Life in the minors is a crapshoot," Jacob Cruz was saying during a break in the action at last week's Triple A World Series, and his surroundings suited the clich�. Cruz, a 25-year-old outfielder for the Buffalo Bisons, was slumped in a darkened lounge in the epicenter of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, encircled not only by craps tables but also by banks of televisions showing three major league ball games. For him, the dice and the Show both presented long odds.
Minor league baseball narratives are often about one player's sojourn through the system, but this story has a team component. The Bisons lost to the New Orleans Zephyrs, three games to one, in a series that was made possible by a tectonic shift in the bush league landscape last winter. For a century Triple A baseball had comprised three leagues, the American Association, the International League and the Pacific Coast League. From 1904 until 1962, and in sporadic seasons since, the champions of the AA and IL squared off in the Little World Series, a championship that meant practically nothing since the PCL was excluded. Only in 1983 did all three leagues take part in an unwieldy, unsatisfying round robin, a process that nobody wanted to go through again. In July '97 a solution was finally hammered out: The American Association was sacrificed, and the 30 Triple A ball clubs realigned into two leagues. Buffalo, Indianapolis, Louisville and an expansion team in Durham, N.C., joined the International League, while the Pacific Coast League added clubs from—get this, geography buffs—Des Moines, Nashville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City and Omaha, plus an expansion team from Memphis. The champs of the new IL and PCL would meet in a true World Series.
These machinations led ultimately to the human dogpile of Zephyrs that clumped near the pitcher's mound last Friday night following New Orleans's clinching 12-6 victory at Cashman Field, the spiffy home of the PCL's Las Vegas Stars. All that delirium wasn't about the cash, man, not with winners' shares of only $2,000 a player. ("That'll barely cover our gambling losses," Cruz said.) No, this early-fall classic was all about the simple pleasures of playing and winning, pleasures that are often forgotten in the cutthroat world of Triple A.
Perhaps that sentiment was best expressed by New Orleans catcher Marc Ronan, whose eighth-inning solo home run had won the pivotal third game. Leaning on a dugout railing, still glowing from the rush of the homer and coated with the sweat of a 95� Vegas afternoon, he said the series felt "like being back in Little League, where the only things that mattered were winning and getting a free hot dog after the game. At this point in the season there's nowhere else to go, so no one's playing for himself. It's just a thrill to be at the ballpark." Ronan, 29, went 1 for 12 for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1993 during his only cup of coffee in the majors, and when it was suggested that his Triple A series heroics might help his career, he responded with surprising candor. "Nah, the book's out on me," he said. "I'm a little too old, and I never hit major league pitching."
That was the sobering reality in Vegas last week: This World Series, for all its charms, was a consolation prize for players who were passed over when big league rosters expanded on Sept. 1. Ronan was starting for the Zephyrs only because Mitch Meluskey, the PCL's top catcher, had been called up by the Houston Astros, New Orleans's parent club. Still, the players strained to put a good spin on their situation. "If the Triple A World Series is the best I can do this year, so be it," said Buffalo's hard-nosed second baseman Torey Lovullo. "I'd cheat my mom to win."
"All any athlete can hope for is to win the last game of the season, when only two teams are still in the race," said New Orleans centerfielder Casey Candaele.
If the names Candaele and Lovullo sound familiar, they should. Those two players have almost 3,000 big league at bats between them, and they were joined by plenty of other former Showmen at Cashman Field. Buffalo first baseman Jeff Manto, 34, hit 17 homers for the Baltimore Orioles in '95 and split 31 games between the Detroit Tigers and the Bisons' big league affiliate, the Cleveland Indians, this year. Jack Howell, the 37-year-old New Orleans DH, appeared in 24 games this season for the Astros and was a stalwart for the California Angels during the '80s. Bob Milacki, 34, who won 39 games in the majors, earned the W in Game 4 by giving the Zephyrs five serviceable innings.
Nearly half the players who turned up in Las Vegas had some major league experience. Some might have gotten more had their teams not made it to Vegas. " Jacob Cruz, [Bisons shortstop] Jolbert Cabrera and some of the other guys deserved trips to the big leagues," said Lovullo, "but the thinking was they'd just sit on the bench in Cleveland, so let's keep them in Buffalo and let them try to win the World Series. After all, that reflects well on the entire organization."
The upshot was that the series featured some big league performances. New Orleans took the Sept. 21 opener 7-2 behind John Halama, a hard-throwing Brooklynite who pitched for the Astros earlier this year. Halama struck out nine and gave up only four hits. The Bisons got even the next night, 9-2, thanks to 6? strong innings from Mike Matthews and a big night from Manto, who knocked in two runs with a double. Game 3 was a taut affair brimming with diving infielders and hustle on the base paths. Buffalo was four outs from victory when New Orleans rightfielder Ken Ramos and Ronan launched back-to-back homers. The players' heroics, however, couldn't change the lifeless vibe of the series-low crowd of 2,383. Why such poor attendance? Both teams were far from home, and Cashman is too remote from the Strip to draw much walk-up business. "But Rome wasn't built in a day, even at Caesars Palace," says International League president Randy Mobley.
The event won't be leaving Las Vegas until 2001 at the earliest, since the leagues have two years left on their deal with the city's Convention and Visitors Authority. "I see Las Vegas as the rightful home of the Triple A World Series," says Branch B. Rickey, the PCL president and grandson of the visionary Brooklyn Dodgers executive. It's doubtful that his gramps, the game's famously teetotaling Mahatma, would agree, but the free Vegas vacation was a huge hit with the players. "We're all a bunch of sick gamblers and insomniacs anyway," joked Lovullo. "Down the pennant stretch our rallying cry was, 'Let's earn a trip to our spiritual home!' "