Wade Townsend hears rustling outside, but he doesn't move fast. There's no need. Life meanders in this villa along the second hole. He likes it that way.
Here in Baja California, a man can survive the working day in Ray-Bans, flip-flops and secrecy. He can build wealth playing poker online, sitting by a mass of laptops and external monitors. His opponents will never see his 6-foot-4 frame and blond buzz cut. They'll never know his past or his real name.
Here on a golf course by the turquoise Sea of Cortez, Townsend doesn't have to hear the chatter that he's wasting his life as an ex-pat slacker or sleazeball gambler. He can do as he pleases.
He was supposed to end up in a place like this in an all-cash purchase courtesy of baseball millions. He won a College World Series and was deemed so close to the Major Leagues that he was drafted in the first round -- twice. Things got complicated, he got hurt and it all fizzled, fast. Odds are you'd think he was devastated, having never made The Show.
But none of that is on his mind as he locates the source of the noise: a brown dog with protruding ribs and a broken steel chain hanging from her gnarled neck. He figures she must have been abandoned or escaped an abuser and staggered who knows how many miles through sagebrush and cactus. What matters is that she's here and she needs him.
He feeds her a quesadilla, then a little bit of hamburger. An hour later, she's slurping water from a makeshift bowl, watching him watching her.
She's got a savior and he's got a pet. It's just another day in the only life he's ever wanted.
Huston Street was 8 years old, chasing friends around an Austin, Texas, playground, when he met Jack Townsend.
It was 1991, and Jack was starting a travel team called the Texas Swing, anchored by his slugging and fireballing son, Wade. Huston had shown enough in Little League, and his father, James, was a Longhorn legend quarterback and pitcher, so the bloodline was there. A year later, a tightknit club featuring Wade and future big leaguers Street and Ross Ohlendorf began outmuscling and outthinking its peers.
"It's weird," said Street, the current closer for the Angels. "I can remember most of my life. It all revolves around baseball. And playing on that team is one of my fondest recollections of baseball, ever."
Long before Huston became American League Rookie of the Year or a two-time All-Star, he was learning creative positioning and infield shifts from James and Jack while Wade, 10, would memorize the other teams' signs by the third inning.
Wade was the team's best player, too. He threw multiple no-hitters for that team and hit six home runs in one doubleheader. At 12, he was telling teammates when to sit on changeups and when to hack at first-pitch heaters. There are thinking hitters, Wade would say, and there are reaction hitters. It's on you to figure out which is which. Then you burrow deeper. You understand what someone is trying to do to you and do it back at them, better.
Stand there for a few seconds with the ball in your glove and wiggle it, he'd say. You might convince the batter that you're changing your grip. Then his mind is off the location of the ball, maybe long enough for you to make him roll over. Boom. Quick out.
Wade and Huston parted ways when the Townsends moved. Jack, a contractor, and Grace, who worked in human resources, wanted a quieter, less urban life and a more intimate school district for Wade and his brother, Luke. Money was tight, so they made do in pricey Dripping Springs with a doublewide on a dusty lane.
"There were tons of trees, wildlife everywhere and millions of stars at night," Wade says. "That stuff was all free."
The suburban caste system rendered Wade a loner, even in baseball. He hit .515 as the third baseman for Dripping Springs HS and went undefeated on the mound his senior year, reaching 95 mph. He wasn't even voted team MVP. His recruitment by Rice University was hush-hush.
Before he left for college, Wade played a summer ball season and encountered his old buddy, Street, who was back from a select tournament in Hawaii against older, better competition, and it showed.
Wade missed a two-strike slider by a good foot, but the catcher dropped the ball, so Wade argued with the umpire, claiming he got a piece of it. Five minutes he stood there barking, because why not? Who wouldn't?
After the game, they met in the parking lot, and Huston smiled and asked him if he really fouled it off.
"Of course not," Wade said.
"You had me there for a little bit," Huston said.
Last year, Huston heard Wade Townsend was making a living playing poker.
"That didn't surprise me at all," Street says. "Wade is one of those people where there's way more going on than meets the eye."
Jeff Niemann dropped the spinning reels into the pickup bed. He molded his 6-foot-9 body into the driver's seat, waiting too long for his roommate, Wade Townsend.
Practice was over and Jeff didn't want to squander a second. Houston traffic could take the one-hour drive from the Reckling Park stadium to Surfside Beach and turn it into two, and the point was to cast while the sun dropped into the Gulf.
They were freshman pitchers, 19-year-olds born six days apart, single-mindedly keen on savoring the fleeting days of restless youth. The local rap duo UGK boomed through Jeff's woofers: "One day you're here, baby, but then you're gone."
They'd noticed the scouts while learning the Western Athletic Conference strike zone, so it was natural to fritter hours by the shore envisioning future fortunes. It was a dream to Jeff, as far away as the land that met the water beyond the reddening horizon. Not for Wade.
