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Standing By Their Men

(Life in minors a far cry from glamor of majors for wives, as well as players)

By Patty Rasmussen (Chop Talk)

When Lisa Capo made the 1,200 trip from her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma to Billings, Montana, where her then-boyfriend Keith Lockhart was just beginning his professional baseball career in the summer of 1986, she did not have a clue of what she was getting into.

"It was my first exposure to the minor leagues," recalled Lisa-- now Lisa Lockhart. " I had no idea it would become my life!"

While in Billings, Lisa stayed next door to Keith-- at the next-door neighbor's home, that is!

"Keith was rooming with two other players and the 10-year old son of a family in Billings," said Lisa, laughing. " Who knows what that 10-year old was exposed to!"

The saying goes: "Behind every successful man stands a woman." Often overlooked, but never far from the field, baseball wives, minor league wives in particular, render invaluable support to their husbands.

Their job description is simple: Move from one town to another, often in completely different parts of the country. with little or no warning; live in temporary housing; and sometimes hold down a job or two to make ends meet. Do this in addition to the usual "wifely" duties of making a home, lending emotional support to their husband, and raising the children.

While the payoff may come later in the form or a major league career, there is no such guarantee. And the minor leagues offer a completely different ball game from the seemingly heady life of a major league family. There are no million-dollar contracts, hefty per diem, or first class travel.

Like the military, if baseball wanted a ballplayer to have a wive, it would have issued one. It takes a strong, resilient woman to live in the minor leagues. And it helps to have a sense of humor.

"People ak me, "How do you do it?" said Mellisa Brogna, wife of Braves first baseman Rico. "I say,'You just do it.' To me, this is normal life."

Melissa spent six year with her husband in the minor leagues before he was called up to the major leagues with the New York Mets.

She saw her husband endure injuries, be diagosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis, and suffer "horrible" streaks without hits. And there were moves-- to Lakeland, Florida.,Toledo, Ohio., and Norfolk, Virginia., all on a minor league salary.

"In the minor leagues, we would load up the tuck with all our household goods and clothes and drive to the next place." recalled Melissa. " now when we move, we ship our cars, a moving company takes our things, and we fly. We are thankful for that."

Losa Lockhart has also been in the trenches. Dating Keith since he was drafted by the Reds in 1986, she lived in such exotic baseball locaks as Billings, Chattanooga, Nashville, Louisville, Las Vegas and Tacoma, before Keith made the majors to stay in the mid-1995 at Kansas City.

Keith made $600 per month--spring training through September only-- as a rookie pro. His salary increased only $100 per month each season in the minors.

But you won't hear a "discouraging word" fall from her lips. Lisa speaks of the " incredible people" at Louisville who flew her and son, Danny, to New Mexico to see Keith play in the Triple-A All Star Game in 1993. She recalled that their " best stories" happened during their brief stint in winter ball in Venezuela.

"Keith got a call from somone who needed a fill-in for a guy who had an emergency appendectomy in Venezuela," said Lisa. " he joked that he'd go as long as he did not end up in the hospital."

That is just where he wound up--a victim of food poisoning from a roadside stand!

"It's easy to laugh about it now," said Lisa.

Then there was the assignment to Tacoma.

Newly pregnant with their first child, Lisa drove herself and the couple's belongings from spring training in Phoenix to Tacoma--1,456 miles.

"I was feeling sick," said Lisa. "The whole first month in Tacoma it was that drizzly rain. We lived in a rough part of town; I could see the stadium from out window. But it was one of our best minor league experience."

Lisa credits the friendships with other wives for the most of her positive memories of the minor leagues.

"We were all in it together," said Lisa. "At Tacoma, there were about eight of us who were pregnant at the time. We got together for potluck dinners or went to the pool."

There are several issues, not the least of which are housing and lack of money, that can overwhelm wives and turn the minor league experience into a nightmare.

"Money can be a big problem in the minor leagues, but we were pretty careful," said Lisa, who always worked at least one job during the season.

In 1992, the Lockharts were in Florida getting ready for spring training with the Reds when word came that Keith had been traded to the Oakland A's. That meant they needed to get to Phoenix quickly for spring training.

"We already had our housing and everything worked out. I had a job," said Lisa.

Nevertheless, they packed the truck and headed some 2,200 miles west.

