TIJUANA, Mexico -- Dave Walsh's truck rumbles past women dragging laundry through crumbling shacks, past children playing in last night's garbage.
Far from Dodger Stadium, he pulls into the parking lot of a weathered stone structure where the breeze is chilly and smells faintly of sulfur.
Walsh grabs his Dodgers duffel bag, kicks through the gravel, walks up a ramp and spreads his arms. "This is it," he says, looking at the baseball field below. "This is home."
This is Tijuana Stadium, where the grass grows so unevenly the outfield resembles an unshaven face, where the pitching mound is so small and misshapen, it resembles a wart.
This is where Dave Walsh, 30, a recovering alcoholic with nine years in pro baseball, has come to work on his first and probably last chance to be a major-league star.
Walsh is a left-handed relief pitcher, which may come as news to Los Angeles Dodgers critics who consistently claim the team doesn't have any left-handed relief pitchers. Walsh ended last season as its best. Pitching the final two months, he allowed opponents to score in only four of his 20 appearances, going 1-0 with one save and 15 strikeouts in 16 1/3 innings.
Those statistics, plus a curveball and his composed demeanor, will cause the Dodgers to stop at his locker first next spring when searching to fill their most gaping hole. "Walsh definitely has a shot," manager Tom Lasorda has said.
Walsh's seemingly never-ending road toward stardom goes through Tijuana Stadium and similar places south of the border, where he is spending this winter refining his skills in the Mexican League.
"I do good down here, I get myself ready . . . Who knows? Maybe next spring I have a chance," Walsh says quietly. "Maybe."
After a career that has yet to include even an invitation to a major-league spring training camp, a career that includes three years spent in an alcohol and marijuana-induced blur, Walsh is unwilling to concede anything to himself.
That is why on this winter afternoon, after a 35-minute drive from his San Diego apartment, he is the first player at the park.
"You got to love it," he says, smiling, as he steps into the tiny stone clubhouse behind the dugout.
You got to love it. Walsh says that a lot, probably because if he didn't force himself to love both his career and current surroundings, he wouldn't be able to stomach them.
The tiny clubhouse feels like a damp basement. A cold wind blows through holes in the cinder blocks that separate it from the dugout, stirring up dust around the small wooden cubicles.
There are six showers but half are broken, and nobody on the team dares to use the other half. There are three toilets, although Walsh can't describe them. "I don't use them," he says. "You play in this league, you sort of time it so you don't have to use them."
As his teammates on the Tijuana Potros file in, most of them from Mexico, Walsh jokes with them in their native language. Like most other players who have struggled to make the major leagues, Walsh is fluent in Spanish.
"You spend enough time down here or in other winter leagues, you'd better be fluent," Walsh says. "You know how long I've been down here? It's gotten so the manager and catcher actually speak Spanish to me on the mound."
Many young American players will be spending these off-season months playing for teams in Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and jTC the Dominican Republic. The Dodgers, in particular, encourage their prospects to play year-round.
Walsh is different, though. This is his fourth season here, including once when, on the verge of quitting professional baseball to become a teacher, he played in this league during the summer.
"It's tough to make it out of here when you play in the summer," Walsh says. "Nobody can find you."
The only reason the Dodgers found him was because, in the winter of 1988, they were scouting Chris Jones, his teammate on the Obregon club and former teammate in the Toronto organization.
"[Scout] Mike Brito took Chris out to dinner one night after we had combined to pitch a win, and Chris insisted that I tag along," Walsh says. "He introduced me to Brito and reminded him that I had also pitched good that night, and that I was left-handed. Brito said, 'Oh, yeah,' and the next thing I know, I have a contract."
His four seasons in Mexico wear well on the soft-spoken Walsh. He knows not just the language of the league, but the dialect.
Before this game against Navojoa, he runs his laps effortlessly around the field despite the presence of two dogs in the infield and a maze of children swinging broken sticks in front of the dugout.
When he returns to the clubhouse, he passes out bags of sunflower seeds brought from the United States. He chips in a few coins to pay for the night's coffee, which will be made with purified water.
Shortly before the game, he jogs to the visitors' dugout and returns 15 minutes later with a big white box containing black leather cowboy boots.