Jason Green sits in the home team bullpen at Enron Field, 373 feet from the pitcher's mound. Three hundred and seventy-three feet from the start of the rest of his life.
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.
"If you followed each person here each day, you'd find they have the same routine," says Ensberg, Round Rock's slugging right-handed third baseman with a nice glove and a great arm. "Whatever you need to do to get ready for the game, to get you comfortable for the game, that's what you do." What Ensberg needs is to take his time. So after he walks the dog, runs a few errands, pretends he has a normal life, he arrives at the Express's brand-new $25 million Dell Diamond by 2 p.m., about five hours before the game begins and an hour and a half before batting practice.
If you think baseball games have a lot of downtime, you should see the preparations. The 25-year-old Ensberg, now in his second full season of minor-league ball, hits the field at 3:30 p.m. Stretch for half an hour, take batting practice for 45 minutes. Come back to the clubhouse, which is luxurious by minor-league standards. Lounge, drink coffee, watch TV. Discard practice T-shirt and shorts, don game uniform. Infield practice is from 6 p.m. until 6:10. At 6:30, sign autographs for exactly ten minutes. Run and stretch. The national anthem is played at 7:01 p.m. The game begins four minutes later.
"You can count on that every single day," Ensberg says early one August evening, sitting in the weight room about 5:30 p.m., sipping on a cup of coffee. He's six foot two, a solid but unchiseled 210 pounds, laid-back in the way California natives are. He's batting .308 at this point in the season, 99 games in, and is among the Texas League home run leaders with 20. Tonight he'll bang out another homer and a double as well.
Ensberg doesn't worry about what's going on with the Astros, or with the players at his position above him at Triple-A New Orleans, or anywhere else besides in his own head. All he thinks about is seeing the ball. "You have to see it to hit it," he says. "I don't get up there and try to hit home runs. I try to see the ball, then I try to swing, then I try to hit the ball.
"I don't feel any pressure to make the majors. It doesn't even enter my mind. If I could bat a certain average, hit a certain amount of home runs, drive in a certain amount of RBIs, and know that would get me there, great. But there's not a number that'll get me to the big leagues. I concentrate on trying to be consistent. I try to play the same every day. I wish there was a secret number, bat .350 and you'll go up. But that's not the case."
Ensberg could bat .450 and not make it to Enron Field this season. A leap from Double-A to the bigs in one season is rare. Plus, the Astros' general manager, Gerry Hunsicker, has a conservative philosophy when it comes to bringing up prospects. "The danger," Hunsicker says, "is that if they don't succeed, their confidence is shattered, they're embarrassed, they're not ready fundamentally to compete at the major-league level. The first impression is the lasting impression. If a kid comes up and has a bad start from the fans' and the club's perspective, that can snowball and affect his confidence, which is a big part of this business."
The Astros have been so bad and so injury-prone that Hunsicker has promoted some players -- like the relief pitcher Jason Green -- who otherwise would have remained in the minors. But the Astros are set for now at third with Chris Truby, who began the season in Triple-A New Orleans, ably filling in for the oft-injured Ken Caminiti. So Ensberg waits.
"He's a quality prospect who has the physical talent to play at the major-league level," Hunsicker says. "He's developing very nicely. He has a chance to be a complete player. Solid defense, good instincts, he can provide power and run production in the middle of the order, hit for average. The next step is Triple-A. Could be next year, or the year after."
Ensberg is good at waiting. "You have so little control over where you go and what you do," he says. "Making the bigs is not something we normally discuss. If you live this life, you realize how little control you actually have."
Last off-season, the former University of Southern California finance major went home to Redondo Beach and delivered produce from 4 a.m. to 3 p.m., six days a week. Got off the truck each afternoon, lifted weights, ate and fell asleep.
"You have to learn how to produce," he says, and he ain't talking groceries. "This is about learning to go through all the problems. You're supposed to mess up, go through slumps, so when you get to the majors you produce. If there were a set of specific instructions I could follow that would enable me to go one-for-three every day, I would do that every day. I would do that every single day. That's what we're trying to find. Our personal recipes for success."
