Astacio, 21, isn't starting the game tonight, but he is scheduled to pitch later, perhaps as early as the fifth inning. Like other rookie teams, whose aim is to assess and develop talent, the Dodgers employ a piggyback rotation and limit each appearance by a pitcher to 75 throws. When Astacio was discovered by a busc�n, or Latin American scout, and signed by Los Angeles two years ago, he received barely one tenth of what Pierce got, but you won't hear him complain about the disparity.
"The scout gave me some money and said, 'Go buy yourself some clothes, some T-shirts. Go eat whatever you want, because we are going to sign you,' " Astacio says through an interpreter. "My family was there, and they all hugged me. I was ecstatic, mainly because my father, who makes about $50 a week, had been shelling out money while I tried to get with an American team. This is my chance to take my family out of the cesspool. It is on my shoulders."
Astacio and Pierce are typical of the young men who populate the game's minor leagues. If Astacio doesn't succeed in baseball, he will be sent back to the Dominican Republic and the barrio he came from. He'll have to find work, probably of the menial, backbreaking sort his father has known. If Pierce doesn't make it, he'll return to San Diego State and the life of privilege that belongs to every big man on campus.
"Out of 30 players on our roster we might have two who make it to the big leagues," says Jim Keough, the club's general manager. "Some years we might have only one, and then others we might have three or four, but the average is lower than 10 percent. On the major league roster you have 31, 32 players, but in the whole L.A. organization we have 179 active players. If you're a high draft choice and the club has a lot of money invested in you, you'll have three or four years to prove yourself. If the club doesn't have a lot invested in you and you don't look good, you're done."
At least Pierce and Astacio aren't at the bottom rung of Los Angeles's tall ladder. Players in need of instruction begin in Vero Beach, Fla., as members of the Gulf Coast Dodgers. However, the organization also has a Class A team, the Vero Beach Dodgers, in the same town. When a Great Falls player learns that he's being assigned to "Vero," the team's skipper must be careful to specify whether it's the rookie club or the A team, because one move is a step closer to oblivion while the other is a step up the ladder. As a player climbs each rung, the competition is keener and more cutthroat. Pierce's closest friend in Great Falls might turn out to be his worst enemy, for players at each position are competing for a finite number of roster slots. Today Astacio's best buddy might be the kid from his home country with whom he spends 14 hours a day throwing in the bullpen, running, training with weights and taking the mandatory English classes for Latin players, but tomorrow that same kid might get called up and Astacio sent home.
"Minor league baseball is a lot like the TV show Survivor" says Keough. "You want to root for the guy next to you, but deep down you're thinking, Gosh, I hope he strikes out four times today."
Pierce started his pro career in Great Falls, five steps down from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Astacio has faced an even longer journey, beginning in the Dominican Republic in 1999 at Campo Las Palmas, the Dodgers' baseball academy for the talented sons of Latin America who dream of immigrating to the U.S. and repeating the heroics of former and current stars such as George Bell, Juan Guzman, Pedro Martinez, Raul Mondesi and Sammy Sosa.
In 1990, long before he would win the first of his three Cy Young Awards, with the Montreal Expos, Martinez played in Great Falls. His roommate at the time was Mondesi, the outfielder who would become an All-Star with the Dodgers. That Astacio bears a striking resemblance to Martinez is a source of pride to him, but he is even prouder when his ability is compared with that of the veteran pitcher, now with the Boston Red Sox. "Pedro is my idol," Astacio says. "He was also skinny and poor. I want to do what he did."
"In Astacio I see a potential ace," says Dave Silvestri, the Great Falls manager. "I really like this kid. He's got Pedro's body. I played with Pedro in Montreal, and Andres reminds me of him. Just the way they act, how they are in the clubhouse. Andres has that superstar mentality, that demeanor"
What he doesn't have is much more in his pitching arsenal than a fastball and a changeup. Moreover, unless he puts on weight, he can't expect to advance very far. "If Andres stays at 154 pounds, he's not going to make it," says Butch Hughes, the team's pitching coach. "You can go to any major league clubhouse, and you won't find a 154-pound pitcher. They just don't exist. In one of my reports I wrote that Andres is special, but I also wrote that we need to make sure his diet is good because he's got to get stronger. I've asked him how big his mother and his father are. If they're big, thick people, then maybe his size will come. That's what we're hoping for."