Quirky Pecos League taking hold in southern Arizona
Most people would scoff and keep looking if offered a job at the lowest level of their profession that pays roughly $50 a week, includes long hours on the road in cramped quarters, and allows one day off every 36.
In the Pecos League, applicants come running, overlooking bare-bones circumstances for the chance to fulfill their dream of playing professional baseball. These days, demand for the league’s 230 or so roster spots is so high players are even getting turned away.
"They understand coming here is not going to be all glamour and shine," Bisbee Blue manager Sean Repay said. "My guys don’t care. They’d sleep in a cardboard box if it meant getting on the field every day and playing."
Now in its fourth season and more well-known than ever thanks to a six-part docu-series on FOX Sports 1, the independent Pecos League has staked its claim in Arizona, settling into two former mining towns along the United States-Mexico border.
Along with Bisbee, there are the Douglas Diablos, a geographic rival about 30 minutes away. Both teams are in their first season in the Pecos League, having been added when the league expanded beyond New Mexico, Texas and southern Colorado.
Pecos League players really do make roughly $50 a week. They live with host families in the cities where their team plays and travel for road games in vans or repurposed school buses, often driving through the night to get to the next stop on a schedule of 70 games in 72 days.
The league is considered by many to be the lowest level of professional baseball in the U.S. Some of the league’s players are getting their first taste of pro ball, while others are clinging to a fading dream. Either way, the odds of ever reaching the major leagues — or even breaking into affiliated ball — are long. Just not long enough to deter optimistic young Pecos Leaguers.
"I don’t want to hang up the cleats," Bisbee catcher Robert Latner said. "I love the game too much. It’s something I’ve been dreaming about since I was a little boy, and I’m going to continue chasing that dream until I can’t dream it anymore."
To get an idea of the challenges the Pecos League has faced, consider that it has pulled out of one market (Las Cruces, N.M.) because nightly attendance barely cracked triple digits and another (Carlsbad, N.M.) because of a dispute over alcohol sales in the stadium. Still, the league has continued to grow.
The Pecos League was born out of the Continental Baseball League’s death. That league had dwindled in 2010 to just two teams, one in Las Cruces and one in Alpine, Texas. Las Cruces owner Andrew Dunn reluctantly took over management of the league, dissolved it and went to work on forming a new league.
Starting with his team and the one from Alpine, Dunn founded the Pecos League. He added four teams in New Mexico, including Alamogordo, Carlsbad, Ruidoso and Roswell, a city best known for its purported extraterrestrial history.
"Somebody had to step up," Dunn said. "At the time, I was the person for the deal and took on the project. There were a lot of times it was questionable that first year in 2011, but it got really better when we got into good markets."
The Pecos League left Carlsbad and Ruidoso after the 2011 season but moved into Santa Fe and Trinidad, Colo., for 2012. Dunn folded Las Cruces after that season, but added three more New Mexico markets (Raton, Taos and Las Vegas) to put the Pecos League at eight teams, a number Dunn still believes to be ideal.
But interest spurred further expansion, and the Pecos League made its way to Arizona. A few longtime Arizona baseball figures pointed Dunn to Bisbee, but the market was initially unavailable due to a college summer league.
The summer league later disbanded, and after visiting Bisbee and Douglas in November 2013, Dunn was sold on adding teams in those markets. Dunn quickly made ballpark deals and began building the franchises.
After the initial manager hired for Bisbee bailed on the job, Dunn called Sean Repay, whom he’d met when Repay pitched in the Continental League.
"I jumped on it immediately," said Repay, who himself played two seasons of independent ball and also coaches at University of Antelope Valley. A week earlier, he had declined the managerial job in Alamogordo for housing reasons.
Repay, 26, had just five players when he arrived in early May. He had to scramble to fill out the roster before a week-long spring training in mid-May. Among those he added were former prospects from the Dodgers and Yankees and a host of small-college players who went undrafted.
"These kids are here to play ball, and they play hard," Repay said. "They don’t care that it’s low level. They’re trying to make this into something. You’ve got to get your start somewhere."
The Blue play in Bisbee’s Warren Ballpark, one of the oldest professional baseball venues in the U.S. Since opening in 1909, Warren Ballpark has been home to numerous professional teams and hosted baseball legends like Honus Wagner and Connie Mack and outcasts like Hal Chase and Buck Weaver.
"When I shut the breakers off every night and lock up the stadium, there’s just something about it," Repay said. "You get a feeling that all these guys that have come and passed and still hanging out, like their auras are still there."
The Diablos play their home games at similarly historic Copper King Stadium, which was built in 1948 around the field that hosted many of the same men as Warren on a stop of the 1913-14 "’Round the World Tour" put on by the Chicago White Sox and New York Giants.
Dunn, who owns every Pecos League team but Alpine, says he’s already been contacted by at least half a dozen Arizona cities about adding a team. Among them, Dunn considers Sierra Vista a prime target because of its proximity to Bisbee and Douglas.
For now, Arizona is still getting to know the league, which almost everywhere sees low attendance in May before a summer boost in June.
