LAREDO – There’s no getting around it, literally or figuratively. Veterans Field is in the middle of the barrio.
In this ancient town, the streets are thin as mints with grubby, worn houses perched precariously along the curb, so close to the cars that they seem ready, groaning under the weight of the years, to fall into the street with a good wind. The field is tucked away in between Martin High School, two sub-high school buildings, and a waterslide incongruously thrown in for good measure. One has to corkscrew in and around the park to make it, avoiding a phalanx of stray dogs in the process, and it ain’t easy. Never is the tiny front gate located on the first try. Is it even there?
The Roadrunners are in town for four games with the hometown Broncos, a team that has owned them for the better part of the season for some reason, even though the former has been in first place for most of the ULB campaign. The Edinburg players do not like to come here, and it has nothing to do with auto theft, the drug cartel wars, or any sort of Valley-Laredo rivalry.
The fact is, Veterans Field is a tiny dump, plain and simple. There are no locker rooms, only a bathroom with two rickety, mildewed benches. Bullpens? Forget about it. Try three or four odd refugee chairs from a junkyard, strewn pell mell along the fence behind a batting-practice pitching screen. There is a sort of bullpen-type thing beyond the right field line, but it’s overgrown with weeds and seats two, maybe. And 10,000 mosquitoes.
Every foul ball out of this bandbox bombards some poor guy’s front window, car, or roof. It’s brutal. The players take turns accidentally bumping their heads on the top of the dugout, constructed with pygmies in mind, no doubt.
So it isn’t the recent South Texas flooding that has the “Runners on edge, though Nuevo Laredo was cut off from the rest of Mexico for a week; they came to town from Amarillo way to the north, an 11-hour bus ride, missing the water release from several dams that has ironically done more damage than Hurricane Alex. If they’d come from the Valley, up 83 and through Zapata, they would have seen the tops of trees gasping for air in the midst of the rising Falcon waters.
But for now, they are angst-ridden about having to play at a field they say wouldn’t be good enough for a high school baseball team.
“I really do not like coming here, none of us do,” says pitcher Eric Montoya, still stiff from the bus ride though the team had arrived a half day ago. “I mean, look at this place…it’s a joke.”
Fellow hurler Wardell Starling is new to sights like this. He spent six years in affiliated ball with the Pirates. Now he takes a gander at what laughingly passes for a crowd on a Saturday night, and just laughs.
“Wow, is this it?” he jaws, looking around at the empty seats. Twenty minutes before game time and there are 24 people in attendance. Twenty-four. “They should come to Edinburg to play…tonight. I think we could call people right now and get more to show up, we could Facebook it and get more people than this in 10 minutes!”
And Laredo is a ringing contradiction, truly, a busy industrial city of over 200,000 people that will turn them out in droves for the local hockey team, the Bucks, but ignore the Bronocs like an annoying little brother. It is one of the largest cities in the country without a major bookstore chain, but it has some killer truck-repair shops.
Historically, the town was formed in the 1760s as part of the Escandon settlements that spanned from here down to the mouth of the Rio Grande. Laredo has flown seven flags, not the usual Six Flags of Texas. It was a hotbed for loyalists to Spain at the time of Mexican independence from that colonial power in 1810. Later its citizens briefly formed the Republic of the Rio Grande in 1840 to oppose Santa Ana; Porfirio Diaz also felt the city’s wrath down the road, as it seems that the place can never quite figure out what it wants, collectively, often going against the expected grain. A perfect setting for Veterans Field.
UNORTHODOX TRAINING REGIMEN
As the ‘Runners prepare for the games these days, they have taken to tossing the football around, for laughs but also for warm-ups. They giggle like kids and critique each other with the foreign object at the fore. Even manager Vince Moore lets fly with a few choice left-handed spirals.
But really their mood is somewhat shaky, considering the lack of success they’ve had with the Broncos so far in 2010.
“You look at them and they don’t look like much,” said Montoya, who came into the series 6-1 but still smarting over a no-decision he picked up on the Amarillo trip. The Broncos are an ugly team befitting their park, with a number of portly, unlikely looking roster members along with a couple of half-pints who look like American Legion sophomores, at best. “But they have our number, that’s the way it is right now.”
Still, every game offers a reset, a chance to begin anew. Some of the Runners carry their last at-bat or pitch with them, tightening up and remembering. Others blow it off. Montoya is the latter type. Like an elephant.
“I really wanted to get the win the other day, I was throwing great for five innings and then had one bad inning,” he said, fingering a baseball as he seems to do 24 hours a day. “I didn’t want to come out, I tell you that. And since that day I have been waiting for my next start. I’m still pissed.”
The Laredo venture started poorly, with a 6-4 loss Saturday and then a 13-2 blowout Sunday, in front of about 100 rooters. The Bronco promotions staff performs reasonably well considering their shouts and events play mainly to echoes.
“I would hate to have to play here,” admitted outfielder Vincent Blue. “You need some fans in the stands to get you going, you know what I mean?”
Fans or not, the Broncos blasted Edinburg away twice in a row, and had won eight of 10 games heading into the last two games of the series. They’ve owned the league leaders without hesitation.
Moore says that when things like the 11-run loss happen, you just have to get over it. The ‘Runners came to town fresh off a 3-1 series at Amarillo, a happy occurrence because the team has never played well in the Panhandle. This has been a downer do far, for many reasons.
“Right now, we may be too confident, I think,” he mused. “We have been playing well and the guys know they’re good. But it can leave you quick, so they’d better be careful.”
Veteran pitcher Julio Castro knows all about the ups and down in pro baseball. He has been at it since age 18 and 11 years down the road, suggests that the players need to remember something.
“You never know when there will be a scout from affiliated ball in the stands,” he warned. “So you gotta hustle every play, do your best, it doesn’t matter what the field is like. It is baseball, and you gotta play.”
The heat is oppressive, the dugouts tiny, and fans and lockers non-existent. There is a shower head in the bathroom, but the ‘Runners board the bus directly after the games here, to clean up back at the hotel.
“It would take us three hours to get everyone showered in this place,” Starling cracked.
So they were dying to get back home to Edinburg Baseball Stadium, one of the better venues in the low minors, not just independent ball. There, they will ply their trade in relative luxury, far from the ruins of Laredo. But the games they played here count in the standings, Montoya reminded.
“We may end up getting them in the playoffs, because they’re coming up in the standings,” said the right-hander. “Then what? We need to figure out how to beat this team, that’s the truth.”
NOTES: Whatever was said after Sunday, it paid off Monday as the team rallied from a 6-1 deficit in the ninth to send the game to extra innings, where it finally bested the Broncos 9-6 after Blue drilled a three-run homer in the 11th frame. Carlos Hereaud’s bases-loaded triple was the first big blow as the ‘Runners came from way back in the ninth, with reliever Ray Silva eventually picking up the win. The big righty got out of a bases-loaded jam in the 10th and then coaxed a double-play ball in the 11th to wrap it up.