By: Jordan Lauterbach (Photo courtesy of Daniel De Mato)
Meet the Bizarro World’s baseball team.
It has no home field, no home uniforms, no chance for a walk-off victory and no fan base. Welcome to the world of the Atlantic League’s Road Warriors, a land populated by endless bus trips and ever-changing hotel room keys.
The Road Warriors’ bus pulled into Central Islip earlier in the week for a three-game series against the Ducks. It marked their 17th, 18th and 19th of 126 games on the road.
How did this happen?
Well, the team formerly known as the Bridgeport Bluefish, lost their stadium of 20 years to the city’s plans for a luxurious amphitheater. They’ll move to High Point, North Carolina, in 2019, once that city’s ballpark is completed.
In the mean time, these stadium-less heroes must hit the road.
The concept is not new for the Atlantic League, which took over operations of the 2018 team during the transition. To keep a balanced schedule, the league also fielded Road Warriors teams in 2002-04, 2006-07 and 2011.
Atlantic League president Rick White explained how creating this version of Road Warriors became necessary to avoid the scheduling nightmare of a league with an uneven number of teams.
“The city of Bridgeport was not going to renew our lease for another long-term period,” he said. “It was only after exhausting that option that we began to seriously contemplate the Road Warrior team.”
Former major league catcher Ellie Rodriguez, who was involved in the construction of the 2002 Road Warriors team, came out of retirement to manage this 2018 band of nomads. They will rack up 13,234 miles this season, navigating through Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Long Island and Sugar Land, Texas, a suburb of Houston, one motel at a time. For comparison, the Ducks will travel 9,881 miles this season.
Hurricane Maria had just hit Puerto Rico, where Rodriguez lives with his family, when the offer to manage came through Ducks founder and CEO Frank Boulton. Even though Rodriguez’s home in San Juan had minimal damage, he decided it would be good to get away for a while.
“My wife said ‘are you crazy?” Rodriguez, 71, said with a laugh. “But she also said, ‘if you want to do it and you’re going to enjoy it, go ahead.’”
With a manager in place, it was time to construct a roster. Rodriguez said the pitch to play permanent enemy wasn’t a difficult one. At the end of the day, baseball players like playing baseball, are used to the road anyway, and are always looking for the next opportunity — even if that opportunity doesn’t include a home base.
“Once I called the players that we got, or they called me, that’s the first thing that I said ‘you know you’re going to be on the road for 126 games,’” said Rodriguez, who was a teammate of Mickey Mantle’s for a short time in 1968. He played 775 games over nine seasons with the Yankees, Royals, Brewers, Angels and Dodgers.
“You know it’s going to be tough and we’re going to be flying into Sugar Land and they said ‘we can handle that,’” Rodriguez said. “They were prepared. Before I signed them, they knew what they were getting into.”
Playing for a team without a home sounded pretty good to players without a team. Seven former major leaguers were on the 24-man roster that came to Long Island Tuesday night: pitchers Jose Ortega, Jailen Peguero, Giovanni Soto, Kelvin Villa, infielders Osvaldo Martinez and Melvin Rodriguez-Ortiz, and catcher A.J. Jimenez.
“They just want to play,” Rodriguez said. “Those guys are real road warriors. They wanted to play and wanted to do this.”
Jimenez, who played in seven games with the Rangers last season, made one of the bigger sacrifices — leaving his pregnant girlfriend in Puerto Rico to come play. His life now consists of tons of texts, calls, and face-timing as the two balance getting ready for the birth of their first child due in late October and getting Jimenez back to the bigs.
“It’s tough for her, being by herself,” Jimenez said. “But she understands what I’m trying to do and she’s very positive about it.”
If Jimenez represents one extreme in Rodriguez’s clubhouse, pitcher Weston Talley represents the other.
Only a year out of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas, this is Talley’s first professional baseball gig. He lives in Houston with his parents — just a single guy looking to keep the game alive as long as he can.
Talley didn’t envision his first taste of pro ball including a nonstop pass to the hotel pool, but he’s just happy to be around so much talent.
“I like being able to pick some of the guys brains,” Talley said. “I sort of expected it to be a little cutthroat between players but now that I’ve gotten to know people, everyone’s been really nice and really open with teaching me things, especially as a rookie. I’m trying to learn as much as I can.”
So far — aside from one small booking snafu in Somerset, New Jersey, that sent that Road Warriors to a hotel 30 minutes away from the ballpark — travel has been smooth, Rodriguez said. The league arranges for the team’s travel, lodging and meal money.
Maybe the only thing that hasn’t gone smoothly is the games. Entering this week’s series with the Ducks, the Road Warriors were 4-12, last place in the Liberty Division. But their confidence hasn’t wavered.
“We’ve had up and downs,” Jimenez said. “It’s not a great start, but we have a great team, great pitching, and eventually we’re going to put it all together and start winning some games.”
And, even if they don’t, the hotels are still pretty nice.
“I like hotel beds and pillows,” said Jimenez, who would be spending the night with his teammates at the Radisson in Hauppauge. “That’s, for me, the main thing. Just somewhere I can rest and sleep in.”