What a difference a year makes.
This time last year, my baseball career was all but lost. I was contracted to an independent league team in Sioux Falls, S.D., and even though I wanted to play, I didn’t know if I had it in me anymore. My last glimmer of hope was flying on my own dime to an independent baseball league tryout at Salt River Field in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Long story (kind of) short, 20 players handpicked from independent ball worked out for the Diamondbacks on a Saturday afternoon. After the position players showed their defensive skills, the pitchers threw live batting practice so the Diamondback coaches and front office could see hitters hit and pitchers pitch. Each pitcher was allotted eight minutes to showcase his stuff. I probably threw 25 to 30 pitches. I got the good news the following morning, and excitedly drove back to the complex to sign my contract. I was an affiliated professional baseball player again.
At the complex, I met the farm director, most of the minor league front office, and a couple of coaches in passing. Upon officially being welcomed into the Diamondbacks organization, I found out I had three days to get back to Chicago, pack my stuff into the two suitcases I would live out of for the next seven months, wrap up my life, and get back down to Scottsdale to do my thing. The thing about a spring training invitation is it doesn’t guarantee a roster spot beyond March 31 when camp breaks. I had less than a month to prove that as a 26-year-old last-second independent ball signee, I was more valuable than at least a dozen pitchers the Diamondbacks drafted, gave signing bonuses, and had relationships with.
I made the High-A Visalia Rawhide team out of camp and was named the team’s closer. Excluding a rough patch in the second half of May, I pitched well enough to earn a midseason call up to the Double-A Mobile BayBears in early July. In Alabama, I pitched well enough to finish the season at the backend of a championship bullpen. After I recorded the final out of the Southern League Championship series, I officially closed out my career best year…one that only took place because of a long shot tryout.
Now, I’m in major-league spring training with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Don’t let that fool you, I’m still one of 60 guys vying for 25 spots on the regular season roster. Theoretically, I have the same chance to make the team as any of the other 59 guys here, but let’s be real…I don’t.
There are other issues at play, such as big league experience, contract size, and, of course, talent. Unfortunately, I have no experience, no substantial contract with guaranteed money, and only a little bit of talent. Nevertheless, I am technically a big leaguer until they send me down to minor league camp or I pull off the highly improbable and make the opening day roster. Either way, I have accomplished what many professional baseball players never get the chance to experience or claim. It’s my fifth spring training and my first big chance.
There is a common misconception about spring training that movies have done nothing but perpetuate. In the movie “Major League,” veteran catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) explains the cutting process to rookies Willie “Mays” Hayes (Wesley Snipes) and Rick Vaughn (Charlie Sheen): “Red tag in your locker means the manager wants to see you, because you just died and went to the minors.”
The process isn’t handled in quite that fashion, but from what I hear it’s equally depressing. Anyway, it doesn’t take a math whiz to see that 35 of the organization’s best players end up in the minor leagues before spring training wraps up on March 31. Baseball, after all, is a numbers game. There are only so many spots to go around. While I imagine it’s a sinking feeling, getting sent down isn’t dying; it’s just another part of the game. It’s inevitable for more than half the guys in the clubhouse to end up on the wrong side of the double doors at some point during camp — I’ll explain that later.
Even though we’ve established that getting sent down to the minors isn’t career death, it sure feels like it after you’ve seen the Promised Land. For me, spring training offers a side of professional sports I’ve only had the pleasure of imagining. I’ve heard about “The Show” from guys on rehab stints during the season or guys at minor league camp toward the end of their career, but nothing compares to first-hand experience. I know spring training isn’t “The Show,” but it is the closest I’ve ever been…and may be the closest I ever get. Chances are I’ll see more of the minor leagues again no matter where my career takes me. But after what I’ve seen the past few weeks, honestly, I don’t want to go back.
It’s the little things that make everything better on the major-league side. The Diamondbacks’ spring training facility is all on one site, and only a double door at the end of a single hallway separates the big leagues from the minors. I’ve spent four springs on the wrong side of those doors — whether the A’s or Dbacks, and every year I spend on the minor-league side, my curiosity grows about what lies on the other side. All it really takes is some serious stones and a push on a door to find out, but I never dared try. Plus, despite how close “The Show” is, it’s understood that no one goes uninvited. Instead of testing the limits of team security, I simply looked at the doors and wondered. I wondered how much softer the couches in the clubhouse would be. I wondered what gadgets were in the weight room and training room. I wondered how much better the food tasted. But all I could do was wonder.