"We had to live off our credit card all during spring training," said Lisa. " I felt sick every time we used it. But we spent all summer paying it off. Our credit card payments were higher than what we paid in rent."

Most organizations don't have a structure or program in place at the minor league level to assist the wives in adjusting to their new surroundings. Wives depend on each other and their experience to help find their way around a new town, usually far from their families.

"Simone Unroe )wife of pitcher Tim Unroe)was my crutch last year," said Meredith Helms, wife of Braves first baseman, Wes. Through Unroe is no longer in the Braves organization, his wife was a lifesaver for Meredith in Triple-A Richmond.

"I really came to depend on Simone," said Meredith. "she is one of those people who is a healer. You feel better just being around her. I think is this career, you learn that you have to reach out. You have to be the one to say your name and introduce yourself."

Still a newlywed at the beginning of last season, Meredith looks back a year later and wonders if she was supportive enough for her husband.

"We were just a couple of big-time newlyweds," she said. "I had no idea about the baseball side of our life."

Meredith can be excused for her naivete. She met Wes in May 1999 while he was rehabilitating his right shoulder. A former physical therapist at HealthSouth in Birmingham,Ala., Meredith did not even begin dating the first baseman until July and only saw him play three games for Double-A Greenville before he blew out his shoulder on August 13.

"Wes said I was his destiny because he had to go through so much pain to meet me," said Meredith. "He went back to North Carolina to rehab his shoulder, and he wanted me to come up there."

So, Meredith made the move from Alabama to North Carolina on Sept. 19. A week later, they were engaged, and the couple married on Dec.11.

"I had no idea how baseball would change my life," said Meredith. "Last year, he was coming back from two injuries, trying to prove himself to the team, and to his new wife. There was a lot of pressure, but Wes is great about not bringing it home with him."

Meredith showed her support at Richmond during the first year of marriage by being at every home game and even some road games.

"I would get there on time and stay for every game," she said. " I drove to Charlotte, Durham and Norfolk. Emilie Moss (wife of Damian) and I drove to Scranton, Pa., so I could surprise him for his birthday."

Apparently having a wife on his side had a positive effect on Wes' game. He received the organization's Hank Aaron Award for being the top offensive performer in the Braves' farm system last year. He hit .288 with 20 homers and 88 RBIs in 136 games for Richmond.

In September, Wes was called up to Atlanta. Meredith made the trip to Turner Field for the first major league baseball game.

"When I sat down in my seat, I burst into tears," she said, her voice breaking nine months later at recalling that day. "I had seen what he went through, working out every morning and afternoon. Then, seeing it pay off... I'm not showy with my emotions, but I get emotional about stuff like that."

Like the Lockharts, Wes and Meredith are not taking chances on their financial future.

"We know we're very fortunate," said Meredith. " We can do a lot of things, but we 'put back' a lot of money. We could have a long, stable career in baseball, or he could go out tommorrow night, get hurt and never play again. We have to behave, financially, as if that is always in the back of our minds."

Meredith even works at an exclusive clothing store in Atlanta.

"Wes joked that I needed to support my shopping habit," she said with a laugh.

But the real purpose of the job is to keep her from getting lonely while Wes is on the road.

Keeping busy, however, isn't difficult for Lisa Lockhart, a busy mom with two children, Danny (8) and daughter Sydney (6).

Separated by 15 years of experience in baseball and marriage, Lisa and Meredith have many of the same concerns and joys.

"I still hate it when Keith is on the road," said Lisa.

But, naturally, both women are thrilled at seeing their husbands succeed at such a demanding and elite profession.

"When Keith called me over to the side and told me he'd made the major league roster out of spring training (San Diego, 1994), it was an emotional, incredible feeling," remembered Lisa. "He'd finally made the goal he'd worked for after so long."

A few years ago, Lisa also turned her energy toward helping other wives when she published a newsletter called " A Word In Season." Written to "minister" to the needs of baseball wives, especially the women of the minor leagues, the newsletter was sent to women throughout baseball. Through she's had to put that ministry on the shelf for the time being, Lisa believes, "We learned all the important things in the minor leagues."

"I cried when we were traded to Atlanta (spring training, 1997," said Lisa. "But this move has been great. We've made a home here, made some of our best friends here. But I'll always know what it's like to be in the minor leagues."