A Season in Savannah
Welcome to the South Atlantic League, province of Wacky Wednesdays, toilet-bowl mascots and a former Stanford star who manages to keep dreams alive.
Photo: Brian Smith
By Jon Weisman
The Spanish moss drooping from the pine trees in Daffin Park is still heavy from the drizzle that dampened Savannah earlier in the day, but the rain has given way to a powerful late-afternoon sun. The water stays in the air now, which has settled over the city like a moist, hot towel.
It’s a Friday in April, and at nearby Grayson Stadium another steamy season is about to begin, restoring a rhythm that began in this genteel Georgia city a hundred summers ago. Shoeless Joe Jackson played here for the old Pathfinders in 1909. The Bambino came, twice, for exhibitions. On Opening Day in 1953, an outfielder for visiting Jacksonville was one of four black players to break the color line in what was then known as the “Sally” League. His name was Henry Aaron.
The ballpark, built on Victory Drive in 1941, is the home of the Sand Gnats, these days the Class A affiliate of the Texas Rangers. Tonight, the Gnats—managed by 34-year-old former Stanford star Paul Carey—play their home opener.
If only the team were as hot as the weather.
Their bus dragged into town at 4 a.m. from a season-opening road trip that left them with six straight losses and a 1-7 record. They have been bad in every way a baseball team can be bad—pitching poorly, fielding sloppily, hitting hardly at all. But tonight maybe the hometown fans will pull the team out of its slump. Carey, ’90, who played briefly with the Baltimore Orioles before injuries cut short his career, has adopted a long view of the 142-game season. “If I took every loss or every mistake these kids made personally,” he says, “I’d be bald, I’d be fat, I’d have ulcers, I’d have a heart attack and I wouldn’t be married.”
He barely slept before spending the day hauling furniture to his new apartment, christening another summer 400 miles away from his wife, Angie, and their home in Sarasota, Fla. For the next six months, he will live in the South Atlantic League, heaven and hell in more or less equal parts.
There are certainly worse places to be than Savannah, whose historic Old South charm attracts millions of visitors every year. But in baseball terms, it’s strictly minor-league. The Sand Gnats are a “low A” franchise, a remote outpost on the fringes of professional baseball. (The Rangers and most other big-league teams have more advanced players at their “high A,” AA and AAA farm teams.) Carey’s current roster consists mostly of college-age players signed to contracts out of high school—the oldest is 24—who are long on dreams and short on experience. Tickets are cheap—$9.50 gets you the best seat in the house—and fans are treated to promotional events like the Sand Gnats’ Feed Your Face Mondays and Wacky Wednesdays, such as “Joe Mama Night” (bring your mom, get in free!).
Few of the players will earn either the glory or the handsome paychecks of their big-league brethren. Most of them will struggle through a couple of seasons and eventually leave baseball to become schoolteachers or real estate brokers or some such. A handful may make it as far as AA. Two or three may go all the way to the majors.
For as long as he has them, Carey works to keep their dreams alive. He loves the job, says it fits him “perfectly,” and his players and coaches seem to agree. “He teaches the game well—he’s taught me a lot already,” says first-year Savannah hitting coach Joe Ayrault.
“He breaks down every little part of the game, from beginning to end,” adds Jason Bourgeois, a 20-year-old shortstop from Houston. “He’s just a smart guy.”
Smart enough to know, for example, what kind of repellent will stave off the nasty insects from which the team draws its name. Swarms of them spin like tufts of black cotton candy as the sun drops and the players emerge in ones and twos from the cinderblock cool of the locker room to begin their warm-ups. “You know what you need,” Carey tells an onfield photographer who is swooshing the gnats away from his head, “Skin-So-Soft. Skin-So-Soft by Avon.”
When the first fans trickle in, stadium workers are still painting ads for a couple of local Toyota and Mitsubishi dealerships on the outfield fence. By the time a helicopter lands on the field at 7:01 p.m., delivering the ball for the first pitch, it becomes apparent that the “ubishi” will have to be rendered another day.
The game begins badly: Gnats starting pitcher Ben Keiter walks the first two Asheville batters he faces, and the Tourists score two runs. In the third inning, the Sand Gnats load the bases with one out, but infielder Ulises Cabrerra grounds into a double play. One inning later, they load the bases again. This time, Bourgeois kills the rally with an inning-ending groundout.
