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New sustainability director Nick Sussillo

The Great Wasp War
The call went out to the lads of Silver City: This means war!

Pay to Play
The fledgling Las Cruces Vaqueros' field of dreams

Kiss of the Prairie Dog
Black-tailed prairie dogs once numbered in the billions

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   July 2010

Pay to Play

The fledgling Las Cruces Vaqueros team gives a whole new meaning to "field of dreams" — and what some players will do to make their baseball dreams a reality.

By Jeff Berg

"I love being the highest paid player in the game." — NY Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez (2010 salary, $33 million, or $22,633 per inning)

Total season salary for the entire Vaqueros team – some of whom are shown here – is just $25,000. (Photo courtesy Las Cruces Vaqueros)

Yes, I was skeptical. Yes, I probably should have done this little article earlier, but I needed to see if it was rrrreallllly going to happen this time. Would lovely Las Cruces get a real baseball team where the players actually get paid (albeit a pittance) and would the team survive the first week?

Well, Mr. Jaded has to eat crow, as I can now say that Las Cruces does have a form of semi-professional baseball — namely the Las Cruces Vaqueros of the ever-changing Continental Baseball League (CBL), which began play in 2007.

But the team — actually the entire league — turns out to be much different than I expected.

It's hard to hang a label on this league, because it is different from the seven (at last count) other independent baseball leagues that have sprung up around North America over the last 20 years or so. Nor is it in any way affiliated with any Major League Baseball team.

True, the CBL bears some similarities to other independent leagues, such as the Northern League, whose current incarnation has been in operation successfully since 1993, and the Atlantic League, which began to play ball in 1998. Each team in those leagues and in the upstart Continental League is made up mostly of young players who couldn't catch on with a big-league team or one of their farm teams, or even other indie-league teams. Occasionally, long-time veterans, typically near the end of the careers, have used indie-league play to reinvigorate their careers. Four CBL players have worked their way back into the MLB system, such as Brandon Sisk, now in the Kansas City Royals organization.

But the players in those other leagues were all paid — certainly not what they would like to earn, but paid nonetheless.

The difference in the Continental League is that not all the players are paid, and in fact, some of THEM pay to play!

Indeed, according to J.R. Smith, general manager of the CBL's Big Bend Cowboys in Alpine, Texas, there is a seasonal payroll allotment that caps out at $25,000. Sounds pretty fair for a short season that only encompasses 56 games plus playoffs, doesn't it?

Except that $25,000 is to pay the entire TEAM for the whole season.

"The coaches get $25,000 to divide among all the players on the roster as they see fit," Smith explains. "Some players will get paid, others will not, and others still are paying to play."

Yup, you read that right. Some of the young men (and, all too briefly, one young woman) in the Continental League are playing mostly because they want to play baseball. Local residents provide the players room and board in exchange for a season ticket. And, since this is nicknamed a "bus league," as opposed to "bush league," transportation is provided to away games.

I did think it a bit curious at the first game I went to when I saw players going to the concession stand to purchase soft drinks.

There are only four teams in the CBL: the Vaqueros, who actually have a "home" at Apodaca Park in Las Cruces; the Big Bend Cowboys; and two homeless "road" teams, the Coastal Kingfish (don't ask me how they got that name) and the Desert Valley Mountain Lions, who share a field at El Paso Community College. The players on these two homeless teams pay $2,000 each to play ball. The Vaqueros and Cowboys (yes, that could be considered redundant) also have "developmental players" who pay to stay on the field. When the CBL first started in 2007, players received a maximum $300 per month salary, but continued financial issues have changed that.

The league also isn't shy about gender, as the Big Bend team boldly announced in March that it had signed 33-year-old Tiffany Brooks as an infielder and pitcher. Brooks, the first woman to sign a professional baseball contract in several years, made the team but lasted only two games.

"She was told that she was the equivalent to the fourth-string first baseman," (basewoman?) says GM Smith, "so she decided that wasn't good enough. She was certainly good enough to make the team, but not quite good enough to step ahead of some of the young men."

The CBL is based in Addison, Texas, and originally offered teams from Texas and Louisiana, all of which have folded, including four from last year, mostly because of poor attendance. The teams were scattered throughout east Texas and Louisiana, with towns including Corpus Christi, Alexandria, Texarkana and Dallas fielding squads, but all are now just part of the field of dreams.

This is not baseball's first "Continental League," although it is the first to actually see play. Back in the late 1950s, after two of the major league New York teams, the Dodgers and Giants, had vamoosed to the west coast, a plan was put in motion to launch a third major league called the Continental League. It would have included teams from Denver, Minneapolis, Houston, Dallas, New York, Toronto, Atlanta and Buffalo. The league was the master plan of William Shea, among others, a New York attorney who wanted a second major league team placed, via expansion, in the Big Apple.

Hands were wrung and teeth were gnashed by executives of the American and National Leagues, especially after the Continental League really did begin to take shape, announcing an opening day of April 18, 1961. Major League Baseball finally took action and granted expansion franchises to four cities, two for each league, and Shea's (second) Rebellion was called off.

Shea probably got what he deserved, since the new team for New York was the Metropolitans — aka the Mets — who set many a dubious record during their formative years. The team's new stadium, opened in 1964, was named after Shea, and remained the Mets home until two years ago. It has since been demolished and is now, of course, a parking lot for the new field, located across the street.

