"It’s time to fucking get ready! Stop dicking around,” pitching coach Billy Bryk yells, stomping into the Frontier Greys locker room. In an hour, his guys will be taking on the Slammers of Joliet, Illinois, a team named in honor of the local prison. They are professional baseball players, technically in the minor leagues, though on the lowest rung. And few are dressed. They’re mostly all joking about a tray of…corn dogs? Nobody’s sure what to call it. It’s a mound of lukewarm hot dogs dumped atop a bed of what is surely canned corn, left on a table in their locker room. The Greys’ pregame diet is entirely dependent upon the whims of the host team. A few guys had tried the grub and spat it out. At least one dog had gone sailing across the room.
“You see our spread?” infielder Brandon Tierney asks Bryk.
“Yeah, beautiful,” the coach replies. “Corn fucking dogs. Who gives a fuck. You don’t like it, play better.” Bryk’s pregame routine amounts to striding around the room like a big curious dog, occasionally grabbing players by the shoulders to shake them loose. “Let’s fucking go. Shane, how are you not fucking ready right now? You guys are fucking dead in here. It’s like a fucking library. Put the music on. Let’s go. It’s game time.”
Someone starts blasting Canaan Smith’s “Love You Like That” from a portable speaker. The room springs into motion.
That line of his—You don’t like it, play better—might as well be the team’s motto. Even before the corn dogs, there’ve been many opportunities to use it today. You don’t like boarding a bus at 8:30 a.m. and driving four hours, with a game scheduled that night? Play better. You don’t like sleeping on the disgusting floor of that bus? Play better. You don’t like that you’re staying at the Motel 6? That you just put on the same jersey you’ve worn every game since the beginning of the season, because the Greys provide you with only one? That your jersey has a two-inch hole in it (which Tierney’s does), or that the only pants you were given don’t actually fit (as outfielder Ben Lodge’s don’t)? That while your last name is D’Alessandro—that would be Justin D’Alessandro, tomorrow’s starting pitcher—your locker is labeled LESANDRO because whoever wrote it doesn’t know you and doesn’t really care?
When you play better, you’ll play in a better ballpark, on a better team, in front of better crowds. You won’t be here. That’s the point. And it could happen anytime. A scout could be in the stands, watching tonight’s game. Every day is an opportunity.
Bryk is the team’s animator; he’s amped up all the time. But its leader is manager Vinny Ganz, who might just have the hardest job in baseball. Unlike every team the Greys play—and unlike, in fact, every other professional baseball team in America—this one is homeless. The Greys do not play for a city. They have no stadium. No fans. No T-shirts for sale. Their logo is just a ball and two bats. Their name is so generic, they might as well be called the Team. And they are always the visitors, always in the away team’s locker room—trekking hours by bus across the Midwest just to be booed by the home crowd in Traverse City, Michigan, or heckled in Florence, Kentucky.
Ganz had to call 400 men just to find the 24 willing to join this nomadic tribe. He’d call guys up and say, essentially, Yeah: This sounds terrible. You work four months, live in motels and occasionally a local volunteer’s basement, and earn $2,700 total, on average, for your trouble. But there are scouts in the stands—the magical men, the wandering eyes of major league teams, who will watch you play. They won’t see you if you’re sitting on your ass, which is what you’re doing now. So come chase the dream.
Team manager Vinny Ganz in his temporary office in the away-team locker room
This pitch works on a particular kind of player: “It gets hungry guys,” Ganz says. “It gets guys that’ll run through a wall for you.” Guys so desperate to play the game of baseball that they’ll put up with anything. Tierney played ball throughout college, then couldn’t find a pro team to take him; now he’s the Greys’ leading hitter. D’Alessandro spent three seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays’ minor league teams. When the Jays dumped him, he tried to leave baseball. “It hit me hard: I really miss the game,” he says. “I need to be playing.” Outfielder Shane Brown had made it all the way up to Double A, two steps away from the majors, before getting cut. He spent all of last year hunting for a second chance while working as a substitute P.E. teacher in Orlando.
In exchange for this chance, they spend most of their time on a bus, sometimes for eight hours at a stretch—crisscrossing the Midwest from Ohio to Michigan to western Pennsylvania, standing around in hotel lobbies with their pillows when rooms aren’t ready, sleeping within earshot of a highway and playing a game hours later. It gives them time to think, to ruminate about the almost laughably glamour-free version of the national pastime that is their lot. “Baseball’s about failure,” Brown says, voicing an old cliché that he’s taken to heart. “It really is. Hit three out of 10, and you’re a Hall of Famer. So you’re failing all those other times.” And the real point is to keep getting up to bat, because one of these times, you’re going to connect and start heading for home.
