Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Taking a swing at a job in pro baseball

Victoria Seals manager Bret Boone, a former major leaguer, signs a young fan's gloves at an open house at Royal Athletic Park. Deddeda Stemler photograph.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 11, 2010

VICTORIA

A coach asked Ben Marshall to bring batting helmets for himself and the others.

The big first baseman stuck his opened glove atop his head before bending down to scoop a pyramid of plastic lids.

Mr. Marshall, 30, is a salesmen of heavy-duty machinery and industrial equipment. He’s heavy-duty himself. At a towering 6-foot-8, 280 pounds, he looks like Paul Bunyan armed a toothpick when he swings a baseball bat.

He marched from the grandstand to the batting screen at home plate, his beefy arms hugging a light, but awkward load, which he dumped on the grass like an earthmover releasing a shovelful of earth.

He was the oldest of eight baseball players attending a one-day tryout camp for the Victoria Seals, a professional team in an independent league.

Like the others, all Canadians with some college experience, he paid $60 for the privilege of contesting for two open spots for an invitation to training camp.

The baseball season begins in spring, a time when every team’s record is flawless and every player believes they are on the cusp of greatness.

The Seals kept two spots open on the training camp roster for British Columbia talent that might have been overlooked, underestimated, or, simply, forgotten.

“It gives a local kid a chance to come and show us what he’s got,” said Bret Boone, the team’s manager.

For the pitchers, the possibility of a pro contract was just 60 feet, six inches away — the distance from the rubber on the pitching mound to home plate.

For the batters, their dream was some 330 feet away — the distance of a home run over the outfield fence.

The manager eyed a city works crew fussing with the $400,000 US scoreboard behind the left-field fence.

“What about the truck?” the manager asked.

“We’ll just yell, ‘Fore,’ ” coach Kip Gross replied.

Alas, no one came close to hitting a baseball anywhere near the outfield fence.

Both the manager and the coach enjoyed major-league careers. The right-handed Mr. Gross pitched for four teams, though he’s best remembered by baseball aficionados for his success with the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan. Mr. Boone enjoyed a 14-season career, most notably with the Seattle Mariners, for whom he hit 37 homers with a league-leading 141 runs batted in 2001. His baseball bloodlines are impeccable — his grandfather, his father, and his younger brother also played in the majors.

Managing is a new experience for Mr. Boone, who readily admits to being more accustomed to executing strategy rather than ordering it.

The new skipper was one of the main attractions when the Seals held an informal open house on the weekend, admitting visitors into Royal Athletic Park to watch spring training workouts. About 300 took advantage of the warm weather to hobnob with players lounging in the stands.

Children had their pitches measured by a radar gun as they threw against a vinyl backstop featuring a ferocious-looking batter. Others rolled softballs into targets in an inflatable skeeball game.

Seamore the Seal, the club’s anthropomorphic pinniped mascot, offered his flippers for high-fives from fans.

The open house was organized by general manager Roxann Bury, 31, a rare woman in her position in all of baseball and certainly a rare GM whose painted fingernails match her toenails.

As for her gender in the male world of baseball, she said of her manager and coaches, “I’m not sire they know I’m a woman. They treat me the same way as anyone else. They’re confident in my abilities.”

She has earned her high position after spending more than a decade in marketing and community relations for a baseball and a pro lacrosse team in Calgary. She will be taking the Seals to her hometown of Kamloops this week for exhibition games.

The Seals’ home opener on May 21 is against a Golden Baseball League expansion club from Hawaii. The Na Koa Ikaika Maui is roughly translated as the Mighty Warriors of Maui.

A road trip to Hawaii will be one of the perks for players who earn a fraction of their major-league counterparts.

Mr. Marshall, the salesman, will not be among them.

The Seals braintrust invited only one player at the workout to join 32 others in competing for 22 roster spots.

The big first baseman said his disappointment was tempered by the experience.

“I took infield practice with Bret Boone. He’s got quite the pedigree. I’m just happy to be here.

“This has been like a fantasy camp.”

Within hours of getting the bad news, Mr. Marshall was back on the diamond, patrolling first base for his amateur team in North Vancouver, satisfied in the knowledge that at least he had taken the chance. He had not left unanswered the possibility of a pro career, however modest.