The Legends of Last Place
A season with America’s worst professional baseball team
Another monsoon. The rain beats against the grandstand, drowning out John Fogerty’s growl on the aging Fort Marcy Park sound system. There aren’t many people here yet, a couple dozen fans but few of the regulars—no sign of the lefty pitcher’s brother or the guy who carves the big wooden Virgin Mary statues. The home team sprints off the field toward us, 25 young men slipping over concrete in metal cleats and trying to beat the storm. Their jerseys, made of thin red mesh, read SANTA FE. The grandstand is the only shelter at Fort Marcy, so all of us, players and spectators, huddle together listening to the rain. It’s the last home game of the 2012 season. The summer’s final batting practice is a washout.
The fans do not whisper when the players flop down next to us. No autographs are sought. The Santa Fe Fuego are the newest addition to the Pecos League, a group of six independent minor league baseball teams in Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico. The players earn $54 per week and live in homestays with Santa Fe families. They use the same bathroom as the fans, a small concrete cave. (At least there are doors on the stalls, a recent development; for most of the summer, curtains provided the only privacy.) Later tonight, after the crowd has left, the players will scour the grandstand for trash, collecting stray napkins and mashed foil containers holding the remnants of our $3 burgers. There are no grounds crews in the Pecos League.
The Fuego sip from outsize gas-station soda cups and work their way through thick wads of chewing tobacco, waiting for the game to begin. Though players cycle through the Pecos League with revolving-door regularity, I’ve been following the Fuego long enough now—since the beginning of their debut season—to know the ones who’ve stuck around. There’s Brandon Thompson, a mountainous, hard-throwing reliever from Montana, who looks as though he should be hauling some large vehicle in a strongman competition. There’s Andrew “Archie” Archbold, the quick center fielder, with his bad goatee that doesn’t entirely link up at his bony chin. His jersey dangles off him as if from a hanger. Bill Moore, the Fuego’s manager, says that Archie “weighs 120 pounds when he’s got rocks in his pocket and it’s raining.” It’s raining.
Late July is monsoon season in northern New Mexico. Storms gather over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the afternoon, then dissipate or roll in and briefly batter the town, cooling the high desert. Tonight’s opposition, the Roswell Invaders, a far superior team by every statistical measure, don’t join us under the grandstand. They huddle beneath the small roof of the visiting dugout, getting wet. Call it a home-field advantage.
The pounding eventually lets up and sun filters through the clouds, filling the sky with the kind of wild light that helps fuel Santa Fe’s economy, drawing second-homers and tourists who come to paint watercolors of the evenings. More fans arrive. The Invaders emerge from the visiting dugout in jerseys the color of antifreeze. Archie sprints to center, leading the home team onto the field for the last time this summer.
With the exception of the center fielder, the Fuego are big, powerful men who do not embody the Platonic ideal of athleticism. They fill out their uniforms in the belly and ass. They are strong hitters, with the second-best batting average in the league. Defense is the chink in their armor. The Fuego’s pitchers have, on average, given up nearly one run for every inning of the season; their cumulative earned-run average is more than 8.00. (A good major league pitcher’s is around 3.00.) The fielding has been a bounty of errors. July was particularly merciless. The Fuego have lost 16 of their last 23 games.
The players like to point out that many of these losses came by one run. They like to say that with a break here or there, things might have turned out differently. But blind pride is a job requirement for athletes, and no amount of it can sway the hard fact that the Fuego have an anaconda grip on last place in the Pecos League.
Independent leagues sit at the bottom of professional baseball’s sprawling caste system. They are essentially the minor leagues’ minor leagues, consisting of players trying to reach the Single A, Double A, and Triple A farm teams affiliated with major league clubs. The publication Baseball America, which is the authority on these matters, has ranked North America’s independent leagues by payroll. The Pecos didn’t even pay its players enough to make those rankings. According to a Baseball America official, the Pecos is “the lowest level of professional baseball” currently in existence.
To occupy last place in the Pecos League, then, is to lay claim to a singular title. Absolute superlatives are tossed off too often and easily in the sports world, but this one is not negotiable: As of July 25, 2012, the Santa Fe Fuego are, empirically speaking, the worst professional baseball team in America.
And yet here I am. I’ve spent too many hours this summer at Fort Marcy. Maybe it’s everything the Pecos League lacks: scouts, agents, corporate funding, and the kind of dancing-bear kitsch that fills most minor league productions. Or maybe it’s just nostalgia, the baseball junkie’s favorite opiate. Out here on the concrete bleachers, I sometimes feel as though I’ve been dropped into a pre-steroidal epoch when the second basemen were short, the relievers were fat, and you could almost see yourself out there on the field. You’d never go to an NFL game, watch the centaurs lobotomizing one another, and think, Man, that could have been me. But the fantasy of self-projection, an old and fading tradition in baseball, is still alive down here in the Pecos League. These are not the automatons who have taken over the New York Yankees I grew up rooting for. On blue nights like this, I envision myself out in center getting a jump on a ball to the gap. The marvelous opening line of one of the great baseball books, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, once again arrives in my head: “I’m 30 years old, and I have these dreams.”
If this all sounds a little ridiculous, well, I am 30 years old, I still own my cleats from college, and I’ve spent the better part of the summer eating $3 burgers. Besides, underdogs are easy to love. Over the past three months, inside what has at times seemed like a throwaway season in a throwaway league, I have found an extremely tough group of athletes who are willing to take real risks and make deep sacrifices in pursuit of a quixotic goal. Their dedication has reminded me of something essential about sports: Outside the confines of a major league stadium (or your TV screen), they are an occasionally comedic, often brutal endeavor with truly high stakes. There are unexpected bursts of inspiration—a 90-mile-an-hour fastball, a tape-measure home run—to remind you that these guys do, in fact, have a chance to scrap their way out of the cellar and into the higher reaches of pro ball. The Fuego play hard, and they play hurt, and they play to win. It just usually doesn’t pan out that way.
On November 9, 2011, Rodney Tafoya stood in a long line at Santa Fe city hall. He was clean-shaven and wearing a sharp beige sports jacket, his black hair immaculately sculpted with gel. His trim, five-foot-nine build was betrayed only by the first swellings of a middle-aged belly. He had two minutes to speak, and he had no notes, but his intentions were unambiguous. He planned to convince the city government to give him one more shot at greatness. He felt a passion rising inside him. Time was running short. He was 47 years old.
In the fall of 2010, Andrew Dunn, a former college ballplayer turned part-time real estate agent and Internet programmer, had managed to scrape together enough money to start his own small league. He’d previously owned a team in the foundering Continental League, and when that organization folded, Dunn saw opportunity. (Lacking the major league economic backing that the more prestigious, affiliated leagues enjoy, independent leagues are constantly refinancing, going out of business, or joining forces and rebooting under new names.) The Pecos League’s inaugural 2011 season was relatively successful, but following the summer two of the six teams folded. Dunn decided to replace them with two expansion teams. He wanted to put one in Santa Fe.
The team didn’t yet have a name. (At one point, Dunn had proposed calling it the Sangres—the Bloods. This did not go over well.) More urgently, Dunn didn’t have permission to sell beer at Fort Marcy, a public park and the only ball field in Santa Fe with adequate seating. (A city ordinance bans the sale of alcohol in public parks.) In a league where teams made nearly all their money from beer and ticket sales, this effectively prohibited games from being played at all. But Dunn had an ally on the city council, an avid baseball fan named Ron Trujillo. With Trujillo’s aid, Dunn proposed an amendment that would allow Santa Fe’s fledgling club to sell beer at Fort Marcy. A spirited debate ensued, fought on the op-ed pages of the local papers and at a series of public meetings, culminating in the November gathering at city hall. At the end of the meeting, the fate of the Fuego would be decided. Any Santa Fe resident was welcome to comment. The line of speakers stretched around the walls of the room, past the long desk where the council members sat.
The debate divided largely along class lines. The team’s supporters seemed to consist mostly of young families. The opposition was older and lived in the vicinity of the park. Fort Marcy sits at the intersection of two roads: One of them leads to the lush village of Tesuque, where Cormac McCarthy owns a house, the other to a series of gated communities and the local ski area. The opposition’s argument was simple: Beer and baseball would aggravate the town’s not insignificant drunk-driving problem. The team’s supporters accused the wealthy residents of elitist NIMBYism.
The president of the local chamber of commerce spoke in support of the team, as did a man in a faded Albuquerque Dukes shirt who brought photos of his father playing at Fort Marcy in 1951. The owner of Santa Fe’s most popular bar worried that the pros would mess up the playing surface for his softball league. An elderly man who lived near the park barked, “There will be car crashes, there will be drunken driving!” A woman in a rainbow scarf alleged a conspiracy between the city and the league, calling it a “D-u-n-n deal.”