Jason Green takes a deep breath, tries to ignore the 42,684 people packing every seat of Enron Field, and waits for the first batter of his major-league career.
Round Rock also is waiting. The scoreboard clock reads 5:03 when Green's figure appears on the huge video screen looming over center field of the Dell Diamond. "Making his first appearance for the Astros tonight," the Express announcer intones, "is Jason Green, the first player from Round Rock to get to the show." Players, fans, concessionaires, batboys -- everyone freezes. The stadium, which is about one-third full, falls practically silent.
Although Green, 25, had always been confident he would make it, it was far from a sure shot. The most gifted players are drafted out of high school; Green was ignored when he graduated. After leaving Canada for Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Florida, Green was picked by the Astros in the 30th round of the 1993 draft. He received a signing bonus of $30,000, which translated into about 40 grand Canadian. One GMC extended-cab pickup later, and the money was pretty much gone.
In 1996, at the start of his second season for the Astros' Class A affiliate in Auburn, New York, Green suffered a 30 percent tear of the rotator cuff in his right shoulder. His throwing shoulder. He had surgery and went home to Ontario. Shunning physical therapists, he worked out at his own pace with his dad. When Green went back to spring training in 1997, his fastball clocked in at 94 mph. He had barely cracked 90 before the injury.
The Astros sent him to Quad City, Iowa, mid-level Class A ball, where he started 22 games, going 7-12 with a 4.58 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 125.2 innings. He was promoted to high-level A ball in Kissimmee, Florida, before the year was out. The next season, 1998, he stayed in Kissimmee and became a reliever, ratcheting the speed of his fastball up to 96, 97 mph. His ERA dropped to 3.34, and he struck out a batter per inning en route to 14 saves. After Green's fine season at Double-A Jackson, with a 3.40 ERA and 50 whiffs in 42.1 innings, the team was bought by Nolan Ryan. Green thought for sure he would be moved up to Triple-A New Orleans. But when the 2000 season began, he was reassigned to Double-A and sent to Round Rock.
"I was very angry that I got sent down there," Green remembers. "Then I said, "You know what, this is an advantage for me. I've been here before, I know what I gotta do, and I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna show these guys that they made a wrong decision.' "
That decision was made by Hunsicker and his assistant general manager, Tim Purpura, who directly oversees the entire Astros minor-league system. "The day Jason got to the big leagues," Purpura says, "he told me that getting sent back to Round Rock was the best thing that ever happened to him. It motivated him to get serious and prove that he could pitch." Fifteen wins and eight saves was proof enough to get him to New Orleans, where he stayed only two weeks before being called up to Houston.
Houston. The face at the plate looks familiar. Green recognizes the guy from his time in Double-A. Chris Richard had been temporarily brought up by the Cardinals, as so many prospects often are, to fill in for an injured player, J.D. Drew. In a week Richard will be back in the minors. Green is relieved to face someone he knows in his debut. He retires Richard on a pop foul to the catcher. One out.
Round Rock second baseman Keith Ginter is a tree stump of a guy, the kind of athlete for whom baseball was invented. He's not big or quick. He's not too fast and can't jump too high. Put a bat in his hands, though, and he becomes Paul Bunyan.
Standing in the clubhouse after a game, Ginter seems jaded for a 24-year-old. His father started pushing him toward a pro career at age eight or nine. While the other kids on his team were out being kids, Ginter was taking hitting lessons, doing extra drills before practice. Still, he went undrafted out of high school in Orange County, California. Scouts disparaged his size and ability, told him he would never be good enough to get drafted. So he went to junior college, where he struggled and baseball became less and less fun.
The joy returned after he earned a scholarship to Texas Tech, where he made first team all-America his junior year. He was looking forward to being a high draft pick, leaving college and making some money, and he watched the draft on TV for three days. His name never came up. The next year, 1998, his expectations weren't so high. He came back to his dorm one day from playing basketball with his buddies and there was a message on his answering machine. He had been picked in the tenth round by the Astros. Houston signed him for $10,000 and a plane ticket to Florida.
