WHY DO THEY DO IT?

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.

Posted by Always Compete

This article has 19 Comments

  1. Thanks AC. MLB, unlike the other leagues, can be compared to an iceberg with 2/3 of the players are below the surface.
    .
    The players that develop slowly and don’t separate themselves at younger ages but all of a sudden click and become MLB starters are the ones that had to have confidence and desire to hang in long enough to finally make it. Thompson, Taylor, maybe Toles and Stewart fit that scenario.
    .
    Wills might have had the more typical path to the majors when players spent more time in the minors than they do now. Lots of fast tracking going on now.

  2. Great writeup, Always.
    .
    When I was able to listen to Vin Scully, I would love the way he would introduce a player who gets his first major league call up. “And here he is, the pride of Springfield…just called up from Albuquerque the other day where he lead the PCL in stolen bases… went to Washington High School where he was a 3 sport athlete … His father William and mom Betty along with several other friends and family are in the stands after taking a red eye flight once they got word he was with the big club…He takes strike one on the outside corner… “

  3. Nice article Always Compete!

    Why they do it? Chasing a dream! Nothing wrong with that and to be admired. Your article clearly demonstrates the “Minor League Player” must really really love the game. I always thought I loved the game, but I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have stuck with it for long (after reading your article). Hadn’t thought about what a grind it would have had to be. Grinding it out, day after day, while having lots of self-doubts about whether it would ever pay off would be tough.

    The pay sucks, I imagine players get room during the season, how about meals? In your experience are the kids who don’t make it to the show, driven in their next career or not? Seems like keeping the minor league regimen would instill character and a work ethic, much like the military.

    1. Box, there is no lodging offered by the team. As Bums noted below some of the Rookie Level Teams will have families that will house the players. The families do receive a small stipend, but not enough for them to do it for the dollars. The families do it because they care for their local professional team, and the kids are almost always well behaved. They enjoy each others company. Okay, there may be a tax write-off that could be taken advantage of as well. Batavia had families that took in ball players. The family my son stayed with lived directly across from the stadium, so there was no transportation.
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      The players do receive a Per Diem for food when they travel, not at home. It was $20/day. In AA and AAA, many of the teams do provide food before and after the game. But the players pay club house dues for the food, and the clubhouse manager (uni cleaning and returning unis to locker). The dues increase at each level AA, AAA, and MLB.

  4. I can think of three years where my boss housed a three kids playing for the Salem, Oregon low A teams. He provided transportation for them as well as needed on occasion. They always enjoyed their company and they always seemed to have good kids staying with them.

  5. My son played football from the 4th grade on. He is a Senior now and was highly recruited and I expected 4 more years of extensive travel, but he turned down the football scholarships to go to Kelley School of Business. I imagine that in 9 years in the minors you logged some serious miles.

    But, then you have this:
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    1. The travel started when he was 15. He played in two Mickey Mantle WS in Waterbury CT, and two Junior Olympics in Columbus GA, and Beaumont TX. In College he played many of his games in Southern Cal, so I got to see many of those. But I have made too many weekend drives from Granada Hills (San Fernando Valley) to Reno (8 hour drive one way). Two NCAA regionals in Texas. Professionally, I have been up and down the east coast. I have been to 35 different minor league parks not located in CA. I went to three ST seasons in Clearwater and Fort Myers (one week each year). ST is tax time so it was hard for me to get out of town in March

      The WS ring is awesome. He very rarely takes it out of the box. The box had to cost a bundle itself. I believe the only time I saw him wear it was when he was inducted into the University HOF. He received the ring in 2005 while with the Blue Jays. We went to Minnesota to see him play and he had it with him. He showed it to us, but he asked us not to tell any of the players. He did not want to take a chance. I do not know how it came about, but the one player he did show was Doc Halladay. He told him, “I know you have the CY, but do you have one of these?” Doc had a great laugh with that.
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      Both your son and you will miss the games. But you will both get over it. It sounds as if your son has a good head on his shoulders, and I trust that he made the decision with a lot thought, deliberation, and collaboration. I am guessing that you will both be watching Indiana football on Saturdays.

      1. I think he has to distance himself from the game now. He has not watched a single game since his State Championship game. He was “all in” and I think to get away, he has to be “all out.” I just told him not to regret it, but he is bent upon getting his MBA. Lat year he was 6′ 1″ -220, he’s smallish and would have to remake his body into a 6′ 1″ 250-260 pounder… and he could. At 17, he holds the school record for clean and jerk, but after the season, he got down to 205 and felt a lot better.

        He’s sad about quitting, but his logical mind tells him he doesn’t want to pay the physical toll at the next level. Yeah, he’s smart. He got his brains from me… someone stole them for sure!

