kids and let them know that, unless they were drafted really high and they're going to give you an unbelievable amount of money, take the scholarship and get an education. The kid who goes in the 30th round and thinks, ‘This is my chance to play big-league baseball,' and passes up a full ride -- what are you doing?"

Devil Rays pitching coach Rick Williams sits in the Al Lang dugout before another spring training game. Dave Eiland's chances of making the club are pretty slim, Williams says. Big-league teams get enamored with young, strong arms, and Eiland isn't one of them. But the Rays could call him up during the season if the need for a steady, experienced relief pitcher arises. The invitation to major-league camp is a reward for Eiland's season in Durham last year, where he was 13-5 and gave up an average of 2.99 runs every nine innings, a strong showing at any level.

"He's by no means here as a favor," Williams says. "He's here because he's earned himself the right to give himself another opportunity to be seen by major-league personnel."

Five days later, the Devil Rays place Eiland back with Triple-A Durham -- not so much a demotion but to give him more time on the hill, or so they tell him. During three weeks at big-league camp, Eiland pitched a total of six innings -- only three in so-called A games -- and gave up one run. "I did all I possibly could," he says.

The team's decision sends Eiland to the minor league camp in northwest St. Petersburg. There, instead of eating upscale catered food like in the big-league clubhouse, he'll buy chips and sodas from a vending machine. His salary has just dropped from near $300,000 per year to about $50,000 -- on the high end of minor-league money. He'll uproot his wife and two daughters from their home just north of Tampa and move to a rented house in North Carolina. He won't be in a union, won't be adding to his pension benefits. His per diem for road games has plummeted from $70 to $18 a day. He'll fly coach instead of a charter jet. He'll double up in hotels instead of having his own room. He'll lug his own bags rather than handing them to a clubhouse boy and catching up with them in the next city.

And he'll have it good compared to the boys in the lower leagues. The tiered minor-league system includes the Rookie Leagues at the bottom, followed by short-season Single-A, long season Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A -- and each comes with different playing styles, lifestyles and amenities.

Rookie League and Single-A is a cattle call of young players, a mix of can't-miss bonus babies who grabbed a million-plus up front, marginal late-round picks chasing the dream, and everything in between. Eiland recalls cramming four guys into a two-bedroom apartment during his Single-A stint in Fort Lauderdale. His diet consisted mostly of 59-cent cans of spaghetti and meatballs. In hotel rooms during road trips, he grabbed the toilet paper to bring home.

Double-A -- home to the Orlando Rays -- houses mostly serious prospects who still need grooming. Although salaries vary, standard pay for younger players is around $7,500 (not counting signing bonuses). And Triple-A blends hotshots on the precipice of major-league careers and guys who have been in the bigs and are fighting to get back. The longer a player stays in Triple-A, the more chance he'll get labeled a career minor leaguer. Creep past 30 and risk becoming an afterthought.

Despite this reality, the goal of playing professional baseball courses through the veins of thousands of young men. For some, the sheer joy of having baseball as a job fades slowly, if ever. For others, the grind can set in pretty quickly.

"Most people don't realize the strain it puts on you," says Troy Kent. He's had to be at the ballpark at 2 p.m. for batting and infield practice amid summer swelter. The games ran from around 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. "You're praying it doesn't go into extra innings." He's showered and tried to find someplace to eat after midnight, gone to bed at 2 or 3 a.m., slept until noon, ate lunch and then done it all over again.

A standard road trip found the players boarding a bus at midnight and riding through till 5 a.m., with a quick stop for fast food. "When I played in Columbus, Ga., one of the bus trips was to Hagerstown, Md., a 14-hour bus ride," Kent says. "I was cramped shoulder-to-shoulder with a 6-foot-4, 250-pound pitcher, jammed against the window like a sardine. You get there, it's time to play and your legs are cramped; you can't hardly run."

During the 140-game, April-through-August season, players only get one or two days off a month. Worse than playing such a grueling schedule is not playing such a grueling schedule. Kent recalls stretches during his final year when he didn't play for two-and-a-half weeks. "They always told us, ‘When your opportunity comes, you have to be able to run with it,'" he says with a chuckle. "I've been sitting on the bench for 15 games, and all of a sudden they want me to jump up and pinch hit against a reliever who's throwing 98."