Then it was Tafoya’s turn. Tafoya, a vice president at an Albuquerque branch of Bank of the West, was something of a local celebrity. He grew up in Santa Fe, where his brother, Jack, showing foresight, taught him to throw left-handed by tying his right arm behind his back. The boys’ father fought in Normandy; their mother worked in a nursing home. Tafoya starred in little league and high school and acquitted himself well playing for two small colleges, but he was not drafted. He pieced together a career pitching in minor leagues throughout the United States and Mexico before an injury drove him into banking.
Now Tafoya stepped up to the mic, placed his hands on either side of the podium, and spoke firmly. He told the crowd two things. One was that baseball and beer were synonymous. “I played in Canada, I played in Mexico,” he said. “I played in the minor leagues here in the United States. There was never a venue that didn’t sell beer. How can you have baseball without beer? I mean, come on.”
The other was that Tafoya was planning a comeback. He hadn’t pitched professionally since 2006, with a Mexican team, but he had the itch again. He told the city council that he wanted the opportunity to take the mound one last time in his hometown. “I will be the oldest pitcher in the United States in independent baseball,” he said, but “I can still throw an 86-mile-per-hour fastball. So in my heart, if they give me a spring-training tryout, you can bet your life that I’m going to make this team.” He raised his fist to enthusiastic cheers.
Four hours after the meeting began, the council voted. The panel split evenly, four for the amendment and four against. The mayor cast the deciding vote: There would be beer, and there would be baseball.
The task of assembling the Fuego fell to a 67-year-old veteran college coach named Bill Moore. When Andrew Dunn came calling in the fall of 2011, Moore was living in Mesa, Arizona, where his wife, Billie, ran a beauty center in an assisted-living home. Moore had spent the previous three years managing the Bisbee Copper Kings, in the Pacific Southwest League—a wood-bat summer league for college players—where he had achieved a 93-28 record, winning the conference three years running. That fall, however, the league had folded under the weight of unforeseen financial turmoil.
When Moore visited Santa Fe, he was unimpressed by Fort Marcy Park’s diminutive dimensions. The field measured 340 feet from home plate to left field, 355 to dead center, and 285 to right. Most pro parks are at least 320 feet down the lines and 400 in center. Fort Marcy’s small size combined with the thin mountain air—Santa Fe’s elevation is 7,300 feet—would guarantee plenty of home runs, but Moore preferred fundamentals and small ball: singles, bunts, stolen bases. Still, the chance to start a team from whole cloth was enticing. And though he’d spent three decades in baseball as a coach and scout, at one point even consulting with the Montreal Expos, he’d never managed a pro team. More pressingly, he was out of work. Dunn had found his manager.
Most of the hundred-odd players who showed up for tryouts that winter were in their early or mid-twenties: independent league veterans, recent college graduates, a few older guys hoping to reignite careers that had gone cold. Independent league players are scrappers, dreamers, and drifters hanging on to one common goal: getting out. One hundred and thirty eight players from the Pecos League have moved up to higher leagues in the past two years, but none have made it to the majors. Playing in the Pecos is thus somewhat akin to betting everything on a single hand of blackjack.
Bill Moore had no major league dreams. He just wanted to win. He had a budget of $2,000 a week and a simple plan: recruit power hitters who could consistently knock balls out of Fort Marcy. He was going to fill up the scoreboard. He started calling former colleagues and players—“somebody who might know somebody,” as he put it to me—and lining up prospects from college ball, professional leagues in Australia and Sweden, and other Pecos League teams that had succumbed to financial realities.
Forty-seven players were invited to a weeklong spring training at the beginning of May. Tafoya was among them. So were two players from a Kansas summer league: Scot Palmer, a 245-pound catcher who had played at Kansas’s Newman University, and Andrew Archbold, the skinny center fielder.
Palmer was surprised to get the call. At the end of the 2011 summer season, following a lackluster senior year at Newman, he’d dislocated a hip in a collision at home plate. He hadn’t expected to hear from any pro teams. When Moore asked about his health in October 2011, Palmer said he was 100 percent. At the time, he was using a cane and working as a valet at a Wichita casino. But he rehabbed furiously, and in April he and Archie caravanned to Santa Fe. Both men drove old Saturn sedans. Fifteen miles outside Trinidad, Colorado, Palmer’s engine blew up. He took what he could carry, threw it in Archbold’s car, and sold the remains of his vehicle for $125 to a guy he found in a gas station.
Palmer had not fully understood what he was getting into. It turned out the Fuego didn’t pay for players’ lodgings during spring training, and he had $37,000 dollars in student loans to pay off. To save money he ate only granola, and he quickly began to lose weight. He worried about his chances of making the team; there was another catcher in camp, too, a terrific defender from Australia named Kieran Bradford who’d played in the Pecos League the previous year. One night, at the Motel 6, he and Archbold noticed that Archie’s trunk was popped. Someone had broken in and stolen the center fielder’s baseball bag with all his gear. He and Palmer trolled the parking lot and found the bag dumped behind a car. The thieves had only wanted Archie’s iPod.
Palmer had had enough. He told a teammate he was planning to return home to Kansas, that he couldn’t afford to try out for the Fuego. But when he got back to the hotel following practice, he saw everyone packing. They had a new home: Tafoya’s house. Fifteen of them bunked there, on couches, on chairs, on the floor. Evan Kohli, a bruising first baseman from Minnesota, packed his six-foot-three, 205-pound frame into a recliner. Palmer slept on the hardwood floor. One night, Tafoya cooked everyone hot dogs.
In the second week of May, Moore announced the opening-day roster. Twenty-two of the 33 players were active, which meant they would make $54 per week plus travel expenses. The rest were the “taxi squad.” They would be invited to all home games, but they wouldn’t be paid and had to cover their own travel and hotels if they wanted to accompany the team on the road. Palmer, Kohli, Bradford, and Archbold made the active team. So did Tafoya. The comeback was on.
Tafoya called his teammates with the semipro Albuquerque Athletics and told them he would not be widely available for the summer. He didn’t need permission from anyone else. He had never married and had no children. “I would love to get married, I would love to have a family,” he told me. “But the one thing I’m not willing to give up is baseball.”
My own encounter with the Fuego began with a fastball to the head. It was a bright, cold night in May, and more than 1,000 fans turned out, many of them clad in Fuego red, to see the first pro baseball game in Santa Fe’s history, against the Triggers of Trinidad, Colorado. Several friends and I decided we would check out the action, too. Beer sales weren’t yet up and running, the public-address system went in and out, and the scoreboard barely worked. No matter. The crowd greeted the Fuego with glee.
Tafoya got the start. There may have been more deserving pitchers, but Tafoya had a sort of emeritus status on the team for reasons both honorary and practical: He was the Fuego’s oldest and most experienced player, and half the guys still slept on his floor. Even Moore, the manager, bunked in the guest room. He was wise to keep Tafoya happy. A group of fans, led by a 59-year-old part-time artist named David Nava, who’d grown up on Tafoya’s street, stood at the back of the grandstand with cardboard signs spelling out the pitcher’s name.
Tafoya wound, kicked, and delivered a fastball: strike one. This was followed by two sliders, which were called balls, and another fastball, which the leadoff batter for the Triggers obliterated. It sailed over the right-field fence. One–zero, Triggers.
The game slowed dramatically after that. The Fuego scored their first five runs without getting a hit, on account of the Triggers’ generous pitchers, who walked ten, and fielders, who committed eight errors. Three hours after the opening pitch, it was still the fourth inning. In the stands, glee was fast turning to boredom.
The crowd was filtering out when an imposing, six-foot-six Triggers pitcher threw a fastball into Fuego utility man Nick Muller’s head. It sounded like an ax hitting dry wood. The activity of the crowd—the bustle at the burger stand, the occasional tepid chants—came to a halt. Muller staggered, listing forward and aft. The Fuego poured off the bench.
The crowd—I’ll confess to being complicit here—chanted “Wild Thing!” Once peace was restored, the man on the PA announced that those in attendance had a “terrific opportunity to get involved with Fuego baseball” by hosting one of the players for the duration of the season. A friend of mine scoured the field, looking for cute potential tenants, but found none to her liking.
Four more Fuego batters were hit over the course of the game. Brawls were averted, though a Trinidad coach was ejected. The Fuego emerged victorious, but disagreement persists over the score, which the Santa Fe New Mexican reported as 14–8 and the team’s website reported as 16–8. Archbold showed promise, with three hits and five runs batted in. Tafoya, who gave up eight hits, five walks, and eight runs over three-plus innings, saw room for improvement. “If I can keep the ball down and make a few adjustments,” he told a newspaper reporter, “I know I’ll be fine.”
Before I get much further, I should own up to a certain lack of critical distance.
