It is Thursday, Day 84 in the 144-day season, just another day on the road for the Alexandria Dukes:
THE RIDE -- It is 8:09 a.m. and the team bus sits at Four Mile Run Park, already having disregarded its scheduled 8 o'clock departure time. Several players file in groggily and, naturally, with pillows. Some carry remnants of a fast-food breakfast. They have to eat before this 31/2 hour ride. There will be no stewardesses on this trip to offer a choice between eggs Benedict or steak and eggs. Not even coffee or bouillon. This is the league of the Egg McMuffin.
One mile down the road, 18 more Dukes players wait at a public bus stop. They look more ready for the seventh-inning stretch than for the Lynchburg Mets. They jeer at the bus because it is now 20 minutes late and at outfielder Benny de la Rosa, who minutes earlier had let his morning fatigue usher him onto the first bus he saw. It was the 8:14 local, not the Alexandria Dukes' bus. His teammates, in need of a center fielder, had rescued him.
Quickly, the players are told the reason for the tardiness; the team's meal money ($11 per day per player) had not arrived. The general manager's car wouldn't start. The bus would have to drive over to his house to pick up the money. Here, the players christen the GM with several names a censor wouldn't miss.
Once the money is on the bus -- "Sorry fellas," says the general manager -- the team lurches toward Lynchburg. In transit are 21 players, a manager, the trainer, a bullpen catcher named Wendall ("This is my first road trip, man," he says) and a bat boy named Chuck ("I'm 12 years old," he says. "I've been doing this for 2 1/2 years. The other kid went to New Jersey").
Soon there is silence where only an occasional clank from the air conditioner expresses its presence. The scene on the bus resembles your standard slumber party. Or perhaps a fraternity chapter room on the night after the formal. Everywhere there are arms and legs, crossing the aisles and dangling from the rafters.
Dangling from the rafters? Of course. It is the usual happenstance.
"Up there is the most comfortable place on this bus," says outfielder Jim Felt, looking up at the baggage rack. "You have to move away the bags, then you can stretch out. The little dividers don't bother you if you arch your back correctly."
Felt looks envious sitting in a seat. He didn't get in the bus fast enough, and, consequently, Bob Miscik and Connor McGehee got to the rafters first.
"This is my place. I always sleep here on these trips because you can't sleep on those seats down there," says McGehee, moments before snoozing for nearly two hours in highway rhapsody.
Manager Mike Toomey sits in the front right seat of the bus. "That's where the manager is supposed to sit," he says. Toomey is enduring his standard breakfast of cola and chew. "It keeps me awake. You gotta love it," he says, before slipping on the head set of his portable radio and falling asleep to some disco.
"It's a crazy bus ride, isn't it?" asks Bob Hansen, the team bus driver, as he peers into the rear-view mirror with extreme caution. "On our last trip to Lynchburg, I got two speeding tickets, one going down there and one on the way back. I better be careful."
They are the Alexandria Dukes.
THE INTERIM -- The bus arrives at the hotel at 12:30. The team is scheduled to leave for the ballpark at 5 for some infield and batting practice. It is raining.
Toomey takes off for his favorite Lynchburg luncheonette, which is a short walk from the hotel. Soon he is in the Sport Shoppe restaurant, where the stenciled-in script writing on the window proudly announces "Home-Cooked Meals."
Toomey enters and gets a little hug from a friend. It is the proprietor Della Dudley, who also serves as a waitress. There is an ambiance of the South here, a certain hospitality and gentility. There also is a little Midwest.This small-town cafe on Main Street, between 11th and 12th, right between the furniture store and the Army-Navy store.It is a little Margaret Mitchell and a little Sinclair Lewis. It is a place where you order a side of fries after your meal and the waitress says: "Just remind me when you get to the register and I'll add it to your bill." Of course you remind her.
"This place is great; I always come here when we're in town," says Toomey from his seat at the counter. "Look, you have a jukebox, an older lady in her Sunday best and friendly waitresses. You gotta love this place."
Now it is 3 p.m. For the Alexandria Dukes, this is a sacred time. Outside the hotel there is not a player in sight. You would think Wyatt Earp is in town The players are all indoors watching "General Hospital." To the Dukes, this soap opera is as important as the bottom of the ninth.
Jeff Zaske and Art Ray are watching in Room 215. "This show is something we are have in common," says Zaske, a pitcher.
"We're hooked," says Ray.
The same channel is on throughout the second floor.
In Room 208, John Schaive and Mike Zamba are watching. Says Schaive: "It's one of the most exciting soap operas around. No episode is routine. And if there is one thing a minor league player wants to get away from it's a routine."
Zamba, a pitcher, has been with the team two weeks. Apparently, he has learned quickly. "Can't miss GH," he says. "You have to keep up. We talk about it everywhere, on the field, in the batting cage."
Then, Zamba gets to the crux of the matter: "Besides, when we go out to the bars and talk to girls, they all know about General Hospital. It's something we can talk about," says Zamba, thereby losing his rookie status.
THE NIGHTLIFE -- The game is rained out officially at 5 p.m., so the team hops on the bus and heads for the Lynchburg Mall.
Here, the players have a choice for dinner; a $5 to $6 feast at a cafeteria with a long line or a $3 to $4 nibble at one of two fast-food places. One has hot dogs, the other chicken sandwiches. At $11 a day, the fast-food places quickly become crowded with players.
The bus returns to the hotel at 8 p.m. Now what? Some players stay behind in the mall to see "Superman II." Others return to the hotel where they stay in their rooms and watch TV."What else do you do in Lynchburg?" asks Felt, expecting and receiving no response.
Still other players go to the hotel bar, where the breakfast parlor has been converted to a disco for the evening. This room has the multipurpose capability of the high school gym that changes from a basketball court to a senior prom.
"The disco is jumping; there are a lot of people in there," says Scott Kuvinka, who sits around the table with teammates who seemed more content trying the rum than the rumba.
It is nearly 11 o'clock and the five players return from the theater. There are Rich Leggatt, John Taylor, Kerry Keenan, Miscik and Schaive. They arrive in style, driven by a man in a Cadillac. It is a vehicle of supreme wealth and status for these five minor leaguers, who need no Congressional Record to know about a trim budget.
Schaive explains: "We called two cabs from the mall to come and pick us up. We waited and neither came. So we saw this man sitting in the parking lot in a Cadillac. We gave him 10 bucks . . . to drive us back. It was $2 each and it was better than walking."
Now, it is nearly midnight. In Room 140, the manager of all of this wackery -- the man his players call "Tooms" -- is ready to turn in.
"This," says Toomey, most of his players already tucked in, "was a very typical day."