The Sun Sets in the Pecos

Life on the outskirts of professional baseball.

Days slip by quickly when you’re playing professional baseball in New Mexico. The dried-up lakes and people around town tell us we’re in a drought, but we just shake our heads. It seems to rain every day. And, day by day, we listen to the thunder as we dream. Our dream is simple: to be anywhere but here— in another state, another league, another level—because from the Pecos League, you can only go up. The older we get, the fewer scouts show up, which makes every day feel like a slightly tighter noose around the necks of our careers. In our fight against time, time is beating us. Time is winning every game and kicking us around the bases.

But, once a day, time stops. Around 8:30, the New Mexico sun sets. The clouds pull back, like curtains at a Broadway show, and the sun bows slowly and beautifully behind the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. On some nights, I’m lucky enough to be warming up in the bull pen at precisely the right time to witness the seemingly burning sky. I take off my hat, wipe the sweat from my forehead, and thank the New Mexico sun. We curse this town—we curse our luck—but, for tonight, we are merely witnesses to her beauty. I put my hat back on and brush the dirt off the rubber. The catcher’s mitt always seems to pop a little bit louder on nights like this.

The Pecos League of Professional Baseball started in 2011, and is unofficially the lowest rung on the professional baseball ladder. Independent baseball has an understood hierarchy. Most players hope to work their way up to a higher level of independent ball and eventually become part of a major league organization—or what we call affiliated ball. From there, players start at the bottom of a whole new hierarchy, with as many as five levels through which to advance before reaching the Major Leagues. Needless to say, there’s a lot to look up to from the basement of professional baseball.

We’ve all heard stories of players making it to Major League organizations. They end up sounding like tales of escaped prisoners—rare, legendary, with everyone wanting to know how they did it. The select players who have made it from independent-league scrubs to Major League stars are treated as gods—players like Daniel Nava, of the Red Sox, or his current teammate Craig Breslow. We know their stories by heart—the miserable cities they played in, the number of times they were cut. We have lived their journeys as if they were our own, desperate for that same glorious fate.

I joined the Las Vegas Train Robbers for the 2013 season roughly four hours after being released by the Traverse City Beach Bums of the Frontier League, one of the more competitive independent leagues. The process happened very quickly. Minutes after cleaning out my locker, I contacted a friend who works for a team in the Pecos. He gave my number to the Train Robbers’ coach. A few moments later, he called me and told me to get there as soon as possible. I headed out the next morning, driving three days straight from northern Michigan to Roswell, and pitched that night against the Invaders. I threw two scoreless innings, six outs I will never forget. Overcome with pride, I gave up any attempt at humility, texting my girlfriend after the game, “Your boyfriend is a professional pitcher.” That sounded too good to resist.

We wound up losing our first five games before finally heading to Las Vegas, our summer home. At this point, I still didn’t know what to make of the Pecos League. I was delirious from my trek across America, and my arm was tired. My first night in Las Vegas was spent on a ranch a few miles out of town. Without cell service or city lights, the world began to quiet down for me. A flurry of questions then crossed my mind. Where am I? Who are my teammates? What town are we heading to next? Am I really up for all this? Before my questions could really be answered, we packed up and headed back into the high desert.

We drove north on I-25 from Las Vegas to Ratón, just south of the Colorado border, where we stayed at the Village Inn, famous across the Pecos League because it’s not an operating motel. That’s right—it’s closed. Teams get a very special rate, due to the constant availability. We pulled into a dirt parking lot and picked up our keys from the Ratón manager, whose team would be staying at the Village Inn all summer. Needless to say, towels and other amenities were not provided. It’s two Train Robbers per bed at each motel across the Pecos, and the Village Inn was certainly no exception.

We got into the win column with a victory our first night in Ratón. Showered, but still feeling dirty in our dusty rooms, a group of us headed over to McDonald’s—cheap fuel for the finely tuned body of a professional athlete. As we walked in, I paused at the scene unfolding before me. There are Edison Alvarez and Atsushi Hebisawa, sitting at the high tables, chatting up a storm. Even though neither can understand a word the other says, they have quickly become good friends. Tall and solidly built, Edison is flailing his arms in the air as he tells, from what my limited Spanish can interpret, the tale of the night’s game. The wiry Atsushi takes up far less space as he holds tightly to his phone, staring intently at the girl on his screen. Edison is a former 16-year-old signee to the Minnesota Twins from the Dominican Republic. He found himself out of baseball by the time he was 20, and now, four years later, the itch has returned. Atsushi is a Japanese independent-league veteran. He is 33 years old but has the smile of someone playing in the Little League World Series. I realized how strange this scene must look to the local onlookers, but I would come to realize that this was quintessentially “Pecos.”