At least the mascot is having a good night. Between innings in the fifth, Gnic the Gnat lines up for a race around the bases against Less Waters, the promotional mascot of the Chatham County-Savannah Water Conservation Program. For a guy dressed up as a low-flow toilet, Less is a formidable opponent—he has won six races in a row. This time, Gnic wins a close one. The fans go wild.
Meanwhile, with the game starting to spiral away from them, the Sand Gnats retreat into relative quiet. At times the only sound in the dugout is the crackling of footsteps on the shells of sunflower seeds littering the concrete floor. But though the team’s seventh straight defeat looks more and more inevitable, there are no explosions. The players are following Carey’s stoic example. It’s a long season. There will be other nights.
In the dugout when his team is on the field, Carey stands most of the time, having quiet conversations with players and coaches. In the third-base coaching box when the Sand Gnats are at bat, he gives signals and claps encouragement. He seldom raises his voice.
“When you’re a player, you look to your leader,” Carey says. “How I behave, how I react, how I deal with the umpiring, how I deal with other players and opposing managers, is going to set the tone for how my coaches do it and how my players do it.”
In the ninth, pitcher Luis Cristobal bounces off the mound in pursuit of a skittish grounder to his right, fields the ball and throws it into a fence about 20 feet beyond first base, allowing another runner to score. A few minutes later, the game is over. Asheville 11, Savannah 3. The 1-8 Gnats are 0-for-a-week.
A two-time All-American at Stanford, Carey didn’t a miss a single game in four years after making the starting lineup as an outfielder his freshman season. He is the most prolific hitter in school history. He holds career records for hits (331), home runs (56) and RBI (220), and is second all-time in runs scored, doubles and walks. But it was one hit in particular that Cardinal fans remember. Facing elimination at the 1987 College World Series, Stanford trailed LSU 5-2 with one out in the bottom of the 10th inning. Carey drove a fastball from Tigers pitcher Ben McDonald over the left-field wall for a game-winning grand slam that propelled the Cardinal to the first of back-to-back national titles.
Carey’s ensuing major-league career totaled 18 games in the 1993 season, when he batted .213 for the Orioles. During spring training in 1994, he was playing first base against the Twins when he fielded a wild throw from third and tried to tag the runner coming down the line. The ball and runner arrived simultaneously and Carey’s wrist was snapped backward, breaking it. He was never the same again. Traded to the Red Sox organization and subsequently released in 1996, he caught on with Sioux Falls of the independent Northern League, hoping to work his way back to the majors. One day “I took a swing, and boom.” Two herniated discs ended his playing career.
Carey spent 1997 out of baseball, working as a day trader. But before the 1998 season, he sent his résumé to Rangers general manager Doug Melvin, who had been assistant general manager at Baltimore when Carey was an Oriole. A week later, the Rangers offered Carey the job managing Savannah, and Carey turned down a job at a brokerage firm to take it. He earned $25,000.
He labored in Savannah for three seasons, compiling a 202-219 record, and last year was promoted to AA Tulsa. The season went well, and his Drillers came within a game of making the Texas League playoffs. But during the off-season, the Rangers installed new management at the major-league level and Carey was sent back to Savannah. Carey’s typical enthusiasm drops a notch when he talks about the demotion. “It was frustrating,” he says. “It was disappointing. But I made it a challenge.”
“Obviously, he was not happy with the demotion, and if I were in Paul Carey’s shoes and had been an AA manager . . . I probably wouldn’t be happy either,” says Rangers farm director Trey Hillman, who emphasizes that he remains impressed with Carey’s skills.
Accepting such decisions is part of the baseball pact, according to Carey. “The best advice I ever got was to buy a house where you want to live in the off-season,” he says, “because during the season it doesn’t matter how secure you think your job is or who you know. It’s not secure and you will be fired; you’ll have to move.”
Carey’s job may be more secure in Savannah, where winning games is less important than polishing young talent. The Rangers evaluate Carey principally on whether he can get his players to improve over the course of the season.
“This is about development,” Carey says. “You want to win, and I do believe you have to win to develop winners. You can’t lose all the time [in the minors] and expect to win in the big leagues. But this is the first full season in pro ball [for most of these players]. They’re just trying to learn to come out to practice every day on time.”
