“Everyone’s goal is to get to the major leagues. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to get there.” Nick Giarraputo is the third baseman for the New Jersey Jackals, an independent league Baseball team and one of the top sluggers of the six competing clubs.
“I’m always having fun,” Angel Berroa said, “I like the guys who work here and my teammates. I didn’t even know anyone before I came here.” Berroa is the team’s starting shortstop. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because, well let’s put in these terms. Nick Giarraputo idolized Derek Jeter growing up. Angel Berroa played alongside him three years ago.
This is independent league Baseball.
The Jackals are not affiliated with any Major League organization, although you would expect a Yankee executive or two to be familiar with the club being on the same grounds as the Yogi Berra Museum, a fine local attraction that on non-event related-days, still manages to entertain the average baseball fanatic for 60-90 minutes (Yogi Berra has resided in the neighboring Upper Montclair for decades, becoming the town’s signature celeb.) In an economy where “family-friendly” has become code for “inexpensive,” Independent league Baseball is one of the best bets out there right now. The New Jersey Jackals slogan is “Major league fun at minor league prices.” The average ticket cost about $9. Parking is basically free. A day or night at the park will run you less than dinner and a Disney movie with your two children. That’s one element of what brings fans to the park. The other is rooting for their players to beat the insurmountable odds of reaching the big leagues, that sense of observing a great athletic creation formed in the relative anonymity of suburbia. “Maybe, just maybe, one of our boys is gonna make it.” That’s what goes through the mind of the young fan here. Maybe he’s holding the autograph of a player that goes to the majors. Other times, it’s the autograph of a player who’s been to the majors.
The New Jersey Jackals call Little Falls, NJ home. The town is located just 35 miles from New York City, but for someone like Angel Berroa, someone who has tasted ample helpings of big league cooking, it might as well be 3500. It’s not Manhattan. It’s not even Kansas City. You can still find some of the best Italian food in the state from chefs that have cooked for two presidents if you do a little homework – at Toscania Trattoria on the town’s main strip, where executive chef Jose Velez features top-tier dishes as well as an exquisite Chicken Parmesan that North Jersey folk drive miles to devour. Still not New York. Still an eternity from the world Nick Giarraputo dreams of, from the world Angel Berroa called home just four years earlier.
The Jackals possess a strong fan base, including a handful of season ticket holders who have faithfully stood by the organization during its fifteen years of existence. You won’t find Wall Street traders in suits and ties clogging the box seats with clients like you would at Yankee Stadium. These fans don’t arrive to show off for fat-cat accounts. These fans flock to Yogi Berra Stadium in time for the gates to open and stay until the last out is recorded. They enjoy the simplicity of the experience, that perhaps this was what “it once was like.” That deep sense of nostalgia lives inside every true baseball fan.
One of the more wonderful elements to emerge from the Moneyball era is the removal of subjectivity from player evaluation. Technology has altered the remote aspect of scouting and analysis. With websites and data collection, barely any talented player is overlooked. Some major league hopefuls are luckier than others, minor league players are found quicker and the Rule V draft uncovers nuggets every now and again. Other players get called up to the big leagues only to be sent back down, constantly wondering if and when their time will come, if they’ll receive a second chance, if circumstance can possibly explain their lack of performance in the moment. Unfortunately, many Independent Leaguers will never have what it takes to make it in the majors. Nick Giarraputo believes his numbers will speak otherwise.
Like most minor-league organizations, the Jackals keep the fans involved in between innings. Interns like myself initiate activities to keep the crowd occupied, in the hopes of leaving them with great memories. Our on-field games, silly competitions, prize giveaways get the fans’ attentions, particularly the young ones. On occasion, we can find two adults who are willing to participate in our sumo wrestling promotion. That’s right, two grown men in sumo-wrestling costumes. You can’t make this stuff up. This is the fun atmosphere that’s created while the players on the field daydream about the next ball park they’ll call home.
I arrive at the stadium early and observe batting practice, preparing for the show both during and in between innings. The players are generally in good spirits – it’s July, it’s 85 degrees out and they still get to call the ballpark “work,” why wouldn’t they be smiling - joking around, looking forward to another night of playing the game they so dearly love. Some play frisbee in the outfield while others hang around the batting cage conversing with one another, waiting for their turn to take some swings.
When Nick steps into the cage, the joking ceases. The frisbee players become de-facto outfielders shagging Nick’s rocket shots. With his unmistakable look of determination and the professional manner in which he carries himself, anyone can clearly see that Giarraputo will stop at nothing to achieve his dream of making it to the big time.
“I’m always working to try to improve my game,” said Giarraputo. The conversation reverts to his boyhood idol, Derek Jeter. “I just try to do the same thing he did. He’s was a team leader guy, and I wanted to be a team leader guy. It was just something that you dream one day you would be able to do.” Giarraputo was named “Can-Am Player of the Week” for June 4th- June 10th, averaging .417 with 3 home runs and 11 RBIs over a seven-game span. During that week, Giarraputo helped the Jackals win a key series against the first place Les Capitales de Quebec.
