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BASEBALL

Looking for their minor miracle

Hopefuls at job fair face long odds of landing a low-paying gig in minor leagues, but love of the game fuels their dream.

December 14, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Baxter is a Times staff writer.

LAS VEGAS — Michael Westbrook, a fresh-faced 22-year-old with dreams as big as his native Texas, is standing in a chilly corridor at the Las Vegas Hilton, his future, as well as an empty ballroom, spilling out before him.

He has spent nearly a quarter of his life in radio -- long enough to know he doesn't want to spend the rest of it doing traffic and weather.

"I'm trying to get a minor league play-by-play job," Westbrook says earnestly.

He has come to the right place -- the center of the baseball universe.

For four days last week, the Hilton was where representatives from the 175 teams that account for baseball's 15 minor leagues came to meet, talk shop and interview candidates for more than 250 jobs, including sales, clubhouse attendant and mascot.

"It's amazing," says Steve Hurlbert, director of media relations for the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Dodgers' triple-A affiliate. "People want to get into the game."

Hurlbert broke into the baseball business at this job fair nine years ago, and he has compassion for the applicants. "Sometimes it's hard when you're in this process," he says, noting that the Isotopes conducted 50 interviews for nine job openings. "And I feel for these kids who are going through this, I really do."

Most recently staged in conjunction with baseball's annual winter meetings, the job fair has been held for 14 years and funneled thousands of people into jobs that can promise only low pay and long hours in isolated locales such as Casper, Wyo., Great Falls, Mont., and Idaho Falls, Idaho.

The applicants come seeking a labor of love.

Dave Sachs, media relations director for the triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs, gave up a good-paying job in insurance two years ago to attend the fair job fair in Orlando, Fla., where he landed an internship with the Jupiter Hammerheads of the Florida State League.

"We don't get rich off this," says Sachs, who even at the top rung of the minor leagues makes only about $20,000 a year. "[But] I love being able to wake up in the morning and come to work at a baseball stadium. . . . That's worth more to me than the extra money I'd be making."

A love for baseball seemed to be the top reason some 500 job-seekers were drawn to this year's fair, Westbrook, friend Adam Meggs and recent Penn State graduate Eric Berlin among them.

"I'm young enough where, if I don't do it, I'll wonder in 10 years if I should have," says Berlin, who brought along four suits and 175 resumes.

A former college player and coach who speaks in a deep monotone reminiscent of comedian Steven Wright, Berlin was an intern for the Camden Riversharks of the independent Atlantic League, then made $25 a game working for the Lehigh Valley (Pa.) IronPigs last summer. Those experiences convinced him of a future in baseball.

"I could see myself, in however long it takes, running an organization," he says. "Regardless of minor or major [league]."

Two days into the job fair, his confidence hasn't waned. He has already had three interviews and had two more scheduled -- all but one in sales, his preferred field. One of those positions is with the Trenton Thunder of the double-A Eastern League, which has already contacted his bosses in Lehigh Valley.

"With them, I feel confident that something should happen," he says.

Meantime, Berlin, 26, passes the time chatting with other candidates in a drafty ballroom, frequently visiting the tiny room where job openings are posted just to be sure he hasn't missed anything.

Things aren't going as well for Westbrook. Play-by-play jobs are by far the toughest to get because there are few openings and many candidates. Westbrook filed a resume and a demo CD with the double-A Mobile BayBears, but the team interviewed only four people and he didn't make the cut.

"Not that great of a gig anyway," he says, dismissing any disappointment.

Westbrook hopes to land interviews with the Lynchburg Hillcats and the Fort Myers Miracle. And he has submitted CDs to two other clubs.

But he has also become resigned to the prospect of going home without an offer. "If that turned out to be the case, that's OK," he says, smiling. "I still have a great job back home."

His friend Meggs, 25, who works for a company that does Internet broadcasts of high school sports in the Dallas area, isn't so sanguine.

"I'm very frustrated right now," he says.

By midday Tuesday he had applied for 10 jobs but had not landed an interview.

"I know I just need to get into that room," he says. "I feel like my best skill is the one-on-one interview session."

That chance never comes, and Meggs heads home Wednesday evening without ever interviewing.

"The whole experience was definitely something that needed to happen to me," he says, seeming both energized and disappointed by the exercise. "A couple of months ago there would have been no way I would have considered half of the jobs I applied for this week. . . . I am now even more motivated to attain my dream of being a baseball broadcaster by pushing even harder."

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