Spring Tryout '04
By David Puner
Two hundred men wearing mismatched uniforms sat in the bleachers of the Nova Southeastern University baseball complex, shaded from the early morning Florida sun by shadows. Except for shifting cleats clacking on the metal risers, most of the men were quiet as they waited for independent baseball's Northeast League annual tryout to get underway.
The players migrated to Florida for the two-day, late March tryout, on their own dimes, for a shot at a shot. Every guy in camp could, in theory, wind up with a contract-but more likely, only a few would be chosen by the eight Northeast League teams and get a chance to move one step closer to their dream: to play in the major leagues.
From their vantage point behind the home plate backstop, players waited expectantly and gazed at the NSU baseball field before them. In the distance, just behind the chain-link outfield fence, palm trees sparkled as a light breeze dried the dew from their feathery leaves. Peaking between two palms, suspended over the right field fence, a teal dolphin wearing a football helmet jumped inanimately through a hoop of bright orange sun. The headgear-wearing sea mammal with a beaklike snout is the Miami Dolphins' team logo, and is painted onto a large building situated about 50 yards behind the NSU baseball field. NSU also happens to be the Dolphins' training facility. For the understatedly eager group of wannabe professional baseball players, the National Football League's Dolphin easily could have been a Major League Baseball creature caricature: a Marlin; a Blue Jay; a Devil Ray; a Tiger; a Diamondback; or, perhaps, an Oriole. The dolphin served as a not-so-distant symbol that big-money, high-profile professional sports were ostensibly in reach, though cordoned off by considerable barriers.
The 215 hopefuls were comprised of major league affiliated castoffs, former college players, and a few guys who never played more than high school ball. These were players who had been instrumental members of teams their whole lives, and were now facing the possibility of getting rebuffed by baseball having to move on. NSU was the likely end of the road for a majority of these players, who had come hoping to pursue a dream, or were desperately trying to hang on to something they had excelled at in the past. For at least a few hours, they were back on a baseball field and a professional baseball career was again within sight.
Standing before the group at the base of the grandstand, Nick Belmonte, the camp's coordinator, clutched a bullhorn and attempted to orchestrate. Clad in clean white pinstriped baseball pants, a Chicago Cubs cap, and wraparound shades, Belmonte, a 1976 Florida Gators All-South Region selection, hastily applied sunblock, failing to rub it completely into his face and ears, leaving him with a somewhat sickly, smeared white complexion.
Belmonte started separating players into three groups-non-pro/non-college; college; and pro-and then subdivided them by position: infielders; outfielders; pitchers; catchers. "How many have played pro ball?" Belmonte asked the 30 catchers, pausing to look up briefly from his clipboard. Three hands rose hesitantly and Belmonte made a notation onto the roster fastened to his clipboard. Although pro experience is a source of player pride, every guy trying out at NSU was in the same boat -- while a player who had once been with a major league organization might get a longer look because of that experience, he was now in the same spot as guys who had never been drafted.
Belmonte explained how things were going to work: pitchers and some catchers would go to the bullpen, while position players would run 60-yard-dashes and field grounders. Then, the pitchers would throw to shifts of position. The baseball field was to become like a watch face -- one with complicated multiple chronograph movements although Belmonte later likened the whole thing to something more like a "seven-ring-circus."
As a kid, I myself had loved the idea of playing organized baseball but never had a breakthrough on the field. Rec leagues, camp teams, town teams, and high school teams; I played on them all -- always hoping my game would come together, but it never did. For some of the other guys, baseball came easier -- maybe game pressure didn't shake them as much as it did me or they worked harder. Some simply had way more talent. Regardless, none went on to play college baseball.
In theory, I wanted New York Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly's job. But in the end I guess I never really allowed myself to have the dream, maybe because I realized that pro ball was an impossibility. My high school senior year I was set to play varsity baseball but then I got mono. Horrible, horrible mono. After a week of alcohol-fueled shenanigans in negative-70-degree (with wind chill) Vermont, with a bunch of fellow 17-year-olds, I came home to suburban New York with a high fever, blazing sore throat, night sweats...day sweats...the whole package. It was a strain of mono that takes one out of the game for a while.
