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On baseball’s back fields, independent leaguers still dream of majors

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WALDORF, Md. | Charlie Manning was done with baseball in 2010.

Manning was 31, and he'd had a nice career. It wasn't stellar by conventional standards. He'd kicked around a lot of minor league towns, playing for as many as three teams in two of his nine years and for two in most of the others.

But he did get a taste of the high life when he appeared in 57 games for the Washington Nationals in 2008, his only year in the major leagues.

The phone was no longer ringing and he was fine with that. He went home to Winter Haven, Fla., to figure out stage two of his adult life. It was time.

Then he turned on the television during baseball's playoffs. It wasn't time. The game tugged at Manning again, a pull way too hard to resist. One call led to another and then another and Manning had a uniform again. He has that same uniform today.

Manning is in his third season with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, a team in the independent Atlantic League that plays its home games in Waldorf. The Blue Crabs' immaculate Regency Furniture Stadium is only 27 miles from Nationals Park and the distance provides a fitting metaphor for what Manning and the others in the league face. It is pretty close, though not always easy to get there. But it can be done.

"I had my moment. I was happy with how my career went. I was going to take it to the house, retire," Manning said before a recent Blue Crabs game. "I watched the playoffs and those competitive juices had started flowing. I had to come and try it again."

Trying it again is why Manning shares a locker room with four others who reached the majors and 14 players who got as high as the Triple-A level. Most rosters around the league are similar. Trying it again is why Dontrelle Willis is pitching for the Long Island Ducks, why ex-National D'Angelo Jimenez is playing for the Camden Riversharks, why ex-Nationals pitchers Jason Bergmann and Gary Majewski are playing for the Sugar Land Skeeters.

It is not a young league. The Blue Crabs' average age is higher than the Nationals'. It is not a developmental league. It is a prove-it league, a chance to show organizations in the United States and abroad you can still play. It is a chance to get another chance.

"Teams are much more likely to sign a guy who is somewhere throwing than a guy who is sitting at home," Bergmann said.

That's a major selling point Blue Crabs manager Patrick Osborn uses when recruiting players such as Manning for his roster. A former standout at the University of Florida, Osborn is in his sixth season with the Blue Crabs. He spent three years as a player and is in his third as manager. He never made the majors as a player. He came back for another shot and stayed.

"I want guys who are hungry, who are coming here to get out of here," Osborn said. "I was given a chance to come here and try to get out. It didn't happen. At least I could walk away knowing I gave it my best shot. I could live with it.

"I tell guys that as long as you're putting on a uniform every day, something good can happen. Their ultimate goal is to play in the big leagues. That was mine. It doesn't happen for everyone. It doesn't happen for most people. It does happen. There's that chance, if you still have that uniform on and you're still playing."

***

It does happen. As of last week, a total of 22 players (all but two of them pitchers) on current major league rosters had spent some time in independent leagues. The number fluctuates as rosters change. While it is not a very big number, it isn’t a pipe dream.

One of the non-pitchers is outfielder-first baseman Daniel Nava of the Red Sox. Boston famously signed him for a dollar after he spent some time with Chico in the Golden Baseball League in 2007. Nava is now in his third season with the Sox.

***

The Atlantic League may offer a small potential pathway to the majors. It is not the majors, and no one tries to pretend it is the majors.

The major league minimum salary this season is $480,000. The maximum an Atlantic League team can pay a player is $3,000 per month, in-season only, and “on my team, the average salary is around two grand a month,” Osborn said.

Meal money in the big leagues is about $100 a day. It is $18 in the Atlantic League.

Though it isn’t the majors, there are far worse ways to spend an afternoon than watching an Atlantic League game. The Blue Crabs’ stadium opened in 2008, the same year as Nationals Park. The $10 million facility seats 5,500 and the team draws an average of 3,300 per game. There’s plenty of parking, all of it free. Food and beverages are cheaper than the same at a big league game. And the cozy stadium puts spectators very close to the field.

The level of play, Osborn said, tends to vary. In general, he said, it compares favorably to Triple-A baseball — especially if you get experienced pitchers squaring off. Sometimes, more so later in the year when rosters have been picked over, the level is closer to Double-A.

“But it is very good baseball,” said Ron Karkovice, the Camden manager who spent 12 years catching for the White Sox. “If this league had been around when I was finished, I might have tried to play a little longer.”

Karkovice retired in 1997. The Atlantic League started a year later.

Bergmann, the former National, last pitched in the majors in 2010. His performance with Camden last season (0.81 ERA in 22 games) earned him a chance with Triple-A Colorado Springs. He was not invited to spring training, so this year he latched on with Sugar Land, located outside Houston and not far from Bergmann’s home in Austin, Texas.

He had a 0.32 ERA and 17 saves through his first 28 games of this season.

A starter during much of his time with the Nationals, Bergmann thinks he is a more complete and more mature pitcher now at age 31 and he’s willing to wait it out in the hopes someone notices.

“The independent leagues are really growing,” he said. “A lot of guys are healthy and want to stay in the game longer and this gives them the opportunity. People are finding they are not at the end and this can be a way to springboard yourself back into it.

“That’s what I’m doing. I feel I have plenty good enough stuff to pitch in the majors, not just the high minors. I still have my pitches. I still have the competitive edge.”

***

It does happen. Nationals fans will probably remember, not too fondly, Jerome Williams. A first-round pick of the San Francisco Giants in 1999, he pitched six less-than-memorable games with the Nationals in 2007. He went 0-5 with a 7.20 ERA. He went on the disabled list and was never seen around here again. He surfaced in the majors again in 2011 with the Los Angeles Angels and he's won 15 games for them the past three seasons.

