October 21, 2014

Tales From a Minor League Bus

April 12, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

The 2010 minor league baseball season is underway and every minor league general manager has a deal in place with a bus company to move their team around from town to town and city to city during the upcoming season.

With that in mind, I can only sit back, smile and laugh as I think of the great bus stories that I have been part of and endured over the years.

Over the years, I’ve often been asked how I could do all those years riding on a bus, broadcasting minor league games, and spending so much time on the road.

The answer is simple.  It was easy.  Heck, all I had to do was sit back and relax, prep with game notes, read a book, watch a movie that I had already seen several times before from the same bus seat on the same bus or engage in conversation with the guy or guys sitting in the seat behind me, or pick the brain of the coach sitting in front of me.

I learned early on that although I was a civilian amongst the team, I was considered part of staff and thus granted my own two seats.  Don’t think that went unnoticed by the guys sitting behind me.  On many occasions, it was suggested that the radio guy and strength coach should find alternate means of transportation or simply share the seat in the bathroom.

Getting on a bus at 6:00 a.m. for a seven-hour trip to Lynchburg, VA or Kinston, NC or departing from those or other Carolina League or NY-Penn League cities after a good win or disappointing loss gave me salvation.  Other than the other 25 to 30 people on the bus, nobody could reach me if I didn’t want them too.  Phone could be turn off or simply ignored.

I once read a quote from Hall of Fame announcer and person Ernie Harwell where he said something along the lines of, “if I complain about the travel, then it’s time to give it up.”

I Agree.

The local bus companies transporting minor league teams will get tickets, maybe a billboard in the ballpark, radio spots, public address announcements, and maybe more depending on how shrewd the negotiator is on the other side of the table.

For the actual team that will be on the bus for the duration of the season, even if and when the bus breaks down over and over, and the skipper is told by the driver that she’s ready for another 100,000 miles.  The club, (including staff and radio announcer for those teams still doing radio and 25 to 30 players) will share cramped quarters, on and off again air conditioning, and contempt for the fixed and broken and fixed again VCR or DVD players.  Oh, and a bus driver that may or may not know exactly where they are going even with GPS.

The only gripe or suggestion that I’ve had over the years is that every general manager should have to make one trip a year.  Perhaps to gain an appreciation for what it’s like on the road.

I’ll tell you right up front, I am holding the best story for last and the ending is one you absolutely won’t believe.  So you can scroll to the bottom or read all the way through.

Glad you stayed with me.

On the road, for the very first time.

In my final year in college, I learned a valuable lesson that would go with me for all my years in pro ball.  The bus driver can make or break a season, maybe more then a stud prospect or two.

If a manager finds a bus driver that can get you to the next city in timely fashion, load the bus just right, keep the rest, cigarette, and pottie breaks to a minimum, take the team to morning workouts, then to lunch spots or a mall if there is nothing around the hotel, and be on time for 2:00 and 3:00 busses to the ballpark, then he or she is a keeper.

If they fail at any of those things, it might be back to taking the old ladies to the casinos or to the outlets or to the afternoon matinees.

The first ever trip I was on in the minors came in 1997 from Batavia, NY to Pittsfield, MA.  I was broadcasting intern for the Batavia Clippers in the NY-Penn League.

The things I remember best are that we were told by front office that we were supposed to stay at hotel in Pittsfield.  The trip took a lot longer than anticipated, and when we got to the hotel I was the first one off the bus.  My job was to go inside, get all the room keys and pass them out and then talk with the hotel manager.

The hotel receptionist was very nice, but she also had to inform me that we were not set up at the hotel.  This is in 1997, so no cell phones at the ready.  I called back to the office and was told that we were going to be staying at another hotel in another town, which turned out to be another 45 minutes away from Pittsfield and the ballpark.

I got back on the bus and was buried for the next 45 minutes by the manager, Gregg Legg.  I’ll tell you right now, I felt like going back into the bathroom and hiding.  We’d known each other for less than 48 hours and already Legger hated me.

We got to the hotel in North Adams, MA, dropped off bags and got right back on the bus  to head back to Wacohna Park in Pittsfield.  This meant another 45 minutes of just getting worn out by Legger, the athletic trainer and the players.  I quickly realized nothing I said was going to matter, so I shut up and took it all in.

