By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
It's getting into the late innings. The Astros have given up eight runs so far to the St. Louis Cardinals, not unusual in their disastrous season. But Houston has scored 15 runs of its own and holds a comfortable lead. For a change.
The bullpen phone started jangling back in the sixth inning. Every time it rings, Jason Green feels his nerves twang like too-tight guitar strings. This is only his second day in the major leagues. Three weeks ago he was dominating batters back in the minors. Back in Double-A ball, where he was the hunter, not the hunted. Back where most of the guys he stymied would never play a single inning in the bigs.
Brrring. Finally. What Green has been waiting for since he started playing as an eight-year-old in Port Hope, Ontario. Warming up, Green's legs feel weaker than a newborn colt's. The bullpen door opens. Green's heart pounds as he runs across the wide green expanse of outfield, runs away from all the baseball backwaters where he mastered the art of making the horsehide dance and burn through thin air. Marianna, Florida. Auburn, New York. The Quad Cities in Iowa. Kissimmee, Florida. Jackson, Mississippi. Round Rock, Texas. New Orleans, Louisiana.
Houston, Texas. Major-league baseball. The moment where it all begins.
When you are the worst team in baseball, as the Astros suddenly found themselves this season after three straight division championships, you usually suffer from one or more chronic ailments. Your pitching can stink, as the Astros' does, with a team ERA of nearly six runs a game. You can be beset by injuries, as the Astros have been, with major surgery for closer Billy Wagner and second baseman Craig Biggio just the beginning of the trauma. Either way, at the end of a painful season, with the playoffs a longer shot than Darryl Strawberry staying sober, it's time to look for help.
The quick fix is free agency. Buy a few sluggers, a fireballer, some defense, and try again next year. But the Astros, their late surge notwithstanding, are more than a hired gun or three from returning to contention. Which means they must turn to the foundation of any team's long-term success: the minor leagues. In a game like baseball, which rewards the honing of specific skills more than the exhibition of raw athleticism, the minors are where great teams stockpile their young talent, nurture it, cultivate it.
Those populating the minors are known as prospects for a reason: Developing young players is akin to prospecting in California back in '49. You know there's gold out there, but you have to sift through a lot of mud to find it. The minors are divided into a Byzantine array of classifications and leagues; in their simplest form they are as follows: Rookie League, which is like a pan full of muddy water from the bottom of a stream; Single-A, when you've sifted out most of the junk and have a chance at separating the nuggets from the pebbles; Double-A, when you have a handful of rocks that should be worth something; and Triple-A, the last stop before the big leagues, containing the few gems that, with a final polishing, will yield great rewards.
The minors also are where boys from throughout the western hemisphere come to see if they can remain boys forever, playing the game they love. It's where everyone once was, or swears they will be, big-time. Where guys learn to maintain a mind-numbing level of concentration through the hot monotone of a long summer. Where guys play for a thousand bucks or so a month, hoping they'll end up striking it rich. Where no one admits to thinking about what stays on everyone's mind: major-league baseball.
So as this season of our discontent with the Astros winds to a close, who can blame us for looking away from Enron Field toward Round Rock, Texas, home of the Express, Houston's Double-A affiliate. Round Rock is where Nolan Ryan and his son Reid planted a gleaming new ballpark this year, smack-dab between the railroad tracks and hayfields just north of Austin, and deposited the team they had snatched from Jackson, Mississippi. Round Rock is where the current crop of 25 prospects should yield the next Bagwell or Biggio or Elarton. It's where hope springs eternal.
Morgan Ensberg begins each day in exactly the same way: Rise at 9 a.m. Yawn. Take dog for a walk.
Baseball is all about routine. Once you get to the Double-A level, everyone has the ability to hit the ball hard, to throw it fast. But can you do it two games in a row? How about two weeks in a row, playing every night, with no days off to sleep late or go to a movie with your wife or rest your aching shoulder/back/toe? Can you do that for a whole spring, summer and, if you're lucky, fall? That's what it takes to be major-league.