Ginter batted .315 his first year at Class A Auburn, and was doing about the same the next season with Class A Kissimmee, until he hit a wall and his average dropped 40 points at the end of the season. So he hit the weights hard this year, hoping to maintain the strength needed to play for five months straight, often in 100-degree heat, with only about ten days off. So far, so good: 99 games into the season he's leading the Texas League in batting average (.345), on-base percentage (.464), slugging percentage (.614) and runs scored (77). He's also near the top of the league in home runs, with 20, and RBIs, with 68.
"Everyone has to do something that the other person doesn't do," Ginter says of his chances for advancement. "I don't have great speed, I don't have a great glove, I don't have great range, I don't have a great arm. But I have a little bit of power and can hit for average. You don't see too many second basemen with that ability. That's a contribution I can provide that other people can't."
"He's showing potential that's hard to find at the second-base position," Hunsicker confirms. "His defense is average at this point; he needs to continue to develop that to become a quality player at the major-league level."
It's a long road to the major leagues, longer than in any other sport. In basketball, an outstanding season as a high school senior can propel a player directly to the NBA lottery. In football, the apprentice period is a maximum of four years in college, less if you're any good. But it takes at least four, five, six years of consistent production in baseball's minor leagues to get a chance at the show.
"It's been an up-and-down battle," Ginter admits. "I've battled through it. That's another thing that's helped me. I've had success and I've also failed. So I know how to fail. Junior college, I thought about quitting baseball. But my dad talked me out of it."
Ginter senior, a floor tile manufacturer who's visiting Round Rock this weekend to watch his son play, was an athlete growing up. He wanted to take a shot at pro baseball, but married early and had a family to feed. Now he gives his son every opportunity, putting spending money in his pocket so he doesn't have to work in the off-season, paying for special speed training.
"We don't talk about the major leagues," Ginter's dad says. "The goal is obvious: how to attain that next level. Keith's not one to talk about himself. I almost have to drag or trick it out of him, or hear it from someone else."
There was a time when he pushed his son hard, playing the taskmaster. Now, though, he watches his son pursue the unspoken goal. "That's my dream. That's any father's dream," he says. "Whether or not it becomes reality is another story."
St. Louis backup catcher Rick Wilkins is the second batter for Jason Green. Should be a piece of cake. But Green can hardly see the catcher's signs for all the adrenaline rushing through his bloodstream. Hell, he can hardly see Wilkins. All he can think about is the fact that he is standing on the mound of a big-league ballpark. The next thing he knows, he hears the sharp crack of the bat. Green turns to his left and sees the ball rolling toward second base. An easy groundout. Two down.
Back in Round Rock, the clubhouse bubbles. All eyes are riveted on the 19-inch TV suspended from the ceiling. Pride is palpable in the air.
"The saddest guy in baseball today has to be Jackie Moore. Jason Green was really tearing it up down in Round Rock this year," the TV announcer says. He must have never spent time in the minors. Jackie Moore, Round Rock's manager, lives for moments like these.
Moore is a baseball lifer, the kind of man who belongs in stirrup socks the way John Wayne belongs in cowboy boots. This is the 42nd consecutive year that Moore, 61, has spent in a professional baseball uniform.
A lot has changed since Moore graduated from Bellaire High School in 1957. Compared with the minor-league parks Moore played in -- and there were plenty during his 11-year playing career, as he spent only one season in the bigs, catching for Detroit in 1965 -- the Dell Diamond is Yankee Stadium. His version of air-conditioning was an open button on the top of his woolen jersey. As for the clubhouses, they were often so small the players had to get dressed in shifts of three or four at a time. And the salaries, which range from $850 to 5,000 or 6,000 bucks per month, are more than what a lot of major leaguers made 40 years ago.
"We didn't know any better. We thought that's what baseball was all about," Moore says, sipping a Bud in his office after a game. "The dream is easier now."
Moore's job is to shepherd those dreams. He doles out playing time according to who has the brightest future. After every game he calls in highlights and lowlights to the Astros' front office, and one of his coaches files a report on the game via computer. Moore also has to deliver the news to players when they've been promoted, sent down or released. This takes place after games, in his office. Most of the time it's bad news -- only about 10 percent of all players drafted ever reach the major leagues. That number increases to about 30 percent at the Double-A level. Killing dreams is probably the hardest part of his job, even though it's not him making the decisions.