I was out of school for a month -- and the baseball season began without me. When I finally got back to school for good, I practiced with the team, and despite depleted energy, general malaise, and atrophy, I somehow managed to convince my coach that I deserved a spot. Just before preseason began, the varsity coach pulled me aside in the gym during an indoor practice and said: "I've got a uniform for you, but I don't know how much playing time you're going to get." It was the perfect opportunity to rise to the occasion and work so hard that Coach would have no choice but to put me in his lineup. Instead, I quit -- although at the time that's not what we called it -- it was like a mutual breakup, no one supposedly got dumped. Regardless, I didn't really want to be there and I didn't believe strongly enough in my game. And looking back, I never much regretted the decision -- until recently.
At 30-years-old, my chance at being a major leaguer is gone forever and that hurts. Sandy Koufax retired at 30. Alex Rodriguez is a year younger than I am and will make about $21,726,881 more than I will this year. Recently, I've become interested in independent baseball, a branch of the game where, I thought perhaps, anyone with decent ability and desire could play. I wanted to be on a baseball field again. So I hooked up a cheap ticket on Song and headed down to Fort Lauderdale to see what dreams were, at least temporarily, on life support.
For players trying out, jerseys, T-shirts, and caps represented their most important baseball experiences; some names and logos were familiar, others were not. The field was a sea of resurrected memorabilia, with representation from college teams, pro teams, amateur league teams, independent league teams, and beer league teams:
"Guys like to show their colors," said Greg Martinez, a 24-year-old former player for the College of New Jersey. Martinez, at first glance, looked to be wearing some sort New York Yankees minor league uniform, although he was actually clad in a dark navy blue cap with an interlocking "N-J" embroidered on the front and a similarly colored T-shirt with "New Jersey Baseball" printed in white lettering on the front; "Martinez" and No. 17 on the back. "Having your name on your back can help you stand out in the tryout," he assured me.
Like Martinez, many players wore numbers on their backs. Numbers tie players to teams past -- teams, on which, they had once served integral roles. One 24-year-old player explained to me that he started wearing No. 12 in Little League, when the best 12-year-old on the team was given the honorary number. When available, he's worn the number ever since. Numbers in baseball mean everything, and a uniform number is one of the only ones a player can truly control (the others being, for example: batting average, earned run average, and age).
Undrafted by a major league organization, Martinez told me that he goes to as many open tryouts as he can. Recently, he attended tryouts held by some major league teams, including the Phillies, Royals, and Diamondbacks. Nothing came of them. Open tryouts mean players don't need invitations. Similar to big league tryouts, the more players show up, the more difficult it is for a guy to stand out from the pack. "You got to show what you got quick," Martinez said. "If not, you're fucked -- you're gone."
The Northeast League announced the NSU tryout on its website. "I'll go to any tryout," Martinez said. "Playing professionally has been my dream for a long time." For someone like Martinez, independent baseball is a way to play high-level ball and potentially get spotted by a big league scout -- perhaps by a scout who didn't think highly enough of him when he was a college player to suggest a big league club take him as a late-round draft pick.
Martinez has been playing baseball competitively since he was five-years-old and he's not ready to give up. "Give me a chance and I'll take whatever you'll give me," Martinez said. "I don't care about a paycheck."
Players don't play in the Northeast League for the money. Rookies in the Northeast League make $750 per month, over a three month season. There are five tiers of players, ranging from rookie to veteran. A second-tier player, known as an LS-1 (limited service), a player with less than two years of independent league service, can make around $1100 (with similar increases in salary per rank). A team must carry at least five rookies and a maximum of four vets on its 22-man roster. With a league imposed $87,500 salary cap, no Northeast League player can make a living playing ball from his share of this humble pie. For this reason alone, the league isn't typically a good fit for older guys with wives and families.
