- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

NEWARK, N.J. — Welcome to the road trip that never ends.

The Pennsylvania Road Warriors are aptly named — even though they don’t play a single game in their home state. Instead, the minor league baseball team’s season consists of 126 road games, a swing that began in May and won’t end until the middle of September.

It is a blur of bus rides, ballparks, hotel rooms and hostile fans that definitely takes its toll.

“The number one goal for everyone is to get off this team,” pitcher Greg Runser said. “It’s an absolute grind. We have 3,000 people a night rooting for us to lose for five straight months. Wherever I end up, I am going to be a stronger man and a better baseball player for going through this.”

Runser is among many once-promising prospects on the Road Warriors. The 24-year-old bleached blond led the Class AA Texas League with 25 saves last season before being told his services were no longer needed. Runser now lives out of five suitcases, carried day after day into a seemingly endless string of hotel rooms.

The Road Warriors — not-so-affectionately known as “Road Kill” throughout the independent Atlantic League — pack up their belongings every three days and move to the next city in this eight-team league that stretches from New Jersey to New Hampshire.

They never get cheered, never get the last at-bat and never get the break of a “home” call from the umpire.

“Yeah, I remember what it’s like to have a crowd cheering for my team,” said Pat Daneker, who pitched in three games for the Chicago White Sox in 1999. “It’s a lot more fun. Obviously, it’s a lot tougher to win ballgames when you never get to sleep in your own bed and you have to move all your stuff every three days from a hotel to a bus and to another hotel. I guess it takes a special kind of guy to be on the road every single day.”

The players rarely see their family and friends. The main lifelines to loved ones are the cell phone calls that originate from overnight bus rides across the Northeast.

The pay does little to ease the pain. The Road Warriors are the worst-paid team in the league. Many players earn only $1,000 a month — before paying their own health insurance.

The results are predictable: The Road Warriors have a record of 14-49 and stand 25 games behind first-place Nashua (N.H.) in the Northern Division. They recently endured a 13-game losing streak and broke a five-game skid with a 9-6 victory Monday at Camden, N.J.

If independent leagues such as the Atlantic are the final outpost for baseball journeymen, the Road Warriors are somewhere west of Nome.

“This is rock bottom” said pitcher Kevin McClain, who spent five seasons with minor league affiliates of the Angels. “Everyone has their days where they say, ‘I can’t deal with this anymore.’ I didn’t think it would seem as long as it does now. A two-hour bus ride now feels like five. And we’re only coming up on the halfway point of the season.”

• • •

Eleven-year-old Roberto Pena is playing on a luggage cart in his dad’s hotel room at a Comfort Inn in Atlantic City, N.J. He is named after Roberto Alomar, once a teammate of his dad’s in Puerto Rico. Roberto Pena’s father, Bert, is in his second season managing the Road Warriors.

“I have to bring my little kid here on vacation to see how he’s doing,” said Pena, 45, who has four children. “My wife will be here in a few days. The only bad thing about this road team is, you don’t see your family for a while. That and the bus.”

Pena sees his oldest son, Bert Jr., often. He is a member of the Road Warriors, though currently on the injured list after being hit in the jaw by a throw several weeks ago and requiring surgery. There was, however, an upside to the accident: It got the 23-year-old shortstop off the road and allowed him to go back to Puerto Rico to see his 1-month-old daughter, Kemalice, for the first time.

The strain of being away from family is something all the players feel.

Chris Peters was living his dream, a 31-year-old southpaw who spent parts of six seasons pitching for his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates. Life was good. He earned $550,000 in 2000 alone.

Then he blew out his arm. So in an effort to keep his baseball career alive, Peters left his wife, Selina, and their three children at home in Pittsburgh and joined the homeless Road Warriors.

“I have been to the top, and now its seems I’m going nowhere but backwards,” Peters said. “I didn’t have any other options. This is kind of my last shot. Either this year I get out of here [to a major league organization] or I find some other career.”

Pena, meanwhile, would settle for a permanent summer home. The manager has been told the team’s six-season journey will end next year in Lancaster, Pa., where a stadium is being built.

“I hope next year, if I am here, that we will be in Lancaster,” Pena said. “Then I can bring my family.”

• • •

The Road Warriors are composed of players no other Atlantic League team wanted. But if a player performs well with the Warriors, who serve as a farm team for the rest of the league, another club can claim him.

“It makes it a little tough when they take our [Numbers] 3 and 4 hitters out of our lineup,” said Daneker, in his second season with the Road Warriors. “Every time somebody gets hot, they usually leave. The odds are against us no matter what.”

The team keeps its spirits up largely thanks to the wisecracking Pena, who remains upbeat despite dire circumstances.

“He takes a laid-back approach and is somewhat easier on us,” pitcher McClain said. “He could make it torture, but he makes it somewhat fun. He understands that part of us losing is being on the road.”

McClain says the players’ greatest challenge is not always the other team but the weariness that comes from always living out of a suitcase.

