The reason I went to Lancaster, Pennsylvania was to try and find former National Matt Chico who is currently playing for the York Revolution. Since his last start for the Nationals in 2010 Matt Chico has been a baseball drifter. Chico spent all of 2011 in the Nats minor leagues splitting time in Viera, Harrisburg, and Syracuse. 2012 has not been a good year for Matt Chico as he has split time with two independent league teams and has amassed an ERA of 8.33 in 8 starts.
Matt Chico is like many players that find themselves in the independent leagues. For him it is one last grasp at hope. In the past two seasons the York Revolution and the Lancaster Barnstormers have each sent a pitcher back to the major leagues. In 2011 Jerome Williams put up a 2.91 ERA in 8 games for the Lancaster Barnstormers before being signed by the Angels. With his dream renewed Williams has been a perfectly serviceable fifth starter for the Angels putting up a 4.19 ERA in 23 games.
The other pitcher that made it back to the majors from these two teams is none other than another former National, Shawn Hill, who in 7 games for York this season had a 2.43 ERA. Hill is now in the Blue Jays minor league system working his way back to the majors.
Shawn Hill, Matt Chico, and Jerome Williams are at the ages where baseball players should be in their primes. Matt Chico is the youngest at 29 and Hill the oldest at 31. These are the years in which a normal baseball player is at their best, but for whatever reason careers don't always follow a normal path, and because of injuries or poor performances sometimes players find themselves unwanted by major league clubs. Not even worth a minor league roster spot that can be used on a more promising player.
There are other types of players in the independent leagues. Unwanted for a variety of reasons. On the Lancaster squad is another former National, John Halama, who appeared in 10 games at the end of 2005 for a Washington Nationals pitching staff that was both fighting for a playoff spot and short staffed. In 2005 John Halama was already nearing the end of what could be called an adequate major league career.
Working mostly as a swingman Halama had a 4.65 ERA in 911 innings spread out over 9 major league seasons. With his inability to hang on with the Nationals in 2005 and the Orioles in 2006 it looked like his career was at an end, but Halama for one reason or another wasn't ready to hang it up. So now here he is back in Lancaster for the second straight year, and at the age of 40 is doing quite well with a 2.65 ERA in 88 1/3 innings pitched. This is Halama's sixth year in the indy leagues.
Halama has had his chances to return to the majors. In 2008, 2009, and 2010 he was signed by Cleveland, Atlanta, and Oakland and finished each of those seasons in AAA. Close to the majors and with the hope that he could be a player that could come in down the stretch and make the difference for a team.
It is hard to guess the players motivations and it is difficult to say if the lack of range by middle infielders, the lack of pitchers that throw over 90, and the amount of base running mistakes is because of talent or that fact that the indy leagues exist a echoes of a dream. Some like Jerome Williams and Shawn Hill return to the majors, but most never get that call again.
There are other echoes to the Nationals here. Terry Tiffee is one of the Barnstormers best hitters with a batting line of .289/.345/.471. If the name Terry Tiffee doesn't sound familiar and his connection to the Nationals seems obscure it is because it is. Tiffee played in only 96 MLB games over a four year career mostly as a utility player. His MLB batting line is an unimpressive .226/.276/.350 as a corner utility player. That obscure connection to the Nationals has nothing to do with Tiffee as a major leaguer. In 2008 he was a teammate of Stephen Strasburg and managed by Davey Johnson on the US Olympic baseball squad.
The last and most important echo I find is in the free gameday program. It is about a player like Halama who exists in the indy leagues because they are hanging on to what was a decent major league career that will be remembered by very few. In 2008 at the age of 32 Matt LeCroy found himself in Lancaster batting .326/.382/.542. Even though he was playing well his body told him his career was done. As soon as LeCroy realized this he got a call from Bob Boone to come and be a part of the Nationals minor league system.
At that time the Nationals major league team was without promise, but there were echoes of hope. Stephen Strasburg would be drafted in 2009 and Bryce Harper one season later in 2010, but when LeCroy signed on with the Nationals the rights to draft Strasburg had just been earned and there was already talk of the Nationals being bad enough once again to get the rights to Harper. It would be an unprecedented haul for a team in a 12 month span, and it would be these moves more than any other that would help to turn around the Nationals.
At least that is what is thought from the outside, but now LeCroy is in his third season as a manager and mentor to the Nats minor leaguers, and ask anyone that is close to the Nats minor league system and you will here the same thing. There is a lot more talent down here than people realize. So much talent in fact that an Atlantic League team in Lancaster, Pennsylvania is paying attention to the Washington Nationals and their farm system.
The independent leagues exist in echoes. Filled with players vanquished from major league systems for a variety of reasons. Some are trying to hold onto a career long since gone, others fell on the wrong side of MLB rules, and then there are others that couldn't put it together in the majors but have found something in the independent league. It is because of players like Jerome Williams who make it back to the majors that the shadow of hope exists in echoes in the independent leagues.