Sean Kiley wasn’t ready to hang up his glove after college, so he set out to play in the Pecos League, the lowest level of professional baseball in the United States. This is his story.
I see the email from our GM at 6:22 p.m. Welcome to Trinidad! The email mentions details about the 10,000-person Colorado town, including player discounts, which help when you only make $50 a week. This includes 10 percent off everything at her cannabis dispensary.
Welcome to the Pecos League, the lowest level of professional baseball in the U.S.
As a right-handed pitcher throwing 79 mph, I had few offers to play college baseball. I chose Oberlin College in Ohio. I started for four years, and by the end I’d gotten my fastball to top out at 91 mph. This gave me hope I could get picked up by an affiliated minor league baseball club. But the draft came and went without me, and I settled for Plan B: studying to get into law school.
I took the LSAT in November, then again in January. It was between the tests that I found out about an open tryout for a baseball league in Bakersfield, California, just two hours north of my parents' house in Studio City. I decided to see what I still had left in my 23-year-old arm, since I wouldn’t be going to law school until the fall at the earliest.
I tried out the first week of February and made one of the four teams. We ended up playing eight games together, and by the end of February I had an offer to play in the Pecos League for the Trinidad Triggers. I was just happy to have a place to play one last season.
This is the story of my experience in “professional” baseball.
Rocky Mountain high
I drove out to Colorado, not the Caribbean, on May 20 with Scott Stetson, a teammate of mine in Bakersfield who also signed with Trinidad. It took us two days to finish the 16-hour commute.
I couldn’t make a living in the Pecos League, but I still wanted to play. I also couldn’t attend the law schools I desired with my current LSAT scores. So I decided to study for the LSAT — there was a test in June and another in July — when I wasn’t playing baseball. I’d wake up early, knock out a few LSAT practice sections before heading to our morning workouts.
One of the first things I noticed about Trinidad was marijuana. Probably a third of the stores were cannabis-related. The day before spring training started we went golfing with some of the guys from the team, including our coach Thomas Nelson (Nelly) and assistant coach/closer David Gates (Gator). Everyone drank, and some guys hit wax pens, too. I didn’t expect this to be an indication of what was to come.
The Triggers share the field and facilities with Trinidad State Junior College. The clubhouse has a locker room, a small room for Gator and Nelly, and another room with two indoor batting cages, a row of dumbbells along the side and a squat rack. It’s basically a big shed. The weights feel heavier than normal; it’s unclear if it’s because of the rust or the 6,000-foot elevation.
Our first day of spring training, Nelly talked to us about commitment, hard work and moving up. Guys in the Pecos League are here because this is their only opportunity at pro ball. But it is an opportunity, and putting up solid numbers can jumpstart your career in the Frontier League, Pacific Association, American Association, or even affiliated MiLB.
Gator took over next to talk about marijuana. He wanted us to know that weed can impact our careers but allowed us to make our own decisions. He knew about wax pens, and said as long as guys didn’t make it obvious, he and Nelly wouldn’t make a stink about it.
Workouts were hard. Between the rust and the thin air, my squats were about 60 pounds below what they were only a week earlier. I tried to do 10 minutes of running on the warning track, but could only make it through 6 1/2 because my chest felt like it was burning.
When you’re making only $50 a week, you have to find ways to make due. I quickly learned some of the tricks of survival, like how when the team stays at the Motel 6 in Sante Fe (which doesn’t provide breakfast), the guys all dress up and walk to the hotel across the street, pretending to stay there and eat the nice spread they put out.
The guys often went to the local sports bar after practice ended at 9 p.m. They kept commenting on how cheap it was: the Coors were $1 Fridays after 9 p.m. But all the entrees were upward of $12. I wondered if they knew that we made $50 a week, and that it would be ~40% of our weekly salary if they ever wanted to eat anything.
After a couple days paying for a room, Scott and I checked out of our Super 8, since Gator got us a place to stay. We moved into the Prospect Plaza, a laundromat with a few motel rooms. It was owned by a sponsor of the Triggers, so the players didn’t have to pay. Brian Garcia, Conor Bawiec, Scott and I piled into one motel room, which stayed that way until July 4. The four of us got our own beds if one slept on Scott’s air mattress and another slept on my futon. To leave the room without stepping on a bed required us stacking the futon on top of the air mattress.
In the clubhouse one day, I asked two of the pitchers if they were throwing — hoping not, and for a shorter practice. One of them finished taking a huge rip from a wax pen, exhaled, and replied “I wouldn’t get this saucy if I wasn’t.”