Hardships aside, Kent looks back fondly on the camaraderie and the friendships he built. "Someone likened it to the bond between Vietnam veterans," he says. "You go through so much together -- an 0-for-60 slump, you think you're losing your mind, but the other guys understand. It becomes a fraternity of guys who experience the same ups and downs, and we all end up a little off kilter."

They also blow off steam together. "In Columbus, we were getting near the end of the year," he recounts. "We were an atrocious team. We couldn't wait till the season was over. There was a hot tub out in right field. After the game, the whole team was drinking; there were girls everywhere, piling in and out of the hot tub. It was a complete mess. Guys were playing naked-home-run-derby on the field. That stuff happens all the time."

Everyone heads to the minors. Top talents can jump to The Show after one or two years, while it takes some players four or five seasons, and sometimes more, to grab the brass ring.

Orlando Rays power pitcher Ryan Rupe nearly became one of the blessed few who do only a short stint in the minors. Last year, after graduating from Texas A&M and being drafted in the sixth round, Rupe pitched an abbreviated season in the minors. He was invited to major-league spring training this year and quickly set the joint on fire. Rupe threw so well in the Grapefruit League that, as the regular season approached, Rays Manager Larry Rothschild said publicly that the pitcher had a legit shot at making the major-league roster.

During the last week of spring training, though, the conservative mindset won out. The Devil Rays opted to keep more seasoned talent, and Rupe was assigned to the Orlando club. Rupe currently is 2-1 with Orlando and says he is pitching well. Even though he has dropped a few rungs on the hardball ladder, the foes are still formidable. "Of course, you're not pitching to established stars," he says. "But there are a lot of good ballplayers. I have to approach the game the same way. You're definitely not going from the big leagues to little league. The parks we play in are small and suited to power hitters. Plus, these guys know me now, and get geared up for me."

For Rupe, it would seem just a matter of time before he gets the call from the bigs. "That's the dream," he says, "but I've got to pay my dues."

For the vast majority of minor leaguers, the dream stays a dream. Roy Silver, manager of the Single-A St. Pete Devil Rays, played in the Cardinals system from 1984 to 1990. He made it to one major-league spring training but was sent back down. "My last year I was 28," he recalls. "I figured less than 10 percent of players make it to the big leagues, and even though I was in Triple-A, my body wasn't holding up very well, and I could see my percentage had dropped to about one, or less."

Like a lot of minor leaguers, Silver stayed in the game as a coach, where the money is below average for guys in their 30s, 40s and 50s. He has no regrets. "The people that are in the minor leagues love the game; otherwise they wouldn't be doing it," he says. "I have a passion for teaching. I guess I'm a lifelong baseball guy."

While elite high-school basketballers can head straight to 12-man NBA rosters, and football players, for the most part, either make the NFL team or get cut, baseball players need seasoning. They have to develop the stamina, mostly mental, to make it through a 162-game major-league campaign. They need to refine their skills. It takes month after the month of the most subtle instruction to polish a young player's hitting. Kids who can throw 92 mph are not that rare anymore. But honing that raw hurling ability -- mixing up speeds, picking locations, developing breaking balls, outsmarting hitters -- is a matter of hard work, expert teaching and good fortune.

And the prospect must deal with all sorts of factors beyond his control. It is not uncommon to hear of a player hitting 35 to 40 home runs in Triple-A but stuck there for a few years because the guy who plays his position on the major-league club is an all-star.

In football, if a 6-foot-2, 220-pound running back jets 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, boasts a remarkable college career and has his head screwed on straight, he'll likely make a quick impact toting a ball in the NFL. It's rarely such a sure bet in baseball. Can the guy make the transition from the amateur aluminum bat to wood? Can he hit a nasty curve ball? Can he bear up under the strain of a long slump? Can he keep his composure and pitch out of tight spots? Baseball calls for an intense and unflagging degree of concentration, on the mound, at the plate, in the field -- even, presumably, in the bullpen or dugout.

The biggest complaint among minor leaguers is that the playing field is not level. High draft picks who sign for big dollars are preordained as future big leaguers and given every benefit of the doubt.

"From the coaching standpoint, you're not out there to win at all costs," Silver says of the minor leagues. "You may have a highly touted guy batting .140 who's playing, and a free agent out of college hitting .280 sitting on the bench. The .280 guy is gonna make you a better ball club that day. But the .140 hitter got X amount of dollars out of high school and he isn't going to help down the road if he's on the bench. In the big leagues, if he's hitting .140, he's out of there. In the minor leagues it's, ‘Make him better. That's your job.' And if you complain about the .140 hitter, you're being a pain in the neck to your bosses."

