Odd Man Out (cont.)
"I'm sorry I had to put you through that," the man had said as he collected our exams.
Biron continued on the phone, "I'm sure you're a smart kid, but please don't do anything stupid once you get out there. Don't make me look bad. You're representing a professional organization now."
"Now, let's talk money," he said with a sigh.
"OK," I said, "but let me get my father on the line. I know he'll want to hear this."
"There's really not much to say," Biron said as I began looking for my father. I waved him into the kitchen and handed him a separate phone.
"Hi, this is Matt's dad," he said.
"Hi, this is Biron from Anaheim. I think your son's got a bright future. I think he can play in the big leagues someday."
"So here's what's going to happen," Biron continued in a monotone. "Your son is going to get $1,000 to sign. We'll mail the contract today. He'll also be offered the standard minor league contract of $850 a month. It's what everyone gets."
"Is there any way he can get, uh, more money than that?" my dad asked sheepishly.
The conversation drew to a close. My father and I thanked Biron, and I assured him I would not disappoint him or the Angels. I hung up the phone. Biron thinks I can play in the big leagues, I said to myself.
* * *
You must be Ronnie," said a short, stocky man who looked as if he'd just come from a shopping spree at an Angels gift shop. He was wearing an Angels T-shirt tucked into Angels mesh shorts, and Angels socks. On his right arm was a rubber Angels bracelet.
"Actually, I'm Matt McCarthy."
"Oh, right. McCarthy," he said, reaching for his pocket and a piece of paper. It had three names on it, including mine. I had just landed at the airport in Mesa, Ariz., and from there I would be transported to the Angels' minor league facility. "I'm Grant -- one of the strength and conditioning coaches for the Angels," he said. "We've got two more guys to pick up. Shouldn't be too long."
Grant made a short call on his cell phone and then resumed speaking to me. "Well, isn't that cute," he said. "You got yourself an Angels hat."
He was about to continue when something caught his eye. "I think that's Ronnie," he said, pointing in the direction of a young man in blue jeans and a white T-shirt with a red gym bag over his shoulder. He was tall, had short jet-black hair and bore a striking resemblance to a baby-faced Elvis.
"Ronnie Ray," he said as he approached us, extending his hand first to Grant and then to me.
"Ronnie Ray," Grant repeated. "Now that is a baseball name."
"Yes, sir," he replied confidently.
A moment later the third player arrived. Felix Nuñez, from El Tigre, Venezuela, was a second-year player in the organization, and he'd been demoted after suffering a batting slump with High A Rancho Cucamonga. He was 6'1", with a large, toothy smile and a flattop, and he spoke no English.
"Noon-yeah!" Grant exclaimed.
"Grant!" Nuñez replied. They shook hands, and with that we were off to find the white Angels van in the parking lot. Nuñez sat up front while Ronnie and I sat in the back. Ronnie was the Angels' 14th-round selection, an 18-year-old from Missouri whom I'd read about. He'd had an uneven senior year in high school, but he could light up a radar gun, topping out at 94 mph just before draft day.
We'd been driving along the dusty highway in silence for 10 minutes when Ronnie caught me staring at some bruises on his right arm. "Cigarette burns," he said proudly, holding his arm closer to my face.
"Yikes," I said, pushing down on the pink mottled skin.
"Me and some buddies got a little crazy at my draft party."
"Looks like it. That must hurt like hell."
"I didn't feel a thing. I was so f------ drunk. I basically had my whole high school over to celebrate."
"Must've been a wild night."
"You have no idea." He leaned closer. "I f----- some girl in my hot tub as the sun came up. It was amazing."
"Oh, I love this song," Ronnie said to Grant, who'd been tinkering with the radio. "Keep it." It was one of Eminem's new numbers.
"You got it, Ronnie Ray."
"So, McCarthy," Grant continued, "somebody told me you went to Yale. Is that right?"
"Yes, sir, it is."
"All right, you can drop the 'sir.' I'm not one of your c---------- Yale professors. I'm a strength coach, OK? Now, you're not one of those goddam Ivy League know-it-alls, are you?"
"No, definitely not. I barely graduated," I lied. I really wasn't expecting such a grilling from someone dressed like an eight-year-old.
"Good, 'cause I hate a know-it-all."
"Me too," said Ronnie, staring out the window.
"I didn't go to class and didn't do any work," I said. "I just played baseball."
That seemed to satisfy Grant, and we drove 15 more minutes in silence along cactus-lined streets to Mesa, listening to the local hip-hop radio station.
* * *
The next day I was driven to the minor league facility, a sprawling expanse of land tucked behind a retention pond in the suburbs of Mesa. Three pristine baseball fields surrounded a large glass-walled building, and the entire complex was fenced in by orange groves. Grant escorted Ronnie and me into the office of Tony Reagins, the Angels' director of player development. An African-American in his mid-30s, Tony was responsible for the promotion and demotion of the roughly 150 minor league players in the Angels' organization. He was called the Grim Reaper because he usually wore black and was the man you'd face if a pink slip ever appeared in your locker.
"Mesa, Arizona, gentlemen," he said from behind his desk as Ronnie and I sat across from him. "As long as you're affiliated with our organization, you'll report here on March 1 for spring training. Spring training, gentlemen, will end on April 1, at which point you'll be assigned to one of our minor league teams. If you fail to make one of those teams and you're not released, you will remain here in Mesa for what we call extended spring training." Ronnie and I nodded. "You do not want to be here, gentlemen," Tony continued. "Arizona in the summer is hell. Being in extended spring training means you're on the bottom of the minor league totem pole. And that, my friends, means you're one step away from having to look for a new line of work.
"Fortunately for you guys," he went on, "there is a league specifically designed for first-, second- and third-year players. Our team is in Provo, Utah. You may have been told you're going to Provo. Whoever told you that doesn't know what they're talking about. We're going to evaluate each of you new guys over the next week, and then we'll decide who's going to Provo and who's staying here in hell with me. In the meantime you'll compete with the guys here in extended. Good luck, gentlemen."