The current Continental League, in spite of its struggles, has already outlasted its predecessor. It has yet, however, to earn official recognition by the Independent Professional Baseball Federation, which does recognize six of the eight leagues. The only other league it snubs has Texas connections as well, but we'll just not go there.

Las Cruces has hosted only one other professional baseball team, and that was waaaay back in 1915, when the fledgling Rio Grande Association Baseball League made the town home to a team called the Farmers. It wasn't long before the Farmers were plowed under, lasting only 19 games (see "Diamonds Aren't Forever," April 2005). Another league, the Arizona-New Mexico League, had a false start a few years ago and did play about a week's worth of games, but without the announced Las Cruces Dust Devils. The league is not even a footnote in baseball history now.

So, it was with jaundiced eye that I attended my first Vaqueros game, encouraged by my wife, who could not stand to watch one more movie on a hot Sunday afternoon recently.

Various reports in the local fish wrap indicated that since opening day, which of course sold out, attendance had fallen dramatically; one wag reported to the paper that the night he was there, there weren't even 50 people in the stands. What he failed to note was that it was an exhibition game between the Vaqueros and a team from Juarez that wasn't allowed to cross the border. Guess they'll just have to sneak over next time

No signage marks the way to the field at Apodaca Park, and when we arrived, at about 12:40 for a 1 p.m. game, there was no waiting to park, that's for sure. The lot was nearly empty, as were the stands after I paid $6 to secure a seat. I made my wife buy her own ticket as punishment for pulling me out of a cool house on a 90-plus day.

As we climbed the stairs to the bleachers, which are all behind home plate and offer shaded seating for the most part, I recalled my first baseball game, in Chicago's Wrigley Field many years ago. I remember walking up the ramp that led to the seating and the field and having my first vision of a real baseball stadium. I was probably eight, and I was completely awestruck. I think the Cubs, whom I loathe, played the Cincinnati Reds that day, but I was so mesmerized that the Dust Devils could have been playing the Farmers for all I cared.

This scene was not quite like that, and there were, at game time, no more than 50 people in the stands. There was a nice feel and energy to the place, however, and after the national anthem, play started in earnest.

It is 340 feet to the left and right field fences and 375 to straightaway center field. The field is of grass, and the dugouts are old and the players did not seem overly enamored with them.

I had expected to see a game one step above T-ball, but I was surprised. There were several fine fielding plays, only one error and a couple of walks during the nine-inning contest.

The Cowboys' centerfielder, Andrew Riddick, made two spectacular catches and threw out two runners, one at third and one at home. I hope his hustle and play earn him a paid job in the "bigs" someday.

The game remained close, with the starting pitcher for the Vaqueros, a hard-throwing young man named Gorman Romero, striking out about eight Cowboys. He held them well for six or seven innings, and then something very odd happened as he took the mound again. The PA announcer interrupted the between-inning fun and games being conducted by the young woman PR person (break dancing for pre-schoolers, spin your head on the bat and run, pop balloons with body contact with a friend) to announce that Romero had been "promoted" to the San Angelo (Texas) Colts, who play in that OTHER Texas league. A cheer went up from the crowd, and Romero was mobbed by his fellow players. The Cowboys hitters probably were cheering as well, because the relief pitchers for the Vaqueros did not fare nearly as well as Romero had, and soon the score was tied, 2-2.

One of the runs scored by the Vaqueros came via a home run by their designated hitter. And just to show you how much the team counts on fan support, the young PR woman passed through the stands carrying a batting helmet, for the fans to toss in a few dollars for the home-run hitter. She also came by with the helmet after Romero's news, and again when another Vaqueros player had the game-winning hit.

I had momentarily forgotten that I was in the land of maana, and as the game moved along, more fans trickled in. Soon, the bleachers were about two-thirds full. One guy had brought a bass drum to rally the fans to cheer loudly for the Vaqueros. Hardly anyone yapped on a cell phone, and the play between the two teams remained tight.

You are not allowed to bring outside food or drink into the park, but the kindly ticket ripper didn't agree with that policy and allowed us to bring in our own water bottle. I always wince when I think of concessions at stadiums or other places where people are fed en masse — crummy food, high prices. But the food offered at the Vaqueros' field was reasonably priced, and I even allowed myself to buy an artery-clogging pretzel with cheese. The selection was much better than at Cohen Field, home of the El Paso Diablos and the dullest baseball on the planet. The snack bar guys were efficient and friendly as well.

And while standing in line, I had the good fortune to be in front of Jose Trevizo, an Iraqi conflict vet whom I'd interviewed for these pages ("Rage Against the Machine," October 2008). Trevizo was an angry young man when we last spoke in detail, but he is channeling some of that anger into the art of standup comedy, playing gigs in El Paso and soon in LA.

The game ended on a high note for the Vaqueros, when they executed some good hitting and were able to bring in the deciding run, making the final score 3-2.

The game lasted about two and a half hours, and I felt it was money well spent, better than the dull NMSU Aggies baseball games, which are sparsely attended and high scoring. And where they also use annoying aluminum bats.

A young man with a Boston Red Sox cap spent most of the game chasing foul balls, ending up with three, which he proudly announced brought his total for the season to eight.

After finding out that some of these young men were actually paying to play for our entertainment, however, I felt a little guilty about our game experience. They played hard and they played well, and the next game I go to, I will certainly not make change from the home run batting helmet when I drop in a dollar.

For Vaqueros schedule and ticket information, call (575) 680-2212 or see www.lascrucesvaqueros.com



The only constant in Senior Writer Jeff Berg's life
for all these years has been baseball.


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