Less than an hour before embarking on my first road trip of the baseball season, my second as the radio play-by-play broadcaster for the Kalamazoo Kings, I realized I was missing a key piece of broadcasting equipment. So, on my way to the ballpark, where the team bus awaited, I stopped by the radio station to get the equipment I was lacking. I was cutting it close, I thought, but I’ll be able to make it just in time to catch the team bus, which was taking us on the seven-hour journey to Washington, Pennsylvania for the Kings’ season-opening series. Traffic was moving smoothly through downtown Kalamazoo. Until I got to the railroad crossing.
Yep, right then, just as I was hurrying to catch the team bus and had little margin for error, I saw a long, slow-moving freight train no more than 50 feet from the railroad crossing. The crossing gates closed just as I slammed on the brakes, thwarting my plan to speed through the crossing before the train got there. The next five minutes seemed like five hours as I nervously shifted in my seat, angrily waved my hands, yelled at the train to hurry up, wondered aloud why this train had to have so many friggin’ cars and thought about what a pain it would be to make the drive to western Pennsylvania in my car, by myself.
When the train finally rumbled past and the gates opened, I couldn’t hit the gas pedal fast enough. I tore into the ballpark’s parking lot just as the bus was starting to drive away. I was able to flag down the bus driver and hop on the bus to the derisive round of applause that always greets late arrivals on minor-league buses. I’ve never come close to missing a bus since.
When you’re the radio guy for a minor league baseball team, as I was for seven years, you learn quickly that the bus never waits for you, so it’s imperative that you always get there early – at least 10 minutes before the bus’s scheduled departure. The bus will wait for the manager and it might wait for coaches or top prospects. But, it never waits for the guy whose job it is to tell the listening audience how well – or poorly – the others on the bus are performing.
That first bus ride of the year is always important, because it’s when seating assignments are determined. Generally, the first three rows of seats on either side of the aisle are filled with staff members – broadcaster, manager, coaches and the athletic trainer – with players taking the rest of the seats. Which players get their own two seats and which players have to “double up” and sit next to someone is determined by seniority. The player seat seniority system generally works itself out, but not always; the two fistfights I’ve witnessed on team buses both involved seating disputes and I’ve seen several other seating disputes that almost led to teammates coming to blows. The back of the bus is popular with card players since many buses come with tables that can be put between the seats in the final two rows once the seats in the next-to-last row are turned to face the last row of seats.
The minor league season is filled with long bus rides that often take place in the middle of the night and figuring out the most comfortable sleeping position on the bus is important. I usually wedged my pillow (you never take a long bus ride without a pillow) between my head and the window to fall asleep, reclining my seat ever so slightly. Some players throw blankets or an air mattress on the floor and sleep there, which can make getting to the bathroom in the back of the bus an adventure. First of all, I have to establish that I need to pee badly enough to make the daunting trip. Then, gripping the luggage rack on both sides of the aisle and balancing my toes on the armrest, I make my way to the lavatory. Since sleeping players are leaning on the armrests, often there’s only enough space for my big toe to rest. No matter how hard I tried to combine the skills of a spelunker, Spiderman, a rock climber and Tarzan, I always managed to inadvertently kick an arm or stumble into a leg.
It’s hard to survive long bus rides without some form of entertainment; devices like iPods and portable DVD players are a godsend. However, they haven’t completely replaced the longtime entertainment stable: bus movies. Traveling with competitive males in their 20s means I’ve seen – or had a chance to see – nearly every action film and slapstick comedy Hollywood’s produced over the last decade. Some of the films are good, but most of them are really, really bad. And, it doesn’t help that the volume is usually at eardrum-shattering levels, meaning I have to listen to my iPod at eardrum-shattering levels to get some sleep or so the movie doesn’t distract me. The only time I’ve ever seen any of the videos in the “Girls Gone Wild” franchise was on an overnight bus ride from Boise, Idaho to Yakima, Washington. One of our pitchers had ordered the DVDs several weeks prior, which is how I learned that a single “Girls Gone Wild” purchase can net the buyer several “free” DVDs. As a result, we had enough videos of college-aged women showing their breasts and participating in softcore pornography to last us the entire six-hour trip. Even though I started to doze off after seeing the first 20 or so pairs of breasts, the whooping and hollering of the ballplayers prevented me from settling into a deep sleep. The next bus trip, to Spokane, Washington, was also our last trip of the season and, on the ride back to Yakima, the coaching staff allowed the players to progress to hardcore pornographic movies. One of the team’s lefthanded relievers was given the DVD remote, so that he could fast-forward through the scenes that didn’t involve sexual acts of some sort; there wasn’t much interest in the plot points or thematic devices that led into the climatic (pun intended) sex scenes.
It’s hard not to be entertained on a bus with a minor league baseball team, even without movies. For one, regardless of how quiet you try to be, everyone sitting within one or two seats of you can hear your cell phone conversations; two years in a row, I heard the player sitting behind me break up with his girlfriend via phone, only to get back together with her over the phone the following road trip. I’ve had many conversations on the bus, most of which seemed to involve women in some way, shape or form; what celebrity you’d like to sleep with, which of the team’s female interns will still be attractive 15 years from now, whether the woman in the SUV driving alongside the bus could be convinced to take her top off. Minor league baseball players are like most virile, young heterosexual men: females are never far from their mind.
The bus drivers are usually entertaining as well. When I worked in Yakima, Washington, we had Dave, who was in his 50s, but tried to act like one of the players – all of whom were right around the legal drinking age – when it came to talking about and looking at women. However, the players noticed Dave would usually point out women who were – or at least looked to be – preteens or in their early teenage years. Dave was a technophile who traveled everywhere with a large, desktop computer he’d set up in his hotel room; because of his women-ogling habits, the players assumed the computer’s hard drive was filled with child pornography. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, the bus driver was Lynny, who’d speed off with the doors to the underneath luggage compartments open if you didn’t remind him to close them. Lynny would also smoke cigarettes during late-night bus rides, sliding open the small, driver’s side window to get rid of the smoke; I sat in the seat right behind Lynny’s, so my late-night snoozes were usually interrupted by brisk breezes that made their way through Lynny’s open window and into my face or by the smell of Marlboros. In Binghamton, New York, we had Tom, who drove the bus like it was a Corvette, often getting us to our destination in record time. Tom often wore a Bluetooth headset in one ear while he drove so he could talk to his wife or adult daughter on the phone, conversations that often seemed to turn into loud, heated arguments everyone on the bus could hear. It seems one has to be rather unique to drive a bus filled with 30-35 baseball players and support staff throughout the region all summer.
Over the years, I’ve also traveled via bus with men’s and women’s college basketball teams I’ve called games for, but it’s not quite the same. A basketball team’s travel party is roughly half the size of a baseball team’s, so nearly everyone has his or her own two seats. The trips aren’t as frequent, so there isn’t as much bonding. And, when you travel with a woman’s basketball team, the action movies played at ear-splitting volume are replaced by romantic comedies played at more acceptable volume levels. Basketball teams are more likely to wait for the broadcaster if he’s stuck at a railroad crossing. But, where’s the fun in that?Follow @raford3