They gave Marc Gelinas his plane ticket back home to Montreal today, ending his five-year odyssey in professional baseball and creating a spot for someone else on the Alexandria Dukes.
It was no shock to Gelinas, a tall right-handed pitcher who was headed for great places until his arm went bad in 1978 at Salem, Va. He's been hanging by a thread for three years.
The thread snapped when the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor league brass met until midnight Friday, sorting through names and weeding out players no longer considered major league prospects. It was the final winnowing session of the spring, and in the course of it the outlines of the team that will be in Alexandria this year emerged, as did the identities of those, like Gelinas, whose time was up.
"I didn't even look at the cut list when we were through," Gene Thomas, the Dukes' president, said. "I don't want to know who's going home."
When cut time comes, "it's like dominoes," said Tim Wheeler, 20, whose job as a Dukes starting pitcher was secure after the Friday meetings. "If the Pirates send two guys back to Triple A, Triple A has to send two down to Double A." The shock wave reverberates clear to the bottom of the ladder, rookie ball, and somewhere along the line two people get tickets home.
Baseball seems a placid sport from a seat in the grandstand. At cut time in the minors it's anything but placid.
"The last week is bad," Gelinas said. "These guys are fighting for their jobs." And they are fighting to climb in a system where the odds against reaching the top seem almost insurmountable.
Manager John Lipon of the Dukes looks on the bright side. "We could have four or five big leaguers come out of this (Dukes) group," he said. But Jeff Horn, an Alexandria pitcher, demurred. "One out of 500 that come to rookie camp make it to the majors. That's the figure I've always heard."
Willie Stargell stopped by to give the minor leaguers an inspirational talk Friday. Players from the Dukes and the four other Pirate farms gathered in the sun to hear the man called "Pops."
Stargell, entering his 21st year in the majors, chose a particularly apt analogy in urging the bush leaguers not to give up.
"Imagine that somebody put you in a jar and then screwed on the lid," he said. "You keep jumping to get out but you keep hitting your head. After awhile you don't jump so high. Then he comes back when you're not looking and takes that lid off. You're still jumping, but you stopped jumping high enough to get out."
The lid, of course, is Stargell and other major leaguers.
Every year 50 or so players are drafted, signed or otherwise invited to the Pirates' rookie camp. Perhaps 25 survive to play in the rookie league. If they progress properly, they ascend the minor-league ladder. They advance to the "low-A" club at Greenwood, S.C., then to "high-A" at Alexandria, AA at Buffalo, AAA in Portland, Ore., and finally to the big leagues.
That's how the book reads. Reality is different. Because the cap on the jar so rarely is unscrewed, minor leaguers get caught in a squeeze somewhere in the middle. Over the years, most fall prey to injury, pressure, despair or time.
From Gelinas' 1977 rookie team, only four players remain in the Pirates' system. None has yet made it to the majors.
The Dukes are born in the insecurity of cut-day and thrust immediately into exhaustion. Pitcher Wheeler pulled out a schedule. In five months, April 9 to Aug. 31, Alexandria has six scheduled days off--April 14, June 27-29 for the all-star break, July 13 and Aug. 1.
"We pray for rain," Wheeler said.
Who are the Dukes? While the roster is not yet official, most of the players will come from the "low-A" club at Greenwood, S.C., which last year won the South Atlantic League championship. Last year's Dukes will generally either move up to AA or out.
With some exceptions the new Dukes are third-year players following the normal minor league scenario, moving up a notch every year. Alexandria is the middle rung, halfway between rookie camp and AAA.
For some the journey is not smooth.
Lance Dodd, from Laurel, Md., has watched his career go around in circles. Signed in 1977 at age 17, he spent two years in rookie ball, two years in low A, moved up to Alexandria last year and was back down in low-A at Greenwood by midseason.
He was on trial this weekend, pitching for the right to another chance at Alexandria, but the feeling among Dukes' brass was he'd have to perform miracles to avoid a second return to Greenwood.
Dodd's troubles would have earned him an outright release long ago but for one factor: "He has a big-league arm," Thomas said. "We saw him strike out 13 guys in one game, seven in a row. Other times he can't find home plate. With his potential, we just can't turn a guy like that loose."
Nor can they turn loose Brad Garnett, a No. 1 draft choice in 1978 who found the pressures of the pro game troubling enough that they led him, after three seasons, to a month in a drug-and-alcohol counseling center.
"It's the loneliness," he said. "Being away from home, being away from your girl. That's all you do--play ball and drink."
But Garnett, now abstaining, has the "highest power-hitting rating anywhere below triple-A ball," said Thomas. "He'll be with us."
When catcher Burk Goldthorn's name came up in the negotiations Friday night, "I saw Johnny Lipon sit straight up in his chair," Thomas said.
Goldthorn, in his first year out of the University of Texas and a top prospect for the Pirates, will be behind the plate in Alexandria. He started the spring with the Pirates, then worked with the AAA and AA clubs before finally being dispatched to Lipon for seasoning. The manager is delighted.
"Listen," he told Goldthorn, "I know you're disappointed to be here after working out with the other clubs all spring. Don't be."
After Lipon went off to other chores, Goldthorn shook his head and said, "Everybody seems to think I should be hanging my head. It's just the opposite. I'm happy. This is right where I'd thought I'd be."
The Dukes' job, through the vicious 140-game Carolina League season, is to win games. But the team has another mission--to develop major league-quality players.
Lipon, a 40-year veteran of professional baseball, thinks it's all the same thing. "Winning is development," he said. "If a kid is pitching decently but he ends up 0-10, he's nervous, negative about himself. If the same kid winds up 10-0 with the same skills, he's ready for the next step up."
And when the squeeze comes, and the pressure is on and the lid at the majors stays screwed tight?
"The odds are against them," said Lipon, "but the good ones find a way."