Gator pitched the last day of spring training. We’d heard stories about his 101 mph fastball when he was drafted out of Howard Junior College by the Texas Rangers. He was effectively wild and grunted audibly. Gator walked the bases loaded, then struck out the next two. Then walked another, coming close to hitting his head once, before striking out the third. He was a sight to see; velocity like that isn’t cheap.
Spring training ended and some of our teammates were sent home. I know it’s part of the process, but it’s still tough losing new friends. Mostly it’s a harsh reminder that if you don’t produce, you’re cut.
On media day we did individual shots. I borrowed Scott’s knee-high pinstripe pants, which together with the loose jersey and high socks made me look like a 1920s major leaguer. I didn’t smile in my picture; it makes me look anxious when I do. I was anxious — it was my first baseball card.
The season begins
Opening day was in Garden City, Kansas. Before batting practice some guys took Adderall. One player unscrewed a pill, measured out an amount of powder from inside onto his hand, took his hand to his mouth and closed the capsule for another day. Amphetamines make your arm feel like you can throw 95. What they really do is amp you up and make you dehydrated.
Garden City’s mascot is the wind. To hype up the crowd (I guess) the announcer blew into the microphone before announcing the starting lineups. It’s so lame I couldn’t help giggling through the national anthem.
During the middle of a game, Cobb came and sat on the bench clutching a water cup close to his midsection, with his hand covering the opening. He looked over to Jonathan Bigley and said, “Hey, I caught a bumblebee.” He turned to show Bigley, removing his hand to reveal no bumblebee, but his penis.
The drives back home after away games were always rough. I know for a fact that some of the drivers took edibles for the first four-hour drive. We’d usually get back from Garden City around 1:30 a.m. but most of the other drives were longer. Roswell and White Sands, both in New Mexico, were particularly far. Driving all night, getting back at 5 a.m. without the option of staying in a hotel really isn’t safe at all.
For the first few games a guy named Tim Henry couldn’t play. Pecos League rules restrict players at each level of experience: rookie, experienced and veteran players. The rule stopping Tim from playing is that each team can have only three veterans (older than 26), and at most one can be a position player. Tim and David Gallagher were both infielders. Nelly had gotten word that another team got around this rule by starting a position player on the mound for one batter, then switching him to his position in the field, swapping off one player and subbing in the starting pitcher from the bullpen. Nelly called the commissioner, Andrew Dunn, asking if he could use the same strategy with Tim but was turned down. This conversation got my LSAT-primed mind thinking, and I searched up the Pecos League roster rules.
Context: Online, Major League Baseball has nine paragraphs detailing roster rules. It also has seven links relating to these rules, and 32 links relating to transactions. The Pecos League, literally, has two sentences, followed by eight bullet points.
Tales from the Pecos league
June 1: One player ate an edible on his day off, but was called to pinch hit in the sixth. He was about a half-second late on a first-pitch fastball, then fouled off a curve to go down 0-2. He took a ball to make it 1-2. The next pitch was a fastball down the middle at the knees. He watched it go by, clearly forgot what the count was, and had to be reminded by the umpire to walk back to the dugout.
June 6: I overheard Nelly chatting up the umpires before the game. The younger guy, Cody was best umpire we had, by far. The old guy, Dave, was pretty abysmal. Dave mentioned that he forgot his contacts. I pitched badly for the second time in a row, no thanks to Dave’s missing contacts. I asked Gator if he thought I’d be cut. Gator assured me no, not yet.
June 7: Dave blew a “safe” call. After a couple of complaints from our dugout and a chat from Nelly, Ryan Patrick yelled, “I’m telling the Sunbelt Conference about this!” This one hit Dave where it hurts. He rushed to our dugout pleading, “Hey, really guys? I don’t need that out of you!” Nelly assured Dave it was a joke, and shaken, Dave awkwardly jogged back behind the pitcher.
Our dugout lost it. It’s so rare to get an umpire flustered like that. Apparently Patty had chatted him up at the motel that morning, where Dave told Patty he was trying to get a résumé together so he could umpire games in the Sunbelt Conference where his son plays, but that his applications had been rejected for the past two years. Threatening umpires dreams: so cruel it’s hilarious.
June 10: Patty asked players for $5 cash. He came in to pitch the top half of the eighth inning when they do the 50/50 raffle drawing. The guys in the dugout erupted as our announcer, Bill, called out Patty’s ticket number. Seventy bucks. I suppose gambling was one way to supplement our salary.
