It's a late spring day in western Oregon, and a chill gray seems to color everything in Civic Stadium—from the sky, which threatens rain, to the uniforms of the Portland Beavers, who are lazing in the home dugout, to the enormous wooden swimmer lashed to the leftfield fence. "All right, I'll admit it," says Jamie Nelson, who is sitting in the Beaver bullpen. "I never expected this. Nobody ever expects to be a backup catcher in Triple A—not after 13 years in pro ball."
Since the New York Mets signed him in 1978, Nelson has bounced around the bushes like a Baltimore chop on artificial turf. He has played for 13 minor league teams in nine major league organizations. The Nelson Local has made stops in Wausau, Wis.; Bakersfield, Calif.; Lynchburg, Va.; Lynn, Mass.; Albany, N.Y.; Midland, Texas; and Vancouver. He has been bought, sold and optioned more times than a tankerful of spot-market oil. "I'll tell you how long I've been down here," he says. "I'm only 30, but for years my teammates have called me Pops."
You get to be 30 in the minors, guys start calling you Grandpa pretty soon. You pack your suitcase an awful lot of times. You ride an awful lot of buses. And you eat an awful lot of hamburgers on the team's $14-a-day meal allowance. Big-time sportswriters tag you a "career minor leaguer." Everyone else asks, "When are you going to make the pros?"
"I'm already a pro," Nelson says patiently. "You think I'm doing this for free?"
But nothing stings as much as being called Crash Davis, the name of the journeyman catcher in Bull Durham. Nelson went to see the movie, but walked out of the theater halfway through it. "It hit home pretty hard," he says in a voice that is creased with wisdom and rue. "It didn't have anything to do with me, but then again, it did."
Like Crash, Nelson has the brains, but not the talent, to be a star. He's a wry and somewhat cynical man, with a knowing manner that could be mistaken for nonchalance. Nelson finds a certain dignity in honest mediocrity. "Lots of reserve catchers in the majors are mediocre," he says. "I'm just as mediocre as they are. The difference is, I've had major injuries, so I'm considered damaged goods."
Nelson played 72 days in the bigs, all with the Seattle Mariners in 1983. "Once you've been to The Show, you're never again happy being down on the farm," he says. Which doesn't mean he has been brooding these last seven years.
"The guy stays enthusiastic, no matter what," says Portland manager Jim Shellenback, a former pitcher who logged eight years in Triple A. Nelson is the sort of sparky vet that minor league skippers love to have around the clubhouse. "Nellie can't wait to get to the ballpark," says Shellenback. "You should have seen the way he hustled after one of his drives hit the swimmer in the butt. We all laughed when he got thrown out at third base. He did, too. He's got a great sense of humor."
Nelson needs one. The Beavers lost 18 of their first 20 games this year and at week's end had the worst record (30-62) in the Pacific Coast League. You would have to trek the Iditarod to find a mangier team. "Down here you need the Jamie Nelsons of the world," says Doug Baker, a Portland infielder. Baker has had so many cups of coffee with the Beavers' parent team, the Minnesota Twins, that he needs to be decaffeinated. "In the bigs, time goes by real quick," he says. "Here, it's twice as long."
"Nellie keeps us loose," says Pete Delkus, a young Portland reliever. "He's been through so much stuff that he knows how to get through the tough times."