I should clarify: Just because I’ve briefly reached the Promised Land doesn’t mean I’ll reveal fully what’s behind those double doors. Like I’ve said before, it’s taken me four years of hard work to get here, and I’d like to savor some of the secrets. The clubhouse is a sacred place in baseball that I refuse to dishonor it by revealing more than I should. After all, I’m still a nobody in a locker room full of MLB veterans, All Stars, World Series champions, and highly paid top prospects who will no doubt see “The Show” sooner than later. I need to show respect. I will, however, fill you in on some of the little things that make life better on the other side of the double doors.
Let’s start with the lockers. On the minor league side, not everyone has their own locker. Sometimes guys have to double up, which obviously means twice the gear in the space built for one player. Also, lockers line the walls completely and leave no open space in the corners of the room. Imagine two grown men getting dressed or drying off in less than 10 square feet. Not a pretty sight. On the big-league side, not only does everyone have his own locker; everyone has his own chair in front of his locker. And, there is no overlapping space in corners or anywhere. It’s a simple difference, but it’s huge.
Moving on to what’s actually in the locker. On the minor league side, each player is issued a long-sleeve shirt, a short-sleeve shirt, shorts, a uniform, grey pants, socks, a hat, a belt, and a laundry loop. At the end of the day, each player puts his numbered laundry on a loop and tosses it in a laundry bin. The loop magically returns cleaned and hanging in your locker the next morning. It’s efficient, but it’s not big-league. On the big-league side, each player is issued similar gear, but each player also gets white pants, a leather belt, a parka, a rain slicker, a sweatshirt, and a pullover. Plus, since it’s the National League, pitcher’s hit, so everyone is issued a helmet and a red bag. (Note the emphasis on white, leather, and red. Those items are status symbols that minor leaguers don’t have). Also, everyone is issued two of everything. It took me a few days to figure out why I need two. Then all of a sudden it made sense. One is for practice, the other for the game. It’s so players don’t have to wear sweaty or dirty clothes to start the game. A big league player must be perfectly dressed and clean going into battle. As for laundry, there are no loops. Each player’s gear is numbered so he doesn’t have to bother cliipping his clothes on a loop. Toss it in a bin and it comes back clean and neatly hung in your locker. It’s like being 10 again and having your mom do everything for you, except better, because you’re in the big leagues.
The best part is the supporting cast that makes everything work: the coaches, training staff, strength coaches, clubhouse personnel, and cooks. They’re the ones who make big-leaguers feel like big-leaguers. Yes big-leaguers have the talent and experience far outweighing mine, but they are coached, get treatment, work out, and eat just the same. Point being, the minor-league side has a very similar program fully reliant on coaches and staff to function, but they don’t all know my name. This year the entire staff knows my name and treats me as if I’m an established big-leaguer. I was treated well and taken care of nicely on the minor-league side, but there wasn’t the same sense of individual importance.
(I never said ego didn’t play a role in major league camp being better.) It’s intimidating, because it’s impossible to fade to obscurity, but it’s awesome to feel important enough to be known.
I’m sure it seems superficial describing the benefits of having more access to…well…everything, as if it were the difference between staying at Motel 6 and the Four Seasons. But it really does matter. The bells and whistles that come along with being a big leaguer, if only for a month or so this spring, have completely spoiled me. As a ball player, I know what lies beyond those double doors, and I’ve seen the talent it takes to stay on the other side. Do I have what it takes to make it? I sure think so, and I’d like to think an invitation to major-leaguer spring training means the organization agrees. Will I make it and stick? That’s not about the laundry; that’s entirely up to me.
Every morning I arrive at the field between 6:30 and 6:45. And, every morning I see millionaires already working their asses off in the gym or in the training room getting the treatment they need to perform. Do they have to be in the gym that early? No. Do they need to be in the clubhouse early to impress the coaches? Absolutely not. Do they know what they have to do to be the best in the world and to stay ahead of guys like me itching to take their spots? You bet. And that’s the beauty of this game at the highest level. Some guys get by on talent alone, but more often than not the guys at the top stay at the top because they have the talent and stay hungry. It’s refreshing to see.
As for me, after just a few weeks working out with the big boys, I’ve tasted the (formerly) forbidden fruit, and nothing will satisfy my hunger until I make it and stay. I’ve seen what it takes, and I won’t stop working until I count myself among the greatest baseball players in the world. But for now, I’ll settle for some sweet new gear.