June 12: I felt under the weather before my third start, but I made myself eat a Payday and drink half a Gatorade so I could safely take ibuprofen. During warmups I had to stop and vomit behind the clubhouse. Got about 10 pitches before game time. I threw six shutout innings and we won. Maybe I’ll just yack before every start?
June 13-15: We didn’t have enough gas money to take Cobb or me on the next road trip, so we stayed back and slept, threw, lifted and drank.
June 16: Dave, our old umpire, quit the Pecos League. “Apparently the White Sands Pupfish were too much for him,” Patty reported. White Sands was 2-15 on the season; I wouldn’t be surprised if they took their frustrations out on Dave. Poor guy.
June 17: I caught another pitcher reading a book in the dugout. I joked: “Wow, reading during games is allowed? I’d have been way more efficient these last few weeks.” He responded, completely serious, “It is, when you’re experienced.” Kyle Rodriguez, sitting in between us shook his head in disgust. When you’re experienced. OK, man.
When hitters hit a home run, starting pitchers strike out seven batters, or relief pitchers strike out the side, Pecos League teams “pass the hat.” This is when they ask the fans for money to pay the player directly. Almost like commission on top of the $50 salary. The middle of the season was pretty good to me. With teammate (Dr.) Nick Dorcean’s help, I developed a changeup and struck out nine batters in three consecutive starts, all at home: $21, $35 and $44. I see now I’d been missing out on “pitching” for years, opting for “throwing” instead. Velocity isn’t always the answer.
June 22: Playing in Santa Fe was a debacle. The field was 7,000 feet above sea level, 1,000 feet higher than Trinidad’s. Our first game the weather app said the wind was 17 mph. It blew straight out to center. The dimensions didn’t help: 340 feet down the line in left. Sure. Three hundred fifty-five feet to dead center. Wait what? Two hundred eighty feet down the line in right. Excuse me?
Conor Bawiec came in after a slightly rocky first and second innings, complaining the game balls were actually batting practice balls. There was only one umpire, and Santa Fe found him on Facebook before the game. The field sloped down, with the highest point at home plate. From the mound you actually throw the ball uphill to get it to the plate. The game I started in Santa Fe I let up 11 runs in six innings and left with a 14-11 lead.
At our hotel that night, Nelly texted our group saying, “Gunshots outside, lock ur doors.” Later that night David Gallagher texted back saying, “Cops with Guns drawn right below us (RM 129).” At the field the next day, Jake Miller told us he witnessed the scene from upstairs, not more than 20 feet away. There was a fight and at least two people were shot at. Many of the guys were questioned by the police. Nelly called Andrew Dunn to tell him about the scene and ask if we could move hotels. Dunn told Nelly he should look into it, but that the Motel 6 we stayed in is the cheapest place around. We didn’t end up switching hotels, and traveled to Santa Fe for three more series, totaling seven more nights. The next motel option was $3 more expensive per room. At seven rooms per night when our team stayed there, it would have cost less than $150 for the rest of the season.
June 25: I was late to the field and got a call from Nelly. He said he needed to speak with me. I feared for the worst. Ten seconds I was in his office. He looked at me grimly. “Sean. I’m sorry to tell you this,” he said, looking at the ground. I thought, “This was it. I’m cut. The dream is dead.” Nelly reached behind him into his locker, grabbed a blue polo shirt, extending it my way. “You’re umpiring tonight.” This turned out not to be that strange. I umpired the next game as well. Ten times (I counted) this year we had a player (or players) umpiring, instead of paying a professional one.
Coinciding with our first two trips to Santa Fe and a three-game series against the Alpine Cowboys, we lost eight in a row. The last of these came with a 32-7 defeat in seven innings. Our team considered boycotting the last game of the series for a number of reasons, one of which was that Dunn hadn’t paid for the room Gator and Nelly were supposed to be staying in beforehand. The Motel 6 locked them out of the room for several hours, understandably. We decided to play, and won the final game of the series 16-11.
Let’s play two
Our first off day was the All-Star game, June 30. Our record was 12-18, and we ranked fifth of six teams in the Mountain Division. The expectation was always to make the playoffs, and this was still the case halfway through the season. We had our work cut out for us.
July 2: Our first games of the second half were in a double header against the White Sands Pupfish. “Let’s play two” our announcer Bill boomed, “ ... said the great Yogi Berra.” Shameful. That was Ernie Banks, man.
I pitched the first game, which started at 2 p.m. Striking out the side for the first time this year, they passed the hat for me. When I looked up at the stands on my way off the field there were only five people.