I have something of a baseball problem. I inherited it, unoriginally, from my father, who at one point proposed naming me Homer. I grew up worshipping at the altar of the Yankee second baseman Willie Randolph. During my freshman year at Yale, I walked onto the baseball team, the only Bulldog who hadn’t been recruited specifically to play ball. The dugout was full of outsize guys from Florida and North Carolina who threw 90 miles per hour. With my five-foot-nine frame and dearth of recruiting letters, I earned the nickname Scholar. My teammates were surprised that I’d made the squad at all.
All the incoming freshmen players except for me pledged the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity (George W. Bush’s). After hitting the weight room in the morning, they would walk around campus in a small pack, hats flipped backward, first to the dining hall for piles of eggs, then to their classes—which, it seemed, they all took together. But they were not on the team for the camaraderie. They were there to dominate. I was not. I dreaded the weight room, the locker room, even the field. The sport felt survivalist.
At the end of the semester, I transferred to Middlebury College, which had recruited me for baseball. Vermont breathed something back into my relationship with the game. When I say that I was not a very good player, I am not engaging in false modesty. One year, on the first day of practice, I broke my foot playing pickup basketball. In my best season, I started in right field, batted ninth, hit .340, and stole a few bases. In my senior year, I dove into a fence, wrecked my back, and batted an anemic .239. But baseball was once again a source of joy. It was the absurd rituals, the inside jokes, and the prevailing feeling that, if nine guys worked in unison, a group could produce something worthwhile. This notion proved to be unfounded for our team, which never made the league playoffs, but why not pull up your socks and engage in a little delusion? That’s the point.
My attachment to the more marginal forms of baseball lingered after graduation. During a summer spent fishing in Montana, I earned extra cash by working as an usher for the local minor league team. I don’t recall the Missoula Osprey winning a single game I worked, but there were a charming group of homeless fans who convened regularly on a hill above center field to vocally brutalize the opposition. You don’t get that at the new Yankee Stadium. You get sushi and Delta banners.
If the Osprey seemed old-school, the Fuego were downright prehistoric. At the beginning of the year, I had gone as far as considering trying out for the team. When I told Moore, he smiled kindly. “Everyone thinks they can play,” he said. “If you’re feeling froggy, show up to batting practice in some baseball pants.” I didn’t put on the baseball pants. I wasn’t good enough, even for the Fuego. But I did keep showing up.
Beer sales proved more problematic than Dunn had anticipated, due to miscommunication regarding the permits. The drinking area, it turned out, had to be isolated from the rest of the crowd by fencing. On May 24, though, two weeks after the home opener, the requisite paperwork was filed, the bureaucrats were satisfied, and the Santa Fe Brewery set up a properly fenced-in beer garden up the left-field line.
This had the effect of isolating the drinkers from the rest of the crowd and prohibiting parents from enjoying a beer. Still, you take what you can get. It was about time for some good news. The team was now three and seven, and attendance had dipped considerably since the first, glorious thousand-fan game. But the Fuego had the chance to win back the home crowd. It was a cool summer night, and the White Sands Pupfish were coming to town.
The Fuego had played, and lost to, White Sands on their first road series a week and a half earlier. The Pupfish’s home field is in Alamogordo, New Mexico, not far from the White Sands Missile Range, a 3,200-square-mile swath of desert where the U.S. Army tests weapons. The area’s signature inhabitant is the oryx, a large African antelope introduced in the early 1970s by New Mexico Department of Game and Fish chairman Frank C. Hibben, a mercurial archaeology professor and big-game aficionado, so he could hunt them for sport. The oryx would have been a natural local mascot for the White Sands team—its long, spearlike horns demand attention—but Andrew Dunn, for unknown reasons, had instead chosen the pupfish. A threatened species native to the desert’s streams, the pupfish is about two inches long and has been described as a biological relic. The jersey designers didn’t bother trying to incorporate its image into the White Sands uniform.
The Pupfish could hit, though, and as the fifth-place team they were the closest thing the Fuego had to a bitter rival. When Santa Fe arrived in town on May 15, White Sands had recently cut two players: Jason Hyland, a burly outfielder from Massachusetts, and Trent Evins, a pitcher from eastern Oregon. Before the first game, Pupfish coach Chris Paterson had offered the two to Moore. Moore snapped them up, cutting a couple of lesser Fuego players to make room.
Evins had been scouted by the Red Sox but was never drafted. He was tough, though, a fighter with a husky build and unkempt facial hair. He wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and worked in a plywood mill in the off-season. Moore told him that he had one shot to make it with the Fuego. Evins packed his bags and moved across the field.
The Fuego lost the first game Evins started, against the Cowboys of Alpine, Texas, but Moore liked what he saw. Evins threw hard, and he threw strikes. The coach invited him back to Santa Fe. It was an eight-hour drive; Palmer rode back with him in Evins’s old Audi. They talked about baseball, girls, and fathers. Evins’s, a former pro ballplayer who’d played with one of the San Diego Padres’ farm teams, had died of a heart attack when Evins was in high school. Soon after Evins and Palmer got back to town, they discovered that a homestay for two players had opened up with a mother of two named Andrea Probst. They moved in together. Their first night in the house was awkward until Probst offered them beers. Then they sang karaoke to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” with their new teenage home brother and sister.
Now back on the Fuego’s turf, Moore was starting Evins against his former teammates from White Sands. Evins was out for revenge. He opened strong, striking out five batters through the first four innings. His slider bit. His changeup made his heavy fastball look harder than it was. Then the Pupfish managed to get two balls in the air, both of which carried over the short Fort Marcy fences.
Out in left field, Dunn was speaking to local reporters near the beer garden. The commissioner, who is about five foot ten, with a trim, athletic build, wore a blue Pecos League polo shirt, creased black slacks, and a Bluetooth headset. He spoke quickly, in a flat tone, and did his best to avoid his interviewers’ eyes. One reporter asked how long the city would possibly support the team, given the Fuego’s poor performance. I couldn’t make out Dunn’s answer. From the beer garden a fan called out, “Somebody buy a beer for Coach Moore!” On the mound, Evins kept mowing down Pupfish: the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings passed without another run crossing the plate. The Fuego, it seemed, had found their ace.
In the bottom of the seventh, Archbold hit a single and stole second easily. Another batter walked, and then Hyland came to the plate. He was angry. He hadn’t been given an opportunity on the Pupfish before they cut him, and he’d been struggling since the Fuego picked him up. Hyland was a proud jock in early winter. Nine years earlier, he had led the University of Tampa to the Division II College World Series, where he won the most valuable player award. Following his senior year, however, he suffered a herniated disk and had two spinal-cord surgeries. Now he was attempting a comeback. But at 29, he was an old man in the Pecos League. He did not hide his emotions. Before the game he’d been jawing at the Pupfish.
The White Sands starter, Kyle Smart, served up the pitch, and Hyland unloaded on it. The ball soared over the right-field wall and disappeared from view beyond a row of tall trees. Hyland dropped his bat, watched the ball, jogged slowly toward first base, then whooped and twirled his finger in the air, the universal sign for a home run. The Fuego had the lead. Someone handed Dunn a plastic bucket. The voice crackled over the PA system: You will see commish Andrew Dunn passing the hat for Jason Hyland for hitting a three-run home run to put us in the lead!
The crowd chanted: “Fill the hat! Fill the hat!”
You can host a player and find out what it’s like to be involved in major league—in semi—in pro baseball here in Santa Fe!
“Fill the hat! Fill the hat!”
As Hyland passed third, the Pupfish started barking at him. Moore was displeased.
All donations are tax deductible and go directly to the player!
Evan Kohli was up next. The Pupfish pitcher threw a fastball into the square of his back, clearly an act of retaliation for Hyland’s theatrics. Man on first, one out. The bucket kept circulating through the crowd. I threw a dollar in.
These guys toil all day just like the big guys but don’t get the same paycheck!
The pitcher served up a meatball, and Josh Valle, the third baseman, hit it over the short right-field wall. Kissed his fingers, tapped his chest, pointed to the sky. Six–two, Fuego.
In the top of the eighth inning, Moore removed Evins. He had struck out 13 Pupfish. Moore sent in a reliever named Joey Garcia, who allowed, in short order, one fly out, two singles, a hit batter, a walk, and three home runs. Moore removed Garcia, but the damage was done: The Pupfish were back in the lead, the crowd deflated.
Palmer hit a home run in the bottom of the eighth—Let’s pass the hat for Scottie “Big Stick” Palmer!—but it was too little, too late, especially because, one inning later, the Pupfish managed a grand slam. The scoreboard, unable to process the number of runs the visitors had just scored, broke.
Remember, fans, tomorrow is dollar hot dog night!
