Around the League

THE ATHLETIC: 'Play better and get the hell out of here' - A weekend in indy ball, the League of Second Chances

By: Zach Buchanan (Photo courtesy of the Sugar Land Skeeters)

(Sugar Land, Texas, Nov. 19, 2019) - As a familiar face poked through his office door, Pete Incaviglia’s eyes beamed. The former big-leaguer leaped — barrel- and bare-chested, wearing only athletic shorts, black-rimmed glasses and a horseshoe mustache — to engulf Diamondbacks scout Chris Carminucci in a bear hug. (Bare hug?)

“Hardest-working man in baseball,” Incaviglia said.

“I get to see all of you,” Carminucci replied.

This was 29 years of combined independent baseball league experience, some of it overlapping, coming together in that embrace. Incaviglia had been managing in indy ball since 2007 when Carminucci hired him to lead the brand-new Grand Prairie AirHogs of the American Association. Back then, Carminucci was something of an indy ball startup guru — if you wanted to start an independent league team, you called him.

Twelve years later, they were standing in Incaviglia’s office at Constellation Field, the home of the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League. This was the top tier of indy ball, and the 55-year-old Incaviglia was in his second season as manager. Carminucci, 45, was now a part of the establishment. In 2011, he’d joined the Diamondbacks as their independent league scout. Now, he has regular pro coverage and makes only rare cameos at indy ball fields around the country. Perhaps that’s why Incaviglia smiled so widely at seeing his longtime friend.

This was the right office to visit for someone hoping to learn about life in independent ball. Even a visit lasting just one weekend in August, in the midst of Sugar Land’s stretch run toward the playoffs, provided a rich snapshot of what it’s like in baseball’s Land of Forgotten Toys. These two men know as much as you can know about indy ball, although they’re also among the few who would be content spending the rest of their careers in its orbit. Everyone else, though, is trying like hell to get out.

Incaviglia and Carminucci want to help them. Independent ball rosters are filled with players who’d been discarded by Major League Baseball or who’d never been noticed in the first place. They’d come here because no higher league — not in the U.S., not in Asia, not in Mexico — had a place for them, and every single one of them was hoping for a ticket out of town. Scouts like Carminucci want to sign them. Managers like Incaviglia hope signed players never return. A low recidivism rate helps with recruitment.

Incaviglia has heard independent baseball — a label that encompasses a variety of leagues, with a variety of budgets and levels of talent — referred to as “The League of Second Chances,” the place where down-and-out ballplayers can get their careers back on track. But that title is right only to a point. Landing in independent ball is more of a last chance than a second one.

You get your second chance when you escape it.

“My motto is, ‘If you don’t like it here, play better so you can get out,’” Incaviglia said. “People start complaining, I say, ‘Well, play better and get the hell out of here.’”

“Shit,” Matt West said to himself. “I’m in independent ball.”

It was May of 2018, and West had been out of a job for more than a month. After signing a minor-league deal to start the year, the right-hander had been cut by the Tigers at the end of spring training. Now, he was in Sugar Land, a former second-round draft pick still on the right side of 30 nonetheless fighting to hold on to a baseball career. He couldn’t believe it had come to this.

West has been with the Skeeters for two years now, and his story is a good — if extreme — example of the career turns that can land a player in independent baseball. He spent 2017 with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan, although what was supposed to be a fresh start turned into a medical horror show that West, wearing a cutoff shirt and sitting in a coach’s office before a game at Constellation Field, discusses with an openness that is both bracing and disarming.

The righty barely pitched with Orix as he dealt with one torn hamstring and then another. He figured his weight was a problem — he was pushing 240 pounds — so he started dieting. Then, as he shared with absolutely no prompting, he “started shitting blood.” It took more than a year to figure out what was wrong with him. He was prescribed a variety of suppositories. (“I call them little buttplugs,” he said in a way that was somehow charming.) He had to administer nightly enemas to himself. He was given a diagnosis of proctitis, which is inflammation of the rectum’s lining.

The problem seemed solved by the time he came to Sugar Land in the summer of 2018, but a couple of months later he landed in the hospital with terrible stomach pains. He remained there for a month, his weight ultimately dropping to 160 pounds. Finally came the correct diagnosis: ulcerative colitis. He hasn’t had many problems since, although a winter ball stint in the Dominican a year ago lasted just one appearance after he again began passing blood. He figured his health would best be served back in the U.S: “I said, ‘OK, I’m going home.’”

