POCATELLO – Terry Fredrickson sat at a locker just inside the Gate City Grays clubhouse, looking at the ground and playing with a baseball in the same way a child toys with Play-Doh.
The Grays’ co-owner then stared at the seven other faces in a room, faces that have been too absent from his life for the last 20 months or so. When the Grays cancelled their 2020 season months after the coronavirus pandemic’s onset, Fredrickson was a beached whale — laying on sand, so close yet so far to the thing he needed: baseball.
Worse was the thought of what might happen if he never again reached the water, if the Grays’ one-year hiatus turned into a long-term disappearance. Semi-pro baseball teams like the Grays aren’t operating with ballooning budgets or wide margins or TV revenue. They are beholden to the paying attendance and sponsors and sales from hot dogs or beer – and when that disappears, it’s rational to believe the team would vanish, too.
But the Grays are still alive, still led by Fredrickson and his wife, Erica – a pair of baseball-crazed souls sincere in their belief that the game is a sort of catharsis for them, the players and the community.
But catharsis is rarely reached via a smooth pathway, and steering a semi-pro franchise is like traversing a cobblestone road beaten by a jackhammer. Just weeks away from the season’s start, the Grays don’t yet have a schedule. The only confirmed game is the home opener on June 12 – a doubleheader against the Smithfield Blue Sox beginning at 6 p.m. Normally, Fredrickson would have sent out all his season tickets, secured game sponsors and approached the year with less anxiety but, within the last week, the Salt Lake Buzz became the seventh member of the Northern Utah Baseball League and forced the schedule to be completely reworked.
Semi-pro baseball was already a traveling circus. A year after COVID, it’s a circus where the rides change every day. No one really knows what to expect. There’s a lot still to fret over, a lot still to nail down, a lot that Fredrickson wants no one else to worry about.
“I want you guys to know something. There is no stress in this league that I cannot deal with when I see a guy come out of this program slightly better. There’s no stress,” he told the room. “There’s no stress in this league that I can’t deal with when I see a fan show up and have a hometown hero in this community.
“There’s no stress at all that I will feel when I see a father and son, mother and daughter having a conversation in those stands about this game. I can bear that stress to give that opportunity.”
He gave a different sort of opportunity recently, taking a chance on a 21-year old to be the next Grays manager.
Rhys Pope, a former Blackfoot standout who’s now pitching at Dickinson State, is a slender 6-foot figure with blonde locks that flow out the back of his hat. He is not an imposing figure, but Pope – the son of former Blackfoot baseball coach Liam Pope – speaks with confidence and holds enough self-assurance to embrace the title of the league’s youngest skipper.
“Especially since I’m trying to get into coaching, it’s fantastic that the Grays have given me this opportunity,” said Pope, who played two seasons with the Grays in the past. “Whenever you have people in your corner to back you and they’re 100% behind you, it makes the job a whole lot easier.”
The guy who knows Pope’s situation better than anyone was standing three feet to the young manager’s left as he spoke to the group of tryout hopefuls. Trent Seamons was 24 when he became the Grays’ inaugural manager, heading Gate City up until he resigned this winter. He’s still a part of the Grays, still scouting college talent and trying to recruit good, young players with the pitch that they could improve their skills with a summer in Pocatello.
But this year – whether because of COVID, a lost baseball season or fewer programs – interest waned. For reference, the Grays had 114 people try out the first year (from accounts of those who were there, some of the attendees may never have held a baseball before). This go-round, just a dozen people showed up – one of whom was Seamons.
A few Thursdays ago, fresh off a bike ride, Fredrickson was in his backyard when a call from his former manager came through.
“I still have game, Terry.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“I want to play.”
“I want to see you out there,” Fredrickson responded. “To be honest, I think there would be one or two more banners on that wall had you been on the team and not on the sidelines.”
The Grays hope to sign 14 guys who are currently playing in college and added 11 of the 12 of those who tried out, including Seamons, to the roster.
Seamons didn’t have a number at the tryouts, but still hopped in line and followed Pope’s instruction from the 60-yard sprint to infield work to batting practice.
“Of course, I love the game and love playing the game and there were some road trips where we went down shorthanded and I got to play a little through the years,” Seamons said. “When you’re doing summer ball, you have to do what you have to do.”