"He already saw his grand master plan," Niemann said. "It's one step at a time for me, and he's already flying."
Jeff was just fine with Houston, where he grew up, forever. Wade wanted to go everywhere, to leave today. They were both trying to figure it out, standing barefoot in the sand, waiting to set hooks.
Wade was wild on the mound and tearful to Coach Wayne Graham in heart-to-hearts, but the turbulence leveled. Rice was a juggernaut in 2003, and Jeff, Wade and Philip Humber, all sophomores, were the studs. The Owls won their first 30 games and captured the school's first national title. A year later, in the 2004 Draft, Humber went third overall, to the Mets. Jeff went fourth, to the Rays. Wade got a call from Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Jim Beattie, telling him Baltimore took him eighth. It was the first time three players from the same college team had been taken in the first round.
Jeff signed and took the pickup to Spring Training. Wade had been named WAC Pitcher of the Year (12-0, 1.80 ERA) for 2004 but also Academic All-American of the Year (3.59 GPA in History, Economics and Managerial Studies). He was well on his way to seven-semester graduation in December, so he made it known that he wanted to sign with the Orioles while remaining in school. The slot value for Townsend's Draft position was $2.2 million. Homer Bailey, the No. 7 pick, signed with the Reds for $2.3 million. Chris Nelson, who went to Colorado at No. 9, got $2.15 million.
Beattie and Orioles scouting director Tony DeMacio were stuck. DeMacio had been eyeing Nelson (a high school infielder out of Escondido, Calif.), but the organization had a last-minute change of heart and decided to go for a college pitcher. Townsend was the best on the board.
Baltimore's final offer was $1.75 million, and the club informed Townsend of it three days before class started in August. It was the only conversation they'd had since the June Draft, and it ended with Wade cursing and hanging up. No deal.
Wade could have chosen to return to the Owls and play as a senior, and per the Draft rules at the time he would no longer be able to negotiate with Baltimore once classes began at Rice. However, he renounced his college eligibility that fall in hopes that MLB would allow him to extend his bargaining window. No such luck. In late September, MLB declared Wade ineligible to sign until the following year's Draft. He watched his friends leave for the pros.
"That was the most stressed out I've ever been," Wade says. "My hair was falling out."
So he came up with another plan: online poker.
First he was terrible. A couple hundred in a PokerStars.com account eroded in days. That sent him to a book by celebrity shark Phil Hellmuth, and when he'd nailed the basics, he made Niemann a deal: He'd pay $25 for the $20 left in his buddy's account.
In June, despite having not played in a year, Wade was thrown into the Draft, again, and was taken eighth, again. This time it was Tampa Bay, and he signed for $1.5 million and bought a townhouse in Houston and an Infiniti SUV with DirecTV. It was his inaugural flirtation with luxury, maybe the first time he cared about something material.
He left for short-season Class A Hudson Valley and built his stack in the down time. Tommy John surgery bled into labrum surgery and crooked Minor League numbers over the next three years, but a $300 deposit and victory in an online qualifier won him an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas plus a tournament buy-in worth more than $14,000. He won another $50 tournament on the website and pocketed another $13,000.
Poker was still a hobby, but it felt as cozy as the pitching rubber. Plus he had locked into a specialty -- heads-up sit and go -- where two people play until one has all the chips. It was just like pitching: What do I think this person is thinking? Wade looked for patterns behind the pixelated images of face-down cards. He found answers.
"I learned something pretty quickly about a lot of people who play poker," Wade says. "They don't know what they're doing."
In 2008, he qualified for a World Series of Poker circuit stop in Tunica, Miss., and pocketed more than $77,000.
By late 2009, he knew he'd never throw 95 mph again, and the days of laughing inside while great hitters pounded their bats into the dirt were over. On a March 2010 morning in Dunedin, Fla., Wade was released from a Minor League deal with the Toronto Blue Jays.
He went back to his spring apartment and swam with the fish on PokerStars.com for a while. Within five hours, he had made another $8,000 and a decision. It was time for a new career.
"I was really, really good at the game of baseball," Wade says. "But it came to a point where it just wasn't going to happen. That's when I realized that the world wasn't the way I had always thought it was. I lucked into being forced to do something else, to see how the world is in other places. It restored my faith in humanity.
"If I didn't hurt my arm, I might be something I never wanted to be."
Calvin Anderson was at home in Oklahoma on the evening of April 15, 2011, when a message on PokerStars.com confirmed his -- and the online poker world's -- ultimate fear realized.
The founders of the three main sites -- PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker/Ultimatebet -- were being indicted by the Department of Justice for the federal crime of violating the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, among other allegedly fraudulent activities. Players based in the United States could no longer bet real money online. The poker community had its own Black Friday.
Anderson, who was fast becoming one of the highest-ranked players on the Internet, didn't know what to do, so he called his friend Wade Townsend, who was trekking through Peru. It didn't take long for Wade to determine the only suitable course of action. They'd move out of the country, pronto.