In between here and there? Two stints in independent leagues, including a 6-0 record in Lancaster, Pa., in 2011 that caught the eyes of the Angels.

"Just because it is independent ball doesn't mean you are done," Bergmann said. "Someone will find you if you are doing well enough. Jerome was in a tough spot with the Nationals and it didn't work out for him. Look what he's done the past 2-3 years. Maybe he needed a couple of years to mature, to find himself, to refine his stuff. Look where it has gotten him. I'm very happy for Jerome."

***

Williams is 31. Manning is 34. He knows the odds of a Williams-like resurrection probably aren't good. He's been solid for the Blue Crabs for three seasons, winning eight games and keeping his ERA in the mid-twos the past two seasons.

"If I finish my career here, I'll make my peace with it," Manning said. "I have enjoyed it."

Manning said he is one semester away from a business degree from the University of Tampa. He's engaged to be married and isn't sure how long he can go on making less than $20,000 a year playing baseball. Most of the Atlantic League players live with host families, so a major expense is taken care of with that. But it isn't easy to get ahead and, with less than a full season in the majors, he doesn't have the big bankroll someone like Willis has to keep him afloat.

He acknowledges he's thinking about the end. He's not ready to call it the end yet.

"Baseball has been in my blood since I was a kid," Manning said. "The competition here is very good and I love going out and throwing the baseball. Who knows how much longer I can play this game and keep my body healthy? As long as I can, I'd like to keep coming back. It is the love of the game that keeps me going. I got that experience of being in the big leagues. I'd like to get back. If I don't play, I'm not going to have that chance."

Manning went 1-3 with a 5.14 ERA in 57 games for the 2008 Nationals. He made his debut May 24. In June, he had a streak of 10 games without allowing a run. Though the team wasn't very good, it was the majors.

"If I can compete at a pretty high level, that's why I want to keep playing. If I felt I couldn't, I'd go home," Manning said. "I didn't play as long at the major league level as I wanted but I did get that chance. A lot of guys can't say that. It's not like I'm not happy with that but I'd like to get back and prove I could still do it. I feel that I can. You can't ever feel you couldn't or you couldn't be playing. We'll see how this year plays out and figure it out from them."

***

It does happen. Perhaps the biggest poster child of that fact is Scott Kazmir, who led the American League in strikeouts with 239 in 2007 while pitching with Tampa Bay (and also in walks with 100 in 2005). He won 10 or more games five straight seasons.

He was released by the Angels in June 2011 and spent last year with Sugar Land. He went 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA in 14 games. But it earned him a shot at winter baseball and that earned an invitation to spring training with the Cleveland Indians. Kazmir is 4-4 for them thus far this season.

"I actually faced him last year," said Osborn, the Blue Crabs manager who activates himself now and then until a roster reinforcement can arrive. "He hadn't pitched in a year. You could see as the innings increased he was getting better. He goes to winter ball, goes to spring training, makes the team.

"Those stories are cool. It is fun to see. That gene is still in them to produce at a high level in this game."

***

Daryl Thompson doesn't have Kazmir's past. He may never have his present, either. Or maybe he will. That's why he is wearing the Blue Crabs uniform.

The team plays minutes from his home in La Plata, just down Route 301 from Waldorf. The Montreal Expos drafted Thompson out of La Plata High School in 2003. Three years later, he was the player to be named in a huge deal between the Nationals and the Reds.

He had only low-level experience in the minors by then. Yet he was in Cincinnati in 2008 and was once thought of as a potential rotation regular.

Beset by shoulder problems, he only made three starts in the majors in 2008 and another one in 2011. He has an 0-3 career record and an 8.31 career ERA.

For the Blue Crabs, he won two games in 11 appearances last season. He was 6-4 through his first 14 starts this year, with a 3.27 ERA.

He's only 27, which makes him one of the youngest Blue Crabs. His shoulder feels good. He still has time.

"If I could do it all again the same way, I would," Thompson said. "I made a couple of mistakes but things are going well now.

"My main goal is obviously to get back to the major leagues and I want to keep rolling with that, keep my confidence going. But you can't get too far ahead of yourself. One start at a time. I feel like this league will make me a better pitcher than I was before, and it has already done that.

"I have a lot better velocity than I had before. I'm making pitches. I'm a lot smarter on the mound."

He learned quickly, he said, that being a former major leaguer didn't make him anything special among his Atlantic League peers.

"When I first got here, my first game I was kind of underestimating the players in this league, underestimating the league in general," Thompson said. "My first start, they kind of showed me this is not a walk in the park. These guys can play. You're going to get good competition in this league. You have guys throwing the ball well, guys who will hit your mistakes. There are a lot of ex-big leaguers here and some guys who probably should be now."

***

Some of them will get there. Most won't. As long as there's that chance, Osborn and his colleagues won't have trouble filling the uniforms.

"We're baseball players," Osborn said. "[We] want to keep playing until [we] think [we] can't do it. I think when people hear independent ball, they're like, 'What is that, summer ball, men's league, semipro?' It is far from that now. It is good baseball. And if you're playing, something good can happen."

Which is why Bergmann and all the others don't mind wearing an independent uniform and making little money.

"You have to swallow your pride a little bit," Bergmann said. "Your numbers will suffer if you think about getting a job somewhere else. Put your head down and pitch.

"If you perform well, you can get where you want to go."

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