Editor's note: This story contains graphic language.
Manhood. It's a competition. Has been since the first grunting, snorting, finger-sniffing Neanderthal scratched out whatever he felt defined it on the wall of his cave. Battle, power, money, looks — they all have their place in the contest, but the one thing that's been a true indicator of Manhood, since the days when men huddled around flame adorned in animals pelts, is Woman.
Not any one specific woman, mind you. Just the fact that Woman is out there, representing "points" to be scored — a trophy to be wooed, captured, seduced, suckered or even smacked over the head with a club. And men who play baseball come standard with a club.
When I signed to play pro ball back in 2003, the Padres shipped 24 other bush leaguers and me out to Oregon to play for the mighty Eugene Emeralds. We stayed in a hotel in downtown Eugene, like it was a big boarding house. We didn't have a fridge or a microwave or any clue of what was to come. I thought I was a Man for making it to the pros. Hell, we all did. We would get paid to play, and that alone was like a shiny medal pinned on your chest for all to see.
In a competitive environment, there is no such thing as equal. There are too few spots at the top for any man to regard each of his peers as an equal talent. No, when all men start on an equal footing, something has to separate them, be it a long-standing cultural custom or just random BS made up on the spot. "Equal" is loser talk. It's unsportsmanlike.
Lots of guys made their cases for why they should be considered the alpha male of a locker room in the low minors. Guys with more time in, guys with more money, guys with more big-league friends. All of that had its place, but none of it was enough to rule. College was over, and the draft didn't matter anymore. Even good play didn't mean jack, since you were still six bus stops away from The Show. Thus, the separator, once again, was Woman.
There was a big fella we'll call Jimmy Keets, broad and sturdy and an absolute meathead. (All names in this story have been changed.) He was built like something you'd christen with a bottle of champagne before launching it out to sea, but so dumb that you knew an iceberg would sink it someday. He kept his brown, tightly curled hair cut short, just long enough to smoosh in hair product. He had a never-ending supply of black V-neck shirts, copper skin, swollen biceps and a winsome grin that, when combined with the job title "pro athlete," made him like flypaper for certain women.
Jimmy was shameless about his pursuits, by which I mean, he would screw anyone. Anyone. Moms, daughters, moms and daughters. Big ones, little ones, odd sizes and plus sizes. Ex-girlfriends, new girlfriends, your girlfriend. Once, when a teammate's sister came to visit, it took Jimmy all of a day and half to get her into bed. "You can't be mad at him, bro," I heard another teammate say to the girl's brother. "It's what he does. He's like the rain, or the mountains, or the moon and the stars. He just can't be stopped."
Jimmy didn't brag about his prowess, but he didn't hide it either. One day, on a long trip out to Idaho, he sat next to me on the bus, calling all the girls he'd met so far who lived near the town where we were headed. His "little black book" was a cell phone full of names, with one entry for "Mom and Dad" surrounded by dozens of ranked and categorized booty calls.
"Hey, Leslie. It's me, Jimmy." He was setting up his first stop on the trip. The boys of the Emeralds gathered around with bated breath to listen to his calls. "I'm coming into town and wanted to know if you'd like to hook up?" Leslie was still getting to know Jimmy. They hadn't gone all the way yet, a detail he had logged in his phone next to her name, under "Notes." This kept him from making costly mistakes, like mixing up histories or experiences. Leslie was hot, Jimmy said, hotter than a lot of other girls whom it would take less effort to hook up with. She was worth it, he said, because, "She's Mormon, and Mormon girls really know how to please a man."
Mixing up Leslie's history wouldn't have been that big of a deal, not like it would have been with Renee, the next mark on Jimmy's call list. Jimmy and Renee had already had sex, but Jimmy was pressuring her to do different things in bed. "Yeah, baby. You know you've at least thought about it. You act like it's nasty, but I know you, and I think you like it a little nasty." At this point, he'd press the phone to his chest, not even bothering to listen to her response, and whisper to us, "You have to make it sound like they want to do it. Joke about it, you know, until the opportunity is in front of them." Then, back to the phone, "No, baby, I'm alone. I'm in the bus bathroom. You know I keep my game private, girrrl."