Now, he is back with Sugar Land, and his second stint has been free of medical interruption. He finished the season with an ERA of 3.00 in 50 appearances. Every time he took the mound, he wondered if anyone who mattered was watching.

But he no longer wallows in the self-pity of having landed here. He’s happy Sugar Land exists. He’d have nowhere to play otherwise, and found the competition to be much better than he expected. The Skeeters roster is filled with former big-leaguers and former high draft picks. Every day, he sees a guy that he can’t believe isn’t in affiliated ball. Whenever he sees a new recruit distressed by his latest career development, he says what he would have told himself when he first arrived.

“I would joke around with guys when they’d first get here and they’re kind of like, ‘Fuck, I’m in independent ball, blah blah blah,’” he said. “I’m like, ‘Don’t sleep on it. If you don’t take it serious, it’ll bury you.’”

It’s certainly true that independent ball is not for the faint of heart, although players in Sugar Land have it better than most. Constellation Field is swankier than many Triple-A parks, with a Texas-shaped scoreboard in center and a pool, basketball court and playground next to it on the outfield concourse. The town of Sugar Land itself is one of the state’s more affluent communities, offering plenty of off-the-field diversions. The clubhouse is large and centered around a ping pong table, and the travel is by air and not bus.

Air travel can be a gift and a curse, though. The team flies commercial and the bus often leaves for the airport at 3 a.m. At one point this season, the Skeeters were stranded for 15 hours overnight at Chicago Midway Airport while returning from the East Coast, sapping the entire off day they had budgeted for travel. “I had enough time to get drunk, pass out, wake up hungover and get drunk again,” West said. “Not kidding.”

But that pales in comparison to the travel in the American Association, the league just below the Atlantic League in terms of talent and prestige. In that league, the teams are spread from Texas to Canada and teams become intimately familiar with the highways and rest stops of the Great Plains as they bus from one outpost to another. Back when there was a team in Laredo, Texas, — it shuttered in 2017 — the longest trip was from Laredo, at the very southern tip of the U.S., to the Canadian city of Winnipeg, more than 25 hours of drivetime.

The pay is worse, too. Atlantic League teams deal with a monthly payroll limit of $55,000 a month, and a hard cap on salaries of $3,000 a month per player. It’s not much, but it approximates a Triple-A salary. American Association clubs must stay below $125,000 for the entire roster for the whole season, although there are a couple of exceptions that allow teams to retain “star” players at higher salaries.

The further down you go, the worse the accommodations. There are the Midwest-set Frontier League and the East Coast’s Can-Am League, which announced a merger last month. The talent level there ranges from the equivalents of rookie league to Double A, the pay from $600 to $2,500 a month. Then there are smaller leagues that mostly escape the eyes of scouts. In the Pecos League, which has teams sprinkled across the Southwest from Kansas to California, players make $50 a week and drive their own cars to road games. Players sometimes come out of the Pecos League, but it’s extremely rare.

No matter the league, the players are there for the same reason. They want to continue their baseball careers by any means possible. They want to make it to affiliated ball — a term used often in the independent leagues but not ever by anyone actually in affiliated ball — or at the very least someplace nicer than their current surroundings. They maintain the hope, as long as their odds are, that baseball will take them somewhere.

“Guys are here because they love the game and they believe in themselves and they’ve got a dream,” Incaviglia said. “They want to get to affiliated ball and get to the big leagues. That’s what everybody wants to do.”

That certainly describes Skeeters outfielder Blair Beck, who is one of the few Sugar Land players to have worked his way up from the relative bottom of the independent league ladder. He went undrafted out of the University of Kansas in 2015 and spent the rest of that summer in rookie ball with the Rays as an undrafted free agent. When the Rays let him go at the end of the year, his youth coach — former Yankees infielder Randy Velarde — challenged him to keep playing. So, Beck found a job with the Windy City ThunderBolts of the Frontier League.

Beck played four years with Windy City, including the beginning of this season. By the end, he’d qualified as a “veteran” by league rules — at just 26 years old — which made his roster spot harder to keep. Frontier Leagues are allowed only one veteran player, and Beck was cut at midseason. In between, he’d paid for his own surgery to repair a torn ligament in his elbow. The procedure, which was not a full repair like Tommy John surgery, cost him more $13,000, which was pretty close to everything he’d ever made as a professional.

