Clinton, Iowa, is a long way from baseball’s big leagues, but to Clyde Williams, 22, it’s a step closer to his dream. Williams, a first baseman for the Clinton LumberKings, is one of the 5,000-plus players on 220 teams in major league baseball’s minor league farm system who live for the game.
“It’s the best job I could imagine. I’m getting paid to play baseball,” says Williams, a 6-foot-2-inch left-hander from Sanford, Fla. He thinks about what he just said, then smiles. “Yeah, I’m getting paid to play baseball.”
It’s 2 p.m.—five hours until game time—and Williams and his 24 teammates are playing cards or watching ESPN in the small, concrete-walled locker room. Players stand or sit in front of lockers and swing baseball bats in slow motion or work linseed oil into leather gloves.
“I like to get here early and get into that baseball frame of mind,” Williams explains. He walks to the batting cage, alone, to hit a few balls off a tee. “It’s part of my pre-game routine. I try to create some positive visual imagery. If you can see yourself getting a hit, you’ll get a hit.”
Williams, a first baseman, is working to boost his season-starting average of .194 “I need one big hit to get back on track,” he says. Traditionally power-hitting positions such as first basemen need a high batting average to make the majors. Last year, major league first basemen batted a collective .273—higher than any other position in the league.
Earlier this spring, Williams and 120 other hopefuls were in Jupiter, Fla., vying for minor league spots with the Montreal Expos, Clinton’s parent club. After the three-week session of simulated games, players were assigned—based on age, potential, ability, and experience—to Canadian spots such as Ottawa, Alberta, (Montreal’s Triple-A team, one level away from the majors) or Harrisburg, Pa. (in Double-A, two steps from the big leagues). Some made the cut; others continue to strive for it.
The LumberKings play in the Single-A level Midwest League, consisting of 14 teams scattered from Iowa to Michigan. Single-A is the first rung on the ladder to becoming a full-time, minor-league player.
For the second straight season, Williams was assigned to Clinton. He and his teammates—18- to 24-year-olds from places such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic—arrived in town on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, they looked for places to live. On Thursday, they were bused to Peoria, Ill., for a three-day road trip.
To save money, players sometimes live four to an apartment. A handful stay in spruced-up basements or spare bedrooms of local families. Williams and Drew McMillan, 21, a catcher from California, found a two-bedroom apartment located a mile from the stadium for $350 per month. They furnished it with a chair and mini-fridge from an Army surplus store. They sleep on air mattresses.
“This isn’t quite the major-league lifestyle,” McMillan acknowledges. “But I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”
Single-A players make slightly more than $1,000 per month during the six-month season. On road trips, they carry their own equipment, spend their $20 per diem on fast food, and share rooms in budget motels. They’ll play 143 games in 155 days and log 10,000 bus miles—loving every inning and mile.
“I’m paying my dues, just like everyone else,” Williams says. “A lot of great players have paid their dues in Clinton.” World Series MVPs Dave Stewart and Orel Hersheiser played here. World Series-winner Jim Leyland managed here for three years. “I’m making a living doing something I love, something you dream about as a kid,” Williams says. “I’ll play until they tell me I’m too old or no good.”
In the off-season, McMillan waits tables, holds baseball clinics, and takes general education classes at a California junior college. “You have to be realistic,” he says. “You can’t play baseball forever.” The statistics back him up: Most minor-leaguers last fewer than five years in professional baseball. Roughly one in 12 will make the big leagues.
‘You feel like the second umpire’
Clinton is a southeastern Iowa town of nearly 28,000 that hugs the Mississippi River. Throughout the 1800s, pine trees—barged down river from Minnesota and Wisconsin—were collected in Clinton, where the city’s sawmills turned logs into lumber. Today, riverside factories make refrigerator shelving and turn plastic pellets into ink pens. A sprawling processing plant refines locally grown corn into alcohol or sugar.
Clinton bills itself as “The nation’s third-smallest city with a professional sports franchise,” behind nearby Burlington, and Vero Beach, Fla.
