While it is often just a dream to love your life"s work, the Indianapolis Indians" Jim Rushford knows such joy. It"s hard to think of a 28-year-old as too old, but for a baseball prospect, a man who still dreams both awake and asleep of finding his way to a major-league field, his age is a definite negative.
"If I"m not in the majors, I"d love to come back to Indianapolis. This has been the best place I"ve ever played." -Indianapolis Indians" Jim Rushford
Rushford wasn"t drafted out of San Diego State University and didn"t receive one of the million-dollar bonuses we read about. But he refused to give up and found his way to places like Schaumberg, Ill., and Sioux Falls, S.D., playing in the independent leagues for little more than minimum wage. In the off-season, he delivered pizzas. Sheer tenacity and dogged determination got Rushford a shot with the Milwaukee Brewers organization last year and he made the best of the opportunity. Despite a mid-season promotion, Rushford led all hitters in professional baseball in batting average. Baseball America"s Minor League Player of the Year Hank Blalock of the Texas Rangers hit five points less than Rushford, but while that younger prospect was handed a major-league job (and failed), Rushford found himself consigned to Huntsville, Ala. Every worker knows this story: Great employee contributes new idea but doesn"t get promoted. Rushford, however, didn"t feel sorry for himself. He worked harder. Even though people still said he had no chance, he didn"t give his bosses any reason to release him. As if that wasn"t enough, Rushford and his wife had their first child in the off-season. Despite leading the world in hitting, Rushford continued to make the minor-league minimum. If he went to a restaurant - on the occasions he could afford one - the server was likely making as much money as he was. The minor-league minimum salary is roughly equivalent to $5.35 an hour. Rushford kept working - and kept hitting. An injury to a former major-league player gave him the opportunity to move from Huntsville to Indianapolis, but no one expected him to stay more than a few weeks. Nevertheless, as far as Rushford was concerned, Indianapolis has been a lucky break. "It"s a great place to raise a family and housing is pretty cheap," he says. While major leaguers who are rehabbing injuries in Indianapolis make more than $100,000 a week and discuss their condos in Hawaii, Rushford has made a point of learning what day children get in free to the zoo and what restaurants give complimentary meals to Indians players. Rushford"s hard work has not gone unnoticed. Longtime Indians announcer Howard Kellman notes, "He"s the hardest worker on the team and the kind of guy you want to point out to everyone." Indians General Manager Cal Burleson says, "He"s improved himself so much. We knew he could hit once he adjusted, but he"s better in every phase of the game." While Indianapolis is a hard park for a hitter, Rushford is currently eighth in the International League in hitting and is just one step away from the major leagues. "This is a top notch facility and a great organization," Rushford says. "The fans here are great. They always cheer when I come up and they keep me going sometimes." He was named the Indians Player of the Month for July. The No. 6 and 8 hitters and the Players of the Month for May and June are all in the major leagues now. Unfortunately, all this hard work might be for nothing. If baseball goes on strike on Aug. 30, Rushford"s chance at a big-league call-up will vanish and, at age 29, he"s not guaranteed anything but another year at minimum salary, riding buses from Indy to Columbus, Toledo and Scranton. Even if the strike is somehow averted, Rushford has no guarantee of heading to Milwaukee to finish the season. "I just hope they see what I"ve done and give me a chance to see what I can do up there," he says. "I"ve been able to hit everywhere I"ve been and I"d sure like to do it against the best." If not, Rushford will head back to his home in San Diego and get ready for next year. "If I"m not in the majors, I"d love to come back to Indianapolis. This has been the best place I"ve ever played." Sit in the outfield grass with a hot dog and cold drink. Let the breeze cool your brow and forget the work you left behind. For one more week this year, Jim Rushford will play in Indianapolis and he"ll dream of playing in "the show." Let the millionaire players and billionaire owners squabble amongst themselves over percentage points. In Indianapolis, we have Rushford and Victory Field on a late summer day. The Indians play home games through Aug. 31; call 269-3545 for tickets and information.