Now, after a call from Incaviglia to find him a job after his release, he was basking in the relative luxury of the Atlantic League. The hotels are habitable, the postgame spread is edible. Depending on the city you’re in, the crowd turns out. “A Thursday night in the Frontier League, it’ll probably be our worst night in the Atlantic League,” Beck said. He has an enviable living situation, shacking up with Astros star and former travel ball teammate Alex Bregman in Houston, which is 20 minutes away. It’s a taste of the big-league life, although Beck doesn’t broach that subject too often. “If he’s not on his phone watching his own highlights, I pick his brain (about the majors),” Beck said. “If he’s on that phone watching himself, it’s pretty difficult.”

Beck was roughing it for a while, although he admits that money is not that much of a concern for him. For some of his teammates, though, independent ball is much more of a career. Outfielder Denis Phipps last appeared in affiliated ball in 2014, when he was in Triple A with the White Sox. Since then, he’s bounced between the Mexican League and independent ball, following Incaviglia to two different teams in the American Association and then to the Skeeters last year. He plays the summer in Sugar Land and then latches on to a winter ball team in the offseason. Just like everyone else, he wants to move up in the baseball world, although he knows that’s not very likely for a 34-year-old like him. “I just want to get my 300 at-bats,” he said. “If I can, I want to get back to affiliated ball or whatever, or try to go to Korea from here. If not, I’ll get my at-bats and play winter ball again.”

But no one has turned indy ball into a lifestyle quite like Ricardo Gomez. The right-hander is 41 yet looks a decade younger, both in appearance and on the stat sheet. When he took the mound in the first game of the series against the New Britain Bees this August weekend, he pumped easy fastballs at the knees at 93-95 mph. He finished the season with a 2.72 ERA in 35 appearances. Gomez has been outside of affiliated ball — either in independent ball or Mexico — since 2007. He will proudly list the countries in which he’s pitched: Taiwan, Italy, Panama, Nicaragua, Colombia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, his native Dominican Republic and the United States.

He has raised a family this way. He and his wife have a daughter and a college-aged son, and Gomez plays to support them and keep them in their Manhattan home at 106th Street and Fifth Avenue. “Right there at Central Park,” he said with a smile. And while he’d love to be snatched up — he’d especially love to return to Taiwan, where he played more than a decade ago — he’s just happy they let him play baseball somewhere. He’ll keep doing it until he can’t.

“I want to keep playing,” he said. “If God says, ‘OK, Mr. Gomez, enough,’ I’m done with it.”

Gomez may keep his chances of advancement in perspective, but he could be forgiven for hoping. After all, this season the Astros snatched up Sugar Land’s 38-year-old closer, former major-leaguer Felipe Paulino, for a spot in Triple A. These types of losses happened frequently with the Skeeters this season. In all, the contracts of 16 players on the Sugar Land roster were purchased by teams in higher leagues, including 13 by major-league organizations.

That means Incaviglia is constantly on the search for replacements, although it’s a problem he’s happy to have. The longtime big-leaguer sees himself as playing a vital role in the baseball ecosystem. He and the Skeeters are here to take the game’s downtrodden, remind them what it takes to cut it at the highest levels of the game and then send them on their way to better opportunities. If those players never step into the Sugar Land clubhouse again, Incaviglia has done his job.

It’s a role in which he’s become comfortable, certainly comfortable enough to constantly walk around without a shirt. He lives in a camper that he parks in the stadium parking lot before games. He has complete autonomy to recruit and manage and instruct his players the way he wants. He never had that as a coach in the minors, which is how Incaviglia landed in independent ball in the first place. More specifically, he’s in indy ball because of Dave Dombrowski.

It’d be unfair to peg Incaviglia as “old-school,” but he has a certain romanticism for the game. He tells stories about playing with the Rangers in Buddy Bell’s last game before retirement, after which Bell sat in his uniform at his locker until the wee hours of the morning, drinking and telling stories as he worked up the courage to shed his jersey for the last time. One of Incaviglia’s proudest moments came when he was with the Phillies in 1993. As he walked to the field during batting practice one day, he saw Johnny Podres lean over to Jim Fregosi and say, “There goes a fucking major-leaguer.”

