Santa Fe's hometown baseball team was a scrappy underdog from the start.
As Outside magazine senior editor Abe Streep recounts in a recent story, the team faced a host of obstacles: The field wasn't big enough. The scoreboard didn't work. Even well into the season, bathroom stalls lacked doors and "shit paper." And the question of whether beer sales should be allowed at Fort Marcy Park, where the team would play, had split the community in half.
Streep, however, was intrigued—so much so that he spent last season following the Fuego, its players and its irascible coach, Bill Moore. Over the course of the summer, they built a record as the last-place team in the lowest independent league (itself the lowest rung of the minor leagues) in the country.
Recently, Streep published "The Legends of Last Place," a novella-length nonfiction story that chronicles the (mis)adventures of the Fuego's first season. You don't have to know anything about baseball to enjoy this story; as Streep explains, its true import comes from the players themselves—who, despite playing for a team stuck firmly in last place, still dream of greatness.
Below, Streep explains what convinced him to profile the Fuego, followed by an excerpt from the story. Enjoy the story—but if you really want to experience the Fuego, take yourself out to the ball game. (For a schedule of upcoming games, visit santafefuego.com.)
SFR: What prompted you to write this story?
I’m a big baseball fan, so when the Fuego came to play, I just started going to the games. I started by going to the city council meeting where they decided to have a team, and then I just started following the team last summer, going to the games and getting to know the coach and a couple of the players.
Being a big baseball fan, was it a terrible irony for you to end up writing about the worst baseball team in America?
Not really. I mean, that’s part of what I get into. It’s a scrappy team, so I was interested by that. I have a lot of respect for those guys, and they have a lot of pride in what they did (most of them are not on the team this year; there’s a lot of turnover in independent league baseball). So, how do you keep your personal pride when you are in this situation of, in many ways, professional futility? They do that and did that, and I found that interesting and admirable. I’m interested by those kinds of subculture stories.
There's an intriguing tension there. As you point out in the story, even though the team may be losing, each of these guys is on his own personal quest to make it into the big leagues.
That’s the case with professional sports, and especially minor league baseball: You’re competing against the other team, but you’re also competing against your teammates. Because you’re trying to win the game, but really you’re trying to get out of there [and] up to the next level—and especially in this level, which is the lowest of levels. If you don’t move up from here, there really aren’t lower landing pads. It can be the end of your career.
Do you think that same dynamic exists in other professional sports?
I think the ambition and pride do. It’s different: In basketball, you need a really high-functioning team to win. In baseball, if you have the best pitcher, you’re going to win that game, in all likelihood. It’s a team sport, but it is, in many ways, a very individual sport, and that tension can get amplified in low-level minor league ball. I played baseball, and I loved it because of the team aspects and the camaraderie…but there’s also this underlying thing of, you’re trying to beat everyone that’s on your team.
You have a quote from the coach, Bill Moore, about getting rid of guys who don't play well and exchanging them for new ones.
He was talking about other people advising him to [do that because the Fuego was losing]. Bill’s a very loyal guy. He was probably one of the more loyal coaches in the league. Turnover is a constant in all minor-league leagues, [including] the Pecos League. And that’s just because the coaches want to win, and if someone gets hot, then they’re on the team, and if someone gets cold, then they’re let go…[And as a player,] someone’s always after your job. Even though you’re making $50 a day or whatever it is, and you’re living in a home stay, someone is trying to take that from you. And they value that; otherwise, they wouldn’t be doing it.
Describe how your recreational interest in baseball turned into a longform journalism story.
I was going to these games for fun, but I had a notebook at all the games I went to, and I had a sense that there might be a story. I went to as many of the home games as I could, and I would go to the batting practices sometimes. Toward the end of the year, I approached The Atavist about the idea. It’s sort of the brave new world of long-form journalism. They do [multimedia] stories for tablets, so it’s a reading experience, but it’s also trying to supplement that. And there are other things that they do, stories that are longer than magazine length but shorter than books. It gave me the chance to write a little bit longer length in a different format that was fun and interesting.
For me, this is very much a place story—and maybe that's just because I live in Santa Fe—but most of the players are not actually from here.
I think that’s the nature of professional sports, really. There’s that saying that you’re rooting for laundry; you really are. I grew up as a Yankees fan; it’s just who’s wearing that uniform at the time. That said, the Fuego players—there are a few who are from here, and those guys always had a good hometown crowd behind them. I think it’s different with every player, because some of them are just here to try to move up and move out, so they’re less invested. But a lot of the guys loved Santa Fe, genuinely did. So as a fan, you’re rooting for the team that arrives in your place. But ideally, it’s more reciprocal than that, and I think it was that way with these guys.
In the story, you mention something about how underdogs are easy to love.
People do love underdogs. It’s easy to root for the scrappy upstart, and this team very much embodied that.