Cal was a week from his 23rd birthday and had never lived outside of Tornado Alley. He'd been just fine cloaked in invisibility, happy to rake in a small fortune under the alias of cal42688. But his nerves were calmed by the guy who was on top of things before even doubling back to the Lima airport. Wade was deciding between Panama and Mexico, calling realtors, throwing around the Spanish he'd picked up at Rice and on bus rides with Latin teammates. They signed a lease within a week.
Cal and Wade had met earlier that year at a tourney in the Bahamas. They talked into the morning and found a kinship. Poker chatter would segue into searching observations about the world. They saw that their beliefs and experiences were tiny and underdeveloped, like many of the countries they longed to visit.
The depressed economy had afforded them a four-bedroom super-casa along the Cabo Del Sol Ocean Course, ranked among the world's top 100. They loved that they lived impossibly, in a Mexican paradise by the sea. There was a pool, hot tub and housekeeper cooking huevos rancheros for breakfast and keeping the carpets spotless. There was a house dog, rescued from the patio. They named her Razz, after the poker game won with the worst possible hand.
The two-year siesta seemed more like a sun-drenched dream, and Cal and Wade learned about a lot more than poker. They realized that you have to stand together with people. You need mentors. You need a team.
So their "wolfpack" was now more than 20 strong, full of young pros who traveled to events in exotic locales, bunking as roommates to get luxury digs for cheap rates. Players moved in and out of the house in Mexico, headed back to the States for family or big tournaments, or jetted off for adventures around the globe. Niemann hung with them one weekend in the Bahamas and couldn't stop shaking his head. This was actually happening, and his old buddy was at the epicenter.
"You always wonder what's going to happen next with Wade," Niemann said. "He wants to be able to do things and say, 'No one else did this.'"
Cal and Wade shared books. They did yoga, lifted weights, switched to raw vegan diets, and each lost more than 50 pounds in a year. They thought about the future, about how poker might someday allow them to do all the things they wanted to do.
Like Wade, Cal noticed how quickly you could lose track of time down there. You could wake up one morning in July having sworn you went to bed in March. You could take an eight-hour lunch break, just you and a Cabo cantina stool, squeezing limes into Coronas. You could laugh at how long it might take the auto repair shop to get a spark plug.
Or you could step away from the computer at sunset, jog down the cart path, and feast on the cooling salt air as the sky darkened at the edge of the world.
Wade Townsend is on the bubble. It's the 2014 World Series of Poker's No-Limit Hold-Em Six-Max, with a prize pool close to $2.5 million, and he has to win this table or he won't cash at all after buying in for $10,000.
Wade is short-stacked compared to his current nemesis, Hiren Patel, but he's got a plan.
"I'm trying to make it look like I don't want to play against him, so I act really timid for the first 20 or 30 minutes," Wade says later. "That way, it's random and odd that I would play aggressively, and he doesn't think I'll bluff."
Life and priorities have changed a bit. Wade and Cal had ditched the Cabo house when the time was right, with Wade trying out Tijuana for seven months, rescuing another dog and heading back to Texas after breaking up with a girlfriend. After this, he'll get ready for a jaunt to Uruguay with some Canadian friends.
He still adores poker. At that table, he's the pitching coach, the manager, the general manager, the team owner and the fan, all in one. But he knows that once you start feeling like you need to win, poker becomes more about money than the important things, and that's when you really lose. So he's been playing less.
He likens his life's path to that of the river that forms the border of his home state and the country where he found himself. Like the Rio Grande, Wade will keep exploring, sure that he'll someday find his way back to Mexico. He'll work to stay healthy in body and mind. He'll spend more time in Austin with family. He might go to Panama for a few months, then try out East Asia. Maybe Scandinavia.
Wade Townsend will keep pondering questions big and small, like why nobody seems to understand the complicated political relationship between the United States and its southern neighbor, why people aren't angrier about the disintegration of their civil liberties, or even basic baseball things, like why there isn't mandatory protective netting down the foul lines.
Now players are starting to crowd around the table in the Rio Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to see who's going to survive.
Patel opens the betting at 8,500 chips, and Wade raises to 31,000. It comes back to Patel, who re-raises to 68,500. Wade thinks for a minute, then pushes 135,000 in chips into the fray. Patel calls.
The flop arrives: eight of clubs, three of clubs, three of hearts.
Wade bets 85,000 and Patel calls in a flash.
The dealer burns a card before turning the seven of spades.
That's enough for Wade. He's all-in, for about 180,000.
The crowd is percolating.
Patel tries to look Wade in the eyes but Wade won't return the glance.
"You have it?" Patel asks. Wade doesn't answer.
Before he rakes in the spoils, Wade turns over a king-six, off-suit, and the onlookers gasp.
It's one of the hardest tournaments on earth, and Wade Townsend is still alive. He did what he had to do. He did what he wanted.