Incaviglia felt a guy like himself, with more than a decade of experience in the bigs, is owed a certain amount of respect. But joining the Dombrowski-led Tigers in 2004 as their Double-A hitting instructor turned out to be a rude awakening. Incaviglia chafed when a high-performing nobody was passed over for a promotion or pushed out entirely in favor of a struggling high draft pick. He couldn’t believe how front office folks would drop into his orbit for a few days, spout off an opinion about what a player could or couldn’t do and then brush Incaviglia off when he offered a different and, in Incaviglia’s view, more informed opinion.

Incaviglia felt he had no autonomy. A situation involving Curtis Granderson serves as an example. It was spring training of 2004 and Granderson, then just 22, had just finished a solid season at High A. But the outfielder had odd hitting mechanics —“He used to set up with his hands in front of his face,” Incaviglia said — and it was obvious something would have to change along the way to the big leagues.

Incaviglia approached Granderson about a change, and a day later Granderson debuted a new stance. But that just got Incaviglia called into the principal’s office. “Dombrowski’s up on the tower and he yells my name out of there, and I have to go in with the minor-league director and I get yelled at because I didn’t go through the right channels to make adjustments with him,” Incaviglia said. He couldn’t believe he, someone with more than a decade in the big leagues, was being called to the carpet for helping a player get better. “I was told to let players fail first,” Incaviglia said. “I couldn’t do that.”

Two seasons later, Incaviglia was fired. He was hardly unhappy about it. When Carminucci called to recruit him to manage the AirHogs for their debut season in 2008, Incaviglia dived in by recruiting players he’d coached and watched for three years in the Eastern League. For years, he’d seen some of them excel only to be passed over by an underachieving high draft pick who was making a scheduled next step on the developmental ladder.

That first season, the AirHogs finished runner-up for the American Association title.

Incaviglia is hardly the only one in independent ball who found affiliated ball suffocating. Even though they all yearn to return to a big-league organization, many Skeeters players feel the exact same way.

In indy ball, there are no developmental timelines to meet or organizational priorities for which to account. If big-league organizations often have too many cooks in the kitchen, indy ball teams are lucky to have someone to turn on the stove. Incaviglia has one full-time coach on staff in addition to former big-leaguer Dan Runzler, who serves as a combined pitcher and pitching coach. And Runzler doesn’t really instruct as much as help manage the bullpen. Players are in charge of their own improvement, which is how many of them would prefer it.

West feels like he has better stuff now than when he was in the big leagues with the Dodgers in 2015, which he finds ironic since he couldn’t be further from the majors now. Right-hander Jeff Ames, a former first-rounder of the Rays in 2011, feels similarly. He’d bounced around the minors after undergoing thoracic outlet surgery in 2014, struggling to find his best mechanics in the procedure’s wake. Each organization he landed with suggested some tweak or another. This year, in Double A with the Twins, he finally started pitching well because he “stopped listening to (his) pitching coaches.” Then the 28-year-old got released. His spot was needed for a younger player.

“In affiliated baseball, you get caught up in ‘what the team wants me to do’ and you start shying away from what you do well,” Ames said. In independent ball, you just do whatever it takes to get outs. Players in indy ball feel that when the goal is winning and not individual improvement, both tend to happen. “If I would have had the mentality I have right now, about winning and not about what they want me to do, I would have been a better player,” said Phipps. “When you’re in the minor leagues, they want you to do whatever they want you to do, not what you feel you should do. They put so much pressure on you. Here, you’re just trying to win and have fun. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

Of course, it’s a bit harder to go out and just play in the Atlantic League this year. In 2019, aside from just clawing to keep their baseball careers afloat, Atlantic League players were forced to act as guinea pigs while MLB tested new rules. They were not universally popular. Balls and strikes were automated, an idea many players can get behind even as they bemoan the technology’s lack of accuracy. Some hitters began gaming the system like a good pitch-framer would an umpire — they scooted up in the box, which they think raised the bottom boundary of the strike zone in TrackMan’s radar-guided eyes.