McDonald’s offered more than cheap, filling food. The real attraction was Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi meant that Edison and Atsushi could FaceTime home. In the coming months, as we traveled from town to town, McDonald’s would become their oasis and Wi-Fi their teleports, bringing them back home to their families and girlfriends. They had left so much behind. We all had. I began to wonder what my other teammates had given up to be there.

Over the course of the season, the Train Robbers consisted of players from nine states and five countries. Atsushi traveled the farthest, but Ben Runyon packed up his Honda and drove all the way from Edmonton. Eddie Medina and Chuck Fontana flew in from Staten Island. Reggie Hochstedler made the trek from Iowa City, and A. J. Alexander was Hawaiian, through and through. Personalities flowed in and out of our dugout as players were released and promptly replaced. Despite our low pay, poor accommodations, and remote location, there never seemed to bea shortage of players willing to come to the Pecos. Nearly our entire bull pen was replaced after our 0–5 start, and new teammates showed up at our hotel-room doors looking for a place to

sleep. I arrived at the Village Inn one day to find Jimmy Jensen, a teammate from when I was 10 years old, waiting for us as we pulled into the parking lot. Everyone seemed somehow connected like that. Chris Wilson and John Hotta both grew up in San Diego and faced each other in games between the University of San Diego and San Diego State. Chuck and Ben played summer ball in the Coastal Plain League in college, and I had played summer ball with Ted LeMasters in California a few years back.

But the baseball world is more than just a small one; it’s a colorful one, too. We had Greg Fowler, who went to college in Las Vegas at New Mexico Highlands University, which made him a bit of a legend around town. He was also the unofficial team barber and chef. Immediately after giving yours truly a postgame haircut, he grilled up a whole chicken in the Village Inn parking lot using a barbecue he found in a back shed. No one wore a baseball uniform better than Michael Peña, whose stirrups and Nike cleats were always immaculate, thanks to a daily washing with Scrubbing Bubbles Bathroom Cleaner. Although he didn’t have much of a beard, he sported the perfect goatee—a staple in the baseball community long after it had died out elsewhere.

And then there were the plain and simple freak athletes. Dillon Usiak showed up in the middle of the season and left us wondering why he came to New Mexico in the first place, he hit that well. Randy Wells was in his third year in the league and had adopted the nickname Babe Ruth of the Pecos partly because of his round stature, but mostly because of his ability to hit and hit and hit. Throughout the summer, we all had our moments of greatness—a glimpse into our potential and a vision of ourselves that made us keep playing.

We didn’t all get along. Personalities clashed and tempers flared in the hot New Mexico sun. Away from the field, we kept to smaller packs. I spent most of my time with Dillon, Reggie, and Jimmy. We were the last players to find a permanent place to stay, and we grew close in our struggle to find a home. One night, as we drove back from Ratón, we seriously pondered buying a tent and camping out on the field before ultimately scraping together enough money to get a hotel room. Eventually, we all found host families, taking part in a long-standing tradition in minor league baseball where families around town adopt players for the season. Two brothers took Jimmy in, and Dillon, Reggie, and I settled into the home of a single mother and her two high school–aged daughters. Reggie and Dillon slept on inflatable mattresses, and I pushed a few sofas together.

Three grown men would stretch any family’s food budget, but our host mom, Patricia Campbell, put mountains of food on the table for us after every game. Green chile, a staple of New Mexican cuisine, found its way into almost every meal. Our host sisters, Amber and Cheyanne, came to every game, and at night, after dinner, we became spectators to their cheerleading performances in the driveway. Whether we won or lost, they gave us hugs as we left the field. At some games, they were our only fans.

In that home, I began to see the beauty of Las Vegas. An old railroad town, it was once more lawless than Sin City, Nevada. Residents included Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate, and Billy the Kid—as Wild West as it gets. The locals aren’t hesitant to point to the gazebo in the town square, stating casually, “That’s where they used to do the hangings.” My host family became our tour guides, giving us the quintessential New Mexican experience. We drove into the mountains, out to the hot baths on cold nights, and to the outskirts of town for drive-in movies on Fridays.