  6. Great read AC, told from an experienced perspective. The Dodgers are doing a great job of coaching, teaching and promoting their young prospects, and also separating the wheat from the chaff. Ones that are being passed up but have value to other teams can be dealt to address other more pressing needs, and speaks volumes to the overall depth of talent.

    Consecutive strong outings from McCarthy, Ryu, Kershaw and Woods are starting to clear up the rotation logjam. Urias came out of the pen to throw 2 strong innings and Kazmir struggled on a back field during this same time. I think McCarthy has the 4th spot to lose and the final battle is for the 5th spot between Urias, Wood and Kazmir. Roberts said a decision needs to be made soon to build up to starter innings for opening day. Urias, Ryu and Kazmir are candidates to be held back a bit but I vote for Julio to be the 5th guy and Wood as the swing man. Striplings spring has been marginal so far.

    Could Eithier open the season on the DL? Could Baez? Possibly even Seager but that is unlikely. A couple extra spots would make keeping Taylor or Kike AND SVS a possibility, assuming Gutierrez is a lock. SVS would be a true platoon option at 1B with AGon and plays a decent LF. A backup SS is especially necessary now because Seager may need more rest early this season. An extra spot in the pen and the 40 man could bode well for Morrow, who I hope breaks camp with the big club. Having vets like Utley and Gutierrez for pinch hitting duties is a luxury Roberts seems to relish, and a spot will eventually have to be cleared for that.

  7. AC
    That was a great read! Well done! Informative and compassionate look at those young men who play for the love of the game! It helps us see them more than just a tool or a statistic. Thanks

  8. Very interesting read AC. It’s easy to forget those that are striving just hoping for a break.
    I’ve really enjoyed watching the ST games this year – it lets you put a face to a name.

  9. Saw the Cubs 2d team beat the Padres today at Peoria. Cubs’ Ian Happ, a top draft pick in 2015, is lighting up the Cactus League. Sorry to say, the Cubs still have prospects in the pipeline. And a ring. Too may Cubs fans.

    1. Ian Happ is someone I have been advocating for the Dodgers to go after since last season when the search for a 2B started. With Baez entrenched at 2B, Happ will probably end up in the OF for the Cubs, similar to Trea Turner. I doubt that the Cubs would trade with LA, but Happ is someone to covet. I think it would take Verdugo and a high pitching prospect. I am not sure LA makes that trade for a prospect either.

      1. I love Happ, but I also love Forsythe.

        I think the Cubs will cut-bait on Heyward this year – he has a huge, slow swing. That was one of their few blunders and I said so at the time.

        I think Zobrist get traded and Happ goes to the OF, but I like Happ a lot.

        I am anxious to see what Verdugo does this year. He has a chance to be a similar player to Tony Gwynn…

  10. Make it 5 straight effective starts for the Dodgers staff, with Maeda going 3 and 2/3rds with 7 K’s and allowing 1 hit. Barnes went deep again for the game winning hit. Seager out another week per Roberts, Ethier may return this week, no word on Baez. Morrow pitches a perfect inning, Oaks has a 0.00 ERA this spring.

    1. I didn’t see Maeda pitching but it’s encouraging to see that of the 11 outs, 7 were K’s. At the end of last season, he didn’t miss bats very often.
      .
      I did happen to tune in when Trevor Oaks was pitching. I liked what I saw. He gets ahead of the hitters but is still learning where the paint is on the Major league strike zone. His sinker was in play today as he got a lot of choppers on the infield. (One took a bad hop on Calhoun at 2b. He may have tree trunk legs, but at least he has quick hands ;-). I thought the umpire was squeezing him a bit on the outside but it looks like Roberts wanted to see how the kid would respond to a little pressure. Oaks wasn’t afraid to throw inside to Pujols who sky’d out on a deep foul to left – nice catch by O’Koyea Dickson. Oaks walked Maybin and didn’t do a good job of holding him on. Maybin got a huge jump in stealing 2b. Oaks gave up another walk – he refused to give in on a full count after the hitter fouled off a bunch of pitches. Then came the high chopper to Calhoun. If it didn’t take a bad hop, the Dodgers might have turned 2. Oaks kept battling and kept getting high choppers and got out of the jam. I guess his sinker works – I would bet his stats could improve if he pitched for the Major League club because the infielders are better. I like this kid. I hope he gets opportunities. He’s not afraid to go after hitters (even if they are Albert Pujols) and he battles even if the umpire doesn’t give him calls.
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      One last comment – great to see Austin Barnes hit that dinger. It’s only ST but if he’s going to be Grandal’s backup this season, we need some production out of him at the plate.

  11. For most kids, following the unrealistic dream has the detrimental effect of delaying life decisions, which, in the long view, delays maturity and finding meaningful work and relationships. Letting go when it’s time is hard but letting go with a positive view of accomplishment is a real effective commencement for the rest of life. Kudos to Mark’s son.

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