When I spoke with Nick Belmonte a few days after the tryout, he said that if he had to choose between a guy who already had a shot in affiliated ball and did poorly, or the unproven talent of a rookie, "I'd rather give a job to the untainted first-year pro -- give the chance to a guy who has never failed." Winning is still the bottom-line in the Northeast League, which can't be said for the major leagues, because not every team has the revenue or is willing to spend the money to compete.
And it doesn't matter how big a player is to be a winner in the independent leagues. "I'll take any guy if he can help me win -- to heck with size," Belmonte said. "I'm going to look for a competitive kid who has poise, and looks like he can handle the day in and day out grind and stresses of a 92-game-schedule."
On the NSU field, waves of jet noise frequently eclipsed all sound of baseball. This was due, in large part, to the incoming flow of low-fare airlines like Southwest, which have helped make Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International one of the nation's fastest growing airports.
Similar to low-cost air carriers' passenger traffic, independent baseball is also growing. Belmonte told me he was surprised by the 40 percent increase in the number of players at this year's camp, but he offered some theories to explain the swell. "It was an unbelievable year for baseball," he said of the excitement inspired by 2003's major league playoffs. "A lot of guys are saying, 'I want to give this a shot.'" He said that the independent leagues have gotten a lot more attention recently, especially due to big league players whose careers began or were resurrected in independent ball. Proving the dream is obtainable, successful major leaguers including Boston Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar, and Anaheim Angels' reliever Brendan Donnelly, both spent time in independent baseball. "Guys are realizing that there's more than one way to get to the big leagues," Belmonte said. "And guys are doing it." Belmonte loves to see success stories develop from the tryout camps.
Last year's big success story was 23-year-old pitcher Tim Rall, who was drafted seventh by the Bangor Lumberjacks out of the Northeast League tryout camp. By mid-July, Rall had pitched his way into a contract with a major league organization. "He was a shoe-in to start the [Northeast League] All-Star game, and Seattle snatches him up, and he's gone before the game," Belmonte said. This spring, Rall continued his progress and did his former league proud by striking out Sammy Sosa in a big league exhibition game -- proving the impossible dream, possible. Rall will start the season with the Mariners' Double-A franchise, the San Antonio Missions.
Perhaps hoping to be this year's Tim Rall, 24-year-old, Brad Cook worked out all winter at home in Binghamton, N.Y., with the Northeast League's Florida tryout on his mind. One limitation that Cook has had to accept and accommodate is his unexceptional pitching speed. "I'm not a flame-thrower," the right-handed reliever told me. On a good day, he'll throw his two-seam fastball 87 or 88 mph, he said. Unable to rely on sheer power, Cook has developed different pitches, which can often be better than speed in the strategic showdowns between pitcher and batter.
Upon graduating from Marist College in 2002, Cook caught on with the Northeast League's Elmira Pioneers at the end of the season. Despite training hard during the off-season, Cook didn't make the cut with Elmira in 2003 -- nor did he receive any offers from other teams. With the encouragement of fellow Binghamtonian, Joel Bennett, a star pitcher in the league for the New Jersey Jackals (Bennett pitched in the big leagues with the Phillies and the Orioles in 1998 and 1999, throwing 19 innings, for a lifetime major league record of 2-1), Cook continues to work for a break. Moonlighting as a substitute teacher he still considers himself a ballplayer first. Cook has no illusions of grandeur though. "I'm just hoping to get an invite into a camp -- to just get a chance," he said.
Getting drafted out of the Northeast League camp is only a chance -- it is not a guaranteed roster spot. Teams can bring 28 players under contract into spring training, but most cut rosters to 22 before the start of the season. The other players get cut.
Some seven hours into the Northeast League tryout, Brad Cook got his turn. With the brim of his Marist cap pulled down low, he jogged purposefully out to the mound. He faced six batters, striking out three. After his strong outing, Cook retreated to a solitary spot near the leftfield bullpen area to strengthen his arm with some stretch tubing. "If I don't get the callback, I'm quitting baseball," he said. "I couldn't have pitched much better than that."