July 4: Fourth of July at Trinidad was a big deal. There was a block party starting at noon for a 5 p.m. game. Hot Yoga with the Triggers was first, which was half an hour of yoga on the field. Cobb won the watermelon eating contest after that, and we held a hitting contest on the field for fans to see who could hit a baseball the farthest. While our regular home games might turn out 20-40 fans, there were easily 500 there at game time, probably more. It was a perfect day, except that we traded Brian Garcia, Conor Bawiec and David Gallagher to White Sands. If we were gonna trade guys, I wish we wouldn’t trade my roommates.
The trend of not bringing starting pitchers on the road who weren’t pitching that series continued all year. It gave me some time to study and hang out with Cobb, Calvin Luk and Jose Orta. I took the LSAT again in July, and interviewed for staff positions on political campaigns.
July 8: Attracting two-man umpiring crews was a season-long problem for Trinidad. Against Garden City we had one high school umpire, Cobb, and a player from Garden as our crew. The home plate ump, Mike, overruled Cobb on a “safe” call at third base, where a tag was applied but the fielder dropped the ball. Garden City’s manager David Peterson protested the game, and when he did, Nelly tried to convince Mike that the player was safe. I’ve never seen a manager try to convince an umpire that his call was wrong in a way that would benefit the other team. The call was actually that bad, and if the game was protested it could invalidate a win for us.
July 9: Jakob Shuler, our power-hitting catcher, had a 2-for-22 streak. To break out of it, he drank a few ounces of beer out of the cap of his bat before batting practice. He hit a homer and a double that night. Clearly it worked.
July 10: On the first play against Garden City, Thomas Jefferies almost caught a fly ball down the line, but whiffed and crashed face-first into the fence. He didn’t get up for the rest of the play, and it went for an inside-the-park home run. Bill called an ambulance, but Jefferies played the rest of the inning. He was bleeding from his lip and the bridge of his nose. His forehead had a couple of bruises as well where he may have hit one of the poles holding up the fence. He told the EMTs that he felt OK, he’d been concussed before and this didn’t feel like it. Knowing they would take him to the hospital anyway, Jefferies asked the EMTs, “Is it OK if I get that at bat?” They said they didn’t see why not. Jefferies grounded out to first, then went to the hospital. He did have a concussion.
July 12: There were some familiar faces in the crowd in Santa Fe. Kim Schultz and Shantell Gerrardo, our GM and assistant GM, both made the trip. Next to Kim was commissioner Dunn. In between the third and fourth innings Patty left our dugout with a ball and a pen. In full uniform, he asked Dunn for his autograph. Our whole dugout piled close to the fence to watch. Dunn waved his hands in embarrassment and shook his head. We lost it.
July 13: The next day I heard Nelly complaining about how we only had one umpire again. It appears the epidemic was spreading. Nelly called Dunn and explained that we needed help to pay umpires. Dunn countered, “Well, I paid Cody.” Cody is a good umpire, but you need two umpires. Cody officiated alone, standing behind the pitcher to call balls and strikes. The last time this happened in a game I played was Little League.
I caught up with Brian Garcia and Conor Bawiec somewhat consistently. They told me early on that White Sands doesn’t pay their players, except through pass the hat (this is actually the case for nine of the 12 teams).
We played around .500 baseball in the second half, and with around 25 games to go we were 10 games out of the third playoff spot.
July 19: In one of our final home games, Cody, our one solid umpire, left. I talked to Cody about this. His paycheck hadn’t cleared by gametime, and he was still waiting on money from the previous series. Cody told Kim he wouldn’t step on the field until it cleared, which it didn’t. Then Kim balled him out. Cody left after that.
July 22: In White Sands, we used our newly acquired veteran player (over 26), Josh Hodges, to play first base. This was against the bullet points on the Pecos League website, but somehow Nelly argued that Dunn hadn’t made other teams pay for making this mistake. Hodges hit two homers and we split the series.
July 23: When our playoff hopes were mathematically eclipsed, we didn’t even know it because the standings online weren’t up to date. I noticed that our paychecks used to come on Wednesdays, but the previous week they came on Thursday. This week they came on a Friday. Fifty bucks every eight days. It’s actually important when you spend the $7 a day you’re allotted. Kim sent us a thank you message when we knew we were eliminated. She told us that we should be prepared to leave after our last series in Alpine, Texas, and that our host family accommodations would expire when we left for that trip.
July 25: Our first scheduled off day of the season, unless you count the All-Star game. The season started May 30.
