Road Warriors: Winning team despite strikes against it

It’s pouring buckets outside the clubhouse in York, PA. That doesn’t surprise Roy Howell, the guy huddled over a desk, surveying his lineup for the night’s game.

“We bring the rain with us wherever we go,” smiles the mild-mannered manager of the pro baseball team known as the Road Warriors. It never fails.”

The team has seen more than its share of rain. Even when there hasn’t been a cloud in the sky.

To understand what the Road Warriors are up against, you first have to understand their origins.

Sovereign Bank Stadium in York, PA

They’re members of the Atlantic League, one of several in North America that bring pro ball to dull cities that could use a little pizzazz. Like York, PA, or Camden, NJ, or Bridgeport, CT.

Unlike the minor leagues, owned by the majors  (and considered a big step up), the Atlantic League is on its own. That doesn’t mean there isn’t interaction with the big guys; there is, and plenty of it.

The league is a place for those dropped from the big time to polish up their act and maybe be rediscovered. Or the retired who want to go as many innings as they can, managing or coaching. Like Cy Young Yankee winner Sparky Lyle, former Met Bud Harrelson and ex-Phillie Von Hayes.

This brand of pro ball is geared toward families on a budget. The tickets aren’t as pricey as the majors. Neither is the pay.

And those are the established teams.

Enter the Road Warriors, created and financed by the league when it lost a team this season and needed an eighth squad to round out one of its two divisions.

No home; no stadium; no bottom-of-the-ninth advantage; no website. Exists from season to season as needed. On top of which, a salary cap. Good thing the ball fields aren’t all that far apart because jet travel and the Four Seasons aren’t in the budget.

On an August afternoon they’re trying to rev up for the night’s game against the York Revolution.

This after losing their 9th straight. They were pecked to profuse bleeding by the Long Island Ducks the night before, and then had to make the long haul from Long Island to central Pennsylvania. They’re in last place in their division; their record toward the season’s end is 33-76.

Really, guys. What’s the attraction?

Ya gotta wonder when you look at manager Howell. Had his glory days as a third baseman with the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays. Got to play in the World Series. Went into the financial arena afterward, estate planning and all that. Nice life on the California coast.

And the players. Some in their late 20s at the most. They could be doctors, lawyers, the next Bachelor or Situation; anything they want. Age is very much on their side.

Howell, back in the day

It’s like this, says Howell, whose office is essentially a duffel bag. He was talking to a good friend and told him he wouldn’t mind getting back in the game. One day he got a call from his very first manager. They hadn’t talked in, oh, 25 years.

That guy, Joe Klein, was now president of the Atlantic League. Despite all those years, Klein was etched in Howell’s memory as an all-around good guy. Klein said the league was adding an extra team this season, and that team needed a manager.

Howell said yes almost immediately. Because that’s the thing about baseball. You form a bond. No matter how much time goes by, you get an offer from someone like that, you say when do you want me to start?

At 57, Howell says it is nice to be back in the game. With what he calls the premiere league of independent baseball, known for its galaxy of former stars.

Gives him the opportunity to show folks in the big leagues he’s management material. Likes to share what he knows with the kids.

Some of those guys are half his age and feel exactly the same way about the game.

Like catcher Josh Johnson. He’s got a pregnant wife and son a few hours away in Pennsylvania and sees them every chance he gets. But this summer sure beats the heck out of the winter, when he does factory work — making baseball bats.

He was a third-stringer with the San Diego Padres’ farm team and asked to be released.

Says he’s thrilled to be a Road Warrior because he gets the chance to play everyday. Only thing that could be better is his hitting, but Howell’s been teaching him to shift out of  “defense mode” and concentrate on his swing.

Says he’ d rather be doing this than anything else: “Even if it’s been a bad day, there are always kids coming up after the game asking for an autograph.”

Ditto for starting pitcher Luke Massetti, who says the Atlantic League has it all over his last independent league. (His last team was the Wichita Wingnuts.) Where it was mandated that each team have some rookies. He also says the credentials offered by this league far surpass the awful pay.

Massetti has a way with words. Not surprising since he majored in communications in California and has the kind of presence required for PR or TV news.

Being on the road doesn’t bother him. He lives by the saying that home is where the head is. Says he likes the freedom of no room and board. And his iPhone helps him locate good grub.

He’s only 28, which may be getting up there in baseball, but certainly not in life. His jobs have run the gamut from substitute teaching to chiropractor assistant. His dream job? Starting pitcher in a Major League World Series.

He realizes the window of opportunity is small and if it doesn’t pan out, he’ll move on to something else. His says his girlfriend is also “independent,” and will back his decisions.

And for 26-year-old Gabe Suarez, winning is a heck of a lot more important than having a home crowd.

The infielder let go by the Colorado Rockies the last day of spring training says it’s been hard. He observes that when you’re winning, everything’s fine. But when you’re losing it’s a grind.

And he’s missing his little girl in Arizona. He’d  love to stay in the game, but if not he’ll pursue a business management degree.

The rain clears out but the game turns out to be another washout for the Warriors. A 2-1 loss.

And next season’s future is in doubt because the league is planning to expand with a Texas team.

But a couple of players were picked up by Major League affiliates. So that’s a big win.

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