Can’t catch a break

On a scorching summer day, the humble backstop is a hero just for being there

Photo by Bryan Hainer

Photo by Bryan Hainer

It is 95 degrees and rising at noon June 26, and as I look down from the club-level restaurant at Cashman Field, the stands look empty. Once I reach the concourse, though, I see something more closely resembling the announced crowd of 1,974 for the Las Vegas 51s baseball game against the Tacoma Rainiers. Nearly all of the fans are in the shaded sections behind home plate, with fewer than 20 brave souls sitting out in the open for the last day game of the season.

At 12:05, 51s pitcher Brad Mills starts the game with a fastball into the glove of veteran catcher Ryan Budde, the most overdressed guy in the park: helmet, mask, shin guards, chest protector—no wonder they call catcher’s gear “the tools of ignorance.”

The equipment has been standard summer attire since Budde, 31, was a kid in central Oklahoma. Back then, he not only braved triple-digit temperatures, but stifling humidity as well. Still, given a preference, he’ll take playing ball in the sweltering, muggy climate of his home state over the unrelenting Mojave Desert heat.

“It’s a little more dangerous here, because you don’t even realize you’re overheating,” he says. “I’m kind of immune to the Midwest heat. Here, it just feels like a blow dryer blowing on you.”

Brian Jeroloman has received the bulk of the work at catcher this season for the 51s, but today Budde is making his third straight start, this one coming on the heels of a night game. He’s put to work early, staring up into the cloudless sky with the sun glaring off his shades as he catches a foul pop-up to end the first inning. The first few frames go quickly and quietly behind the plate for Budde, who downs water and removes his catcher’s gear in the dugout each inning, but he gets some added exposure to the elements in his first two at-bats, with a two-run double in the second inning and a leadoff walk in the fourth.

It’s 1:21 when Budde trots to first base with his free pass. The temperature has reached 100 on the concourse, but it’s hotter down on the field. He dashes to third on a double by Mike McCoy. The next batter hits a chopper that Tacoma third baseman Alex Liddi backhands near the foul line, with Budde sprinting for home on contact. Liddi fires a strike to Rainiers catcher Jose Yepez, who applies the tag to a hard-sliding Budde for the first out of the inning. It’s a slow walk back to the dugout. Covered in sweat and dirt, he drinks some water and puts the gear back on.

He constantly wipes his right hand on his uniform or in the dirt to keep the sweat from affecting his grip on the ball. At every opportunity, he raises his mask and wipes his sunglasses to keep the perspiration from blinding him.

The 51s are ahead 4-2 when Mills is lifted after six innings. The temperature is close to its high of 104. The game slows considerably as the 51s’ bullpen gives up five runs and eight hits in three innings, allowing Tacoma to rally for a 9-4 victory. Budde strikes out in his final two at-bats and is left standing on deck when the final out is made.

After shedding his gear and uniform, Budde weighs himself. He has consumed more than a gallon of water during the 3-hour, 6-minute contest, but he’s still lost four pounds from his pregame weight of 200. Budde usually stays up until around 3 a.m. following night games, but there will be none of that today for the 10-year professional. Now he just wants to take a nap and then have dinner with his wife and daughter, who watched from the stands.

“My wife says it’s really hot up underneath that awning,” the catcher says. “But it’s pretty dang hot down on the field.”

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I’d been charmed by the decrepit Happi Inn for years. A two-story motor lodge built in 1973, it sat across from Mandalay Bay without offering even a hint of the same comfort or safety. It was a couple of plain, two-story buildings covered in fading salmon paint, with rotting AC units hanging under each window like loose teeth. For a long time, the marquee sign was missing the panel that said “Happi Inn,” leaving just “MOTEL.”

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