Minor league baseball a great source of stories
I could’ve wrote a book about minor league baseball stories but instead I decided to make it my first column on this site.
The minor league baseball season kicked off on Thursday. This may not mean much to those living near a MLB team but for anyone outside of Wyoming, Kansas and both Dakotas, this is a special day for small town baseball fans.
MiLB is entrenched all across America. For most towns, It gives the town a summer break between watching their kids play high school sports. Despite the sport’s waning popularity, there are baseball fans everywhere and enjoy their chance to take themselves out to the ballgame.
Amrillo, TX, and Fayetteville, N.C., are opening up the season with brand new teams. Wichita, KS, is a year away from becoming the Marlins next Triple-A affiliate. Want to know how excited they are for having a minor league team? The Fayetteville Observer’s editorial page described the addition of the Woodpeckers as, “It’s yet another infusion of high energy into the city’s fast-growing downtown that promises more big things to come.” In that same editorial, the Observer led that piece off with, “This is getting exciting.”
Ever since MLB teams started focusing on their respective farm systems and grow their championship teams from the ground up, interests in minor league baseball has spiked. Prospect watch has become a thing. Now fans go to a minor league baseball game thinking they’re watching a future big league star.
They’re not wrong. The beauty minor league baseball is watching the prologue of an All-Star’s careers. Before Todd Frazier won the 2015 Home Derby in his home ballpark in Cincinnati, fans in Billings, MT watched him play in 2007. The last season of the Fort Lauderdale Yankees (1992) featured a starting pitcher named Mariano Rivera.
Traveling across the country has given me an appreciation for the minor leagues. I first saw Mike Trout and Anthony Rizzo play in Tucson. In a random 2016 Double-A game in Tulsa, I saw a total of 10 players, including Cody Bellinger and Alex Verdugo, make it to the big leagues.
In 2016, many of the players currently in the Show were in the Pacific Coast League cycling through the Pacific Coast League, such as Austin Barnes, Brandon Nimmo and Joey Gallo. Triple-A is where see a mix bag between future stars and guys that you point to and see, “hey, I remember that guy!” A great example of that right now is former Marlin Cameron Maybin in Columbus.
While it’s fun to enjoy a cheap seat that’s actually close to the field watching what people call “The Process” in action, it’s important to understand that the life of a minor leaguer is anything but glamorous. Most minor leaguers live together in apartments, paycheck to paycheck over the course of the season. Gallo once recalled to me a time in Single-A Myrtle Beach back in 2014 and saw an apartment shared by some of his teammates that was completely unfurnished with the exception of a bunch of blowup mattresses and blankets. They ate everything on paper plates, but without any tables.
“We’re not living in luxury like people think,” A lot of people are grinding to get their next meal,” Gallo said in 2016. “People think, ‘it’s baseball, you get to go play baseball every day. It’s not just baseball for us anymore.”
Almost every matinee game ends with a long bus ride to the next venue. Those rides are the toughest part of the lifestyle but usually produce the best minor league stories.
“When you’re on the bus, you see all the crazy things guys try to do to find some sleep,” Marlins pitcher Pablo Lopez said last year. “I’ve seen guys in the compartments up top lying there. I’ve seen guys with blankets trying to make a hammock. They take memory foams and put it on the ground. Basically guys are smart when it comes to finding their sleep.”
Marlins pitcher Ben Meyer, who reached the big leagues last season but opened this season in Triple-A New Orleans. He recalled a funny result of a long bus ride in the Single-A circuit.
“We’re bussing up to Lakewood, New Jersey, after a game at Greensboro, North Carolina in Low A and we had a sleeper bus,” Meyer said. “So I was on the floor of the bus in a little bed to sleep in. We pulled into the hotel at probably 3 a.m., and I was so passed out that none of my teammates woke me up. I was still asleep and all of a sudden my phone was going off an hour later. ‘Hey! Where are you?’ I’m still sleeping on the bus. I didn’t know everyone got off. I was underneath some seats, it was kind of a weird setup. But I blame my teammate because they knew I was down there and they didn’t wake me up. Everyone was half asleep so they didn’t realize I was down there.”
And that was with a bus ride that went according to plan. What happens when the bus breaks down halfway through a trip in the middle of nowhere? Well New York Yankees first baseman Luke Voit has that story.
“Our bus broke down in the middle of Arkansas,” Voit said last season, “and we had this church bus pick us up. We stayed at a church for three hours while we had to wait for another bus to come from Springfield to pick us up to take us another three hours. Our trainer went out and got us like 100 Taco Bell tacos and so we sat at this church for 3-4 hour eating Taco Bell and playing cards. We didn’t get back until 10:00 in the morning.”
Getting the call-up leads to an eruption of pure elation but getting the call down is the complete opposite, if not worse. When that happens, sometimes the decision to retire and get a real job like everyone else immediately comes to mind. Rob Segedin had to make that decision on the Fourth of July in 2015 after getting demoted from Triple-A for Double-A. He was with the Yankees organization at the time and the demotion was meant to make room for an emerging first base prospect named Greg Bird.
“I was actually debating whether to retire or not,” Segedin said in 2016. “I had to drive to (Trenton) on our anniversary and pack up everything. Segedin said. “It was one of those crossroad things. Do you continue to make no money and grind it out for an extra year and a half, or is it time (to leave) if they don’t grant you a release and you have no shot you’re just wasting time?”
He chose to stick around, join the Dodgers the next season and set a franchise record with four RBI on his big league debut. He retired last season and was recently hired by the Philadelphia Phillies as a Player Information Assistant.
All of this is to get the long coveted big league call-up and opportunity to solidify a career in the Show. Last year Austin Dean was so excited to join the Marlins for the first time that he was the first one out of the plane and into the clubhouse. He was like the first kid in the bus stop on the first day of school.
“I was the first one there so I kind of didn’t know what to do,” Dean said last year. “I was at my locker waiting for (Marlins manager Don Mattingly) to talk to.”
Dean’s first game was in Washington. That moment he went from playing in front of just a wall with no bleachers to a wall of fans behind him in the outfield.
“My heart was pounding,” Dean said.
Enjoy the games at a ballpark near you. Grab a beer and frank, meet a prospect and get an autograph and story after the game.