Now I’m catching on to why he never left the park

There was no reason for me to write down the guy’s name, but I wish I had.

Three of us – Mike, Al and I – were on a trip to Amarillo, Texas, in 1982 and were spending every evening there at Amarillo Gold Sox baseball games.

One night, Mike’s name was picked from a giant barrel of entries to go onto the field during the seventh-inning stretch. If he could throw any of three balls through a target, he would win a prize.

We were drunk, and Mike was psyched. But the rains hit during the fifth inning. The game stopped and the storm didn’t. A flash flood cut the city in half, and we were barely able to get back to our hotel.

The next afternoon, we navigated around barricaded streets to get to the county fairgrounds, where the Gold Sox played their games. We wanted to see if the previous night’s game would be resumed and whether Mike would get his chance to win that prize.

The box office was closed. The only person in sight was a heavy-set middle-aged man with a shovel and a rake.

I’ll just call him Jim. If he gave us his name, we promptly forgot it. He was the stadium’s one-man grounds crew. No, he hadn’t heard whether the Gold Sox would be able to play that night, but he sure hoped so. We should stop by just in case.

Then he told us his story.

Jim was from somewhere else, but baseball brought him to Texas. In those days with more extensive minor-league systems, you might start in a rookie league in Montana and advance through a myriad of other leagues in other states before reaching a team like the Gold Sox.

That’s what he did. 

Amarillo was part of the San Diego Padres chain, at the Class AA level. If the breaks went his way there, he could advance to the Las Vegas Stars at Class AAA and then to the big time in San Diego.

As they often do, the breaks went an opposite way. The Padres organization already had plenty of catchers. During Jim’s heyday in the 1970s, Fred Kendall had a lock on the job in San Diego. Jim wasn’t good enough to challenge him.

By 1982, the Padres had a 26-year-old catcher, Terry Kennedy, with three other guys – Steve Swisher, Ron Tingley and Doug Gwodsz – ready to take his place. Two levels further down the chain, the starting catcher for the Gold Sox, Mike Martin, was ahead of our rake-and-shovel man, too.

Martin was lucky, by baseball standards. He actually elbowed his way up the ladder and reached the majors for eight games with the Chicago Cubs in 1986. He got 13 at-bats with one hit, a double in the eighth inning on Sept. 27. It was a bad Cubs team, and no one other than Martin probably remembers the game.

Jim’s deal was different. More young catchers were on the way up, and the Padres organization didn’t need him. The Gold Sox were ready to send him home. But he was a decent guy and wanted to stay around, so the Sox offered him a job as the groundskeeper. They kept him on contract, just in case. If Martin and the second-stringer both got hurt, Jim could take off his work gloves, grab a mitt and serve as the emergency catcher.

He couldn’t have been happier with the arrangement. He was able to stay in Amarillo, be part of the team and stay in baseball shape, just in case.

Baseball is funny in that way. Sometimes, your brain catches up to your body later in life. You suddenly understand what you need to do. Everything clicks and you can be the player you want to be. 

You’ll never see a 38-year-old making his NFL debut at quarterback or in the NBA as a point guard. But if you take a deep dive into baseball history, you’ll find rookies that age or older. A couple worth googling are Les “Wide Wimpy” Willis and Connie Marrero.

Realistically, though, even in baseball, the future favors the young. Two nights before the rainout, 22-year-old Kevin McReynolds made his first Gold Sox game memorable by blasting a walk-off home run. He was on his way. By the end of 1983, he was the starting right-fielder in San Diego.

McReynolds’ major league career was long and productive – 12 seasons split between the Padres, Mets and Royals. In 1988, he finished third in the National League’s MVP vote.

Jim was there to see that first homer, and you might think that he would be jealous. He had put in more time and tried just as hard as McReynolds. When we spoke with him that day in the muddy fairgrounds, Jim had hours of sweaty work ahead of him, preparing the field for a game when he almost certainly would not play.

Somehow, this was a very good day for him.

There is no surprise happy ending to this story. Jim would be in his mid-70s or pushing 80 by now. The Gold Sox packed up for the 1983 season and moved to Beaumont, Texas. In 1994, Amarillo launched an independent league team called the Dillas, which folded in 2010. They were replaced by the Amarillo Sox, which became the Thunderheads. Since 2019, the city has had a Class AA team again, called the Sod Poodles.

Did Jim stick around with the Dillas or Thunderheads? I can consult a number of baseball websites to find out what happened to Kevin McReynolds. About Jim? I don’t even know his real name.

For years, when I would talk of this rake-and-shovel man, he was a pathetic figure. He was someone whose parade had passed without him knowing it. Here he was, sweeping up after the elephants.

His story is different because I have changed. I’m less ambitious and impatient now. I understand why I might find joy in preparing a field for others. I don’t play but the game continues. Today is a very good day.

There’s always another parade. We might see an elephant.

I can only hope that, finally, my brain is catching up so that everything can click.