If Las Vegas was the Wild West, I was the notorious gun-slinging cowboy, known less for my aim than for my willingness to pull the trigger. That is to say, I threw hard, and often without much direction. Word travels fast around the Pecos League, and my reputation grew from our first series at Roswell, where, during my second appearance, I hit an Invader in the jaw with a fastball, sending him, by helicopter, to an Albuquerque hospital with a few teeth missing. Having known me for only a few days, my teammates must have thought I was crazy. My reputation didn’t match up with reality, however. After that game, I drove to an empty parking lot and sobbed. It occurred to me that the player I hit might never play again. I felt how fragile we all were here, just one injury—one wild pitch—away from a nine-to-five. I became aware of my own baseball mortality. I had struggled throughout college, working my way back from elbow surgery. I sat out my senior year, got my diploma

from the University of Michigan, and set out to pursue baseball one final time. I was just beginning, yet I was on my last legs.

In a season with lots of ups and downs, I found stability with my host family. My roommates and I got into a daily routine during home stands. On a typical day, we’d wake up and enjoy an affordable and healthy breakfast of instant oatmeal mixed with protein powder before heading to the gym. After working out, it was off to Mary Ann’s for breakfast burritos, another New Mexican tradition. We caught a quick nap back home before lunch, then headed to the field. We’d arrive at 3:30 for a 7:00 start, taking batting practice and preparing the field. Following the game, we went home for dinner, showered, and prepared to do it all over again the next day. If our schedule sounds monotonous, it was anything but; it became the engine that kept us going. Like the rhythm of finely tuned pitching mechanics, we learned to harness our energy and focus it on one beautiful motion.

By the end of June, the Train Robbers had settled into Las Vegas, and the roster was close to being finalized. On June 24, we left for our longest road trip of the year, starting in Alpine, Texas, seven hours from our summer home. The trip was a success. After a rough start in Alpine, we swept the Pupfish and prepared to return to Las Vegas. We finished the trip with a record of 27–19, tied for first place in the Northern Division with the Trinidad Triggers. Spirits should have been high, but the Monday we got home, something happened that had the whole team talking. No one got paid.

At first we thought it was a clerical error, since there had been issues throughout the season with players not getting their weekly 50 bucks. At the beginning of the season, each player had to open a Wells Fargo account in order to receive direct deposits, and, over the course of the season, there had been a few hiccups with our accounts. Playing in the Pecos was a lesson in patience, so we calmly waited for the problem to resolve itself, sure that the money would appear. However, by our next game on Wednesday, there were some rumblings that the issue might be a little more serious.

I had just finished up school, but most of my teammates had left jobs behind at home—jobs that routinely paid them. I wondered how much I could burden my family back home. I could rationalize my dream in my head without hesitation, but with no money coming in, how could I explain it to others? None of us said it out loud, but we all began to put our dream under a microscope. It was a reality check, and everyone was asking how long they could continue.

By game time, word had gotten out that the team was broke. There hadn’t been a clerical error, and we wouldn’t be seeing that week’s payment. We wouldn’t be paid for the remainder of the season. In the bull pen, we sat and pondered our fate as the game began.

I wondered how long I had left with my teammates. There was word of some players refusing to play until they got paid. Others had already checked out flights from Albuquerque in the coming days. Time, as if it wasn’t going fast enough, seemed to be running away with my summer. That night’s game suddenly took on added importance. In a tie for first place, the game was significant without any added drama. But I convinced myself that a win meant more than just remaining in first—a win could settle everything down and convince people to stay.

We jumped out to an early lead, scoring two runs in the bottom of the first against the Roswell Invaders, the same team that had beat us five straight to start the season. But, after nine innings, the game—like the fate of our season—was yet to be decided. Knotted at 4–4, we headed for extra innings. Roswell scored in the top of the tenth, leaving us with three outs to tie or win.

Roswell got two quick outs, and the Las Vegas crowd grew silent. The sun had long since set, and the cold night air had settled in. But then Will Walsh gave us all life with a single, and Ryan Lauer followed suit. Ricky Brown got behind in the count 0–2, one strike away, and then was hit by a pitch. With the bases loaded and still two outs, Peña came in to pinch hit. On the fourth pitch of the at-bat, he, too, was hit by a pitch, bringing Will in to score and tie the game. Roswell was falling apart, and we were taking everything they gave us.

