A couple years ago, right-handed pitcher Jaye Chapman — who first tasted life in the big leagues with the Chicago Cubs in 2012 — thought his career might be over due to a genetic condition in both hips that required major surgery.
When he tried to return the next year, he could barely throw, and hitting 94 mph on the radar gun was a distant memory.
But after spending 2014 working on his form through 50 appearances with the Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League, Chapman found himself back on the radar of a big league team, this time the Milwaukee Brewers, who assigned him to Class AA.
The only catch if Chapman wanted to catch on with the Brewers? He’d have to play for the Biloxi (Miss.) Shuckers, who would begin the season on the road — and stay on the road — for the first two months of the season.
Due to delays completing MGM Park, a brand new stadium adjacent to Biloxi’s Gulf of Mexico beaches, the team formerly known as the Huntsville (Ala.) Stars is in the midst of a 55-game road trip. The Shuckers’ home opener is now scheduled for June 6.
Just to keep things somewhat fair, the Shuckers play as the “home” team, meaning they get the last at-bat, every once in a while. But the players have spent just one day – for a meet-and-greet with fans — in the city they will be calling home this summer. Beyond five days in the hotel next to the stadium when they return, none of the players has nailed down long-term housing in Biloxi.
If you’re fighting to get back to the bigs, sacrificing some comforts of home — a pair of suitcases instead of a full wardrobe; a new roommate every 10 days instead of your own apartment; grabbing protein bars at Walmart instead of preparing meals in your own kitchen — is a fair trade. After all, once you get to the top rung of the baseball ladder, you upgrade from the Hampton Inn to the Ritz-Carlton.
The Southern League sojourn has meant a lot pancake platters, fried chicken and banter across the dining room at places like Cracker Barrel, the circuit’s roadside staple, and night-long video game tournaments during 400-mile bus rides between places like Jacksonvile, Fla., and Mobile, Ala.
But for Chapman and his teammates, it hasn’t been all bad.
“The hidden benefit is not having to look for a place to stay [in Biloxi], and you get meal money ($25 per day) for basically the entire year, and you can’t ever get enough of that,” he said, laughing. “You go to Cracker Barrel as people wake up – nobody has a car, and it’s basically the best place the hotel shuttle will take you – and eventually the entire team is there [teasing each other from across the dining room]. It can get pretty funny.”
The Milwaukee players who would eventually become Shuckers reported to Maryvale, Ariz., the Brewers’ spring training home, in early March, and they’ve been packing, unpacking and packed together ever since. With no real alone time, players have quickly gotten comfortable with each other’s quirks and back stories. And that camaraderie manifests itself on the field.
“Some teams, let’s say you start with a 10-game homestand, you might not even be on the bus with some of your teammates [for a while],” said veteran catcher Tyler LaTorre, who is looking forward to seeing his wife at the end of the trip. “But we started
out being on a bus with everybody and you get to know the people around you a little bit better. That doesn’t mean the teams that do have home games haven’t benefited, but in our case it’s helped us come together as a team, and that shows in our record. We’re just looking to keep winning games, whether it’s on the road or back in Biloxi.”
The Shuckers won three straight over Pensacola to start the season before trading off an even number of wins and losses over the next week. However, the team hit its stride in late April, winning 12 games in just 13 days. Players would be forgiven if they used the extended road trip as a crutch for explaining away a losing streak, but both LaTorre and Chapman said the players have been able to separate their living situation from what happens on the field. It also doesn’t hurt that they have some really good players, including the Brewers’ top prospects according to Baseball America: infielder Orlando Arcia, who’s batting .337, and outfielder Tyrone Taylor.
“We have a good team and we have a lot of prospects, guys who are going to play in the big leagues one day. So if we play hard every day, the talent is going to come out,” Chapman said of the South-division leading squad. “It doesn’t matter where we’re playing, they’re probably going to have a pretty good day.”
And both LaTorre and Chapman know when it comes time for the Brewers’ front office to think about promotions or contracts later this season, they won’t add 25 points to everyone’s batting average because of a 55-game road trip. As a minor-leaguer looking to turn heads, you have to put up numbers no matter where you’re sleeping. Regardless of how this season turns out – a league title, an All-Star Game appearance or a September call up – it will be a memorable one.
“I spent the first eight years of my career in the Giants organization,” said LaTorre, who caught for Madison Bumgarner while they were members of the Connecticut Defenders in 2009. “I spent three years there while they were World Series champions, and I’ve been on three championship teams myself. And those are highlights of my career. But a road trip like this — being followed by ESPN for a few days at a time and having some videos I’ll be able to show my grandkids — it ranks up pretty high.”