MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Bill Dodd and two Chattanooga Lookouts teammates have a soda machine in a death grip. It's tilted at a 45-degree angle and they're shaking it, trying to pry loose a Pepsi.
Dodd has just come into the stifling, 25-by-25-foot room that passes for a visiting club house at Tim McCarver Stadium after finishing his daily 25-minute run. Sweat beads on his forehead, now more from the frustration of being gypped by this confounded thing than from his jogging in the outfield.
After another moment of struggling with the machine, Dodd surrenders, leaving the battle to his teammates. He trudges outside to find relief from the heat.
"It's cooler outside anyway," Dodd says.
After about five minutes, his teammates emerge victorious with a soda and hand it over to a grateful Dodd.
He finishes gulping just as a group of youngsters approach.
"Are y'all the Cincinnati Reds?" one asks.
"Well . . . ," Dodd says, starting to explain the intricacies of minor league affiliations to major league clubs.
"Nah," another breaks in. "They're in the minors."
"Chattanooga, huh?" a third asks.
"Yes," Dodd confirms with a sigh.
The scene, however brief, is another vignette in the tortured baseball life of Bill Dodd. After all, it has been a lurching transition from stardom at Capistrano Valley High School to minor league mediocrity in the Tennessee countryside.
As the young fans noticed, the only similarities between the Chattanooga Lookouts and the Cincinnati Reds are the hand-me-down warmup jerseys the Chattanooga players wear. Dodd knows this, but he's happy just to be playing for Chattanooga, the Reds' double-A affiliate.
The path to Chattanooga has taken Dodd through Tempe, Ariz., where a spat with a college pitching coach and National Collegiate Athletic Assn. sanctions against his school sent him packing for home. As a professional, he has gone through such garden spots as Billings, Mont., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Dodd has endured injury, inflated earned-run averages, broken soda machines and bothersome fans as best as could be expected. And he keeps coming back for more.
Two days later, Dodd is scheduled to be the Lookouts' starting pitcher. It's his first starting assignment since 1986 and only the fifth in his professional career.
At 7 p.m. things are looking good. In fewer than 30 minutes, Dodd will face the Memphis Chicks, the last-place team in the Southern League's Western Division. The Chicks' team batting average is .244 and they have only two batters hitting .300 or better.
At 7:15, Dodd is throwing in the bullpen. His pitches land in the catcher's mitt with an impressive "pop." Game time is just a few moments away and Dodd appears ready.
At 7:20, a storm hits.
Thunder, lighting and heavy rain send players scurrying for cover and the ground crew racing for the tarp. Dodd lingers a moment in the downpour, watching the dark sky. Sometimes these Southern storms blow over quickly. Not tonight. The game is called after a 90-minute wait.
So why does Dodd continue to endure the angst of the minor leagues? Why would an otherwise bright, mature, handsome 22-year-old stick with something that's given him so much grief?
The answer comes a day later.
Dodd throws a four-hitter, strikes out seven and walks one in five innings as Chattanooga beats Memphis, 7-2, in the first game of a doubleheader.
Dodd's career has been a curious mix of great highs and tremendous lows. One day's disappointment slowly, inevitably leads into the next day's success.
"Some days you throw and you're unhittable," Dodd said. "Others I think, 'What the hell am I doing out here?' "
Until the victory against Memphis, Dodd's current season has been more failure than success.
"So far, it hasn't been a good season," he said. "It's fun when you're doing well and the team's doing well. When everything is going right, there's nothing better than playing baseball."
Dodd is 3-2 with a 4.09 ERA in 46 innings pitched in 28 games, the slowest start of his career.
Dodd said when things are bad, when it's late at night in yet another unfamiliar hotel and he's wondering what's wrong with his fastball, he has mulled a career change.
He wonders what would have happened if he had earned his degree at Arizona State, if he had quit baseball while he was ahead and landed a real job.
"People my age have a degree and all," Dodd said. "I could be playing another four or five years and not make the majors. I could be out earning a living during that time."
He pauses a beat, then continues.
"There's always the chance I could make it. I have nothing else to lose. It's a nice life. You can't beat it. What other job lets you sleep in and watch soap operas all afternoon?"
Such indecision hasn't always plagued Dodd. Experience--good and bad, but mostly bad--has changed him, though. Indeed, Dodd seems older, wiser and more mature than his 22 years. A year at Arizona State and four more in the minors have been full of, as Dodd puts it, "learning experiences."