But you started as a Yankees fan, which is kind of the antithesis of an underdog team.
That’s true, but that’s also a product of place. I think your first team that you were a diehard fan for is often the one that your dad was a diehard fan for when you were 11 years old. And for me, that was the Yankees. And, in my defense, I was born Oct. 23, 1981, which is right after the 1981 World Series. Between 1982-1994, which is the formative childhood years when I was a fan, they were really terrible. They were actually in last place—not always last, but at the bottom of the American League most of the time. The Yankees were never an underdog, but they were a bad team when I was a kid.
Any last thoughts?
I would suggest that people go out and see the team, see the games. There’s been a lot of turnover, so a lot of those players who I wrote about aren’t back this year, but some of them are, and the coach, Bill Moore, who’s a wonderful guy, is. And I’d also just like to say thanks to Bill and to Rod [Tafoya] and Scot Palmer.
The Legends of Last Place
On November 9, 2011, Rodney Tafoya stood in a long line at Santa Fe city hall. He was clean-shaven and wearing a sharp beige sports jacket, his black hair immaculately sculpted with gel. His trim, five-foot-nine build was betrayed only by the first swellings of a middle-aged belly. He had two minutes to speak, and he had no notes, but his intentions were unambiguous. He planned to convince the city government to give him one more shot at greatness. He felt a passion rising inside him. Time was running short. He was 47 years old.
In the fall of 2010, Andrew Dunn, a former college ballplayer turned part-time real estate agent and Internet programmer, had managed to scrape together enough money to start his own small league. He’d previously owned a team in the foundering Continental League, and when that organization folded, Dunn saw opportunity. (Lacking the major league economic backing that the more prestigious, affiliated leagues enjoy, independent leagues are constantly refinancing, going out of business, or joining forces and rebooting under new names.) The Pecos League’s inaugural 2011 season was relatively successful, but following the summer two of the six teams folded. Dunn decided to replace them with two expansion teams. He wanted to put one in Santa Fe.
The team didn’t yet have a name. (At one point, Dunn had proposed calling it the Sangres—the Bloods. This did not go over well.) More urgently, Dunn didn’t have permission to sell beer at Fort Marcy, a public park and the only ball field in Santa Fe with adequate seating. (A city ordinance bans the sale of alcohol in public parks.)In a league where teams made nearly all their money from beer and ticket sales, this effectively prohibited games from being played at all. But Dunn had an ally on the city council, an avid baseball fan named Ron Trujillo. With Trujillo’s aid, Dunn proposed an amendment that would allow Santa Fe’s fledgling club to sell beer at Fort Marcy. A spirited debate ensued, fought on the op-ed pages of the local papers and at a series of public meetings, culminating in the November gathering at city hall. At the end of the meeting, the fate of the Fuego would be decided. Any Santa Fe resident was welcome to comment. The line of speakers stretched around the walls of the room, past the long desk where the council members sat.
The debate divided largely along class lines. The team’s supporters seemed to consist mostly of young families. The opposition was older and lived in the vicinity of the park. Fort Marcy sits at the intersection of two roads: One of them leads to the lush village of Tesuque, where Cormac McCarthy owns a house, the other to a series of gated communities and the local ski area. The opposition’s argument was simple: Beer and baseball would aggravate the town’s not insignificant drunk-driving problem. The team’s supporters accused the wealthy residents of elitist NIMBYism.
The president of the local chamber of commerce spoke in support of the team, as did a man in a faded Albuquerque Dukes shirt who brought photos of his father playing at Fort Marcy in 1951. The owner of Santa Fe’s most popular bar worried that the pros would mess up the playing surface for his softball league. An elderly man who lived near the park barked, “There will be car crashes, there will be drunken driving!” A woman in a rainbow scarf alleged a conspiracy between the city and the league, calling it a “D-u-n-n deal.”
Then it was Tafoya’s turn. Tafoya, a vice president at an Albuquerque branch of Bank of the West, was something of a local celebrity. He grew up in Santa Fe, where his brother, Jack, showing foresight, taught him to throw left-handed by tying his right arm behind his back. The boys’ father fought in Normandy; their mother worked in a nursing home. Tafoya starred in little league and high school and acquitted himself well playing for two small colleges, but he was not drafted. He pieced together a career pitching in minor leagues throughout the United States and Mexico before an injury drove him into banking.
Now Tafoya stepped up to the mic, placed his hands on either side of the podium, and spoke firmly. He told the crowd two things. One was that baseball and beer were synonymous. “I played in Canada, I played in Mexico,” he said. “I played in the minor leagues here in the United States. There was never a venue that didn’t sell beer. How can you have baseball without beer? I mean, come on.”
