It's the summer of 1996. I'm 20, playing my first full season of professional baseball in the South Atlantic League for the Generals, a rookie-level affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. About 75 minutes ago, we lost a game to the Savannah Sand Gnats. Eric Gagne pitched and Adrian Beltre went deep for the Dodgers' club. "Dumb and Dumber" is loaded into the team bus VCR and we're about to burn rubber.
We're making a 385-mile trip from our home park, J.P. Riddle Stadium, in Fayetteville, N.C., to Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, Md., home of the Blue Jays' Class-A affiliate. Fortunately for us, we will pass hundreds of Burger Kings on our way. I've often pondered how overwhelming it must have been to be a fast-food worker in a previously empty 24-hour fast-food chain as 30 hungry minor leaguers groggily stumble in at 1:00 a.m. and line up at the counter.
If we're lucky, that employee may only get 1/3 of us. Sometimes the bus would stop at an intersection with a McDonald's on one corner, a Hardee's across the street, and perhaps a Taco Bell next to a gas station. Multiple culinary options were a delight we looked forward to. After all, we are a group with vast cultural diversity. The Texan righthander, Cali boy right fielder and Dominican shortstop don't all appreciate the Whopper.
If we're less lucky, stopping en route isn't an option. Perhaps we as a team simply can't wait to soak up the atmosphere of Rome, Georgia, or wherever our next destination happens to be. On those nights, Domino's is our friend. Fifteen cardboard boxes loaded with pepperoni- and sausage-filled yumminess is doled out to freshly showered (or not) players crammed together on the bus. BYOPepsi (or vodka in water bottles if you're 21).
Being 20, I'm (wrongly) convinced that I'm smarter than my teammates. Cheese is bad, so I remove the top layer of the pizza, leaving only stale, processed bread soaked in red #5. Nutritional density at its finest.
Now that we've optimized for efficiency, we can drive through the night, arriving comfortably at the Days Inn around 5:00 a.m.
After we get our 8 hours of sleep, we wake up ravenous. It might have something to do with the lack of true nourishment from last night's calorie binge. Of course, we don't have transportation or enough disposable income for cab rides. This won't be a problem. Ever noticed that all Days Inn properties are built in the same parking lot as a Waffle House? A 60-yard stroll later, we're perched at the counter, drenching our waffles in syrup and washing it all down with Sprite.
Or at least my teammates are. Still enamored with my own nutritional theories, I order the chicken and egg whites, hold the butter. Obviously, this meal will help me build muscles. I know I need carbs, so hit me with some grits. Again, no butter. Guess what color my meal is? Right. It doesn't have color. It's white. All of it. Veggies are for punks.
My teammates come to me for advice. I'm the guy with the big muscles. I must know.
"The chicken breast has almost no fat," I tell them. Fat is evil, right?
Who needs a nutritionist? These baseball players, employed by a franchise currently valued at $680 million, are asking a 20-year-old Gabe Kapler about whether to order those waffles smothered, covered or both.
It doesn't really matter how wrongheaded my advice was. They don't take it. They know, perhaps subconsciously, that it's not me to whom they should be turning. Plus, they're addicted to their drug of choice: sugar. Strawberries or chocolate chips adorn whatever processed carb is on the menu. The southern boys pass on the cola for a big cup of sweet tea.
Clear eyes, full hearts, fat bellies, can't lose. On to the ballpark.
The vivid pop of sliced watermelon is nearly blinding after our two most recent meals. It's our first crack at fruit, and the team dives in. After batting practice, the visitor's clubhouse manager is kind enough to bring in concessions. Stale chicken strips, hot dogs and nachos are readily available and devoured. After the workout we just put in, we'll take calories in any form.
There's always one vegetarian (at least, in theory; I never played with one in the minor leagues). For him, the clubbie has been kind enough to stock our currently shared establishment with enormous tubs of Peter Pan peanut butter, Smucker's jelly and cheese balls. Plenty of Wonder Bread to go around, boys.
Game time is approaching, men. Hurry up and digest, stay focused (don't miss any signs), bring high energy and perform.
Four hours later, we're free to find our own dinner. Our motel doesn't have room service, so here's the opportunity to explore the fine cuisine of Hagerstown. Of course, we're limited to what's within walking distance and open at 11:30 p.m. Wait, there's a bar down the street. They serve wings until 1:00 a.m. We ballplayers are resourceful, if nothing else.
Rinse and repeat.
It's a good thing we only spend 71 days like this one the road. Otherwise, our schedule might begin to look unhealthy.