"This is as deep as it gets."
The words emanate from a tiny office in the maintenance area of Athletic Park in Medicine Hat, Alberta, home of the Medicine Hat Blue Jays. The only person in there—only one person could fit—is manager Garth Iorg, although one can't be entirely sure of the speaker's identity, because his office is illuminated by two 25-watt bulbs that wouldn't attract a moth. There is a pitch to the ceiling that may cause its occupant back problems before the season is over. They don't call it the Pioneer League for nothing.
This is as deep as it gets: a rookie manager in a rookie league. Iorg (pronounced orj) is not complaining, mind you. He is not a grouser by nature, and besides, he knew what he was getting into last December when he decided to get back into baseball with the organization with which he had spent his entire nine-year major league career. When Iorg retired as an in-fielder for the Toronto Blue Jays after the 1987 season, a few days short of his 33rd birthday, he was making close to $400,000 a year with a $54 per diem. This year he will get $30,000 from the Blue Jays and $25 a day in meal money. Fortunately for Iorg—and for his wife, Patty, and their four children—he and a partner have a steel business in Arcata, Calif. That will help him to chase a second dream of getting to the majors.
Iorg has been here before—not in Medicine Hat itself, but in a rookie outfit. It was the Appalachian League, the team was the Johnson City (Tenn.) Yankees, and the year was 1973. The Yankees had drafted him in the eighth round out of Arcata High School. "I arrived a few days later than the rest of the team," Iorg recalls. "There was this big box in the middle of the clubhouse floor, with all the uniforms in it, and there wasn't much left by the time I got there. I ended up wearing pants that must have belonged to Lou Gehrig. The waist was a 38—I was size 30—and they came all the way down to my ankles. When I took the field, I looked like I was wearing street clothes."
The more things change.... Al Scott, Medicine Hat's trainer-traveling secretary-equipment manager-clubhouse guy-launderer-social secretary, informs Iorg that the team's uniform pants have not yet arrived, but says there's no reason to panic, because the season doesn't start until tomorrow. Consequently, for the last workout before they travel to Great Falls, Mont., for the June 20 season opener, many of the players practice in shorts. The third baseman, Howard Battle, has a large safety pin to keep his fly trapped. There's also a shortage of stirrups and blue shoes. The batting cage needs to be welded. The pitching rubbers in the bullpen are so close that two pitchers can't warm up at the same time. The infield has lots of little pebbles. Scott hasn't figured out a way to hook up the whirlpool. There is no ice machine, a major therapeutic aid for a trainer. Other than that, everything is fine for the Blue Jays on the eve of the season.
Actually, the season began two days before, when most of the team traveled from the Blue Jays' minor league complex in Dunedin, Fla., to Medicine Hat, a trip that took more than 12 hours. The junior Jays were held up for three hours at immigration in Calgary. Once they cleared customs, around midnight, they met another member of the team: the bus. This one was a 1971 Scenicruiser with the logo of the Seattle Thunderbirds junior hockey team on the sides. The owner of the Med Hat Blue Jays, Canadian media mogul Bill Yuill, also owns the Thunderbirds. The bus comes equipped with 18 bunk beds, a TV and VCR, and an ever-changing kaleidoscope of bug kills on the windshield. Despite the entertainment, and probably because of the wee hours, two of the players nearly came to blows during the team's first bus ride, from Calgary to Medicine Hat.
When the players and coaches got out of their beds at the Medicine Hat Inn the next day, they were introduced, or reintroduced in a few cases, to this town of 42,000 people. Medicine Hat: what a romantic-sounding name. One legend has it that in a battle between the Blackfeet and the Cree Indians, the medicine man of the Crees lost his hat along the South Saskatchewan River, and at that place a settlement was established. Years ago there was a movement afoot to rename the town something more prosaic, but no less a personage than Rudyard Kipling lobbied for the retention of Medicine Hat. Because of its natural gas deposits, Medicine Hat also calls itself Gas City. That choice for a sobriquet is made even more unfortunate by Medicine Hat's proximity to Bow Island, a town known as Canada's Bean Capital.
Medicine Hat was affiliated with the Oakland Athletics in its first season, 1977, but in the 13 seasons since, it has been a Toronto farm club. In recent years the team has fallen on hard times, in part because the Blue Jays stock it with kids drafted out of high school, while the other teams in the league have mostly college-age players. Last year's team won only 23 of 69 games, which was still an improvement on the '88 Blue Jays, who won just 12. Medicine Hat was also last in the league in attendance, drawing 12,193, an average of 348 a game.
The players themselves come from all over the hemisphere: Alcoula, S.C., and Kelowna, B.C.; Chino, Calif., and Mount Joy, Pa.; Lucama, N.C., and Luther, Okla.; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and San Antonio; Omaha and Aruba. And it's an interesting cast of characters. The Aruban, southpaw Richie Orman, is known as the Genius. Not only does he have a degree in mechanical engineering from a school in Aruba, but he also speaks four languages fluently: Spanish, English, Dutch and the Aruban dialect of Papiamento. "I still hope to be an engineer," he says, "but I thought I would give baseball a try."
There are two relatives of major leaguers on the team: shortstop Mike Coolbaugh, whose brother, Scott, plays third base for the Texas Rangers, and pitcher Jose Perez, a cousin of Pascual and Melido Perez. "Every team should have a member of the Perez family," says Iorg. "In fact, I think every team does."