"This is as deep as it gets."
The words emanate from a tiny office in the maintenance area of Athletic Park in Medicine Hat, Alberta, home of the Medicine Hat Blue Jays. The only person in there—only one person could fit—is manager Garth Iorg, although one can't be entirely sure of the speaker's identity, because his office is illuminated by two 25-watt bulbs that wouldn't attract a moth. There is a pitch to the ceiling that may cause its occupant back problems before the season is over. They don't call it the Pioneer League for nothing.
This is as deep as it gets: a rookie manager in a rookie league. Iorg (pronounced orj) is not complaining, mind you. He is not a grouser by nature, and besides, he knew what he was getting into last December when he decided to get back into baseball with the organization with which he had spent his entire nine-year major league career. When Iorg retired as an in-fielder for the Toronto Blue Jays after the 1987 season, a few days short of his 33rd birthday, he was making close to $400,000 a year with a $54 per diem. This year he will get $30,000 from the Blue Jays and $25 a day in meal money. Fortunately for Iorg—and for his wife, Patty, and their four children—he and a partner have a steel business in Arcata, Calif. That will help him to chase a second dream of getting to the majors.
Iorg has been here before—not in Medicine Hat itself, but in a rookie outfit. It was the Appalachian League, the team was the Johnson City (Tenn.) Yankees, and the year was 1973. The Yankees had drafted him in the eighth round out of Arcata High School. "I arrived a few days later than the rest of the team," Iorg recalls. "There was this big box in the middle of the clubhouse floor, with all the uniforms in it, and there wasn't much left by the time I got there. I ended up wearing pants that must have belonged to Lou Gehrig. The waist was a 38—I was size 30—and they came all the way down to my ankles. When I took the field, I looked like I was wearing street clothes."
The more things change.... Al Scott, Medicine Hat's trainer-traveling secretary-equipment manager-clubhouse guy-launderer-social secretary, informs Iorg that the team's uniform pants have not yet arrived, but says there's no reason to panic, because the season doesn't start until tomorrow. Consequently, for the last workout before they travel to Great Falls, Mont., for the June 20 season opener, many of the players practice in shorts. The third baseman, Howard Battle, has a large safety pin to keep his fly trapped. There's also a shortage of stirrups and blue shoes. The batting cage needs to be welded. The pitching rubbers in the bullpen are so close that two pitchers can't warm up at the same time. The infield has lots of little pebbles. Scott hasn't figured out a way to hook up the whirlpool. There is no ice machine, a major therapeutic aid for a trainer. Other than that, everything is fine for the Blue Jays on the eve of the season.
Actually, the season began two days before, when most of the team traveled from the Blue Jays' minor league complex in Dunedin, Fla., to Medicine Hat, a trip that took more than 12 hours. The junior Jays were held up for three hours at immigration in Calgary. Once they cleared customs, around midnight, they met another member of the team: the bus. This one was a 1971 Scenicruiser with the logo of the Seattle Thunderbirds junior hockey team on the sides. The owner of the Med Hat Blue Jays, Canadian media mogul Bill Yuill, also owns the Thunderbirds. The bus comes equipped with 18 bunk beds, a TV and VCR, and an ever-changing kaleidoscope of bug kills on the windshield. Despite the entertainment, and probably because of the wee hours, two of the players nearly came to blows during the team's first bus ride, from Calgary to Medicine Hat.
When the players and coaches got out of their beds at the Medicine Hat Inn the next day, they were introduced, or reintroduced in a few cases, to this town of 42,000 people. Medicine Hat: what a romantic-sounding name. One legend has it that in a battle between the Blackfeet and the Cree Indians, the medicine man of the Crees lost his hat along the South Saskatchewan River, and at that place a settlement was established. Years ago there was a movement afoot to rename the town something more prosaic, but no less a personage than Rudyard Kipling lobbied for the retention of Medicine Hat. Because of its natural gas deposits, Medicine Hat also calls itself Gas City. That choice for a sobriquet is made even more unfortunate by Medicine Hat's proximity to Bow Island, a town known as Canada's Bean Capital.
