For some boys of summer, the Salinas Packers is a way to keep their dreams alive.
Thursday, May 24, 2001
Many little boys in America grow up dreaming of playing professional baseball--it''s as American as Mom and apple pie. But if they can''t throw like Nolan Ryan or hit like Jason Giambi, their baseball "career" generally begins with backyard catch and ends in college--at best. Half a dozen local guys who are on this year''s roster for the Salinas Packers have made it at least one step further.
The Packers is an independent minor league team in its second season of existence. After the Salinas Peppers pulled out of town a couple years ago, both Salinas and the team''s coach, Dave Holt, were left without a team. Neither liked the situation very much, so the city set about making major renovations to the stadium, while Holt went about building a team from the ground up.
The result was last year''s Packers team, which took second place in the California Coastal League, which includes teams from Fresno, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and two from the Bay Area. Packers players come from all over Monterey County, California, Arizona, even Idaho and Missouri.
The Coastal League represents something like a minor minor-league. While the teams in A, AA, and AAA minor league baseball which are usually affiliated with professional Major League Baseball teams, the primarily collegiate league is independent from any big league farm system. In the "A" leagues, the AAA teams are the ones closest to the majors; as a player''s skills improve, he moves from A to AAA, with the next step being the bright lights of The Show. Players in an independent league like the CCL--which is somewhere between college ball and the minor leagues--have to hope they catch the eye of some team''s talent scout.
But for many players, the league''s big appeal is less the chance to make it to the majors than it is to simply continue playing ball.
Pitcher Scott Taylor, who had a 6-1 record last year with the Packers, says he likes the camraderie of being on a team. "I like meeting new people, talking baseball. It''s also good experience to play for a semi-pro team." If he doesn''t continue past the minor league level, Taylor isn''t worried. He''s studying physical education at Hartnell, hoping to coach kids. "Yeah, I''d like to continue on, but I''m having fun with it now, too," he reasons.
Catcher Marty Campbell also hails from Salinas, where he played for Hartnell in last year''s All-Star game. Campbell signed on with the team so he could play semi-pro baseball in his hometown. "It''s good to be here, it''s the best baseball around during the summer," says Campbell, but his real dream is to play for the San Francisco Giants, "especially now with that new ballpark. I''d like to play at a higher level because it makes you work hard to play with better people."
A higher level is something Jesse Kovacs knows about already. The Carmel High pitcher, who signed up to play shortstop with the Packers around Christmas, was named Athlete of the Year by the Monterey County Herald and played on the All-State high school team two years in a row. Last year, Kovacs went to Oklahoma State to play ball but transferred to a Kansas junior college. He''s also played with a Bay Area baseball team for the past three years. He had the chance to return to the North Cal Angels again this summer, "but I wanted to stay close to home and the Packers are a great option."
The Packers'' owner and manager Dave Holt was drafted by the Red Sox in 1979 as a catcher and worked there from 1984-94. He says his main mission for the team this year is to add some fun to the city''s limited activities. "We want to provide local baseball for families to come and watch. We try to create an atmosphere that''s exciting and safe, with music and contests between innings-just like the majors but at an affordable price."
For players, Holt''s goal is to give them ample opportunity to hone skills, to play "off-season" baseball--apart from their college teams--and to give them a taste of something bigger. "It''s very different from playing in high school," Holt explains. "We play so often, almost 60 games in 10 weeks, it can be a grind. I want players to get experience with the stress of the pro level, in case they get there. And I think most of our players have that ambition."
Players have the option of getting paid to be on the Packers'' field, says Holt, but most don''t since it would strip them of their amateur status and render them ineligible to play again in college. Most guys get by with ordinary day jobs. Campbell, for instance, works at a recreation center in Salinas
The Salinas Packers play their first game of 2001 this Sunday against the San Francisco Angels. Their next five games are in Salinas, so go have a day in the park watching local baseball. It''s cheaper than a movie--$5 for adults, $3 for students and $2 for kids under 12--and you get the bonus of seeing "Leafy," the lettuce head mascot in action, among other things.