"It's not easy. We all have feelings," Moore says, staring into space. "In a way, not that I'm doing them a favor, but I'm helping them make a decision that will put their life in a different direction. Once, I had to release this outfielder, Dennis Gilbert, and he said to me, "Skip, I'll play for nothing.' I had to tell him that we needed his jersey for another prospect. A few years later he picked me up in a Rolls-Royce. He had become one of the biggest agents in baseball; he had Jose Canseco, George Brett. So some good can come of it."
Tim Pupura, the assistant general manager, knows this type of hurt firsthand. He went undrafted out of high school, wangled his way into a few spring training camps, but was so far behind the curve he sometimes didn't even get into scrimmages. Now he determines the fate of 225 players in Houston's minor-league system. "Here's how I put it to guys," he says. "I never say, "You can't play professional baseball.' I say, "This is a business, and I have a limited number of jobs. I just don't have a job for you. That doesn't mean you can't play. But at this time, I don't have a place for you.'
"The biggest shock is when guys say, "I kind of knew I was at the end of my rope.' It's almost like they want you to make the decision for them."
Jerrey Thurston isn't ready to make that decision yet. Thurston, a catcher, has knocked around the minors for the past ten years, reaching as high as Triple-A. He's no longer a prospect -- he's a spare part, hoping that some big-league team will need an extra body for insurance or to warm up pitchers in the bullpen. In a clubhouse full of young men, his slightly balding head and weary carriage make him seem older than his 28 years.
"Yeah, I'm the veteran," he says resignedly. It wasn't always so, as when he won a Little League World Series at age 12, as when he was a high school all-American out of Florida and led Lake Brantley High to the mythical USA national championship in 1990. "Time goes by, and you don't get younger," he says. "It's still fun. I love to play. I'd quit if I didn't think I had a chance to get to the big leagues."
Thurston got married this year to a woman he met while playing for the Angels' Triple-A team in Vancouver. She's with him now in Round Rock, not working, just watching. Thurston doesn't have any concrete post-baseball plans. Maybe a move to the front office. "I'm going to play until I feel I can't make it. That could be tomorrow, that could be ten years from now," he says. "It's just love of the game. I know it sounds corny, but it's just love of the game."
Reid Ryan wanders about the Dell Diamond, glad-handing, well-wishing and conversing, like everyone he meets is sitting in the living room of Ryan's home. Which, in a sense, they are.
The oldest son of legendary Astros hurler Nolan Ryan, Reid tried his best to follow in his dad's footsteps. An arm like Nolan's, however, comes along only once a century or so. After three years in Class A ball, Reid's career topped out along with his fastball, which never got much over 80-something mph.
Reid did pretty well for himself thereafter, landing some nice TV jobs, but work is no fun when you're born and raised in a game. One day he got the idea of running a minor-league team. He called his daddy, his daddy called a few friends, and the deed was done. Ryan and Don Sanders, who owned the Astros when Ryan played in Houston, bought a 70 percent interest in the Jacksonville Mississippi Generals for somewhere between $4 million and $8 million. They made Reid the president and CEO. A referendum to use Round Rock hotel and motel occupancy taxes to fund part of the new stadium passed by an overwhelming 74 percent. One year and $25 million later, the glistening new Dell Diamond -- the most expensive park in all of minor-league baseball -- was a reality.
The Dell Diamond is far from a typical minor-league experience. Fans are lined up at the still-closed gates long before game time. Lines are constantly 20 deep at the souvenir shop. Ads for everything from major corporations to Mrs. Baird's Potato Bread are ubiquitous, even on the foul poles. Ingeniously, the stadium's capacity of 7,816 "fixed seats" does not include open seating on berms behind the outfield fences, which guarantees consistent sellouts. Kids run amok on free games and basketball courts. Hooters waitresses cause commotions when they emerge from the pool beyond right field.
