A declaration of Independents

At first glance, Nathan Winston looks like any of the other 50 baseball players who have descended on Heidelberg’s Peaceful Valley ballpark this week.

They’re all after the same thing – a spot on one of the fledgling Independent Baseball League’s franchises. A chance to play baseball professionally.

A chance to move up.

“It’s a matter of getting a chance for them to get looked at,” Tiffin Saints manager Ryan Parent said. “These kids want to chase a dream. They’re out here to prove that they can play at this level, and from there, if they put up good numbers during the season, they’ll get opportunities to play higher.”

Winston, a pitcher and Chillicothe native who was recently released by the St. Paul Saints, had just returned home to Ohio when he got a phone call.

“I got back in Ohio on a Friday. On Saturday I got a call about this,” Winston said. “It just told me to keep my bags packed and come out. I came out on a Monday and have just been here, trying to make a roster.”

As Winston talked, Peaceful Valley was full of activity. There was a scrimmage going on within the foul lines. The bullpens were filled with pitchers and catchers working. The dugouts were full of men in uniforms and assorted baseball caps.

All waiting for a chance to show they belonged.

Most of them will get that chance. Of the 50 players, 44 will be chosen for either the Tiffin Saints – which will call Peaceful Valley home – or the Ohio Travelers. The Travelers will be a roving squad in the four team IBL, which also includes teams in Marion and Adrian, Mich.

Play is set to begin this weekend, and continue through the summer.

Seemingly everyone has an interesting tale of how they ended up in Seneca County, but Winston’s story stands apart.

Because of a birth defect, Winston had his left leg amputated when he was 4 years old.

“The doctor said I wouldn’t be able to walk, or run, or anything like that,” he said.

But shortly after the amputation, Winston was playing basketball competitively. When he was 8, he started playing baseball.

“I’ve been playing since,” Winston said. “I had a strong arm in little league, so they put me on the mound to see what I could do, and ever since then, I’ve been pitching.”

Pitching with a prosthesis, Winston is able to throw a baseball in the mid 80 mile-per-hour range.

“He’s treated just like one of us, he’s one of the guys,” said Ben Tootle, another pitcher at the tryout. “There’s things that some of the guys may not be able to do because of health issues and what not, but we can make substitutes, and know one’s looking like he’s not doing what we’re doing. We’re all in this together. We’re a team and we help each other out.”

While Winston’s trip to the mound was unexpected, Tootle’s was highly touted.

The right-hander from Jackson State was a third-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins just five years ago. In 2011 he was pitching in A ball for the Beloit Snappers of the Midwestern League, but shoulder surgery paused his promising career.

“I got released, went and played a year independent,” Tootle said. “I took a year off, went back to school, and decided that if my arm felt good that I would pick it up and throw again.”

Tootle ended up at a tryout in Texas, where he met Andrew Azzopardi, a player/coach for the Saints.

“He said I was welcome to come up here,” Tootle said. “It’s definitely a small community, and I kind of like that. I come from a small town in Alabama I’m used to being in small towns; I enjoy it. I’m kind of hoping that we can kind of build something here and help the community out, get some fans in and it can turn into a good thing.”

If coming from Alabama seems like far away, well, Tootle is downright local compared to some of the others at Peaceful Valley.

Azopardi is a Sydney, Australia native who played independent ball in Colorado last year. His charge is not only to play, but to evaluate.

“Some of the talent we have here is unbelievable,”Azopardi said. “I’m overwhelmed by the talent we have here. Pitchers, offensive guys, it’s really impressive.”

Not nearly as impressive as some of the lengths certain players have gone through to get here. Take Cuban-born Ernesto Punales, who fled Cuba during a baseball tournament in Mexico when he was 16.

“It was a long road,” Punales said of his defection. “We had to take a 45-minute boat (ride) from Cuba to Mexico, and then from there, for us not to get caught, it was nighttime. It was pretty scary.”

Venezuelan-born Angel Vargas came to America when he was 15, and played baseball at South Florida State before being signed by the Atlanta Braves two years ago.

Vargas said staying in pro baseball is difficult.

“It’s a job; it’s competition,” Vargas said. “It’s global. I got surgery on my shoulder last year, and I got released. I’m just trying to continue my baseball career here in Tiffin.”

The infielder said he likes Tiffin. Well, except for one thing.

“The cold weather is not nice, that’s for sure,” he said. “We’re from the south, and this is cold, it’s something you have to get used to.”

Vargas said his roommates here are from Japan, which also has been interesting.

“We’re kind of learning Japan now,” he said. “And it’s kind of neat to be able to share (a room) with guys from a different country.”

It’s also different for Fernando Soler, a Venezuelan-born former Orioles prospect. The right-handed pitcher just turned 20 years old, and – after being released by the O’s – is in town looking to continue his career.

“To be here in Tiffin is good, because I want to get another opportunity,” Soler said through Punales, who acted as an English translator for him. “I want to see if I can get another chance at the big leagues.”

For Jacob Zeiter, the immediate goal is not that big. The former Buckeye Central High School standout is just hoping to catch on in pro ball, just a few miles from where he grew up.

“I’m just trying to play as hard as I can, make sure I earn my keep here,” Zeiter said. “I definitely have to show I belong here, because I don’t have the experience a lot of these guys do.”

The former Tiffin University Dragon has a connection in the IBL. His father, Jay, is the manager of the Travelers – when he’s not being principal at Buckeye Central.

“He’s got good coaching experience, he’s a good baseball guy,” Jacob said. “So I’m excited for him, he’s excited to do it. To play for him, it’s gonna be fun.”

During practice Friday, Jacob got a first-hand look at the IBL’s diversity. He played first base during a drill, and every other infielder was Japanese.

“Most of these guys aren’t from around here; they aren’t used to this small-town Ohio feel,” Jacob said. “They’re not used to this rain, they’re not used to this cold weather we’re getting right now.

Jacob also said he’s been teaching players about the area, and he’s been learning from them about the minor league baseball life.

“They’ve played Mexican leagues, Frontier League, all kinds of stuff,” he said.

For Parent, himself a former independent baseball player and Marine, the league, and the team, is all about opportunity.

“We have guys from Australia, Cuba, Venezuela, Japan, and they’re all here to play professional baseball,” Parent said.

In a little less than a week, many of them will get that chance.