With T-minus four days and counting until opening night, the players gather around the pitcher’s mound on the Pojoaque High School practice field when Coach Bill Moore yells, “Meet me in the office.”
From this distance, the Santa Fe Fuego are a motley collection. Rather than donning uniform hats with red and gold flames that will be worn during games, players’ heads are covered with caps that hint at somewhere closer to home: the script capital D for Detroit, three white letters overlapping on bright blue for the New York Yankees, a different shade of azure for the Los Angeles Dodgers, red for Boston and a fierce fish that heralds the Florida Marlins.
It’s not likely that any of them are looking to relocate to the City Different. Yet for the summer, they’re our boys. The May 14 home opener against Taos Blizzard marks the start of the third season for the Fuego. Joining the fledgling semi-professional Pecos Baseball League in 2012, they’re no longer the expansion team. The league now includes 10 teams in two divisions that cross into Arizona, Texas and Colorado.
This year’s lineup features just one New Mexican, former University of New Mexico pitcher Hobie McClain. A latecomer to the Fuego party, McClain is still learning his teammates’ names.
About 700 people come see the Lobos on a big game, he says, so the home games at Fort Marcy with a few hundred at best will be a change. He also just learned Saturday that pitchers hit in the Pecos League. Since he hasn’t been at bat since college, McClain says that’s probably his biggest initial challenge.
“All I know is that there is baseball involved and I am playing,” says the tall 23-year-old. “That is all that matters to me.”
Moore says this season’s pitching lineup is deep, however, and that’s what the team needs to win games, along with power and speed.
Among about five players returning from last year’s team are base-stealing outfielder Bryson “Lightning” Sims, Colorado catcher Erik Kozel and Freezy Smalls II, a left-handed pitcher from California. Smalls says he likes Santa Fe but notes that players have such a busy schedule that they don’t get to know the city very well.
“We’re expected to be at the field by 2, so we are there by 1:30, and then we would hit, go to Albertsons and get a parfait or the sushi and be back at the field by 6. Or we go to Sprouts and get a sandwich from the deli,” he says.
"All I know is there is baseball involved and I am playing. That is all that matters to me."
Smalls and others expect crowds to be bigger this year thanks a change in the city rules that allow adults to buy and drink alcohol in the grandstand. For the first two seasons, those sales and consumption only took place in a fenced-in area that some fans named “Beer Jail.” It’s also helping that the team is getting better.
“After that brawl with Taos last year, I think our fan base started building up,” Smalls says, referring to a game that ended 5-4 after extra innings. “That was a wild one.”
While Santa Fe has yet to make the playoffs (missing the mark by one game last season after a nine-game winning streak), the Fort Marcy Magers Field boasts some of the largest crowds in the league. Fans bring folding chairs and blankets, coolers and cowbells to the Workers Progress Administration-era grandstand, and between innings they play with McGee, the team’s red dragon mascot.
General Manager Yvonne Encinias says fans can expect food for sale by Home Run Pizza, the same vendor that worked the games last year, beer provided by Santa Fe Brewing Co. and giveaways from corporate sponsors. While in the first season, the scoreboard barely worked and the public-address system was shoddy, the experience is improving all the time. A new scoreboard went in last year, thanks to the Kiwanis Club, and announcers got a revamped sound system.
“It’s a really good time,” Encinias says. “It’s family-friendly, and I love that it’s real homey and it’s a community atmosphere.”
Coach Moore says it matters to the team that people come out to see them.
“I’m just grateful they’re there. When they’re having fun, it is fun for us in the field. When they show their fun, it is more fun for us,” he says.
Players earn a small salary for their sweat, so fans chipping in on raffle tickets and homerun hat passes that help defer costs are also appreciated immensely, he says. Another way that Santa Fe pitches in is that many families open their homes to Fuego players for the summer, with some kids even giving up their bedrooms for the chance to have an awesome partner for backyard catch.
The team will play 42 of its 70 games on the home field, known in the league for the short distance between home plate and the outfield fences. Wednesday’s 6 pm opener is followed by another game at the same time Thursday against Taos; then Friday the two teams square off in Taos. For that and another 27 games between now and late July, the team will be on the road to battle the Raton Osos, Trinidad (Colo.) Triggers and Las Vegas Train Robbers.