“It’s a long way to heaven
It’s a short way to hell
Painkillers won’t help
When the weight’s not yourself
They’re poisoning the air
For personal wealth
It’s a long way to heaven
It’s a short way to hell”
Sauget Wind – Uncle Tupelo, 1991
One might be tempted to say that the Gateway Grizzlies play “just across the river” from the River City Rascals. But that would be misleading. O’Fallon does lie just west of St. Louis, and the Grizzlies play in Sauget, Illinois, which is on the eastern banks of the Great River. But it’s a 45-minute drive through downtown St. Louis to get to Sauget, and the difference is stark.
While O’Fallon sits in a relatively prosperous suburb with rolling hills, Sauget….uh……does not. It’s not exactly urban, not really rural or even ex-urban. The ballpark is surrounded by interstates, warehouses and industries like chemical plants and the company that makes deodorant disks for urinals. It’s about fifteen minutes south of gritty East St. Louis, but I can’t imagine anybody feeling unsafe around the ballpark. Unless your idea of danger is an inability to get Starbucks or fill up your gas tank.
In addition to being home to the Gateway Grizzlies, Sauget (pronounced “So-zhay”) is also the Frontier League headquarters. Deputy Commissioner Steve Tahsler pointed out his office in a large building outside the left field fence. He told me that the league settled on the location because the commissioner was raised in the area.
Sauget was originally incorporated as the town of Monsanto, named after the chemical company. From the beginning, the city fathers spared no effort to lure business by allowing newcomers to do use the area as a chemical toilet. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the town as a Superfund clean-up site due to “three closed waste disposal areas …. a closed construction debris disposal area, a backfilled impoundment, an inactive borrow pit and about 3.5 miles of Dead Creek”.
But GSC Credit Union Ballpark, built in 2002, is an island of fun and innocence in the midst of all the industry, warehouses and interstate ramps. The field is artificial turf installed in 2012, but I’m starting to get used to that. The concession stand features “Baseball’s Best Burger”, which is a bacon cheeseburger with a Krispy Kreme doughnut serving as the bun. (Fun fact: Tahsler told me that former MLB All-Star Dmitri Young ate thirteen of them over a three-game series, establishing a modern-day record.) If you venture out to the right right field stands, “Country Bob’s Grill House” offers pulled pork or chicken, beef brisket and other barbecue favorites.
The Grizzlies’ radio guy Nate Gatter set me up with interviews with several of the players the afternoon of the game. The schedule was tight because the position players were having a “hitters meeting” before batting practice. At any level of baseball, meetings are never a good sign. Teams don’t have meetings when they’re winning.
As a result, I spent most of my time with pitchers (who, to be honest, are generally more interesting to talk to anyway). But one position player I met was Blake Brown.
Brown was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school, but chose to play collegiately at Missouri. For his college career he hit .294 and was drafted in the fifth round by Atlanta after his junior year. For comparison, some of the other players drafted in that round in 2012 were current major leaguers Chris Taylor (2017 NLCS MVP), Max Muncy, Mallex Smith, Ty Blach and Rob Refsnyder. If you’re drafted as high as the fifth round, a lot of people expect you to play in the major leagues someday.
Brown bounced around the Atlanta minor leagues for three years with stops in Danville, VA, Rome, GA, and Lynchburg, VA, never rising above single-A and never hitting above .261 for a season. The Braves finally released him in 2015, so he signed with Gateway. This summer, he’ll turn 27 and exhaust his Frontier League eligibility after this season. I asked if he thinks he got a fair shot with Atlanta.
“I absolutely do,” he said without hesitation. “I played every day for two-and-a-half years, and, honestly, it was all on me. I lost my swing and tried to make the game too technical instead of just playing the game. Even my first year here, I had some success but I never got comfortable with my swing and my game until last year (.300 batting average with 18 home runs in 93 games).” So far this season, he’s hitting .309 with two homers and five steals over twenty games.
Brown told me that he was close to finishing his bachelor’s degree, and he isn’t entirely bereft of options outside baseball. According to his college bio, he participated in several national student leadership conferences in high school. I asked him if he was still trying to get picked up by an affiliated team.
He shrugged. “I’ve pursued it, but there’s only so much you can do besides play. I’ve had friends who went overseas or to other leagues and they end up being fourth or fifth outfielders, so they don’t get seen anyway. I feel like this is a better place to showcase what I can do. I’m comfortable here.”
Other players have told me that sometimes getting drafted by the right team – one without a surfeit of players at a particular position – can help with advancement in the organization. I asked Brown if he thought that might have made a difference for him.
“The coaching you get is different everywhere, and you can hear the same thing a thousand times, but somebody just says it a little different and it clicks. Maybe I could have heard something a little differently. But I got plenty of instruction and plenty of opportunities, I just didn’t capitalize on it.”
During the game, I walked around the ballpark and sat in several different seats to get different perspectives. From the third base line, you see cars and trucks flashing by on I-255. Looking in from the outfield, it’s all green and brown carpet enclosed by the brick walls and concession stands. Finally, I climbed to the top row of bleacher seats down the first base line and looked west. Across the flat plains and industrial pipework of Sauget, you can clearly see the St. Louis arch, just a few blocks from the Cardinals’ Busch stadium. It occurred to me that there’s more than one kind of distance.