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