Directives from above often make winning difficult. Carey sometimes is asked to bench a productive player for a less developed player with greater potential. Also, the Rangers have told Carey to use eight pitchers in his starting rotation, instead of the more common five, in order to spread around the innings and experience.
Carey has to file detailed nightly reports on the performance of each of his players and maintain scouting dossiers on every opposing player he sees—which adds up to 600 or so over the entire season. Hours after the final pitch, he is still at the deserted ballpark reviewing videotape of the game, looking for flaws in a player’s swing or a pitcher’s delivery.
Somewhere around midnight, he calls his wife. In Sarasota, Angie wakes up to answer the phone and talks for about 10 minutes. She’s used to the ritual by now. “Fortunately, I have no problem falling back asleep,” she says. Then she adds, laughing, “Sometimes he will call me at work, where I’m a little more alert.”
Married since 1995, the Careys have grown accustomed to being apart for long stretches. Angie makes the six-and-a-half-hour drive to Savannah once a month, stays for a week, and then returns home.
“When we were first married, it was just too difficult being separated for half a year, so I went with him one summer. It was a great experience, but I really needed to go back to work,” says Angie, an adoption counselor. “It took me three years to get used to it. This is the life of a baseball wife.”
Even if Angie lived in Savannah, the couple wouldn’t be together much. The Sand Gnats are on the road two weeks out of every month, traveling on buses to sal towns like Hickory, N.C., and Hagerstown, Md. The worst trip is a 700-mile haul to play the Lakewood Blue Claws in New Jersey.
Carey says he can see himself coaching in college someday. He’s talked to longtime Stanford baseball coach Mark Marquess, ’69, among others, about making the switch. But right now, Carey loves the full-time relationships he builds in the pros. “We travel on the road 70 times a year, we’re on the buses together for 10 or 12 hours, we’re eating in the same restaurants, we’re on the field together for eight, nine hours a day,” he says. “We grow close to these guys. We really do.”
Carey calls the players his “25 adoptive kids.” His devotion to them extends into the off-season. After his second year in Savannah, Carey spent three months learning Spanish at a Madrid language institute to improve communication with his Latin American contingent. (Five players on this year’s opening-day roster were from the Dominican Republic; three others were from Venezuela.) Since that excursion, he has regularly held practices during which he speaks Spanish and his players respond in English.
He has watched a few of his former Sand Gnats players move on to the majors, including Rangers third baseman Hank Blalock and Oakland A’s first baseman Carlos Pena. Carey, who usually wears No. 33, decided to switch uniform numbers this season to return a tribute from Blalock, who made an unusual request before a minor-league All-Star game last season.
“He asked me for one of my underjerseys to wear under his game uniform,” Carey says. “It was touching. Here’s a kid I’d been with for a year and a half. That meant a lot.”
As 1 a.m. approaches, Shion Mitsui, the Sand Gnats’ young strength and conditioning coach, enters Carey’s office with a leftover box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts from the concession stand. He’s really no more than an intern, but in the small world of Class A baseball, Mitsui has a title and responsibilities. What he does not have is an apartment.
“Where you gonna sleep tonight?” Carey asks him. “My couch?”
Mitsui nods toward a storage closet between Carey’s office and the player lockers.
“You have a sleeping bag?”
“You have a pillow?”
“It has a pillow part on it.”
Carey laughs at this, partly because the pillow really isn’t a pillow, but also to acknowledge the sacrifice Mitsui readily accepts just to be here, to be near the game, to be part of it. “Go buy an old mattress at Goodwill, clean it up, vacuum it,” Carey says. “Your summer will be a lot nicer if you sleep on a mattress instead of a hard floor.”
Carey is aware of his own sacrifices. He has never made much money in baseball—he still drives the Toyota pickup he purchased in 1991 with his original signing bonus. He could probably get a better-paying job, work close to home, leave behind the late hours and the buses and the beer smells. He acknowledges that his investment in baseball is no sure thing. “I’m not going to play in the big leagues. I’m not going to make millions of dollars. There’s a chance I could be a big-league coach or a big-league manager someday, but that’s 20 to 30 years down the road,” he says.
There are plenty of reasons to leave and really only one reason to stay: “I love the game,” Carey says. “More every day.”
It’s 2 a.m. when he leaves Grayson Stadium. The Savannah air is still thick with humidity. Sure feels like summer.
Jon Weisman, ’89, is a writer living in Los Angeles.
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