Second Place Writing – Sports


The Lakewood clubhouse: Where Phillies prospects’ dreams incubate

By Tyler Jett

LAKEWOOD, N.J. – “So . . . what you’re saying is, you want a swirly?”

Bob Stumpo stands over the batboy. Stumpo is 6-feet-4 and 220 pounds, and his appearance is that of a soldier. His head is shaved, his jaw square, his shoulders thick.

And the batboy? Nick Cottone is tall for his age, but he’s only 15 and wiry. And shy. Stumpo, muscled arms exposed, repeats the question. “You want a swirly?” A smile creases his face, and his voice cracks into laughter. He pats Nick on the arm.

The boy walks away, Stumpo still laughing. Nick strolls past Stumpo’s locker, past manager Mickey Morandini’s office, past more lockers, past the big black leather chairs and the big-screen TV and the assistant coaches’ office. And past Matt Campbell.

“Hey, Campbell,” Stumpo howls across the room. “Give him a swirly! Give him a swirly!”

(A swirly is sticking someone’s head in a toilet and flushing.)

Campbell, a relief pitcher, ignores the second part of his catcher’s call. He walks toward Stumpo’s locker. Campbell, who graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in civil engineering, is slow to speak, and thoughtful.

“What?” he asks, his voice low.

“Why didn’t you give him a swirly?” Stumpo responds.

He clutches Campbell’s shoulders, shakes them, and repeats the question. Campbell shimmies free and fires a pair of punches, halting his fists just before grazing skin. Stumpo responds in kind, the catcher and pitcher shadowboxing.

It’s noon on a Sunday in early July. In about an hour, Stumpo will hear his name announced as the starting catcher for the Lakewood BlueClaws, spring out of the dugout, and fist-pound characters from the children’s show Yo Gabba Gabba, who wait in front of the first-base line. During the game, Stumpo will reach on a pair of hits, driving in two runs as Lakewood, the Phillies’ single-A affiliate, drops an 11-9 game to the Hagerstown Suns.

As for Campbell, he will watch, tethered to the bench, recovering from the night before, when he pitched a scoreless inning.

Campbell and Stumpo are both 24 years old, the eldest BlueClaws in the clubhouse. They played together last year for the Williamsport Crosscutters, live together this season in Toms River, and share a dream. That dream is the engine pushing them and the 23 other BlueClaws to play in 96-degree heat in front of 6,000 fans. They want to find a way, somehow, to earn a living playing this game. Odds are, only one in 10 BlueClaws will reach the majors, even for just one day.

From Lakewood, the route traditionally takes you to Clearwater, Fla., then to Reading, then to Allentown. And if you’ve reached that far, and if you’re still healthy enough, and if an opening presents itself, you’ll drive down to Philadelphia. Then, you have to play well enough to stay.

From everywhere

Campbell and Stumpo are as far away from Philadelphia as any player in the organization. Campbell played on Florida’s club team for three years before even trying out for the Gators. He then pitched two seasons against players with scholarships, holding a career 7.09 ERA in 262/3 innings. Last summer, the Phillies picked him in the 24th round; 750 players heard their names called before he did.

Stumpo, meanwhile, played at West Virginia for one season before switching to Division II West Chester University. In 2010, the Phillies picked him in the 33d round – 1,011th overall.

If Campbell doesn’t reach the majors, he said, he’ll return to school and study for a master’s degree. Or maybe he’ll teach.

Stumpo, on the other hand, doesn’t consider a Plan B. Right now, he’s just chasing the life he’s wanted since he was 8. He’s not sure what else he’d like. He holds a liberal arts degree, but he doesn’t know specifically what that means – “It’s awesome, though.”

Two days after that loss to Hagerstown, the Phillies promoted Stumpo to triple-A Lehigh Valley. The move isn’t permanent. The next day, the organization shipped him to double-A Reading. And 13 days after that, Stumpo turned 25 years old.

But on this day in early July, Stumpo and Campbell are just waiting to get back on the field. There is where they need to impress if they want to move up to the next level, and the next, and the next. There is where you can catch your dream. But here, in the clubhouse, is where they prepare – the Dream Factory.

Here, the BlueClaws’ clubhouse is clean, comfortable, and modern, and it looks how you would expect. Blue carpet. Blue chairs. Blue lockers. Blue jerseys hanging inside blue lockers. Tan walls. Here is where the BlueClaws spend more time than anywhere. Players who said they make about $1,300 a month get 11 days off this season. On all those other days, they wake up and come here. Four, five, six hours before a game, they come here, and they wait, and they find ways to kill time. Too much time, some players said.

