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Baseball years were trying times

Melissa Dudek infuses novel with minor-league lore

Working nine years in minor-league baseball, Melissa Dudek came to appreciate the players, especially the ones in Triple-A. It doesn't mean she liked the players, especially the ones in Triple-A.

Dudek had to pander to many egos. She never got the respect she deserved being a woman in a man's game. And she feels more comfortable working with college kids as Lewis & Clark College's new sports information director.

'It just felt right when I said yes to the job,' says Dudek, a San Diego native and Loyola Marymount graduate hired by the college last month. 'It's definitely not the world of baseball.'

Still, the stories she could tell Ñ and has told. Dudek wrote a novel about Triple-A ballplayers, 'Wildfire Summer' (Writers Club Press, $33.95). The book is available through Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.

'It's about the lives of Triple-A ballplayers who are trying to balance family and careers, trying to make the majors or just hold on,' says Dudek, 32. 'It's their make-or-break point.'

It involves much comedy, she modestly says, which makes sense considering her last encounter with Triple-A ball, as ticketing director and public relations staffer in 1999-2002 with the Charlotte (N.C.) Knights, the affiliate of the Chicago White Sox.

In 2002, the White Sox signed Jose Canseco and sent him to Charlotte. The buff slugger, who once had a ball bounce off his head for a home run, lasted exactly two home stands.

'Yes, we were the team that sent Jose Canseco back into retirement,' Dudek says. 'He hated our lights. He struck out all the time and blamed the lights. Plus, he had a daily allergic attack É as if his head wasn't big enough from ego.'

One day, Canseco simply did not show up. End of story.

Ricky can't hit

Dudek saw many baseball personalities come and go. She started working in baseball in 1995, spending two years in ticket sales with the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox. Then, it was off to Class A with the Philadelphia Phillies' farm team in North Carolina, the Piedmont Boll Weevils.

In 1997, a struggling player named Ricky Williams concluded his career there. 'He was really bad. He couldn't hit anything,' Dudek says. 'But to watch him on the base paths was remarkable.'

Williams, dabbling in baseball while playing football at the University of Texas, went on to win the Heisman Trophy and become the NCAA's all-time leading rusher. These days, he runs pretty well in the NFL, too.

Later, stock car driver Dale Earnhardt bought the Boll Weevils and renamed them the Kannapolis Intimidators. He never saw his team play a game. In February 2001, a few months before the season started, Earnhardt died at Daytona, Fla.

After her four-year stint at Charlotte, Dudek worked as assistant general manager last season at Helena, Mont., for the Milwaukee Brewers' rookie league team. She also did radio play-by-play and commentary.

'It's an interesting life, but I needed a break from baseball,' she says. 'What I found at rookie ball, where we had college kids who played for us, I enjoyed working with kids who still had the purity of the sport. I had forgotten how much I loved working with the young kids.'

Unlike Triple-A players, 'you don't have to bribe them to do anything. We had kids who were jumping at the chance to sign an autograph. 'You want me to talk? You want me to make an appearance?'

'It was bizarre, to see them before they have anything.'

Bye-bye, baseball

Dudek left baseball knowing she could move up to only two positions and be happy. She could be a minor-league general manager, 'but the responsibilities of that will drive you to an early grave,' she says. Her other option was to work in PR at the big-league level.

She had grown tired of the long hours and of being one of the few women in baseball. She says 'at best' each minor-league team has one woman employee.

'There are tons of staffs that don't have any women,' she adds. 'There's still a stereotype and it used to drive me nuts, because a lot of women perpetuate it: They are there to chase ballplayers.'

As a supervisor, Dudek had many conversations with young women about not getting involved with players.

It sullied her on the profession. 'You always have to prove yourself,' she says. 'It's something I've been able to do. You have to be one of the guys. The stories I could tell of harassment could make any lawyer salivate.'

It could have been worse. Dudek could have gone into TV. After studying screenwriting at Loyola Marymount, she interned with the casting department at NBC in Burbank, Calif.

'So much hatred and back stabbing. Everybody was so miserable, and they were at the height of their profession,' she says. 'Professional baseball was competitive, especially being a woman, but you didn't have the back stabbing.'

As it turns out, her 15 minutes ofTV fame came as a game-show contestant in 2002.

'Despite what everyone says,' Dudek remembers, 'I was definitely not 'The Weakest Link.' I got voted off by two chicken guys who didn't want to face me in the finals.'