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SONOMA — You have to be in love, really in love, to understand what you are about to read. Love not a person, but an activity, like doing math, building a house, teaching school or, in this case, playing baseball. It has to be an all-encompassing love, the kind of love that leaves no escape, otherwise what Will Scott did last winter will make no sense to you, no sense whatsoever.

Living in Atlanta, Scott, a right-handed pitcher, would wake up in the morning and go for a run. Then he would go to the gym. “I’d make sure I’d take my protein,” he said. Scott would eat right, get his sleep, keep his weight down and not do stupid stuff a 23-year old young man might be tempted to do. Scott spent all winter in training.

“I didn’t have a reason to do any of that,” Scott said. “I wasn’t under contract with any team.”

Scott couldn’t let go of the game or maybe it was the game that couldn’t let Scott go. Scott was released last year by the San Diego Padres, having spent 31/2 years with the organization, most of it in Class A with a couple of cups of coffee in Class AAA.

“People just got bigger and smarter,” said Scott of his minor league experience.

But Scott couldn’t leave the game any more than he could leave in the closet his right arm that produces an 88-91 mph fastball.

Welcome, folks, to the 2014 Sonoma Stompers, a team full of Will Scotts, 22 players who can’t let go, don’t want to let go, many who probably don’t know how to let go. They leave the game only when every door in front of them slams shut. They need to be worn down, worn out. Like Gabriel Garcia, a right-handed pitcher who was scheduled to start the game Saturday against San Rafael – and then retire.

This is independent baseball, professional baseball without a Major League affiliation. Being independent is more than a word that defines the lack of connection with the big leagues. Independent is also a word that describes the very nature of the players who toil here at Arnold Park and also in parks in San Rafael, Pittsburg and Vallejo, the four sites of the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs.

A player in independent baseball needs a strong sense of self. Why else, for example, would Scott come here when initially he didn’t even know where Sonoma was? And for a paycheck something less than winning the lottery? Each team has a monthly salary cap of $15,000 which includes paying two coaches as well as the 22 players.

An independent player always has something to prove. Pitcher Ramon Martinez was released after seven years in the Seattle Mariners’ minor league system, given an explanation that didn’t satisfy him.

“They told me: ‘Don’t give up. You still have a chance,’ ” said Martinez, 29. “If that was the case, why did they release me?”

Each player knows good performance is necessary and must be immediate. The Stompers play just 76 games in a three-month period. Stompers manager Ray Serrano released three players after each accumulated 40 lackluster at-bats.

All players dream of the big leagues but some will be happy with modest achievements. Infielder Charlie Mirabal hasn’t seen his 5-month-old son, Ignacio, in three months, his family in Venezuela.

“My dream is for my family to see me play anywhere,” Mirabal said.

In the big leagues? Mirabal shrugged. Just some place where his salary would be large enough to support wife and child.

“It would mean everything to me,” Mirabal said.

Players in independent baseball understand that stability is a relative term. Players come and go almost like passengers through a bus turnstile. For example, Will Krout started the Stompers home opener, allowed just two earned runs in 72/3 innings and then retired to enter law enforcement in San Diego. On the other hand pitcher Scott Garner, 22, arrived Tuesday from Florida with a strong sense of purpose.

“I give myself a real shot,” said the right-hander.

The Stompers are a melting pot. They have players from the United States, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Japan, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Spain. They have a cross-section of players with some offering the hint of many tomorrows – Garner is the youngest at 22 – and others with a limited possibilities – Derek Forbes is the oldest at 35.

“Playing baseball,” said Forbes, who has played 10 years of independent ball after four years in the Diamondbacks, Mets and Orioles chains, “is like having soda pop when you were a kid. It always puts a smile on your face.”

While the backgrounds, ages and experience vary widely, one constant remains.

Unlike the big league, you won’t see a Stomper jog down the first base line after hitting a sure-out grounder. You won’t see a Stomper grandstand, afraid to slide or otherwise act entitled. And it’s not beer-league softball either or Wine Country Baseball, once a sketchy experiment in below-the-radar community baseball.

The standard of play, routinely, is Class A with some performances resembling Class AA and sometimes Class AAA. Pitchers routinely hit 90 mph. Hitters? Well, we can start with Stompers first baseman Joel Carranza, the league leader in homers with 11.

“Why is Joel here?” Scott said. “He has hit some monster shots.”

That especially would be two homers at Arnold, both Carranza line drives to the deepest part of the park, traveling 420 feet at least.

“In the beginning (of each season) you always glance to the stands to see if a big-league scout is there,” said Carranza, 25.

In the absence of Major League scout, the players turn their admiring gaze to their manager. Serrano, a catcher by trade, played 10 years at Triple-A, mostly with Atlanta. Serrano’s career rose to the point that the Braves had to make a decision – call up Serrano or put this kid Brian McCann behind the plate. Serrano lost out to McCann, who became a seven-time All-Star.

“I don’t want my players to go through what I went through,” said Serrano, 33.


“I don’t want them to be satisfied just to be a minor leaguer,” he said.

So, boys, push hard. Work harder. If a career ends, make sure it’s all there on the field, nothing left to wonder or second guess.

“I just want to get them all a chance,” Serrano said.

A chance is all they want and unlike other sports in which unwanted basketball or football players can slip quietly into oblivion, baseball players in independent baseball still find themselves on the radar, however weak the signal. And it is that signal that drives them, keeps them and their dreams alive. Faint may be their future. They cannot and will not say the same thing about the game they love.

“If I’m old, but I still can swing a bat from a wheelchair,” Carranza said, “I’m gonna play.”

Why? Jim Bouton nailed it 44 years ago in his wildly celebrated book, “Ball Four.” The ex-New York Yankees pitcher thought all along he was the one gripping the baseball when, in fact, it was the other way around. Such is the mark that passion leaves on people.

To contact Bob Padecky email him at bobpadecky@gmail.com.

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