The budget ran thin for me toward the end of the summer. I could afford only pre-made meals that were under $4. Other than that I survived my last week in Trinidad on peanut butter, Gatorade Powder (mixed with hose water from the field), coffee and beer.
July 27: Our last two home games were rained out. Kim gave us our final paychecks. Many guys voiced concerns about not having enough money to travel home from Alpine. A train ticket was $260 per person, and we had no cars returning to Trinidad. Of the 22 guys eligible to play for us, seven needed financial support in order to travel that the team did not have. Of the remaining 15, many decided it would be ludicrous to play seven more away games — two in New Mexico and five in Texas — and spend their own money to travel there and back.
Beginning of the end
On July 28, Scott and I packed our stuff into our cars, moved out of our room at the Prospect Plaza, said our goodbyes to Susie Lopez, and headed off to Roswell to play the rained-out games from the day before. Only seven guys, including Nelly and Gator, who are coaches, said they would show up at Roswell. Two hours into the drive, Nelly called me and Scott to tell us to drive home. Our season was over, and he’d been fired.
Five days later, I was at home with friends in L.A. when I got a call from Sean McNeill with the High Desert Yardbirds. He said Nelly had told him I was available, and offered me a spot. The Yardbirds were in first place in the Pacific Division of the Pecos League. The team didn’t get paid, and a dispute between Dunn and the owner of their home field left the Yardbirds as a travel team for the rest of the season. This meant no pass the hat or travel funding, either. I knew this might be my last chance to play at this level, though. I accepted the offer and met the team in Bakersfield the next day.
Aug. 1: At 5:45 p.m. when I showed up for scheduled batting practice before the game, only two other guys were there. Everything about the Yardbirds was cartoony. The attitude of the team was upbeat and silly. The facial hair as a group was incredible. Handlebar mustaches, Fu Manchus, chinstraps, you name it. While the Triggers had folded because travel wasn’t provided, the Yardbirds were making it work with 18 or 19 guys.
One of the guys asked if I want to smoke weed with him before batting practice. I declined. He said he offered because he knew I came from Trinidad. I said I guess it isn’t much different out here. “Oh, it's the same, but we win … ”
I got my hat and jersey in the parking lot as the national anthem played.
After showing up late to BP and with the rest of the guys hanging out on their phones behind the dugout, the Yardbirds scored five in the first inning, all with two outs. The dagger of it all came when John Schultz, the starting pitcher, ripped a double into the left-center gap to score three runs. We went on to win 11-2. I could get used to this.
I stayed with six other guys in a host family house with a woman named Pat, who has six dogs. She was very nice and even cooked us dinner. The next morning I woke up at 7:45 a.m. to a husky walking across my chest. “But we win,” I told myself.
It’s really incredible how being on a winning team improves the mood. I was excited about playing again, even through a four-hour drive to Monterey with a throbbing arm and no gas money. All I could think about was the playoffs.
Aug. 3: I got to pitch against Monterey, coming in the second inning. I had a 2-2 count on one batter and spotted a good fastball on the outer half, which the umpire must have blinked on. The batter launched the next pitch over the fence in center. The umpire walked out to the mound to hand me a new baseball and apologized for missing the pitch before. I got out of the inning with no further damage, and as I walked off the mound the home plate ump came over and apologized a second time. I couldn’t be mad at him, as long as we both knew. We ended the season on a 9-2 loss.
The Yardbirds’ regular season came to a close at 46-16.
Aug. 6: The day of our first playoff game, my eligibility was again in question. Kim Schultz had talked to Dunn on my behalf and sent me a long text confirming that I was eligible. Sean McNeill was not so sure, though, and to settle the dispute, I called Dunn directly.
He answered the third time I called, and when I asked if I was eligible to play for High Desert, he told me I could not play. We spoke for several minutes. He told me that High Desert picking me up after the trade deadline, in fairness, let other teams to pick up players from outside of the league. He mentioned Manny Corpas, the former closer for the Rockies, somewhat proudly. He acknowledged that High Desert was strapped for guys and could use me, but concluded that it wasn’t fair to the current playoff teams who weren’t picking up guys right before their elimination games. I thanked him, and our call ended. High Desert won the first game of the series against Bakersfield, but lost the next two to end their season. Corpas started for Bakersfield in Game 2. He pitched nine innings, allowed one run and struck out 10.
“Do you know how boring law is?”
I get asked this question almost every time I bring up my plans to work on campaigns for a year, then apply to law schools. But after my summer in the Pecos League, I’d welcome a boring job. As long as it pays more than $50 a week.