But if those BlueClaws talked to some veterans, the players who have reached levels Stumpo and Campbell and the rest of the players stuck in Lakewood can only imagine right now, they might realize the clubhouse is more than just the Dream Factory. They might realize it can be a special place, a place with a kind of magic. A place where you spend afternoons shuffling cards and debating Supreme Court rulings and busting chops. The clubhouse can pull players with no chance of a promotion to another 139-game, minor-league season filled with fans who throw toast; bus seats that also serve as beds; and knees and ankles and elbows that won’t stop burning, screaming for you to stop, please stop.

If any of those younger players talk to one of those veterans, they might learn that the clubhouse can be everything they love about baseball and nothing like the offices found in the rest of the world.

Hectic week

Across the room from Stumpo, Maikel Franco bounces. If anyone in Lakewood is the future of the Phillies, it’s him. He’s the team’s best prospect. But he’s only 19, and his face reveals his youth. He looks like a boy, giggles like a boy, thinks like a boy. Without warning, 55 minutes from game time, Franco skips down a row of lockers, patting teammates on the shoulders as he passes, laughing as players swing around to study him, confused.

Maikel is a third baseman like his father, Roberto. As a 7-year-old, he tagged along with his dad on hot afternoons in Azua, Dominican Republic. Roberto hit grounders to his boy, and as Maikel grew, Roberto studied his swing, his throw, his gait. After every game in Lakewood, Maikel calls his father. But before this game, he keeps patting players’ shoulders as if he’s playing duck, duck, goose. When he returns to his own locker, he halts.

Outfielder Aaron Altherr tries to draw Franco’s attention. Altherr is from Arizona, but his Spanish is no bueno. He exaggerates with his arms like a silent film actor, trying to deliver his point. Franco stares back. Finally, Altherr stiffens one hand and throws it across his own neck. Cut. It. Out. Franco nods, drapes his jersey over his shoulders, and fastens the buttons.

Around the corner from Franco’s locker, between the team kitchen and the team weight room, stands Tim Carver. He is about 6 feet tall with close-cropped brown hair, and he’s wearing just his baseball pants and a T-shirt. The game won’t start for 50 minutes.

He reflects on the past week. It’s been hectic. Carver, the Phillies’ 19th-round pick this season, played his last game at the University of Arkansas nine days ago. Earlier in the week, he cleaned out his Fayetteville home for two straight days, not finishing until 11:30 on a Tuesday night. He awoke at 4 the next morning, flew to Philadelphia, and scribbled his name at the bottom of a contract. On Friday, the BlueClaws activated him, and that night he started at shortstop in his first professional game.

His mother, Dyanna, listened to a BlueClaws radio broadcast from Fayetteville. Since Tim moved to New Jersey, he has called her every day.

“I’ve never been to this part of the country,” he said. “She worries I’m not going to like it around here. I have to let her know I’m doing OK.”

Carver moved to Fayetteville in seventh grade. He feels as if he knows almost everyone in town. His mother lives there. His sisters do, too. And that is where his father, his namesake, is buried.

Tim wouldn’t have made it to Lakewood if it weren’t for his dad, an electrician who taught his son to commit to his passion. In the summer of 2010, doctors found cancer in his father’s stomach. About six months later, he died. Tim’s voice lowers, and the ground holds the focus of his eyes. His dad loved baseball, he says. He excuses himself. “I have to get ready.”

Just a chance to play

It’s 12:25 now. Gauntlett Eldemire walks past Carver, from the kitchen to his locker, a blue sports drink in his right hand, a paper plate full of noodles in his left. A couple of inches from that plate, Eldemire’s left hand meets his left wrist.

When the Phillies drafted him in the sixth round in 2010, the outfielder immediately fell onto the disabled list. The previous April, during a game with the University of Ohio, Eldemire watched a pitch bolt toward his wrist. The impact hurt, Eldemire said, but he thought it was just a bruise. He kept playing, the pain lingered, and doctors discovered a torn ligament.

Surgeons repaired the tear, and at spring training last year Eldemire returned hungry to again kick-start his dream. The pain returned. Doctors examined him again. They ordered another MRI, and this time they found a second tear above the first one, a couple of inches higher, where the wrist snaps into the hand and where Eldemire now holds his paper plate.

Last summer, again, surgeons fixed a torn ligament. And this spring training, again, Eldemire stepped on the field, hoping he would feel OK. He might never make it to the majors. Like his parents, he might make a life selling real estate – he already rents out property in his old college town. But he at least wants a chance to prove he can play or see that he’s not good enough.

Eldemire said his wrist has not bothered him this season. But the comeback hasn’t been storybook. In his first three months in Lakewood, the 23-year-old is batting .214. And two weeks from now, he will return to the disabled list, this time with a stress fracture in his right leg.

