Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fish migration

Players coming from all corners of the continent to compete for the Goldeyes

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Bruce and Linda Ward, a billet family that hosts Goldeye players, sit in the basement bedroom they provide.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Bruce and Linda Ward, a billet family that hosts Goldeye players, sit in the basement bedroom they provide. Photo Store

There is a highway out of Miami and if you follow it long enough and take enough turns, it will roll over the Canadian border and carry you to Winnipeg.

It takes awhile, though.

"I looked it up on my iPhone, and it said 2,200 miles," Goldeyes pitcher Kyle Bellamy said on Wednesday, one day before packing his Dodge Ram for the 36-hour journey north. "But my wife, Hannah, is coming with me... We're kind of making a mini-road trip vacation out of it. So it won't be too bad."

Along the way, Bellamy and his wife will visit family in Oklahoma, then stop at Mount Rushmore to gaze at the rocky faces of presidents past. Then they will continue up and cross into Canada, a country where Bellamy has never been. There will be a windswept prairie city, where he signed up to play sight unseen. A baseball park, that part is familiar. And, if all goes well in Goldeyes training camp, a chance to play out a boyhood dream a little longer.

For a pitcher looking to claw back into the pro life, that's the light at the end of the long road.

"What really sold me on Winnipeg was their enthusiasm, about the city and the team," Bellamy said. "They told me how much the city enjoys the baseball team, how they get big crowds, it looks like they have a nice stadium. Plus, I've never been to Canada before, so it seemed like an exciting new adventure."

Bellamy is not embarking on the adventure alone, of course. He is just one of 12 Goldeyes players preparing now to make the drive up from wherever, on these long and winding highways that will bring them together: roads from Trail, B.C., where bullpen stalwart Chris Kissock will depart for Winnipeg, one of two Canadians on this team. Roads from Las Vegas, where intriguing new slugger Ryan Pineda will start his journey north, and highways from Kentucky, and California and New York.

Another 15 players and coaches will fly in to Winnipeg, hopping planes in Tucson, Ariz., and New Orleans; even flying from as far as Caracas, the sprawling and restless capital of Venezuela, where Fish catcher and fan favourite Luis Alen will board a plane with his wife and baby son next week. Sunny infielder Amos Ramon, of course, lives here, as does Fish hitting coach Tom Vaeth.

That's the lot of them, the 26 players and three coaches that will converge on Shaw Park, when training camp starts on May 2. Somehow their paths will all converge in the middle of the continent, in this windswept Canadian city where -- let's be honest -- nobody on this roster grew up dreaming of playing ball for money. Still, they are coming. They are all Winnipeg Goldeyes -- at least, for the time being.

 

-- -- --

 

At home on a quiet road in Winnipeg's Southlands neighbourhood, within a few pitches' distance of the Royal Canadian Mint, Linda and Bruce Ward are getting their basement bedroom ready for the season to begin. It's not an onerous task -- change the bedding, tidy the room -- but they want it to be ready for when a Goldeyes player needs to move in.

"Pretty much, the players we've had have been pretty self-sufficient," Linda said. "They come and go. You lay down the house rules at the beginning of the season, and then you get more involved in the games because you want to see them have a good season and help them if they can. They're not here a lot, though, they're always on the road. We just make sure they've got what they need. It's not a biggie for us."

This is the fifth year that the Wards, retired now and baseball fans both, have signed on as a billet family for the Fish. They don't know quite when a Goldeyes player will be needing it, or who, or for how long. That gets sorted out after the team returns from a three-week road trip to finish training camp and start the season.

Before the American Association scheduled that annual swing -- designed to accommodate Winnipeg's spring weather -- rumour has it that some billet families saw their players cut at training camp almost every year.

"Yeah, some of the families have had bad luck," Goldeyes general manager Andrew Collier said on Tuesday, with a hearty laugh. "Which is why we've changed things a little bit... we don't want to put somebody there, and then they're gone the next day."

To stay with a family, or not to stay: the Fish have about nine hotel rooms earmarked for their own players at the Radisson downtown, and about eight billet families. Players have a choice: they can stay in the hotel, usually with a roommate, for just under $200 a month -- though that's not just pocket change, on the American Association's tight salaries. Or, they can give up a little privacy to stay with a billet family, for free.

Though billet families get no monetary compensation -- some tickets to the games, and the team's appreciation -- the bonds they build in those homes are worth it. The relationships between players and families can last years, even a lifetime. The Wards still visit one of their former players' families in Texas; other billet families have found themselves guests at American weddings.

"They're like our sons, sometimes," Bruce Ward said. "They're kids, some of them are 21 years old, and their parents are concerned what they're doing... it's very rewarding. The families that we meet, it's very satisfying."

 

-- -- --

 

The hotel, the billet families, the smiling faces waiting at the clubhouse or airport arrivals: these are the first impressions players get of the Goldeyes organization and it matters.

"Not only is it their first couple of days of being in Winnipeg, and being in Canada, but for a lot of these guys, of independent baseball," Collier said. "This is a whole new animal for them. They're really unsure of what they've got themselves into. They don't know what kind of baseball it's going to be, they don't know what Winnipeg's like. So making sure they feel welcome as soon as they get here is important."

Every year, some of the Fish land in Winnipeg still reeling after being cut from major league spring training. But in the wake of those cuts they got a call, from Fish manager Rick Forney, asking if they still wanted to play baseball for money. The ones that took it bought in to Forney's vision of a comparatively big city and a team with a history of winning.

In that way, Bellamy's baseball story is typical of incoming Fish. At 26, he played out parts of four seasons in the Chicago White Sox system after being drafted by that organization in 2009. But a bum shoulder in 2011, and an elbow surgery that stole all of his 2013 season, stymied his climb up the chain of affiliated ball: although Bellamy thought he was throwing well at White Sox spring training this year, "they were done with that," he said.

The pitcher didn't feel the same.

"I really worked exceptionally hard to try and make this," Bellamy said. "I thought I'd give it one last hurrah, just because for everything I've gone through, I think I owe it to myself. I worked so hard this off-season with my arm to get back to where it was."

So for Bellamy, the road into Winnipeg is a lifeline, one more shot at the show. Forney wants to see if he can be the club's closer; Bellamy wants to be the guy with the ball in his hand, under that kind of pressure. Plus, he said, it sounded like being a Goldeye would be a blast.

"I really didn't want to go to a place where I felt like I was playing low, low, low-level baseball," Bellamy said. "If there's 20 people in the stands and I'm playing in a really small ballpark, is it really worth extending my career, just to say I'm extending my career another year or two? Winnipeg sounds like a lot of fun with the crowds, and the nice locker-room, and nice weight room."

So Winnipeg then, 36 hours of driving up that long road. Not where a Florida kid dreams of growing up playing ball, but hey -- if Bellamy can throw, it will all be worth it.

"It's funny where your baseball career does take you," he said, and you could almost hear the grin over the phone. "You do a lot of travelling, see a lot of places. It'll be an exciting adventure."

 

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2014 C3

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