Medicine Hat was affiliated with the Oakland Athletics in its first season, 1977, but in the 13 seasons since, it has been a Toronto farm club. In recent years the team has fallen on hard times, in part because the Blue Jays stock it with kids drafted out of high school, while the other teams in the league have mostly college-age players. Last year's team won only 23 of 69 games, which was still an improvement on the '88 Blue Jays, who won just 12. Medicine Hat was also last in the league in attendance, drawing 12,193, an average of 348 a game.
The players themselves come from all over the hemisphere: Alcoula, S.C., and Kelowna, B.C.; Chino, Calif., and Mount Joy, Pa.; Lucama, N.C., and Luther, Okla.; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and San Antonio; Omaha and Aruba. And it's an interesting cast of characters. The Aruban, southpaw Richie Orman, is known as the Genius. Not only does he have a degree in mechanical engineering from a school in Aruba, but he also speaks four languages fluently: Spanish, English, Dutch and the Aruban dialect of Papiamento. "I still hope to be an engineer," he says, "but I thought I would give baseball a try."
There are two relatives of major leaguers on the team: shortstop Mike Coolbaugh, whose brother, Scott, plays third base for the Texas Rangers, and pitcher Jose Perez, a cousin of Pascual and Melido Perez. "Every team should have a member of the Perez family," says Iorg. "In fact, I think every team does."
Centerfielder Brent Bowers, probably the best player on the team, is from Bridgeview, Ill., and he used to sell hot dogs and sodas at both Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field. Battle, a fourth-round pick from Ocean Springs, Miss., turned down a football scholarship at Tulane to try his hand at baseball. When Battle first arrived in Dunedin, his fielding hand was protected by, in Iorg's words, "a K Mart blue-light special," so pitching coach Marty Pattin gave him one of his own gloves.
Most of the players are not yet 21, but they have had time to develop personality. Southpaw Paul Spoljaric, 19, whose father emigrated to British Columbia from Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, carries around an attachè case and calls Iorg "GI." Iorg tells him, "Spoljaric, you have done nothing to change my mind about lefthanders." Gerry Crump, a first baseman back for his second tour of duty with Medicine Hat, is sort of the team clown, with his repertoire of funny faces and his California lingo ("I'm in the third realm, Coach"). Catcher Anastacio Garcia has such a distinctive grin that his teammates call him Freddy, after the Nightmare on Elm Street character, Freddy Krueger.
One of Iorg's favorite players is Keith Hines, a 6'6" hustling outfielder whose nickname is Fatha. Says Iorg, "I had to tell Fatha he wasn't going to be starting the first game, and he said, 'But, Skip, I have to get to Double A.' I told him that he might get there next year if he worked hard. And he said, 'I don't mean next year, Skip. I mean next week.' "
Some of the players carry themselves confidently, but even the better ones have unguarded moments that reveal their tender ages. "I have so much to learn," says Kris Harmes, who comes from Mount Joy, Pa. "I was pretty good in high school, but here I feel so raw."
Helping Iorg shepherd these kids are hitting coach Omar Malave, a Venezuelan who was still active as a player last year in Syracuse, N.Y., and Knoxville, Tenn., and Pattin. A former baseball coach at the University of Kansas, Pattin won 114 games for the Angels, Pilots/Brewers, Red Sox and Royals from 1968 to '80. But his biggest claim to fame is his patented duck talk. You haven't lived until you've heard Pattin do The Star-Spangled Banner, or O Canada, for that matter, in duck. He can even speak Spanish in duck.
"We've got a great group of kids," says Iorg. "They have a world of talent, too. All three of the catchers have better arms than the guys I played with in Toronto. I see three or four surefire major leaguers here, but I don't want to jinx anybody or leave anybody out. You just never know. My first year, the best player on the team was our first baseman, Jack Shupe. He won the Triple Crown that year in the same league that had Eddie Murray. But he never made it. Me, I hit .237, and I made it. Go figure."
