Career Minor Leaguer Is Defying the Law of Averages
Thursday, August 25, 2005
OMAHA -- It's another lost night in the baseball life of Rick Short. Another night of lucky numbers, of scratchy recordings of the national anthem, and a crowd so small the foul balls rattle around the seats with a hollow thud.
Somewhere in the empty distance a train whistle blows.
This could be any minor league baseball town, any place with a threadbare mascot and a dizzy bat race. After 12 years Rick Short has seen them all. And this week, for the 1,156th time in his career, he prepares for a game that few will see and fewer will care about. Somehow he got trapped here in a forgotten place just out of reach of the big league light. Then along came the best summer a minor league hitter has had in 44 seasons.
Who knows when people started to notice? But since July turned to August Short's batting average has hovered delicately around .400, a near mythic number in baseball that seems simple -- get two hits in every five trips to the plate -- but hasn't been achieved in a full minor league season since 1961, or in the major leagues since 1941.
With the end of the season less than two weeks away, Short -- who plays for the New Orleans Zephyrs, the Washington Nationals' top minor league team -- is hitting .392 and the attention that eluded him his whole baseball life is starting to trickle in.
"It's almost like wrestling a beast," he says as he sits in the visitors' clubhouse at Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium. "It's a beast every day. You look up and you're hitting .400 and you have to go to the ballpark and get two hits every day. That's difficult to do."
He is getting tired, he can feel it. The travel, the 4:30 a.m. bus rides to airports, the mental strain of trying to sustain a .400 average under shoddy lighting in places where he can sometimes barely see the ball.
"I've been trying to be low-key with this," says Short, 32. "People leave me messages and I don't return them. I'm kind of superstitious about all of this."
Baseball has been dropping subtle hints to Short for almost a decade, although he refuses to see them. It should have been clear back when the promotions were too long coming in the lower reaches of the minor leagues, baseball's farm system. The best prospects don't languish in places like Frederick; those who do can usually sense the end.
But Short did his 2 1/2 years in Class A Frederick, 2 1/2 more in Class AA Bowie and then gamely pulled his wife, Karyn, along a geographic jumble from Rochester, N.Y., to Jackson, Tenn., to Des Moines and Salt Lake City. Eventually they had children who went with them to Japan for the season in Tokyo and the half-season in Edmonton, Alberta. In return for his devotion he never got as much as a token invitation to the big leagues. It was a reality he was probably ready to accept until the Nationals -- desperate one day -- finally called in June.
He got a hit that night, a line drive single to left field. And there was this great roar at RFK Stadium, so long and loud that he had to wave his hat to the crowd as he stepped back into the dugout. In the clubhouse Nationals officials gave him a DVD of the single and he looked so happy that they couldn't bring themselves to tell him he'd been sent back down again until the next day.
He took the demotion with a shrug, calling his major league game a dream come true. A few weeks later there was a second call-up to the Nationals for a three-game series against the Cubs in Chicago, near his home town of Peoria, Ill., no less. Then it was back to New Orleans with no certainty he would ever return.