There are highs and lows in baseball, but mostly there is a lot of waiting. Fifteen to 20 players gathered around each infield position, trying to stay calm and loose. Assisting Belmonte, Jackie Hernandez, a former major leaguer, who played on the 1971 World Championship Pittsburgh Pirates, hit ground balls and pop flies with a fungo bat to every position player in camp. For even the most resilient players, it's taxing to wait hours on end before suddenly having to cleanly scoop fungo-chopped grounders and make sharp throws. The urgency is fierce to prove one's talent, using three throws as microcosmic representation for everything one's accomplished over a lifetime of baseball.
Team officials stood in back of the batting cage, watching base runners slide headfirst hard and fielders dive over railings chasing pop-ups -- giving real meaning to the cliched 110 percent effort. Occasionally, when a player would make a particularly dangerous heroic attempt, team mangers would glance at one another knowingly, partly amused; and partly horrified at the players' earnest recklessness. Then the managers would return to their unending cell phone calls.
One shortstop, getting his turn taking groundballs, bounded after one onto the outfield grass, landing all of his weight onto one knee, surely testing the strength of his ACL and nearly buckling the knee. He managed to field the play, but made a weak throw --had it been a real grounder, the hitter would've been safe by a mile. It was a needlessly risky play, but each groundball and throw represented an opportunity for the player to stay in baseball.
Missing the shortstop's precarious fielding attempt, one manager fiddled with a ringing cell phone instead. "I'm not answering this phone today," he said, to another manager. "Especially when it's from an agent who doesn't have any good players." Regardless of this manager's decree, cell phone conversations with players and agents went on throughout the tryout. The purpose of these conversations was to fill the same roster spots which, in simultaneous twists of bitter irony, tryout hopefuls were dedicating 110 percent efforts to obtain.
In order to quickly and efficiently cut the number of players in camp down to a more wieldy group, Belmonte had to make decisions on some position players before they had gotten the chance to hit. Those who did get a chance to hit did not make much of the opportunity -- the bats remained pretty quite. "There's either a lot of good pitching, or there's not a lot of hitting," one pitcher told me, while waiting his turn to throw from the mound.
Another pitcher, Rich Muniz, who has hunched posture and fuzzy reddish sideburns that accentuate his jowls, sided with the strong pitching assessment. "Man, there are some nasty pitchers here," he said. "Some good talent -- some of the best I've seen." Muniz had made the trip down from his hometown, Newark, N.J., determined to revive a career that ended when he graduated Rutgers in 2002. "I'm not gonna stop trying," Muniz said, with a slow drawl. "I've got nothing to lose." In order to keep his dream alive, he works odd hours as a security guard at Seton Hall. "I've been sick for baseball all my life. What can I say, I'm still sick."
Suddenly, the lull that had been cast over the complex from pitch after pitch slapping into catchers' mitts was broken by a solid rifle shot over the present first baseman's head. One manager, who was jarred out of the baseball complex's collective tryout trance, turned to Nick Belmonte and asked the hitter's name. To my knowledge, this was the first overt managerial inquiry about a player.
First cuts were made somewhat covertly and the remaining group was not noticeably smaller. Having made strong, accurate throws from centerfield into the infield and then to home plate, Greg Martinez made it past first cuts without even having batted yet. When he got his first at-bat, the right-hand hitting Martinez dug into the batter's box with exaggerated intensity until reaching his set position. When he bats, Martinez leaves his front leg open so when the pitcher is about to release the ball, he hitches his left leg up and steps toward the ball as if he's going to swing every time. This time, he struck out. As Martinez walked slowly out of the box, he dejectedly fixed his gut-wrenching gaze somewhere between the Miami Dolphin and the sky.
