Thursday, July 26, 2007

There’s Joy for Ballplayers With No Home

For the Can-Am Grays, a minor-league team, all the games are away games.
Their team bus, the one constant in their season, is the closest thing to a home.

Published: July 26, 2007


Dan Shwam has been all over North America on baseball’s lower rungs in his 14 years as a minor league manager with the Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks, Mohawk Valley Landsharks, Newburgh Night Hawks, Elmira Pioneers, Catskill Cougars, Evansville Otters, Jackson Senators and Laredo Broncos.

Of course, you can’t have the cushy jobs all the time. Hence his current berth with the Can-Am Grays, the lost boys of minor league baseball. The Grays, after all, have no home, no stadium, no mascot, no sponsors and no fans, other than an occasional mom or girlfriend willing to travel. For a while they had the Toyota 4Runner owned by the hitting coach, Larry Van Allen, but it was totaled when he hit a moose on the way to a June game in Canada.

And yet, Mr. Shwam, 48, seems not at all unhappy with his lot with the Grays, who from late May to early September live in hotel rooms and a bus full of baseball DVDs, playing road games from Atlantic City to Quebec. So, if we could interrupt the sports chatter about dog fighting, fixed basketball games and baseball pharmacology, here’s a second salute (after Sunday’s column on Joel Bennett of the New Jersey Jackals) to baseball where the paychecks are small, the dreams are big, the grass is real and life seems that way, too.

The Grays are not baseball’s first homeless team. In fact, the Can-Am League, whose teams are not affiliated with any from the major league, and its immediate predecessors have had three. The Aces were formed in 2004 when the Allentown Ambassadors went bankrupt, taking their name because they were able to get uniforms from the equally defunct Alexandria Aces of Louisiana (who were resurrected in 2006). Two years ago, when the Bangor Lumberjacks bailed out just before the season started, they became the Grays (wearing the Aces’ old gray pants).

And this year’s version of the Grays (the league splurged on new gray pants) was born when the league had an odd number of teams and needed another to even out the schedule.

“It’s not something you want to do all the time,” said Miles Wolff, the league commissioner. “These guys definitely have it rougher than the other teams, but it still beats working for a living.”

It can definitely get lonely. Willie James, this year’s original shortstop, missed his family so much that he packed up and went home in mid-July. Mr. Shwam’s wife, a baseball lifer, visited briefly from Salt Lake City, where she and Mr. Shwam live, and decided that even by the standards of minor league baseball, being in a different hotel room every fourth day was too depressing. She left, too.

Mr. Wolff, who owns the Quebec Capitales, said he encouraged some of his fans to root for the Grays when they played there. Still, Everett Stull, a Grays pitcher and former major leaguer with Montreal, Atlanta and Milwaukee, said having no field to come home to went counter to the DNA of sports. “You look forward to playing at home, saying, ‘We’re going to protect this house,’ ” he said. “Well, our house is the bus.”

Still, he said, “baseball is baseball,” and the team’s players have learned to stay positive and stick by one another. And being homeless is not all bad. Since they’re always on the road, they get the $18 meal money every day, unlike players for the other teams, who get it only when they travel. There are no expenses for a car or rent for the season. And, at the moment, they’re in the middle of their nearest thing to a homestand, three series in a row against the Jackals and the nearby Sussex Skyhawks, which means 11 nights in a row at the Ramada Inn on Route 10 in East Hanover. (They also get to bat last this series, one way to balance things out a little).

AND life has its surprises. When they showed up at the Jackals’ Yogi Berra Stadium here on Tuesday, the Grays even had fans, two of them, in the persons of Jared Siegel and Michael Goldin, 17-year-old high school seniors from Cedar Grove. The teenagers said they used to root for whomever the Jackals were playing, and got such friendly receptions from the Grays players that they committed. So they sat by the Grays dugout, in their homemade gray Grays T-shirts, waving homemade signs and yelling out encouragement to the catcher J. B Tucker, the outfielders Sean Gamble and Chad Gabriel, the feisty second baseman Josh Colafemina.

The game seesawed back and forth into extra innings, the tension building (and the crowd dwindling), until the new shortstop, Chuck Jeroloman, hit a game-ending single for a 5-4 win in the 12th inning. The Grays mobbed him at home plate, savored their postgame feast of whatever was left over from the concession stands and got back to the Ramada Inn at 12:30 a.m. They would be back on the bus to the stadium at 3 the next afternoon, but for a night — with their second-half standings at 5-3, tied for third place, and both fans thrilled — all was well in Grays Nation.