Finding Himself Far From Home
Sunday, July 12, 2009
This is how it happens. You play 10, 12, 13 years in the big leagues, cash in a couple of big contracts at the end. "Retire" by the simple act of not answering your phone for an entire offseason, your career numbers a statement for all eternity as to who you were. You lay low, help raise those kids, get the oldest ready to fly the nest. Get divorced -- ouch -- and watch the economy go down the toilet -- double ouch. Start thinking that, well, if you were ever going to get back in the game, this might not be a bad time.
Yep. That, as a general outline, is how you get from the couch back onto the field. But even that doesn't explain -- look around -- this: how Delino DeShields, player of 1,615 big league games, stealer of 463 big league bases, earner of nearly 29 million big league bucks, wound up in Billings, Mont., hard by the Yellowstone River, at the lowest rung of the minor leagues, a rookie ball hitting coach at the age of 40, some six years after retiring as a player.
To explain that, you have to find a shady spot out of the way of the blazing, Big Sky summer sun and ask some questions DeShields has contemplated himself, but never really articulated.
"I've been sitting home, basically, since I retired in 2002," DeShields says one recent afternoon. "Really, [I was] just bored -- besides the fact I was able to spend a lot of time with my kids. I just felt that something was missing. This ain't about the money, obviously. . . . I enjoy seeing young men improve."
He is sitting at a picnic table under a giant tent, outside the home clubhouse at Dehler Park, home of the Pioneer League's Billings Mustangs, a rookie-level affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. It is six hours until game time, and he is clutching a Subway sandwich bag, foot-long, having apparently found the standard pregame clubhouse spread -- peanut butter, jelly, white bread, bananas, same thing every day -- somewhat lacking. Inside, meanwhile, DeShields's players, some of them still teenagers, are slathering it on and gobbling it down.
"This is who I am," he says. "This is pro baseball. This is what I'm more accustomed to."
Accustomed to? Only in the most general sense. In the big leagues, where DeShields played from 1990 to 2002 for five franchises, he traveled in chartered-air elegance; here, he is taking bus trips of up to 12 hours. In the big leagues, he never touched his luggage -- it just magically showed up in his five-star hotel room; here, he is always carrying something, whether a clipboard or a fungo bat or a camcorder or a bucket full of scuffed-up batting-practice balls.
Here, the Mustangs can't always practice when they want, because the field is being used by local American Legion teams -- which , for that matter, sometimes get better play than the Mustangs themselves on the front of the Billings Gazette's sports page.
There being, at present, no baseball played on the moon, this is about as far as one can possibly get from the big leagues -- almost literally: The nearest big league team, the Colorado Rockies, is 551 miles away. As for Cincinnati, it's 1,500 miles, at least two flights and five ladder rungs away from Billings.
"He must love what he's doing," said Marquis Grissom, a longtime friend, ex-teammate and neighbor back in Atlanta, "to be all the way out there in Montana."
It's funny how things work out, depending upon whom you know. Like DeShields, Grissom is back in the pro game this year after a layoff (his lasted three years), but Washington Nationals President Stan Kasten adored him, so Grissom is now the Nationals' first base coach. DeShields, meantime, has an old buddy, Freddie Benavides, who is the Reds' director of minor league infield instruction, and so he wound up in Billings.