Hotta came to the plate with the bases still loaded as the first pitch missed wide, ball one. Pitch two: another ball, not even close. The Roswell pitcher missed again on the third pitch. When the fourth offering left the pitcher’s hand and began to sail, the whole bull pen took a step toward the field. Ball four. The announcer shouted out, “The Train Robbers win!” as we

sprinted onto the field in celebration. It was a walk-off walk, baseball’s most anticlimactic finish—but that day, it was nothing short of unforgettable.

After the game, we knelt down in the outfield grass while coach laid it all out for us. He confirmed the rumors: We were out of money. No pay, and no more transportation to and from road games. We had run through our season’s budget, and over a month remained. The owner of the team, who also owns the league, was close to shutting us down altogether.

Let’s be clear. Despite what you may have seen in the movies, professional baseball coaches aren’t paid motivators. They are game managers, tacticians, and organizers. But that night, our coach, Casey Dill, made an emotional plea. Choking up, he asked us to stay. His appeals didn’t fall on the deaf ears of tuned-out professional athletes. They were heard by romantics—grown men who saw beauty in a dream they couldn’t escape. The money wasn’t much for us. It meant groceries during the week or gas for an off-day road trip. But it represented a feeling of worth. We were paid to play baseball. When that was taken away from us, a little bit of our ego had to leave, too. I’d thought ego was what drove us all to New Mexico, that we’d kept going because we thought we had more left to give than the coaches and scouts had seen in us. I thought we were seeking vengeance against the demons of our baseball past. I was wrong.

Ego torn away, almost every Train Robber remained in Las Vegas. We stayed for the same reason we came to the Pecos in the first place. Our dreams were more powerful than the voice of reason yelling in our other ear. At every fork where we could have “retired” to some other life, we chose baseball. Instead of wallowing in the bleakness of our situation, we saw it as a reason to continue. We didn’t have clubhouse buffets or filled stands, but this was professional baseball. We were the lowest of the low, the bottom-feeders of baseball, but New Mexico provided the most beautiful backdrop. Not getting paid was just another chance to prove our loyalty to the game. Our careers may have been on life support, but they still had a pulse. That’s what we chose to believe.

The town rallied together to get us through the summer. Local restaurants gave us discounts, and our host families puton barbecues to keep us fed between games. Out of necessity, we grew closer. Four weeks later, we won the Northern Division championship, then packed our bags for one last road trip. We were going back to Roswell, the city where it had all started.

The long summer had fogged my memory of Roswell. Driving past the streets painted with alien paraphernalia, I remembered the pride in the text message I’d sent my girlfriend after my first game, the pain in the empty parking lot where I’d wept. So much of my summer had been summed up in the first two days. How fitting it was that our season would end in the city most known for its welcoming of foreigners—from all walks of life.

We lost the first two games of the best-of-three series, and our long, tumultuous season came to a sudden and disappointing end. We packed up our cars and headed back to Las Vegas, booking our flights and planning our road trips home. For some, this was the end of a career. It’s a strange thing to watch someone walk off the baseball field for the last time, like someone walking away from the finish line of a marathon: too fatigued to appreciate the vastness of their accomplishment. I’ve seen it a couple of times now. A smile usually creeps across their face, as uncertainty about the future gives way to fond amusement about the past. At 25, they have their whole lives ahead of them, yet something so essential to their being is gone forever.

With or without me, the Pecos League will go on, or another league will come in to replace it. Year after year, a crop of grown men will flock to the American Southwest to fight off time as it tries to pry the spikes off their feet. They’ll return home with plenty of stories to tell in the off-season, anxious to flee the Pecos and get one step closer to the Major Leagues. But maybe, back in their hometowns, like me, they’ll pause as they watch the sunset, remembering the beauty of the New Mexico sky and the joy of pursuing a dream they can’t escape.

Michael Kershner is now playing for the San Rafael Pacifics in California. To find out more about the Pecos League, go to pecosleague.com. The 2014 season concludes on July 24. An abridged version of this article originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of Michigan Alumnus magazine, a publication of the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan.