High-fives all around in a low-bud­get league

The Trinidad Trig­gers, at the bot­tom rung of pro­fes­sional base­ball, epit­o­mize the grit of a com­mu­nity and its team.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Kyle New­man

TRINIDAD» On a quiet Mon­day night, a crowd of about 100 files out from chipped, blue bleach­ers un­der an aged ce­ment grand­stand at the cen­tury-old Trinidad Cen­tral Park. Third base­man Phildrick Llewellyn rakes the dirt af­ter the win by the Trinidad Trig­gers, the town’s pro­fes­sional base­ball team.

Five years ago, it would’ve been hard to imag­ine Llewellyn, then a highly touted prospect in the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles’ or­ga­ni­za­tion, do­ing such me­nial work af­ter the game. But the 23-yearold em­braces his role in the town of 10,000 in south­ern Colorado.

“My dream was dead for a while af­ter I got re­leased from the Ori­oles be­cause of my own per­sonal mis­takes off the field, but now the fire has re­turned, and it’s all thanks to Trinidad for giv­ing me the op­por­tu­nity to start my dream again,” he said. “Be­ing here, I have a chance to make it come true, not even nec­es­sar­ily by get­ting back to where I was, but by at least play­ing pro­fes­sional base­ball and let­ting my love for the game bleed through ev­ery time I take the field.”

That’s life in the Pe­cos League, a rag­tag col­lec­tion of in­de­pen­dent teams that oc­cupy the sport’s low­est level and have no af­fil­i­a­tion with Ma­jor League Base­ball or mi­nor-league base­ball. It’s a world away from the bright lights, fame and seven-fig­ure bonuses of the big leagues, but the dreams here are ev­ery bit as real.

Op­por­tu­nity-hun­gry ballplay­ers are paid about $50 a week, bunk with “host” fam­i­lies and drive their own cars in car­a­vans to road games in small towns scat­tered across New Mex­ico, Ari­zona, Texas, Cal­i­for­nia and Kansas.

Be­cause of the low salaries, the club pays for all of the play­ers’ food, lodg­ing and travel. At home or away, they play ev­ery day from mid-may through early Au­gust — a gru­el­ing, 70-game reg­u­lar sea­son (plus play­offs).

“It’s a day-to-day grind, and a tough grind, but ev­ery guy on this team is driven by the de­sire to make it to the next level,” said util­ity man Lu­cas Owens. “Ask any guy here, and it’s not a mind­set of ‘I think I should be at af­fil­i­ated ball.’ It’s a mind-set of ‘I want to work to get to there.’ Trinidad and this league is our way to that, so we em­brace the travel and long hours and no days off.”

This sum­mer’s Trig­gers play­ers come from all base­ball back­grounds. Some, in­clud­ing Owens, are ex-col­lege play­ers search­ing for their shot. Oth­ers, such as Llewellyn, are for­mer mi­nor­lea­guers look­ing to re­vive them­selves.

But the com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor is that ev­ery­body wants a chance, and they came to tiny Trinidad hop­ing to get one.

“This game, like life, can hum­ble you,” Llewellyn said. “There’s re­ally no scout­ing in this league, and you’re not play­ing in front of thou­sands of fans, but you’re get­ting an op­por­tu­nity to play the game you love and keep your dream alive. That’s what make this place spe­cial.”

A town and its team

The Trig­gers played their first game on May 8, 2012, de­feat­ing Santa Fe in front of al­most 600 peo­ple at Trinidad Cen­tral Park — an open­ing day that showed the po­ten­tial of the re­la­tion­ship that would grow be­tween the town and the team.

“You could sort of sense the buzz from their first game,” Dunn said, “that the Pe­cos League might have stum­bled upon one of its best homes.”

But within the first year of operations, gen­eral man­ager Kim Schultz spent much of her en­ergy mak­ing sure the fran­chise didn’t de­rail.

The team was on its third man­ager by the time the se­cond sea­son rolled around, and Schultz said the lack of fi­nan­cial sup­port from the city, as well as dif­fi­cul­ties in es­tab­lish­ing a cul­ture of pro­fes­sion­al­ism within the club, made the ven­ture more work than she bar­gained for.

“Lots of peo­ple in the town wanted a piece of it some­how, but they didn’t want to truly sup­port the team,” Schultz said. “Whether it was theft at the park, peo­ple not keep­ing their word or host moms try­ing to sleep with the play­ers, there were a lot of un­sa­vory sit­u­a­tions I had to deal with in the first cou­ple years in or­der to make this club le­git­i­mate.”

The team — which, like ev­ery other Pe­cos fran­chise, is owned by the league — re­ceives some fi­nan­cial sup­port from the city by way of the parks depart­ment, which spent about $25,000 on im­prove­ments over the past two years at the field it owns. And host fam­i­lies are no longer a dis­trac­tion; in­stead, they’ve be­come a key com­po­nent to the team’s suc­cess.

“It’s one of the best-ran and most well-funded teams in the Pe­cos League,” said Trig­gers man­ager Thomas Nel­son, a 29-yearold whose other Pe­cos League stops in­clude Roswell, Las Cruces, Las Vegas and Alpine as ei­ther a player or a coach. “It’s wellor­ga­nized, and you don’t get that at a lot of the other places with­out help from a good GM and amaz­ing buy-in from the com­mu­nity.”

The Trig­gers are spon­sored by a litany of lo­cal busi­nesses, which con­trib­ute money or ser­vices.

Red­neck Smoke, a ca­ter­ing com­pany, pro­vides freshly cooked meals for ev­ery Trig­gers player af­ter ev­ery home game this sea­son, while play­ers also have com­pli­men­tary ac­cess to a gym, a chi­ro­prac­tor, a phys­i­cal ther­a­pist and more sports medicine ser­vices through the team’s part­ner­ship with Pro Re­hab and Fit­ness Cen­ter.

“The ameni­ties are go­ing to be bet­ter than the pay in this league,” Dunn said. “Travel, hous­ing, food, the club­houses, the ex­tras — that’s what sep­a­rates a team like Trinidad and that’s why they win ev­ery year. You know it’s a base­ball en­vi­ron­ment there, and it’s set up for the play­ers to suc­ceed at a lower-level pro­fes­sional league like this.”

Other small-pop­u­la­tion places, such as the New Mex­ico cities of Taos, Ra­ton and Las Vegas, all had Pe­cos League fran­chises at one point since the league was founded in 2011, but none lasted more than two sea­sons. Yet the Trig­gers have man­aged to grow their fan base and have had a win­ning record ev­ery sum­mer but the first one.

“Our first year, a good night would be 50 fans, but for the most part it was the team, the staff and the crick­ets,” Schultz said. “Since then, we’ve worked re­ally hard to put peo­ple in the stands. Now, we’re get­ting 125 to 150 peo­ple a night, and it’s re­ally turned into a fam­ily at­mos­phere. This team has be­come a liv­ing, breath­ing part of Trinidad — even on an un­event­ful Mon­day night.”

Fu­ture of the fran­chise

While the Trig­gers, in Pe­cos League terms, are on sta­ble ground, noth­ing is guar­an­teed in a league where fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tions can fluc­tu­ate rapidly be­tween sea­sons.

Schultz’s big­gest worry go­ing for­ward is hous­ing. Trig­gers play­ers stay at a va­ri­ety of places around town, in­clud­ing with host fam­i­lies, in RVS, apart­ments, cab­ins and mo­tels. And with de­clin­ing num­bers of host fam­i­lies, Schultz fears the team will even­tu­ally find it­self in a fi­nan­cial bind.

“The le­gal­iza­tion of (recre­ational) mar­i­juana in 2014 re­ally changed Trinidad, be­cause it sparked the lo­cal econ­omy and made real es­tate around town a lot more ex­pen­sive — which then makes our hous­ing sit­u­a­tion much harder to fill,” Schultz said. “I’m go­ing to have to talk to the city about it af­ter the sea­son, be­cause the way we are go­ing is not sus­tain­able. Even some of the play­ers who are stay­ing at Cawthon Park (a mo­tel and RV park), we’re get­ting those places at a frac­tion of the cost of what they could be charg­ing us.”

The is­sue of fan in­ter­est — which still proves to be a chal­lenge de­spite not much com­pe­ti­tion for en­ter­tain­ment in town — has been par­tially al­le­vi­ated by weekly spe­cials by the club, in­clud­ing $1 beer night on Mon­days, cou­ples night on Tues­days and $1 hot dogs on Wed­nes­days.

The low cost of at­ten­dance — $6 for gen­eral ad­mis­sion, $4 for stu­dents, se­niors and veter­ans, and $2 for kids 12 and un­der — also helps. The team saw record num­bers at this year’s Fourth of July game.

The game, which drew about a tenth of the town, fea­tured fire­works, a car show and a home run derby, prov­ing there’s an ad­van­tage to com­bin­ing base­ball and ingame en­ter­tain­ment — a recipe that draws out the town’s ca­sual fans and ce­ments its ded­i­cated ones.

Trinidad Cen­tral Park, which triples as the base­ball home of the Trig­gers, Trinidad High School and Trinidad State Ju­nior Col­lege, would by no means pass as a vi­able field in any pro­fes­sional league but the Pe­cos League.

But what mat­ters most is the ball­park’s at­mos­phere. It’s cozy, with the stands hold­ing a ca­pac­ity of around 1,000. It’s scenic, with a small pond be­yond right field, and Fisher’s Peak rising in the dis­tance.

And it’s laden with nos­tal­gia, es­pe­cially dur­ing night games as the Am­trak South­west Chief train rolls right be­yond the out­field fence, slow­ing to honk its horn as it passes through.

There’s an in­tan­gi­ble about the field that draws the same group of old ranch­ers to most home games, no mat­ter how long the day at work was. It’s a deep-rooted at­tach­ment that mo­ti­vates an­nouncer Bobby Wahn, who has never missed a Trig­gers home game, to make the ball­park a fam­ily af­fair — his wife work­ing the gate, his daugh­ters vol­un­teer­ing and his mother-in-law en­joy­ing all nine in­nings from the stands with a portable re­s­pi­ra­tor at hand. And it’s some “Field of Dreams” sort of wiz­ardry that at­tracts the hoards of Lit­tle Lea­guers who swell into the gates late, af­ter their own prac­tices and games have con­cluded, stars in their eyes as they con­gre­gate onto those worn, blue bleach­ers.

When the lights go on, those in the stands and on the field share sim­i­lar di­a­mond dreams and a love for the game that will — base­ball gods will­ing — keep them com­ing back.

Joe Amon, The Den­ver Post

Trinidad Trig­gers pitcher Cody Strayer, cen­ter, is first in line to con­grat­u­late Javion Ran­dle and the rest of the play­ers who fin­ished the team’s 17-7 road win over the Santa Fe Fuego at Old Fort Marcy Field on June 16.

Joe Amon, The Den­ver Post

Trinidad hosts Alpine at Cen­tral Park on June 14. The Trig­gers lost to the vis­it­ing Cow­boys 17-7.

Joe Amon, The Den­ver Post

Trinidad Trig­gers pitcher Jake Heissler climbs back over the out­field fence af­ter turn­ing on the field lights prior to a home game last month. Play­ers do ev­ery­thing be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter games to main­tain the field, in­clud­ing wa­ter­ing, smooth­ing and lin­ing.

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