Ganz knows this himself—and his story is the greatest sales pitch he has: His own playing dreams were sidelined by injuries, causing him to grow a little belly. Now he’s 27, a habitual tobacco spitter, and hoarse from managing 24 men’s needs. He doesn’t require luxuries; he calls any beer more sophisticated than Budweiser a “milk shake,” too thick for his taste. He wants one thing, really: to coach. In the majors.
“I’m trying to get out as much as every single one of them,” he says.
Nobody wants to be here. Which is why they’re all here.
Greys infielder Scott Carcaise after a bad at-bat
Baseball is a straightforward game, but it is a complex, multitiered business. At the tip-top—with the Yankees, the Red Sox, everything a casual fan knows—is Major League Baseball. Down the line are six other leagues that the MLB uses as a farm system, each made up of teams affiliated with one of the top franchises. Say that you, like Brown, began your pro career by being drafted by the Yankees in the 23rd round. Congrats! Guys from the first round are signing multimillion-dollar deals, and you’re off to the Staten Island Yankees, in what’s known as Short Season Single A. Do well and you’ll be promoted upward to Single A. And so on.
This is known as the affiliate system. (Fans tend to call it the minor leagues, a generic term.) And when anyone on the Greys talks about getting out, of building toward their dreams, they’re talking about going here—to the affiliates. You hear the term constantly among these guys. Some have never seen this promised land; others fought their way in only to find themselves cast out and desperate to return.
The Greys are something else entirely: independent baseball. Spread out across the country, independent leagues—that is, leagues with no formal ties to the MLB—carry on as self-contained baseball ecosystems, hosting their own all-star games, their own playoffs, crowning their own champions. One of the oldest indies in operation is the Frontier League, which began in 1993. And when a player joins, its commissioner, Bill Lee, will tell him this: “You’re welcome to stay as long as you want, but get the fuck out.” In part, he’s speaking to their passion—he knows they’d rather be in the affiliates. But he’s also being economical. The Frontier League positions itself as the place for the youngest, most determined guys—who, incidentally, are willing to play for the least amount of money.
The Greys, who have often been the Frontier League’s worst team, shouldn’t really exist at all. In 2012, the Frontier League expanded from 12 to 14 teams. But midway into that season, the owner of one of those new teams, the London Rippers of Ontario, ran into financial trouble and could no longer fund his new plaything. The Rippers disbanded, leaving a gaping hole in every other team’s schedule. So the league funded the former Rippers on a shoestring to make sure the rest of the league functioned normally. The team would haunt the Midwest in a sort of baseball purgatory. The lowest of the low. It was rechristened the Greys. That’s the color of baseball’s traditional away uniforms, but it also—appropriately, perhaps cruelly—denotes a lack of identity. The color of nothingness, of invisibility, of something that’s neither this nor that.
Anyone in the Midwest want a baseball team? Because the Frontier Greys would love a permanent home. It’s been three years. In the meantime, its guys are on the road.
Before their game against the Slammers, Tierney and Lodge are standing around, comparing notes on their pre-Greys careers. “As a teacher, I was making $1,200 a week,” Lodge says. He’s from Australia; last year he played in a league there before coming to America to take a shot at the affiliates.
“I was waiting tables. I was at, like, the No. 1 Mexican restaurant in Texas, and we were pulling in $200, maybe $400 a night in tips,” Tierney says. “Straight cash.”
Now both are making $150 a week before taxes. They shake their heads. What the hell are they doing here? “We have to keep telling ourselves—love the game, love the game,” Lodge says, and laughs, as the two walk back to the locker room.
They’re here for a reason, and that reason makes for an unusually deep bond. They talk a lot of baseball—watch it in the hotel rooms, drive to major league stadiums on their off days to sit in the stands. But that’s not all they think about. It’s a bus full of dudes in their 20s, after all, rolling through a landscape of bars and casinos. The team calls itself the Tinderwolves, for the guys’ penchant for swiping right on the local talent in the towns they’re rolling up to. “You gotta go plus-two on the road,” says pitcher and team Tinder leader Kyle Bogese, meaning that a girl he’d normally rank a 6 is a road 8. “And we’re always on the road.” He offers the hottest prospects tickets to the game. That’s a near-guaranteed score.