It was Jimmy's third call that really piqued the team's interest: Shelly. Jimmy and Shelly had tried just about everything. Jimmy said she was a "freak," and he wanted to know just how "freaky." He asked her, "You want to add a partner? I'm down with that. One of your friends? One of my friends? Uh-huh … OK … I'll ask him." Jimmy put the phone next to his chest again and asked one of the other infielders if he'd like to "turn a double play" with him, sometime during the Boise series.
"I don't know, dude," the other infielder said. "I'm not really into a threesome. I mean, if it was two chicks, OK. But another dude, on my team?"
"Oh, come on, dude. Be a Man."
Another guy asked Jimmy, "How the hell you keep your legs under you for games, with all this fucking you're doing, bro?"
"Clean living, man," Jimmy said. "I take this seriously." He produced a little cooler he'd packed full of snacks from a local organic grocery. There was a tub of cooked, ground turkey — "low-fat protein source, bro." A collection of protein bars — "highest yield of protein and omegas for the price, bro." A few packets of water-mix greens — "you have to get your greens in, bro." And, of course, bananas, lots of bananas — "they help you cum more, bro."
In the super-macho culture of a professional sports locker room, Jimmy was a star — as much of a star as a man can be, on a backwater, low-level ballclub, where the team bus breaks down frequently and the lockers are made of chicken wire. But he wasn't merely the star of the team. Jimmy also played the leading role in a popular team reality television show he called Show Time.
Everyone on the team was spread out across the team floor at the local hotel. All the rooms had balconies, divided up out of one long slab of concrete that stretched across the entire length of the floor. Each balcony was separated from the next by a waist-high railing, which any average guy could hop. When Jimmy brought girls — what baseball players commonly refer to as "beef" — back to the team hotel, he'd flip the lights out, save for the one around his bed. Then he'd leave the balcony door open just a crack and send out a team-wide text message: "Show Time in 5 minutes." Balcony doors across the floor would whip open, and it would be standing-room-only on Jimmy's balcony.
Some girls knew. Some girls didn't. Sometimes a girl would figure it out and run out of the place screaming, while the guys laughed at her outrage. Some girls really seemed to like the live audience, but almost none of them knew they were being videotaped.
Jimmy started it, but it didn't take long for the concept to catch on. All the fresh-face draftees were trying to show that they had what it takes to be a Man in the pros, and proving that Manhood eventually became a team project. Every player had a roommate. Most of the time, the roommate would be out of the room when "beef" was brought back to the hotel room. A roommate who'd brought home a woman would leave a sock on the doorknob or some other indicator, or a roommate who was on his way back to the room with a woman would send a warning text. Something.
Some nights, though, a player's roommate might be sleeping when he comes tromping in with a woman. In those moments, you can't very well wake your roommate and kick him out. You're a professional baseball player, after all, and it would be bush-league to rob your roomie of a sound night's sleep, which possibly could impact his career. No, if a minor leaguer brings a woman back to his room after his roommate has already gone to sleep, two things are understood. First, the roommate gets a free show, as long as he keeps pretending to be asleep. Second, if the pretend-sleeping roommate is so inclined, he may video the action, as long as he does it discreetly.
Thus, the 2003 season became the summer of voyeuristic sex. I saw more texted photos of bare asses over legs that season than in all my other seasons in the minors combined. Videos were passed around clubhouses. Critiques of technique were given, as well as tips for hiding a camera better.
Show Time was a regular event, eventually involving almost as much preparation as the actual baseball games. "Woman dig this — I read it in Maxim," said one of the middle rounders in the team shower, gesturing to his artfully manicured pubic hair. Apparently women also dug men who doused themselves in cologne and wore giant, fake diamond studs, bulbous watches, sunglasses at night and Affliction T-shirts, because all of those things became contagious among the players as well.
Women were no longer people now. They were categories. Cleat Chasers. Slump Busters. White Buffalos. Yard Rats. Butter Faces. Promotions. They were categorized for their sexual willingness and added to a kind of database. The guys talked about "six degrees of sexual separation," by which one could track the body parts of one player to those of another: "Well, she gave me oral, and you kissed her after I was with her last month, so, in a way, you sucked my dick. Think about it."