I couldn’t tell you now if the club won or lost the series opener against the Pittsfield Mets, but after it was over, and I wrapped up my post-game show, I went down to the clubhouse to talk with a few players about the game.

Legger saw me chatting with the players and told me to come into his office after I was done.  Apprehensive, I peaked into his office and he welcomed me with a smile and a cold beer supplied by the clubhouse kid.

He appreciated me not going right to the bus and sulking.  He said that all was good, that he understood that I was not the one who made the plans and that we’d work it all out.

For the next few days we made the 45-minute trip back and forth from North Adams to Pittsfield, not knowing we’d be back there in September for the championship series.  This time the club stayed right in the middle of Pittsfield, which is not a bad place to visit if you are ever in western Mass.

Back on the bus to North Adams, the school bus!

Let us fast forward to 2000.  The Staten Island Yankees are trying to close out the division and even those over in the Bronx want this team to win.  So even in the NY-Penn League there’s pressure on the Yankees.  Yes, we are traveling to Pittsfield again, this time for a series against the Pittsfield Astros.  And yes once again we are staying at a hotel out in North Adams.

This time, I remember the club lost the game and the division race was getting a little too tight as the season was quickly coming to a close.  This loss happened to knock the SI Yanks out of first place for the first time all season.  After the game, I made my way down the ladder from the radio booth and out to the clubhouse before climbing onto the bus.  Before getting to the clubhouse, I was cut off by the bus driver.  I am told the bus isn’t starting as the scheduled post-game fireworks start up over our heads.  At this time, I am more a part of the staff and a little more seasoned in problem-solving matters than I was three years prior.

Turns out, our driver, who had a tough time with directions from time to time, decided to clean the bus during the game and he was listening to the radio, which ran the battery down.  Now Pittsfield is a nice place to visit, but it’s one of those towns that closes down at 8:00 p.m. and we have a 45-minute trip back to the hotel with no help in site.

Our skipper, Joe Arnold, was already aware of the dilemma and now it was time to come up with a solution.  The bus driver was useless at this point, scared to feel the wrath.  We reached out to Richard Murphy, Pittsfield’s general manager and let him in on our tiny little problem.  He started making calls although he was not optimistic that we would find a solution.

Within the hour, the Staten Island Yankees with a manager (Joe Arnold), pitching coach (Gary Lavelle), hitting coach (Kevin Higgins), 1st base coach (Mitch Seone), clubhouse manager, athletic trainer (EJ Amo), three radio guys, and 25 to 30 players and equipment all fit snugly into a school bus.  Yes, a school bus.  One of those yellow school busses, where the wheels go round and round and the driver says move on back, move on back.

The next day our bus was back and plans were being made to find a new driver for the remaining trips on the schedule.

Despite several other crazy things happening with the bus during the season, including the bus breaking down near Binghamton, NY on the way to Auburn, NY (outside of Syracuse) and the team showing up roughly 45 minutes prior to the 7:00 p.m. first pitch, the SI Yanks ended up winning the division late in the season and went on to win the NY-Penn League title.

That trip to Auburn showed the resolve of the team as they went out and scored a whole bunch of runs in the first inning en route to a lopsided win.

Blood and Guts…the Mike MacDougal Rules.

In 2001, I returned to the Wilmington Blue Rocks in a full-time capacity as the club’s media relations director and broadcaster.  I also was in charge of team travel, which brought a lot of pressure, considering I didn’t have a George Costanza-type, serving as my assistant.

Jeff Garber was in his third year as the manager of the club.  He helped guide the club to a co-championship in 1999, and in 2000 he endured a losing season with future big league pitcher Mike MacDougal as the supplier of the bus entertainment.  Mike wasn’t a big fan of action adventure or horror, or the sappy love story.  Instead, he loved the comedies and apparently the more sophomoric the humor, the better.

Mac moved up the ladder in 2001 and with that a new set of rules were set in place.  The no comedies and only blood and guts movies on the bus installed by the man in charge, Jeff Garber.  That meant that if a movie was recommended it had to come with gun’s a blazin’ and a body count.  Occasionally, the players would try to sneak a comedy in, but it was greeted with the same treatment that a batter would show to a pitcher who consistently buried his breaking ball in the dirt.  It would just get spit on!

Often, you would be woken up on an over-night trip with all types of explosions or gun fire.