It was about this time that I decided to break for lunch, and drove my $19-per-day Pontiac Sunfire rental about a mile to the nearest fast food, which happened to be Wendy's, which I don't like. At Wendy's I looked up from my chicken-somethings and saw an Asian player from the tryout who had earlier confused me for a manager, and tried to get his 60-yard-dash time from me that morning on the field. Accidentally, nobody had started their stopwatches for the guy (which happened to quite a few players). It was hard to keep up with the endless flow of 60-yard-dashers. For a few moments, the player tried to get his time from the managers and Belmonte, but they either didn't hear him, or they did a good job of pretending not to hear him. There were already a couple more guys dashing toward them. I hurriedly downed. An odd feeling had come over me, as if I had snuck out of one of those long ago high school practices. I wanted to get back to the tryout.
After I returned from Wendy's, I caught up with Martinez as he waited agitatedly for another at-bat, in a large group of players also hoping to step up to the plate, he told me that his previous at-bat was the first time that he'd faced live pitching since last year. "If I don't get another A.B., I'm gonna be livid," he said, already livid. Martinez applied some 50 SPF sunscreen to his nearly hairless New Jersey-wintered arms, that had been fried red by the Florida sun. The gesture was clearly too late.
As it turns out, Martinez did not get another at-bat on Day One of the tryout. So he must have, at least for a short while, been especially livid.
By the start of the tryout camp's similarly sun-drenched, spring-scented, Day Two, Belmonte had eliminated more than half of the original hopefuls from camp. Greg Martinez, despite his strikeout, had hung on. On Day Two, Martinez dressed in a "New Jersey Baseball" T-shirt almost identical to the shirt he wore on Day One, except this shirt didn't have his name or number on the back. Even though he had already been noticed; now his pretty swing was going to have to connect with a baseball or two, or he could forget about being drafted. He would have to succeed at the expense of a pitcher, many of whom still had not pitched yet.
One pitcher waiting for his turn was Skip Wiley, a 22-year-old former Seattle Mariners farmhand, who was wearing a dark blue Seattle Mariners T-shirt, Mariners hat over his military-style haircut, and white baseball pants. On a cold day playing in the Pacific Northwest in 2001, Wiley, a native Floridian, "wasn't totally loose," and tore his labrum. He had multiple shoulder surgeries over two years and he still wasn't ready to pitch by the beginning of the 2003 season. The team that signed him out of high school, the Mariners, released him. Considered damaged goods, Wiley hasn't pitched in a game since 2001. "I want to come here, get some batters, get some innings, get some numbers and get back with an organization," Wiley told me. Injuries can derail a career at any time and at any level; Wiley played with a guy in the Seattle system who made it up to the big leagues for two weeks, before tearing his ACL rounding second base. Most professional players would rather take the torn ACL and the taste of the big leagues, than perfect health and no shot at the bigs.
At one point on Day Two, Belmonte was chatting with team officials behind the batting cage, when he heard a sound that suddenly turned his attention toward the inside of the cage. Instead of the cracking, thwapping, or slapping sound a pitch makes when connecting with wood bat or mitt, the pitch that caught Belmonte's attention instead had made the dull slapping sound that results from a hardball moving 80-plus mph, hitting skin and bone. A hitter had been drilled in the back of his hand with a pitch. "Son of a bitch..." Belmonte muttered, as he headed toward the player, who was shaking his stinging hand. This time, as luck would have it, the player was not injured.
My worst injuries sustained as a player were strained thumb ligaments and sprained ankles (I now get sore after a heated game of Wiffle). At the Northeast League tryout camp, I took an errant pitch (thrown by a pitcher warming in the bullpen area) off of my inner right ankle. If anyone saw it happen, they didn't say anything. Luckily I didn't sustain any swelling.
While Skip Wiley may have missed his shot at a college education because he signed with a major league organization instead, Nick Belmonte told me that he will do everything possible to discourage a kid from forfeiting an education for independent ball. "I get emails all the time saying, 'Hey, I'm 19-years old and I throw 90 mph, and I've got offers from college,'" he told me. "I say, 'What are you doing? Take the scholarship and play -- we're not going anywhere. We'll see you in four years.'" Belmonte said that in independent ball, teams want players who already know the game -- it's not a place to develop and be nurtured. "We're all about winning," he said. "We don't want a 19 year old kid, because he's got so much to learn."