The other was that Tafoya was planning a comeback. He hadn’t pitched professionally since 2006, with a Mexican team, but he had the itch again. He told the city council that he wanted the opportunity to take the mound one last time in his hometown. “I will be the oldest pitcher in the United States in independent baseball,” he said, but “I can still throw an 86-mile-per-hour fastball. So in my heart, if they give me a spring-training tryout, you can bet your life that I’m going to make this team.” He raised his fist to enthusiastic cheers.
Four hours after the meeting began, the council voted. The panel split evenly, four for the amendment and four against. The mayor cast the deciding vote: There would be beer, and there would be baseball.
When Moore visited Santa Fe, he was unimpressed by Fort Marcy Park’s diminutive dimensions. The field measured 340 feet from home plate to left field, 355 to dead center, and 285 to right. Most pro parks are at least 320 feet down the lines and 400 in center. Fort Marcy’s small size combined with the thin mountain air—Santa Fe’s elevation is 7,300 feet—would guarantee plenty of home runs, but Moore preferred fundamentals and small ball: singles, bunts, stolen bases. Still, the chance to start a team from whole cloth was enticing. And though he’d spent three decades in baseball as a coach and scout, at one point even consulting with the Montreal Expos, he’d never managed a pro team. More pressingly, he was out of work. Dunn had found his manager.
Most of the hundred-odd players who showed up for tryouts that winter were in their early or mid-twenties: independent league veterans, recent college graduates, a few older guys hoping to reignite careers that had gone cold. Independent league players are scrappers, dreamers, and drifters hanging on to one common goal: getting out. One hundred and thirty eight players from the Pecos League have moved up to higher leagues in the past two years, but none have made it to the majors. Playing in the Pecos is thus somewhat akin to betting everything on a single hand of blackjack.
Bill Moore had no major league dreams. He just wanted to win. He had a budget of $2,000 a week and a simple plan: recruit power hitters who could consistently knock balls out of Fort Marcy. He was going to fill up the scoreboard. He started calling former colleagues and players—“somebody who might know somebody,” as he put it to me—and lining up prospects from college ball, professional leagues in Australia and Sweden, and other Pecos League teams that had succumbed to financial realities.
Forty-seven players were invited to a weeklong spring training at the beginning of May. Tafoya was among them. So were two players from a Kansas summer league: Scot Palmer, a 245-pound catcher who had played at Kansas’s Newman University, and Andrew Archbold, the skinny center fielder.
Palmer was surprised to get the call. At the end of the 2011 summer season, following a lackluster senior year at Newman, he’d dislocated a hip in a collision at home plate. He hadn’t expected to hear from any pro teams. When Moore asked about his health in October 2011, Palmer said he was 100 percent. At the time, he was using a cane and working as a valet at a Wichita casino. But he rehabbed furiously, and in April he and Archie caravanned to Santa Fe. Both men drove old Saturn sedans. Fifteen miles outside Trinidad, Colorado, Palmer’s engine blew up. He took what he could carry, threw it in Archbold’s car, and sold the remains of his vehicle for $125 to a guy he found in a gas station.
Palmer had not fully understood what he was getting into. It turned out the Fuego didn’t pay for players’ lodgings during spring training, and he had $37,000 dollars in student loans to pay off. To save money he ate only granola, and he quickly began to lose weight. He worried about his chances of making the team; there was another catcher in camp, too, a terrific defender from Australia named Kieran Bradford who’d played in the Pecos League the previous year. One night, at the Motel 6, he and Archbold noticed that Archie’s trunk was popped. Someone had broken in and stolen the center fielder’s baseball bag with all his gear. He and Palmer trolled the parking lot and found the bag dumped behind a car. The thieves had only wanted Archie’s iPod.
Palmer had had enough. He told a teammate he was planning to return home to Kansas, that he couldn’t afford to try out for the Fuego. But when he got back to the hotel following practice, he saw everyone packing. They had a new home: Tafoya’s house. Fifteen of them bunked there, on couches, on chairs, on the floor. Evan Kohli, a bruising first baseman from Minnesota, packed his six-foot-three, 205-pound frame into a recliner. Palmer slept on the hardwood floor. One night, Tafoya cooked everyone hot dogs.
In the second week of May, Moore announced the opening-day roster. Twenty-two of the 33 players were active, which meant they would make $54 per week plus travel expenses. The rest were the “taxi squad.” They would be invited to all home games, but they wouldn’t be paid and had to cover their own travel and hotels if they wanted to accompany the team on the road. Palmer, Kohli, Bradford, and Archbold made the active team. So did Tafoya. The comeback was on.
Tafoya called his teammates with the semipro Albuquerque Athletics and told them he would not be widely available for the summer. He didn’t need permission from anyone else. He had never married and had no children. “I would love to get married, I would love to have a family,” he told me. “But the one thing I’m not willing to give up is baseball.”