Batting ninth, the designated hitter, Dontrellllllllle Willis!
And with that full-throated P.A. announcement and resulting roar from the sellout home crowd, there was Dontrelle Willis, the onetime pitching sensation for the Marlins, a two-time All-Star and former 22-game winner, stepping to the plate as a free-swinging designated hitter. Willis was thrust into the unlikely role because his team had been ravaged by injuries, was playing the second game of a doubleheader and ... well, why the hell not? This was not a major league game. This was not a minor league game. This was not a stunt by the ghost of Bill Veeck. This was last Saturday evening in the Atlantic League, a game between the Long Island Ducks and the Somerset (N.J.) Patriots. As Willis took his first cut—he would finish the night with a single, a sac fly and three RBIs—fans were blowing into their $5 yellow quackers that made the stadium sound like a stopover on a mallard migration; the team's mascot, an anthropomorphized duck named QuackerJack, was in the aisles attempting what appeared to be an impersonation of Elaine Benes doing the Harlem Shake; and a man clad in the visiting team's jersey was sitting above a water tank, preparing to be dunked by Ducks fans looking for $3 worth of entertainment. Yankee Stadium has Monument Park. Bethpage Park has Dunk Tank Dude.
When Fitzgerald wrote, of Gatsby's Long Island partygoers, "People were not invited—they went there," he could've been describing the 6,000 fans who pack the park in Central Islip, N.Y., night after night to see the Ducks, a compelling, bizarre and feel-good reality show set in a leafy New York suburb—the cast of characters is Major League meets Celebrity Apprentice. Long Island has become the unlikely island of baseball misfits: There are former All-Stars (Willis), former first-round picks (Ramon Castro), former megahyped prospects (Ian Snell, Ben Broussard, Josh Barfield). There are nine former major leaguers on the 25-man roster—in other words, more big league talent than the Astros. Last month the Ducks signed Cooperstown-bound Vladimir Guerrero to man rightfield, and last week the team was on the verge of adding former All-Star pitcher Carlos Zambrano. Ducks general manager Mike Pfaff, a genial 42-year-old whose previous gig was in NFL media relations, has been fielding so many calls from reporters that you'd think he was G.M. of the Yankees.
How did central Long Island become a destination for former All-Stars still in their prime? (Zambrano and Willis, after all, are 31.) The Ducks, founded in 1998 by former Wall Street bond trader Frank Boulton, have a history of taking in strays: Juan Gonzalez, Carlos Baerga, Edgardo Alfonzo, Carl Everett and John Rocker have passed through. Two-time All-Star Jose Offerman was a big fan favorite ... until the night in 2007 when he charged the mound with his bat, struck the opposing catcher and the pitcher who'd hit him with a fastball, and was arrested for assault.
But the Ducks are not just a sideshow: A power in the Atlantic League, the most respected independent league in the country, the Ducks are the reigning champions and have become a viable option for talented players looking for one last shot. As baseball's youth movement continues at full throttle in the Harper-Trout era (the age of the average major league position player last year was 28.5, the lowest since 1993), teams such as the Ducks represent the other side of the story: Veterans are being forced into early retirement—or to such unlikely outposts as Long Island. The end is coming quickly for players like Guerrero, whose representatives in the Dominican Republic were reduced this winter to putting together a nine-minute YouTube clip of the 38-year-old hitting, throwing and running around a scraggly field as goats wandered in the background. The video was good enough for Pfaff, who signed Guerrero in early April. (Guerrero, still in the Dominican dealing with personal issues, is on the roster but has yet to join the team.)
Central Islip is a long way from the Show. Players make between $1,000 and $3,000 a month. There are no charter flights, just long bus rides. The players seem to be enjoying themselves—the music in the clubhouse is pumped up to deafening levels—but really, no one wants to be there, and certainly no one thinks he should be.
"Everyone in the clubhouse is hungry," says catcher Ramon Castro, who played 13 years for the Marlins, Mets and White Sox. "No one takes anything for granted. People always told me that this was the best way back to the major leagues, and that's why I'm here." The odds are stacked against him: Over the last 14 years just 14 Ducks have taken wing from Central Islip back to the majors.
In the meantime, baseball misfits continue to land on the Island. A rash of injuries left Pfaff a player short last Saturday morning, so he scanned a list that MLB provides each week of the free agents available. He called four numbers with nearby area codes. The first to pick up was Anthony Armenio, who last wore a baseball uniform in 2011, in the Frontier League. Armenio, who happened to be in Manhattan, boarded a commuter train and within an hour was dressing in the Ducks' clubhouse. He played first base, hit sixth and in his second at bat cleared the bases with a game-tying triple. "He'll remember this day for the rest of his life," Boulton, the team's CEO, said as he watched from his perch in the press box.
"And two weeks from now, none of us will remember his name," the Ducks' employee next to him said.
The players were high-fiving and hollering in the dugout as if they'd won the World Series while Armenio chugged around the bases and slid into third with a broad smile. It was the fourth inning of a game played in front of a few thousand fans, broadcast on YouTube, with approximately 10 viewers. None of that seemed to matter. "We're all having fun," says Castro. "We all just want to keep playing until no one wants us anymore."