Three hours before game time, the LumberKings take the field for defensive drills and batting practice. Then it’s back to the locker room to suit up in home white uniforms. Trainer Beth Jarrett, one of minor-league baseball’s three female trainers, tapes injured wrists or ankles.
The grounds crew, meanwhile, rakes the infield grass and sweeps the dirt smooth, misting it to keep the dust down. They chalk foul lines and batter’s boxes and place bases on the points of the infield diamond.
Clinton’s Riverview Stadium hasn’t changed much since it was built through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1937. It recently was re-named Alliant Energy Field, though no one calls it that; old habits are hard to break.
Just a few long home runs from the Mississippi River, the stadium, with a 2,500 seating capacity, sports its original art deco facade. Decorative rings of red brick circle the cream-colored stucco exterior. The roof, constructed of white wood planks and John Deere-green steel beams, overhangs the grandstands. The outfield is ringed with piggybacked billboards promoting everything from the local First Baptist Church to beer. In an era of new, state-of-the-art minor-league stadiums—a new 7,500-seat stadium in Peoria, Ill., cost $23 million—Riverview holds onto its history.
Gates open at 6 p.m., and the first fans, who have paid $5 for box seats, $4 for bleachers, straggle in. The 300 season ticket holders ease into green, wood-slatted box seats—leftovers from a 1950s Wrigley Field renovation. From behind home plate, you can see the spin of a curve ball and hear the chatter between catcher and batter.
“You’re so close you feel like the second umpire,” says Wally Schilling, 77, a season ticket holder since 1954. Schilling and his wife, Fern, are more than just fans. They, along with 900 other individuals and businesses, are LumberKings stockholders. Clinton is one of the few minor-league baseball teams owned by the community.
“Clinton’s a great baseball city,” says Clyde Williams. “It’s small-town America. You get to know the fans on the first base line.”
Still, Williams doesn’t want to be here much longer. “I want to get called up to Harrisburg soon,” he says, referring to Montreal’s Double-A team. “I’ll make the big leagues, eventually. I just need to have a few good seasons, and then you never know.”
Single-A is a stepping stone, and those with major league aspirations want to move up as quickly as possible; the players, the umpires, the coaches. That drive motivates everyone.
New LumberKings manager Dave Machemer and his two assistant coaches sit in their office and talk about tonight’s pitchers and players. Machemer spent 11 seasons playing in the minors and 29 games in the majors, in 1978 and 1979. “My claim to fame,” he says, “is that I hit a home run in my first major league at-bat.”
Machemer, 51, has coached or managed, on and off, since the mid-1980s. In between he’s sold cars and taught school. “Baseball’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” he says. “They’ll have to tear the uniform off me when I die.”
Just before game time, Machemer, using the same lucky pen he’s used for the last 1,200 games, fills out the lineup card. Williams will hit fourth and start at first base.
The LumberKings and their opponent, the Cougars, from Kane County, Ill., stand with hats over hearts during a recorded version of The Star-Spangled Banner. The umpire calls, “Play ball!”
Glimpse of the big leagues
Baseball’s sounds are short and sweet: bats crack, mitts pop, umps shout “ball” or “strike,” “safe” or “out.” In the LumberKings dugout, players make idle chatter and cheer for the very players they eventually may compete against—their teammates. Smells of grass and dust intermingle with leather and sweat.
Single-A games feature a few more errors, a few more wild pitches, and plenty of batters who misjudge a good curve ball. But, every so often, fans in the grandstands witness flashes of baseball brilliance. For a $4 ticket, they just might see a stand-up triple, an over-the-shoulder basket catch, or, heaven willing, a perfect suicide squeeze.
The LumberKings take a 2-1 lead into the fifth inning, when, with a runner on, Clyde Williams lines a pitch over the wall in right center field. It was the hit he was waiting for.
As he breaks into that home run trot, with the fans on their feet, Clinton, Iowa, seems a bit closer to the big leagues. A few more home runs, after all, could carry him all the way to Double-A.
And then … well, you never know.