Two days later I drove to Rod Tafoya’s house, now the Fuego’s unofficial headquarters and bunkhouse. A row of wood bats were lined up on the porch next to a stack of copies of Tafoya’s autobiography, Ageless Arm: My Passion Lives in the Core!, which a small New Mexico publisher had put out the previous year. A 1980s Chevrolet Corsica sporting faded stickers from the Erie Sailors and the Boise Hawks was parked on a driveway made of worn Astroturf. Ballplayers wandered around the street dressed in a manner familiar to anyone who has been to Florida in March: tight tank tops, gelled hair, baggy shorts, flip-flops, metallic necklaces. Tafoya was away, working at the bank.
Moore, who is about five foot five, greeted me at the door wearing denim shorts, old Top-Siders, no shirt, and his permanent smile. He was fit and muscled, all torso. His skin was sun beaten and wrinkled in a grid around his neck. The number 25, which he has worn his whole career, was tattooed on both of his shoulder blades. A straight white line divided his chest evenly, the result of emergency quadruple-bypass heart surgery two years earlier.
One morning in March 2010, Moore woke up with heart palpitations. Soon he was in the operating room watching the doctors shave his chest. While he was on morphine in intensive care following the surgery, Moore foresaw his death. He immediately and frantically started counting baseball games. “I tried to figure out how many games I’d played and coached in,” he told me. “Keep in mind I was drugged up, but I came to some conclusion it was around 5,000.” He was back on the field two months later for opening day with his Bisbee team, though he did give up Copenhagen, of which he’d previously chewed a can a day—two during doubleheaders.
Baseball was one of two great constants in Moore’s life; the other was his wife, Billie. He had committed himself to both shortly after returning from Vietnam, where he’d served in the Navy for four years, five months, and eleven days—“not that I was counting,” he said. At 22, he tried out for the team at Phoenix Community College. The manager had offered him a role as a player-coach, and he’d sat on benches ever since. In between coaching gigs, he supported his wife and two daughters by running a used-car dealership, Aloha Bill’s Garden of Gears, which he sold in 2000. Since then, Billie had pulled in the lion’s share of the family income. For the past 40 years, whenever he was on the road, Moore had written Billie a weekly love letter. He occasionally sent them when they were under the same roof, too. The mailman would pick up the letter on Monday and deliver it back to the house on Wednesday.
Moore led me into Tafoya’s house, which smelled of cologne. A television nearly the size of a pool table occupied one corner, and jars of nutritional supplements and creatine were everywhere. Moore poured coffee; it was the one habit he hadn’t given up since the operation. He seemed undaunted by the Fuego’s losing streak, which was now up to seven games. He was encouraged by Evins’s performance, and he had added other promising players, including a 25-year-old outfielder from Georgia named Parris Austin, who had been drafted relatively high by the New York Mets a few years back and cut after one year in Single A ball. “I’m psyched about him,” Moore said. To make room for the additions, he had cut Hyland. This came as no surprise to the other players on the team. Coach Moore did not go in for showboating.
Moore was looking forward to ending the White Sands series, which had been unforgiving, and to facing the first-place Las Cruces Vaqueros and the second-place Alpine Cowboys. “Alpine kicked our ass badly last time,” he said. He attributed the losses to his pitching staff, which had thrown nothing but “titty-high fastballs.”
That trend, however, showed no sign of abating. On June 1, Tafoya started against the Vaqueros and gave up ten hits in five innings for a 9–4 loss. He was not making adjustments, he was not keeping the ball down, and he was not fine. He was working on a new pitch, a cut fastball, which was working with only minimal effect. He was 0-2.
By this point in the season, I was regularly sneaking away early from my job to attend Fuego games. I had become accustomed to the quirks of the Pecos League. The players hung out behind the home dugout eating snacks before the game and occasionally mingling with fans. The scoreboard usually broke around the fourth inning or whenever one team scored more than 10 runs. Half the time, nobody really seemed to be in charge. You could pay for your ticket if you wanted to wait in a line, or you could just walk in and sit down. The announcer, a guy named Rick, got players’ names wrong. More often than not we lost.
On June 5, the afternoon before the Fuego once again faced the Alpine Cowboys, I was standing on the field with Moore when one of the Alpine coaches approached. He wanted ice and water.
“It’s not here yet,” Moore said. “It’ll get here. I just don’t know when.”
“I need ice for my pitchers’ arms.”
“Well, I need ice, too,” Moore said. “And I want a fucking tractor and a mat. And pitching mounds for the bullpen. But I don’t have them. This is the City Different, Santa Fe. What do they call it?”
“Mañana Land,” I offered.
“Mañana Land. It’ll get here, I just don’t know when.”
Moore was exasperated. He had been under the impression that the city was going to provide a certain amount of maintenance at Fort Marcy. But the deal that Dunn had struck with the council was bare-bones: The league paid a $1,750 fee to rent the field for the season’s 34 home games, as well as 10 percent of food and beer sales. The city would maintain the field surface as it did any other public park. But additional improvements, such as mounds in the bullpen or doors for the stalls in the bathrooms, had to come from the team. A volunteer trainer from the local hospital brought the ice.
“I need ice for injuries,” the coach repeated.
“Well, it’ll get here, but I got water for now,” Moore said. “I’ll be honest, though. My priority at the moment is seeing whether they finally put any shit paper in the bathroom”—there had been no toilet paper at Fort Marcy for a week—“and I’m about to find out.”
A couple of Fuego pitchers approached, seeking permission to go for a run. “Did you take care of your responsibilities?” Moore asked. In the Pecos League, all the minutiae that goes into producing the theater of baseball—raking the infield dirt, laying down the chalk lines, watering the field, cleaning the stands—falls to the players. The pitchers had completed their duties. “Go for it,” Moore said.
“OK,” one of the players said. “We’re going to do a five-mile—”
Moore waved them off. “Don’t tell me. You’re making me tired.”
That evening brought mercy. In the seventh inning, Austin laid down a good bunt between home plate and the pitcher’s mound, and Archbold slid home far ahead of the throw from the pitcher. Following the play, the two outfielders pointed at each other in ritual celebration.
But Archbold was aware that Austin represented a threat. He and Austin shared the gift of speed and little else. Austin was 25, Archbold 23. Austin was six foot three and built like a wide receiver, strong and lean; Archbold was five foot ten with a body type that called to mind uncooked spaghetti. Austin was aloof, with the breezy confidence of someone accustomed to walking onto fields and being picked first. Archbold was painfully quiet. In the off-season, Austin moonlighted as a model. Archbold worked the cash register at a Lowe’s in Wichita, Kansas.
Austin was the only member of the Fuego who had briefly placed a foot in the promised land. A high school star in Douglasville, Georgia, he was selected by the Mets in the 2004 amateur draft and made the Mets’ Class A affiliate Hagerstown Suns in 2006, at age 20. There he struggled, batting .281 with eight strikeouts, two stolen bases, and just one RBI in 32 at-bats. He was cut at the end of the season, cast from the anointed inner circle of affiliated ball out to the distant periphery of the independent leagues.
Two years later he signed on with the Alexandria Aces, in the Pecos’s precursor, the now defunct Continental League, to attempt a comeback at age 23. According to the Aces’ coach that year, a Salt Lake City–based high school teacher named Dan Shwam, “Parris was really a phenomenal athlete. One of the best athletes I’ve ever managed. His flaw was mental toughness, being focused every day. At times Parris acted like he really wanted to play. At times it seemed like he didn’t care to be there.… He had the makeup of a Triple A guy, but he never figured it out.” Shwam cut Austin at the end of the year.
Archbold possessed neither Austin’s natural gifts nor his disdain for work. He’d gone unnoticed in high school and had managed to walk onto the baseball team at Pennsylvania’s Waynesburg University after getting recruited to run cross-country. Two years later, he was playing in a summer league in Kansas when the coach from Sterling College recruited him. Archie starred at Sterling, batting .408 and stealing 29 bases in his senior year to lead the conference in both categories. He was conference player of the year and an all-American but never got a look from any affiliated minor league teams.
“As far as athletic ability, raw talent, he’s middle of the pack,” said Adrian Dinkel, Sterling’s manager, who was an assistant coach during Archbold’s senior year. “If you’re six-six and left-handed, you’re going to get drafted.” Archie wasn’t and didn’t.
Archie did have one singular talent: an uncanny ability to read the ball off the bat. I’ve never seen a center fielder—my former position—get reads like him. He was waiting under just about every fly ball that came his way that summer. It was a marvel to watch but seemed unlikely to get him far. Teammates valued what Archie delivered, but scouts preferred power, multiple tools, the opaque notion of potential.