"Arizona is yet to kind of know what (the Pecos League) is," Dunn said. "They’re just starting to understand what it is."
Virtually unknown in its first three seasons, the Pecos League now finds itself in a national spotlight. FOX Sports 1 debuted "The Pecos League" on May 13, and Dunn said player interest and merchandise sales have spiked since.
"They thought our league was genuine and could tell a good story," Dunn said. "So they came to us, and here we are."
The Pecos League landed on FOX Sports’ radar after its original programming arm had already passed on numerous pitches along the lines of "Bull Durham: The Reality Show." Michael Bloom, FOX Sports’ senior vice president for original programming, says the Pecos League pitch had a different approach they hadn’t seen yet.
"It was just this thoughtful, honest and wild take on the lowest level of professional baseball," Bloom said. "We thought it was a really unique take on the dream of playing professional baseball."
The series chronicled the 2013 Pecos League season, following the Trinidad Triggers from the start of their season through the playoffs. Bloom says he and the show’s producer were taken with the team’s charismatic players who refuse to give up on their dreams.
"These people have incredible heart," Bloom said. "Every single one of them loves baseball, and that’s what we fell in love with.
"It’s wacky, but it’s very sweet."
While wackiness is certainly not unique to the Pecos League, it has made for genuine, resonating television. But it has also made Pecos League players quick to note they’re not there to goof around.
"We’re not just a bunch of Sunday leaguers," said Latner, 24, who came to the Pecos League from Albany State. "It’s not that at all. These are all guys that for some reason haven’t made it to the show, but we’re professional ballplayers, and we play that way."
Serious as the players take the league, there’s an undeniable quirkiness about it. Between the historic venues, original team names — the Roswell Invaders have little trouble moving merchandise — and the general shoestring nature of the whole operation, the Pecos League has a flavor unmatched anywhere else in baseball.
But does it have any talent? Does anyone in the Pecos League have a shot at moving up?
"It’s considered one of the lowest levels of indy ball in the country, but the talent here does not show it," Repay said. "I’ve made some phone calls on some of my guys already to advance them because I don’t feel like they belong here."
Added Ryan "Big Country" Roberts, a Bisbee catcher who got his nickname for his size and Alabama roots: "We’ve got a lot of good guys here, a lot of talent. Just because it’s not one of the premier leagues in people’s minds doesn’t mean it’s not filled with talent."
Since it began play, the league has kept a list on its website of players that get signed to higher levels, and it currently includes 158 names. Of those, 10 have been signed to minor-league contracts by major league teams, including the Diamondbacks, Cardinals and Padres.
The rest are mostly promotions to higher level independent league teams at the end of the Pecos League season, which ends in late July for exactly that reason.
Major league scouts check in with Pecos League teams on occasion.
"My closing pitcher throws 95 mph," Repay said of Michael Heller, a former Pirates draft pick. "I’ve gotten a ton of phone calls on him. He’s probably not going to be with me long."
Players recognize jumps to affiliated ball are few and far between and that the Pecos League is more of a stepping stone. But for others, it’s a last resort. Douglas pitcher Edilson Alvarez, for example, spent four seasons in the Twins organization. Now 25, Alvarez is the reigning Pecos League Pitcher of the Year and also serves as pitching coach.
The league is filled to capacity with young men playing for the love of the game and the chance to keep climbing the baseball ladder, whether they’re just starting the climb or trying to work their way back up.
"You play because you love baseball," Latner said. "Of course, the money’s going to come if you’re good enough, but you play because you love baseball and want to be a professional."
In separate interviews, each member of the Bisbee contingent — Repay, Latner and Roberts — all made note of a recent game that went like this: Bisbee was getting steamrolled, trailing Douglas 13-3 before scoring nine runs in the sixth inning to get within a run. Douglas answered back with four runs but Bisbee again rallied to tie the game at 17 in the eighth. Latner came off the bench to hit a walk-off single in the ninth.
"Thirty-five runs in a baseball game?" Latner said. "That’s like a football score!"
Games like that capture the competitive spirit of the Pecos League.
"At higher level indy ball, they want to win, but I think the will to win at this level is even greater down here in the Pecos League," Repay said. "These guys are scratching and clawing for their careers here."
Games like a recent 17-6 Bisbee win in Alamogordo that ended around 11:45 p.m. and immediately preceded the five-hour drive back to Bisbee for a game the next day display the unparalleled nature of life in the Pecos League.
Maybe life in the Pecos League will change if it continues to grow in prominence post FOX Sports fame. Maybe budgets will get bigger and talent will get better. It’s unlikely, though, the league will set down roots anywhere near a major market, as that’s part of the identity Dunn won’t change.
Or maybe the spotlight from the FOX Sports series will fade after the show’s June 17 conclusion and the Pecos League will remain as it’s always been: A place where love for the game takes a front seat.
"If you’re coming to the Pecos League as a player or a manager, you need to do it because you love it," Repay said. "That’s all you can do it for. It can’t be about the paycheck, it can’t be about the glitz or glamour. That’s not what this is about."