But temporary groupies aside, the guys aren’t bothered by a lack of fans. Infielder Francisco Rosario knows the downside of affection: He made it to High Single A with the Yankees, a step below Double A but good enough to attract hangers-on, especially back home in the Dominican Republic. Girls inviting him to parties. Guys buying his meals. “You feel like you’re important,” he says, “but you haven’t made it yet.” It went to his head. When his affiliate team decreased his playing time, he copped an attitude. Then they cut him, and poof: The hangers-on disappeared, along with his inflated sense of self-worth.
He’s better off. “One of the biggest good things that happened in my life was that the Yankees released me,” he says. “Here, I do the best I can, and I’m focused every day. Everything is better now. My body, my mind. Everything.”
Pitcher Justin D'Alessandro winds up.
When game time comes—the first in a three-day series against the Slammers—the Greys are suited up and stroll out into a beautiful, though very small, ballpark. Entire sections are empty. And between innings, instead of sponsoring the usual T-shirt toss, a local grocery store has stadium staff toss bags of hamburger buns into the crowd. It’s like Soviet Russia. The place holds a little more than 6,000, one-fifth the size of MLB’s smallest ballpark, the Tampa Bay Rays’. Tonight, only 2,176 fans are here. Then again, 2,176 people paying to watch you do the thing you love most? That is pretty cool. That is an honor. Walk out onto that ball field with them, as I did, and you can understand why the Greys want this, and more.
In the dugout, before the first pitch, guys are already spitting all over the place. “Man, why do I always have to poop before a game?” infielder Scott Carcaise announces to laughter. In the fifth inning, with the game tied 1–1, I wander up to find three Greys pitchers in the stands. When they’re not playing, some are dispatched up here to track how their opponents are swinging. The home plate ump blows a call, and the guys groan. “The umpires in this league, they’re so inconsistent,” D’Alessandro says. “You always see something ridiculous.”
“Who are the umps?” I ask. “Just some locals?”
“No, they’re guys trying to get out, like us.”
It might happen. The pitchers have already scanned the crowd and spotted a scout. He’s hard to miss—the middle-aged guy in the baseball cap, sitting directly behind home plate, holding a radar gun and tapping the details of every pitch and swing into an iPad.
Between innings, I sit down in the empty row behind him.
“Are you a scout?” I ask dumbly, slightly intimidated by the power he holds to shape a player’s destiny.
“I am,” he says.
His name is Chris Colwell, and he’s with the Philadelphia Phillies. He’s flagged three Frontier League players so far this season—none from the Greys, but there is a Greys pitcher he thinks has promise. Before he makes his decision, though, he wants to see the guy throw some more.
Is his word enough to change that pitcher’s life?
“If I see a player that I feel maybe should get a shot at affiliated, I send in a report to the full-time scout for the Phillies,” he says. “And then it’s up to him to come out here and take a look himself.”
Oh. So if he’s not the full-time scout, then…?
“I’m an associate scout. Associate means volunteer.”
Colwell, the owner of a local printing business, has coached youth and amateur baseball for 26 years. He loves the game. He is devoted to it. And he’s got larger ambitions of his own. “I tell the players, we’ve both got the same goal,” he says. “You want to get into affiliated. At some point, I do, too. We’re chasing the same thing.”
Even the scouts. Even the scouts.
The Slammers win the game 2–1, and the Greys march back in silence to the away team’s locker room. Nearby, in a bare coach’s room that’s maybe 12 by 12 feet, Bryk stares at his locker and Ganz stares at his desk. “We’ll get back after it tomorrow,” Ganz says. “Day in and day out, every inning, they battle. That’s all I ask them to do.”
I ask Bryk about his role as team cheerleader. He kept at it throughout the game, yelling in the dugout. “They need this more than any team that I’ve ever been with,” Bryk says. His dad is a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks; he, too, would like to reach the majors one day. “This is a grinding time. There’s been times that I’ve heard guys fighting, and I go in and say, ‘Hey, you guys want to f’n fight somebody? The guys you want to fight are on the other team. If we’re going to fight each other, we’re not going to survive.’”
Tonight, nobody is fighting. The players line up in silence around a table in the middle of their lockers, filling plates with yet another stadium-provided meal. Tonight it’s fried chicken, ziti, and broccoli. A rare night of good eating. A small victory.
Pitcher Tanner Roark remembers it. The tiny stadiums. The nowhere towns. The absolute, blind devotion to a goal. “You believe in yourself more than anybody believes in you,” he says. “When you have that dream, that fire, that need to get out and play every day as hard as you can and keep giving everything you got, and keep working hard—it’s one of those things that you have inside of you that’s hard to get rid of.”