In 2002, MacDougal returned to Wilmington, as he was coming off an injury.  He came equipped with his full library of comedies and because he had been to the big leagues, laughter ultimately prevailed, although reluctantly.

Mac’s return in 2002 also inspired the first and only protest that I ever witnessed on a bus.  Because he had been in the major leagues in 2001, he was privy to one privilege on his return to the minors, his own seat.  However, some players were not so willing to give up seat and double up, so that led to two players, Darren Fenster and Eric Nelson, to stage what I deemed as a “Stand Up”.  While the bus was sitting in traffic outside of Baltimore, MD, they stood up in protest of other players not respecting the fact that a player that had made it to the big leagues was not afforded his own seat.  Their mini-protest lasted about 20 minutes.

Steve O!  We’ve got a problem!

It’s 2005 and the Wilmington Blue Rocks are once again one of the top teams in the Carolina League.  On this particular trip, the Blue Rocks are departing from Wilmington to head out on the road for trip to Kinston (NC) and Myrtle Beach (SC).  The bus is scheduled to depart from Frawley Stadium at 6:00 a.m.  I arrive at the ballpark and enter Billy Gardner’s office and am greeted instantly by “SteveO, we’ve got a problem!”

Billy informed me that pretty much his entire team has shown up at the ballpark, sick.  It turns out that most were all dealing with some form of food poisoning from the night before.  I am not sure that the cause was ever found, but I was sure happy that I skipped the post-game spread, again.

We got on the bus and headed south with the staff, me included, conjuring up how this could have happened and how the team was going to play that night.  Billy was on the phone with Chris Kemple, Blue Rocks general manager and his bosses with the Kansas City Royals.  Matt Minker, club owner, was also burning up our phones, trying to determine if the club could play the series opener at 7:05 p.m. in Kinston.  Billy and I agreed that no one was buying the fact that a majority of the players sitting in the seats behind us were too sick to play.

As phone calls continued throughout the trip and bags were being passed back and forth in the back, we also learned that the Indians were preparing for their biggest crowd of the season with fireworks scheduled after the game.

After spending a short time at the hotel, where the hotel staff at the Hampton Inn could not have been any more helpful, the team boarded the bus to head over to Grainger Stadium.  Often busses are greeted by a few fans, seeking autographs, but now the Blue Rocks were being greeted by skeptical decision makers, who wanted to see just how sick this group was.  A quick glimpse and it was known that these guys were in no shape to play.

After going all day, thinking they were going to have to play and Billy Gardner figuring out which pitchers he could use as position players, the game was called.  Those who were sick had to go to local a hospital as a precaution.  A few hours later, Billy and I went to dinner and made a toast with our beers for those who were sick to get better and thankful that we weren’t in that group.

The Peep Show!

We are closing in on the end and have arrived at the adult portion.  I hope that you find this story worthy of sticking around until the end.  The ending shouldn’t be as confusing as Leonardo’s Shutter Island.

The 2002 Blue Rocks are traveling from Woodbridge, VA to Winston-Salem, NC.  The club wrapped up the series with Potomac with a day game, so everyone is excited that arrival into Winston-Salem will be well before midnight, maybe even early enough to catch a little Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN or order pizza.

Our bus driver, Bill, decided he has to make a quick stop about an hour from Winston-Salem.  The rest stop was located right near Henderson, NC off of interstate 85.  Bill tells Jeff Garber, the manager of the Blue Rocks, that he knows the rest area and it’ll be quick.  Bill was without a doubt the best bus driver that I had ever come across.  A good man.  Someone who took pride in a job well done and who possessed the ability to take the occasional ribbing and give it back in spades.

Most on the bus decided to take a few minutes to get out and stretch or to grab something to eat or drink at the convenient mart attached to the gas station.  Imagine now, 25 to 30 minor league ball players getting off a bus and encountering a sporty little red car with three or four cute to very attractive southern girls.  The back and forth conversation brought some rolls of the eyes and some laughter as the playa’s on the team put on the charm.

Upon departure from the rest area, the bus got back on the highway and with that came chatter from the back of the bus.  Something was going on.

That sporty little red car was now following along.  At first, the car was coming up on the driver’s side of the bus, which was great news for my side because we quickly learned that one of the young girls in the front passenger seat was taking her clothes off.  Pleas of “slow down Bill” or “speed up Bill” or “steady Bill” came from everywhere as the anticipation of a glimpse grew.