As Eldemire settles into a chair in front of his locker, Greg Legg emerges from the assistant coaches’ room. Legg, the team’s 52-year-old hitting coach, walks past Eldemire, toward the middle of the room. With blue eyes, a voice punctuated by his own laughter, and the type of leathery brown skin that’s burned onto you after a lifetime in the sun, Legg commands the room.

The team’s video coordinator approaches him, lets him know the camera behind center field is good to go for today’s game.

“Don’t worry,” Legg says, his voice rising. “If you screw up, I’ll let you know.”

Legg laughs, then plants a playful punch on the shoulder. Legg struts forward, now to the kitchen. He glances at a table displaying the team’s pregame meal options.

“Look at all these Pop Tarts!” Legg yells to no one in particular. “Strawberry! Blueberry! Cherry! Man!”

Legg retreats across the clubhouse, back toward the room he shares with the other assistants. First, though, he passes the Phillies’ recent eighth-round pick, Josh Ludy, a squat catcher from Baylor.

“You stretch yet?” Legg asks and yells at Ludy at the same time. “No? Go ahead. Be late to the field! $25 fine. Go ahead! Be late!”

Legg keeps moving, keeps laughing and strutting and bobbing his head. He has coached minor-league players for 19 years in eight towns, all in the Phillies organization. He has worked in Lakewood for the last five seasons, his longest tenure in one place.

Before coaching, he suited up as an infielder for 13 seasons. He played in the minor leagues for 1,184 games and in the majors for 14. Twenty-five years removed from his last one with the Phillies, he can still recite his career stats: 9 for 22. Hey, hitting .400 isn’t bad, he said. He was good enough to make it to the majors, just not good enough to stay. Memories of those 14 games still feel vivid. Chatting with umpires, hotels in big cities, playing in front of big crowds. It was beautiful, all of it.

Legg stopped playing in 1994. He was a 34-year-old who could no longer step on the field two days in a row, his joints begging for rest at the end of a career ravaged by the abusive artificial playing surfaces. But even in those last years, he was the only person unaware that his dream was dead. That, he said, is just how it is with old players.

He doesn’t regret hanging on. He was a ballplayer, big leagues or not. The game was his identity. Still is. That’s why he coaches: He can’t stop. Since he retired, he’s seen countless other men like him, players who swung like him or sprinted like him, players who just weren’t strong enough or quick enough to get promoted, or detached enough to let go.

Most of those guys don’t make it, Legg said, and that’s sad. But he’s also seen plenty of players who were good enough. Sometimes those guys don’t make it either, and that’s even sadder.

But even those guys who never made it, never even had a chance, spent time here, in the clubhouse. And that, Legg said, can’t be overlooked. Some of his favorite memories unfolded here. He’s celebrated championships here and talked trash with players young enough to be his sons here. Three nights earlier, fresh off a walk-off win, he watched as players hooped and hopped here, rehabbing former National Lague MVP Ryan Howard among them.

Life is tough

It’s 12:40 now, 25 minutes until game time. Legg is gone, and the room is quiet, save for three voices spilling out from the kitchen. Dominican pitchers Gabriel Arias, Luis Paulino, and Yari Sosa are yapping, their high-pitched voices breaking between bursts of laughter.

Unable to communicate with most of their teammates, the Spanish speakers stick together. Some wish to talk to teammates and coaches more, and they’re trying to expand their English. At noon before night games, they take classes at the stadium. Arias and his roommate, Franco, study a Spanish-to-English dictionary at night.

But life in Lakewood is tough, at least for the five hours a day they aren’t at the ballpark or sleeping. Arias tries to immerse himself in American culture, watching TV and movies and reading when he can. But he struggles. Ordering food is difficult, and at 22 years old he’s learning new flavors. Many of them, like barbecue sauce and pickles, taste gross. He misses chicken and beans prepared by his mother, Francesca.

He calls her and his father, Jose Alberto, twice a day, afternoon and evening. He tells his parents he misses them. They’re both high school teachers, something he could never do. What he could do, outside of baseball, he doesn’t know. Maybe something with travel and history.

Soon, Arias and Paulino and Sosa saunter to their lockers and slide on their jerseys, still chatting. The locker room empties its occupants to the stairs, the concrete-enveloped hallway, and the dugout that lead to the field.

It’s 12:50 now, 15 minutes until game time. The clubhouse with the blue chairs and blue lockers and tan walls is hollow. Only injured pitcher Ervis Manzanillo lingers. A dull buzz escapes from the air-conditioning unit. From a filter, water drips.