"Baseball is a very social game from a family standpoint," says Reid, who often totes his infant son, Jackson, around the ballpark. "You watch the game, talk, socialize. It's a chance to spend time with family and friends."
The tech mecca of Austin was ripe for pro baseball of any sort, with an ever-swelling population of 1.2 million and a healthy appetite for University of Texas baseball. But the Ryans deliberately avoided downtown, with its signature music venues and all the hedonism that suggests, and opted for ultraconservative Round Rock, where policemen have their names on the sides of their cars and everyone holds caps over hearts during the national anthem. "Downtown is the club scene. There aren't kids down there," Reid says. "We're selling family entertainment here. We wanted to be closer to the suburbs."
The Round Rock ballplayers are the greatest beneficiaries of all this prosperity. None of the infamous 14-hour minor-league bus rides for them; they either fly or take a custom bus equipped with beds and DIRECTV. They seek refuge from the summer heat in the outfield pool before games. A grounds crew constantly de-dusts the infield, one groundskeeper spraying water on the dry dirt while two lackeys hold the hose to keep it from wrinkling the base paths. It's not major-league, but you can't get much closer. Which suits Reid just fine.
"In the big picture, I'd like to own several minor-league clubs," he says. "This is my career. I'm here every single night. Walking the stands, talking to people. I can see myself doing this for the next 30 years. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to own a major-league team one day."
At this moment, as he stands on the mound at Enron Field, with two outs and two strikes on the Cardinals' Ray Lankford, Jason Green represents the major-league aspirations of all of Round Rock.
Morgan Ensberg watches TV in the clubhouse, sipping a cup of coffee. Green was his teammate two weeks ago. Now he's what Ensberg hopes to be. The fans stand stock-still, clutching pizzas and beers and souvenirs. Green lets them feel big-time while holding on to their small-town values. Green lets Reid Ryan feel that much closer to his father's legacy. He lets Jackie Moore feel the pride of a mission fulfilled. He lets Jerrey Thurston feel like he still has hope.
All Green is hoping for right now is to make it through the inning. His biggest challenge has always been composure. A few years back, assistant GM Purpura pulled Green aside and advised him on the merits of keeping his emotions in check. Green even went so far as to Magic-Marker "FUCKING COMPOSURE" beneath the brim of all his caps. From time to time he would take off his cap and stare at the words just to settle down.
But all the emotions of this day are too much for him to handle. This day has been 18 years in the making. Green's breath gets shorter. His legs get weaker. He forgets entirely about the letters under the brim of his cap.
"I've worked my whole life for this," Green would say later. "When you see it right there, you just want to reach out and grab it. Now I've grabbed it. I'm in the mix. So it's time to take advantage of being here. If I keep my composure and keep going at it, if I just try and get guys out, I'll be successful."
The ball leaves Green's hand at 90-plus miles per hour. Lankford can't see it. Strike three. The crowd at Enron Field shouts appreciatively. The crowd at Round Rock cheers madly.
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"I go home every night and say to myself, "I was at the big-league game tonight -- and I wasn't in the stands,' " Green says. "I was pitching in the game, or sitting in the bullpen with all those guys. I still every night say to myself, "Holy smokes, look where you are.' Maybe it will take a couple years before I realize, hey, I belong here."
Epilogue: Jason Green struggled in the second inning of his major-league debut, giving up a single and three walks before being removed with two outs in the ninth. He was sent back down to Triple-A New Orleans when Tony McKnight was recalled, then came back up to Houston a week later when Jay Powell went on the disabled list. Through August 23 he had appeared in eight games, with a record of 1-1. His ERA was 7.94 over 11.1 innings, allowing ten hits, 13 walks and ten strikeouts. The walks were his main problem -- opponents were batting only .238 against him.
Morgan Ensberg was hitting .301 through 128 games for Round Rock, with 25 home runs and 81 RBIs. Keith Ginter was hitting .348 with 26 HR and 90 RBIs. Proving that career backups have a place in the game, Jerrey Thurston was called up to Triple-A New Orleans.
The Houston Astros had won ten of their last 13 games but were still 54-76, making them the second-worst team in major-league baseball.