3 Nights in June

Strategy, heartbreak, and joy inside the mind of a minor-league hitting coach

At 26, Wes Hutchison is the oldest Rascal. A redheaded, right-handed reliever who relies on a prodigious arsenal of off-speed pitches, Hutchison made it all the way to AAA ball (one level below the major leagues) with the San Francisco Giants a few years back before being unceremoniously released. In the off-season he runs a baseball school for kids in his hometown of Lewiston, Idaho. But for six months out of the year, Hutchison continues to chase his dream, the current version of which entails pulling down a stenographer's salary of $600 to $1,200 per month (augmented by a princely per diem of $16 when the team's on the road) and living with a host family in St. Charles County. Without a car.

"Guys are always wanting me to go out to bars or wherever," Hutchison says. "And I'm like, 'Sure, but you'll have to come pick me up first.'"

Most of Hutchison's teammates haven't had so much as a sniff at the big leagues, much less a big-league organization. Almost all of them went undrafted after college ball. For these guys, entities like the Frontier League serve as life rafts that keep their professional aspirations afloat. Generally considered to be the equivalent of low-A ball, the Frontier League has nonetheless sold more than 400 players to major-league organizations since its inception in 1993. Ten have made it all the way to the Show, including former Cardinals pitcher Jason Simontacchi, for whom the league's Rookie of the Year award is named. The lone Frontier League alums in the majors at this writing are Kansas City pitcher D.J. Carrasco and Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly, he of the recent pine-tar-on-the-mitt tussle.

Jennifer Silverberg

Where were you when the Ripper went yard on Niedenfuer? Now in his second stint with the River City Rascals, Jack Clark hit a home run in the '85 NLCS that's Cardinal Nation's equivalent to the Kennedy assassination.
Jennifer Silverberg
Where were you when the Ripper went yard on Niedenfuer? Now in his second stint with the River City Rascals, Jack Clark hit a home run in the '85 NLCS that's Cardinal Nation's equivalent to the Kennedy assassination.

The Rascals consistently rank at or near the league lead in attendance (typically right behind Danny Cox's Sauget-based Grizzlies), averaging around 3,000 fans per game. Back when the team was born, the Rascals' ownership group paid the league $350,000 for franchise rights. Nowadays, according to league commissioner Bill Lee (no relation to the former Boston Red Sox "Spaceman"), those rights cost $900,000. Lee says Rascals revenue has held steady at a robust $2.3 million per year, a figure owner Spitzer says allows the team to bank a small annual profit.

"We never thought it'd be a huge moneymaker," Spitzer says, adding, "I'd rather have a bad season at the concession stand and win a championship than vice versa."

Typically, the Rascals will lose up to a half-dozen players each season to big-league organizations. On July 20, the team sold its first of the year, burly Indiana-bred southpaw Joe Thatcher, to the Milwaukee Brewers organization -- one of two pitchers (the other being undefeated staff ace Aaron Ledbetter) Clark pegged as most likely to leave for greener pastures by summer's end.

"What he's got going for him is he's a lefty closer, which is a rarity," says Clark of the Hoosier. "But the problem is that while he's really good for us, where he's going, he's just filler."

And therein lies the paradox faced by minor-league squads from Boulder to Birmingham. "If you have a really good team at the beginning of the year," says Clark, "you won't have one at the end of the year. And that's what we want."

Oddly, it's not always what the player wants in his heart of hearts: In a handful of instances, players become so attached to their teammates and coaches that they've considered forgoing the opportunity to move up.

"[Ex-Rascal] Mike Robertson didn't want to go to the Red Sox organization," says Spitzer. "I said, 'Fine, Mike, you're fired. You can always come back, but I hope we never see you again.'"

Hutchison, whom the Giants kicked off the big club's doorstep, says he understands the counterintuitive inclination.

"There's actually a team concept here," he says. "In organized ball, you get some snobs."

Fresh out of high school and briskly working his way up through the San Francisco farm system, Jack Clark affixed a plastic Willie Mays figurine to the back window of his Buick Riviera.

"Willie always told me he'd try and get a base hit up the middle in his first at-bat," recalls Clark, one of a handful of young Giants who got yoked with the unattainable "Second Coming of Mays" mantle. "That way, he said, 'Usually, I'd hit a home run my second time up.'"

The '70s were the twilight of baseball's good old days, and Clark got enough of a taste to pine for them still. In his ethical sphere, respect for the game's heritage is perhaps the most important characteristic a professional baseball player can possess -- an attribute he finds sorely lacking today. He singles out baseball commissioner Bud Selig for spinelessness and as Exhibit A points to substance-aided Yankee slugger Jason Giambi, who since being implicated in the BALCO steroid scandal and failing to come clean with fans has come nowhere near his previously freakish power numbers.

"Jason Giambi can't even hit anymore," Clark scoffs. "What pisses you off is they don't ever say, 'I'm gonna give some of my money back,' or, 'I'm gonna rescind the last year of my contract.' But I blame baseball as much as I blame the players. Because people were coming to see these big numbers, they let it get out of control. Bud Selig has just screwed the game up. He talks about the integrity of the game, but he has none."

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