The Fuego won 9–5 in their second game against Alpine, closing out the series with a 7-13 record. That put them just two and a half games behind fifth-place White Sands, who they were playing in their next road series. I wondered if Archie would be back when the team returned. I recognized Austin’s quiet cockiness; guys like him usually meant trouble for scrappers like me and Archie. I had learned in college ball that the spoils in sports often went to the players who grasped most fully that the team’s success and their own had little to do with each other. The Bulldogs I played with at Yale had three pitchers who went on to be drafted in high rounds, and the team came in last place in the Ivy League the spring after I transferred. A friend who played minor league ball once told me that at that level, you have to value the physical act of hitting or throwing a baseball far more than the notion of a team.
The Pecos League, for all its charms, was no different. I knew that the Fuego were killers. They had to be. You don’t live in homestays on $54 a week as a lifestyle choice. You do it in order to move up and move out. And getting cut from the Pecos League can be fatal. There are no lower landing pads.
Archie was not a mercenary. I say this not because he played my former position, or because I admired the gorgeous routes he took to the ball, or because, like me, he couldn’t hit much, or because he refused to talk poorly about other teammates. I say it because he was the rare ballplayer who genuinely didn’t care about statistics. I asked him how many bases he’d stolen—he was close to leading the league for a while—and he didn’t know. He took a karmic view of the game. “When you’re looking out for your teammates,” he told me, “looking to play for the team rather than yourself, you seem to be rewarded.”
This sounded awfully noble, but I wasn’t sure how far it would get Archie. The Fuego weren’t winning games, and losing breeds personnel change. Turnover was the only constant in the Pecos League. Even though I’d attended most of the games, by this point in the season I recognized only a handful of players. Moore received calls every day from former colleagues, players looking for work or coaches who’d had to cut guys they liked.
The volume of these calls began increasing in June, which was not unusual. Pro baseball’s amateur draft happens in early June, and it sends ripples throughout the various minor leagues. There are only so many roster spots; to make room for fresh prospects, affiliated teams cut players. The ones who don’t catch on with other affiliated teams filter down into the higher independent leagues, which then have to make cuts of their own. The dominoes fell through the fiefdoms, and eventually, Moore had his pick of new players.
When the Fuego came home from White Sands, I went to the ballpark. I saw Archie but not Austin. Where was Parris? I asked Moore.
“Our left fielder leads the league in home runs, and we have arguably the best defensive center fielder in the league,” Moore said. “Parris was the fifth outfielder.” He’d been sent home to Georgia.
Austin declined to be interviewed when I reached him to ask about his Fuego experience. I expected as much. He was a ballplayer. You have to be proud. It’s a professional requirement.
A sense of unease had settled over the Fuego by late June. In 2011, 43 players from the Pecos moved to higher independent leagues or affiliated teams. By the middle of the 2012 season, only a handful had. It became harder to ignore the fact that most Fuego players were destined to stick around and become that dreaded thing: a Pecos League veteran. Fifty-odd bucks a week, hotels with three beds in a room, grounds-crew duties, dinner at Applebee’s on a good night.
Even Tafoya, an inveterate dreamer, recognized how bleak the odds were. “Why go for a guy that can hit home runs in the lowest of leagues when you can get a guy who’s 18 out of high school with the same power?” he told me. “It’s just the way it works. They want youth.” Still, he was reluctant to say as much to his younger teammates. “You never want to destroy anyone’s hopes and dreams. Because in baseball you really never know what could happen. The odds are astronomical, but you never know. You just never know.”
Tafoya’s own career was a testament to this conviction. After finishing a promising college-ball career with no interest from minor league teams in the United States, he headed south to Mexico. He quickly rose through that country’s minor league ranks, earning an invitation in 1987 to spring training with Mexico City’s Diablos Rojos, powerhouse of the Triple-A Mexican League, which hosted many former and future major leaguers.
This was the big time. Tafoya was 23. He put on a suit and took a taxi to spring training, but when he hopped out of the car, the driver sped away with his clothes, cleats, glove, and passport. Then the Diablos cut him. A slightly inferior club, the Rieleros of Aguascalientes, picked him up. Tafoya was still close enough to touch the hem of major league ball: His starting shortstop was the former Texas Ranger Mario Mendoza, a defensive whiz whose prolonged offensive impotence infamously gave birth to the phrase “the Mendoza line,” which refers to a batting average of .200. He had been released by the Rangers five years earlier, in 1982, after it fell to .118.
Tafoya pitched in eight games alongside Mendoza before the Rieleros’ manager cut him. At three in the morning, Tafoya says, the team’s bus deposited him on the side of an empty highway, far from civilization. A coyote howled in the night. Miraculously, a taxi appeared from the blackness. Tafoya eventually made his way back across the border and farther north to Idaho, where he signed on with the Boise Hawks in the Northwest League. The Hawks were an independent team, but this was a Class A league; though Tafoya still wasn’t playing on an affiliated team, at least he was playing against them. He pitched to Mike Piazza and once struck out current Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. He was the Little Caesars Pizza Player of the Week.
Not long after, though, Tafoya tore a ligament in his elbow while practicing his slider. He didn’t tell anyone and signed up to pitch for another independent team in Erie, Pennsylvania, without fully recovering. It didn’t go well. In 1993, while pitching for a team in Oregon, he took up banking as a side job, then gave up on pro ball in 1998 and moved home to the modest adobe in Santa Fe where he grew up. In his spare time, he began offering his pitching services to local semipro teams, with some success. (Semipro ball falls far below independent league ball in the sport’s hierarchy; games are held at night or on weekends, and players aren’t paid.) As the dream of professional stardom receded, his sports career attained a new focus: His goal in life from now on, he resolved, was to win 300 semipro baseball games.
Tafoya surrounded himself with reminders of his mission. It was on his website—“Countdown to 300!”—and on his car, a black BMW with a vanity plate that read WIN 300. It was the driving narrative arc of his autobiography, Ageless Arm. A year later, he was just 29 wins from his goal. He could taste it. But Tafoya was scrupulous in his accounting, and he did not mix pro wins and semipro wins in his countdown. The two “just aren’t the same thing,” he told me.
This meant that by chasing one last chance at professional baseball glory with the Fuego, he had voluntarily put the brakes on what was now his singular ambition. But a baseball player offered a shot—however remote—at the big time is congenitally incapable of not taking it. It might be hard to imagine that any of the Fuego or their counterparts truly believed that they were going to fight their way up through the ranks to play for the Red Sox or even for a Double A team. But they did. They had to. To be good at whacking a baseball takes an immense amount of concentration focused on a brief moment. It also takes a confidence that’s almost irrational. Perspective is not particularly useful, nor is a close examination of one’s life choices. You have to hope.
On June 20, the Trinidad Triggers were back in town. Tensions were high. The Fuego had recently been feuding with two of the umpires, whom they accused of being antagonistic and vindictive, eager to throw out coaches and players alike. A rumor was circulating that one of the men in question, a Puerto Rican ump named Edwin Ortiz who spoke only limited English, was trying to lead the league in ejections. “They are fucking atrocious,” Moore told me at one point. He pointed at my notebook: “You can put that in there.”
A certain amount of frustration on the umps’ part was understandable. In many ways, their careers paralleled the players’. They were at the bottom of professional baseball’s pecking order, looking to move up, making just $1,500 for the summer while paying their own travel expenses. They felt disrespected by the players; “Indy ball,” one veteran independent league ump told me, “is major league attitude with minor league talent.”
Things had come to a head the previous night in a game against the Vaqueros. Ortiz’s partner and de facto translator, a Santa Fe local named Harold Moya, had called the Fuego’s John Murphy out on two very dubious strikes. In response, Moore calmly walked over to the visiting dugout, picked up a bucket of baseballs, carried them to home plate, and dumped them over Moya’s head.
It was difficult to get suspended for abusing an ump in the Pecos League, so tonight Moore was once again in his customary spot up the third-base line. In the bottom of the first inning, with runners on second and third, Palmer hit a ball farther than he ever had in his life. It traveled out of the confines of Fort Marcy and over the firehouse that sits beyond the left-field wall. Palmer smiled as he jogged around the bases. Both his father, a former powerlifter and high school ballplayer, and his host mom, Andrea Probst, were in the crowd. The Fuego were winning four to nothing. His father went in search of the ball.
In the top of the third inning, Palmer noticed that one of the Triggers, a leadoff batter named John Fabry, was tipping pitches—using hand signals while on the base paths to cue hitters into what was coming next. This is a time-honored practice in baseball, but “don’t make it so fucking obvious,” Palmer told Fabry. He hinted that a fastball to Fabry’s ribs might be in order.
Retaliation came quickly. Later in the same inning, Palmer was standing in the third-base line, calling for someone to cut off an outfielder’s throw, when the Triggers’ shortstop hunched down and sprinted into Palmer at full speed, putting his shoulder into the meat of the catcher’s chest protector. Palmer somersaulted backward.
Even the most lugubrious, cellar-dwelling team achieves a temporary and riotous unity when their catcher is taken out. The Fuego poured from the dugout. Palmer got up out of the dirt and told them to back off. He was fine.