(Automated balls and strikes created less friction with umpires, but it didn’t preempt all dustups. Earlier in the month, on the night every player wore No. 4 to commemorate the jersey retirement of minor-league legend and Skeeters figurehead Deacon Jones, there had been a brawl. As it cooled down, an umpire began ejecting players by jersey number, none of which were No. 4. “Pete was like, ‘What do you mean? They’re all number four! You don’t know what number they are!’” Beck said. Incaviglia’s own ejection soon followed.)

Other rules, especially those instituted in the second half of the season, were much more disliked. As a lefty, Runzler hated having to step off the rubber in order to pick over to first. “Guys are running like crazy,” he said. Few players are fans of being allowed being given one mulligan when fouling off a two-strike bunt attempt. And stealing first base? That’s been deemed so ridiculous that few even attempt it. “Nooo. Nuh-uh,” Beck said. “That’s become an unwritten rule — don’t do it. I’d rather wear my strikeout and walk back to the dugout.”

But those rules can’t be all bad. It means that when the Skeeters take the field, someone from MLB is watching.

For many years, that someone would have been Carminucci. It would be difficult, and maybe impossible, to find someone who has a wider variety of experiences in indy ball.

Undrafted out of college, Carminucci gave his baseball dream one last gasp in 1997 by playing for the Tennessee Walkers of the now-defunct Big South League. He batted .183 over 177 plate appearance and was not asked back for 1998. Desperate to stay in baseball, he started his own baseball academy in New York, parlayed that into a couple of college coaching gigs and then wound up back in independent ball as the hitting coach for a team in Maine in 2004.

He’s done just about everything in indy ball since. He’s managed for four different indy ball clubs. In 2005, he managed 92 straight games on the road after his club folded underneath him right before the start of the season. (The same happened to Incaviglia in Laredo in 2017, although there’d be no road warrior team that year. Players were already driving to spring training when Incaviglia called to tell them to turn around. “It was probably the worst day I had in baseball,” he said. ) Carminucci even has been the mascot.

That line of his resume requires a bit more explanation. It was 2007, and Carminucci was managing the Atlantic City Surf of the Can-Am League. He got tossed from a game — he was a hothead back then, he admits — but decided to summon the mascot to his office. There, he donned the fuzzy exterior of Splash the Sea Monster and headed to the stands, where he parked himself on the opposing dugout. Instructions were relayed back to the dugout: If Splash raised his right arm, the hitter should expect a fastball; if Splash flapped his wings, it was a breaking ball. This was not an Astros-level sign-stealing operation. “They couldn’t even take me seriously,” Carminucci said. Everyone in the stadium knew what he was doing, but he never did get in trouble.

After that year, Carminucci became an executive, running Atlantic City and a team in Brockton, Mass., while helping other indy ball teams across the country get off the ground — often with equity in the venture as compensation. He hired Cecil Fielder to succeed him in the dugout with the Surf. He helped turn the Brockton team into a summer collegiate team, as part of a venture called the Futures Collegiate League. Comedy titans Bill Murray, Lorne Michaels and Jimmy Fallon were among its investors.

Indy ball tried his patience at every turn. There have been partners and bosses he’s loved, and mendacious ones he’s wanted to throttle. Buses broke down, stranding his teams for hours until a replacement could be secured. Opponents forgot to pay their bills, leaving them locked out of their stadiums or unable to turn on their lights. Uniforms were stolen, necessitating trips to Target for cheap substitutes. Carminucci never let it shake him from his dream of a career in the game. “If you let things bother you, especially in independent baseball, it’ll ruin you,” Carminucci said. “You’ll end up leaving. It’ll literally drive you insane.”

Still, like the players he managed and signed, Carminucci yearned for the legitimacy affiliated baseball could offer him. But he never really wanted to leave independent ball. So, when the Diamondbacks called to offer him a job scouting the indy leagues for them, he quickly accepted. Nobody has done it better.

On Sunday afternoon, before the last game of this particular August weekend, Incaviglia summoned reliever Nick Rumbelow into his office. The Mets had called to ask how to get in touch with Rumbelow’s agent, a sign that they were preparing to purchase Rumbelow’s contract. It was great news, but Incaviglia wanted to present Rumbelow a choice — Carminucci was here and had yet to see the right-hander pitch. Did Rumbelow want to throw in today’s game, no matter the game situation, for the chance at two offers instead of one?