As I continued to observe batting practice that day, I suddenly heard a howl from the tunnel, and in that moment I knew Angel Berroa had arrived to the ballpark. Berroa’s presence is always very known, to put it simply.
Back in 2003, Angel Berroa began his first stint in the major leagues, compiling a solid .287 batting average with 17 home runs to show for it. The 23-year old Berroa was deemed the 2003 American League Rookie of the Year after the one of the closest and most controversial votes in baseball history, as the talented Kansas City Royals shortstop beat out New York Yankees star outfielder Hideki Matsui for the honor. Berroa went on to spend seven seasons with the Kansas City Royals before splitting time with the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, and New York Mets during the 2008-2009 seasons.
Fast forwarding to present day, Angel Berroa is the starting shortstop for the Jackals. It’s still a hard concept for me to grasp – a former AL Rookie of the Year is playing independent ball after spending nine years in the majors.
Berroa, now 34 years old, still years young in his mind, hopeful spirits drive his big-league dreaming. “It’s a different kind of sport out there in the majors because it’s like everyone is looking at you,” he recalled. “Over there, it’s more fun- the people, the club, the road trips.”
“My favorite memory was my first day, flying from Wichita to Texas,” Berroa explains with a fondness that fills his voice, “I was in a Texas ballpark, and I couldn’t even feel anything. When the game was over, I woke up and said, ‘What am I doing here?’ That was fun,” Berroa reminisced about The Show, The Life. Yet, time never says “Remember when.” Neither does math. Very few players have ever made it back to the 25-man roster at such an advanced age, back to the charter flights, the hotels with Presidential suites on the top floor, the post-game dinners in Page Six-touted restaurants where educated servers scrape crumbs off fine linen tablecloths. The dream will die someday. Tonight, it’s alive, alive in all its Technicolor chrome, shining like the gold Rookie cup on his card from yesteryear.
Although Berroa has been out of the Majors for almost three seasons, his past experiences continue to motivate him as he arrives at the stadium each day. “I’ve definitely improved my game. Playing the game the way I play, I give 110% every day, and I try to help my team win some games.” He may know or he may not know that they are watching. This isn’t the semi-pro leagues of yore, the Bingo-Long traveling teams, those athletic minutemen ready to suit up for a random barnstormer match. Somewhere out there an engineering student from M.I.T is interning with one of the 30 major-league teams, pouring over the websites of Independent League clubs like the Jackals, desperately seeking his Jeremy Brown, his “Greek God of Walks,” through all the data and what’s left of the inefficiencies in this game. The only place left to find the undiscovered is the independent leagues. The M.I.T. kid wants to show off, prove why the ballclub picked him over 900 other applicants for the Major League internship, showcasing player evaluation skills he may or may not yet possess. This is Angel’s dream, even if he doesn’t realize. That M.I.T. has the ear of Billy Beane or Jon Daniels or Paul dePodesta or Dayton Moore and thinks Berroa would be the perfect double-play partner for their Baseball America-rated Second Base prospect with Plus Power who could use the wisdom of this seasoned vet up the middle and reading smart baserunners, that perhaps there’s a spot in a world with better buses, better motels, and ultimately, one more chance at replacing the injured 2nd middle infielder on the big-league roster for three weeks. That’s Angel’s dream. That’s the dream of my baseball card. Nick’s 4-for-7 game with the walk-off two-run homer? M.I.T. is watching. Angel’s 3-for-5 effort? M.I.T. is watching. Through the portal on his desk, through the Jackals website, through all the data, Nick and Angel are auditioning, and M.I.T. is taking notes.
Berroa’s ultimate goal is simply getting back to the major leagues, but he wouldn’t be opposed to coaching, either. “I’m still young. I don’t see it right now, because I can still play. But maybe sometime in the future,” he said.
Nick Giarraputo and Angel Berroa play for the same team, the same roster, their dreams collide at night, different planets in the same solar system. Nick Giarraputo, the disciplined and determined third baseman with a bright future, and Angel Berroa, the easygoing veteran working toward another stint in the majors; two completely different people, but both strive for the reaching the highest level of their craft. The future for these two teammates are unknown, but for now, it’s obvious Giarraputo and Berroa are enjoying their time with the Jackals.
“I’ve been in a lot of different places, but this is the most fun I’ve ever had,” Giarraputo says at the end of the night, after another Jackals victory, “To be in the clubhouse joking around, and everybody’s sarcastic, just having a good time. It definitely spreads around when you’re having a good time.”
The game ends, the vibration of dugout laughter and good cheer ceases for the day, the families pack up their inexpensive goodie bags, possibly a foul ball if they were lucky and head home. The players do likewise. Before falling asleep, Nick stares at the ceiling and dreams that the rumors of a major league organization signing him are true, dreams of one day reaching into a bucket in the dugout of a Major League ballclub for a handful of sunflower seeds beside someone he currently only sees through his television. Angel dreams of one more flight to Texas, Arlington, specifically. One more big-league clubhouse where beat reporters with all-access credentials hanging around their neck block his path to the showers. One more echo of his name before 50,000+.
These are the dreams of my baseball card.
Photos by Phil Bomzer. Baseball Card Art by Andrew Woolley.