Then there was a single to center. Archbold deftly fielded the ball and threw a dart to Palmer. The catcher turned up the line, where a phone-booth-size designated hitter was rumbling toward him. The runner steamrolled him, and the Fuego cleared the bench again. This time Palmer didn’t stop them. He hobbled off to the dugout, holding his side.
Two days later, Palmer was still out of the lineup and recovering. He was sitting behind the dugout when a man and a young boy approached him. Palmer recognized the man, who looked to be in his mid-thirties. He often sat behind home plate, and Fuego diehards were few enough that an attentive player could identify them by sight. The man introduced himself as Mario Montoya. He worked at an auto-repair shop in town. The boy was his 8-year-old son, Isaiah, who wanted to learn to catch. Palmer showed him the basics: how to hold a ball across the seams, how to squat and set up.
After another game, Montoya’s uncle, David Nava, the artist and former neighbor of Tafoya’s who appeared regularly in the pitcher’s cheering section, approached Palmer.
“I want to talk to you,” he said.
“Yes?” Palmer said.
“That was nice, for you to play with the kid.”
Palmer said they could come by anytime, after any game. Before long, Isaiah and his siblings, 5-year-old Gabriel and 4-year-old Melodie, were bringing gloves to the park, throwing the ball behind the backstop with their cousins. After the games, Palmer would play with them on the field before he helped his teammates clean up the bleachers. Isaiah, Melodie, Gabriel, Montoya, and Nava attended just about every home game. Occasionally, they sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” over the PA system in the seventh inning.
At night, at Montoya’s house, the kids would play Fuego. Isaiah was Palmer, Gabriel was Tafoya, and Melodie was Scott Davis, the shortstop. Palmer started looking forward to seeing them at the games. It made for long evenings. But “baseball sort of became a job,” he told me. “It gave me peace of mind to see them throwing the ball, to throw with them.”
It was impossible to immerse oneself in the happenings of the Pecos League and not come away with some burning questions about the basic conditions of its existence. How was the league solvent? How did it negotiate minimum-wage laws? Could it seriously not afford to buy some doors for the bathroom stalls?
Andrew Dunn was generally not one to humor such questions. In his limited dealings with the local sporting press, the Pecos League commissioner had acquired a skill for circular and evasive talk. It was sort of like speaking to a politician, but one who avoided eye contact and was prone to snap during the brief interviews he would agree to from time to time. He wouldn’t divulge the league’s finances beyond estimating that the Pecos ran on “about $1.5 million,” or about what Alex Rodriguez makes in a week. (Santa Fe’s 10 percent take of the beer concessions, ostensibly the Fuego’s main source of income, amounted to $831.43 for the entire 2012 season.) Dunn once obliquely mentioned that a former investor in the league had proved to have a criminal record. Who was it, I asked?
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
On another occasion, I asked him about the Fuego’s future or lack thereof. “We’re not going anywhere,” he barked. “I’ll just do it as a hobby if I have to. I don’t care. I just want to play. We’re playing indefinitely.”
What about the park? Would there be improvements for 2013?
“The surface will be better. I’ve heard that their scoreboard might get fixed. They’re going to do speakers.”
“I don’t know. I do not know the answer to that.”
What about the players’ salaries? How were they legal?
“We’re giving them housing, and they’re progressing toward a skill set. They are seasonal workers.”
It was true that the Pecos League players, by virtue of their freelance status, were not subject to minimum-wage laws. Their hold on employment, such as it was, was tenuous in any case. Before the Fuego went south for its late June road trip to Las Cruces and Roswell, Moore received word from Dunn that he soon would have to trim the playoff roster to 25. Moore wanted to take 22 players on the road to save money. He hadn’t used Tafoya in nearly a month, since the June 1 loss. The manager was in a singularly awkward position. How do you cut the man whose guest room you sleep in?
Following the last Trinidad game, a 23–6 victory, Moore announced that he would be reading the names of the active players for the next road trip from a list. Tafoya’s name did not come out of the coach’s mouth.
That night, Tafoya went in his room and locked the door. His thoughts turned dark. He had sacrificed a great deal for the Fuego. He’d opened his home to them and temporarily set aside his goal of 300 semipro wins. He was working 100-plus-hour weeks and was approaching 50. He’d spent the summer driving all over the state in the hope that he would be summoned to throw baseballs, and now this had been taken from him with what seemed to be finality. He deeply loved baseball, and to lose it would be to lose hold of the anchor in his life. He had thrown 97,000 pitches. He didn’t know how many more there might be.
“There’s a very uncomfortable feeling in baseball,” he told me later. “It’s a feeling inside—things just aren’t like they were before. And it happens every day. Guys get released in pro ball every day. It’s just the way it is. You’re older.” Then somebody like Moore came along. “He gives you another shot, and you can’t get anybody out. So what do you do then? You’re at a fork in the road. ‘Do I have what it takes? Am I able to get hitters out?’ That’s it. Can you or can you not?”
Tafoya was lying in bed, thinking, when he heard a knock on the door. It was Moore.
“You got a minute?” the coach asked. Tafoya came out.
“You’re still on the team,” Moore said.
He explained that Tafoya was simply not coming in the van on the next road trip. He was welcome to drive down to Roswell the next weekend if he wished.
Six days later, Tafoya threw his glove and spikes in the WIN 300 BMW and drove the three-plus hours south to Roswell. It was Saturday, June 30, and Moore needed a spot start. The team had won two of five in Las Cruces, bringing its record to 15-27, but was short on pitching. Tafoya had another chance.
It did not go well. The first batter got on base on a shortstop’s error. The next batter singled. Tafoya threw a wild pitch. Fly out. Error. Single. Double. Single. Walk. Walk. Bases loaded. Single. Single, single, single, fly out. Single. The runners came and came and came, and before the third out arrived, Tafoya had given up 10 runs in one inning. Moore removed him.
Tafoya drove home to Santa Fe, where I met him not long after. “They were some big boys,” he said. “And there were some errors.”
I asked when he was starting again.
“When Coach says I’ll pitch, I’ll pitch,” he said, smiling.
Tafoya had brought me to a room in the back of his house, a vast expanse of black and white linoleum tile. It was his baseball room. The walls were lined with shelves full of game balls, all of them filed in chronological order, inscribed with the dates and statistical details of his triumphs: innings pitched, strikeouts, hits. There were 500 balls in the room, 200 of them representing victories. He showed me one from 2009, when he won two semipro games in a day in Puerto Rico, throwing 222 pitches. “That’s when they started calling me Ageless Arm,” he said.
Tafoya sat on the floor and instructed me to sit on the one chair in the room, which was covered with a number 32 jersey from the semipro Albuquerque Brewers. The number 32 was everywhere, on jerseys and in photographs of Tafoya at different stages in his career: young and thin in Idaho, older and with a full face in Puerto Rico. Always smiling.
The effect of the room was dizzying. I felt as though I was inhabiting the sort of monument to athletic achievement I had fiercely desired at age 14. About 15 wooden bats balanced upon one another in a spiral in the center of the room, creating a sort of precarious statue. One of the bats belonged to Kohli, the first baseman. He’d signed it for Tafoya.
“Thanks for being a role model and father figure to me,” it read.
“It doesn’t get much better than that,” Tafoya said.
The Fuego’s poor performance, and his own, upset Tafoya. But he preferred the long view. The playoffs were not mathematically unattainable. He just needed to keep the ball down. He would be fine.
He wanted to show me something. He’d come home to find a note on his door, he said. Philip Rowland, an outfielder Moore had picked up from White Sands, was still staying at the house on Cedar Street, though Moore had cut him after two games; he and Tafoya had become good friends. Looking for a new opportunity, Rowland had done some Internet research while the Fuego were in Roswell, and he’d found that an independent team in California had three batters hitting under .100. The note was scrawled on a bank envelope hanging from Tafoya’s front door:
HEY ROD I MIGHT BE LEAVING TODAY. WHAT’S YOUR PHONE NUMBER? I WANTED TO SAY FOR YOU TO BE 48 AND STILL BE PLAYING AND WORKING YOUR NUTS OFF MAKES YOU A CHAMPION IN MY BOOK. TAKE CARE ROD. PHIL
The Fuego traveled to Trinidad at the beginning of July. Palmer, trying to check his swing in the second game, felt a pop in his wrist. It hurt, but he didn’t think much of it, and he didn’t tell Moore. There was only one other true catcher on the team. Besides, Palmer’s grandmother and uncle had driven down from Wichita to watch him play. There was no way he was leaving the game. He hit a home run later that night and tried to forget about the wrist.