Rumbelow did pitch that day, flirting with 100 mph and displaying an impressive changeup, but it was more a favor to Carminucci than it was to the flame-throwing right-hander. Incaviglia wanted to make sure his friend had an opportunity to jump the line on the right-hander if he wanted. Rumbelow ultimately became a Met — the Diamondbacks didn’t have an open spot for him at the time — but those are the types of kindnesses that Carminucci tends to receive. No one has built as many relationships across indy ball as he has.

He often hears about players about to be plucked by other teams, just in case he wanted to rush out to see them. Just that morning, sitting in his car before heading to the park, Carminucci had fielded a phone call from someone in baseball seeking advice about which independent league would be best for a jobless player. That question comes up so often — about four or five times a week, he said — that Carminucci self-published a guide book to the independent leagues. It’s titled “Sign Me!” and is available on Amazon.

Before Carminucci was promoted to regular pro scouting duties, he’d see between 100-140 independent ball games a year, often as the only scout in the stands. He estimates he’s signed around 70 or 80 players for the Diamondbacks out of independent ball, rounding out to about 10-15 a year. (Nobody may ever top his best indy ball find: Diamondbacks outfielder David Peralta.) Carminucci’s no longer the man on the ground, but now he manages another scout who schleps from one indy ball city to another, reporting back to Carminucci along the way.

Most of the time in indy ball, Carminucci is scouting to fill a need. Maybe an injury leaves Arizona’s Double-A affiliate in need of a pitcher. Perhaps the High-A squad faces an unexpected hole at short. Rarely is Carminucci peering at a player and trying to gauge his major-league potential. He’s looking for Mr. Minor-League Right Now. It’s not very sexy but, after 15 years in and around independent ball, he can’t help but find it exciting. Of all the scouts who watch an indy league player all year, Carminucci may be the only one who can offer that player a way out.

“I like players. I fully admit I like players,” Carminucci said. “Some scouts don’t. Some scouts want to find everything that’s wrong with the guy. I try to find the positive in them and if they’re worthy to sign.”

No Skeeters would be snatched by the Diamondbacks this weekend, although Carminucci did facilitate the signing of a pitcher from another Atlantic League club while in town. Sugar Land went 1-2 against New Britain, although four more games remained in the series between the two clubs. When you’re the only team not located on the East Coast, teams tend to stick around a bit longer to make the trip worth it.

The Skeeters went on to reach the Atlantic League’s championship series, falling to the Long Island Ducks in a winner-take-all Game 5. It was the franchise’s second straight appearance in the title series, and the fourth time Incaviglia has led a team to a championship berth as an indy ball manager. (He’s won twice.) He sees little reason to look for the next big thing. He’s not closed off to a return to affiliated ball, but his mouth still puckers from his experience with Detroit. If he did leave, it wouldn’t be to become “a glorified babysitter.” He’d have to know his opinion was worth something. “I shouldn’t have to watch what I say about a guy who I watched play for 140 games,” he said.

Carminucci is all but out of indy ball, at least in terms of his physical presence. He takes in a series or two a year, but mostly his time is spent managing his regular pro coverage. He was on assignment in the Midwest immediately before coming to Sugar Land, and he left Texas for another assignment in California. Incaviglia likes to predict that his friend will be a GM someday, but Carminucci doesn’t have that ambition. “If I’m a scout and I’m doing this the rest of my life,” Carminucci said, “then I’m thankful and I’m appreciative and I’m the happiest guy in the world.”

Everyone else has their eyes on bigger things. Next spring, some Skeeters will be in big-league camps. Some will have found minor-league deals and others will be abroad. But several will end up back in Sugar Land, the place that’ll let them play baseball. And, over the course of a summer, many who got out will find themselves right back in, licking their wounds after another swing-and-miss in affiliated ball.

A small fraction, though, will never sniff independent ball again, and it’s in those whom Incaviglia takes the most pride. They are the ones who got out, the success stories who made the most of their time in the League of Second Chances. Incaviglia thinks the fear of returning has something to do why those players make it out for good — independent ball is a place you’re glad to have when you need it, but you pray you’ll never need it again.

“That’s why players are better when they leave here,” Incaviglia said. “I think they’re better when they get back into affiliated ball because they appreciate where they’re at more. They know there’s a bunch of guys they left behind that would kill to be there.”

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