I tried not to. Not all of us were into exhibitionist sex, but it quickly came to dominate the team's social hierarchy. So many young, liberated, loud-talking sexual dynamos. We were all virgins in pro ball, something that only time and luck were going to change. These wanton sexual exploits were seen as our proving ground until we could reach that point, based on the group's juvenile belief that any of it meant something beyond sex. It meant masculinity. It meant fearlessness. It meant promotion. It meant playing the game the right way.
Sexual exploits became a competition, and those who didn't compete were mocked by those who did. The first woman I met in pro ball was a cute little Greek number. Sweet, shy, innocent. We went back to my room with my roommate out. I thought we'd be safe there. We could chat, split some complimentary coffee and talk. But some of the other players saw me with her as we crossed the lobby. That was all it took. As my lady friend and I sat chatting in the room, the phone rang.
"What're you doing over there, Hay? Looks like you could have some Show Time for us?"
I hung up, and some guys started pounding on my door. Then pounding on the balcony window. Then guys in the hallway were faking the sound of a woman's climax and screaming my name. "I think I should go," said the girl, gathering up her things. "I don't want to be a part of whatever sick thing you're up to." I promised her that I wasn't up to anything sick, but that was hard story to sell with my teammates pressing their nipples against the balcony door glass.
Things were getting out of hand. During a trip to Vancouver, two roommates hired prostitutes. After a night of playing rough and dirty, the boys woke to find that they'd been robbed. On the second trip to Boise, a relief pitcher was trapped in his room by an enraged father, wielding a two-by-four, who'd tracked down his under-aged daughter at the team hotel. The father was shouting, "I'll rip your goddam balls off, you son of a bitch!"
Four guys dumped their longtime girlfriends. Two cheated on their wives. One lost his fiancée when she called while he was in the shower and another woman answered. It was written off as breakage — something that had to be expected in a system that otherwise was working. In fact, like so much baseball lore, if a guy had a sexual encounter the night before — "cleaned out the pipes" — and went 4-for-4 the next day, then it didn't matter how risky, immoral, costly or illegal it was. It was worth it. The baseball gods approved. Over time, the sexual stats became as much a part of the game as the K's and hits. To deny it was to deny the forces of the universe, to be a bad teammate, to put hos before bros.
Halfway through the season, privacy was dead. Chivalry had fallen on its sword, and dignity was just something you used to justify why you beaned an opposing player. If you had a wife or a girlfriend before you hit the team, she was relatively safe from the other players. But if you got involved with a young woman during the season, she was subject to the interests and pressures of the team's perverted psyche. It wasn't enough to "bag girls" from the open waters around the minor leagues. True power was being able to bed someone everyone knew and wanted.
One woman in particular became a target. Jane worked on the grounds crew as a college intern. She was tall and curvy, and she tended the field wearing nothing but track shorts and a sports bra. The whole team would come out early for stretching, just to watch Jane work. She'd pull her hair back in a ponytail and slip on a pair of leather roping gloves, spitting into them before grabbing the thick wooden handle of the mound tamp. Then she'd pound away with both hands, raising and lowering the heavy tamp between her wide stance, softly grunting each time she struck it to the earth, the shockwave rippling across her chest. She'd labor until the pitcher's mound was shaped and solid, and her face was flushed and sweaty.
I really wanted to ask Jane out. By God, I had to. She was the Venus of the ball field. So one day before batting practice, I asked her out on an old-fashioned date — during daylight, with no alcohol, voyeurs, cameras or V-necks — as far away from the team's teeming mass of hormones as I could get. She turned me down, flatly.
When I got back to the room that night, there was a sock on my door indicating that I should not enter. The next day, a grainy, out-of-focus video of my roommate and Jane was getting passed around the lockers. He couldn't hold it, and there was no one else in the room, so he just set it up in the corner at a fixed angle. I didn't look. I couldn't. But I couldn't un-hear the fact that Jane was a screamer, or when she said, "It's my first time." I almost vomited, I was so shaken by it. "Damn, Hayhurst, you should have told me you liked that chick," my roommate said later. "I would have waited until you were back in the room, so you could have ran the camera."