The Blue Jays made Iorg their fourth pick in the 1976 expansion draft, and from 1980 to '87 he was an invaluable player for them off the bench. He also had been pegged as a future manager several years ago. Then last December, an old teammate in the minors, Baltimore's assistant general manager, Doug Melvin, asked him to come to the winter meetings in Nashville to talk about a managing job in Class A. While there, Iorg ran into some Blue Jay people who, he says, made him an offer he couldn't refuse. But he still remains grateful to Melvin.
"He's the one who got me back into this," says Iorg. "It's funny, but I made better friends in the minors than I did in the majors. Some of these guys in Medicine Hat will be friends for life with guys they'd never met before now."
Watching Iorg work with the Medicine Hat kids, one can quickly see what Melvin and the Blue Jays saw in him. On the field, he can correct a batter's swing or an infielder's positioning in an instant. Off the field, he will find common ground in music with players 15 years younger. ("You guys like ZZ Top?" he asks while watching MTV with them.) And he has already gone to bat for his players. When a front-office type in Toronto heard about the skirmish on the first bus ride, he was ready to release the two players. Iorg talked him out of it.
"The guys look nice, don't they?" Iorg is looking around the dining room of the Medicine Hat Inn as his players quietly eat breakfast. They are unusually subdued because many of them are about to embark on the first road trip of their professional careers to play their first professional game.
It's only a 4½-hour ride to Great Falls, which is the shortest trip possible for Medicine Hat. (Salt Lake City to Medicine Hat, later on in the season, will take 15 hours.) After a brief stop at the ballpark to pick up equipment—the pants arrived!—the bus is on its way, wheezing up Medicine Hat's hills. The view out the windows is greatly plain, except for the occasional jackrabbit sightings, dinosaur statues (this is big fossil country) and insect slaughter. Pattin painstakingly puts together his pitching charts, and at one point he asks if anybody has a pair of scissors so he can cut out some little tabs. Sure enough, Orman, the mechanical engineer, produces a very nice pair indeed.
At the U.S. border—Sweetgrass, Mont.—the bus pulls over, and Scott, who is also the visa specialist, goes into the immigration office. A few minutes later, Scott gets back on board with a look of profound relief, and the bus continues. The club's general manager, Kevin Friesen, has brought along two movies for the VCR. He had hoped to save them for the two upcoming night trips, but the public clamor for a matinee is too much. So as the bus rides across the prairie, the players watch Harlem Nights.
Friesen, who also does radio reports for CHAT-AM and is the sports director of CHAT-TV, is upbeat. "I'm actually excited about this bunch," he says. "They seem to have some real leaders." He is also excited about the prospect of calling a game in which John Gilligan, a 36th-round pick from Billings, Mont., pitches. "Just think. When Garth goes out to the mound to confer with him, I can say, 'The skipper is out to talk to Gilligan. I can even refer to the mound as Gilligan's Island."
Harlem nights dissolve into a Great Falls afternoon as the movie ends on the outskirts of town, and the players arrive at the Mid-Town Motel just in time for a quick lunch—they get $11 in meal money a day—and/or a quick nap. An hour later, Scott is herding the players onto the bus to the ballpark.
The sky above Legion Park in Great Falls appears to be fast-forwarding through the seasons: summer, fall, winter, spring. Iorg notices that first baseman Tim Hyers, who is fighting bronchitis, is practicing without undersleeves, so he tells Scott to find him some. "It won't do to have a second-round pick die of pneumonia," Iorg says. By the time Iorg takes the lineup card out for his first game as a manager, the sky is heavily overcast.
