I am often asked why I am such a minor league fanatic. Certainly having as son toil in the minors for 9 seasons was a factor, but I was a fan long before that. It started in 1969 when both a high school classmate and a high school football adversary were both selected in the June draft. One went on to replace a 3rd base legend in Brooks Robinson (Doug DeCinces) and the other was moving his way up the organization when he was tragically killed in a car accident (Bruce Heinbechner). I searched high and low for information to keep track, which was not always easy. Then in the early 80’s I found Baseball America, and I was hooked.
I used to have three Baseball America subscriptions as I color coded them based on where they came from geographically, and their projections. But there is more to the story of minor leaguers than batting averages and scouting reports. What makes a minor leaguer tick? A California kid gets drafted in the 26th round, signs for a huge bonus of $1,000 and a ticket to Batavia, New York, where he ties for the New York Penn League season lead in HR. Long, hard, and humid bus rides to such garden spots as Oneonta, Pittsfield, Watertown, Lowell, Utica (great little towns with great people)… They get paid per minor league scale for only the Championship season (April through August).
Currently that scale is $1,150 per month (Low A 1st year) to $2,700 per month (AAA 3rd year). You can guess what it was back in the 90’s. No spring training pay. Getting to the ballpark in the AM for a 7:00 PM game, not getting back to the motel until after midnight. 140 games from early April to the end of August (I think 8 off days for the year, and those were used for longer travel). At the time, there was no mid-season All Star break until they reached AAA. Once the season was complete, some get to go on to winter ball in such luxury locations as Venezuela and the poorest parts of Mexico and the DR, again for very little pay, and no family.
There is no minor league union, and for 26th round selections there is no investment from the parent club. So you play injured just so you can stay on the radar. You play with 3 torn meniscus, 2 concussions, one broken hand, and the one that does you in is a misdiagnosed ruptured plantar fascia. MiLB medical staff was not quite on the same level as MLB. Your health in your 40’s and beyond is hugely negatively impacted because of the injuries sustained in your 20’s. Because you were better than those who took steroids, who were then making big salaries, you were always pressured to also use them, but never did.
Why do some 1st round draft picks bomb out, and a 26th rounder makes it to the Show? It is not because one loves the game more than the other. They all love the game. They are all extremely talented players. I think Mark hit on it earlier with his pure-bred and junkyard dog comparison. The San Fernando Valley was/is loaded with kids who were baseball stars from a very young age. Some of them were naturally gifted, and the game was easy. Some had to work a little harder. Some just have the tenacity to stick it out, while others wanted to get on with their lives. Some played in College and enjoyed the comradery, but when they became a professional the fun left and it became a job.
Minor league baseball is a grind, and it wears on the best. It is easy to root for the top draft picks and their million dollar bonuses. But what about those late round draft picks that are just about there but not quite all the way? Who takes the time to research these level of players? These are the AAAA players…organizational depth. Why do they continue to play when there is no real chance for real success at the MLB level? Maybe they are not in the top 750, but they are in the top 800.
Maybe they do it because when they do get the call and asked to PH late in their 1st ML game, an entire stadium starts to chant their name (ala Reeeeegggiiie), making the ML stars come out of the dugout just to look into the stands because they had never seen anything like that before. Or maybe it is because they become such good friends with John Kruk that he makes a special announcement on ESPN to congratulate the player for his 1st ML hit. Maybe it is because I raised one, but those are the kids I root for and always have (they were one of my color codes). To some they are dumpster dive players, to some meh, and to some they are reasons to ridicule because, “why is a team even wasting their time with such players”. But to me they are what makes the game itself great.
So if you get a chance to visit a minor league game this year, you can always see the Cody Bellinger’s, Alex Verdugo’s, and Julio Urias’. They are the ones surrounded. But maybe you can take some time to meet and speak with O’Koyea Dickson or Darnell Sweeney or Ty Holt, or Brett Eibner or Stetson Allie…the AAAA players. These are great kids who also deserve a little more attention.