Show Time carried on for the rest of the season, but in the last month, when simply watching one of your teammates having sex became tame, a new concept was born: Running the Train. A guy brought a woman back to the hotel, usually drunk, turned the lights off and cracked open his balcony window. He was "the engine," the joke went, and she was "the tunnel." Once the engine got up to full speed, he'd pull out, faking a need to run to the bathroom — "Too much booze, babe, I gotta take a piss" — and shut the door with all the lights off. Then one of the other guys in "the train" would come in from the balcony and take his place. The longest "train" was three "cars." The will to go longer was there, but the season ended before the men of the minor-league sex train could perfect the routine.
There is, of course, another name for "Running the Train": rape. The women most likely didn't know what was happening and could not have consented to it. Perhaps they were too afraid to object once they realized. When the subject came up, however, the guys on the team had a different explanation: "They wanted it, man. Besides, we joked about it before we brought them back to the hotel. You know, made them feel like it was their idea. Besides, chicks love ballplayers!"
"Aren't you worried that this is going to come back to bite you in the ass?" I asked, after the latest recounting of the "train schedule."
"Why? You gonna tell?"
"No, I guess not. But, you know, it seems wrong."
"Don't hate on other players' good time, man. That's part of being a good teammate. As long as you don't do that, nothing bad is going to happen."
He was right: Nothing did happen. No penance was paid for those poor, suckered women. No sins were atoned for, and no iceberg ever did sink Jimmy Keets. The lack of consequence almost seemed like proof of the rationale. I found myself wondering if senseless degradation and exploitation of woman really was what ballplayers do — what society expected us to do. I wondered even harder when, by the time I reached Double-A, we had an emergency meeting to discuss a player infidelity.
We were in Mobile, Ala., the sweaty armpit of the Southern League. We'd just come back from Montgomery, where one of the married guys had hooked up with a woman he'd met at the hotel bar. One of the other married guys was rooming with him at the time and came home to a sock on the doorknob. Like a good teammate, he crashed in another player's room and told no one — except for his own wife, whom he'd promised before all of man and heaven that he'd keep no secrets from. Unfortunately, the roommate's wife was great friends with the unfaithful player's wife. She told her. Screaming in the parking lot. Screaming at the manager. Screaming in the locker room. Weeping. Fighting. Pale faces, awkward silences, and then an emergency meeting.
"Gentlemen," the manager began. "I shouldn't have to tell you this by now, but this is baseball. What happens in this locker room stays in this locker room. You play long enough, and you are going to see all kinds of shit in this game. Drugs, booze, sex, affairs — shit that doesn't even have a name yet. You don't talk about it outside these walls. What happened with Joe's wife, that should never happen. Women don't understand what we do in here, and they don't need to know. You see a guy on this team screwing around, the last person on earth that needs to know is that player's wife, which means the last person you should tell is your wife. You let guys make their own bed, and you keep your mouth shut about it."
By the time I got to the big leagues, sexual exploits had gone from being something that everyone talked about constantly in the locker room to something that everyone pretended not to even notice, let alone be shocked by. When some of the game's most outspokenly religious names — guys often praised for their exceptional character or morality — were seen getting blow jobs from random groupies at big-league bars, having clubbies deliver room keys to women in the stands, or invoking the "five-hour rule" with a random flight attendant, everyone just looked the other way. Sex and sexism were simply a part of baseball culture. Undeniable and undisputed, like the rain or the mountains, the moon and the stars. It was almost enough to make you believe there really are "baseball gods," and that gratuitous sexual escapades are baseball's standard operating procedure. It was almost enough to make you think there were no consequences for any of it. Almost.
Years later in my career, I was standing in line behind Jimmy, waiting to get blood drawn as part of a spring training regimen. The nurse processing our paperwork, checking off Jimmy's information, got to the end and asked him, "Would you like a free and confidential screening for the HIV virus, as part of your check up?"
"Fuck, no," said Jimmy. "I don't want to know if I got that shit. I don't want to feel guilty for the rest of my life. Fuck, no. Ignorance is bliss!"
It's something, all right. That's why, even though a lot of other players probably would like to know the result of Jimmy's blood test, I did exactly what baseball told me to do. I kept my mouth shut.