Last summer I wrote about Niko Vasquez on my blog. A former can’t miss project of the St. Louis Cardinals, we crossed paths as I was covering the lowest of the low of pro baseball, the Independent Frontier League.
Vasquez hit the longest home run I have ever seen. I can’t estimate its landing distance as it was still rising when it cleared the 375 foot left center field sign and disappeared into the night. I asked him, “what in the hell are you doing in this bush league?”
As most who can’t miss but somehow do his road to obscurity has not been a smooth one. He claimed last summer to still possess the tools of a major league infielder. “I have it in me just as I did when I was 18. I just need a second chance.” He now has it. He has signed with the Cincinnati Reds and will report next week to spring training with their minor league affiliate Dayton. Vasquez will turn 27 years of age later this month. 2016 will be his 9th season to labor in the minor leagues.
After Southern Illinois sets down the Rascals in the bottom of the 9th inning the quiet but well liked Vasquez is congratulated by his teammates; the hero who has dramatically averted a three game sweep by the hated Rascals. The award for his heroics - a quick shower in the cramped visitor’s cinder block clubhouse, an even quicker midnight meal at a lonely 24 hour Denny’s followed by a 429 mile all night bus ride to Avon, OH. The next evening, the Miners will begin a three game weekend series with the Lake Erie Crushers. Memories of a clutch double, Vasquez tells me, helps for the development of a tolerance, if not a taste, for the Denny’s menu.
After 8 years in the bush leagues of pro ball, Vasquez has passed to the far side of innocence. Is it worth it? For the moment, Vasquez nods yes. While most 26 year olds will be tomorrow morning hitting the 6 am snooze button, after an evening dominated by mundane adult “stuff,” Vasquez will be bus bouncing along Lake Erie dreaming of a two strike, two out, ninth inning fortuitous hanging slider. He may not have a college education - sacrificed for now for the dream - but Vasquez knows, as only few do, the batsman’s magical sensation of electric impulses shooting through the forearms as the wrists turnover after solid contact; followed by the sweet cracking sound of wood on horsehide. For a true hitter, it is a sound and sensation to live for. Niko Vasquez, once pegged as a first round major league draft choice, for at least a few more weeks, is a professional baseball player with a flickering dream on life support. For now, that is enough.