“We spend a lot of time sleeping and eating because a lot of times there is absolutely nothing to do,” said McClain, weaving through a maze of hotel hallways that seems to go on as long as one of the Warriors’ trips. “I forget where I am sometimes. We know Bridgeport has a Dunkin’ Donuts. That’s always good.

“We spend a lot of time hanging out in hotel lobbies, playing cards and doing crossword puzzles. That’s about it.”

• • •

The Road Warriors exist because of a quirk in the Atlantic League, which has seven self-sustaining franchises and needed an eighth for a balanced schedule.

This club was supposed to be based in Newburgh, N.Y. The team played some home games in a small community park there during the inaugural season of 1998 but mainly played on the road. In 1999, it was scheduled to move to a stadium being built in Williams Township, Pa., and was renamed the Lehigh Valley Black Diamonds. But construction on that stadium halted after the team owner declared bankruptcy in 2000. So in 2000, the Black Diamonds played about 45 games (out of 140) at “home” at a community field in Quakertown, Pa., a second-rate facility compared to the largely modern parks in the rest of the league.

Many players saved what little money they earned by living in tents near Quakertown.

“The pitching coach, his wife and about 15 players stayed at a campsite,” said one-time Baltimore Oriole Wayne Krenchicki, who managed the club from 1998 to 2000. “They would go fishing and camp out and then come to the ballpark. … It was a very trying time for the players. We were basically the whipping boys for the league. I wouldn’t call it a good experience.”

• • •

It was an all-too-typical game for the Road Warriors in Newark’s new downtown ballpark last week.

The visitors jumped out to a 3-0 lead, but hurt themselves with mistakes and lost 14-5. Third baseman Juan Rodriguez moved to the mound in the ninth inning. Rodriguez, who played third base right-handed, pitched left-handed and gave up five runs.

“They have guys out of position on a regular basis,” said Newark pitcher Matt Wagner, who spent last season with the Road Warriors. “That happens because somebody got picked up or somebody is hurt and they don’t go out and get somebody right away. Last year they had a catcher who had never played any other position playing second base.”

There is controversy after the hosts build a six-run lead. Newark’s Rickey Henderson, the 44-year-old future Hall of Famer, works the count to 3-0 with the third baseman on the mound, then swings at the next pitch.

Henderson hits it deep to left and breaks into his home run trot before the ball bounces off the wall and he is forced to hustle into second.

“They were winning 11-5 and it goes to a 3-0 count, you are not supposed to swing — especially against our team,” Pena said. “He would never do that in the major leagues. … The next guy [Michael] Coleman hits a home run and stood at the plate watching. They show us no respect — like we are nothing.”

Things don’t improve after the game.

An aluminum tray of meatballs and macaroni serves as a postgame dinner in the cramped clubhouse. After dinner, the storage area under the bus is stuffed with duffel bags as the bus and an accompanying van filled with baseball gear pull out for Atlantic City.

“We don’t have any trouble with hotels, only the bus,” said Pena, whose team has endured smelly buses and ones without air conditioning. “Sometimes they send us an old bus. One time last year, we got stuck three times. We don’t have a home. We should have a beautiful bus because that’s where we live. We deserve it.”

• • •

Pena gets little rest after the late-night trip to Atlantic City, arriving at the clubhouse to do laundry at 8 a.m. The Road Warriors have only one set of uniforms, gray with red-and-black lettering. He is joined by Donner Smart, whose official role is bus driver.

Unofficially, Smart is the team’s smiling, gentle grandfather. Smart, 58, retired after 31 years with the New Jersey Transit Authority. Now he takes players to the doctor, drives them to lunch and provides emotional support. This is his third summer on this baseball road show.

“I have been married 39 years, so my wife doesn’t care,” Smart said with a laugh.

Smart occasionally stops at his Jersey City home to see his wife and do laundry. “As long as I send her the money, I’m all right.”

Pena’s laundry run, however, hits a snag: No one is around to let Pena and Smart into the clubhouse, so they have to wait three hours. While they wait, the Road Warriors’ players get up early to take advantage of the hotel’s free breakfast and save their $16 per diem.

Players lounge around the hotel until Smart shuttles them by van to the field at 3:30 p.m. After infield and batting practice, the Road Warriors retreat to the clubhouse. Several play an emotional card game they created call “Pluck.”

On this night, the Road Warriors play like a contender. They pound out 12 hits and win 5-2. Former Minnesota Twin Dan Perkins, in his second outing of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, pitches two shutout innings in relief.

“We have to celebrate,” said Pena, sitting back and sipping a cold beer in his clubhouse office. “We won. Man. … If we play the way we played tonight, we are going to win some games.”

Players linger in the clubhouse and gather around a television to watch a major league game. But then, where else do they have to go? A sparse clubhouse in Atlantic City becomes the Road Warriors makeshift family room.

“We have been on the road for 60-some straight days, and we are expected to perform every night,” Runser said. “I have my days when I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ If you’re a big boy, you can suck it up and do it. It is still baseball.

“I don’t care if I have to be on the road all year. I still love coming to the yard every day.”

Even when the yard always belongs to another team.

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