The Jays fail to score in the first against Mark Mimbs of the defending Pioneer League champion Great Falls Dodgers. But Spoljaric of the defending cellar-dwelling Blue Jays retires the Dodgers 1-2-3 in the bottom of the first. In the second, Battle, Coolbaugh and Harmes all draw walks to lead off the inning. However, the next two Jays strike out. With two outs and Crump at the plate, Mimbs balks in a run, which is fortunate for Med Hat, because Crump then freezes on a 3-2 fastball for a called third strike.
Now rain is coming down heavily. Spoljaric strikes out the first batter he faces in the second, but Ira (Dude) Smith gets his bat on an outside fastball for an opposite-field homer just inside the rightfield foul pole. At this point Spoljaric asks for better footing on the mound, and the groundskeeper comes out with a wheelbarrow full of dirt. Entertaining the fans during the delay is a mascot called Scruffy. Only through an exhaustive poll is an observer able to determine that Scruffy is supposed to be a squirrel. Spoljaric gets out of the inning without further damage, although he does have to get four outs, because one Dodger reaches first on a strikeout and passed ball.
The Blue Jays come right back in the third to take a 2-1 lead on a walk to second baseman Mark Choate, two wild pitches by Mimbs and a single up the middle by Bowers. The rain is really falling, and with two outs and a man on in the bottom of the third, the umpires put a temporary halt to the proceedings. The halt becomes permanent 40 minutes later, but thanks to new league rules, the game will resume the next evening at six. A seven-inning game will follow.
Iorg and the Jays can at least claim a moral victory. "You were outstanding," he tells Spoljaric. "Ten changeups, eight for strikes." He also quietly explains to Crump that he should have been looking fastball. "You have to go down swinging," he says. "If he does get you on the curveball, then just tip your cap to him."
The next day is bright and sunny, and the Blue Jays take to the field eagerly. From six until nine, in the resumption of the opener, they and the Dodgers play a splendid and exciting ball game. On the mound for Med Hat is Rafael Garcia, while pitching for Great Falls is Mike Mimbs, the identical-twin brother of the previous night's starter. In the stands are some leather-lunged Great Falls rooters. This may be a rookie league, but these guys are major league nasty.
The Dodgers tie the score in the bottom of the fourth, but the Jays retake the lead 3-2 in the sixth on a single by Harmes. Great Falls ties it up again in the seventh. Whenever the Dodgers seem to threaten, Battle makes another clutch play at third. In the meantime, the fans behind the Blue Jays' dugout razz leadoff hitter Lonell Roberts, calling him Arsenio. They are merciless, not to mention racist, and eventually Roberts shouts back angrily. Catcher Marc Loeb tells him to ignore them.
In the eighth, Orman relieves for Medicine Hat, and the little lefty is masterful as the game goes into extra innings. In the top of the 11th, Coolbaugh hits a two-out double. The next batter, Harmes, hits a shot to right center that looks like a certain extra-base hit. But Dodger center-fielder Keoki Farrish makes an incredible over-the-shoulder catch to kill the inning. In the bottom of the 12th, the Dodgers load the bases with one out, although they have yet to hit the ball hard off Orman. He throws a wild pitch in the dirt that Harmes fails to handle, and the game ends in a 4-3 loss for the Jays.
The longest day of the year becomes the longest day in baseball for Medicine Hat. In the second game, the Dodgers score eight runs in the bottom of the first, seven off Perez, and go on to win 11-4 as Pedro Martinez, brother of L.A. Dodger pitcher Ramon Martinez, gets the win.
The Blue Jays get on the bus with long faces. This is as deep as it gets. Before the bus pulls away, though, Iorg stands up in front. "Listen up, guys," he says. "You played O.K. That was a great first game, and knock out the first inning of the second game, you played 'em even again. Hitters, think about what you might have done differently to get us more offense; and pitchers, think about what you could have done differently to keep them from scoring. But I'm proud of you, and I want you to know that there's not one guy on this team I'd trade for anybody on that team. We're a better club than they are, I really believe that, and the next time we're gonna beat them."
And now a bus filled with prospects, their hearts filled with all sorts of possibilities, heads back to the motel. This is as high as it gets.