Another monsoon. The rain beats against the grandstand, drowning out John Fogerty's growl on the aging Fort Marcy Park sound system. There aren't many people here yet, a couple dozen fans but few of the regulars—no sign of the lefty pitcher's brother or the guy who carves the big wooden Virgin Mary statues. The home team sprints off the field toward us, 25 young men slipping over concrete in metal cleats and trying to beat the storm. Their jerseys, made of thin red mesh, read SANTA FE. The grandstand is the only shelter at Fort Marcy, so all of us, players and spectators, huddle together listening to the rain. It's the last home game of the 2012 season. The summer's final batting practice is a washout.
The fans do not whisper when the players flop down next to us. No autographs are sought. The Santa Fe Fuego are the newest addition to the Pecos League, a group of six independent minor league baseball teams in Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico. The players earn $54 per week and live in homestays with Santa Fe families. They use the same bathroom as the fans, a small concrete cave. (At least there are doors on the stalls now, a recent development; for most of the summer, curtains provided the only privacy.) Later tonight, after the crowd has left, the players will scour the grandstand for trash, collecting stray napkins and mashed foil containers holding the remnants of our $3 burgers. There are no grounds crews in the Pecos League.
The Fuego sip from outsize gas-station soda cups and work their way through thick wads of chewing tobacco, waiting for the game to begin. Though players cycle through the Pecos League with revolving-door regularity, I've been following the Fuego long enough now—since the beginning of their debut season—to know the ones who've stuck around. There's Brandon Thompson, a mountainous, hard-throwing reliever from Montana, who looks as though he should be hauling some large vehicle in a strongman competition. There's Andrew "Archie" Archbold, the quick center fielder, with his bad goatee that doesn't entirely link up at his bony chin. His jersey dangles off him as if from a hanger. Bill Moore, the Fuego's manager, says that Archie "weighs 120 pounds when he's got rocks in his pocket and it's raining." It's raining.
Late July is monsoon season in northern New Mexico. Storms gather over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the afternoon, then dissipate or roll in and briefly batter the town, cooling the high desert. Tonight's opposition, the Roswell Invaders, a far superior team by every statistical measure, don't join us under the grandstand. They huddle beneath the small roof of the visiting dugout, getting wet. Call it a home-field advantage.
The pounding eventually lets up and sun filters through the clouds, filling the sky with the kind of wild light that helps fuel Santa Fe's economy, drawing second-homers and tourists who come to paint watercolors of the evenings. More fans arrive. The Invaders emerge from the visiting dugout in jerseys the color of antifreeze. Archie sprints to center, leading the home team onto the field for the last time this summer.
With the exception of the center fielder, the Fuego are big, powerful men who do not embody the Platonic ideal of athleticism. They fill out their uniforms in the belly and ass. They are strong hitters, with the second-best batting average in the league. Defense is the chink in their armor. The Fuego's pitchers have, on average, given up nearly one run for every inning of the season; their cumulative earned-run average is more than 8.00. (A good major league pitcher's is around 3.00.) The fielding has been a bounty of errors. July was particularly merciless. The Fuego have lost 16 of their last 23 games.
The players like to point out that many of these losses came by one run. They like to say that with a break here or there, things might have turned out differently. But blind pride is a job requirement for athletes, and no amount of it can sway the hard fact that the Fuego have an anaconda grip on last place in the Pecos League.
Independent leagues sit at the bottom of professional baseball's sprawling caste system. They are essentially the minor leagues' minor leagues, consisting of players trying to reach the Single A, Double A, and Triple A farm teams affiliated with major league clubs. The publication Baseball America, which is the authority on these matters, has ranked North America's independent leagues by payroll. The Pecos didn't even pay its players enough to make those rankings. According to a Baseball America official, the Pecos is "the lowest level of professional baseball" currently in existence.
To occupy last place in the Pecos League, then, is to lay claim to a singular title. Absolute superlatives are tossed off too often and easily in the sports world, but this one is not negotiable: As of July 25, 2012, the Santa Fe Fuego are, empirically speaking, the worst professional baseball team in America.
And yet here I am. I've spent too many hours this summer at Fort Marcy. Maybe it's everything the Pecos League lacks: scouts, agents, corporate funding, and the kind of dancing-bear kitsch that fills most minor league productions. Or maybe it's just nostalgia, the baseball junkie's favorite opiate. Out here on the concrete bleachers, I sometimes feel as though I've been dropped into a pre-steroidal epoch when the second basemen were short, the relievers were fat, and you could almost see yourself out there on the field. You'd never go to an NFL game, watch the centaurs lobotomizing one another, and think, Man, that could have been me. But the fantasy of self-projection, an old and fading tradition in baseball, is still alive down here in the Pecos League. These are not the automatons who have taken over the New York Yankees I grew up rooting for. On blue nights like this, I envision myself out in center getting a jump on a ball to the gap. The marvelous opening line of one of the great baseball books, Jim Bouton's Ball Four, once again arrives in my head: "I'm 30 years old, and I have these dreams."
If this all sounds a little ridiculous, well, I am 30 years old, I still own my cleats from college, and I've spent the better part of the summer eating $3 burgers. Besides, underdogs are easy to love. Over the past three months, inside what has at times seemed like a throwaway season in a throwaway league, I have found an extremely tough group of athletes who are willing to take real risks and make deep sacrifices in pursuit of a quixotic goal. Their dedication has reminded me of something essential about sports: Outside the confines of a major league stadium (or your TV screen), they are an occasionally comedic, often brutal endeavor with truly high stakes. There are unexpected bursts of inspiration—a 90-mile-an-hour fastball, a tape-measure home run—to remind you that these guys do, in fact, have a chance to scrap their way out of the cellar and into the higher reaches of pro ball. The Fuego play hard, and they play hurt, and they play to win. It just usually doesn't pan out that way.
Excerpted from The Legends of Last Place: A Season With America's Worst Professional Baseball Team, by Abe Streep, an original single available from The Atavist.
Photos by Ryan Heffernan and Nick Sedillos, illustrations by Gray Beltran