It's 12:15 a.m. Most of Salt Lake City is asleep. The lights at the 7-Eleven kitty-cornered from Derks Field illuminate the whole intersection, but only an occasional car passes.
The bus stands on the Derks' asphalt apron, engine idling, cargo bays open.Obediently, quietly, the Trappers load gear and bodies onto an appropriately ratty vehicle that's never big enough for the next long road trip.
Hours earlier, the Trappers concluded a four-game homestand against rival Butte with a 6-5 loss that left the teams split for the series. But now it's on to Billings, and nobody talks about the night's disappointment, though each man carries a little bit of it with him as he finds a plastic seat and oozes into it. If he spreads out quickly enough, he may not have to share the seat. In the Pioneer League, nearly everybody's a rookie, so there's no fair way to divvy up the space.
The bus is always too hot or too cold. Players wear shorts. Half are shirtless. The other half bring blankets and pull them over their contorted bodies. The plastic gets harder by the minute, but minor leaguers always seem to make do. The smart ones bring pillows from home.
Most of the Trappers rode buses in college, too, so they know the routine.
They'll vegetate for the next 10 hours, the longest single-day trip of the season.
Some can actually sleep.
Some play cards.
Others just curl around the obstacles, propping a toe on an ashtray or hooking a finger on a window latch for support, and drift away the hours, neither awake nor asleep. The tinny sound of tiny Walkman earphones turned up high is always in the air, like the smell of the shoeless feet that hang into the aisle over the arm of nearly every row. Those who can't stand the cramped feeling lie down in the aisles, their teammates' socked feet bouncing inches above their faces, secure in the knowledge that some spilled cup of used tobacco juice probably won't reach them. On some buses, luggage racks provide cleaner, safer beds for smaller players.
When nature calls, the only way to the lav is a crablike-crawl across the tops of the seats, carefully avoiding protruding legs, arms and sleepy heads, searching for openings and hoping the bus doesn't lurch at the wrong time. It always does.
Grinding gears, a laboring engine and dawn are a clue that the passes west of Yellowstone have been reached. Sleepy players gaze at forests and meadows; sometimes moose or elk or even a bear is sighted. That's a kick, but it only lasts a moment, and then it's back to blank.
At 10:15 a.m., sun shining hot on the right-side windows, the bus drones into Billings, a neat, tree-lined, surprisingly good-sized town spread below a long mesa. The bus driver can't find Cobb Field, a Legion ballpark behind the swimming pool but right in the middle of downtown. Players grumble. "What day is it?" they begin asking each other. It's Friday, but it doesn't matter.
"Hey, Bussy," hollers one observant player, "there's the yard over there."
Another trip survived. Another game lost.