Rain poured. Puddles widened in the infield, and a brown sloppy pool rose to the edge of the dugout and then flowed down the steps. It was jacket night, but at 7:30 sharp, the game was called. "That's the story of our season," said Mal Fichman, the manager of the Rocky Mount Pines, who has been dubbed Mal Function by the local paper. "Our home opener was a rainout, too."
But even worse were those nights in between when it didn't rain. Many nights. Long nights. The Pines, a first-year independent Class A franchise in the Carolina League, have far and away the worst record in professional baseball. Through Sunday they were 25-108-1, breaking the league record of 106 defeats in a season, with six games to play. "Cake," says Steve Swain, the first baseman, who has already been voted the team's Most Valuable Player on the strength of his .251 average, seven homers and 45 RBIs, even though he is missing the final month of the season because of torn ligaments in his left elbow. "We're all over that record."
The Pines have lost convincingly and with remarkable consistency. The Carolina League divides its season into two halves, with all teams starting again at 0-0 midway through. In the first half, the Pines were 14-55-1, in last place 27½ games behind the division winner. In the second half they are even worse, 10-53—that's .159, fans—and a robust 27½ games off the pace. Their longest losing streak has been 18 games; their longest winning streak, which wasn't accomplished until June 11, two. (Dizzied by success, the Pines lost their next game 13-0.) Rocky Mount is last in the league in pitching, hitting and defense. The Pines' offense, with a team batting average of .218, represents a daring but unsuccessful attempt to merge lack of speed (62 stolen bases) with lack of power (21 home runs). The pitching staff combines wildness (688 walks, 92 wild pitches) with poor velocity (608 strikeouts, 5.03 ERA). The coaching is questionable, the fan support scarce, and the owner has never seen the team play—which under the circumstances may be forgivable. Still, his frugality should qualify the entire team for welfare.
So why are these guys smiling? "It's been the funniest, greatest time I've ever had," says Infielder Jim Gabella, one of three Pines players who were chosen for the all-star game. To Gabella's amazement, he hit a home run, the game-winner. "This year," he says, "has been like the Twilight Zone."
Last fall, when the Carolina League decided to expand from six to eight teams, league president Jim Mills got in touch with Fichman in Newark, N.Y., where he was running the Co-Pilots of the N.Y.-Penn League. The owner of the Co-Pilots, Lou Hanales of Miami, liked Fichman's idea of moving up to a tougher league, and they settled on Rocky Mount as the location. Because the Pines weren't affiliated with a major league organization, they would have to supply their own players. Five came from the Co-Pilots, and eight others were signed from the 650 who paid $220 apiece to attend the instructional schools Fichman and Hanales conducted in Ocala, Fla. and Rocky Mount. The rest of the club was made up of players who had been released from other organizations, at contracts that paid them the minimum minor league wage of $325 per month.
"I got released at nine o'clock the last morning of spring training," says Swain, who was with the Phillies organization. "I called Mal at 10, was in Ocala by two, took a few cuts, fielded a few balls, and was told I had the job as the first baseman. When he told me the salary was $325 I couldn't believe it. But I would have taken it if he'd said $25."
After the opening rainout, things went from bad to worse. The Pines lost their first 16 games against the Kinston Blue Jays, seven times by one run. Advertising on the outfield walls didn't sell well, media coverage became sparse, and attendance was lackluster—an average of 452 per game (in a 5,000-seat park) and only 44 the night Steve Swain was injured. "There were more players gathered over me than there were fans in the stands," he recalls.
Rocky Mount has known losers before. There is a plaque 11 miles outside of town marking the spot where Cornwallis routed the North Carolina militia in 1781. It is also no stranger to athletic misfortune. Another Rocky Mount baseball team, the Railroaders, paid Jim Thorpe a few dollars in 1909 and 1910, an indiscretion that eventually cost him his amateur standing and two Olympic gold medals. Still, Rocky Mount wasn't prepared for anything as catastrophic as the Pines, and the townspeople quickly adopted an attitude of passive bemusement. One Texaco dealer, providing directions to the Pines' ball park, said wryly, "I know where they go. I don't know if they play much when they get there." Had he ever seen a game? "I been once. They didn't win." The young man pumping gas behind him chimed in, "I been 12 times. They didn't win yet."
After one gruesome stretch in May, culminating in a loss to Alexandria, Va., Fichman stood up in the team bus and announced that anyone not in the hotel bar in 25 minutes would be fined $25—which is 2½ days' pay. Some $400 of Fichman's own money later, the team closed the joint.
"Guys were starting to look crossways at each other," says Fichman. "It eliminated some frictions we didn't need. There's no way a night like that's going to make anybody a better player, but we'd already tried everything else—batting practice, no batting practice, infield at 8:30 in the morning. I used to touch third base every time I went out to the coaching box. I even stopped that."
On June 4 conditions were such that Hanales threatened to close down operations if expenses couldn't be cut. On other occasions, he wanted to get rid of the trainer and slash the roster to 16 players, moves Fichman avoided by taking a 25% cut in pay himself. The Pittsburgh and Boston organizations helped by providing five players who weren't getting the chance to play every day. "I was excited at first," says Kevin Grubbs, a pitcher from the Boston system whose record with the Pines is 1-9. "Then I looked up their record in The Sporting News—9-48. Thanks, guys."
The high point of the season came in the first game of the second half, when a 10th-inning walk forced in the winning run for the Pines, and for one brief shining moment they were tied for first place. Things quickly returned to normal, and before long they reeled off that 18-game losing streak, one shy of the league record. When Hanales temporarily refused to pay the players' salaries, the Pines held a meeting to consider quitting. Said Swain, "How can we quit? Where can we go? This is the bottom of the barrel." They voted to stay and play.
"I think the players have a little bit of pride in themselves, as bad as we are," says Fichman. "That's rare at the minor league level."
Oddly, their horrendous season seems to have drawn the Pines closer together rather than split them apart. The pitchers don't blame the anemic hitters; the hitters don't blame the erratic pitchers. Indeed, the Pines have found a way to explain 108 losses without anyone looking the worse. The culprit is depth. Ask any of them: Just why have you lost so many games? Depth. You see, it's not the fault of anyone who's there. What the heck, they're all playing good. It's the guys that aren't there. A safe, faceless fellow called Depth. What's more, it's at least partly true. Hanales limits the roster to 21 players—the league permits 25—and of those, two are now injured and two others packed up and left. The bullpen is down to two full-time relievers, one of whom, Mike Brown, set a league record the other night with his 70th appearance. Says Brown, "The best thing that happened to this club all year was when the team bus broke down outside a massage parlor on the way to Winston-Salem."
Every man on the team is playing as hard as he can with the thought—delusion, more likely—that some major league organization will pick him up at the end of the year. "If you lose 8-5," says Swain, "you come back saying, 'Hey, good game.' You lose 2-1, you come back and everybody's pumped. You take the next best thing, you know?"
"It's no fun losing 108 games," says lefthanded Pitcher Bob Bresnen (1-5, 3.90), "especially in Mayberry R.F.D. The only reason you do it is because you love baseball." He sighs and leans back in the lawn chair that was his bed his first week at Rocky Mount. Four of the Pines share an apartment with him, two sleeping in the living room, one in the kitchen. The air-conditioning has been out for three weeks and it's about 100° inside with the ripe pungence of Ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢teau Sweat Socks, 1980. Says Bresnen, "All I can say is, for my first year in pro ball, this has been an experience."