I could relate. While in college, even though I didn't play baseball, I finally learned how to properly base-slide, when during football tailgates, the school's baseball diamond was used unofficially for imaginary base-stealing purposes. Even though I learned how to base-slide, at 19-years-old, I clearly had a lot more to learn.
Relying primarily on Belmonte to do most of the talent assessment on Day One, team officials started paying closer attention on the second day of the tryout. By mid-morning, four team officials sat in chairs directly behind the batting cage, watching intently (at times). There was rapport amongst club officials, but not a lot of conversation. "Everyone pretty much keeps to themselves about who they're interested in," one manager told me.
At one point, a manager looked up from his clipboard, just as a pitcher was in the middle of his windup. "You turn 24, or you are 24?" he demanded. The pitcher awkwardly aborted his windup to say that he would be turning 25 in May. In baseball, regardless of league, age matters.
In the infield, a first baseman attempting to catch a sky-high pop-fly, watched the ball drop with a thud at his feet -- he never got a glove on it. Moments later, following a strikeout, the traditional catcher's snap-throw down to third base missed the third baseman -- sailing way wide of the mark. The ball shot into left field and was scooped up by Greg Martinez, who had been languishing in the outfield and had been waiting for something to happen -- waiting and killing time.
Three hundred feet away, a manager packed a dip. He then offered his tin to another manager. "Nah, two weeks, no dip," he said. "I got eight more days."
In baseball, anyone wearing a uniform (which bizarrely, unlike other sports, includes coaches and managers, who don't actually play) has time to kill, off and on the field. Baseball people horse around, chew the fat, and chew tobacco. At NSU, a lot of players were dipping and spitting -- some were just spitting. Greg Martinez told me that he once slid head-first with a dip in and swallowed it. Do not try this, he advised.
Oddly enough, when I arrived at the NSU complex for day two of the tryout, I inadvertently swallowed my Trident bubblegum. As my practice is to chew three pieces of Trident bubblegum at the same time, it was a lot of gum to accidentally swallow. While it surely does not compare to swallowing a dip (which typically will induce vomiting), it was still an unpleasant experience.
One catcher with a sun burnt face, had a huge dip in -- stuffed thickly between his lower gum-line and lip. It looked like he had been punched just below the mouth and the swollen lower-portion of his face contorted his expression into a grimacing, tough-guy glare. The kid was trying (intentionally or not) to impersonate a grizzled veteran major league catcher.
When Greg Martinez got his first at-bat of Day Two, his muscles tensed as he impatiently waited in the batter's box for his first pitch. He took a monster cut, and missed. He promptly missed again; and then again. After striking out, Martinez left the box slowly -- his odds at getting drafted greatly reduced. None of the team officials behind the batting cage glanced at him as he walked back toward the dugout.
While Martinez stood, alone and dejected, in foul territory, on one side of the field, other players pondered their futures more lightly on the other side of the diamond. One former college pitcher, sitting with a couple of other pitchers, asked: "So it's all gonna be over today? We'll know today?"
"Yep," replied a 20-something veteran, who had pro experience in various leagues.
"So it's kind of like an STD test?"
"Which one?" said the vet, deadpan. Everyone laughed.
A shaggy-haired catcher, who was stuffing his gear into a large duffle bag, said to another pitcher: "I'd sign you man. You had some good shit." Camaraderie was developing, just as the tryout was winding down.
When draft-time arrived, managers and other club officials gathered in the dugout on the third base side of the NSU field, while the players assembled in and around the other dugout. In the draft dugout, Allentown Ambassadors' first baseman (last year's Northeast League MVP), who also serves as the team's director of player procurement, lit a cigarette and took a drag. Other managers, perhaps having forgotten they were not in uniform, spit tobacco-less saliva onto the dirt dugout floor.
