Justin Thompson has felt nothing but love coming from the people of Hollister. The Monterey Amberjacks’ 28-year-old manager feels humbled and thankful for the warm embrace the community has lavished upon his first-year ball club, which competes in the independent Pecos League.
Most of the players have to stay with host families because they earn only $60 a week—no, that’s not a typo. Families in Hollister have been more receptive—literally—about welcoming the players into their homes. With the exception of a couple of players who have full-time jobs, the majority of the players are staying with host families in Hollister, not Monterey.
“The people in Hollister have been extremely hospitable, and I see Hollister as a perfect Pecos League city,” said Thompson, who is staying at the home of Greg Lopez, the president of the Hollister Babe Ruth Baseball organization. “Greg is a great leader of a Christian family I’ve come to enjoy. I really do feel at home when I’m there, and I couldn’t have been more blessed to have someone so supportive of what we’re doing.”
An amberjack is a large sports fish—according to the Monterey Herald the team name also plays on Monterey Jack—and play the majority of their home games at Sollecito Ballpark in Monterey. But due to limited availability, they needed a second home site to play on Mondays. Why Hollister?
“Hollister was all that was available, and we’ll take it,” Thompson said.
The Amberjacks, who were 5-11 through their first 16 games, made their Hollister debut last Monday. With the exception of a couple of dates, they’ll play every Monday night at Vets Park for the duration of the season. The Amberjacks play in the 12-team independent Pecos League, which started in 2011 and is a stepping stone for younger players who have aspirations to move up a higher level.
Players are 25 and younger, but every team is designated one roster spot for a player who is over that age. Teams play a grueling 64-game schedule over 70 days, and they compete under Major League Baseball National League rules.
“The Pecos League is the bottom of the barrel when it comes to professional baseball, but we are recognized by Major League Baseball,” Thompson said. “We’ve lasted seven years, and we’re growing.”
That’s why the Texas-born Thompson went all in with the Pecos League last year, forgoing a teaching job in Texas to be a part of a league that he hopes grows into something truly special. It wasn’t an easy decision, but in any startup, faith is needed, and Thompson believes in the vision of Pecos League Commissioner Andrew Dunn.
It helps that the league is expanding and working within its budgetary means. Thompson helps run the league, doing everything from sales and marketing to player recruitment and helping Dunn search for future stadiums for teams to call home. The Pecos League consists of the Pacific and Mountain Divisions. The Amberjacks play in the Pacific Division, and the travel is a lot less brutal compared to the teams in the Mountain Division.
A year ago, Thompson was the manager of the Salina (Kansas) Stockade, which is a member of the Mountain Division. In two months, he logged 36,000—yes, 36,000—miles as the team traveled to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California for games. Thompson said the Pecos League is equivalent to the level of Rookie Ball, the place where most MLB draftees spend time before getting placed in high rookie ball or at Single-A.
Teams in the Pecos League pay for the players’ lodging on the road along with any expenses going to the host families. Over half the players on the 22-man roster have four-year college degrees, making the Amberjacks an outlier in the world of pro baseball. Starting pitcher Peter Lindstrom is a full-time machine contractor who buys and sells commercial equipment when he’s not on the field.
He’s on the phone at 8 a.m. every morning making calls for his job, even when the team gets in at 2 or 3 a.m. traveling to its next road game.
“That’s the type of dedication Peter has,” Justin said. “We’re fortunate to have him—he’s got electric stuff.”
Tommy Gale, who is the team’s best all-around player, is a defense subcontractor for Lockheed Martin. He works 40 hours a week on top of his baseball commitments. In a 5-4 win over California City on May 29, Gale delivered one of the most impressive performances Thompson has ever seen—at any level. Gale threw a complete-game—130 pitches no less—with 12 strikeouts and went 4 for 5, single-handedly leading Monterey to victory.
“I’ve never seen anyone do that,” Thompson said. “It’s the most impact I’ve ever seen anyone have in a baseball game.”
Starting pitcher Pete Ruiz, whose availability is limited to weekends, is the Palma High baseball coach and a real estate agent. He also spent seven years playing professional baseball, mostly at the Single-A and Double-A level.
“Pete has sold $20 million in real estate in the Monterey area,” Justin said. “He showed up in 45-degree weather for tryouts, and got respect doing that. That is the one guy who we could’ve easily signed over the phone just by looking at his stats.”
Like any expansion team, the Amberjacks are experiencing growing pains. The club is like any professional organization—meaning players can be waived or picked up at any point during the season.
“We’re still in the honeymoon phase where it’s too early to blow up this ship,” Thompson said. “We have to ride out these waves. The goal later this year is to get into the playoffs, but the goal right now is to be competitive. We’re just not on par with other teams on the situational stuff. Things are a lot quicker for these players, and instead of adapting their eyes are going everywhere. The speed of the game is overwhelming for some of them. You’re playing and all of a sudden it slaps you in the face. It’s an adjustment period, but if the players don’t adjust, they’re going home.”
The Amberjacks got a quick dose of reality in a four-game series against Bakersfield of the season; Bakersfield might end up being the top team in the division.
“We had a lot of young rookies who got thrown into the fire pretty quick,” Thompson said. “There are bullets flying by and they’re freaking out and not trusting what got them to this level.”