The Fuego finished the series with a 14-28 record. They were in fifth place, but the playoffs were not completely out of reach: The top four teams made the tournament, and the Fuego were only three and a half games behind fourth-place Trinidad. An awful lot of their losses had come by one run. There was reason for hope. They had the leading hitter in the league, Kohli, who was batting around .450, and the home-run leader, a left fielder named Chris Brown who bore more than a passing resemblance to Albert Pujols. Evins was pitching well. Palmer was punishing the ball, despite the wrist. Archie caught everything in the outfield.
But the Fuego needed to make a run. There were only 28 games left in the season. They began promisingly: First-place Alpine came to town, and the Fuego managed a coup, winning 27–10 with a league record for runs in a game. Santa Fe’s pitchers only walked two, and the defense committed no errors. Tafoya pitched an inning with minimal damage. Things were looking up.
Then the wheels came off. Kohli fell into a slump, his average dropping beneath .400. The pitching melted down. Errors mounted. The monsoons came, too. Occasionally, David Nava, Mario Montoya, and their crew would arrive early to help the players spread cat litter on the infield to dry it off. The Fuego won only one of their next 10 games. This was in the middle of a stretch of 16 consecutive games with no days off, and the players were hurting.
In a league with no disabled list, an injury means losing your job. The Fuego rarely took days off, and 80 games in three months beats a body. (This, incidentally, is why many ballplayers start taking performance-enhancing drugs—not to transform into freak shows of Bondsian proportions, but to stay on the field and rise through the ranks. All the players I spoke to denied seeing PEDs in the Pecos—“You try doping on $50 a week,” went the refrain—but I’d be shocked if no one was using.)
Archie tweaked his back badly taking a warm-up swing in early July. He told Moore, who said, “We need you.” Archie couldn’t swing with a complete follow-through. “Can you run?” Moore asked. He could. “Can you bunt?” He could. “Do what you need to do,” said Moore.
Palmer, meanwhile, was not improving. Toward the end of the Alpine series, he was having trouble holding onto the ball and fatigued easily. The wrist was constantly sore, but he didn’t want to come out of the game. His mother had come down from Wichita to watch the series. “The last thing I wanted to do,” he told me, “was not play.”
So he played, and said nothing.
One of Rod Tafoya’s favorite major league pitchers was a crafty, soft-throwing left-hander named Jamie Moyer, who debuted with the Chicago Cubs in 1986 and won 269 major league games before undergoing elbow surgery in 2010. He made headlines in 2012 when he embarked on a comeback with the Colorado Rockies at age 49. This made him the only professional baseball player in the country older than Tafoya. (The famed juicer Jose Canseco, at 47, was nipping at their heels; he made an independent league cameo—a common practice for aging stars—last August.)
Tafoya started tracking Moyer’s progress at the beginning of the season. In May, the Rockies cut him and he signed on with the Orioles, but Baltimore cut him in June, at which point Moyer signed on with one of the Toronto Blue Jays’ minor league affiliates. They dropped him on July 5, and this time no one else picked him up.
This was a week after Tafoya’s disastrous start at Roswell. But now Tafoya was once again on the Fuego roster, for the home series against Alpine. After pitching a scoreless inning in the Fuego’s 27–10 upset, Tafoya promptly posted an article on his website, AgelessArm.com. “Rod Tafoya Now Oldest Active Pro,” read the headline. “In Moyer’s illustrious 25-year MLB career, he is 269-209. In Tafoya’s case, he has had a few flashes of brilliance, however, he has yet to win a Pecos League victory.”
Following that game the Cowboys struck back, winning the next two by one run each. Then, on a hot Saturday afternoon, Kohli was lounging in the dugout before the game when an unknown man approached him. He was a scout for the Washington Nationals. He was there primarily to see the Alpine starting pitcher, but he handed Kohli a questionnaire to fill out and send back to him. This sent a surge of energy through the dugout. Attention was being paid.
Unfortunately, Moore was once again short on pitching. He started a six-foot-five, rail-thin right-hander named Ryan Westover he’d just picked up, but the Cowboys treated Westover’s fastballs like an open bar. By the end of the second inning, Westover had surrendered seven runs on eight hits, three of them homers. It was Westover’s first and last appearance of the season. By the bottom of the sixth, the Fuego had gone through five pitchers and were still trailing 16–3. Moore told Tafoya to get ready.
The lefty straightened his cap and jogged out to the bullpen to warm up. He went through his usual routine: fastballs, curves, cutters. He warmed up for two innings straight, working up a good sweat. Tafoya felt amazing in the bullpen. He was throwing as hard as he had all year, but for some reason he also had his control. He was at the fork in the road, and he was determined.
He jogged out of the bullpen and threw nine pitches. Seven were strikes. He struck out the first two batters and got the third, a righty, to fly out weakly to right field. And that was it. He was finished. He walked off the mound to faint cheers, slapped the hands of his teammates, and wrote his stats down on a game ball. It was the last time Tafoya would ascend the mound this season, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that, in that moment, he had once again tasted what he’d felt back in Idaho during the George H. W. Bush administration. The clouds that had been lingering since the day he was temporarily cut had parted at last. Tafoya had regained his anchor.
When I visited Tafoya at home some time later, I asked if he would be playing with the Fuego next year. Tafoya looked past me; there was still a lingering glow from his last stand against Alpine. “I just proved to myself and to everybody out there that knows my story that at 48 I can still compete professionally,” he told me. “Albeit at the lowest level out there. But I still proved that it could be done.
“I will probably die pitching,” he went on. “I don’t think I’m going to ever quit. I thought about it on my drive home tonight, and I just don’t see life without baseball in my future. There’s no reason for it to stop. In the amateur games I pitched this summer”—Tafoya had started more than a dozen games for the Albuquerque A’s — “I had an ERA under one!”
His voice rose. “Sixteen strikeouts per nine innings!” Now he seemed to be pleading. “How can you stop when you have those incredible numbers?”
I asked what he planned to do after he hit his goal. “Once I hit 300, I’m going to take a little break and take it all in, smell the roses a bit.” He smiled. “Then, who knows? I might go for another 100 and shoot for four.”
I showed up at the ballpark late. It was one of those impossible Santa Fe summer evenings. The monsoon had come and gone. A rainbow emerged from the remnants of the storm clouds and arced over the center-field fence. Blue shadows lit red mountains. We were hosting Las Cruces, and we were already down seven or eight runs.
Some guy I didn’t recognize was behind the plate. Palmer, I later learned, had finally asked out. He started the game and struck out in his first at bat on a pitch in the dirt, then finally approached Moore. “Skip,” he said, “I can’t do this.” He confessed that his wrist was killing him.
The Fuego went down 14–0 that night, and Palmer went to see a doctor on the trainer’s orders. His wrist was a mess. The doctor said that he had torn a ligament. Playing on it for weeks had been a poor decision, and now surgery was the only option. Palmer was devastated—he’d dislocated his hip and broken his arm before, but he’d never had major surgery. He decided to have the procedure back home in Kansas, but not until the fall. He liked being near the mountains, and he wanted to see the season through to the end.
He spent more time with David Nava, Mario Montoya, and the kids. Montoya invited him over to cook marshmallows; the kids were awestruck. They all started helping the team out with chores: one day they brought brooms to the game to sweep the bleachers so the players could rest. Without his $54 paycheck, Palmer was deeply worried about money. One day, Nava brought him a gift certificate to the Olive Garden. Another day, Nava brought five paintings he had made, which he said Palmer could sell. Then Nava literally emptied one of his piggy banks, giving Palmer a few bucks in change.
During one batting practice, I asked Palmer about his plans. He said he wanted to get the surgery done so he could get back on the field. He had hit over .400 that season, with 13 or 14 home runs, depending on whether you believed Palmer’s count or the Pecos League’s own frequently suspect statistics. There were opportunities. “I always told my mom, as long as I can provide for my family, my girlfriend, or myself, I’m going to play until I can’t play no more,” he said. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
In August, he went back to Kansas to see another doctor, who examined his MRI results and was astounded. Palmer had torn several ligaments and pieces of connective tissue just above his wrist. By playing through the injury, the doctor said, he’d pushed and rotated the intricate bones in his wrist out and to the right. Not only did he need surgery, he would never play baseball again.
The Fuego played their final home game of the season on July 25. Despite the fact that the playoffs were now out of reach, Santa Fe still had a whiff of influence as a spoiler: Their opponents, the Roswell Invaders, were in second place, not far behind the Alpine Cowboys. A win would hurt Roswell’s chances of overtaking Alpine for home-field advantage in the playoffs. I waited for the game to start, listening to Lynyrd Skynryd crackling over the PA. The small details of a night at Fort Marcy seemed especially vivid: the smell of meat fried in corn oil, the crisp folds of the American flag out beyond the center-field wall, the evening sun in the spent monsoon clouds. A solitary chant went up from the beer garden: “ET Go Home!”