Holding the first pick, the Bangor Lumberjacks chose a rookie infielder/outfielder. Fourteen players were drafted; 11 were rookies. Of the eight Northeast League teams, The New Haven County Cutters drafted four players, the most of any team (three of their picks were rookies); one New Haven rookie, the 13th player picked, was Skip Wiley (still considered a rookie, despite his four years in affiliated ball with the Seattle organization). Greg Martinez, Rich Muniz, and Brad Cook were not drafted.
Belmonte mentioned Muniz to the managers after the teams had finished picking. Perhaps he had fallen through the tryout's cracks, and hadn't been noticed. "The kid from Rutgers -- I thought he was nasty," Belmonte said, surprised that nobody had picked the kid. "He had nice live action in his arm." Based on Belmonte's persuasion, one team decided to speak with Muniz to tell him to stay in shape in case they might need him later in the season.
Allentown picked pitcher Sam Greco, an LS-1, as the 8th pick overall. "He has the best looking girlfriend in camp," said one manager, adding a bit of a fraternity pledge bid meeting vibe to the otherwise straightforward proceeding.
Two teams didn't draft players: The Elmira Pioneers, didn't send a representative to Florida (the team's front office was somewhat in disarray as they were in the process of hiring a new general manager), and the New Jersey Jackals decided not to take a player. The manager of the Jackals, Joe Calfapietra, told me afterward that he was interested in a couple of the rookie pitchers, but because of his late first pick (due to trades and having to surrender picks, the New Jersey's first pick would have been 14th), he wouldn't have been able to draft a player who he thought would fit on his team. "I didn't want to pick a kid and put him in a difficult situation," Calfapietra said. "It's very tough -- you might have to pass on a guy who might be able to help your team. Did I make all the right decisions on passing on all those guys? Who knows?"
As Belmonte walked toward the first base dugout with the draft results, players were silent as they awaited fate. I tried to stay with Belmonte on his walk over to the players, but he stopped a couple of times to answer some last-minute questions from the managers, leaving me a few uncomfortable steps ahead, with the players realizing that I knew the outcome of the draft. Before announcing the picks, Belmonte had a few more words of advice for the young men: "One lesson of pro ball: be on time. Traffic is not an excuse -- leave earlier." He also said that there would be a lot more tryout camps, both for other independent leagues and individual teams, so opportunities could still develop.
Predictably, a few players were visibly upset when they weren't drafted. "There are always the guys who are very disappointed," Belmonte said, later. "I'll make calls to other leagues and [try to] get them jobs. If I think they can play, I'll help them out." Belmonte understands the desire to continue in baseball. "The odds are totally stacked against them. I know what they're up against -- I signed out of a camp." In 1978, Belmonte signed with Boise of the Northwest League. The next year, he signed with the big league-affiliated Milwaukee Brewers organization and then spent a year in the Montreal Expos' system. Belmonte retired in 1981, after injuring his knee. He never made it to the bigs.
Within moments of Belmonte reading drafted players' names, the camp had disbanded. The NSU team reclaimed its field as some Miami Dolphins practiced nearby on their training field. A groundskeeper had already smoothed over the infield dirt with a grater attached to an ATV, and any sign of the once bustling Northeast League tryout camp was erased. Sam Greco, the player who was picked eighth by Allentown, posed for a photo in the parking lot. Greco smiled as his girlfriend snapped the shot. Dejected players walked past the photo session, some mindful not to get in the way, a few not realizing they were in the way until they were in between Greco and his girlfriend.
A couple of days later, I read a press release on the Northeast League website. Allentown had already traded the rights to Greco to the San Angelo Colts, of the independent Central Baseball League. Instead of Allentown, Greco's pursuit of his dream will continue in Texas.
Some players from that tryout, whether they knew it or not at the time, walked off a baseball field for the last time; others will not give up; and some will try to find a way to stay in baseball, perhaps as coaches. The time to shut it down is different for every ball player.