This culture of the christened golden boy leaves overachievers in the lurch. "No executive wants to sign a first-rounder for a million and see him fall on his face," says Steve Frescatore, a retired minor-league pitcher who was drafted in the 23rd round in 1993. "One way or the other, that guy's gonna get pushed. The `front-office personnel` don't want to look like idiots."

Frescatore says that as a Single-A New Jersey Cardinal he pitched two no-hit games into the late innings, but because of minor-league protocol he was replaced by relief closers who blew the saves. He watched repeatedly as the anointed ones moved by him in the ranks. "There were guys around me that got moved up every year with `earned run averages` of 12 and 13," he says.

Frescatore looks back sourly on the way he was treated. "I was 25 and they sent me to Double-A camp," he recounts. "I threw 10 innings, had 21 strikeouts, gave up no runs, two hits and no walks and on the last day of spring training, five minutes before we were going to walk out on the field, they told me they had no place for me on the roster. It was too late for me to go anywhere else."

Dave Eiland's home north of Tampa is not what you'd expect for a minor leaguer. Set in a gated, golf-course community, it's large, airy and tastefully appointed. "I have what I have here because of my time in the big leagues -- not from my time in the minors, by any stretch of the imagination," he says.

Eiland is sitting in a recliner the day after his demotion. His wife Sandy, a live wire who complements Dave's shades of shyness, pops up and down from the couch to where their two daughters are playing just outside. Eiland's ritual, night-before-the-game spaghetti is cooking on the kitchen stove. At one point, Natalie and Nicole, freshly bathed and pajama-clad, run in and jump on daddy's lap.

Although it's obvious he's not pleased about being sent to the minors, Eiland puts a pretty good face on it. "I had a horrible '97 and the Devil Rays let me redeem myself last year," he says. "And I'm grateful for that. They let me back in, I pitched well; now, let me show you what I can really do. Give me a little more rope. I believe what Larry `Rothschild` says about me needing to get more innings at Triple-A. I can't say that for everyone I played for. I've heard a lot of B.S. before. I don't think it's that way this time."

Like so many others, he wants just one more chance, another shot at the Show. He hit the bigs like a flare a decade ago. Drafted in 1987 after his junior year at the University of South Florida, he made it to the Yankees in '88. The team called him up during a pennant race, and he started on the road against the Milwaukee Brewers. Leading 5-1 after seven innings, he was pulled. Eiland listened on the clubhouse radio as the bullpen blew the game.

But that didn't matter back in the Big Apple. "I was the toast of the town for two days," he recalls. "I was on the back page of the New York Post. I was the man. The next day I took a cab to the ballpark and as soon as I got out I heard people screaming, ‘There he is. There's the kid.' I got mobbed by a couple hundred people. I couldn't move. A security guard had to come and clear a pathway for me. I was fresh out of college, fresh out of Florida, and I didn't look at it like, ‘I'm the man. This is great.' I looked at it like, ‘Shit, what's goin' on?' They're great fans, but they can turn on you like that, too."

Eiland could never quite gain a foothold in the majors. A finesse pitcher more apt to throw in the mid 80s with accuracy, he did not benefit from the same front-office optimism accorded a fireballer. He has a gym bag full of memories -- giving up only two runs in seven innings against a vaunted Texas Rangers lineup that included Ruben Sierra, Rafael Palmeiro and Julio Franco. Pitching eight shutout innings against a powerful Detroit crew that featured Cecil Fielder and Alan Trammell. He also hung a curve ball to Kirk Gibson, who crushed it into the upper deck in Yankee Stadium.

Eiland is not ready, however, to fade from view with his scrapbooks. "I don't think I've ever gotten a long enough look in the majors," he says. "I'd have four or five solid starts, falter in the sixth, and not get anymore. Boom, that's it. I get sent down."

Eiland eventually aims to move into coaching or front-office work, but he's quick to add, "I think I have a lot of pitching in me. I don't see myself as a starter anymore, but I can definitely contribute as a reliever. I haven't done anything to make myself or anyone else think I can't. As long as I feel I can do the job at the highest level, I'll continue to go at it. But someone has to keep giving you the chance, too."


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