Welcome, fans, to the final game of the season at Fort Marcy Park! the announcer thundered over the PA. This evening’s old-school classic-rock program is dedicated to Coach Bill Moore!
In the bottom of the second inning, with one man on and two outs, Archie made his way to the plate. Archie had toyed with his stance and swing repeatedly over the years. It was now a choppy thing that started with his hands way over his head. He usually strode into the ball and slashed his bat downward, attempting to whack ground balls that his long legs could turn into infield singles. Now he wagged the bat awkwardly, high above his body, and Roswell’s pitcher, a thin right-hander with an ungainly overhand motion, delivered a high, weak fastball.
Archie swung, and the ball took off down the left-field line, the only part of Fort Marcy that is major league size. It was a line drive, and it traveled too quickly for anyone in the park to process what had happened until it was over: Andrew Archbold had hit a home run.
At first, Archie didn’t seem to comprehend it, either. He sprinted around the bases, running right past Moore, whose mouth was open in a great laugh. Palmer came by the beer garden with the plastic bucket. I paid my money and thought of the message on Moore’s voice mail: “In the great game of life, there is baseball, and there is everything else.”
The crowd chanted: “Fue-go! Fue-go!”
Josh Valle hit a long home run over the trees, made the sign of the cross, banged helmets with Brown.
Brown ripped a double down the left-field line, then scored on a sacrifice fly. Four–one, Fuego. The hits started to blend together, and the bucket kept coming around. This pitcher was a gift. Soon it was 7–3, Fuego, though you wouldn’t have known it from the scoreboard, which displayed only zeroes. Archie knocked in another run with a bunt single.
“My wife would give up one of her bedrooms for Archbold,” said a fan in the grandstand.
“You’re not getting him,” replied a polite, small woman named Roberta Catnach, Archbold’s Santa Fe host. “He calls me Mom.”
In the middle of the seventh we were ahead nine to three, and Moore led the crowd in a gravelly rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Everything was falling together in a peaceful, easy way. The players looked happy. Moore looked happy. They were experiencing something fresh and calming after the sorrows of the second half of the season: the joy of a winning team.
Then the peace shattered. With two outs and the Fuego up 11–3, Roswell brought in a strike-zone-challenged pitcher who threw a series of wild pitches. One of them hit Edwin Ortiz, the home-plate umpire, in the face. Ortiz shook his head like a wounded bear. Maybe he was addled by the pitch. Maybe he was remembering the game down in Roswell when someone on the Fuego had written Ortiz’s name on a baseball next to a carefully drawn pair of testicles. Maybe the frustrations of the year became, in this one moment, too much for one man. Maybe he needed one more ejection to take the lead in the league. Whatever the reason, Ortiz and his partner, Harold Moya, began to collaborate on a series of calls that defied basic logic. Even Moya, after the fact, seemed to concede as much. “What I can say is between the two of us, we can’t say what really happened,” he told me. “We just don’t know.”
Kohli launched a ball deep into center field, and Roswell’s center fielder leaped for it at the wall. Man, fence, and ball met in an unfortunate kinetic gathering that left the metal gate swinging and the center fielder prone and motionless on the warning track. The ball was nearby, on the field, and Moya signaled that it was a home run. Kohli was trotting around the bases, and someone was throwing the ball in toward the infield, when Ortiz ran out and signaled that the ball was in play—that the hit was not, in fact, a home run. The shortstop tagged Kohli between second and third base. Ortiz called him out.
Moore ran onto the field, yelling. The center fielder regained consciousness and limped off. Moore began to yell and assault the dirt with his cleats. The fans booed. “Ump, you’re horrible!” someone behind me in the beer garden yelled. The Roswell manager turned to the fan. “No shit!” he shouted. “I’ve been saying that for three days.”
Ortiz ejected Moore with a grand gesture, yelling, “It’s my game!” Moore stared, mouth agape, for minutes, milking the boos. The Fuego players congregated at first base, raining a season’s worth of pent-up expletives down upon the umpires.
Bill Moore stomped into the grandstand, gesticulating wildly, dropping his hands and raising them upward over and over again. David Nava and Mario Montoya led the crowd in a rousing chant: “Bill Moore! Bill Moore! Bill Moore! Bill Moore!”
“You see me get ran?”
It was the next day, and Moore was drinking coffee at Tafoya’s. His dark mood had lifted. The Fuego had beaten the Invaders 11-3. “That’s the way it’s supposed to end,” he said.
He had two days left in Santa Fe before heading to Trinidad for the final series of the season. He was debating whether to return for 2013. In the event that he did, he said, he planned to blow up the team and “get me some rabbits”—small, fast athletes who could hit the ball to the middle of the field. He was tired of the losing and the fundamental errors and the big, slow hitters. He told me he’d like to fill a team with rookies, guys right out of college who hadn’t been on the Pecos League circuit. “If they’re a veteran in the Pecos League,” he said, “well, there’s a reason they’re a veteran in the Pecos League.”
Still, the impending end of the season, his departure from the young men he’d hired and would soon be firing, saddened him. “It’s never easy,” he said. “These guys, they’re embedded in you.” He acknowledged that his loyalty to them might have contributed to the failure of the team. “This is my only time being on a sub–.500 team, and that has really gnawed on me,” he said. “People keep telling me, ‘Oh, you got bad guys, you got this, you got that.’ Bullshit. It’s your own fault. If you got bad guys, why didn’t you do something about fixing it? Send ’em all home, bring in a bunch of new guys. It’s totally in your control.”
Moore went in the kitchen to get more coffee, and I spied a piece of yellow loose-leaf on the table: a letter to Billie. The words HELLO BEAUTIFUL WOMAN were scrawled across the top of the paper in neat, all-capital letters.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’m still hanging out,” he said as he offered me a cup. “I hope I’m doing it every day ’til I’m dead. Be great to die at a ballpark.” His cell phone rang: someone from a debt-collection agency trying to reach one of the players. “I gave him your message probably an hour ago,” he told the caller. “If he don’t want to call you back, that’s not my fault.” He hung up and turned back to me. “I’ll be interested to see what you write,” he said.
I hesitated. “I’m not going to write that you came in first place,” I said. “But I think empathy is important.”
“I like that you say empathy and not sympathy.”
Moore saw me to the door. “You know,” he said, “Trinidad is only a few ahead of White Sands for the final playoff spot.” His eyes widened, and he broke into a capacious smile that animated every wrinkle on his face. “If we could go up there and sweep ’em, and White Sands wins a couple, we could knock Trinidad out! How cool would that be? Ha!” His laugh filled the street. “Screw those guys!”
That weekend, up in Trinidad, the Fuego lost three of four. Rod Tafoya didn’t make the trip. He was down south, on the mound for the Albuquerque A’s, winning his 275th semipro game, bringing him within 25 of his goal. He wrote down his stats on the ball—six innings, 18 strikeouts—and put it on a shelf in his trophy room.
Bill Moore is returning this year as coach of the Fuego. Rod Tafoya has signed with a new expansion team in the Pecos League, the Taos Blizzard. As of this writing, he is just 18 semipro wins from 300. He thinks he’ll reach the goal in August.
In his final at-bat of the season, at Trinidad, Andrew Archbold felt a pop in his shoulder: a sprain in his acromioclavicular joint. He decided to move forward with his life. He is driving shuttle vans in Boulder, Colorado, and thinking about what comes next.
Most of the other Fuego players I knew have stayed in the game, but elsewhere. Evan Kohli signed with the Rockford Aviators of the Frontier League just after the season; he never heard from the Nationals. Kieran Bradford spent the winter playing in Australia. In February, he got a call from the Wichita Wingnuts in the American Association. It’s a significantly higher league; a couple of the players on the team have big-league experience. He reports to spring training May 4. Parris Austin is returning to the Pecos League with the White Sands Pupfish.
Soon after the 2012 season, Trent Evins received a surprising message on Facebook. It was an invitation from Chris Paterson, the White Sands coach who had cut him in April, to come pitch in the Texas Winter League. He played well, and at the end of the winter season, Texas City, in the more prestigious United Baseball League, signed him. He informed Scot Palmer of the news by text message.
At the time, Palmer was rehabbing, studying to finish his bachelor’s degree at Newman and training to be a manager at a shoe store in Wichita. He had spent 11 weeks after his surgery in a cast from his shoulder to his fingertips. He wrote back to Evins:
“Do me a favor, man. Don’t ever take one pitch for granted. Don’t even take your training for granted. When you’re hurting and tired remember, you could be me. Never in a million years did I think before that game against [Las Cruces], ‘This will be the last time I strap them up, this will be the last time my name is announced as a starting catcher.’ I know it sounds corny man, but I’m proud of you, bro. You work hard, you play hard, and we both had that chip on our shoulders. Play for me too man. I miss it already.”