He had his own hardship. He played college ball at the University of Illinois but was cut in his junior year when he didn’t meet the minimum GPA. A Frontier League coach invited him onto the team. Roark went. He had no better plan.
So, what are the odds? This striving, this dreaming, men wedded to the rare privilege of playing a game for a living—it’s all very warm and hopeful, but at some point they must reckon with cold numbers: Last year, across the league, an average of about five guys per team were called up to the affiliates. That’s about 20 percent. The vast majority don’t rise past Single A. Across the affiliate system this season, 75 guys playing were from the Frontier League.
But some go higher. Since the league began in 1993, thousands of players have put on a Frontier uniform. Twenty-seven have made it all the way to the top, to the big game. Four are there right now.
Roark believed he’d be one of them. Not that it matters—they all believe it. They have to. But unlike most, he kept rising, to coaches who saw his talent and helped him refine it. For eight years, he fought his way up. Then he got an offer, in 2013, to join the Washington Nationals. For a month, he sat in a major league bullpen, waiting. And one day the call came. Coach said it was his turn.
He doesn’t remember much about that day. He was too anxious. A teammate gave him two bits of advice: Act like you belong out there, and before you throw your first pitch, look around for a moment. Appreciate it. And so Roark did. The batter stepped up. “I took a deep breath,” he says, “and went right after him.”
And that first pitch he threw as a Major League Baseball player, the man he always wanted to become?
“I think it was a ball,” he says, and laughs. “Yeah,
I’m pretty sure it was a ball.” Roark is still with the Nationals. It happens.
Know what doesn’t happenin the major leagues? Waking up at 8 a.m., boarding the bus by 8:30 a.m., and arriving at the stadium shortly after to play a game for an audience of children at 10 a.m. But that’s independent ball; summer camps are reliable ticket buyers, so some games happen early. The morning after their 2–1 loss, the Greys are not in the mood for a chorus of SpongeBob SquarePants songs from the stands. “It’s really fucking annoying,” says pitcher Colin Feldtman, as the team’s fresh-out-of-college trainer stretches him. “Emphasis on annoying.”
There’s a pan of scrambled eggs in the locker room, but it’s empty before everyone gets a plate. One hungry player angrily tosses the tray into the showers. Not long after, I find Ganz and infielder Carcaise sniping at each other in the dugout. “Yesterday you fucked it up, you looked like dog shit,” Ganz yells. “Then release me!” Carcaise snaps back. Both will later say that this is how they goof around—that it’s about catharsis, breaking the tension. But when Carcaise walks off, Ganz sits down alone in the dugout, looking tired. “If you don’t like 10 a.m. games, play better,” he scolds his players in absentia. Nobody’s around. “If you don’t like only having eggs for half a team, play better.”
The hardest part of being on the Greys isn’t the travel, or the low pay, or the food. It’s this—the relentlessness. “You don’t have a home where you can get away,” Brown says. When he was in Double A, he could retreat to his private apartment and decompress after a bad game. But the Greys players are almost always together, in a hotel or on the bus. “Even when you’re away from the field now, you can’t get away.”
Then the game starts, and the guys become a team again. They cheer each other from the dugout. Bryk is amping up his players. “Go to the beach!” he keeps yelling, because apparently home-run balls land in some sand patch past the outfield wall. By the third inning, the score is 4–1, Greys. The mood in the dugout lightens. Guys are having fun again. On the road, this is the only real medicine they have: Good baseball cures bad baseball.
The Greys win, 10–1. The children in the stands do not care. The players do not care that the children do not care.
Back to the locker room. There’s music, and guys making plans. It’s barely past noon, and their workday is done. Some have dates lined up. Some will just go eat something decent. It’s been a good morning, but “good” is relative. There was no scout in the stands among those kids, not even a volunteer associate scout. If a call is going to come from an affiliate team, telling one guy to come join them, that his hard work is finally paying off, it won’t happen today. “You know,” Ganz says, “I’d trade a championship in a day to get the whole team out of here. If it meant losing my season because I lost half my best players or all my best players, that would be a great season for me.”
Tomorrow the Greys play the Slammers for a third time, and then it’s off to Normal, Illinois—the Greys in Normal, an all-star pairing of blandness—for three games against a team called the CornBelters. The Greys will take a lead in the fifth inning of that first game, never give it up, and win 6–5. They’ll lose the next one. Then win the next. And then it’s back on the bus to do it again somewhere else.