Eye on the ball 

In the field of dreams with major league hopefuls

You don’t often hear about young men picking up and moving to Missoula for the job opportunity of a lifetime. The surprise escalates when you learn that one of these fellas is a 19-year-old who has migrated to Missoula from L.A. to jump-start what he hopes will be a career that will earn him millions before an early retirement. Doubly amazing is the fact that another lad of the same age has made the journey to Big Sky country, bringing with him the same dreams from his native Dominican Republic. The latter country, you may know, produces more major league baseball players than any nation save the good ol’ U.S. of A. The young men we’re referring to, however, are a long way from the major leagues. They play baseball for the Missoula Osprey, the “Rookie League” affiliate of the World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks. The Osprey roster boasts players not only from the aforementioned countries, but also Australia, Japan, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

The players have vastly different backgrounds, native tongues, skills, and levels of experience. A couple are in their second year of Rookie League, others have played college ball; nine Latinos have played professionally in the Dominican, and others have played only high school ball. But they share a common dream: to suit up in the uniform of a major league baseball team and play the game they love at the highest level. On a gorgeous late August afternoon, we sit down with catcher Phil Avlas and pitcher Kelvin Garcia and ask them to reflect on their first season of professional baseball, Missoula-style. There’s a special relevance for each of us. In 2001, Avlas, a 24th-round draftee signed last year, graduated from Kennedy High in Los Angeles, a school that repeatedly spanked neighboring James Monroe High squad during author Rick Stern’s forgettable high school career in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. Garcia is from San Francisco de Macoris, about 120 miles from where author Chris Wall served for two years in the Peace Corps. He has pitched for the last two years in the Dominican Summer League for a Boca Chica team that was also the last stop for nine others who have suited up for the Osprey this season.

“The transition to the U.S. hasn’t been so bad,” says Garcia. “With a bunch of guys from Boca Chica, it’s like our family moved together. And the people here are nice, very involved with the game. It’s a family event.” “I’m lucky that the family I live with cooks good Dominican food,” he continues. “Moro [rice and beans mixed together]. I do miss fried plantains, though.”

Despite attending school in a heavily Latino area of the San Fernando Valley, Avlas knows little Spanish. Garcia, on the other hand, understands more English than he speaks, which isn’t much. Their common language—when Garcia is on the mound and Avlas behind the plate—is that of pitch-outs, curve balls at the knees, and fastballs on the inside corner. It’s clear that both players are truly enjoying their season in Missoula. They’d trade it only for a chance to climb the organizational ladder that could lead to a spot on the Diamondbacks or another major league club.

“As a minor league ball player, a lot of people wish they were in your shoes, and I don’t take that for granted,” says Avlas. “It’s been my dream ever since I was 5 years old to set foot on a major league baseball field and wear that uniform. Now I have the opportunity to make that dream a reality and I’m not going to let that pass. In a few years, I don’t want to say, ‘I wish I could have done this and I wish I could have done that.’ I have all the confidence in the world that I’m going to make it.”

Garcia shares Avlas’ confidence. “Since I was five I have played baseball,” he says. “I never was interested in any other sports, not basketball, not soccer, nothing. I want to play baseball and I have focused on it all my life. In Missoula, my pitching is improving and I throw faster. In the [Dominican Republic] I was throwing in the mid- to upper 80s [miles per hour]. Now I’m reaching the low 90s. If I keep my hand and arm [healthy], I can pitch in the majors. I will do well there.”

To advance step-by-step through the Diamondbacks’ organization, an Osprey player would make his way through three “A”-level teams in Yakima, Wash., South Bend, Ind., and Lancaster, Calif. From there, he would progress to a AA squad in El Paso, Texas and the AAA Tucson team before reaching the Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. A long and improbable process, though it’s already been made—if only briefly—by two former Osprey players: Smooth-stroking first baseman Lyle Overbay had one hit in two at-bats for Arizona last September and has honed his craft this season back at Tucson, while Dominican pitcher Duaner Sanchez reached the Diamondback bullpen for a few weeks this summer, only to be traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates and demoted to their AAA affiliate in Buffalo.

To hear Avlas and Garcia speak, one gets the sense that they really could end up playing together in the big leagues a few years down the line. Only time will tell. For now, Osprey players are happy for the chance to hone their craft and to display their skills for the fans in Missoula and around the Pioneer League. We are lucky to have such visitors, and we root for them and for a time when major league rosters contain the names of players who once plied their trade for one glorious summer in Missoula.

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