It appeared as if the show was going to end as quickly as it got started with the car slowing down, but instead of disappearing, the driver decided to come up on the other side of the bus and everyone now jockeyed to get over to the other side.  If we were on a boat, it might have capsized.

Now instead of a front row seat, I had to do my best to catch a glimpse by anticipating the moves of the guys now in front of me.  The show lasted another 30 seconds or so, as this young lady pretty much got naked and put on a little show for an entire bus load of gawking and appreciative ballplayers.

For his part, Bill kept the bus steady and never wavered.

Players are high-fiving each other and we are all wondering if that actually happened.  The cell phones start up and calls are made to players and friends in Wichita and Burlington and the bragging and embellishing begins in earnest.

Now that’s all well and good and maybe you were entertained, but it doesn’t end there and if I need to, I can get plenty of former and current pro ballplayers to confirm the rest.

A few weeks later, we are making the same trip.  Potomac to Winston-Salem on a late Sunday afternoon/early evening stroll southbound.  Bill, perhaps thinking about the last trip, decides to stop at the same place, and guess who happens to be parked outside the convenient mart?  You guessed it!  The same car as we saw on the last trip with the same group of girls.  (Ed. NOTE: This is like a scene out of National Lampoon’s Vacation when Christie Brinkley keeps appearing wherever the Griswalds go)

Immediately one of the players remembers one of the girls, guess he had a better view than I did on the last trip.  In an excited state, he points into the car and says “you’re the girls who we saw on our last trip down here!”

Laughter erupts from the car and the begging begins for an encore performance.  This time, the players who were on the previous trip begin giving out instructions like “stay on this side of the bus, don’t go to fast or slow down, and stay with us for more than a few miles.”

Bill brings the bus back out onto the highway and the show starts up.  The car stays to the entrance side of the bus and immediately guys start getting into place.  The rerun was not quite the same, but the same jovial high-five’s were exchanged afterwards and most of us had that did-that-really-just-happen expression on our faces after that sporty red car took the next exit.  Others were on phones to guys in Burlington, Wichita or Omaha to share the tale.

To go along with the stories are the conversations struck up on all of those long journeys.  Talking with coaches sitting in front of me, former big league pitcher Scott McGregor, who often told me in 2008 when I was with the Aberdeen IronBirds, that I was filled with too much useless information  Dave Joppie, who was impressed with my thoughts and opinions on PED’s and steroid use by pro ball players.  Terry Bradshaw, hitting coach for the Blue Rocks, who could talk hitting at any hour of the day and who could sleep through anything at any hour during the day.  And those players sitting in the seat behind me, Darren Fenster, Matt Burch, Robbie Morrison, Andrew Dobies, Randy Newsome, Jon de Vries, and a host of others.

Sugar’s Random Thoughts…

We love #’s!  7,877.  The attendance figure at Blair County Ballpark on Sunday, April 11 for the debut of Stephen Strasburg, who struck out eight in his professional debut with the Harrisburg Senators.  His next scheduled start should come on Friday in Harrisburg’s home game against New Britain.

It would have been interesting to hear the chatter if Joe Girardi pulled C.C. Sabathia with no-hitter intact on Saturday against the Rays.  Do we ever go back to not panicking when a pitcher hits 100 pitches in an outing?  David Price got to 100 + on Friday in an outing against the Yankees and he was still hitting 93, 94, and 95.  Although, you could tell he was just about spent because he was no longer hitting his spots.

The Astros have scored 13 runs over their first 6 games and have lost all six.  I have no further observation except to point out that you are not going to win many games scoring only two runs on a nightly basis.

Has anyone thanked Joe West for sharing his opinion on the Yankees and Red Sox?

I root for the A’s Dallas Braden, who won on Sunday in the A’s victory over the Angels, and make sure to look him up when he pitches, because I saw him make his major league debut in April of 2007, and not only was he impressive on the mound, he was a good guy.  On the day he made his big league debut in Baltimore, he pitched with his grandmother, girlfriend and her parents in the stands.

Caught some of the final day of the Masters coverage on Sunday and you could not ask for a better image than Phil Mickelson embracing his wife after he won.  We should celebrate Phil and commend him for being a supportive husband and leave it at that.

–End–

Comments

One Response to “Tales From a Minor League Bus”
  1. Article by Steve Lenox Interesting (tuff on a bus)

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