Willie Ethington’s lifelong dream is to one day play in the major leagues. It’s the thing that motivates the Mesa, Ariz., native to endure all the hardships that come with playing baseball in the Pecos League for the Bakersfield Train Robbers.
There are the long car rides to road games, small paychecks, and a grueling 64 games in 66 days schedule to contend with, but for Ethington it’s an opportunity to keep the dream alive.
Ethington’s desire to get signed by a MLB team and given the opportunity to work his way up through their farm system is something he shares with virtually all his teammates on the Train Robbers.
Ethington is one of the few players on the team that knows what that experience is like.
The 23-year old was a 17th round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox five years ago. Originally a pitcher, he got hurt and in his words, “Got the yips,” causing him to be released by Boston in 2015.
Now a position player, Ethington is playing in the Pecos League for a second straight year.
“It’s a grind,” Ethington said. “You’re playing every day. Not a lot of days off. It’s very competitive because it’s just people trying to get better and make it, get to the next level. You got to do what you got to do… You just got to deal with it. If you complain that’s when it gets to you. That’s when you don’t perform well.”
The Train Robbers, are one of 12 teams in the Pecos League, a low-level non-affiliated minor league making its Bakersfield debut this year.
The Train Robbers filled the void left by the departure of the Bakersfield Blaze. Like the Blaze, the Train Robbers play their home games at historic Sam Lynn Ballpark. That’s one of the few similarities between the two clubs. The Blaze were long-time members of the Class-A Advanced California League, just three steps below the major leagues.
Several former Blaze players are currently making their mark in the majors. Edison Volquez, who pitched for the Blaze in 2005 and 2007, threw a no-hitter for the Miami Marlins earlier this year. Billy Hamilton, a Cal League All-Star for the Blaze in 2012, leads the MLB in stolen bases for the Cincinnati Reds.
In contrast to the Blaze, the Train Robbers have no direct ties to MLB.Regardless of that, the Pecos League has promoted 312 players to higher independent and affiliated minor league teams over the past seven years. However, only a handful have earned a spot on the 40-man roster of a MLB team.
The Pecos League was founded in 2010 and features mostly former college players and ex-minor league players who were cut by MLB organizations.
Players in the league must be 25 years old or younger when the calendar year starts, with one exception allowed to that rule per team.
The league salary range for players is $50-$125 a week, but everyone on the Train Robbers is paid the same, $57 per week, according to league commissioner Andrew Dunn.
Batters can earn additional money by hitting home runs or with a walk-off RBI and pitchers by striking out the first three batters of an inning or a seven strikeout performance by the starter.
When any of those things happens, they pass the hat in grandstands with the proceeds going to the respective player(s) who did it.
Roughly $110 was collected in that manner for a pair of Train Robbers players to split during a game last week.
That is one of the few perks that players receive.
They drive their own cars to away games, though the league has one van that the Train Robbers and High Desert Yardbirds share for out-of-state road trips.
Except for former Garces and Cal State Bakersfield product Nick Vehlewald, all the players on the Train Robbers live with host families during the season.
Despite all the travails that come with playing low-level minor league baseball, Train Robbers’ pitcher Kale Fultz is enjoying the experience.
“It’s a lot of travel and it’s hot, but it’s a lot of fun,” Fultz said. “I’m getting a paycheck to play a game. I’m not too worried about anything else. I just want to keep playing baseball.”
Fultz has seen the benefits that come with making it big as a professional baseball player. His father Aaron Fultz was a major league relief pitcher from 2000-2007.
Kale grew up in Memphis, where he played high school baseball. After playing at East Central Community College in Decatur, Miss. and then Central Baptist College (Conway, Ark.) he was picked up by the Philadelphia Phillies as a free agent signing following the 2016 MLB Draft.
He played a full season of Rookie Ball last summer but blew his knee out the first day of Spring Training this year and was subsequently released.
“I feel (The Pecos League) is better baseball than Rookie Ball,” Kale Fultz said. “You’re playing at night and don’t have to be at the field at 6 a.m. You’re on your own doing your own thing. You get to do all the training you want to do. It’s all on you.”
For Train Robbers’ outfielder Lawrence Chavez the challenge of playing in the Pecos League is as much mental as it is physical.
“The Pecos League is a grind,” Chavez said. “You’re coming out every single day, doing what you love, grinding it out. There’s time when it’s rough but you just have to be mentally tough. No matter what happens you have to stay focused and play hard every day.”
The oldest member of the Train Robbers, 26-year old first baseman Chris Carr, calls the experience of playing for the Train Robbers, “A blessing.”
Carr, is a full time sixth-grade math teacher in Georgia during the off season.
“All the games in a short time span does take a toll on all of bodies but I don’t know one guy out here that would trade this (experience) for anything,” Carr said. “You grow up your whole life wanting to be a professional baseball player. I’m just thrilled to be here and enjoying every minute of it.”
He shares that sentiment with Train Robbers manager Bill Moore.
The seemingly always upbeat 72-year old is the person responsible for all of the day-to-day operations of the team.
Moore is also the person that put together the entire Train Robbers roster. He did it with the help of tips from the numerous baseball contacts he’s acquired over the past 45 years working as a baseball coach/manager.
Moore has managed/coached in more than 5,000 games over his career, which includes a Pecos League championship as manager of the Santa Fe Fuego in 2014.
On May 17th of that year Moore won his 1,200th game as a baseball head coach. His teams have made the playoffs in five of the six years that he’s managed in the Pecos League.
Moore has coached 28 current and former MLB players, arguably the most accomplished being former Dodgers and White Sox star first baseman Paul Konerko.
Moore sees a lot of promise in his current group of players.
“We have a lot of talent,” Moore said. “I know that I’ll be able to get a handful of these guys promoted at the end (of the season).”
Though the odds are long but there’s always the chance that someone on the Train Robbers could eventually make it to the Major Leagues.
“I think that it’s everyone’s dream in here, to get there,” Ethington said.
In the meantime, the players on the Train Robbers will have to endure the difficult life of an independent league baseball player.
For some of them, the hardships are far outweighed by the experience of getting to continue playing the game they love.
“You don’t know when the last pitch is coming so I’m just trying to enjoy every second of it,” Carr said.