There are ghosts in Cooper Stadium, the quaint ballpark on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, that is the home of the Yankees' Triple A affiliate Clippers. The brick walls deep inside the stadium speak, and if you listen closely, you can hear:
Or sometimes there'll be the eerie sound of:
The images of the ghosts are on the walls, mug shots of the best Clippers from seasons past. Some, the Dave Righettis and Don Mattinglys and Derek Jeters, are silent because they got to a better place. Others, the Brad Arnsbergs and Jeff Moronkos, also make little noise. They're gone, forgotten. The ones you hear—the ones whose haunting voices won't go away—are those with unfinished business. The could've-beens. The should've-beens.
"I don't want to be a one-time guy," says Shane Spencer, sitting in the tiny Columbus clubhouse. "So many guys have been in the minors, had their chance and were never heard of again. This can't be the end of me." If baseball does one thing especially well, it's crush the hopes of its young. In a blaze of glory late last season Spencer, a 26-year-old rookie with nine years of minor league service, smashed 10 homers, drove in 27 runs and batted .373. He hit three grand slams—only the seventh Yankee to do so in one season. He was an American League Player of the Week. In his first playoff at bat, against Rangers ace Rick Helling, he smoked a solo home run over Yankee Stadium's leftfield wall. Last October he was a folk hero. Last Thursday he was sent down.
Spencer knows his New York history. He has heard of Doyle, the obscure second baseman who, in the 1978 World Series, filled in for an injured Willie Randolph, hit .438 and then disappeared. He has heard of Maas, the wunderkind who, as a rookie in 1990, set a major league record by hitting 10 home runs in his first 77 at bats and then faded out. During this spring's exhibition season Spencer hit a solid .271 but was the odd man out in the Yankees' leftfield platoon of Chad Curtis and Ricky Ledee. He played in only four of New York's first 19 regular-season games, went 2 for 11 and was demoted. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman flew to Texas to give Spencer the news in person.
"It hurts—I can't say it doesn't," Spencer said on Sunday, an hour before the Clippers' game against the Louisville RiverBats, in which he would go 2 for 4. "I've never been the prospect, and if you're not the prospect, it's easier to find things wrong with you. That's how it is. After I've had a good year, they say, 'You need to hit for a higher average.' So two winters ago I went to Venezuela, played winter ball and hit above .300. Then they say—well, you need to drive the ball the other way. I do that. They say I can't hit the slider low and away." Spencer catches his breath. "Well, except for Tony Gwynn, who can hit the slider low and away?"
The Yankees say Spencer is in Columbus to get at bats, play every day and will come back up sooner rather than later. Clippers manager Trey Hillman says Spencer is too good a hitter to be around for long. But Spencer—he's not so sure. This is his fourth season with the Clippers. He knows there are no guarantees. "There comes a point," he says, "when you start to wonder."